Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe

Blue StarsBlue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

BLUE STARS brings to life the realities of the modern day home front: how to get through the daily challenges of motherhood and holding down a job while bearing the stress and uncertainty of war, when everything can change in an instant. It tells the story of Ellen, a Midwestern literature professor, who is drawn into the war when her legal ward Michael enlists as a Marine; and of Lacey, a proud Army wife who struggles to pay the bills and keep things going for her son while her husband is deployed. Ellen and Lacey cope with the fear and stress of a loved one at war while trying to get by in a society that often ignores or misunderstands what war means to women today. When Michael and Eddie are injured in Iraq, Ellen and Lacey’s lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each woman must live while caring for her wounded soldier. They form an alliance, and an unlikely friendship, while helping each other survive the dislocated world of the army hospital. Whether that means fighting for proper care for their men, sharing a six-pack, or coping with irrevocable loss, Ellen and Lacey pool their strengths to make it through. In the end, both women are changed, not only by the war and its fallout, but by each other.

I almost put down this book after fifty pages. It was difficult for me to get into, I didn’t understand where it was going, and I wasn’t connecting with the characters. Had I done so, I would have made a huge mistake because Blue Stars is a truly great book and, although it didn’t have that punch at the beginning, the rest of the novel more than made up for the rocky start.

This is a difficult one for me to review because I found the reading experience very difficult emotionally. What Ellen and Lacey experience in Blue Stars is something that sadly many American families go through on a daily basis – the care and rehabilitation of a family member injured at war. There were many times throughout this novel that I had to pause, calm myself down, and steel myself to finish the chapter – not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because my emotions were just so affected by the story Tedrowe wrote (a story that is fiction but could absolutely be true, and I am sure many families would say IS very close to the truth of their daily lives).

That being said, I think Tedrowe was extremely successful in what I assume she was trying to do – showcase the plight of the families in this situation. Lacey lost her job, her sanity, and contact with most of her family and friends during the time she spent at the military hospital with her husband. And the conditions of this hospital (which have been documented in many news stories, you can Google Walter Reed to find out more) were beyond deplorable. She went from a very comfortable and mostly peaceful life to living in squalor, married to a man she could no longer recognize, with no idea how to pay for her next meal, much less the bills that were piling up back at home. Oh, and she quickly spiraled into alcoholism while all of this was going on. To put it mildly, she broke my heart. I cannot imagine how unbearable this life is for those who experience it in the real world. So, so hard.

I connected with Ellen much less than I did with Lacey, but that’s not to say her story is any less important or impactful than Lacey’s – it’s just different. What I loved about the two of them is how they were able to rely on one another in this incredibly stressful and overwhelming situation – when all else failed, they had each other. Their friendship was a beautiful story in itself and a joy to read about.

I wish I could tell you a lot more about this book but honestly, just read it. It really did have a huge impact on me emotionally and I had to take some time after finishing it before picking up my next read. Highly recommended.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The NightingaleThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle, though united by a difficult childhood, could not be any more different. Responsible Vianne lives in the country with her darling husband and daughter, and although she made mistakes in her past, she’s now devoted her life to her family, her home, and her job as a teacher. Rebellious eighteen-year-old Isabelle doesn’t hesitate to fall in love with the wrong man, defy her father’s orders, and flee Paris for her sister’s home when all goes horrifically wrong.

With World War Two in full swing, the sisters are pulled apart both by choice and circumstance. Vianne’s husband is forced to go to war, and a German soldier decides to live in her home with her and her young daughter. Isabelle has joined the Resistance, which takes her back to Nazi-controlled Paris and the father she desperately ran from months earlier. Both women are in precarious, extremely dangerous situations, and the consequences for both of them will be beyond what either can imagine.

Every time I think I’ve read all I can about the Second World War, another book comes along and sweeps me off my feet. In this case, The Nightingale reminded me that there will never be “too many” books about this war (or about any war), because there are an infinite number of experiences people had, and therefore an infinite number of stories to be told. In this case, I was entranced by Vianne and Isabelle and the incredible story Hannah told through these characters. This is a book about love, hope, resiliency in the face of devastating circumstances, about powerful women and about survival against all odds. This novel pulled so many emotions from me and I couldn’t put it down – I was totally swept into this story, as difficult as it was to read at times.

Here’s what I thought was so special about this book – these are ordinary, regular, minding-their-own-business people. People stuck in the middle of a war they had no say in, didn’t vote for, didn’t want, don’t understand, much less agree with. Sure, eventually Isabelle gets personally involved and actually becomes quite a celebrity in the Resistance (read the book to find out exactly what she does), but even she doesn’t get entrenched until the situation is so dire that she cannot possibly imagine doing nothing. Vianne is in a different situation, she has a child to protect and care for, but an enemy soldier is LIVING IN HER HOME. Imagine this – we are at war and one day you hear a knock at the door, and an enemy soldier is there, demanding to live in your upstairs bedroom, to eat your food and use your bathroom and LIVE in your house. This is incomprehensible to me but apparently it was the norm in many Nazi-occupied towns and cities over the course of the war.

