Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

Review (Amazon): New York, 1888. Gas lamps still flicker in the city streets, but the miracle of electric light is in its infancy. The person who controls the means to turn night into day will make history—and a vast fortune. A young untested lawyer named Paul Cravath, fresh out of Columbia Law School, takes a case that seems impossible to win. Paul’s client, George Westinghouse, has been sued by Thomas Edison over a billion-dollar question: Who invented the light bulb and holds the right to power the country?

The case affords Paul entry to the heady world of high society—the glittering parties in Gramercy Park mansions, and the more insidious dealings done behind closed doors. The task facing him is beyond daunting. Edison is a wily, dangerous opponent with vast resources at his disposal—private spies, newspapers in his pocket, and the backing of J. P. Morgan himself. Yet this unknown lawyer shares with his famous adversary a compulsion to win at all costs. How will he do it?

In obsessive pursuit of victory, Paul crosses paths with Nikola Tesla, an eccentric, brilliant inventor who may hold the key to defeating Edison, and with Agnes Huntington, a beautiful opera singer who proves to be a flawless performer on stage and off. As Paul takes greater and greater risks, he’ll find that everyone in his path is playing their own game, and no one is quite who they seem.

My Review (Not many spoilers on this since it’s historical fiction):

Executive Summary: Interesting

This was our book club pick for Thriller/Suspense. Why? I don’t really know, as it was definitely a historical fiction in my mind. Ah well, it was still a good read. Not really fast paced, but not slow either.

Have you heard of George Westinghouse? Thomas Edison? J.P. Morgan? Nikola Tesla? Yes? OK, How about Paul Cravath? No, well, he’s the unknown, but central character to this book.

Paul is a young lawyer who has been hired (just him, not his firm) to represent George Westinghouse who is suing Thomas Edison. But Thomas Edison is also suing George Westinghouse. Three hundred and twelve lawsuits to be exact. He’s on his way to meet Thomas Edison for the lawsuits when he sees a electrical line worker get electrocuted. Electricity is just becoming common place and this is not good publicity.

Paul is a recent grad from Columbia. He’s never tried a case. So why did Westinghouse hire him? Probably because he will fight as hard as he can to win, and the fight is the story. Paul is also the tool for the non-electrical engineering (I’m mechanical 🙂 ) reader to have all the technical stuff explained to them in layman terms.

It’s actually quite the epic battle. It’s not just a meager lawsuit over who owns the lightbulb. It’s AC vs. DC currents, and how to get the currents to travel far enough distances that it is a sustainable product for an entire town, let alone city, to subsist on it. They all have their strategies, even going so far as to bringing up the idea of the electric chair, bringing Alexander Graham Bell into the fray, or buying out each other’s company.

In the end, it turns out to be a pretty good feel good story. Paul ends up with the famous singer who has been helping him out with his case. Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison, despite being basically at war, are all scientists underneath, and they realize each other’s values. The way the book leaves off, they have coffee once a month and talk about science.

Verdict: 4 stars

It’s definitely a very specific book, but I think it’s a good read and a great peek into an interesting point in American history. It’s tough to summarize because it’s very detailed, but it does move at a steady pace and has a lot of fairly surprising twists. I suppose that’s why it was touted as a thriller/suspense, but to me, it’s just an interesting historical fiction

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Those Who Save Us – Jenna Blum

Review (Amazon): For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer, the Obersturmfuhrer of Buchenwald.

Driven by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the dramatic and heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life.

Combining a passionate, doomed love story, a vivid evocation of life during the war, and a poignant mother/daughter drama, Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

My Review (spoilers!):

Executive Summary: decent

I’ve expressed my general apathy toward WW2 (German-focused) books on here before. Yet somehow I keep reading them (because I foolishly take recommendations of them from people who love them). This one really is not bad, however it was my 3rd WW2 for 2016 (technically I finished it in ’17 but it was started in ’16 so I’m counting it). It wasn’t as great as The Nightingale, but it wasn’t as rotten as The Book Thief, so I guess that makes it solidly decent.

The book follows two intertwined stories–One of Anna and eventually her daughter Trudy in 1940s Germany, and another story in the present (late 1990s) of the mother and daughter in Minnesota. Despite that literary device being a bit overused in my opinion, the author did a good job with it and was able to freshen it up a bit with the modern story.

Trudy is a professor of German history. When her colleague and only friend tells Trudy about her upcoming project to interview Jews who lived through WW2, Trudy has a revelation that she wants to do the same with German nationals. She wants first person stories about how people who lived through such atrocities could turn a blind eye to what was going on around them. She also secretly has a desire to learn about her own past since her mother has closed off everything about that time.

Anna grew up in Weimar in Germany (not the town in Texas that has really good fried chicken). Her mother died and she took over the job of taking care of her father who early became a Nazi. He was a social climber and wanted to find Anna a good pure husband. Unbeknownst to him, she had other plans. Anna falls for the town doctor, a Jew, and eventually hides him in their home. Anna’s father is away much of the time and she visits Max in the secret closet. Her father inevitably finds out and turns Max into the Gestapo. Anna at this point is pregnant and retreats to a sympathetic Mathilde, the town baker.

