Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've loved all of Kristin Hannah's books. The ones I've read have been contemporary fiction. This is the first historical fiction I've read by her. To be honest, I found it difficult to connect for the first bit of the book. The book begins the 1990's as an unidentified elderly woman is preparing to move into assisted living. She climbs the stairs of her home and opens an old trunk before her son finds her. At this point, the flashback begins.

The next part has two protagonists, Vianne, the older sister, and Isabelle, impetuous, impulsive, and fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants sister. Vianne is married in a country house in France. Isabelle is ten years younger at 18 and has just been expelled from another finishing school. The year is 1939. Hitler has declared war and begun the German march across Europe. This part of the story covers the whole of France under seige until 1945. The first portion is building the story and the setting, developing the characters and establishing personalities.

Cut back to the more recent day of the unidentified woman moving into her assisted living home and settling in. She receives and invitation to Paris to be a recipient or represent a recipient of one who was a resister during WWII. It upsets her to return to the past. And then we return to the story of the past.

The reader is never completely certain which sister is the old woman until the very end. The story brings another perspective of the citizens of France during Occupation. One joined the active resistance. The other lived in her home while German soldiers requisitioned it, allowing her to stay. It's not a difficult stretch to know which sister is which at this point. Both sisters, although separated most of the war, experience harrowing and horrific lives. Both rise to the occasion in their own way.

Hannah keeps true to her talents which is connecting the reader to her characters so completely that I forgot that there was other other conflict of the old woman deciding whether or not to go to the reunion. By the end, I almost didn't care which sister was the old woman, if,indeed, it was one of the sisters. But I did. In the end, I really did care. I was moved greatly by the sacrifices both women and the peripheral characters made. I loved them as if they were my own relatives.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Solitaire by Alice Oseman

SolitaireSolitaire by Alice Oseman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really liked the message of this book and I connected with Michael Holden. Tori was too whiney to like and self absorbed, although that was kind of the point, each of the supporting characters had an element of interest to add to the story. I would have preferred better closure by the end of the book. The message is communicated well in theory but Tori is still kind of just there for me. I neither liked her nor didn't like her. Sorry about that double negative.

I enjoyed the references to literature without feeling lost in it. I actually quite enjoyed the different perspective on the essay about Pride and Prejudice. Well done.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

The Silence of Bonaventure ArrowThe Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 stars

I love the novel that introduces unique characters then surrounds those with the people I know in caricature. Such is this book. Additionally, many of the scenes are written in such a way that I couldn't help but completely immerse myself in the scene. I loved the way the book was paced, the characters progressed, and the way they lived and died.

The book begins with Bonaventure's birth. Although mostly expected in nature, there is an odd foretelling that his birth is surrounded by loss. The author quickly establishes that the baby is also exceptional as he never makes a vocal sound. Bonaventure happens to have the extraordinary gift listening and hearing sounds like colors, heartbeats, and the coming of his dreaded grandmother Adalaide 10 minutes before she arrives.

Going further in the past, the reader is treated to his parents meeting, their courtship, and his beginning. The tragedy that occurs is not only the rending of time but also the beginning of Bonaventure's giftedness. It is also the beginning of pain but also the beginning of healing, forgiveness, and stitching together past and present. The novel has flavors of good Christianity, Hoo Doo of New Orleans, as well as self righteousness and vindictiveness. Spoiler here is that good Christianity and positive root work win out and not without humor or karma.

This is a unique book with unique characters, sparse prose, humor, and feel goods.

We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

We Are Called to RiseWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well written, causing me to think and feel. Loosely based on an event in Las Vegas, the story tackles the difficult subjects of PTSD of returned soldiers, Vegas culture, homeless youth, accountability, and discrimination. On the other hand, the story ends with hope.

I also found a lot of excellent phraseology that I can't recall at the moment because I finished this book last week. Well written description of Vegas is included. A short historical lesson on Las Vegas is given that includes the weird marriage of Mormon bishops, mobsters, and casinos. I enjoyed the different perspective of choosing Vegas to raise a family. The author describes how the parents build neighborhoods, develop relationships, and have a little village within the city limits. They are soccer moms who sometimes change into a cocktail waitress outfit at night or on weekends. They are dads who wear a suit and tie to work but work at a casino. But when they come home, their homes and neighborhoods are insular in nature. The children grow up knowing about casinos and shows, nudity and and nude shows, but it is merely background noise to their soccer games, their school plays, their bike rides.