I just loved The Nightingale so much. I cannot tell you quite how deeply the book resonated with me, made me think, made me fall in love with these characters, made me consider aspects of the Second World War I’d never thought about before, all of that and more. This is only my second time picking up a novel by Kristin Hannah but I can guarantee that it won’t be my last. Highly recommended!

Mini-reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 3

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the WestEscape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Published by Viking Adult

I read this book because a customer at my job recommended it to me during a discussion of the book (and now movie) Unbroken. And also, I had just finished Without You, There is No Us and wanted to read more about North Korea (I still do. Recommendations, please.). Let me just say that anytime I read anything about North Korea, I am never not shocked and heartbroken. That was the case with Escape from Camp 14, without a doubt. I learned more about this atrocious dictator and how he keeps his people enslaved and malnourished and completely ignorant about the rest of the world. In this book, the man who escaped lived in what was basically a death camp, only they don’t outright kill people there, just overwork and underfeed them and get them to have no relationships with one another so they end up either dying of starvation or disease or another prisoner or guard kills them for something horrifyingly insignificant. It’s awful and sad and I don’t even know what to say.

Here’s the thing about this book, thought, that I didn’t like so much. It’s not written by the guy who actually escaped, Shin Donghyuk. Instead, journalist Blaine Harden tells his story for him. For whatever reason, this format just bothered me. I know that Harden spent tons of time with Shin and really got to know him, and I’m sure he knows his story inside and out, but there’s just no way that he can possibly fully understand what Shin has been through. It seemed to me that this format kept the book at arm’s length for me and I would have been much happier reading a book that Shin wrote about his own experiences.

All that being said, Escape from Camp 14 is incredibly fascinating and I would still recommend it. This stuff is happening in our world, RIGHT NOW, and we need to be aware.

YouYou by Caroline Kepnes
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books

So. This is a book about a stalker, from the stalker’s point of view. The “you” in the title is the girl he’s stalking. He’s basically writing this book to her, so it reads kind of like this: “I watch you as you get ready for work and you are so beautiful it almost kills me” (I made that line up, but that’s the general idea).

This book is so freaking creepy but it was really good, too. It’s almost weird for me to say a book THIS creepy can be good, but truly I couldn’t put the thing down. The crazy part is that the girl he’s stalking actually becomes friends with him and they kind of start dating … well, read it to find out more. But it got me thinking about all kinds of things like how well do we really know the people we surround ourselves with? You is really good and if you can handle the creep factor, definitely pick it up.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner

This one is hard for me because I had very, very high expectations. Several people who have very similar reading tastes to mine named it their favorite book of the entire year. I went in expecting to be blown away, and while it is an excellent book and I did really like it, it isn’t my favorite ever.

There’s a lot going on in All the Light We Cannot See, but basically it is set during World War Two, and it’s about two people: Marie-Laure, a young blind girl living in Paris with her father, and Werner, a young German boy who joins the Hitler Youth and ends up being an asset to the Nazis as he has a special talent with radios. I liked the alternating focus between the two – the quick pace kept my interest throughout, and I got to the point towards the end when I was just frantically turning pages to get to how this book would end. I liked how the book explores what this war did to ordinary people, and it was particularly compelling reading about how the Nazis groomed the Hitler Youth to become killers, basically.

I really liked this book, a lot. But it wasn’t my favorite ever and definitely wouldn’t make a top ten list for the year, either. I’ll just take this as yet another reminder that not all books have to be the best, and I shouldn’t have such high expectations.

Mini-reviews – End of 2014 Reading part 1

In an effort to at least mention everything I read at the end of 2014, I will be doing a few batches of mini-reviews. Here are the first few.

What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and LoveWhat Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill
Published by Scribner

I first heard of Carole Radziwill when she appeared on the Oprah show many years back. It hadn’t been long before her appearance on the show that she tragically lost her best friend, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and her husband’s cousin, John Kennedy, in a plane crash, and immediately after that lost her husband, Anthony Radziwill, to cancer. I was struck, even at whatever young age I was when I watched that episode, by Carole’s amazing strength and positive attitude in the face of such tragic circumstances.