Mathilde keeps her hidden until Trudy is born and begins teaching her the craft–not just baking, but also smuggling food to prisoners at the nearby work yard where she collects and returns with their messages.  Mathilde keeps this up until she is eventually killed, presumably caught in the act, and Anna takes over. However, this is not to last either. A German officer, the Oberstrumfuhrer, takes interest in her. Anna makes the decision to encourage these advances to both protect her daughter and also feed them. She keeps up work at the bakery until there is no more ingredients left from which to make bread (although she is only feeding the Nazi soldiers at this point and is not taking any to the prisoners). The Oberstrumfuhrer is a man of some depth. While he is a horrible man in many ways, he does seem to generally like Anna and Trudy, bringing them chocolates and taking them on trips. Anna struggles with her decisions daily, but she doesn’t see another option. When finally the American arrival is inevitable, the Oberstrumfuhrer leaves and heads for Argentina, leaving Anna and Trudy in Weimar.

The Americans arrive, and one drunken soldier breaks into the bakery and tries to rape Anna. He is stopped by a superior officer, a Jack Schlemmer. He and Anna marry and they move to Minnesota with Trudy. Anna never really fits in with the locals in the small town, and she has so much emotional baggage from her time in Germany that she and Jack have a very broken relationship until he dies and Anna is put into a home which she is eventually kicked out of when she comes to live with Trudy.

Trudy continues doing interviews. In one, she is bamboozled by a Jew who has called her for an interview only to berate her entire project denouncing all Germans for what they have done. However, Trudy is drawn to this man and feels a connection to him. She tells him that she is the daughter of an Oberstrumfuhrer as she has seen the picture of him, Anna and her in her mother’s cigarette case. He tells her that his brother was shot in the head point blank by a Nazi soldier just to make a point. They date for a while, Trudy falling in love with him, but it is not to work. Her mother secretly watches the interviews and Trudy has caught her watching the one of Rainer, but her mother will not agree to be interviewed and spills no information.

Another interviewee who reaches out to Trudy is a man named Felix who grew up just outside Weimar. Trudy acknowledges her birthplace and begins to listen more intently to his tale. He tells of how he was a bit of a scumbag–out to make money on the war. He bought people’s valuables in exchange for papers and ways out of Germany. Eventually he was caught and imprisoned. He tells Trudy about the bakery angels who would leave presents in the hollow tree and take their messages. He tells Trudy about a man named Max who was also in the camp and had a secret daughter with one of the bakery angels. At this point, Trudy, in shock, asks her camera man to stop the tape and asks Felix if he will come meet her mother. He agrees and while they are waiting for the camera man to pack up, Trudy asks what became of Max. Felix responds that Oberstrumfuhrer von Stuern hanged him and kicked away the chair.

When they get to Trudy’s, Anna still does not give away anything. She says she cannot remember ever seeing a murder at the prison while she was delivering food, although Felix later assures Trudy that it was indeed Anna who he saw there. He has lunch with Anna and when Trudy returns him to his place, he tells her that he would like to visit Anna again, and Trudy agrees that she thinks her mother would enjoy it. The book ends with Trudy in silent reflection.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good book. I enjoyed the premise of Trudy being a child in the war who grew up to be a professor of German history. I found the characters to be very well rounded and well developed and they felt very real, even the ones the readers didn’t know well. The only real downside is that…it’s hard to be very original on a German WW2 novel.

 

 

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The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Review (Amazon): In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.

FRANCE, 1939

In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: slow to start but really strong ending

This book has a nearly perfect rating on Amazon, but our book club was still a little hesitant to read this one due to a previous Kristin Hannah book we read (Magic Hour, pre-blog) which was very mediocre. I’m happy to report that Hannah has matured as an author and in my mind, pulled off a nearly impossible task–a great ending!!

I apologize that this review will not be quite as detailed as some of my others–I’ve found myself so swamped and want to get this in here before I bet even more swamped with the holidays!

The book starts with an old woman who is being moved into a nursing home due to a poor cancer prognosis, and she is going through her stuff. The book goes back and forth between the old woman and her son (present time) but mostly stays in the past.

Sisters Isabelle and Vianne have been emotionally estranged for most of their lives. Their father came back from the Great War a changed man and when their mother died, the girls were off to boarding school. Vianne was much older than Isabelle and as soon as Vianne was old enough to get married and move on with her life, she did. She married Antoine and despite a number of miscarriages, had a daughter Sophie and lived in Carriveau. Isabelle fared worse. Her sister never stuck up for her and left her as soon as possible. Isabelle failed out of one boarding school after another, unwelcome at Vianne’s and unwelcome with her father in Paris. Vianne’s dream life in the French countryside comes to a dramatic halt when Antoine, a postman, is drafted for war (WW2). Her friend Rachel’s husband is also drafted.