Motherland by Maria Hummel

MotherlandMotherland by Maria Hummel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book accomplishes exactly what the author was shooting for, I think. The story is loosely based upon her father and his grandparents at the end of WWII in Germany. Frank, a youngish father becomes a widower with the birth of his third son. Within short months he marries Liesl and is drafted as a surgeon for the Weimar. Close to the end of the war, Frank goes AWOL and returns to his villa, the villa where his young wife and three sons live, along with some displaced refugees, assigned by the government.

The story is not one of grand heroism or atrocious mistreatment. The war is the background to the goal of keeping the children safe, returning home, and protecting one another. This is the basic story of the author's grandparents. Her father did not know about the Holocaust until he was 15 years old. Frank and Liesl hear rumors but see no concentration camps, witness no heinous cruelty to Jews, but are aware of the discrimination. They are aware the Jewish people have left. They may have even heard some rumors that were disturbing. So inhumane, they would have brushed them off as fabricated. Liesl was busy raising the boys. The oldest son was becoming belligerent, the middle son was suffering from a condition referred to as "dystrophy," or some sort of mental illness, the baby was growing from infant to toddler. Their attention was on securing daily food, staying warm, and hiding during air raids. Frank was on the front, consumed by one surgery after another by day and escaping by night.

I found the story to be a probable common one in Nazi Germany living outside Berlin, Frankfurt, and Dresden. The men are gone and the mothers are scrabbling to care for their children without an income, little food, and sharing homes. The author also chose to include a piece of the Germany that Hitler envisioned, the Aryan Nation and master race. What would happen to the children who were Aryan but unwell? She uncovers insane asylums for the children who are mentally unstable or disabled and the solution at the time, including the harrowing concerns of a mother caring for a child displaying these behaviors.

The writing style did not flow for me. There were portions I had to re-read to understand the undercurrent. Like real life, everything is not resolved in the end. There are substories that I wanted better closure for the ending. Background information was sparse and difficult to cobble together for me. It is not an exciting book but it is a worthwhile read. Like I mentioned, I believe it is probably a common childhood for many families.

Monday, January 5, 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright PlacesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4.5 Stars

Is there a way to write a review without a spoiler? The book elicited a strong emotional response which is always difficult to see through in order to write a review. There were moments of Me Since You by Laura Weiss.

The book begins with Finch and Violet on the bell tower at their school. Finch talks Violet down then barges into her life by volunteering to be her partner on a school project which involves seeing a couple of marvels of the great state of Indiana. Violet is not a happy camper about this if only for the fact that she has a facade to maintain. But Finch sees that her smile never reaches her eyes. Except once and that's why Finch decides to intervene.

These are two vastly different characters yet they begin the book at the top of the bell tower contemplating suicide independently and at the same time. There is a strong element of comparing and contrasting by the author without her expressly writing it out. Violet is a pretty, bright, popular girl who lost her sister in a car accident. Violet is changed due to the tragedy and uses her extenuating circumstances to not push herself.

Finch's demons are internal, for the most part, although his family dynamics are a contributing factor for his depression. The aspect that was new for a book like this one is that the author writes the character in a bipolar cycle, although this is not cemented until later in the book. Finch talks of disappearing and going to Sleep. The Sleep is not literal but a place where he loses himself.

Finch is interesting, charismatic, and unstable, although he presents himself with confidence and stability, he changes personas often, trying them on like a different coat or shoes. He then discards them when he believes they no longer work. Nobody really knows Finch and the reader gains a greater understanding of external and internal forces that push these two characters to the brink of mortality. While Finch's relationship with Violet develops into something unique and stabilizing, the reader enjoys the healing power of friendship and acceptance for Violet. In contrast, the reader watches Finch through his bipolar spiral and feels the helplessness of an untreated condition.

It is such a heavy and difficult subject to write about and, I think what really pushed my emotional buttons, was the realization that the book is semi-autobiographical. The author is not writing a book about something removed from herself. She is writing about her personal experience that changed her. She was able to process the experience to a point that she understood enough to see the bright places of her relationships and shared her insights by writing a novel. Honestly, fiction rarely moves me and it ticked me off that I was crying through the end of the book until I realized it wasn't a true fiction novel but a personal experience which means that I get to keep my integrity, private as my tears were. Thanks for that.

