Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Crown

The Second World War is coming to a close when we meet the characters in this novel. Anna Emmerich is the daughter of Prussian aristocrats and she and her family, along with thousands of other German citizens, are on the run from the Russian army, hoping to make it to the safety of the British and American lines. Anna and her family are accompanied by her lover Callum, a Scottish prisoner of war, technically their prisoner in a way, who also doesn’t want to get caught by the Russians. Manfred, real name Uri, a Jew who jumped from one of the trains and has disguised himself as a Nazi soldier for the past few years, befriends them and accompanies the family on their journey. We are also introduced to Cecile and the other women in the concentration camp with her, as they endure a death march away from their camp with their jailers in tow. This cast of characters comes together in such a way that is heartbreaking and breathtaking all at once.

This might just be my favorite Bohjalian yet. It never fails that every single time I think to myself that I am “over” books about the Holocaust, I read another one that shocks me, breaks my heart, and draws out an intense emotional connection to the characters and the story. Skeletons at the Feast did all of those things and more. What I loved about this book is that we see the nuances in people who were on all sides of this war – Anna’s family believed in the “bad guys” and truly believed that what Hitler was doing was right. But Anna is a good person, she has a good heart, and her parents are not terrible people, either – they are just misguided, brainwashed, a little too comfortable with their prosperity and station in life. When Hitler promises them wealth, power, and happiness, they look at it as a way to maintain their status quo, and completely turn a blind eye to what he does to the Jews. There were so many parts in the book where they simply refused to believe what their government was doing, thought it was lies or nonsense or propaganda, and continued to support Hitler despite everything they knew in their hearts to be true.

Anna’s family is one example of how Bohjalian shows the reader the intricacies and details of real humans dealing with the most dire, desperate, inhuman of circumstances. He shows the reader how despite everything, these people still chose to love, still chose to help others, still chose to find the good in the absolute worst, most miserable, most devastating times life can possibly become for people. The sheer humanity found within these pages took my breath away and I couldn’t stop furiously reading, wanting more and more from these characters and this story, despite how utterly horrifying it was.

I cannot say enough how much I absolutely loved this book, although it broke me in so many ways, I thought it was such an incredible read. I will keep reading Bohjalian as long as I can find more of his novels to voraciously consume.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Published by Touchstone

Lavinia is a seven-year-old Irish immigrant who, after being orphaned on the ship over to the US, is taken in by a plantation owner and raised among the slaves as if she were a member of their family. The novel starts out by introducing the reader to Lavinia, the family of slaves who she grows up feeling as though they’re her parents, brothers, sisters, etc., and the white family who own the plantation. Quickly, though, the book ratchets up its pace and a LOT happens. There is abuse, affairs, MASSIVE power dynamics, questions about race, humans owning other humans, all of the typical stuff you see in novels set during slave times, but at its core, this is a book about two families – one white, one black – and one girl who must navigate between these two totally separate worlds.

I really enjoyed The Kitchen House and I find it remarkable what Grissom managed to do with these characters throughout this novel. The book spans about twenty years, and so much happens to the characters, but she really gives the reader a complete understanding of who they are, what their motivations are, who and what they love and will fight for, and why they make the decisions they make throughout the book. I found it interesting that while the book focuses on Lavinia as its center, she was the character I found myself caring about least. Instead, I was much more drawn to her family, the slaves, and the various struggles and issues they had to deal with. Grissom did such an amazing job bringing these characters to life on the page – especially Belle, Laviania’s older “sister” who is actually the illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner. I loved Belle and was disappointed that, while she narrates a few of the chapters, her sections were not long enough for my tastes.

While some of the events in the book would fall into the stereotypical for a slavery novel category, I would venture to say that these things (whippings, children being sold away from their parents, slaves being forced to marry whoever the overseer wanted them to marry, physical abuse, rape, I could go on and on…) are stereotypical because they happened all the time. So in my uneducated brain, Grissom stayed very true to history, and there’s even a note in the back about all of the research that she did and the factual story that the novel was based on. So while the book was tough to read at times, historical fiction can and should be tough to read, and I thought Grissom did an amazing job weaving the elements of life as a slave in with the humanity of the people who actually did experience that awful existence.

This was a book club pick and universally everyone liked the book, although to varying degrees. We had a good discussion about some of the questions the book brought up in our thoughts, a good conversation about power dynamics and how lack of power contributed to many of the characters’ choices, and overall it was a great book club pick.

I honestly have nothing negative to say about this one. The Kitchen House was fantastic.

