Review: Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly

Published April 5th 2016 by Ballantine Books

Hardcover, 496 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley
25893693New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.

I have to confess, I had a very rocky reading relationship with Lilac Girls.  I almost quit more than once, but I am glad I stuck it out.  I admit that I really am not familiar with what happened at the concentration camp at Ravensbruck.  The attention to Sarah Helm’s book last year Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women caught my eye and I think was the first time I really learned there was a camp that was just for women.  When I was offered a chance to read Lilac Girls with a fictional account of one prisoner’s story I jumped for it.  Lilac Girls follows three very different women; New York socialite Caroline, Polish Girl Guide Kasia and frustrated German medical student Herta.  Caroline and Herta were real women while Kasia is based on one of the Ravenswood Rabbits – healthy women that the Nazis performed horrific medical experiments on.

I know not to judge a book by its cover – but I feel like the cover of Lilac Girls suggested a story that didn’t happen.  I’m not complaining that I didn’t get that story – but I am complaining a bit that I was misled!  Maybe that is part of why I couldn’t connect with this book to begin with.  I simply couldn’t see how a Polish resistance member and a Nazi believer would connect.  That being said, I think the contrast between Herta and Kasia’s stories was very powerful when they were both in the camp.  

Hall Kelly clearly put a ton of love and research into this book so I just wish it had been more consistent.  The first third, I felt Caroline was totally underplayed and made me almost ready to quit the book.  Once I did get into this book I was IN and didn’t want to put it down.  Caroline Ferriday was clearly an amazing woman, but she’s played as such an airhead until the final third that it was kind of shocking to see what she was capable of.  Even her dialogue was weaker than the other characters which made her annoying.  I would love to read more about her actual life.  I think the fictional romance created for Caroline almost weakened her real life story.  

Herta is nearly forgotten until the end which was also disappointing.  It would have been interesting to learn more of how her life was after Hitler died.  Despite being the fictional character Kasia’s emotions came across the most powerfully.  Her story was heartbreaking and made me all the more determined to read more about Ravensbruck.  

It was eye opening for me to read a World War II and Holocaust book that was not about the atrocities against the Jewish people – this is a lot of what made the book for me.  Lilac Girls left me thinking about the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Iron Curtain in a way I never have.  Our great-grandparents came from Poland and I’m curious now about what might have happened to the family they left behind.  My next step is to get my sister working on genealogy to understand where our history might lead.  

3 stars
Thank you Ballantine Books and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Fast Friday Review: Rebel Queen

Rebel Queen, Michelle Moran

Hardcover, 355 pages

Published March 3rd 2015 by Touchstone

Source: ARC from 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting

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When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the 1850s, it expects a quick and easy conquest. After all, India is not even a country, but a collection of kingdoms on the subcontinent. But when the British arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, expecting its queen to forfeit her crown, they are met with a surprise. Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male, one female—and rides into battle like Joan of Arc. Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi fights against an empire determined to take away the land she loves.

Told from the perspective of Sita, one of the guards in Lakshmi’s all-female army and the queen’s most trusted warrior, The Last Queen of India traces the astonishing tale of a fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men.

I loved this book!  What I’ve read about India under the British has been only from the English perspective so I loved getting to read about India from the perspective of her own people.  The Queen of Jhansi keeps her own small service of women at arms, her Durga Dal, who are loyal only to her.  While the book description says that the this is the Queen’s story, I would say that Queen Lakshmi was amazing – but this was Sita’s story.

Sita was raised by her father to take the position in the palace – to rise from a poor village to live at the Queen’s side.  She dives right into the drama of the royal court and while she flourishes she is also trying to provide for the sister she left behind.  The tension between the British and the Indian people is high and the fallout heartbreaking.  You have to know going in that this is not going to be a happy story – but it was fascinating and wonderfully told.  

 This was my first Michelle Moran book but I will definitely be picking up her others! I’ve had my eye on Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution for a while now.  

 4 stars!

 Thank you Touchstone for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review: The Forgotten Room

The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig

Hardcover, 384 pages

Expected publication: January 19th 2016 by Berkley/NAL

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

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1945: When the critically wounded Captain Cooper Ravenal is brought to a private hospital on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, young Dr. Kate Schuyler is drawn into a complex mystery that connects three generations of women in her family to a single extraordinary room in a Gilded Age mansion.

