January 30, 2012

Review: Remembrance by Michelle Madow

Remembrance by Michelle Madow

Release Date: July 2011
Publisher: Dreamscape Publishing,
Pages: 314 pages
Series: Remembrance #1
Source & Format: Purchased: Kindle e-book
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary
When Drew Carmichael transfers to Lizzie Davenports's high school, she is drawn to him. Lizzie feels as though she knows Drew - but she can't explain their connection. She can't stop thinking about him, but he wants nothing to do with her. Not to mention the fact that she already has a boyfriend, Jeremy, and Drew is dating her best friend, Chelsea.

Little does Lizzie know, she's been reincarnated from Regency England and fighting fate isn't easy.

Thoughts on Remembrance
I thought this book was a steal when I found it in Amazon's Kindle store. It only costs $2.99 and had a 3.77 rating on Goodreads and 4.5 stars on Amazon, which isn't too shabby.

I was expecting a light, easy read with a unique love story. I'm often hesitant to commit to inexpensive Kindle titles since they are often self-published and poorly edited. I don't have anything against self-published books; I just typically think there is a reason they are self-published. However, the reviews made the book sound amazing.

While the premise sounded fun, the book fell short in execution. The entire book essentially felt like a fan fiction knock-off of the Twilight series and the Fallen series. I couldn't stop making comparisons in my mind. For example:
  • Lizzie feels drawn to a mysterious bad boy.
  • Lizzie is confused by the boy's actions: one moment he's kind to her and the next he's ignoring her.
  • Lizzie is torn between two boys - her boyfriend and the attractive stranger.
  • Lizzie learns that she and Drew shared a connection in their past lives.
Sound familiar? The entire time I was reading the book, I felt like I was reading a recycled version of something I'd already read. While there were other things I found problematic, the plot and its stereotypes are becoming all too common in this type of young adult book.

Unfortunately, I also thought that the characters were one-dimensional. Personally, I wouldn't want anything to do with either of the guys in the book. Why did she like Drew, aside from their magical past connection? Who knows. I can't tell you. And that is one of my biggest pet peeves: characters who "fall in love" without any real interaction or reason.

There were also numerous references to Jane Austen and Pride & Prejudice, which drove me crazy. It's one of my favorite books, and it honestly got on my nerves that there were so many references to it in a book that was blah. And trying to compare (or even imply) that the main character was Lizzie Bennet? Horrible. There is no way this Lizzie was anything like one of the most beloved characters in all of literature. 

The reincarnation revelation barely registered a blip in terms plot development. This book is the first in a series, and I had no desire to read any further. In my opinion, that's a bad sign. If I could do things over again, I'd definitely pass on this book.

So Quotable
"But it was time to realize that I wasn't Cinderella, and no matter how hard I wished it were true, life wasn't a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after."

January 24, 2012

Review: The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer

The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer

Release Date: October 24, 2000
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 305 pages
Source & Format: Borrowed; Audiobook
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary
Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman in Vienna before the Gestapo forced her into a ghetto and then into a labor camp. Months later, she returned home with the realization that her life would never be the same. As a Jew, she would forever be a wanted woman.

With the help of a friend, Edith is able to change her identity. She becomes Grete, and she eventually meets and marries a member of the Nazi party. Edith has become a "U-boat" - a term used during that time to describe Jews hiding in Germany during WWII.

Edith's stories are about survival and, ultimately, triumph.

Thoughts on The Nazi Officer's Wife
A co-worker loaned me an audio recording of this book, praising it as one of the best books she had ever read. I love books set during WWII, particularly stories that deal with the Jewish Holocaust. It is, without a doubt, one of the darkest periods in history. But I also find it fascinating because I love reading stories about the light among the darkness.

Edith Hahn was not a hero in the traditional sense. She did not save many lives or risk her own for the sake of someone else. Instead, she did the only things she knew to do to save her life. Edith's story is about a woman hiding in plain sight. So, while she may not sound like a heroic woman, I found her story to be captivating.

