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.

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American Street by Ibi Zoboi

American StreetAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi
Published by Balzer + Bray

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

The Opposite of EveryoneThe Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by William Morrow

Paula Voss is in her early thirties, working as an attorney in Atlanta, when she receives a postcard from her long-estranged mother, letting her know that she won’t be needing the check Paula sends her every month because she has terminal cancer and she will be dead soon. When Paula was a girl, she and her mother lived a mostly nomadic existence until the day that Paula did something unforgivable at age eleven, landing her in foster care and her mother in prison. Upon receipt of this postcard, she is forced to attempt to find her mother and unbury the years of secrets and lies that lie between the two of them.

Jackson has such a talent for creating characters that feel in such a deep, true way like real people – flawed people, but real people nonetheless. That was completely the case here with Paula – within the first twenty or thirty pages, I felt like I knew her, I felt like she and I were friends and she was telling me the story of her life.

And what a story it was – Jackson goes back and forth in time in the book, between what’s happening to Paula today and then back to her childhood, right before and after she made the decision that caused the huge rift between her mother and herself. The way the story was told was so effective because it really kept me on the hook, waiting for more about what happened to Paula as a child and hoping desperately that it wasn’t as bad as I feared it was. Also, I was so hopeful that she would have some kind of resolution to the estrangement between herself and her mother. No spoilers, but the way that Jackson ties everything up is not perfect but certainly realistic and happy enough to satisfy just about any reader. It’s the perfect mix of “happy ending” while being realistic about what would make sense to happen to these characters.

I listened to the audio of this novel and I have to say that audio is the way to go for any Joshilyn Jackson book. She narrates them herself, and her flawed, funny, smart, Southern female characters just come to life with her voice.

Joshilyn Jackson has done it again – this is a wonderful story with a great character just trying to weather the storm that is life. I have enjoyed every single one of her books and The Opposite of Everyone is no different.

Fearless: The Historic Story of One Navy SEAL’s Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved Him by Eric Blehm

Fearless: The Heroic Story of One Navy SEAL's Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved HimFearless: The Historic Story of One Navy SEAL’s Sacrifice in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the Unwavering Devotion of the Woman Who Loved Him by Eric Blehm
Published by The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group

Adam Brown had an interesting life, before and during the time he was in the military. He was a member of the SEAL Team Six (the guys who took down Osama Bin Laden) but tragically died about a year before the Bin Laden mission, on another valley at the base of a different mountain in Afghanistan, taking down other terrorists with his team. Brown was a guy who loved his family, friends, God, and his country, a guy who lived life to the extreme and made the most of every minute he had with the people he loved. He lived an exceptional life, although short, and his story is one that needs to be heard.

This was a book club book and to be honest, it’s not really my thing so I probably wouldn’t have read it if not for that reason. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how inspiring I found Adam Brown’s story. He was the typical popular kid all throughout school – football player, friends with everyone, you know the deal. After high school, though, he went down a dark path to drugs and became an addict. After attending several rehabs, he found Jesus Christ and that gave him the strength to get sober and look for a different path in life. He met a woman who later became his wife, got involved with his church, and decided to go to the military. During his training to become a SEAL, and while serving in the military, he lost an eye, almost lost his entire hand, and had countless debilitating injuries over the years. In fact, he was offered disability discharge with full retirement benefits about ten separate times but continued to refuse, as he wanted to fight for his country. He truly believed that was what he was put on this earth to do.

Adam Brown died defending his country from the same terrorists who were involved in 9/11, and based on everything I learned about him in this book, that’s exactly how he would have wanted to go. It was inspiring to read about someone so dedicated to something intangible, something outside of himself, and I was also inspired by his wife’s strength in the face of such difficult circumstances to be there for him and raise their children on her own after he died.

The one thing I had difficulty with in this book is the sheer volume of religion that is laced throughout the book. Christianity was a big part of Adam Brown’s life, but it did feel a bit preachy at times and I kept getting the message that if you’re not a believer in Jesus Christ, good luck accomplishing things because that is the secret ingredient to achieving your dreams and finding true happiness. As I don’t necessarily believe that myself, that message was a bit annoying to have to take while reading the book. And I think it bears being honest to say that because I did find this a very valuable story, super inspiring, and one that I think needs to be told. Unfortunately I think the religious aspect of the book will be a turn off for a fair amount of readers, which is a shame.

