A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

A Fall of MarigoldsA Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner
Published by NAL

It’s been ten years since Taryn Michaels’ husband perished in the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, and although she has attempted to put the pieces of her life back together, a photograph from that very day appears in a magazine and brings her right back to that moment. In the photograph, she’s wearing a scarf with a marigold pattern around her nose and mouth as she struggles to breathe through the smoke while running away from the collapsing towers. One hundred years prior to that, Clara Wood is a nurse on Ellis Island, repairing her heart from watching the love of her life perish in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire when she meets a young immigrant who has lost his wife on the ship over to America. All the man has left of his wife is a scarf with a beautiful marigold pattern, so Clara makes the choice to smuggle some of his belongings out of his late wife’s suitcase, a decision that will have lasting consequences for both of them.

A Fall of Marigolds is a story about two women, both struggling with a tremendous amount of grief and unsure of how to move past the losses they’ve had to face. Clara’s story takes up the majority of the novel, but Taryn’s is no less crucial to the story and just as heartbreaking. I really loved getting to know both women and loved how Meissner wrote both of their stories as separate but intertwined in a subtle way.

At first, Clara was a difficult character for me to like. She is very naïve and believes that she was in love with a man whom she barely knew, and believed with zero evidence to back up this belief, that he was in love with her as well. Watching people she worked with and was friends with literally die before her, either by being burned alive or jumping to their deaths, was incredibly traumatizing and she was deeply affected by that horrific experience. But still, it seemed as though she was unlikely to move on from that, and she almost clung to the immigrant she met who lost his wife, perhaps because they had a shared feeling of grief they were both dealing with. All that being said, I ended up REALLY liking Clara and rooting for her. I realized that she was simply the product of a sheltered home environment and almost no experience with men or dating, so she really couldn’t be held responsible for her naivety. She goes through some major emotional changes in the book and really grows as a person, not just with moving on past the death of the man she loved but also in her own ability to understand the world around her, I just loved her character development. By the end of the book I was pro-Clara all the way, and was so excited to see things start to come together in her life.

Taryn, on the other hand, I rooted for from the very beginning. Her experience was not only traumatic, but she carried a ton of guilt along with her pain, as she was supposed to meet her husband in the Twin Towers that day (that’s why he was in the building in the first place). She felt that she played a role in his death; and what’s worse, she was pregnant at the time and didn’t get a chance to tell her husband he was going to be a father. While her sections of the book were fewer and shorter than Clara’s, her story was extremely compelling and I hoped desperately for some resolution to the pain and grief that she still felt ten years after her husband’s death.

Ultimately the way that Meissner brings the stories of these two women together is beautiful and gave just the right resolution to both of them. I really enjoyed the flow of this novel and how Meissner blended historical fiction with a contemporary story. This was my first novel by Susan Meissner but it will definitely not be my last.

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The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People's Lives Better, Too)The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin
Published by Harmony

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, habits and happiness guru, is back with another book – this time focusing on the framework that she developed called The Four Tendencies. The basic idea is that these four types of people respond to expectations differently, and figuring out your tendency is a key piece in mastering your ability to create new habits and have a happy, productive life.

I’m not sure that writing a whole book about the four tendencies was Rubin’s best idea. I was interested in this subject when I first read about it in Better Than Before, and it certainly explains a lot about people’s behavior and how different people respond differently to expectations, but this book was a bit overkill for me. I’m just not sure that I need to know every single way each tendency can affect every single other tendency, how to “deal” with each tendency in every area of life, or which tendencies pair the best with others in romantic relationships, friendships, or as coworkers.

I listened to the audio of The Four Tendencies and it was pretty good. Rubin narrates it herself, and having listened to some of her podcast episodes I was familiar with her voice. She is a good speaker and I can see why she has been successful at speaking engagements all across the country.