Choosing to live - even when it means living in fear - makes Edith brave. She was, in my mind, courageous. What I loved the most about this book was that it was so different from other Holocaust memoirs or fictional accounts that I've read. Yes, some of the details were similar. Descriptions about life as a Jew during this time matched other accounts I've read. What made this unique was the fact that Edith was not in hiding. In fact, she married a Nazi.

Living in Germany, Edith has to essentially "murder" herself. Her identity and her heritage had to be pushed aside. Her knowledge - from years of schooling - had to be hidden. I said this book wasn't about a woman in hiding, but actually it is. It is just a different kind of hiding. Edith hid everything about herself in order to go unnoticed by her neighbors.

The writing is straightforward and simple. Occasionally, Edith will address you, the reader, with her comments. I found it to be an interesting way to further draw the reader into the story. Since I listened to the audiobook, I will also mention that I found the narrator to be particularly compelling. She was the perfect choice for reading this book!

I highly recommend this book, especially for fans of WWII, and believe it is a great addition to historical Holocaust testimonials.

So Quotable
"I murdered the personality I was born with and transformed myself from a butterfly back into a caterpillar. That night I learned to seek the shadows, to prefer the silence. I thought: Now I am like Dante. I walk through hell, but I am not burning."

"You know, we have moments of passion when we are in pain. And then of course the moment ends, and with it the passion and the pain, and we can forgive and forget. But I think that every time you hurt somebody that you care for, a crack appears in your relationship, a little weakening - and it stays there, dangerous, waiting for the next opportunity to open up and destroy everything."

January 23, 2012

So Quotable: Sarah Addison Allen

Source
"Books can be possessive, can't they? You're walking around in a bookstore and a certain one will jump out at you, like it had moved there on its own, just to get your attention. Sometimes what's inside will change your life, but sometimes you don't even have to read it. Sometimes it's a comfort just to have a book around. Many of these books haven't even had their spines cracked. 'Why do you buy books you don't even read?' our daughter asks us. That's like asking someone who lives alone why they bought a cat. For company, of course."  Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen

January 21, 2012

Review: Washington Square by Henry James

Washington Square by Henry James

Release Date: 1880
Publisher: Modern Library
Pages: 288 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Washington Square follows the coming-of-age of its plain-faced heroine, Catherine Sloper. To her father's eternal frustration, she is wooed by a handsome opportunist by the name of Morris Townsend. After years of life with only her father and her ridiculous Aunt Penniman, Catherine is drawn to Morris' charms. She is flattered by his attention and refuses to believe that he could be intent on claiming her fortune.

Forced to choose between her inheritance and the man she loves, Catherine's decision could change the course of her life.

Thoughts on Washington Square
Washington Square is one of Henry James' most straightforward and shortest works, which is why I thought it would be an interesting way to read more from this author. I read and enjoyed Daisy Miller, but I don't yet have the fortitude to push my way through The Portrait of a Lady or some of his other, longer works.

This is a small tale. Catherine is, in many ways, a small heroine. She has a very small existence. She lives with her father and her aunt, and she seems to do very little else besides exist in the world. She has a small future. Her father believes that she will never make a great match since she is a rather plain and simple girl. But what she does not lack is a fortune. She is an heiress, and anyone knows money can often compensate for other things one might lack.

The problem is that the plot is also small. It seemed to me that very little ever happened. I didn't finish this book quickly, even though it was a really short book. The story seemed to finally reach a climactic moment, but then it just sort of ended. I think what made it the hardest to read was the fact that none of the characters were very endearing. Don't get me wrong, they aren't one-dimensional characters. James was obviously a good writer. It's just that they are all kind of off-putting - I wouldn't want to be left in a room with any of them.

All that being said, this book was very well written. I want to get back to my love of classics this year, which is why I am going to try to read at least one a month. I'm glad I started off with this quiet novel because it reminded me of the fact that many classics rely more on characterization than plot to drive the novel. In a time when vampires and fallen angels seem to be dominating the literary market, it was actually refreshing to read this book... even if I wouldn't say that I really liked it all that much. It definitely got me excited about reading more classics though!

