Take A Peek Book Review: The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From the national bestselling author of Alice comes a postapocalyptic take on the perennial classic “Little Red Riding Hood”…about a woman who isn’t as defenseless as she seems.

It’s not safe for anyone alone in the woods. There are predators that come out at night: critters and coyotes, snakes and wolves. But the woman in the red jacket has no choice. Not since the Crisis came, decimated the population, and sent those who survived fleeing into quarantine camps that serve as breeding grounds for death, destruction, and disease. She is just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that doesn’t look anything like the one she grew up in, the one that was perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago.

There are worse threats in the woods than the things that stalk their prey at night. Sometimes, there are men. Men with dark desires, weak wills, and evil intents. Men in uniform with classified information, deadly secrets, and unforgiving orders. And sometimes, just sometimes, there’s something worse than all of the horrible people and vicious beasts combined.

Red doesn’t like to think of herself as a killer, but she isn’t about to let herself get eaten up just because she is a woman alone in the woods….

My Thoughts:

The Girl in Red brings together so many elements that I absolutely love in books. Pandemic? Check. Breakdown of civilization? Check. Woman having to survive on her own? Check, check, check.

Red, in her earlier years, was an avid consumer of horror and disaster films, and so she knows the rules. Be prepared. Always have your weapon and pack ready. Never split up. Don’t do the stupid things that movie characters always do, because that leads to very bad things. And if you want to survive, you’ve got to learn fast and do whatever it takes.

I loved Red. She’s smart, strong, and determined. Left alone suddenly and tragically, her only hope is to avoid what she’s sure will be certain death in a quarantine camp by making her way to her grandmother’s isolated home in the woods, which means trekking through hundreds of miles of forest and defending herself along the way, all without being discovered or captured or exposed to the deadly disease that’s ravaged the world. Also, as a biracial, bisexual, disabled woman, Red is a breath of fresh air as a main character, especially since she’s a survivor who never lets anything, including her prosthetic leg, keep her from her path.

The plot is exciting and filled with danger. I love how the author flashes between present day, as Red progresses on her journey and uncovers all sorts of disturbing secrets, and the past, as she and her family prepare their escape and have their plans fall apart as the crisis escalates.

My only quibble here is that the end comes much too soon, and there are so many plot threads left untied. What happens next? What caused all the bad things (being vague here…)? I certainly hope there’s a next book, because I’m dying to know more. (I just wish this book was clearly marked as book #1 in a series, so I’d have been prepared to feel left hanging at the end.)

The Girl in Red is a great read, and I want more! I haven’t read anything else by this author yet, but that’s clearly got to change.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Girl in Red
Author: Christina Henry
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: June 18, 2019
Length: 308 pages
Genre: Speculative fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #171: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Lotus Eaters
Author: Tatjana Soli
Published: 2010
Length: 389 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A unique and sweeping debut novel of an American female combat photographer in the Vietnam War, as she captures the wrenching chaos and finds herself torn between the love of two men.On a stifling day in 1975, the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the fall of the city begins, two lovers make their way through the streets to escape to a new life. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. Linh, the Vietnamese man who loves her, must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties of heart and homeland. As they race to leave, they play out a drama of devotion and betrayal that spins them back through twelve war-torn years, beginning in the splendor of Angkor Wat, with their mentor, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, once Helen’s infuriating love and fiercest competitor, and Linh’s secret keeper, boss and truest friend.

Tatjana Soli paints a searing portrait of an American woman’s struggle and triumph in Vietnam, a stirring canvas contrasting the wrenching horror of war and the treacherous narcotic of obsession with the redemptive power of love. Readers will be transfixed by this stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war.

How and when I got it:

Honestly, I have no idea when or where I got this book! (Although it’s always a safe bet that I found it at a library sale…)

Why I want to read it:

I heard about this author from a friend who’d read a more recent book of hers, and when I looked it up, the synopsis of this one really appealed to me. A love story set during the Vietnam War sounds powerful (and probably quite tragic), and something about it really draws me in. Now that I’ve “re-discovered” it on my shelves, I’m looking forward to reading it!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2019

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2019.