Who is the woman in Captain Ravenel’s portrait miniature who looks so much like Kate?  And why is she wearing the ruby pendant handed down to Kate by her mother?  In their pursuit of answers, they find themselves drawn into the turbulent stories of Gilded Age Olive Van Alen, driven from riches to rags, who hired out as a servant in the very house her father designed, and Jazz Age Lucy Young, who came from Brooklyn to Manhattan in pursuit of the father she had never known.  But are Kate and Cooper ready for the secrets that will be revealed in the Forgotten Room?

I was very curious to see how this book was done with 3 authors.  I think it has come across pretty clear that I am a big fan of Lauren Willig.  I have also really enjoyed what I’ve read by Beatrice Williams, but Karen White was new to me.  These ladies were great together!  I am really curious to learn more about how the writing process worked.  As we follow three women in the story, did each author write one?  The writing flowed pretty seamlessly so I am impressed if that’s what they did.  I think they’re already working on another book together and now i’m excited to learn about that project!  

We jump between time periods to meet Olive, who has begun working as a maid for the Pratt family after her architect father was disgraced by the Pratt patriarch and killed himself.  Next comes Lucy, who has fled her family’s German bakery after the death of her own parents to work as a legal secretary.  Then we have Kate, working as one of a very few female doctors receiving injured American soldiers returning from the front in Europe.  

I loved that the Pratt Mansion was just the first connection between generations.  I could see this beautiful old house in my mind as it transitioned from the design on paper created by Olive’s father, to the cold family manor where she served as a maid, then the single women’s apartments that Lucy lived in and finally the World War II hospital that Kate worked at.  The house and the attic room were almost characters in their own right.  They held their secrets well and released them with perfect timing.  

I admit at first I was a bit confused at the transitions at first and wondering how these ladies could connect to each other – but once I figured it out I was HOOKED.  The loves were sweet and the heartaches were brutal.  The clues that the authors left us to follow outside of the house were perfect I thought.  I loved how they kept popping up with a new story in each generation.  

I don’t think every book has to have a happy ending – and sometimes they’re better for it (see Hausfrau) but I was really afraid I’d be walking away disappointed in the end.  Thankfully these ladies pulled through for me and I was happy with the ending.  I can’t decide who my favorite was still!  Perhaps I’ll have to reread and decide.   

4 stars!

Thank you Berkley/NAL and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review!

Review: Walk on Earth a Stranger

Walk on Earth a Stranger, Rae Carson (The Gold Seer Trilogy #1)

Hardcover, 432 pages

Published September 22nd 2015 by Greenwillow Books

Source: e-ARC from Edelweiss

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Gold is in my blood, in my breath, even in the flecks in my eyes.

Lee Westfall has a strong, loving family. She has a home she loves and a loyal steed. She has a best friend—who might want to be something more.

She also has a secret.

Lee can sense gold in the world around her. Veins deep in the earth. Small nuggets in a stream. Even gold dust caught underneath a fingernail. She has kept her family safe and able to buy provisions, even through the harshest winters. But what would someone do to control a girl with that kind of power? A person might murder for it.

When everything Lee holds dear is ripped away, she flees west to California—where gold has just been discovered. Perhaps this will be the one place a magical girl can be herself. If she survives the journey.

I completely loved Rae Carson’s first fantasy series, Fire & Thorns, and was ecstatic when I heard she had a new series out.  If you think you don’t read YA, I have two words for you to explain why you need to try Walk on Earth a Stranger – OREGON TRAIL.

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Yes, that Oregon Trail.  Leah Westfall has a secret ability.  She can feel gold in the earth.  No one but her parents know, and her family certainly doesn’t live like they are collecting gold by magic.  Then poor Leah faces a terrible family tragedy in Georgia and decides the best place to go is to California.  Leah becomes Lee and starts the long journey to the West.  Just like the game!  We have oxen and wagons and sadly have dysentery and other misfortunes.  But most importantly, we have Lee.  She’s a great character!  She’s brave and she’s strong, even though she’s had horrible losses and she is afraid and alone.  She isn’t waiting to be rescued – Lee is always ready to help rescue someone else. Carson made me feel like I was right there on the journey as Lee makes new friends and definitely some enemies.  It wasn’t just Lee though!  I felt really strongly (both good and bad) about her traveling companions as well.  I will say that Jefferson needs to man up a bit if he is going to hold up to Hector from Fire and Thorns (swoon!).  I was so anxious to see who would make it through each day of the journey or not.  

