Shelf Control #90: Dream When You’re Feeling Blue

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! Fore 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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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Title: Dream When You’re Feeling Blue
Author: Elizabeth Berg
Published: 2007
Length: 256 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Berg takes us to Chicago at the time of World War II in this wonderful story about three sisters, their lively Irish family, and the men they love.

As the novel opens, Kitty and Louise Heaney say good-bye to their boyfriends Julian and Michael, who are going to fight overseas. On the domestic front, meat is rationed, children participate in metal drives, and Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller play songs that offer hope and lift spirits. And now the Heaney sisters sit at their kitchen table every evening to write letters–Louise to her fiancé, Kitty to the man she wishes fervently would propose, and Tish to an ever-changing group of men she meets at USO dances. In the letters the sisters send and receive are intimate glimpses of life both on the battlefront and at home. For Kitty, a confident, headstrong young woman, the departure of her boyfriend and the lessons she learns about love, resilience, and war will bring a surprise and a secret, and will lead her to a radical action for those she loves. The lifelong consequences of the choices the Heaney sisters make are at the heart of this superb novel about the power of love and the enduring strength of family.

How and when I got it:

I actually have no idea when I got this book, but I know it’s been on my shelf for several years now, and I assume I must have picked it up at one of the library’s book sales.

Why I want to read it:

I can only guess why I picked this book up, since I don’t remember actually buying it! I’ve read one other book by Elizabeth Berg — Open House — and I seem to remember liking it. As for Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, the synopsis appeals to me — most of the WWII stories I’ve read have been set in the thick of the action, so seeing the war from the perspective of the homefront sounds different, and the sisters sound like really fun characters.

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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!

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Japanese Lover

“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.

japanese lover2

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

 

My Thoughts:

While The Japanese Lover tells what should be fascinating stories of suffering and survival, the key problem I had with it was the telling. As in, show — don’t tell. Somehow, most of the narrative of this novel felt like a third party summarizing events, rather than allowing me to witness events for myself. There are a lot of shared stories and memories, but they mostly lack immediacy or a sense of real texture.

Additionally, the overall storyline felt a bit kitchen-sinky to me. Alma is sent off to American by her parents who stay behind in Poland and perish in the Holocaust. Irina’s mother was a victim of sex trafficking and ultimately causes horrible abuse to Irina herself. Ichimei and his family are forced into an internment camp during World War II. Alma’s husband leads a closeted life and dies of AIDS. Horrible things happen, but somehow I barely felt any of them.

The Japanese Lover is a fast read, and parts were quite interesting, but I simply couldn’t engage emotionally with much of it due to the style of the storytelling. This was actually pretty surprising to me, as I’ve read and loved many books by this author in the past. The individual stories all should have been compelling, but the mashing up of them all into one novel just doesn’t work. Add to this the fact that Alma and Ichimei’s love story felt flat and unexciting, and I have to say that The Japanese Lover just isn’t the best example of an Isabel Allende novel.

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The details:

Title: The Japanese Lover
Author: Isabel Allende
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

“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.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

From the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Little Bee, a spellbinding novel about three unforgettable individuals thrown together by war, love, and their search for belonging in the ever-changing landscape of WWII London.

It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.

Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known.

A sweeping epic with the kind of unforgettable characters, cultural insights, and indelible scenes that made Little Bee so incredible, Chris Cleave’s latest novel explores the disenfranchised, the bereaved, the elite, the embattled. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is a heartbreakingly beautiful story of love, loss, and incredible courage.

 

My Thoughts:

I have such mixed feelings about this book. The story is grand and sweeping, encompassing the London air raids of World War II as well as the horrible conditions experienced by soldiers besieged on the island of Malta. In terms of setting and historical context, Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is powerful and hard-hitting, showing us the terror of the reality of war through the eyes of those attempting to live through it.

At the same time, the characters and the dialogue kept me at a distance throughout. The writing is so overdone, and there’s a jolly good, stiff upper lip, never say anything that isn’t a quip flavor to every line the characters speak. If I had to read one more sentence about what “one” did or didn’t do or feel, I might have pulled my hair out.