Isabelle is kicked out of yet another school and is sent back to Paris. Her father has no interest in her living with him but he begrudgingly allows her until the Germans invade Paris. Then he sends her to Carriveau to live with Vianne, especially now that she is alone. Eventually the car that she is in runs out of gas and they are forced to walk. The family she was riding with abandons her, and she finds herself alone. Luckily she is stubborn and persistent. She meets a young man, Gaetan who is roasting a rabbit on a fire. They decide to stop by Carriveau, see his mother in Poitiers and then go join the resistance. They finally get to Carriveau, having to walk most of the way. Vianne doesn’t answer as the house has been harassed by other refugees all day so Gaetan and Isabelle sleep in the back. When Isabelle finally awakens, Gaetan has left her with just a note “You are not ready”.

Isabelle grows more and more enraged. She wants to help but can’t. Vianne doesn’t want to rock the boat at all, even when things get more and more dire and France surrenders. After hiding all the valuables despite Vianne telling her how foolish it was, Isabelle turns on the radio and hears General de Gaulle who is talking about the resistance. Isabelle realizes there is some hope…until the Nazis come to Carriveau and a soldier, Captain Wolfgang Beck, billets in their home. In general, he is pretty reserved. He believes he is fighting the good fight, hoping to get back to his own wife and kids.

Isabelle, Vianne, and Sophie go on pretending things are normal–going into town to pick up their rations, growing their garden. One day when Isabelle is going into town to get rations, she picks up a piece of chalk. She notices a war propaganda poster in an alley and decides to draw a giant V on it (for Victory) with the chalk when she is caught. She can’t see who it is who has caught her and where she is being taken, but she eventually realizes it’s not to the Gestapo–it’s to the resistance. They realize that women and girls can get away with a lot more than men so they task her with delivering messages. She is thrilled!

She delivers many messages–sneaking away at all hours to do so. On one occasion, Vianne and Sophie see her and Vianne immediately assumes that Isabelle’s odd behavior is because of a boy.

Meanwhile, Vianne learns that Antoine has been captured, but Captain Beck is able to get messages to him. In return, Vianne lists all Jews, Communists, etc. who are teachers at her school, including her best friend Rachel, and they are all dismissed.

Isabelle gets the message that she is needed, and heads into town. She is needed for bigger tasks–the first being to take a message to Paris and stay there to be the contact. She convinces Captain Beck to give her a pass on account of her father being ill. Vianne still assumes that Isabelle is going on about for a boy and Isabelle lets her believe it. She arrives in Paris and sees the bookstore all boarded up, and waits in the apartment until her father returns. Eventually she convinces her father to let her stay. She meets her first appointment with another woman messenger. She is brought into their group and given a false identity (Juliette Gervais) and given more tasks especially when they realize that her fancy education has taught her German and English. She reopens her father’s bookstore to use as a front and it earns her a little money as well.

One night on her way home from picking up food (leftovers from the Germans in the restaurant), she finds a British RAF pilot. She decides to take him to their apartment and hide him in the closet in her room. She takes him to the other resistance people who don’t know what to do. They are trying to figure out how to get the downed pilots into Spain but that means having to cross the Pyrenees. Isabelle has a family friend who is a Basque and she thinks that she can help by going undetected and getting the men to safety. As she is helping flesh out the plan, in comes Gaetan. He tells her that he left because it’s dangerous and he wanted to forget her, but now it turns out they’re working together like she had wanted.

When she gets home, she discovers another surprise. Her father too is working for the resistance. He works for the Nazis where he can create fake papers for people including her. He knew about the airman she was hiding and told her that he had sent her away to protect her. He already knows about her plan to lead the airmen to Spain and gives her the name of the family friend. He tells her that she will never be able to come back because she will have to go completely underground from now onward.

The first trip is the biggest risk as they can’t be sure that Madame Babineau will help them, but when Isabelle appears with 4 airmen, Madame Babineau indeed does. Isabelle, Eduardo (guide) and the airmen make the rough 5-day trek across the Pyrenees into Spain. Isabelle presents them at the British consulate and is provided with money to set up safe houses, food and clothing for the inevitable other airmen. She sent word back that “The Nightingale has Sung” alerting the resistance that she made it.

In the meantime in Carriveau, everyone is nervous about the collaborators and people are being rounded up for the slightest infractions. The Jews, including Rachel, have to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothing.

Over the next months, the Nightingale continues to escort airmen into Spain as the Germans start closing in on her. The Resistance sets her up with a job doing clerical work for the Nazis. No one knows what she’ll be doing. When she arrives, she finds that she is sorting foreign born Jews from native born. When she sees the name of the mastermind behind her branch of the resistance on the list, she feigns flu and leaves. All the foreign born Jews are being rounded up and sent to the camps in Germany. In Carriveau, the same is happening. However, Captain Beck alerts Vianne that Rachel should not be home the following morning. This time Vianne listens and she, Rachel and Rachel’s two kids take the long walk to see if they can cross the border with Rachel’s false paperwork. When they get close, something goes awry and the guard opens fire on the crowd. Sophie’s best friend Sarah does not survive. Rachel and Ari hide in Vianne’s barn while Vianne buries Sarah.

The next day, they walk with Rachel back to her house later in the day (because somehow they thought they would round everyone up in a couple hours in the morning) and she is picked up by the gestapo. Since Ari was born in France, he can stay, and Vianne takes him in. She tells Captain Beck what she has done, and he promises to not turn her in and even gets her a set of fake papers for him.