I’m so excited for all of these… as you could probably tell if you took a peek at my pre-order list. A lot of these books are sequels or parts of series, and that’s just fine with me. Here are my top ten anticipated books — see the list below for release dates.

  1. The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell (release date 8/6/2019)
  2. Reticence (The Custard Protocol, #4) by Gail Carriger (release date 8/6/2019)
  3. Snow, Glass, Apple by Neil Gaiman (release date 8/20/2019)
  4. The Institute by Stephen King (release date 9/10/2019)
  5. The Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale, #2) by Margaret Atwood (release date 9/10/2019)
  6. Wayward Son (Carry On, #2) by Rainbow Rowell (release date 9/24/2019)
  7. The Unkindest Tide (October Daye, #13) by Seanan McGuire (release date 9/3/2019)
  8. The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust, #2) by Philip Pullman (release date 10/3/2019)
  9. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (illustrated edition) by J. K. Rowling (release date 10/8/2019)
  10. Malorie (Bird Box, #2) by Josh Malerman (release date 12/3/2019)

Are you planning to read any of these? What books are you dying to read in the 2nd half of 2019? Please share your links!

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The Monday Check-In ~ 6/17/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

I’m on a visit back east to see family this week. It’s hectic but fun… and I did get to do a lot of reading on the plane!

What did I read during the last week?

Not a single review written… but here’s what I read:

The Umbrella Academy: A graphic novel – just okay. I didn’t love the artwork, and overall, I enjoy the characters on the TV series much more than in the book.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe: A re-read. The sequel comes out later this month, and I definitely needed a refresher! It’s been nine years since I first read this book. Really enjoyed it again the 2nd time around!

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery: The audiobook was lovely! Can’t believe I made it this far in life without getting to know Anne!

And from last week:

Recursion by Black Crouch: Absolutely loved this book! I finished it last week, but just posted a review a few days ago.

Pop culture:

What’s a reader to do when she finishes a book on a plane? Switch over to Netflix for a charming rom-com!

Fresh Catch:

Two exciting ARCs arrived in the mail right before I left on my trip:

The grammar book releases in August; the Obama/Biden book in July. So psyched for both!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

I have two different books on the go right now:

Now playing via audiobook:

Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery: More Anne! My plan right now is to keep going with the Anne audiobooks — so much fun to listen to.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group reads at the moment:

  • A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon, from the Seven Stones To Stand or Fall collection.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Book Review: Recursion by Blake Crouch

Memory makes reality. That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith already understands the power of memory. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious moments of our pasts. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?

When I read Black Crouch’s previous novel, Dark Matter, I used the word mind-f*ckery in my review. And apparently, this author excels at mind-f*ckery, because that’s exactly how I’d describe this book too.

And I mean that as very high praise!

Recursion is crazy heaps of mind-melting, time-distorting, reality-altering fun, and I loved it start to finish.

Barry is our non-scientist entry into the world of playing with reality by activating memories. Helena is the scientist who makes it all possible. Her goal is to help her mother before she completely loses herself to Alzheimer’s, but an innovative mega-millionaire realizes that Helena’s invention can be so much more. When he funds her research, the best scientific minds are assembled to create the device at the heart of Helena’s studies, a chair that enables people to save the synaptic imprints of vivid memories so that they can be re-experienced later, perhaps when those memories have been consumed by disease and deterioration.

I won’t go deeper into plot than what I’ve already said. Through Barry and Helena’s separate experiences, we learn about the research, the ulterior motives of Helena’s benefactor, and the mind-boggling way in which her device can be put to use. The end results are far from what Helena intended or even dreamed… and from the reader’s perspective, it’s just so weird and cool. I came close to permanently tying my brain into a pretzel trying to follow some of the logic and cause-and-effect factors and timey-wimey shenanigans that get wilder and wilder as the book progresses. How crazy is it all? There are apocalypses. Yes, plural. Apocalypses.

At the same time that all this reality bending is going on, there are deep and beautiful relationships at stake, painful emotions and harsh truths, and some really intriguing thoughts about the role of memory and the meaning of experiences.

He is always looking back, living more in memories than the present, often altering them to make them prettier. To make them perfect. Nostalgia is as much an analgesic for him as alcohol.

