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!

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenBlack Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein
Published by Disney-Hyperion

From the publisher:

Emilia and Teo’s lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo’s mother died immediately, but Em’s survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother’s wishes-in a place where he won’t be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.

Seeking a home where her children won’t be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?

Elizabeth Wein has done it again. Like Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, Black Dove, White Raven is an incredible book that mixes history with YA with ALL THE FEELS. There’s so much to love about this novel that I am not even sure where to start.

First, this novel brought to light for me a conflict in history, the war between Italy and Ethiopia, that I had no idea was even a thing that happened. Honestly, I love books that make me feel ignorant about the world – not because I feel bad about myself for not having the knowledge (which does also happen), but that it reminds me that there’s SO much I don’t know, and that I should keep seeking out books and authors that will continue to challenge me and teach me new things. Which this book did, in spades. I learned a lot about this time in Ethiopia’s history, and I’d highly recommend this novel as a good choice for those who want diversity in their reading experiences, combined with amazing characters and relationships.

Speaking of the characters – the characters! Elizabeth Wein just writes friendship so amazingly well, I have to tell you. Emilia and Teo grow up as siblings after Teo’s mother, Delia, dies, but in addition to brother and sister, they are best friends. These two would absolutely do anything for one another, and this pure, loving, uncomplicated friendship is, in my opinion, the heart of this story. There’s also the friendship between their mothers – when Delia dies, Rhoda goes into a deep depression, shutting out everything and everybody, barely taking care of her own children. While this is incredibly heart-breaking, it’s also indicative of the deep and true friendship these two women shared. The things they did together – breaking down sexist and racist stereotypes about what women of color can and should do, embarking on incredibly difficult barnstorming maneuvers, engaging in intensely dangerous situations, raising children together – only served to strengthen their bond. So much so that when Teo’s mom dies, Rhoda knows that the only thing she can do is live out Delia’s dream for her son and bring him back to his father’s homeland, Ethiopia. The goal is to get him out of racist America and give him an opportunity for a life free from oppression.

While at first their life in Ethiopia seems idyllic and, frankly, perfect, it spirals out of control a few years later when the war with Italy starts. When I tell you that I learned so much in this book, I’m not kidding. Did you know that there were slaves in Ethiopia, too? As recently as 1930? I certainly did not. Anyway. The book escalates at a rapid pace in the last 100 pages or so as Teo ends up involved in the war, the three of them get separated, and awful things happen. And in typical Wein fashion, readers’ hearts are broken and tears ensure (at least in my case).

I’m realizing now how much I rambled here and how and messy this “review” was but I don’t even care. Read this book. Black Dove, White Raven is incredible for so many reasons.

Mini-reviews

The One & OnlyThe One & Only by Emily Giffin
Published by Ballantine Books

Emily Giffin is an author I usually adore – one of the few authors I’ve read every single one of her books and loved them all. The One & Only features Shea, a thirty-three-year-old woman who lives and breathes her college football hometown – she has stayed in the town her entire life, and even works at the University as an adult. Her best friend, Lucy, is the daughter of the legendary coach of the University’s football team, and has always been a father figure in Shea’s life. Until Lucy’s mom passes away, and Shea finds herself having feelings for the coach.

So I didn’t love the premise of this novel. I also have zero interest in football. The ONLY reason I read it is because, duh, Emily Giffin. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t love the book, but it just did not work for me. I didn’t believe in the relationship between Shea and Coach – the first chapter of the book is his wife’s funeral, and 75 pages later they are flirting! It was just weird. It made it difficult for me to like Shea herself, and I couldn’t relate to her at all. Plus, football, no thank you. Maybe other readers will have a better reaction to this book than I did, but it was just not my thing.

Carry Me HomeCarry Me Home by Sandra Kring
Published by Delta

This is the story of a rural Wisconsin family as their oldest son joins the military and goes off to war in 1940. Jimmy is eighteen years old when he enlists in the military and leaves his parents, girlfriend, and sixteen-year-old brother Earl “Earwig” behind. Told from Earwig’s perspective, this is a story about how war affects even the most innocent among us, and how people are changed forever because of it.

Earwig isn’t the smartest kid – he probably has some kind of intellectual development disorder – he has difficulty counting change at his family’s store, he gets along better with ten-year-olds than with teens his own age, and it’s clear that his family treats him differently from how they treat Jimmy. But Earwig might just be the most astute observer of the atrocities of war out of all these people. He gets it in a way that adults with their rational thinking and their intellectual debates simply can’t, or won’t. I really liked this novel and cried several times while reading it. I hadn’t read anything by Kring before but this one definitely won’t be my last.

NimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson
Published by Harper Collins

Nimona is a young shapeshifter who is looking who is looking for a villain to hang out with. Enter Lord Ballister Blackheart, a villain with a mission, also a guy who didn’t know he needed a sidekick. Together the two team up to show the world that the head of the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics isn’t the perfect hero everyone thinks he is.

Everyone has been raving about this gorgeous graphic novel, and I completely see why. The illustrations are amazing. Nimona herself is an incredible heroine, she has a dark past, she can be terrifying at times but is tenacious and strong, wanting to right the wrongs of the world, and is ultimately looking for someone to recognize and value the humanity in her. This books turns the idea of heroes and villains upside-down as it’s clear that there is no black and white good guys and bad guys – everyone here is just doing the best they can.

There’s so much more to love about Nimona that I can’t even explain properly. Nimona herself is not your traditional beautiful superhero – she’s average-sized with bright red hair that’s shaved on two sides. The villain and hero in this story are former lovers and best friends who now have vendettas against each other – oh and they’re both guys, and that’s not even discussed, and the fact that it doesn’t have to be discussed is GREAT. Please read Nimona! It’s awesome.