Isabelle returns to Carriveau on a mission and upon arrival stumbles upon a downed airman. She and her colleagues take him to Vianne’s house where they hide in the safe spot under the car in the barn. Unfortunately the airman was too far gone and dies. All the soldiers in Carriveau are looking for this pilot, including Captain Beck. Vianne sees the barn door is astray and thinks it’s Rachel. She is shocked and annoyed when she finds that it’s Isabelle and the pilot and says some terrible nasty things to Isabelle. When Beck returns home, he realizes that he has not searched her barn. When he goes out there, he finds the trap door, and Vianne hits him over the head with a shovel as he opens the door and Isabelle shoots him.

Isabelle is taken to a safe place, the bodies are disposed of, and Vianne tells the soldiers that Captain Beck went looking for the pilot and never returned. Vianne gets a new, much worse Nazi billeting with her in his place. Whereas Beck did not like the direction that the war had moved, Captain von Richter did and he took his power very seriously. Vianne begins to grow a spine and take part in a plan where she moves Jewish children into the church orphanage. To keep suspicion down, she is a good little French woman to von Richter who repeatedly rapes and beats her.

Meanwhile Isabelle keeps the Nightingale going, meeting Gaetan secretly when they cross paths. On a trip to the Pyrenees, the safe house is raided and everyone is captured. Isabelle is questioned for days, but everyone assumes the Nightingale is a man.

Isabelle’s father goes to Carriveau to tell Vianne the news that Isabelle has been captured. He tells her, as best as he can, how sorry he is about everything. He tells her that she needs to be strong for Isabelle and asks her what she would do to save Sophie before going off and confessing that he is the Nightingale to free Isabelle and save her life. She is thrown onto a train with other political prisoners and is left there until the war ends and she is freed.

Antoine returns to a broken and pregnant Vianne. They manage to hold it together for Sophie and Ari. Vianne continues to search for news of Isabelle but cannot find any. She learns that Rachel and her husband have died, and one day, two Jewish men come for Ari. He has family in New York who want to look after him, and it is important for him to learn the Jewish customs since so few of his generation remain.

SPOILERS!!!

Isabelle returns to Carriveau, gravely sick. Antoine, Vianne, and Sophie keep her alive until Gaetan arrives and she dies peacefully.

The story returns to the old woman, who we now know is not Isabelle like I had assumed (and hoped). It is Vianne and her child Julien born from the Nazi captain. Vianne has been invited to speak in Paris on account of Isabelle where she is posthumously presented an award for her service. She sees Gaetan there who tells Vianne that he loved her (Isabelle) all his life. And then lastly, she meets Ari who has come there to reconnect with her, telling her how she saved his life. Julien admires his mother in a way he never knew.

Verdict: 4 stars

I actually found myself getting a little misty eyed in parts during this book which doesn’t happen frequently. I really liked Isabelle and was rooting for her during the book. I was really surprised to find that the “old woman” was actually Vianne in the end and in general, I really thought the flash forwards were woven in thoughtfully (which is not that common). I’m really racking up my WW2 books this year as I’m already reading another one!

 

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The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Review (Amazon):  It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: blah

This book has been on my To Read list for ages, but boy did it not live up to the expectations! A month after reading it (I’m getting caught up from my vacation!) and I can barely remember what the book was about or what the point was. I feel sometimes like you could set any book in Nazi Germany and it will somehow be a winner.

This book was far too long with characters that were so dull, you forgot about them before you even closed the book. Oh, and the narrator of the book? It’s death. Like grim reaper death. -_- I hated that.

The main character, Liesel Meminger, is 10 years old and lives with Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The Hubermanns have a few older (out of the house) children, and to make a little extra money, they agreed to take in Liesel. They were supposed to also take his brother but unfortunately he died on the trip to their house. Liesel and her mother bury her brother, and Liesel “steals” her first book–one she finds about grave digging. Liesel’s parents are communists so it’s not a safe time for them to live in Germany. Luckily Liesel has blonde hair and “looks German” so she can blend in. Her best friend is named Rudy, and he is a bit of a troublemaker. They play soccer in the streets and Liesel works hard to catch up in school.

Her father realizes that she is behind and also that she wants to be able to read her books so he has late night sessions with her to learn to read her books. Hans was a soldier in WW1 but he can’t seem to figure out where to stand on the Hitler movement despite his son being quite involved. Hans had a great friend in the war who was Jewish so he has a hard time prejudicing them.

Rosa helps out Hans’s painting jobs by doing laundry for some wealthy families in town. As times get tougher in Germany with the war efforts, she sends Liesel to drop off and collect the laundry assuming that people would be less able to cancel on a little girl. Liesel befriends the mayor’s wife who has a giant library. Ilsa gives Liesel books to read, including the journal which she writes her story (which Death is narrating), but eventually Ilsa has to stop her laundry service. This upsets Liesel who starts breaking into the library with Rudy’s help to “steal” books.