The plot is complex and made me work hard to follow it (and I’m not sure I always understood exactly why things happened how and when they did), but I loved every moment and couldn’t put the book down. Recursion reminded me a little of one of my very favorite science fiction books, Replay by Ken Grimwood (which, if you haven’t read it, drop everything and go find a copy!).

As I think is obvious by now, I completely fell for Recursion and have been recommending it like a madwoman ever since I finished it. And every time I got confused by a freakish time twist? I just remembered a comment of Helena’s:

You have to stop thinking linearly.

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The details:

Title: Recursion
Author: Blake Crouch
Publisher: Crown
Publication date: June 11, 2019
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #170: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Published: 2017
Length: 304 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A lively, sexy, and thought-provoking East-meets-West story about community, friendship, and women’s lives at all ages—a spicy and alluring mix of Together Tea and Calendar Girls.

Every woman has a secret life . . .

Nikki lives in cosmopolitan West London, where she tends bar at the local pub. The daughter of Indian immigrants, she’s spent most of her twenty-odd years distancing herself from the traditional Sikh community of her childhood, preferring a more independent (that is, Western) life. When her father’s death leaves the family financially strapped, Nikki, a law school dropout, impulsively takes a job teaching a “creative writing” course at the community center in the beating heart of London’s close-knit Punjabi community.

Because of a miscommunication, the proper Sikh widows who show up are expecting to learn basic English literacy, not the art of short-story writing. When one of the widows finds a book of sexy stories in English and shares it with the class, Nikki realizes that beneath their white dupattas, her students have a wealth of fantasies and memories. Eager to liberate these modest women, she teaches them how to express their untold stories, unleashing creativity of the most unexpected—and exciting—kind.

As more women are drawn to the class, Nikki warns her students to keep their work secret from the Brotherhood, a group of highly conservative young men who have appointed themselves the community’s “moral police.” But when the widows’ gossip offers shocking insights into the death of a young wife—a modern woman like Nikki—and some of the class erotica is shared among friends, it sparks a scandal that threatens them all.

How and when I got it:

I picked up a Kindle edition when there was a one-day price drop, about a year ago.

Why I want to read it:

I thought this book sounded completely charming when I first heard of it… and apparently Reese Witherspoon agrees with me, because it ended up as one of her book club selections. I’m always drawn to immigrant stories, and I love the idea of a women’s writing class exploring erotica as a way of expressing themselves and forming a community.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

Top Ten Tuesday: Unpopular Bookish Opinions

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Unpopular Bookish Opinions. I’m a little stymied by the topic — I’m not sure that I have any bookish opinions that would truly qualify as unpopular… but here goes:

1 – I’m not fond of the genre described as literary fiction. What makes something literary? Versus what, non-literary fiction? And what does that even mean? Too often, I’ve found that books described as literary fiction are really just books where the writing gets in the way of a straight-forward plot.

2 – I’m not a fan of reading challenges. I know lots of people find challenges fun, but I look at them as an obligation. Every time I’ve committed to a reading challenge, I’ve ended up feeling resentful that my reading choices were being dictated to me.

3 – I say a big HECK YES to DNFing. Reading is supposed to be enjoyable. If a book isn’t working for me, I’d much rather stop than waste any more time on it.

4 – Sometimes, TV adaptations can be better than the books! Especially when well done or when a TV version expands the storyline beyond the plot of the original, it can be so engrossing to see how far the characters and situations can develop.

5 – I don’t like trigger warnings in book reviews. I understand they can be important for some readers, but I often find them overly broad or too spoiler-y. I prefer to know next to nothing about plot details when I’m starting a book. Maybe reviewers on Goodreads could use the spoiler formatting to hide the content of their trigger warnings, so only people who want to know will see them? Just a thought.

6 – Book signings should be free. Okay, maybe this isn’t actually an unpopular opinion — but over the last few years, there were several times when bookstores in my area charged admission to an author event, justifying it by saying it included the purchase of the book. But what if someone already has a copy? Or maybe someone wants to hear the author speak and then decide if they want the book?

7 – I hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Just hated it. Hated the writing, hating the sense of wallowing in the violence. I know people loved this book and series, but I just could not.