There is much more I want to say but I don't want to spoil it because it is a book to be experienced and not summarized.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Grace Unplugged

Grace UnpluggedGrace Unplugged by Melody Carlson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An uplifting book for teens. Parents are not really the bad guys and teenagers are not all trying all manner of rebellion. Grace wants to spread her wings but decides she bit off more than she can chew. Spoiler: Her parents love her and want what is best for her. I really liked it. And not just for that reason. It has a positive message and I'm comfortable giving it to my daughters to read. Grace is a strong protagonist that has her doubts but she holds to her standards.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great book based on real women, Sara's and Nina Grimke. Although Nina gains more notoriety in real life, Sarah is the older sister and the protagonist. Told in alternate voices of Sarah then a slave named Hetty, the two protagonists lives divirge in their twenties. Betty's story is mostly fictional, although she did exist. The author contrasts the two women and their caged struggles toward freedom. Sarah's are largely societal but also self imposed. Hetty or Handful is a family slave who is, at times, treated brutally. Very well written book.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and SurvivalFlight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suppose you are a huge sports fan of a particular football team. Suppose that team is playing in the NFL championship. Your team is up 1 point, they have ball, it's 4th and 1 yard with 2:01 on the clock. The last three plays were run but defense is holding tight. The ball is snapped to the quarterback who fakes a pass then throws a real pass too long for the receiver. The ball is intercepted and the opposing team runs the ball forty yards for a touch down. Rather than kick for the extra point, they complete a 2 point conversion. Your team gets the ball again and the quarter back is sacked three times and fumbles on fourth down. The opposing team has the ball, it's snapped and the quarterback takes a knee.

Who lost the game? A good coach will commend the team, praise the quarterback for the first half, then concentrate on the game holistically without singling out any player. It is a team sport and took nearly three hours to play out on the field, after all. The fans remember the overthrown ball, the sacks, and the fumble. The coach disaggregates all of the plays throughout the game.

If you are still reading after my football story, know that it was an analogy. What the author of this book does beautifully is twofold; the crash of 232 is personalized as he retells the stories of the victims on the airplane. Know this much - they were all victims and suffered greatly from the experience even those few who were uninjured. The reader is taken through the grueling forty some odd minutes from the time the engine blew and the fan disk damaged the hydraulic lines, to the harrowing crash on the runway then continues to the aftermath - clean up then life continued for many. The other chapters interspersed in the book explores, in fascinating detail, the journey of making a DC10, the chemistry of forging the perfect titanium, and measures put into place to maximize safety.

Like the fans of the football team, many want an easy scapegoat; the last person that touched the ball or checked the engine fan disk integrity. The truth of the matter is that the crash in 1989 of Flight 232 was a rare confluence of circumstances (an irregularity in the titanium, multiple checks that missed the resulting slow growing crack, the architecture of the DC10, the fact that it is impossible to fly a DC10 without hydraulics, etc.) that resulted in a catastrophic event.

There is a third element to the book that is miraculous. Another rare confluence of circumstances that resulted in the survival of one third of the people on that airplane that crashed on an airfield in Iowa, that nearly just had a rough landing but instead, without hydraulics and manipulated mostly by throttle by a passenger who happened to be a flight instructor, the copilot who instinctively pushed in a throttle that prevented the plane from spiraling, the airfield situated in farmland, and many other miracles that added up to people surviving.

The book details the landing, the dip of the right wing, the resulting nose to the ground and tail perpendicular to the ground, the breaking apart like the Titanic, the fireball, the sounds, the smoke, the smells, and even the dissonance of the beautiful sunny day. The details are uplifting and heart wrenching. The book is very well researched then explained in terms that even the non chemistry person can understand. I'll admit to cheating a bit. I googled the crash. Someone caught it on tape. An unusual feat in 1989. Go look at the images. Pull up the short video of the crash then come right back.

I'll wait for you. Go ahead. But come back.

Go on.

Are you back?

Good. Now I will reiterate that people survived. Don't get me wrong. It was a a horrific catastrophe. 112 people died. Yet 186 people lived. Many walked out of the plane and out of the cornfields. So bad was the crash, when some walked out of the fields, first responders yelled at them for being too close to a major catastrophe, what are they doing wandering around an old aiffield, anyway. They weren't expecting any survivors.

So well researched is this book that I completely agree with the author's conclusion. Like a good coach who knows every member of his team, the author disaggregates the information and the fault does not solely rest on the last person that checked the engine fan disk. Conversely, the miracle of flight 232 can not be solely attributed to any one person. Building and flying the DC-10 was a team effort. Bringing it down in the safest manner on two engines, no hydraulics, and a couple of holes in the ship took a team of capable, skilled, and, I'd add, inspired team of people.

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