The research Carson did on the period completely shines through.  I did see commentary when the book came out about how Carson handles the racial issues at the times – Lee is white but her best friend Jefferson is half Cherokee to start.  There is also interaction with Indian tribes along the Trail which made me really emotional to read.  I was glad that Carson confronted the issues and forced Lee to think about what her comrades were doing.  I hope to see more discussion come from the next book.  For more – with spoilers – check out Debbie Reese’s discussion chapter by chapter.  

For being a book about a magical girl, there is definitely not a lot of magic in Walk on Earth a Stranger. This reads almost like straight historical fiction -almost.  I hope the next book goes further into what Lee can do – maybe even a why?  Is she the only person with magic?  Especially with her particular magic?!  This is an adventure I will be following closely and I’m thankful to be following it via kindle and not a wagon train!

4 stars!

Thank you Greenwillow Books and Edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Book of Lost and Found

The Book of Lost and Found, Lucy Foley

Published August 25th 2015 by Back Bay Books

Paperback, 432 pages

Source: ARC from publisher
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From London to Corsica to Paris–as a young woman pursues the truth about her late mother, two captivating love stories unfurl.

Kate Darling’s enigmatic mother–a once-famous ballerina–has passed away, leaving Kate bereft. When her grandmother falls ill and bequeaths to Kate a small portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Kate’s mother, Kate uncovers a mystery that may upend everything she thought she knew.

Kate’s journey to find the true identity of the woman in the portrait takes her to some of the world’s most iconic and indulgent locales, revealing a love story that began in the wild 1920s and was disrupted by war and could now spark new love for Kate. Alternating between Kate’s present-day hunt and voices from the past, THE BOOK OF LOST AND FOUND casts light on family secrets and love-both lost and found.

Kate Darling has always known that her mother, June, was raised in an orphanage.  As Kate is grieving her mother’s unexpected death she is also losing her surrogate grandmother, Evie, to dementia.  When Evie in a moment of lucidity gives Kate a portrait of a woman calling herself Celia; who claimed to be June’s birth mother Kate feels even more lost.  Why did Evie never let her mother know about the mysterious Celia?  How much can she tell Kate about June’s birth?  Tracking the woman in the painting and the artist takes Kate from London to Corsica, Paris and New York and takes the reader back and forth in time from the 1980s to the Europe in the time of the World Wars.  

We alternate from Kate to a young man named Tom, who is falling in love with his friend Alice in the peace time between WWI and WWII.   While I enjoyed the way the story went back and forth in time from Kate’s perspective to Tom’s, when it switched into first person late in the book it threw me off.  I actually flipped back to make sure I hadn’t forgotten that this had been happening before.  Aside from that interrupting my reading I really liked the flow back and forth from Kate and Tom.  I thought the pacing was perfect for the mysteries of Tom to Alice to Celia to unfold.  I enjoyed discovering the truth with Kate and I loved the setting in Corsica.  I felt like I was there in the sun and experiencing the island myself.  It was a bonus to have a new romance developing as I read about a history full of heartbreak.   I had some guesses about how things would turn out – and I was pleased not to have seen all the twists coming.  The path from Kate to Celia was far richer than I expected.  

This book will leave you thinking about what kind of decisions you might make for your loved ones and what kind of secrets we keep.  I think it would be a great book club book to hear others’ thoughts on the choices that Kate, Evie and Celia made and what kind of choices we might make in those shoes.  

4 stars!

Thank you Back Bay Books for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!

Review: Girl Waits with Gun

Girl Waits With Gun, Amy Stewart

Published September 1st 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Hardcover, 416 pages

Source: e-ARC from NetGalley

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Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.

Seriously, don’t you want to read this book just looking at the cover?  It’s fabulous!  

When a wildly driven car crashes into her family’s buggy Constance Kopp starts her sisters down a path that alters their lives completely.  The Kopp sisters have lived independently on their farm since their mother’s death.  They’re stretched fairly thin, but wouldn’t have it any other way.  Everyone they meet is sure they must need a male protector to rescue them – but they most definitely do not.  Marriage is not an option for the older sisters; and though their older brother continually offers them a place in his home they turn him down each time.  