8 – Sometimes series can drag on too long. And why does everything have to be a series? I get really frustrated by continuing stories that really could have been told in one solid book.

9 – Just because something is called a classic doesn’t mean I need to read it. Take the Great American Read list. I’ve read a bunch, there are a bunch I want to read, and there are some I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

10 – Okay, for sure this one doesn’t really qualify as an unpopular opinion, but… I read for me. I read what I like, when I feel like it. No “shoulds” allowed when it comes to picking my books! I don’t care how much praise a book gets, if it doesn’t appeal to me, then I’m out.

Do you have any unpopular bookish opinions? If you wrote a TTT post this week, please share your link!

The Monday Check-In ~ 6/10/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

What did I read during the last week?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner: Powerful historical fiction. My review is here.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn: A truly beautiful and powerful memoir. My review is here.

Recursion by Blake Crouch: So much mind-f*ckery. Just finished reading this Sunday night; review to follow. (Loved it.)

Fresh Catch:

No new books — although I did pick up a paperback edition of The Salt Path to complement listening to the audiobook!

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

Bouncing around between different books right now:

A graphic novel, an ARC of a recent release, and a re-read of a book whose sequel comes out later this month — between these three, I should be able to keep myself busy for the next several days!

Now playing via audiobook:

Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery: Back to Anne! I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time earlier this year, and have been wanting to continue with the series. I’m only a little way into the book, but it’s charming so far.

Ongoing reads:

Two ongoing book group reads at the moment:

  • A Fugitive Green by Diana Gabaldon, from the Seven Stones To Stand or Fall collection.
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens — our current classic selection.

So many books, so little time…

boy1

Audiobook Review: The Salt Path by Raynor Winn


SHORTLISTED FOR THE COSTA BOOK AWARD 

The true story of a couple who lost everything and embarked on a transformative journey walking the South West Coast Path in England

Just days after Raynor Winn learns that Moth, her husband of thirty-two years, is terminally ill, their house and farm are taken away, along with their livelihood. With nothing left and little time, they make the brave and impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, through Devon and Cornwall.

Carrying only the essentials for survival on their backs, they live wild in the ancient, weathered landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky. Yet through every step, every encounter, and every test along the way, their walk becomes a remarkable and life-affirming journey. Powerfully written and unflinchingly honest, The Salt Path is ultimately a portrayal of home–how it can be lost, rebuilt, and rediscovered in the most unexpected ways.

I feel like I could just make a list of relevant adjectives and leave my review at that:

Powerful.

Beautiful.

Moving.

Inspiring.

Courageous.

Not enough? Okay, here goes, with a bit more commentary.

I remember hearing something about The Salt Path when it was released, but didn’t really know what the book would focus on or whether it was really for me. Having just finished the audiobook, I can emphatically state that yes, this IS a book for me, and I suspect for many others too.

In The Salt Path, author Raynor Winn shares the painful story of how she and her husband Moth lost their family farm after a lengthy legal battle stemming from an investment with a friend. While not all that much detail is given about the case itself, it sounds as though this long-term friend was fairly shady and went after Ray and Moth to cover his expenses when the project tanked. Not able to afford counsel in the drawn-out court case, the couple had no choice but to represent themselves, and ultimately ended up losing everything on what seemed to be a technicality.

Given a week to vacate their home, Ray and Moth are thrown into despair, compounded by a visit that week to a doctor who confirms that Moth suffers from a degenerative neurological disease that will kill him after a painful decline at some point in the near future. If this were fiction, a reader might be tempted to protest the melodrama of having characters lose their homes and livelihood AND get a terminal diagnosis all in the same week, but this is real life, and it really happened this way.

The choices available to the couple are slim. They’re left with public benefts that amount to about $60 a week, and can go on the wait list for public housing — but because Moth’s illness isn’t in end stages just yet, they don’t have priority. They can stay with family and friends temporarily, but are afraid of becoming burdens and outstaying their welcomes. And then a strange whim occurs to them as they’re sorting through the remains of their old life — why not just walk? Now in their 50s, Moth and Ray haven’t done any serious outdoor adventuring in many, many years, but the idea of walking the South West Coast Path grabs hold of them as a way of being somewhere, with a purpose, rather than completely buckling under the weight of their bad luck and inauspicious prospects.