One day, a strange man shows up at the Hubermann’s and it turns out to be the son of Hans’s WW1 Jewish friend. The Hubermanns decide to shelter him in their basement where he and Liesel become great friends. She reads to him, and Max paints and writes stories for her.

The war progresses and the times to go to a bomb shelter become more frequent. The Hubermanns have to go to a neighbor’s as their own basement is not deep enough. While in the shelter, Liesel reads to the group of neighbors to keep their minds occupied. “Parades” of Jews are also brought through the town. It is during one of these that Hans makes a huge error and shows sympathy to one of the Jews. He knows then that he, and especially not Max, are no longer safe. Max leaves their house to find a different place to hide. Shortly thereafter, both Hans and Rudy’s father are drafted into the army. Hans ends up with a broken leg and is sent home.

One evening, Liesel is writing in her journal in the basement, and bombs strike her town leveling her house. For some miraculous reason (in her not-bomb-proof basement), she survives but neither the Hubermanns nor Rudy do. Ilsa picks her up from the officers and she then lives there. When Rudy’s father returns from the war, he also takes Liesel under his wing. Eventually once the war is over, Max returns and finds Liesel at Rudy’s father’s shop. This just seemed really awkward to me.

The book then ends with Liesel living in Australia with her husband, children and grandchildren, and finally Death finds her.

Verdict: 3 stars

I felt like this book could have been easily condensed to about 2/3 of the final product. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the book per se, but there also wasn’t anything about it that I was totally smitten about. I thought the characters were very vanilla which made me not care very much about them. It is rare that you read a story set in one of the worst wars in the history of humanity and you don’t really care whether the characters live or die. Or maybe you only care if they live because you don’t want to hear Death’s narration of them dying. I expected so much more based on everything I had heard about this book, and I came up sorely lacking.

 

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The Promise – Ann Weisgarber

Review (Amazon):  Young pianist Catherine Wainwright flees the fashionable town of Dayton, Ohio, in the wake of a terrible scandal. Heartbroken and facing destitution, she finds herself striking up correspondence with a childhood admirer, the recently widowed Oscar Williams. In desperation, she agrees to marry him, but when Catherine travels to Oscar’s farm on Galveston Island, Texas—a thousand miles from home—she finds she is little prepared for the life that awaits her. The island is remote, the weather sweltering, and Oscar’s little boy Andre is grieving hard for his lost mother. And though Oscar tries to please his new wife, the secrets of the past sit uncomfortably between them.

Meanwhile, for Nan Ogden, Oscar’s housekeeper, Catherine’s sudden arrival has come as a great shock. For not only did she promise Oscar’s first wife that she would be the one to take care of little Andre, but she has feelings for Oscar that she is struggling to suppress. And when the worst storm in a generation descends, the women will find themselves tested as never before.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: realistic

Sorry I’ve been off the radar for a while. I started and quit two separate books before I got through this one–both of which I do intend to pick back up at some point. This spring has been a whirlwind for me that I’m just about out of.

This book was set (mostly) in Galveston, which living in Houston, I’m well familiar with. I’ve also been to Dayton, Ohio which is where the main characters are originally from. So it made the book kind of easy for me to relate to. The other connection is that this book focuses partly on the 1900 hurricane of Galveston, which I have read Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson previously (great book if you’ve never read it) and if you have been watching the news, Houston this past week went through some of the worst rainfall/flooding it’s had in many many years. (A week later, some roads are still impassable.)

The book begins with two separate stories. In Dayton, Ohio, Catherine Wainwright is trying to figure out her life. She moved back to her hometown from Philadelphia where she had been an up and coming musician–a pianist with the orchestra. She was involved with a man from Dayton whose wife was handicapped (I was never clear exactly what was going on with her), and she wrongly believed his tales that they could be together. She moved back to Dayton to be with him, but he wouldn’t divorce his wife, and she was left in scandal. The towns’ folk gossiped about her, and stopped sending their children to take piano lessons from her, her main source of income. Destitute, she began thinking of options. She remembers a man from her childhood, Oscar Williams, and writes him a letter.

At the same time as Catherine is going through her crisis, Oscar is going through his own. The love of his life, his wife Bernadette has died along with their second child in vitro. Their remaining child, Andre is four, and he is sent to the orphanage while Oscar gets his bearings. Oscar moved to Galveston to find his own life, abandoning his father’s career (and ultimate demise) of hauling coal. Oscar owns a dairy farm on the ridge of the island where he is well respected for his kind ways. His nearest neighbors are the Ogdens, and the children (in their late teens and 20s) work on Oscar’s farm. Wiley and Frank T. work on the farm, and Nan works in the house. Nan and Bernadette were best friends, and Nan promised to look after Andre for Bernadette.

 

Oscar and Catherine mail back and forth. Oscar asks Catherine to marry him, and she agrees. She leaves immediately for Galveston, using her last  money and leaving debts in her wake. Andre has returned from the orphanage, and Nan is looking after him. Catherine is in for a huge shock upon moving to Galveston. It’s nothing like Dayton. The weather is hot and humid. The town is rough, and the island is remote. She is different and has never had to do regular house duties before. But Oscar bought a piano for her. Oscar wants Catherine to help raise his son to be more cultured like she is, but Andre (and Nan) want nothing to do with her.