So Quotable
"It seemed to Catherine that no one who had once seen him would ever forget him; but though she made this reflection she kept it to herself, almost as you would keep anything precious."

January 18, 2012

Review: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Release Date: February 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster | Touchstone
Pages: 369 pages
Source & Format: Christmas gift; Paperback
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation after she is orphaned while onboard a ship from Ireland. She becomes an indentured servant, living with the master's illegitimate daughter, Belle. Lavinia becomes strongly tied to her adopted family despite the difference in their skin color.

As the years pass, Lavinia becomes more accepted into the world of the big house. While the entrance into this world provides her with more opportunities, she finds herself straddling two very different worlds. In the end, she must make a choice. Lavinia must decide where her loyalties lie, and she must find the strength to face the truth.

Thoughts on The Kitchen House
I knew I had to read this book when I heard it had been compared to The Help, which is one of my very favorite books. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.

The prologue opens in 1810 with a powerful and haunting scene that should have prepared me for what was in store. The Kitchen House is my favorite kind of book. It's a page-turner, forcing you to read just a little bit more, just read one more chapter... To say I was hooked would be an understatement.

The book shares two narrators - Lavinia and Belle. Lavinia is quiet, fragile, and barely able to cope with the horror of the things she sees and hears. From my first introduction to the girl, it's obvious that she isn't going to be "strong" heroine. She is unable to remember her parents passing, numb to her loss, and barely speaks. Her grief has silenced her. As she begins to remember her past, she is only comforted by the love and attention from those around her.

This aspect of Lavinia's character - her struggle to cope - lasts throughout the novel. Her reaction to some of the book's most shocking events is believable because it is the same reaction she had to her parents' deaths. She withdraws into another world. I was fascinated with her as a heroine because she was different and unique.

Belle, on the other hand, is grounded and strong. She, too, knows loss and pain. However, she is not naive. She faces tragedy and hardship with honesty and courage. I enjoyed Belle as a character, and I appreciated getting to hear things from her point of view.

All of the characters, not just Lavinia and Belle, were well-developed. They were fully drawn beings that could exist off the page. I had no trouble remembering who was who - even though numerous people played a role in the novel. It was obvious that a lot of research, as well as passion, went into this novel. I love when I am able to read a piece of historical fiction that draws me in with the characters but still feels true in the details.

I will note, however, that this book is quite dark at times. It deals with subject matter that is serious, and it is heartbreaking to know that some of the worst moments are based on factual accounts from a dark period in our nation's history. I don't want to give too much away, but this book does not paint a pretty picture of the pre-Civil War South. That being said, I would still absolutely recommend it.

So Quotable
"What the color is, who the daddy be, who the mama is don't mean nothin'. We a family, carin' for each other. Family make us strong in times of trouble. We all stick together, help each other out. That the real meanin' of family. When you grow up, you take that family feelin' with you."

"This world is not the only home. This world is for practice to get things right."

January 17, 2012

Review: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Release Date: July 2011
Publisher: Random House | Spiegel & Grau
Pages: 320 pages
Source & Format: Christmas gift; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Next to Love follows the lives of three young women during the years of World War II and its aftermath. Beginning with the men going off to war and ending a generation later, it's a novel about love and loss.

Childhood friends Babe, Millie, and Grace are changed when their men are called to duty. Left at home to fend for themselves, they must learn how to exist when the people they love are faced with danger at every turn. The war leaves nothing untouched. Lives are lost, and those that return are never the same. In the wake of the war, the women are thrust into a new world and way of life.

Thoughts on Next to Love
Reading the summary of Next to Love, I was drawn to the story. I really love books about World War II, so the description for this book really appealed to me. I also love books that deal with female friendship, and the blurb about the power claims that it is "beautifully crafted and unforgettable" in its depiction of the "enduring power of love and friendship" and the way it "illuminates a transformational moment in American history."