And so, they gather gear, put most of their belongings into storage with friends, and set out to walk the Coast Path. It’s not easy. Moth’s illness is painful, to the point that he can barely get out of bed some days. And yet, they’re determined to walk rather than sit still. As they move forward, they face ongoing shortages of food, scraping by on their meager weekly allowance (and eating lots of noodles), camping wild wherever they can find a spot to pitch the tent, and slowly, mile by mile, falling into a rhythm that has a beauty all its own.

Ray and Moth have a marriage that the rest of us can only envy. Together since their teens, the love between the couple is strong and unbreakable, shining through Ray’s writing on every single page. It’s heart-breaking to hear Ray’s thoughts on how much this man means to her, and what the future might hold for both of them as his disease progresses.

Meanwhile, each chapter brings fresh insights and wonders. Parts of the book read like an ode to the natural beauty of the landscapes and seascapes they see on their journey. It really sounds spectacular. There’s also sorrow and harsh realities — the author includes statistics and background information on homelessness in the UK, and shows how the official numbers are only a small representation of the true homeless population.

Homeless themselves, Ray and Moth again and again face the general dislike and fear that most people seem to feel toward the homeless. They meet many people along the path — fellow hikers, local residents, random strangers. When seen as older backpackers with presumably enough wealth to take weeks away from the world to walk the path, they’re applauded and warmly greeted. But when Moth explains to previously friendly people that they’re homeless, the others shrink away from them and can’t seem to distance themselves fast enough.

The writing is simply beautiful. Ray shares her pain and her sorrows, but also reveals the growing sense of belonging that she finds through the path:

The country towered above me, a blank empty space containing nothing for us. Only one thing was real, more real to me now than the past that we’d lost or the future we didn’t have: if I put one foot in front of the other, the path would move me forward and a strip of dirt, often no more than a foot wide, had become home. It wasn’t just the chill in the air, the lowering of the sun’s horizon, the heaviness of the dew or the lack of urgency in the birds’ calls, but something in me was changing season too. I was no longer striving, fighting to change the unchangeable, not clenching in anxiety at the life we’d been unable to hold on to, or angry at an authoritarian system too bureaucratic to see the truth. A new season had crept into me, a softer season of acceptance. Burned in by the sun, driven in by the storm. I could feel the sky, the earth, the water and revel in being part of the elements without a chasm of pain opening at the thought of the loss of our place within it all. I was a part of the whole. I didn’t need to own a patch of land to make that so. I could stand in the wind and I was the wind, the rain, the sea; it was all me, and I was nothing within it. The core of me wasn’t lost. Translucent, elusive, but there and grown stronger with every headland.

A note on the audiobook: Narrator Anne Reid is lovely, making the story feel alive and vibrant, capturing the emotion of Ray’s first-person narration in a way that makes it feel like a friend telling you a story. Really a treat to listen to.

There’s so much to love about The Salt Path. I found Ray and Moth’s journey and their devotion to one another so inspirational. And, this book really made me want to get out and walk a long path some day!

Don’t miss this book. It’s a beautiful work, and is worth taking the time to savor.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Salt Path
Author: Raynor Winn
Narrated by: Anne Reid
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication date: March 22, 2018
Length (print): 288 pages
Length (audiobook): 11 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

Book Review: The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner



Elise Sontag is a typical Iowa fourteen-year-old in 1943–aware of the war but distanced from its reach. Then her father, a legal U.S. resident for nearly two decades, is suddenly arrested on suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. The family is sent to an internment camp in Texas, where, behind the armed guards and barbed wire, Elise feels stripped of everything beloved and familiar, including her own identity.

The only thing that makes the camp bearable is meeting fellow internee Mariko Inoue, a Japanese-American teen from Los Angeles, whose friendship empowers Elise to believe the life she knew before the war will again be hers. Together in the desert wilderness, Elise and Mariko hold tight the dream of being young American women with a future beyond the fences.