The marriage is strained from the start–both Catherine and Oscar struggling to get over the loved ones they have lost, and for Catherine, the situation is even worse. She has no friends and is in a foreign place. She tries to get along with Nan, but Nan envisioned that Oscar would ask her to be his wife, so she has her own struggles to get over. Eventually Nan realizes that she can’t stay in the situation, especially when she sees Andre begin to warm up to Catherine. Her last day is a Sunday, the day the storm is to roll in.

The Ogdens have been in Galveston a long time so they prepare Catherine enough as to warn her but not to scare her. But this is not just any hurricane. This is still the largest natural disaster in American history. As the storm progresses, even on the ridge, they begin to notice that the water is getting too high. The bayou has been breached. The Ogdens go back to their home to ride out the storm. Oscar comes back to the farm, but he needs to let his animals out so they don’t spook themselves being tied up. The storm is getting very bad now, and as he is walking back to the farmhouse, he floats off where Catherine can no longer see him. She can’t risk Andre’s safety so she takes him and a collection of her and Oscar’s personal items and goes into the stairwell of the attic, singing Andre songs to keep him calm. The storm passes and as they go back downstairs, they realize that the house is  OK. The water line is partway up the walls of the first floor (over the 12′ piers). There is sand and mud in all parts of the downstairs, but there is no sign of Oscar.

Eventually Wiley comes by. Frank T. is also missing, having been swept away in town. The orphanage too is completely gone, and only a couple orphans survived. Most all of the cattle and horses have died as well, leaving an awful stench. Wiley takes Andre back to the Ogden’s where Nan and Mrs. and Mr. Ogden remain. Catherine decides to stay in case Oscar comes back. During this time, while looking for some paper to leave Oscar a note, she finds a letter from his sister. His sister writes him about Catherine’s scandal back in Dayton, however, as it was dated before the wedding, she realizes that Oscar loved her regardless. She realizes how much she loves Oscar and how she will ensure that things will be different when he returns.

She goes outside and sees Nan. She begins trying to catch her attention, but while doing so, she trips on some debris and falls, right in the path of a rattlesnake. She’s struck twice and Nan helps get her back in the house, but Catherine does not survive.

Oscar’s body was never found, or was never identified. Nan in the end kept her promise to Bernadette by taking care of Andre.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

I feel a bit apathetic towards this book. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It was well written and the love story didn’t make me want to gag. In fact, it seemed pretty realistic, especially for the time. My main reservation with giving this book a higher ranking was that it didn’t really seem like a whole lot happened throughout it. When I read Isaac’s Storm, I was left completely aghast by how tragic and terrible this hurricane was, however, reading this book, I was not struck by the same emotion at all. All in all it was a decent quick read which I did enjoy.

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Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

  Summary (Amazon): Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is an unforgettable story of friendship and second chances that highlights a little-known but historically significant movement in America’s past—and it includes a special PS section for book clubs featuring insights, interviews, and more.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: heartwarming

So this is the book that was chosen for my pick for this year’s book club list for the literary fiction category. Unfortunately I wasn’t wowed by it. I found it a little bit overly predictable, and it felt more like reading a movie than it did reading a book (aka everything wraps up neatly at the end). However, on the other hand, it exposed me to a part of American history that I was unfamiliar with. I just wanted more from it. A lot more.

The book juxtaposes two story lines that obviously intertwine–Molly, a teenager in modern time, and Vivian, and old lady in modern time, who was obviously the one on the orphan train. The problem is Molly. Molly’s sections are contrived, unrealistic, and so cheesy young adult, that I nearly almost stopped reading it. And I hated that the book began with Molly instead of beginning with Vivian.

Molly is the most stereotypical angsty teenager of all times. She’s a goth vegetarian “orphan” (technically her deadbeat mother is still alive but she’s in and out of jail) who stole a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and now she is apparently about to go to juvenile detention unless she finds some community service to do instead. Her boyfriend, Jack, pulls some strings with his mother to allow Molly to do her community service helping Vivian, Jack’s mother’s employer, sort through years of boxes. (Is that what community service looks like these days?)

Vivian was born in Ireland under the name of Niamh. She, her parents, and her sister and brothers, moved to America in 1927 and lived in a tiny apartment in New York City. Two years after arrival with no real sight of the American Dream, the family perishes in an apartment fire and only Niamh survives. The neighbors, the Schatzmans, take her to the Children’s Aid Society where she is sent on a train to the midwest for adoption. En route, she befriends an older boy “Dutchy” (Hans) who sits beside her, and they promise that no matter what happens, they will find each other later. Dutchy gets picked at the first stop, Minneapolis, where they are put through all but a sale. Niamh boards the train for the next stop, Albans, MN.

in Albans, she is selected by an Irish man and his wife, the Byrnes. Mrs. Byrne runs a clothing shop, which Niamh, now Dorothy, works at. She doesn’t go to school, but she is treated OK until the stock market crashes and she is “returned” and sent to live with another family, the Grotes. The Grotes are a hot mess. The mom sleeps all day. The dad wants to basically live off the grid. (He doesn’t have a job. He just hunts and forages for food.) Niamh sleeps in a pile with the rest of the skinny children. But she is allowed to go to school. There she befriends the nice teacher, Miss Larson. It’s a good thing too because in not too long, Mr. Grote assaults Niamh and Mrs. Grote walks in, blaming Niamh and kicking her out of the house. She walks to the schoolhouse with her belongings, and Miss Larson calls Mr. Sorenson, the Children’s Aid Society worker. He thinks that Niamh was being overly dramatic. Luckily Miss Larson stands up for her, and volunteers to allow Niamh to stay with her in her boardinghouse until a new solution can be found.