Overall, I found this a disappointing read. I will probably be in the minority on this one, as the book seems to be getting raves from all the big literary review sources. Sadly, the paths of the characters and the central love story didn’t have a ring of truth. The tragedies pile up, and there are scenes of raw destruction that are breathtakingly sad and shocking. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the characters’ lives, actions, or relationships real enough to feel a true sense of connection to their stories.

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The details:

Title: Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Author: Chris Cleave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: May 3, 2016
Length: 432 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blog Tour & Book Review: The Hummingbird

The Hummingbird

I’m delighted to be participating in the blog tour celebrating the release of The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan. Thank you, TLC Book Tours, for including me!

Synopsis:

Deborah Birch is a seasoned hospice nurse who never gives up—not with her patients, not in her life. But her skills and experience are fully tested by the condition her husband, Michael, is in when he returns from his third deployment to Iraq. Tormented by nightmares, anxiety, and rage, Michael has become cold and withdrawn. Still grateful that he is home at last, Deborah is determined to heal him and restore their loving, passionate marriage.

But Michael is not her only challenge. Deborah’s primary patient is Barclay Reed, a retired history professor and fierce curmudgeon. An expert on the Pacific Theater of World War II, Barclay is suffering from terminal kidney cancer and haunted by ghosts from his past, including the academic scandal that ended his career.

Barclay’s last wish is for Deborah to read to him from his final and unfinished book—a little-known story from World War II that may hold the key to helping Michael conquer his demons. Together, nurse, patient, and soldier embark on an unforgettable emotional journey that transforms them all, offering astonishing insights into life and death, suffering and finding peace.

Told with piercing empathy and heartbreaking realism, The Hummingbird is a masterful story of marital commitment, service to country, the battles we fight for those we love, learning to let go, and finding absolution through wisdom and acceptance.

My thoughts:

The Hummingbird is a quiet yet powerful look at love, acceptance, peace, and dignity. With a hospice nurse as its central figure, The Hummingbird has a calmness to it even when dealing with sorrow and anger.

Deborah is a remarkable woman, and it’s hard not to marvel at the peaceful focus and commitment she brings to her work. Deborah doesn’t view her patients as tragedies or medical lost causes. Instead, her job is to focus on each patient as an individual. Death is already a certainty; it’s Deborah’s purpose to make sure that her patients meet death with the comfort and space they need in order to have a dignified end.

At the same time that we witness Deborah’s work with the Professor, we see her struggling to reclaim her warrior husband Michael, a damaged soul who returns from his third tour in Iraq full of violence, rage, and guilt. Through her work with Barclay Reed and her reading of his unpublished manuscript, Deborah begins to find clues that will help her reach Michael. The more she reads about the Japanese soldier who became a man of peace and forged relationships with his former enemies, the more she learns about how to take steps toward her husband and help him truly find his way home again.

I found The Hummingbird incredibly moving. While I’d had certain preconceptions about the concept of hospice, I’ve never actually encountered it in my own life or in my reading until now. Reading about Deborah, her attitude and her approach, and what hospice provides for patients and their families was eye-opening for me. I was so impressed and touched by the degree of caring, the focus, and the compassion on display. Deborah’s interactions with Barclay are beautiful — not sugar-coated or avoiding the messier elements of illness, but simply caring and placing the patient’s total self above any other concerns.

Deborah’s relationship with her husband was quite touching as well. Michael is damaged and seems almost unfixable, but Deborah doesn’t accept that he’s beyond reach. It isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty, but we see scenes that show the rawness of returning veterans, their inability to fit back into society, and how little true help is available without a fight. It’s sad to realize how real this all is, and what’s more — as illustrated by an affecting scene involving Michael and a Vietnam vet — how little has changed or improved for soldiers in terms of how they’re treated when their fighting is done.

I would be remiss not to mention how powerful the third element of this story is. In chapters interspersed with the modern-day story, we read Barclay Reed’s manuscript, titled The Sword, telling the story of a Japanese bomber pilot whose World War II mission was to firebomb Oregon and cause panic and destruction on US soil. Although his mission did not succeed, the impact of his mission was felt by him and by the Oregon community targeted by his mission for decades to come. The story of connection and reconciliation is lovely, and surprised me by not going in the direction I’d expected.

These three threads — Deborah and the Professor, Deborah and Michael, and the story of The Sword — are woven together to create a beautiful story of redemption and forgiveness. The Hummingbird makes clear that it’s human connection that matters above all else, and that it’s never too late to find peace.

I strongly recommend The Hummingbird. The writing is lovely, the subject matter is quite unusual, and the characters will touch your heart.

Links:

Goodreads:
 
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Purchase Links: Amazon | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble
 
 

About the Author:

Stephen P. KiernanStephen P. Kiernan is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. During his more than twenty years as a journalist, he has won numerous awards, including the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Award, the Edward Willis Scripps Award for Distinguished Service to the First Amendment, and the George Polk Award. Kiernan is the author ofThe Curiosity, his first novel, as well as two nonfiction books. He lives in Vermont with his two sons.

Find out more about Stephen at his website and connect with him on Facebook.

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The details:

Title: The Hummingbird
Author: Stephen P. Kiernan
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: September 8, 2015
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, visit the author’s website or stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

 

Blog Tour & Giveaway: The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach

Thank you for joining me for my stop on the blog tour for Pam Jenoff’s new historical romance, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach! And don’t forget to check out my giveaway — scroll down to enter… and good luck!

Last Summer

Synopsis:

Summer 1941  

Young Adelia Monteforte flees fascist Italy for America, where she is whisked away to the shore by her well-meaning aunt and uncle. Here, she meets and falls for Charlie Connally, the eldest of the four Irish-Catholic boys next door. But all hopes for a future together are soon throttled by the war and a tragedy that hits much closer to home.

Grief-stricken, Addie flees—first to Washington and then to war-torn London—and finds a position at a prestigious newspaper, as well as a chance to redeem lost time, lost family…and lost love. But the past always nips at her heels, demanding to be reckoned with. And in a final, fateful choice, Addie discovers that the way home may be a path she never suspected.

My Thoughts:

I have really mixed feelings about this book. First, the positive: I thought the author did a great job conveying the feel of Philadelphia and the Jersey beaches in the 1940s. The street scenes and depictions of life in a summer beach town were very convincing. I really enjoyed seeing Adelia’s unofficial adoption into the Connally clan. This big, noisy Irish family just opened their hearts and home to her, and it was heartwarming to see this lonely, frightened immigrant girl find a place to fit in.

Likewise, the scenes set in wartime London were stirring, especially seeing the devastation of the Blitz and the danger of simply walking down a street, as well as the sad plight of war orphans and the courage of the war correspondents and soldiers setting off on secret missions. The risks and uncertainty add a sense of breathlessness to every interaction, and I liked seeing Addie find a place amidst the chaos and confusion, seeming to discover a calling of her own.

What worked less well for me was the romance, or rather, romances, that are at the heart of the story. To put it bluntly, I just didn’t buy any of Addie’s love interests. I found her actions and decisions confusing, and even by the very end of the story, I wasn’t convinced by her supposed motivations or feelings. Part of the problem may have been the condensed time frame of the story, covering about four years starting from when Addie is sixteen. An awful lot happens in that amount of time, including romantic entanglements that spring up almost instantly and some that seem to dissolve just as quickly.

For me, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach seemed over-plotted, and I didn’t feel that the emotional arcs built, but rather jumped from point A to point B (or even C). The romantic aspects of this book just didn’t gel, but I did enjoy the historical setting and the way the descriptions evoke a real sense of a by-gone era.

Find out more:


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Purchase Links

Amazon | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble

About the Author:

Pam-Jenoff-credit-Dominic-Episcopo-200x300Pam Jenoff is the Quill-nominated internationally bestselling author of The Kommadant’s Girl. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from George Washington University and a master’s degree in history from Cambridge, and she received her Juris Doctor from the University of Pennsylvania. Jenoff’s novels are based on her experiences working at the Pentagon and also as a diplomat for the State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. She lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.