If you’re into inspiring stories, heroism, especially as it relates to the military, this is a fantastic choice. While I’m not super into military books, I still found Adam Brown’s story really interesting and was inspired by a lot of what I read here. Definitely give the book a chance, and maybe you’ll surprise yourself with genuinely enjoying it, as I did.

When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

When We Were WorthyWhen We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
Published by Lake Union Publishing
Review copy provided by the publisher via SheReads

The small town of Worthy, Georgia is shattered when three high school cheerleaders are killed in a car accident caused by another student at their school. Told from the points of view of four women – Ava, a teacher at the school; Marglyn, the mother of one of the cheerleaders; Darcy, the mother of the boy who drove the car that killed the girls; and Leah, the fourth member of the group of girls, the one who was not in the car that night – this is the story of how the town deals with a horrifying tragedy and how the mystery of what really happened that night is concluded.

When We Were Worthy was a great reading experience – the kind of book that I can’t help but race through, desperate to find out the characters’ fate and fill in the missing details about their lives and this huge event that had reverberating impacts among the community. I loved getting to know these characters, trying to understand their motivations, feelings, and behaviors, and trying to predict how things would turn out for them. The story is told from four different points of view, and while sometimes this format can turn into a big mess, Whalen handled it extremely well, deftly weaving the voices of these four women throughout the book, gradually showing the reader each of their personalities as the book went on.

One thing this novel does really well is illuminate that particular period in a person’s life that is called being a teenager. These teens think they know everything, think they understand the world around them and their part within it, and in some cases their eyes are more open to the realities of the world than the parents and teachers in their lives, but in a lot of cases they are just incredibly naïve. It is an interesting period in life for a lot of reasons, but primarily because the juxtaposition of feeling like an adult in body and mind while at the same time, not having money or freedom or the right to do a lot of things. The teenagers in this book are exactly like that – they think they get it, they think they rule the world (or at least, their small town that essentially is their world), but they have no idea how swiftly life can be taken from them, how quickly everything can change in an instant. That’s the part of life that they aren’t worldly enough yet to get – they think they are invincible and, unfortunately, nobody is.

And let’s talk about the adults in the novel – they were more messed up than the kids in some cases. Every single person in this novel is dealing with demons, struggling with something, and making choices that profoundly affect their families. The adults really don’t have things together any better than the teens do, and unfortunately that comes with some majorly bad consequences for a few of them. I did like about this novel that Whalen mostly wraps up everyone’s stories in a way that is satisfying and makes sense, while not giving people a perfect, happy ending. It’s true to life the way she handles these characters’ situations and life choices. If I had ONE criticism of the book – and I really just have this one – I will say that there was one storyline with one particular character that I felt added nothing to the story whatsoever and was, frankly, unnecessary and a distraction from everything that I thought the book really should have been focusing on. However, it was an extra element of drama so I’m sure plenty of readers were interested in that particular plot line. I just didn’t think it was helpful to the overall story at all.

Anyway, I really liked When We Were Worthy! It was equal parts character-driven and plot-driven and I thought Whalen did a great job with both elements of the book. Highly recommended.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be FeministsWe Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by Vintage

This essay is adapted from the author’s TEDx talk about feminism – put in simple language that makes good sense for the average person who wants to understand what feminism is and why it’s important in today’s world.

We Should All Be Feminists is short but powerful. It packs a ton of arguments into fifty pages. The author highlights how the marginalization of women in the US, Nigeria, and around the world harms both women and men and discusses simple things that can be done to educate ourselves and our children in order to halt misogyny in the near future. She shares personal stories and life experiences, as well as things she’s read and studied over the years that point to factual evidence of discrimination of women throughout the world.

This should be a required primer on feminism for anyone who is even the least bit interested in understanding the subject. Many people may not understand that feminism is simply about the belief that all sexes should be equal, and this essay illustrates that extremely well. I can see why it became such important reading and I highly recommend We Should All Be Feminists to just about everyone.