Constance realizes that the loss of the buggy is more than she and her sisters can afford and sends a letter to the driver of the car, Henry Kaufman, requesting that he pay $50 for repairs.  When her letters are ignored Constance travels to his silk dyeing factory and learns Kaufman is a powerful bully with a gang of drunken followers and that she has put herself and her sisters directly into his sights.  As I read I had to keep reminding myself that this was really Constance Kopp’s life – and what a life!  Union busting, the Black Hand, kidnapping threats and bricks thrown through windows.  I kept thinking – I’d back out of this NOW and she kept bravely forging on ahead.  

There was no gripping mystery to be solved, but I was still caught up in the book to see if Constance could out maneuver Kaufman.  Could she get her $50 and keep her sisters safe?  Would the Kopp sisters leave the farm that they were so determined to keep for themselves?  I won’t spoil these questions for you, but you should read to find out!  I appreciated the thorough afterword that laid out what was fact vs. fiction and I think Stewart added well where she did.  The use of the newspaper headlines was really great – especially when they were about Constance herself! 

Constance Kopp was a woman ahead of her time and I really enjoyed her story.  The pacing was a bit slow for me at times, but this didn’t happen over a short period of time and perhaps that’s reflected in the way Stewart did pace it out.  I am very curious about how Constance’s life continued after she became the first female deputy sheriff and I wonder if there’s another book in the works?  

4 stars!

Thank you to TJ at My Book Strings for bringing this book to my attention earlier this year!  

Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.  

Review: The Diviners

The Diviners, Libba Bray (The Diviners #1)

Hardcover, 592 pages

Published September 18th 2012 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Source: Chicago Public Library

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From Goodreads

Evie O’Neill has been exiled from her boring old hometown and shipped off to the bustling streets of New York City—and she is pos-i-tute-ly ecstatic. It’s 1926, and New York is filled with speakeasies, Ziegfeld girls, and rakish pickpockets. The only catch is that she has to live with her uncle Will and his unhealthy obsession with the occult.

Evie worries he’ll discover her darkest secret: a supernatural power that has only brought her trouble so far. But when the police find a murdered girl branded with a cryptic symbol and Will is called to the scene, Evie realizes her gift could help catch a serial killer.

As Evie jumps headlong into a dance with a murderer, other stories unfold in the city that never sleeps. A young man named Memphis is caught between two worlds. A chorus girl named Theta is running from her past. A student named Jericho hides a shocking secret. And unknown to all, something dark and evil has awakened.

This was my first Libba Bray book but it pos-i-tute-ly will not be my last.  Yes, it did take me a bit to get used to the Roaring Twenties language here, but I really enjoyed this book in the end.  Evie O’Neill is easy to adore.  Our Evie is sent in disgrace from her hometown in Ohio to live with her Uncle Will in New York City. Will runs the “Museum of the Creepy Crawlies” and is an expert on the occult.  Thank goodness he is, because the ultimate in dark creepy crawlies is murdering New Yorkers and trying to take over the world. Evie has a secret gift, but up until this time she’s really only used it for entertainment.  Will, his assistant Jericho, and her friend Mabel make Evie realize she can do some good in the world and still play the part of a New York City socialite.  

This book is loooong – but in the end it felt definitely worth the time reading because Bray has it packed with characters running all over New York.  Aside from Jericho and Mabel, Evie falls in with a Ziegfeld dancer, Theta and her roommate Henry; Memphis, a Harlem numbers runner; and Sam – who begins by pickpocketing Evie and ends up working at the Museum with a hidden agenda of his own.  Evie is definitely the star of the show – and as I said she is a fantastic character.  She grows up as the book goes on, but never loses her sense of adventure and eagerness to experience the world.  She’s much more than the good time girl she appears to be.  

I loved the completely different sides of New York City that Bray takes the reader to.  I really felt I was there in the 20’s – in a speakeasy, on the docks, in Grand Central Station.  The Diviners will scare you – not just with the murders, but with the talk of eugenics – I was completely creeped out at times.  Then there are the Diviners themselves!  I loved how every character that we meet with a magical talent is different.  How will they work together?  Or will they not work together at all?   I cannot wait to see where this series goes!  

So we have murder, we have magic, we have romance and we have the Roaring 20’s – all in one book.  If any of these appeal to you get to reading!

4 stars!

Next on my list is to review the sequel Lair of Dreams which is out tomorrow!