Those are mighty big words for one book, and I had high expectations going into it. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed in this book. It is told from the point-of-viw of all three women with different chapters shifting the perspective. While this can sometimes work wonderfully (The Help), it can also really detract from a story. In this case, I found it difficult to connect with the story because I could not connect to any of the narrators. If I don't become engaged with the characters I'm reading about, I have a hard time really falling in love with a book.

Also, it is told in present tense, which really threw me off. That may seem like a strange criticism, but the tense didn't sit right with me the entire time I was reading it. I think I didn't like the use of present tense because the author uses some rather heavy-handed for shadowing (ie "Years later, she would tell so-and-so's granddaughter that this was nothing new...") that didn't really seem to fit with the use of present tense.

The story was interesting, but the execution was lacking. I just wasn't impressed. I think it would have been easier to connect with the story if it was a first-person narrative or wasn't constantly trying to shift perspectives. With so many years packed into 300 pages, I still felt like there were entire sections that could have been removed with altering the story in any noticeable way.

I also really didn't see the female friendship aspect. I just finished the book yesterday, and I can't think of a single instance where the girls' "friendship" took the spotlight. All in all, the book fell flat for me. This book is proof that I should never take a blurb for its word - because I ultimately found it pretty forgettable. I enjoyed it enough to want to finish it but not enough to remember much about it.

So Quotable
"Love may endure a lifetime, but it is less reliable on a day-to-day basis."

January 16, 2012

So Quotable: Betty Smith

Source
"From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
        ― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

January 15, 2012

Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Release Date: January 2009
Publisher: Random House | Ballantine Books
Pages: 290 pages
Source & Format: Library; Kindle e-book
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
The Panama Hotel was abandoned, a shadow of its former glory. It was once the gateway to Seattle's Japantown, but it was boarded up long ago. Henry Lee never expected to see a crowd gathering outside one day, and he was even more shocked to learn that the belongings of Japanese families, left before they were rounded up and sent to interment camps during WWII, were discovered.

All it takes is a simple Japanese parasol to take Henry Lee back to his childhood. Now a widower, Henry searches for remnants of his past. The book chronicles his journey to find his voice, and his acceptance of both the bitter and the sweet.

Thoughts on Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
This is one of those books that drew me in immediately. From the title to the cover, I had a feeling this book would be a delightful journey. I had very little idea of what it was about when I started reading it, except that it dealt with WWII.

I was surprised when I realized that it dealt with the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. To be honest, this is an aspect of American history that I have often overlooked in my reading choices. This may be one of the only fictional books I've read about the subject.

This book deals with two different periods of time - 1942 and 1986. By setting up the story this way, Jamie Ford is able to portray Henry Lee at two very different points in his life. While many things change, Henry's devotion and bravery does not.

I loved the story, and I appreciated the way Ford chose to tell the story as a love story. Rather than use the novel as a political tool, he allows readers to form their own opinions about the treatment of the Japanese. The book is, above all, about the characters and their journeys. I love a book that is more character-driven than plot-driven so this book was right up my alley.

The book was well-paced (not too fast or too slow), which I have found can often be a problem in books that are very focused on character development. I was impressed by the simplicity of the novel, and I enjoyed the way a heavy subject was treated with a delicate touch.

If I had one complaint, it's that I think the author missed the boat on some of his fact-checking. The Panama Hotel is a real place, in Seattle, and the belongings of Japanese families were really discovered inside. In his attempt to set the novel in the correct year (1986), Ford makes a few noticeable mistakes. He references Internet chat rooms, finding someone's contact information online, and converting a record to a CD. In 1986, I think almost all of those things would be highly unlikely. However, 1942 was portrayed wonderfully, and his research of this time is evident.

So Quotable
"The hardest choices in life aren't between what's right and what's wrong but between what's right and what's best."

January 11, 2012

Review: Mine is the Night by Liz Curtis Higgs

Mine is the Night by Liz Curtis Higgs

Release Date: March 2011
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Pages: 480 pages
Source & Format: Library; Kindle e-book
Series: Here Burns My Candle #2
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
This is the second of two books by Liz Curtis Higgs, set in Scotland following the Jacobin rebellion, that is based on the biblical account of Ruth. Following the loss of her husband, her fortune and her way of life, widow Elisabeth Kerr must start anew. The story begins with Elisabeth and Marjory, her mother-in-law, returning to Marjory's former home. Mine is the Night is a story of hope, redemption and restoration.

Thoughts on Mine is the Night
I have read quite a few novels by Liz Curtis Higgs, and I actually just read the first book in this series at the end of last year. Higgs is known for taking a biblical story and re-imagining it in a historical Scottish setting. I really enjoy the way she writes, so I knew this book would be a delightful read.

If you are familiar with the story of Ruth, you'll be able to predict much of the story before it actually happens. You know, for example, that Elisabeth will choose to remain faithful to her mother, despite the disadvantages she'll face in doing so, and that her sister-in-law will choose to leave. Unfortunately, that also means you'll know who the hero is the minute he rides across the page. If there is anything that I find lacking in Higg's novel, it's that some of the attempts to mirror Ruth's story felt a little forced.

However, I love that Higgs uses the story as a means of exploring the emotions the women would have felt (grief, fear, abandonment, remorse) and the lessons they would have learned. Marjory's struggle with bitterness and pride fleshes out the details provided in the Bible about Naomi's own bitterness. Higgs doesn't just plop the biblical story into Scotland. Instead, she carefully and skillfully uses the new setting to explore hard lessons and the miracle of restoration. These lessons are central to the story of Ruth, and Higgs weaves them into her tale with generous helpings of truth.

So Quotable
"You have a fine mind, a bonny face, skilled hands, and the Lord's favor. Use them well in the service of others, and a full reward will be yours."

January 2, 2012

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff


Release Date: November 2010
Publisher: Hachette | Little, Brown
Pages: 368 pages
Source & Format: Christmas gift; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads

Summary (from Goodreads)
Cleopatra's life spanned fewer than 40 years, but her legend lives on. She married twice, each time to a brother. She poisoned one and warred against the other. To this day, much of what we know about Cleopatra is through unreliably sources. This biography is an attempt to tell the true story of the woman behind the myth.

Thoughts on Cleopatra
I was excited to read this book because I love well-written biographies, and I am not very familiar with Cleopatra or the time in which she lived. I had obviously heard some of the varied accounts about her life, and her death, but I was looking forward to getting a more in-depth picture of this legendary woman.

Unfortunately, I just could not finish this book. I expected a lot more from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. The writing was not very engaging. Schiff uses incredibly long paragraphs, which made it very hard for me to follow or to find the significance of what she was writing. I know it's time to put a book aside when I can't follow what is going on and don't even really care. 

It was, to be honest, dry and lifeless. I felt like I was listening to a droning history professor. The book felt more like a lecture than an insightful or engaging look at a powerful woman.

Also, I got kind of tired of all the conjecture. I only made it about 1/4 of the way through the book before I called it quits, but I noticed a trend emerging:
  • Disclaimer: We don't know if [event] happened for sure, but it might have been like this...
  • Description: It is believed that [event] happened in this way...
  • Disclaimer: Again, that is only what might have happened but we can't really know for sure...
While I understand that a biographer cannot claim to know everything as absolute fact, I could not get past the fact that it seemed like the book was merely a hodge-podge of the history of Rome/Alexandria with some random Cleopatra anecdotes thrown in for good measure.

I hate leaving a book unfinished, but I knew it was time to put it to rest when I was resorting to bribing myself to finish the book: "Now, if I just read five more pages tonight then I can stop and read something else." 

I may try and pick it back up when I am feeling a little more patient and have fewer books in my "to read" pile. Maybe...
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