Fast-forward many years – Carole is now a reality TV star on the show Desperate Housewives of New York City, which I happen to watch and love. I LOVE her on the show – she is witty, sarcastic, no-nonsense, and extremely cool. I decided to pick up this book for all those reasons, plus the fact that a good friend read it and recommended it to me. You guys, this book is so fantastic. Carole’s life is really fascinating – it was almost a fluke that she met and fell in love with this man of royalty and his incredibly famous family. Her friendship with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy is one that many women will be able to relate to – most of us have that BFF in our lives who we couldn’t imagine living without, the one person we can go to with absolutely anything and it will be a judgment-free zone. Carolyn was that person to Carole, and she lost her way, way too soon. Anthony’s scary and sad battle with cancer was heartbreaking to read about, but again, so much of this book is about the strength and courage Carole had in fighting this battle alongside her husband. What Remains is really a beautiful book and I highly recommend picking it up, for so many reasons.

Love & TreasureLove & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
Published by Knopf

This is a complex and layered novel about the Hungarian Gold Train in World War Two. Waldman introduces the reader to Jack Wiseman, a lieutenant who in 1945 is charged with guarding a massive warehouse full of treasures stolen from Jewish people during the war. Seventy years later, Jack gives his granddaughter, Natalie, a mysterious necklace and asks her to search for the woman to whom it belonged. Natalie’s search introduces the reader to even more characters, with even more complicated histories, and the novel continues on from there.

I really liked this novel and thought the writing was absolutely beautiful. I loved how Waldman introduced me to an element of the Holocaust that I knew about, vaguely, but hadn’t read much about in the past. The book is kind of three novellas that ultimately tie together into one larger novel, and while I found that format effective for telling this particular story, it wasn’t my favorite overall. I got super engrossed in one story, only to have it end and move on to the next novella and its characters, and that threw me off a bit. Like I said, it worked for Love & Treasure, but I would be annoyed to read books in that format regularly. I know Waldman has said some nasty stuff on Twitter lately and people are kind of down on her because of that, but I really enjoyed this book. Girl can WRITE.

RoomsRooms by Lauren Oliver
Published by Ecco

In this novel, the reader gets to know both the living Walker family, and the ghosts of the people who inhabited their home before them, Alice and Sandra. Richard Walker left his possessions and home to his family members – ex-wife Caroline, teenage son Trenton, and daughter Minna (along with her six-year-old daughter) – and the four of them are back in Walker’s house, sorting through his things, as Alice and Sandra watch. Though Alice and Sandra cannot speak to the living, they communicate to them through the house itself. When a new ghost shows up, and Trenton begins communicating with her, Alice and Sandra are thrown off-course, tipping the delicate balance between the humans and ghosts in the house.

Oliver has gotten a lot of criticism for this one but I really liked it! I was swept into this world right away, desperate to learn more about Alice and Sandra and why they were still ghosts in this home. I didn’t particularly like any of the human characters, but I did want them to figure out their own issues and move on from their family’s legacy of hatred towards one another. I think Oliver is a fantastic writer and while Rooms isn’t her best book ever, I highly enjoyed the experience of reading it.

Mini-Reviews – more books I did not love

The Valley of AmazementThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Published by Ecco

Violet is a young girl in Shanghai at the turn of the century and her mother, Lucia, owns one of the most famous and elegant courtesan houses in the city. Violet grows up in this life, and when a shocking turn of fate causes her mother to abandon her, Violet becomes a courtesan herself at the young age of twelve. This novel is Violet’s story, how fate and choices intermix to create a life she never would have wanted for herself but learned to love anyway, but it’s also Lucia’s story. Lucia, who made the bold choice to leave her parents in San Francisco and move to Shanghai, have a half-Chinese daughter and raise her in a courtesan house, and dealt with many tragedies along the way.

What I liked about The Valley of Amazement was the beginning – getting to know Violet and Lucia, trying to understand their complex relationship and learning about what life was like for courtesans in Shanghai at that time in history. I also liked the ending – after one bad decision after another led to tragedy upon tragedy, things ended in a way that I was happy about. But here’s what I didn’t like – almost everything else. This book was just SO LONG. Also, I think I am not a fan of Tan’s writing. To me, she over-writes – everything is SO descriptive, so lush, so flowery, it’s just too much for me. That’s my personal opinion, obviously, and a lot of people love her. I just happen not to be one of them.

If you like her books, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. If you like long drawn-out stories of people making terrible decisions and those choices having dire consequences, you’ll like this one. If you have my taste in books, you’ll probably be annoyed for most of it, as I was.

Dept. of SpeculationDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Published by Knopf

The characters in this story do not have names – the heroine is called “the wife” and she writes about her husband and child without using their names. This is basically the story of a marriage going down in flames, and the wife is about to have an emotional breakdown because of that and because of so many other things in her life. She’s not entirely happy in her roles as wife and mother, not feeling successful at her writing career – struggling to finish her second book – and things in general are just going wrong. It’s an emotional novel, but also the author keeps you at arm’s length, so you’re able to see from a distance where this thing is headed.

