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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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.

Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Along the Infinite SeaAlong the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Review copy provided by the publisher

Pepper Schuyler has just finished restoring a vintage Mercedes and sold it at auction, with the resulting funds earmarked to take care of her and her unborn child for the next several years. It is 1966 and even though Pepper is an independent, savvy woman, the fact that she had an affair with a married, important politician and is pregnant with his child would be a huge scandal if word got out – so she needs to take care of herself and not rely on anyone else. Meanwhile, the car’s new owner, Annabelle Dommerich, has secrets of her own. She purchased the car because it was the exact same car she used to flee Nazi Germany twenty-five years earlier. As the two women get to know each other, Pepper learns that Annabelle’s story is shocking and inspiring – and she still has unanswered questions about her future, just like Pepper.

I am a Beatriz Williams fan like you wouldn’t believe. I haven’t read all of her books, but every single one I’ve read has been nothing short of delightful. Along the Infinite Sea is the third book in her series about the three Schuyler sisters (I read and HIGHLY enjoyed the first two) and what I liked about this trilogy is that each of the three are absolute stand-alone novels as well. I was surprised to find that while I was interested in Pepper’s story, it was the story Annabelle told that truly swept me away and didn’t allow me to put the book down.

There is so much intrigue surrounding Annabelle’s story. The gist of it is this – she had a passionate affair with a man named Stefan who she fell madly, deeply in love with in the first few days of knowing him. Stefan left to “take care of things” and while he was gone, she heard through a friend of a friend that he was married and planned to stay with his wife. While she was learning this awful fact, she met a man twenty years her senior, Johann, who had recently lost his wife, was raising four children on his own, and had a very important position in the German military. When she told Johann of her pregnancy, he offered to marry her, raise her baby as his own, and give them both the life he thought they deserved – so, thinking she would never see Stefan again, she agreed. The rest of the book is a breathless tale of learning what happened to Annabelle as she discovered that her husband is not only in the German military, but is a full-on Nazi, and she hopes against all hope that she may see Stefan again someday.

At one point the reader isn’t sure if Annabelle ended up with Stefan or Johann, as the book goes from past to present, and in the present her “husband” is alluded to in such a way that it could have been either man. Of course, as the reader, you have a major hope that it’s one over the other (love over money, obviously!) but it’s really unclear until the last few pages what Annabelle’s life turned out to be. I was on pins and needles throughout this ENTIRE book – hoping so very desperately that things would turn out for Annabelle, that she would end up having this incredible life with a man who truly loved her and she loved him deeply in return. On top of the love story, please keep in mind that this is pre-World War II we are talking about, and we are talking about this character being married to a Nazi – oh and wait, did I mention that Stefan is a Jew? Forgot that part. So you can imagine with this awful war about to start, with terrifying attitudes about Jews abound in much of Europe, the stakes for everyone here were crazy high. It was an edge-of-your seat kind of read, in the best possible way.

Pepper’s story was much more tame, yes she had a baby on the way and that was a big deal, huge concern, her reputation was in tatters, and she couldn’t even communicate with her family about her situation, but compared to Annabelle’s all that stuff is silly. At least, that’s how I felt as I was reading the book. But in these dual narrative kind of books it is inevitable to be more invested in one of the two stories than the other, so I was fine with it. I didn’t dislike Pepper, and was interested in her story, it’s just that I was always anxious to get back to Annabelle!

Anyway, I really super enjoyed this novel and Beatriz Williams continues to have a place in my heart. She can be counted on to always deliver quality novels with amazingly interesting female main characters, complex individuals and exciting stories. I love her stuff and this was one more example of why I do. Read any of her books and you won’t be disappointed.

In Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen

In Farleigh FieldIn Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
Published by Lake Union Publishing

This novel centers around Lord Westingham and his wife and five daughters who reside at Farleigh Place, an elaborate estate about an hour away from London in the first few years of World War II. Family friend Ben Creswell is tasked with uncovering the mystery of a British airman who fell from the sky and perished in fields of Farleigh, a job that brings him closer to the woman he loves, Pamela, the middle Westingham daughter. Meanwhile, Pam is working in covert operations decoding German radio broadcasts while her lover, Jeremy, is stuck at a German war camp as a POW. Pam’s sister Margot is in Paris, choosing to stay with her French lover Gaston who may or may not be part of the Resistance there, and this relationship begins to put Margot in jeopardy. The novel shows how this war affects everyone in Europe, from the richest of them all to the poorest folks, and these characters become an integral part of the war effort.

This is an interesting novel because while it centers around the Second World War, it’s rather mild in its handling of the horrors of the war. This could be for two reasons. One, it’s the early stages of the war, so the characters haven’t truly understood the full reality of what’s at stake here and what Hitler is really capable of. Two, these characters are the most privileged of the British, so even how the war affects them is mild compared to the people who were in London at the time, getting bombed all over the place, losing homes and businesses and everything. It was interesting to see the war from this perspective, although a little strange because knowing the history, things got a LOT worse for people like the Westinghams before they got better.

Anyway, the biggest plot point of this story is around the man who landed in Farleigh Field after his parachute failed to open – who is he? Is he a German spy? Is he truly a British soldier? Why did he flee his plane directly over Farleigh? Ben is tasked with uncovering this mystery, and ultimately the mystery is solved by Ben and Pamela working together. The way that Bowen wrapped up this mystery made sense and, while fairly predictable, I didn’t totally guess until close to the very end.

Another big element of the story itself were the characters within it. I had a love-hate relationship with most of the characters. Pamela was extremely frustrating – she had a very important job, but she still thought very little of herself to the point that she wasn’t really that proud of what she was doing. She was also in love with a total asshole (Jeremy) and unable to see the amazing guy right in front of her who was in love with her (Ben). I liked Margot, but honestly I would have liked to see more of her story and less of Pamela’s, she seemed much more plucky and interesting than her sister. There was an older sister who was married and mostly on the sidelines, a younger sister who was slightly too young to be a major character (18) and a much younger sister who was a part of the story but just a kid – although she ultimately became the hero by the end of the book.

I liked the book but overall it was just okay. It held my interest and it kept me wanting to find out how the mystery would turn out, but as a war novel it was overall a bit disappointing. I think I’ve read so many World War II books that at this point, I expect there to be a ton of emotion, heart, and high stakes in these books, and In Farleigh Field just didn’t have those elements. So, overall not my favorite, but definitely an interesting concept and I liked that it was set in a time and place during the war that I hadn’t read much about before.

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.