Mrs. Murphy, the landlady of the boardinghouse, is Irish as well, and she immediately takes a liking to Niamh who stays at the boardinghouse until Mrs. Murphy finds her a new family, the Nielsens who lost their only daughter to diphtheria a few years prior. They initially want her as some additional help at the shop that they own, but over time, they adopt her and change her name yet again, to Vivian. (Creepily their dead daughter’s name). As Vivian grows older, she takes a real interest in the shop, suggesting designs and changes to make the store better, eventually managing the store upon graduation.

One night, she’s enticed by two of her friends to go with them to Minneapolis to see The Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies!). She doesn’t go out much, as she has been brought up knowing how severe getting in trouble can be (although this is weird that she has this behavior but yet Molly does not??) but her friends were there mostly to party only under the guise of seeing the movie. In the most eye-rolling moment of serendipity, she accidentally finds Dutchy while at a club in Minneapolis. Shortly after that, they get married. All is going well. They move back to Hemingford where Vivian runs the store and Dutchy teaches music at a local school. And then World War II happens. Dutchy is eventually drafted, and while he is in training, Vivian discovers that she is pregnant. They write regularly, but eventually the bad news come back. A plane crashed onto the fleet carrier where Dutchy was. He did not survive.

Vivian makes the hard decision to place the baby, a girl, up for adoption. After the war, she marries Jim Daly, who brings the rest of Dutchy’s things to her. It’s more of a business partnership, but it worked out for both of them.

Molly presses Vivian to investigate what happened to the rest of her family, but Vivian does not want to embrace the technology. As part of a school project, Molly decides to do it herself, finding out that Vivian’s sister indeed survived the fire and was adopted by the Schatzmans. She had children and grandchildren, but had passed away a few years previously. Molly gets in a last fight with her foster parents and goes to live with Vivian who has a big house with many empty rooms. And Molly only has a short amount of time before she’s out of the system anyway. Molly tells Vivian about her sister, and this information convinces Vivian to embrace technology (way more than seems likely) and tracks down her daughter.

The book ends with the daughter and her family coming to meet Vivian.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to love this book. It was my choice for this year, and the topic is interesting. But I just could not get past the clichéd writing. I know I’m in the minority on this (it has a 4+ star ranking on Amazon), but I just was expecting more.

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

  Summary (Amazon): From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: Almost

I probably started out this book with a bit of a pessimistic attitude because I just do not like WW2 books (specifically the European ones. I thoroughly enjoyed Unbroken because westerners rarely hear stories about WW2 Asia.) Anyway, the story is about an orphaned German boy and a blind French girl. So I was like…OK maybe this will be different. And in some parts it was, but in many ways, it wasn’t. Also, this was actually 5 stories confusingly woven into one. 1) Past tense Marie-Laure, 2)past tense Werner, 3) “current” (1944) time Marie-Laure and 4) “current” (1944) time Werner. 5) Sergeant Major von Rumpel’s obsession with finding the “Sea of Flames”. I’m going to tell Marie’s story, Werner’s story, how von Rumpel fits in, and then what happens when they finally meet.

Marie-Laure, the blind French girl, lives with her father, who is a museum locksmith, in Paris. (Her mother died in childbirth.) Her father is amazing and takes her to work with him where she learns about everything the museum has to offer. One of the things that the museum has is the “Sea of Flames”, a large blue diamond with red at the inside. It is kept in a series of locked doors as the diamond is known to be cursed. It gives the owner immortality but not without great despair. Marie-Laure’s father also makes her wooden puzzles as well as scale models of her neighborhood so that she can learn the paths before actually going outside and taking them.

When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris to head to the town of Saint-Malo (via way of Evreux which was already attacked and looted) to live with her great uncle Etienne who is a recluse and his housekeeper, Madame Manec. Marie-Laure doesn’t know but her father and 3 others are entrusted to take the “Sea of Flames” and hide it away from the Nazis. (3 of the diamonds are fake, but one is the real deal). Shortly after her father finishes his scale model of the region of Saint-Malo, he is called back to Paris to the museum and is taken in by the Nazis en route and taken to prison. He manages to eventually write Marie-Laure and Etienne some letters, one of which says that there is a a gift inside Etienne’s house just like she would get on her birthdays–a puzzle and inside a gift. Despite it being very obvious that the house is the model house, she has no idea what her dad is talking about and just ignores it.