I don’t know. People have loved this book, found so much truth, so many hidden gems within its pages, and I am not sure I get it. I liked it, and could relate to a lot of it – I’m of course not perfect, my marriage is not perfect, and I struggle every day with wanting to be even more successful in my career than I am at this point – but I didn’t fall in love with the book. It was a quick read, interesting, different from my usual fare, but in the end it wasn’t all that memorable.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The Colour of MilkThe Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Published by Ecco

From the publisher:

Mary is a sharp-tongued farm girl, and she will do anything to learn to read and write. But as she does so through four seasons of one extraordinary year, she discovers that nothing comes for free. Told by a narrator whose urgent, unforgettable voice will break your heart, The Colour of Milk is an astonishing novel.

I’d never heard of this book until Jill reviewed it, and she spoke so highly of the novel that I couldn’t help but pick it up right away. You guys, The Colour of Milk is a devastating novel. Heartbreaking, sob-inducing, difficult to read, but oh so worth it. It’s also quite beautiful.

Mary’s life circumstances are beyond what most people can comprehend. The story takes place in the 1800’s, so obviously life was different from it is today, but for our fifteen-year-old narrator, things are particularly difficult. Her family lives in dire poverty, and the only reason they have food to eat is because of the farm that Mary and her three sisters are forced to work on, all day every day. Her father is abusive and besides working the girls practically to death, he beats them when they do not perform to his standards. When Mary’s father decides he can’t afford four daughters, he sells her to a Vicar who lives close by so she can care for his sick wife – but her new home brings even more cruelty and trauma than her father’s had.

There’s so much to love about this novel. It’s difficult to understand how tragic Mary’s life really is, but what’s even more difficult to understand is how she manages to keep a mostly positive attitude throughout all of it. She is a character you can’t help but admire, and the way the book is written – as if this poor farm girl with zero formal education is writing it herself – endears the reader even more to our narrator.

Mary becomes “free” in an emotional and mental sense when she learns to read and write, and I love what The Colour of Milk is saying about the power of words to help and to heal a person. I can’t even imagine what it would be like not to have the privilege of the written word in my life, but Mary is a girl who had to seriously struggle in order to learn to read and write. It made me sit back and think how the written word has gotten me through some really tough times, and how it truly has the power to change lives. It was pretty incredible to read about that through Mary’s eyes.

The end of this book shattered me. And that’s all I’ll say about  it.

Read The Colour of Milk! It’s a slim novel with a lot to say. I promise, you will fall in love with Mary just like I did.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1)Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2)

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Published by First Second

From the publisher (Boxers):

China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.

Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers–commoners trained in kung fu–who fight to free China from “foreign devils.”

Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful. But nothing is simple. Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost? So many are dying, including thousands of “secondary devils”–Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity

From the publisher (Saints):

China, 1898. An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family when she’s born. She finds friendship–and a name, Vibiana–in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.

But China is a dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing, and bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie…and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

American Born Chinese was one of the first graphic novels I’d ever read, and it opened my eyes to the amazing way storytelling and illustrations can come together in this medium to create an incredible reading experience. Since then, I’ve read many more, but I always think fondly about Gene Luen Yang as he is literally the person who introduced me to the graphic novel – so I always pick up his books when I can. Boxers and Saints are two separate books, but in my opinion they must be read together – otherwise you’re only getting half of the story. I loved that he did these as companion books, as they are two very distinct books with their own characters and events, but they truly come together to complete the picture of this scary time in Chinese history.

I love Yang’s illustrations and these books were no exception to that. He is so detailed, so precise, to the point where the illustrations alone would tell the story if the text wasn’t there. His drawings are gorgeous and I could pore over them for a long time without even needing the words.

But the story itself is an important one. And by showing the Boxer Rebellion from both sides, he really illuminated the fact that in all conflicts, there is no right or wrong, necessarily. There are just people, fighting for what they believe in, for what they know in their hearts is true and what they feel desperately needs to be done. Both Little Bao and Vibiana showed me that their stories have value, their beliefs are real for them, and I just thought, how unfortunate and tragic that this conflict even had to happen in the first place.

What I love is when books make me want to do more research upon finishing them, and these books did exactly that. I read more about the Boxer Rebellion – something I knew almost nothing about – after finishing these books and can now say I’m more educated on this particular time in history. After learning more about it, I am even more impressed by the way Yang managed to combine facts with his own fictional spin on things, and actually want to reread the books armed with more background knowledge about the conflict.

Highly recommended! Graphic novels are awesome – do pick one up if you never have before, your eyes will be open to a whole new world of reading.