The Four Tendencies would be a good choice for those who are huge fans of Gretchen Rubin’s work in happiness and habits, and I did find parts of it interesting. However, I felt it was a bit TOO much about these tendencies and I am not sure that writing an entire book about this subject was totally necessary. Recommended for fans of Gretchen Rubin; others, not so much.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling, #1)The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
Published by Harper

I’ve been hearing great things about this series since pre-publication, and I’m so thrilled that I finally picked up the first book because I absolutely loved it. The gist of the story is this – Kelsea was raised in isolation by foster parents after the death of her mother, Queen Elyssa. Upon Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, she becomes Queen herself and has to make a perilous journey from her home to the castle where she is to rule and live for the rest of her life. There are many people who wish Kelsea dead, primarily her uncle, who is currently Regent and hopes to keep his hold on the throne, and secondarily the Red Queen, a sorceress and ruler of the kingdom Mortmesne, who years ago struck some kind of bargain with Kelsea’s mother, the horrors of which Kelsea only learns upon her entrance to the castle. Kelsea is the kind of queen this land has never seen before – intensely smart, bookish, kind, interested in taking care of her people rather than having them take care of her. She must figure out a way to navigate how she wants to rule while at the same time keeping the Red Queen and her uncle out of her kingdom and her people’s lives.

So this book is very plot-heavy and the beginning is VERY confusing. I almost gave up after fifty pages but I persevered because I liked Kelsea so much, and man am I glad I kept going. The thing that makes it confusing at first is that Kelsea was raised in isolation and therefore knows almost nothing about her world. As she gets information and history about the world in which she lives, so too does the reader, with things becoming more clear about a hundred pages in (out of six hundred). Even after finishing the first book, I’m still left with a ton of questions about this world, so hopefully even more information will be given to the reader in books two and three.

Anyway – this book was SO GOOD. I absolutely loved Kelsea; loved her bookishness, her seriousness, her kindness and willingness to do the right thing no matter what the cost might be. She did this whole fake it til you make it thing where she knew what she didn’t know (almost everything) and just made decisions based on her instincts and the advice of the very few people she was able to trust – and as each decision produced fruitful results, her confidence increased.

As I said, The Queen of the Tearling is extremely plot-heavy, with a LOT of events happening within its six hundred pages. It’s the type of read that never really slows down – just when you think one situation is resolved, something else presents itself. There are also a lot of characters to get to know, but what I loved was that Kelsea was getting to know everyone right along with the reader. There’s something uniquely special about the relationship between the reader and the protagonist here, as both are in the dark about pretty much everything until someone explains it – this element of the book brings the reader in even closer to Kelsea, as you genuinely feel for her, being so lost and unsure of herself in this whole new situation that she could have never imagined for herself.

I absolutely loved the adventure that was The Queen of the Tearling. I have to warn readers that this is NOT a young adult book – this is firmly in the adult category as there are many deeply disturbing things that happen throughout the book. The themes of the novel are also very mature and probably best for older teens as opposed to the younger set. I am so glad I finally picked up this book and really looking forward to reading the second book in this series.

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

Into the Darkest CornerInto the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
Published by Harper

When Catherine Bailey meets Lee Brightman, the two hit it off instantly and it seems to be a perfect match and the beginning of a great relationship. But soon their relationship turns volatile, with Lee acting jealous, telling Catherine what to do, calling her names, and downright terrifying her. Four years later, Catherine has moved, changed jobs, and is not in contact with Lee any longer. She finally begins opening herself up to the idea of a new relationship with her neighbor, Stuart, who encourages her to face her fears and move past the damage caused by her relationship with Lee. But one day she receives a phone call that threatens the peace she’s so carefully built for herself…

I didn’t read the publisher’s summary before picking up this book – simply chose to read it after hearing good things from other readers and knowing that it was, in general terms, a thriller. I had no idea it was about an abusive relationship – had I known, I may have passed on it because intimate partner violence is a subject that can be really difficult for me to read, having had personal experience with this type of relationship. That being said, this is an extremely well-written, well-plotted novel that I can sincerely recommend for those who can stomach its contents.

My personal experience aside, let’s talk about the book. So the beginning was difficult for me because the format goes back and forth in time between Catherine’s time being with Lee, four years ago, and Cathy in the present tense. At first I thought they were two separate people, but once I got that it was just two different time periods I was fine. Haynes’ decision to tell the story in this way was very smart; it kept me on my toes in both the past and present, and as the story went along and I got more of the Catherine/Lee dynamic, it heightened the tension for her situation in present tense, as it was clear that the abuse was likely to happen again if he were to find her.

The way that Haynes depicted the intimate partner violence that Catherine experienced was scarily true to life and written extremely well. The sense of isolation that Catherine felt, the constant need to explain herself to Lee, the constant name calling and physical abuse, the blaming of Catherine for when things didn’t go Lee’s way, these things were all within these pages and played out exactly how they do in real life abusive relationships. The saddest, most difficult part of the entire book for me was when Catherine did try to get help by reaching out to her friends and being honest with them about the relationship, and no one believed her. Lee was so manipulative that he had already convinced all of Catherine’s friends that any so-called problems in their relationship were her fault, not his. The way that this happened was depicted in such a true to life way that it was just heartbreaking to read as Catherine lost all hope for rescue or escape from the abuse Lee inflicted on her. It was really sad and honestly very scary that this happens to women in real life, all the time.

So would I recommend Into the Darkest Corner? Yes, but with reservations. Keep in mind that this is a book about an extremely abusive relationship, and is written extremely well – those who have experienced this type of situation themselves or have been close with someone who has could be triggered by the contents of the novel. If you are okay with that, however, I absolutely recommend the book – it is a tightly plotted, well-written and well characterized thriller, the perfect edge-of-your-seat novel.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Published by Penguin Books

Along with just about everyone else in the world, the first time I listened to the musical Hamilton, I was hooked instantly. When I learned that not only was it based on the real story of Alexander Hamilton’s life and career, but that Lin Manuel-Miranda received the inspiration for the musical from this biography, I knew I had to read it. I had to know more about this particular founding father and what exactly in the musical was real and what liberties Manuel-Miranda took with Hamilton’s story. I like nonfiction a lot, but biographies are not usually my thing, and any book that is 700 pages is intimidating in and of itself. So I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this reading experience, even though I was interested in the information within.

I’m happy to say that I definitely did enjoy reading Alexander Hamilton even though it was, as expected, quite a project. I’m not going to pretend it was the easiest read ever, and man was it LONG, but I was impressed by how readable the book really was. It was not dry at all – Hamilton’s life certainly was interesting, and Chernow managed to make even the boring stuff (to me) like battle scenes and military strategy intriguing enough to hold my interest.

This biography is incredibly thorough, full of just about every detail imaginable about Hamilton’s life. As I said earlier, I don’t read many biographies so I am not a good judge of how this one stacks up, but I personally was very impressed by what Chernow did with the story. It had to have taken an incredible amount of research to uncover some of the things he did about Hamilton, his political friends and foes, and his family. I have to say that overall, the book was extremely impressive in that way.

Reading Alexander Hamilton did take me quite a while, but I’m glad I read it. This is an extremely well-researched and well-written book about one of the more overlooked (until the musical!) founding fathers. It also helped me even further appreciate the genius of Lin Manuel-Miranda for creating such an incredible musical based on this book. AND reading it got me even more excited to see Hamilton in Chicago next month!

Girl at War by Sara Novic

Girl at WarGirl at War by Sara Novic
Published by Random House

Ana Juric is ten years old when war comes to her home of Zagreb, Croatia. After tragically having to send her very sick two-year-old sister to the US in hopes of some kind of future, her parents are killed and Ana, lost and terrified, befriends a group of child soldiers and learns how to use a gun and other weapons. Ten years later, she is a college student at NYU but can’t shake the demons that plague her from the trauma of her past. In an attempt to understand the horrific events that changed her life forever, she embarks on a solo trip to Croatia, reunites with an old friend, and attempts to untangle the emotional scars that the war left on her mind and heart.

Girl at War is an extremely difficult book to review because there’s no question that it’s an excellent novel but emotionally tough. When I first started the book, I thought it was just okay, as I got to know Ana and her family and friends and saw how the early stages of the war affected everyone in the novel. But there’s a point early on in the book where tragedy strikes Ana’s family and the way that scene is written is so heartbreaking – I cried while reading it – and there was just no turning back at that point. I was pulled in, immediately obsessed with Ana and her story and desperately hoping that the dim realities of her existence would improve somehow, some way. As the reader, you know that she eventually ends up in the US, but you don’t know how or why, nor do you know how deeply the war scarred her heart and soul – these details you find out later on in the novel.

One thing I loved about this novel is that it caused me to read more about the Bosnian war and the breakup of Yugoslavia – events that happened in my lifetime about which I only had the faintest of knowledge. Upon starting this novel, I was almost embarrassed to read it, knowing how little I actually knew about the conflicts within the novel – but as soon as I finished it, I dug around the internet for more information and what I read shocked me but also educated me. I absolutely love when a book teaches me something in addition to entertaining me.

I have to say that the writing in Girl at War is absolutely beautiful. It’s strange that lyrical, beautiful writing can describe the horrors that are within these pages, but somehow Novic manages to accomplish exactly that. It was a pleasure to read, even though it was an extremely difficult, emotional read.

If I have anything negative to say about Girl at War, I would say that I didn’t love how it ended. I wanted a little more from Ana, and without giving anything away, I have to say that her story didn’t feel complete to me. I would happily read a second book about these same characters because their story felt incredibly open-ended. Sometimes that’s a good thing in a novel; in this case, it wasn’t my favorite.

That being said, however, I highly recommend Girl at War. If you can stomach emotionally difficult novels, this is a fantastic choice. Ana is a great character, the writing is beautiful, and this is a time in history that isn’t talked about much in fiction. All around, a fantastic novel.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American StreetAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi
Published by Balzer + Bray

Fabiola Toissant and her mother move from Haiti to the United States to live with Fabiola’s aunt and three cousins, but something goes wrong at the airport and her mother is detained by customs in New Jersey. Sixteen-year-old Fabiola is left to navigate America, including her American cousins, her new high school, the gritty Detroit neighborhood where her aunt lives, and a possible romance, all by herself. Desperate to secure her mother’s freedom, when an opportunity arises, Fabiola feels she has no choice but to make what is obviously a wrong decision in exchange for the possibility of her mother’s release.

WHY has this novel not received more attention? There are so many aspects of American Street to love. Fabiola as a character, for one, is interesting and complicated, a sweet person who is half innocent and half wiser than anyone else around her, a person who will do absolutely anything for family but isn’t totally clear on what exactly “anything” could possibly entail. She is a person who loves from the deepest, truest part of herself, who sees others for who they really are, but is guarded with her heart and doesn’t necessarily trust people even when she can believe that they are being genuine with her.

The novel itself is partly about the immigrant experience and partly about the culture in a place like Detroit. The immigrant experience, the bad and the good, is stuffed into every corner of Fabiola’s story – her assimilation into American high school, from making friends to understanding how papers are graded to understanding how to navigate the social hierarchies that exist, to learning about buying and selling drugs, and everything in between; her total surprise and lack of understanding at her mother’s detention in New Jersey (even down to thinking they could just drive over to New Jersey and get her until her cousins explained to her how these things work); her belief that just because her mother did nothing wrong means she should automatically get to stay in the US – it’s all there, good, bad, indifferent. The way that Zoboi managed to showcase this immigrant experience, which is I’m sure different for every single person who comes to this country, was really incredible. The culture in Detroit is something I’m not super familiar with but it seemed to me that she painted a very realistic picture of life there. The way that Zoboi showed the desperation that some of the characters felt – like Chantal, a straight A student who was headed for an Ivy League school but stayed home to attend community college to be there for her mother and sisters – did feel authentic to me and true to the culture and life many people likely experience in Detroit.

The ending of this book was not my favorite, but I do think that Zoboi handled it in the most gentle way possible while keeping the story in line with what could most realistically happen to these characters. I am not sure I totally agree with what she chose to do with everyone’s individual stories but I can say that I get where she’s coming from and I certainly believed the ending.

So I really liked this book! Please read it because it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere near the praise or attention it deserves. Highly recommended!