Meanwhile, she is getting to know Etienne much better. He loves learning, music, and radios. His brother, Marie’s grandfather, used to record science programs that Etienne would transmit with his radio. When the Nazis take all the radios, they give up all but that one which they hide in a hidden closet and cover with a wardrobe. Manec has begun to help the resistance with some other town ladies in little ways. She involves Marie who meets some interesting people through this including Madame Ruelle who bakes secret messages into bread, and Harold Bazin, who has a secret hideout full of snails, which Marie loves. One day, Manec grows sick and dies. Yes, that suddenly. It convinces Etienne that he needs to try being brave so he begins sending out the secret codes that are baked into the bread through his radio, and when Marie-Laure one day is stopped by a Nazi soldier on the way home from the bakery, he finally convinces himself to leave the house to find her, and he then takes over the route for her until he disappears.

***

Werner Pfennig and his sister Jutta live in an orphanage in Zollverein, Germany. Werner’s father was a miner who died in a mining accident, and he’s always been interested in science. He and his sister scavenge old pieces of equipment and eventually cobble together a radio (the orphanage doesn’t have one) and listen to a science broadcast every night. Werner begins repairing radios for the townspeople until eventually he repairs one for a rich German man who helps Werner get accepted into a Nazi youth military school.  Jutta does not want him to go (she has been listening to the radio and thinks the Nazis are wrong), but he doesn’t really care, and he breaks her radio and goes to the school. He makes friends with a quiet boy named Frederick who joined because his father wanted him to (his vision was poor enough that he could have gotten out of it but he didn’t want to be a disappointment). The Nazi fervor grows and grows at the school, and Werner seems to evade some of it as he is the special pupil to the technical sciences’ professor. However, Frederick does not evade it, and after a few run ins with one of the training officers, he is attacked by some other students and taken from the school in a vegetable state. Werner, for the most part, is unfazed and continues with his job.

Eventually he gets put on a task force with this older student, Volkheimer, and some others to travel around finding people from the resistance transmitting anti-German things on the radio and destroy them. They travel around finding all sorts of “resistance” who they then kill. Werner remains fully unfazed about all of this until they accidentally kill a child who reminds him of Jutta. When they head to Saint-Malo to find a radio that has been sending out codes, Werner pretends he can’t find them.

**

Throughout all of this, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel has been appraising all the treasure that the Nazis have been looting. He’s an esteemed gemologist, and he also has cancer. He has heard about the “Sea of Flames” and its capability of eternal life. He interrogates the museum about it and eventually tracks down the person who made the mould for the fakes who tells him that 3 were made. Methodically, he finds the keepers of 3/4, and of course, the last one to find is Marie-Laure’s, and he tracks her down to Saint-Malo.

**

Marie-Laure is home alone when she hears someone enter the house. It’s not Etienne though she doesn’t know where he is, so she knows it is someone looking for the “Sea of Flames” which she finally figured out was in the model house. She hides in the radio room with the box hoping that von Rumpel will leave, but as hers is the last one and he is running out of time, he has no reason to leave without the stone. She begins to do radio broadcasts of her reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea which Werner overhears on his scans. He targets her because he is fascinated, but then he and his team end up under the rubble after an attack from the Allied forces. When he hears her broadcast,  “He is here. He will kill me.”, he makes a final desperate attempt to escape. It works, and he goes to her house where he finds and kills von Rumpel and rescues her.

He asks her about the transmitter and tells her about the radio show that he used to listen to with his sister from that same transmission. She tells him that it was her grandfather, and they discuss Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea while eating the last can of peaches. He wears Etienne’s clothes to take her to safety, but she stops at the snail cave to deposit the house with the stone, and then goes to the muster point, giving Werner the key to the cave before she goes.

Werner is captured and believed to be a spy. He is taken to prison and is killed stepping onto a buried mine. Yes, just that fast.

Then the author decides to go to 2 separate “modern times” to try to continue the story, but it adds nothing. In the 1970s, Volkheimer receives Werner’s things from the army and tracks down Jutta to give them to her. He tells Jutta about their last days together in Saint-Malo. One of the items in his pack is part of a model house. Jutta decides to track down the owner of the house, first traveling to Saint-Malo where of course someone knows exactly where to find Marie-Laure 30 years later. She works in the museum. Jutta tracks her down and gives her back the house. Marie-Laure gives her the last of the records her grandfather recorded for Jutta’s son. When Marie opens the house, the key to the cave is inside, so she believes that Werner went back to retrieve the house but leave the diamond. Why?

Then again the author decides we care about old lady Marie-Laure hanging out with her grandson in the early 2000s just to show she made it.

Verdict: 3 stars

The book was just not come together in a way that was enjoyable for me. It was a good idea, but it just never was fully realized. In fact, without the two 2.5 hour flights I took, I am not sure I would have finished it. I didn’t enjoy the style of jumping back and forth between the stories. I didn’t like the extreme amount of closure that the author thought that the readers needed. Leave a little to the imagination. But the worst part was that I didn’t like the characters. They were so blah. Werner was a little sheep that somehow we were supposed to care about. And Marie-Laure never seemed to evolve to have her own ideas. I just wanted more.

 

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