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Flight of DreamsFlight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
Published by Doubleday
Review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

On the evening of May 3rd, 1937, ninety-seven people board the Hindenburg for its final, doomed flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Among them are a frightened stewardess who is not what she seems; the steadfast navigator determined to win her heart; a naive cabin boy eager to earn a permanent spot on the world’s largest airship; an impetuous journalist who has been blacklisted in her native Germany; and an enigmatic American businessman with a score to settle. Over the course of three hazy, champagne-soaked days their lies, fears, agendas, and hopes for the future are revealed.
 
Flight of Dreams is a fiercely intimate portrait of the real people on board the last flight of the Hindenburg. Behind them is the gathering storm in Europe and before them is looming disaster. But for the moment they float over the Atlantic, unaware of the inexorable, tragic fate that awaits them.

Brilliantly exploring one of the most enduring mysteries of the twentieth century, Flight of Dreams is that rare novel with spellbinding plotting that keeps you guessing till the last page and breathtaking emotional intensity that stays with you long after.

This is the second time that Ariel Lawhon has impressed me by writing about a historical event that I previously thought I cared nothing about. (The first time was The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress and it is a super great book!)  She took this event in history, about which there is very little in the way of actual historical facts, and took what research was able to give her about the historical context and the major players, and created this incredibly compelling story filled to the brim with characters I deeply cared about. And the book was so much fun.

There’s an author’s note at the end of the book which details what Lawhon speculated versus what in the book is actual fact, but honestly I couldn’t have cared less what was true and what was speculation on Lawhon’s part – I loved every minute I spent with this story and these characters. From the stewardess, to the journalist, to the navigator, to the cabin boy, to the American – I loved them all and loved how Lawhon told this story from each of their different points of view. There’s also a love story here, major secrets being kept, and possibly some kind of conspiracy – Lawhon gives the reader just enough details on what’s going on to make the wheels in your head turn constantly, yet feel the desperate need to keep turning pages in the hopes of learning more.

I also enjoyed getting to learn more about this now-extinct form of travel that I didn’t know much about and about the last flight of the Hindenburg in particular. I really find it fascinating that it was possible to travel this way and that it was done for such a short period of time in history. I particularly loved how Lawhon described the way the ship looked and felt, how everything was laid out – I can completely picture the whole thing in my mind, and it made the book so much better because I was playing out scenes in my head almost like a movie. Can this be a movie? It would be a great movie.

Anyway. I loved Flight of Dreams! Highly recommended.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night WatchThe Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Published by Riverhead Books

From the publisher:

Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners—three women and a young man with a past—whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.

This was my second time reading a Sarah Waters novel – The Little Stranger was the first – and while the two books of hers I’ve read are nothing like one another, there’s a certain style to her writing that came through in both novels that I really, really loved.

Waters is a master at developing her characters in subtle, simple ways that over the course of the book, lead the reader to feeling super close and connected to them. These characters are flawed, miserable at times, smart, witty, inspiring at times, and just trying to live decent, happyish lives despite the horrors of war around them. These characters were unique in that many of them were gay, in a time when being so was socially unacceptable. The way Waters handles this aspect of her story is to never explicitly handle it at all – which I loved. They are just people, women living ordinary lives in the 1940’s, who happen to also like other women, and this is an important aspect of their lives because in this time in history it had to be hidden, but at the same time, it’s just a small aspect of their personalities and who they are overall. I don’t think I’m explaining it well at all, but I just loved so much how while the sexuality of these characters played a part in the book, it was so far from the point of the book as to almost be a non-issue. AS IT IS FOR ALL STRAIGHT CHARACTERS IN ALL BOOKS. Does that make sense?

Waters jumps around in time throughout the book, starting from two years after the war, and ending the book just as the war is beginning. This was an extremely clever way to tell the stories of these characters, but I’ll admit that it was pretty confusing at first. And when I got to the end, I had to go back to a few parts of the beginning of the book to re-read them to remind myself how these characters ended up, five years later. I liked that aspect of the book, a lot honestly, but it did make me have to sit up and pay attention a little more than I may have had to otherwise.

The Night Watch is a mostly quiet novel, but Waters does such an incredible job of showing the disastrous aspects of war right alongside the ordinary aspects of living through a war. It is a beautifully written novel with characters I loved getting to know. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of Waters’ backlist soon.