The Last Year of the War is the moving story of true friendship that lasts a lifetime, despite years of separation. Told through the eyes of Elise, the story opens in 2010 when Elise is in her 80s, suffering from the losses associated with Alzheimers, feeling pieces of herself and her life being stolen away from her. When her housekeeper teaches her to use Google, Elise uses it to look up her friend Mariko, a girl she last saw during the last year of World War II. And having found her, Elise decides to go see her, despite the memory lapses that cause her to repeatedly lose her focus and her purpose for traveling.

From there, we go back to Elise’s adolescence. As the American-born daughter of German immigrants, Elise enjoys her ordinary life in Davenport, Iowa, up until the day her father is arrested as an enemy of the United States:

As I watched the black car that held my father disappear around the block, the strongest sensation I had was not that this couldn’t be happening, but that it was. It was like being awakened from a stupor, not falling into a nightmare. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone then. Not even to myself. It was only in the years that followed that I realized this was the moment my eyes were opened to what the world is really like.

Eventually, the family is reunited at the Crystal City Internment Camp in Texas, where they, along with hundreds of other German-American and Japanese-American families, are assigned to remain throughout the war years. Life in the camp isn’t awful for Elise, because she finds Mariko — also an American-born daughter of immigrants. They attend the mixed school together and become deeply connected friends, sharing their dreams, their hopes, and their fears, and making grand plans for the life they’ll spend together after the war, moving to New York and pursuing their adult lives side by side.

It’s not to be, sadly — first Elise’s family and then Mariko’s are chosen for repatriation. Despite being American citizens, Elise and her brother Max along with her parents are sent to Germany in exchange for Americans being held there. Suddenly, in what will be the final year of the war, the family is thrust into a war zone. While Elise’s father’s family is there to welcome them and offer them a home, it isn’t home for Elise, who doesn’t even speak the language. From the safety of American soil, Elise finds herself in a strange land, where bombs fall over night as the Allied armies get closer and closer, and where the day after a bombing raid reveals nothing but death and destruction.

Throughout this time, it’s the thought of Mariko and their friendship that gives Elise hope, until the day a letter from Mariko arrives, telling Elise that she’s being forced to marry and that her family forbids any further contact. Heartbroken, Elise struggles to find a way to move forward, until a meeting with an American GI after the German surrender opens up new opportunities for her.

Enough synopsis! I won’t give away any further plot details. The Last Year of the War is a very compelling story, and Elise is a very sympathetic character. It’s almost impossible to imagine, sitting her in the comfort of the 21st century, that an American citizen could be torn away from her country like this and sent into a war zone, but the key events in this book are drawn from the historical record. The Crystal City camp was a real place, and repatriation of Japanese and German immigrants and their families really did happen.

I was actually shocked to discover that German-Americans were sent to internment camps — I’d only ever read about Japanese-Americans and their treatment during WWII. It might be just ignorance on my part, but it seems like that element of the war years has never been as publicly known and reported. I was equally shocked to learn about the repatriation of families to Japan and Germany. It seems incredibly cruel to send these people into war-torn countries for no reason other than the fact of their birthplaces — or in the cases of Elise, Mariko, and their siblings, the birthplaces of their parents.

Based on the synopsis of the book, I’d expected to have Elise and Mariko share the historical pieces of the story, but the book is actually Elise’s story, told through her memories of her war years and beyond. We learn about Mariko through Elise’s perspective, so once the girls are separated, we only know what happened to Mariko when Elise finds out more. This doesn’t diminish the power of the story — Elise’s experiences are powerful and fascinating on their own — but it was a little out of alignment with my initial expectations.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t love this book, because I absolutely did. I learned pieces of history that were new and surprising to me, and beyond that, I got to meet characters who are richly drawn, deeply relatable, and full of hopes, fears, and passions that resonate. Elise goes on to live a life of purpose and meaning, but never forgets Mariko and what their brief time together meant to her.

My only wish might be that Elise and Mariko had more time together once they were reunited. These pieces of the story are so powerful, but we only get small segments of this time, as a framing device for the historical pieces of the story.

All in all, I’d say that The Last Year of the War is a must-read for fans of historical fiction or for anyone who wants to learn more about an unseen chapter of the war. It’s a wonderfully rich story of two friends and how a connection like theirs can change lives. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Last Year of the War
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: March 19, 2019
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley