Sunday, January 27, 2019

#BookReview: The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

Genre
War Era Historical

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DESCRIPTION: 
From the author of the runaway bestseller The Orphan’s Tale comes a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.

1946, Manhattan

Grace Healey is rebuilding her life after losing her husband during the war. One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, she finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a ring of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war, and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances...

REVIEW: 
I’m torn! I hate admitting that when reviewing an author I admire as much as Pam Jenoff, but I have genuinely mixed feelings about The Lost Girls of Paris.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to say that I liked this story. Jenoff is hardly the first author to tackle the courage and bravery of WWII’s female spies, but I feel the marks she hits, particularly those of operational politics, differentiate her work from the likes of Hannah’s The Nightingale, Quinn’s The Alice Network, and/or Wein’s Code Name Verity.

Jenoff has a knack for illustrating deep human emotion, and I think this story allowed her to showcase that strength in a new and refreshing way. Jenoff’s work usually incorporates a romantic element, and while The Lost Girls of Paris is no exception, the story is more heavily rooted in the bonds of female friendship than the romantic affections of starry-eyed lovers.

Having said this, I have to admit to not understanding Jenoff’s decision to use three narrators. I liked Eleanor a great deal and developed a certain appreciation for Marie, but I struggled beginning to end with Grace. This reality created an imbalance in the fabric of the narrative and often made it difficult for me to stay engaged in the plot.

My biggest issue, however, was the story’s lack of oomph. The Lost Girls of Paris is a lovely piece that touches on some very compelling subject matter, but I don’t feel the themes of the narrative landed as soundly as those of The Orphan’s Tale. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Jenoff’s 2017 release delivered an emotional sucker punch that left me reeling for weeks, and I think it fair to say that my experience of that story overshadowed my reading of this one.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 29, 2019

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#BookReview: A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum

Genre
War Era Historical

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DESCRIPTION: 
For fans of All the Light We Cannot See and The Women in the Castle comes a riveting literary novel that is at once an epic love story and a heart-pounding journey across WWI-era Russia, about an ambitious young doctor and her scientist brother in a race against Einstein to solve one of the greatest mysteries of the universe.

In Russia, in the summer of 1914, as war with Germany looms and the Czar's army tightens its grip on the local Jewish community, Miri Abramov and her brilliant physicist brother, Vanya, are facing an impossible decision. Since their parents drowned fleeing to America, Miri and Vanya have been raised by their babushka, a famous matchmaker who has taught them to protect themselves at all costs: to fight, to kill if necessary, and always to have an escape plan. But now, with fierce, headstrong Miri on the verge of becoming one of Russia's only female surgeons, and Vanya hoping to solve the final puzzles of Einstein's elusive theory of relativity, can they bear to leave the homeland that has given them so much?

Before they have time to make their choice, war is declared and Vanya goes missing, along with Miri's fiancé. Miri braves the firing squad to go looking for them both. As the eclipse that will change history darkens skies across Russia, not only the safety of Miri's own family but the future of science itself hangs in the balance.

Grounded in real history -- and inspired by the solar eclipse of 1914 -- A Bend in the Stars offers a heartstopping account of modern science's greatest race amidst the chaos of World War I, and a love story as epic as the railways crossing Russia.

REVIEW: 
I hate dropping comparisons in the introduction of a review. Still, I feel Rachel Barenbaum’s A Bend in the Stars shelves neatly alongside Chad Thumann’s The Undesirables and Marie Benedict’s The Other Einstein.

The novel is brilliantly atmospheric and affords a unique and refreshing portrait of WWI era Russia both politically and culturally. In a market that favors Germany, France, and England, I found this perspective refreshing and enjoyed losing myself in this chapter of less-fictionalized world history.

I loved the scientific scope of this story and how the course of the narrative acknowledged the realities of competition in the field. I also liked how the story showcased commonly held superstitions and how traditional understandings prevented common people from accepting new understandings. That said, my favorite storyline was Vanya’s as it created a necessary bridge for modern readers to empathize and relate through prejudices that still exist more than a century after this story takes place.

I appreciate the time I spent with this piece and would have no trouble recommending it forward but admit I struggled a bit with the pacing and encourage anyone reading this to understand the impact that had on my experience of the story.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 18, 2019
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#BookReview: American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt by Stephanie Marie Thornton

Genre
Biographic Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
A sweeping novel from renowned author Stephanie Marie Thornton...

Alice may be the president's daughter, but she's nobody's darling. As bold as her signature color Alice Blue, the gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing First Daughter discovers that the only way for a woman to stand out in Washington is to make waves--oceans of them. With the canny sophistication of the savviest politician on the Hill, Alice uses her celebrity to her advantage, testing the limits of her power and the seductive thrill of political entanglements.

But Washington, DC is rife with heartaches and betrayals, and when Alice falls hard for a smooth-talking congressman it will take everything this rebel has to emerge triumphant and claim her place as an American icon. As Alice soldiers through the devastation of two world wars and brazens out a cutting feud with her famous Roosevelt cousins, it's no wonder everyone in the capital refers to her as the Other Washington Monument--and Alice intends to outlast them all.

REVIEW: 
In June 2016, Stephanie Thornton announced she’d finished the first draft of her fifth novel. From the image that accompanied that announcement, I deduced the novel’s subject, which means I waited an excess of two years to get my hands on American Princess. Two. Whole. Years.

Turnabout is fair play, and while I feel I’d be entirely justified in holding this review until 2021, I also recognize my inability to follow through on such a threat. Tough as I might talk, I am a book junkie with a serious coffee addiction and can’t be trusted not to scream from the hilltops when a book hits just the right note.

Thornton’s passion for her subject matter radiates from every page of this novel, but the author’s ability to endow her iconic cast with such deeply poignant and complex emotions is what makes this story shine. Thornton’s illustration of Alice’s relationships pulls back the curtain and invites readers to indulge in both the privilege and pressures that accompanied membership in the Roosevelt clan, to understand the delicate alliances they forged, and experience an unadulterated glimpse of the world they knew.

There is something deeply moving in Thornton’s firebrand characterization of Alice, and I was intrigued at the underlying idea of legacy and how it ripples across generations, but I have to admit the author’s portrait of Alice’s love-hate relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt my favorite element of the story. McNees’ Undiscovered Country, Albert’s Loving Eleanor, and Bloom’s White Houses have all featured the first lady’s relationship with Lorena Hickok, but Thornton’s subject allowed her to showcase another side of Eleanor. Together, these women engage in and foster the ambitions of those at the upper echelons of power in the United States, and I liked both the perspective and relevancy that created in the fabric of the narrative.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 18, 2018

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#BookReview: The Alamo Bride by Kathleen Y'Barbo

Genre
Biographic Fiction
Alternate Historical

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DESCRIPTION: 
Will Ellis Lose All at the Alamo?

Ellis Dumont finds a man in New Orleans Grey unconscious on Dumont property in 1836. As his fevers rage, the man mutters strange things about treasures and war. Either Claiborne Gentry has lost his mind or he’s a spy for the American president—or worse, for the Mexican enemy that threatens their very lives. With the men of her family away, Ellis must stand courageous and decide who she can trust. Will she put her selfish wants ahead of the future of the republic or travel with Clay to Mission San Jose to help end the war?

REVIEW: 
I want to begin by noting that while I read Christian fiction fairly regularly, I do not consider myself a genre reader. I am a reader of historical fiction first, and that perspective colors my assessment of this story. This is not to say that I discount the novel’s incorporation of faith, just that I might not weight it as heavily as someone who is more invested in the religious aspects of Y’Barbo’s work.

The Alamo Bride marks my first experience with the Daughters of the Mayflower series, so I’m not entirely sure how it fits in the grander scheme of things, but I enjoyed the novel well-enough as a standalone and thought the scope of its historic content creatively presented in the experiences of Ellis Valmont and Claiborne "Clay" Gentry.

Historically speaking, the book covers the Texas Revolution and includes a wealth of research on the time period. Y’Barbo offers many introductions to key players in the conflict, and I love what she did in highlighting the New Orleans Greys. That said, I think the story offers a far wider view than the title suggests and encourages readers to understand these pages chronicle more than a single siege.

As far as the religious elements of the story are concerned, I’d classify the content as moderate to heavy. I did not find Y’Barbo’s themes abrasive by any means, but I’d mention it when recommending The Alamo Bride to secular readers.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: November 3, 2018
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Sunday, January 20, 2019

#BookReview: History's Greatest Villains: Dracula by Bernard Swysen & Julien Sol

Genre
Biographic Fiction
Historical Graphic Novel

Series
History's Greatest Villains

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DESCRIPTION: 
Everyone knows about Dracula the vampire, but have you ever heard of Voivode Vlad Dracula of Wallachia? Perhaps you know him better by his nickname: Vlad the Impaler! The bloodthirsty prince was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s notorious character, but although the real Dracula gained infamy for his favorite method of execution—impaling—few know the true details of his life. Swysen and Solé have created an intimate and accurate portrait of this vicious tyrant, allowing you to follow his journey from childhood to death, with guaranteed laughs along the way.

REVIEW: 
I like the idea behind History's Greatest Villains: Dracula by Bernard Swysen & Julien Solé, but the execution proved a poor fit for my tastes.

I felt the concept of a graphic biography intensely creative, but I also found the humor of this volume tonally awkward for the subject matter it covered. My primary comment, however, is that the author offered little aid to readers who aren’t already familiar with Voivode Vlad Dracula of Wallachia’s story.

The narration jumps from one point to the next, referencing people, politics, and places at a blistering pace. I did not feel the novel offered enough historical exposition to understand the cast's motives, movements, or culture. That oversight left me feeling less than satisfied with the overall story and hard-pressed to recommend the book to other readers.

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 20, 2019
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Saturday, January 19, 2019

#BookReview: Annelies by David R. Gillham

Genre
Biographic Fiction
Alternate Historical

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DESCRIPTION: 
A powerful and deeply humane new novel that asks the question: What if Anne Frank survived the Holocaust?

The year is 1945, and Anne Frank is sixteen years old. Having survived the concentration camps, but lost her mother and sister, she reunites with her father, Pim, in newly liberated Amsterdam. But it’s not as easy to fit the pieces of their life back together. Anne is adrift, haunted by the ghosts of the horrors they experienced, while Pim is fixated on returning to normalcy. Her beloved diary has been lost, and her dreams of becoming a writer seem distant and pointless now.

As Anne struggles to overcome the brutality of memory and build a new life for herself, she grapples with heartbreak, grief, and ultimately the freedom of forgiveness. A story of trauma and redemption, Annelies honors Anne Frank’s legacy as not only a symbol of hope and perseverance, but also a complex young woman of great ambition and heart.

Anne Frank is a cultural icon whose diary painted a vivid picture of the Holocaust and made her an image of humanity in one of history’s darkest moments. But she was also a person—a precocious young girl with a rich inner life and tremendous skill as a writer. In this masterful new novel, David R. Gillham explores with breathtaking empathy the woman—and the writer—she might have become.

REVIEW: 
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to note I tackled Robert R. Gillham’s Annelies as a buddy read with one of my favorite fellow book bloggers. Magdalena reviews books at A Bookaholic Swede. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend checking her site out. She’s a prolific reader and has a vast catalog of honest reviews spanning a variety of genres.

I also want to note that I came to this novel as someone who has not read Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. I know who she was and am familiar with her story, but my understanding is general, and I think this important to understand as my perspective of Gillham’s work is not influenced in any way by the tone or content of Anne’s diary.

As to the novel, I discovered a deep appreciation for the restraint Gillham exercised in balancing Anne’s post-liberation experience with historical realities. Though he might have been tempted to give Anne a bright and easy future after the war, he seems to have recognized that such as story would have lacked authenticity through omission of the pain and hardships suffered by real survivors as they worked to rebuild their lives.

Specifically, Gillham tackles interfamily relationships, PTSD, questions of identity, and the dramatic social changes that characterized post-WWII life in Europe. The story also incorporates a brilliant illustration of Amsterdam in 1945, which proved refreshing against trends that feature Britain, France, Germany, and the United States.

I was a little frustrated by Gillham’s treatment of the diary as I feel the trajectory of its literary success intrinsically linked to Anne’s fate, but that’s just me. I liked Anne well-enough as a protagonist and was impressed with Gillham’s development of Pim, but love what he did with Miep, a character who captivated my imagination from the moment she was introduced. Anne often sees her as an antagonist of sorts, but she also serves as a pillar of support, and I couldn’t help falling the complexity of the role Gillham created for her.

As one who has not read the diary I cannot speak to how Gillham’s heroine aligns to its real-life inspiration, but I will say that I appreciated Gillham’s effort to create a story that embodies the experiences of survivors in the same way its source material has come to represent and define the experiences and reflections of those who struggled to survive in hiding.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 15, 2019
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