What the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded AgeWhat the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen
Published by NAL

From the publisher:

The night of the Great Fire, as seventeen-year-old Delia watches the flames rise and consume what was the pioneer town of Chicago, she can’t imagine how much her life, her city, and her whole world are about to change. Nor can she guess that the agent of that change will not simply be the fire, but more so the man she meets that night.…

Leading the way in rebuilding after the fire, Marshall Field reopens his well-known dry goods store and transforms it into something the world has never seen before: a glamorous palace of a department store. He and his powerhouse coterie—including Potter Palmer and George Pullman—usher in the age of robber barons, the American royalty of their generation.
 
But behind the opulence, their private lives are riddled with scandal and heartbreak. Delia and Marshall first turn to each other out of loneliness, but as their love deepens, they will stand together despite disgrace and ostracism, through an age of devastation and opportunity, when an adolescent Chicago is transformed into the gleaming White City of the Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893.

I was expecting this to be a light read, honestly just based on the cover alone (is that terrible?). I enjoy a light read as much as the next person, but I was pleasantly surprised to find more depth and history to the novel than I was expecting.

The main reason I chose to read this book is that, as a Chicagoan, I’m always interested in history revolving around the city that I call home (but no longer live in). In that regard, What the Lady Wants certainly did not disappoint. The book starts with a bang, literally, as the opening scene is Delia navigating the streets of Chicago as the Great Fire is raging all around her. This scene set the stage for the entire book for me – it was so intense and captivating, I couldn’t wait to get to the rest of the novel. And the book continued to be rich with Chicago history – Marshall Fields has always been so iconic in the city, and reading about the history of Marshall Field himself and how he turned a general store into this empire of a shopping experience was so fun and also interesting. I remember going to the huge Marshall Fields in the city as a kid – all those floors and departments and beautiful things – it was truly an experience. I just loved reading about all these historical elements of the city I love so much.

Also, and this was really a subplot, but the author gets a bit into the history of unions being formed and workers’ rights and, while it’s told from the point of view of the rich business owner and not the workers demanding rights, it was interesting to see how that played out. It annoyed me a lot how Delia couldn’t even begin to open her mind to how these working class people might be feeling, this woman who hadn’t worked a day in her life judging hard-working people for wanting an eight-hour work day, but I do think it was true to history and that reaction from Delia is probably exactly how the rich felt about working people (and I would argue, still is to this day).

I was less in love with the romance between Delia and Marshall, although I did like Delia as a character a lot. For me, their love story took a sort of backseat to the historical details and the rest of the plot of the novel. It was certainly interesting, as they were both married to people they did not love, were drawn to each other with that spark of instalove, and their romance spanned decades, but for me the history was so much richer than the love story.

Overall I quite enjoyed this historical fiction look at an element of history that is very close to my heart. I love Chicago so my bias might be showing, but I just loved reading about all this Chicago history. While the characters and the romance were less exciting for me, I still raced through the book and had a hard time putting it down. Recommended!

The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams

The Secret Life of Violet GrantThe Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

From the publisher:

Manhattan, 1964. Vivian Schuyler, newly graduated from Bryn Mawr College, has recently defied the privilege of her storied old Fifth Avenue family to do the unthinkable for a budding Kennedy-era socialite: break into the Mad Men world of razor-stylish Metropolitan magazine. But when she receives a bulky overseas parcel in the mail, the unexpected contents draw her inexorably back into her family’s past, and the hushed-over crime of an aunt she never knew, whose existence has been wiped from the record of history.

Berlin, 1914. Violet Schuyler Grant endures her marriage to the philandering and decades-older scientist Dr. Walter Grant for one reason: for all his faults, he provides the necessary support to her liminal position as a young American female physicist in prewar Germany. The arrival of Dr. Grant’s magnetic former student at the beginning of Europe’s fateful summer interrupts this delicate détente. Lionel Richardson, a captain in the British Army, challenges Violet to escape her husband’s perverse hold, and as the world edges into war and Lionel’s shocking true motives become evident, Violet is tempted to take the ultimate step to set herself free and seek a life of her own conviction with a man whose cause is as audacious as her own.

As the iridescent and fractured Vivian digs deeper into her aunt’s past and the mystery of her ultimate fate, Violet’s story of determination and desire unfolds, shedding light on the darkness of her years abroad . . . and teaching Vivian to reach forward with grace for the ambitious future––and the love––she wants most.

Like everything else I’ve read by the extremely talented Beatriz Williams, I absolutely adored this novel. It has everything I love in stories like these: a fierce, smart female heroine (two in this case), dual story lines and narrators, a fascinating historical element, and a plot that never stops moving. I couldn’t stop reading about Vivian and Violet and their stories both intrigued me and held my attention equally.

Both Vivian and Violet suffered because of restrictions on and expectations of women in their respective time periods in history. I would argue that Violet suffered in a much deeper way, yet Vivian still had to deal with the consequences of defying the expectations of her family – expectations that wouldn’t have burdened her had she been born a man. Violet’s suffering, though, to me was tremendous and such a stark illustration of the sacrifices women have had to make throughout history to be successful in a career or anywhere outside a role of wife/mother. Violet was incredibly smart, a brilliant scientist, yet she was practically forced to submit to her older, “wiser”, husband, as he repeatedly abused her and took credit for her work. Because of this situation, Violet’s story was slightly more interesting to me than Vivian’s, but also more difficult to read. Honestly, her situation was just heartbreaking to me – I anxiously read her pages in desperation that she would find a way out of her husband’s clutches and into a better life.

What Williams always does so brilliantly in these dual narrative stories is bring them together at the end, and she did an amazing job with that here. I loved how she wrapped everything up for both Vivian and Violet and, while things didn’t work out perfectly, they both got what I most wanted for each of them. I so loved spending time with these Schuyler women and cannot wait to read the rest of this exciting trilogy from Williams. Highly recommended.

Mini-reviews (attempting to wrap up 2015 reading part 5)

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book OneFables: The Deluxe Edition, Book One by Bill Willingham
Published by Vertigo

All of the legends of folklore and fairy tales have been exiled to modern-day New York City, where they live among regular people, but have created their own secret society. This first story focuses on Snow White and her sister, Rose Red, who has gone missing. It’s up to Bigby, the sheriff and recovering Big Bad Wolf, to find the culprit and hopefully find Rose Red herself.

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say that reading Fables cemented something in my head that I’ve sort of been feeling for a while now: I don’t enjoy fairy tale re-tellings. I can’t think of one example of a fairy tale re-telling that I have enjoyed. While I appreciated the art in here, and liked the story arc, it was just not my thing. I won’t be continuing with this series. It’s not you, Fables, it’s me.

Another Day (Every Day, #2)Another Day by David Levithan
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Rhiannon has a so-so, mostly boring relationship with her boyfriend Justin, and she’s accepted that’s just the way it’ll always be. But one day, one perfect day, Justin shows her a side of himself she’s never seen before – he’s sweet, super into her, and they share a connection unlike they ever have in the past. The next day, Justin doesn’t remember their day at all. Rhiannon is crushed, disappointed, and so sad until she meets a stranger who tells her that for that one perfect day, she wasn’t actually with Justin at all.

This companion to Levithan’s One Day is basically that exact story told from Rhiannon’s point of view instead of A’s. I absolutely loved the first book and found it incredibly creative and compelling. I liked this companion novel, and it was definitely interesting to see things from Rhiannon’s perspective, to get inside her head and see how she really felt about this whole A thing. But honestly, I’m not sure that this book added much to the overall story. It was pretty much the exact same story told another way. I would have liked to see a simplified version of this story with a lot more after, more of a continuation of the first book. I liked it but definitely can say I wanted more from it.

Sisters of TreasonSisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle
Published by Michael Joseph, Penguin Books

Sisters Katherine and Mary Grey are devastated and terrified after Queen Mary orders the execution of their sister and her cousin, Lady Jane Grey. But the two sisters must find their own places at court if they are to survive and thrive under the aging and paranoid Queen. Mary, born with a physical deformity and the short stature of a child, becomes the Queen’s confidante, and beautiful Katherine is one of the queen’s maids, but her beauty may cause problems as she entangles herself with one romantic prospect after another. The two sisters find themselves in the middle of suspicion and potential danger, as their royal blood, with this queen in particular, keeps them far from ever being safe.

This is the second volume in Fremantle’s Tudor trilogy. Having enjoyed the first I was excited to dive into this one and I was not disappointed. Fremantle is the perfect historical fiction writer for me. Her books are detailed enough to be believable and rooted in fact, yet there’s enough exploration of the characters and their motives and all the drama to make me continuously want to turn pages. This book is a perfect balance between the fluffy dramatics of the time and the seriousness of what was actually going on – beheadings everywhere you look, betrayals, no one trusts anyone, everyone is power-hungry and will stop at nothing to advance their family’s interests, etc. Mary and Katherine are both sympathetic characters and I like that they are people slightly obscure in terms of being highlighted in history books. I have to say that I liked Katherine’s sections slightly more than Mary’s – I guess they were just a bit juicier – but I loved both characters and was captivated by their stories. I’ll definitely be reading the third book in this trilogy and can highly recommend Fremantle as an author!