Connect with Pam:

Website | Facebook | Twitter

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The details:

Title: The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach
Author: Pam Jenoff
Publisher: Mira
Publication date: July 28, 2015
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours

tlc logoFor further information, stop by TLC Book Tours to view other blog tour hosts.

 

 

 

GIVEAWAY!

I’m excited to be giving away a bookbag and finished copy of the book! Want to win? No fancy footwork required — just leave a comment below answering any one of these questions:

– What’s the best book you’ve read set during wartime?
– What beach holds special memories for you, and why?
– If you could live in a different period in history, what would you choose?

Extra credit: Do you follow Bookshelf Fantasies? Let me know in the comments if you follow me and how (email, Twitter, WordPress, etc), and you get an extra entry in the giveaway!

That’s it! I’ll do a random drawing on September 1st to pick a winner. Thanks for playing along!

(Sorry — US/Canada only this time around)

Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday: The Beast’s Garden

There’s nothing like a Wednesday for thinking about the books we want to read! My Wishing & Waiting on Wednesday post is linking up with two fabulous book memes, Wishlist Wednesday (hosted by Pen to Paper) and Waiting on Wednesday (hosted by Breaking the Spine).

My most wished-for book this week is:

Beast's Garden

The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth
(Published in Australia on August 3, 2015 – US publication date ???)

Synopsis via Goodreads:

A retelling of The Beauty and The Beast set in Nazi Germany

The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.

Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.

The Beast’s Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.

Ever since reading a review of this book on the Book’d Out blog, I’ve been dying to track down a copy. So far, I haven’t been able to find out when this book will be published in the US, but I really hope it’s soon!

What are you wishing for this Wednesday?

Looking for some bookish fun on Thursdays? Come join me for my regular weekly feature, Thursday Quotables! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I host a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Take A Peek Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

“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.

All the Light

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

My Thoughts:

I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the oodles of gushing reviews already written about this book. The writing is thoughtful and lovely, with surprising imagery and carefully crafted descriptions of the world inhabited by the characters. Despite the horrors of war, the book itself is beautiful, even when depicting horrific acts and circumstances.

It did take me a good third of the book to truly get into the back and forth approach to the narrative, with shifts in perspective, character focus, and timelines. That being said, I ended up completely enthralled by this book, and despite its length, felt that I would have wanted even more. The two main characters themselves, Marie-Laure and Werner, are both so well-developed that I came to care deeply about them and felt that I really understood them. Even Werner, who tacitly condones terrible acts by doing nothing to prevent them, has an inner life that makes him a very flawed but understandable character, and his life is tragic in its own way every bit as much as some of the more obviously heroic characters’ lives.

The setting and the supporting characters are all lovingly drawn, and the writing simply glows. This book is hard to describe, other than to call it a must-read.

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The details:

Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 6, 2014
Length: 531 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

 

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins

lightHave I mentioned lately how much I love the Outlander Book Club? Without the OBC’s Book of the Month discussions, I might have procrastinated about reading this book for a while longer… but instead, I read The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian for our February BOTM pick, and loved it!

The Light in the Ruins is historical fiction set in Italy, with two alternating timelines: 1943-1944, when we meet the Rosati family and learn of their experiences during World War II, and 1955, when the surviving members of the family are being hunted down and brutally murdered by a serial killer with a vendetta.

The Rosatis own a beautiful, luxurious estate, Villa Chimera, in the Tuscan hills, where they live in upper class splendor, enjoying their vineyards, horses, swimming pool, and sweeping vistas. They are linked to museums in both the local town nearby and in Florence by the discovery of Etruscan tombs on their property. The tombs attract the attention of the Nazi officials whose job it is to steal rare and valuable Italian artwork for the benefit of the Reich (or, as they put it, to “protect” the artwork from the war by sending it all back to Berlin for safekeeping).

One Rosati son, Vittore, is a museum curator, and the Germans he works with begin to visit the villa more regularly, at first just to view the tombs, but then as a place to take visitors and enjoy some pampering. The Rosatis are viewed with suspicion and more by the neighboring villagers and gain a reputation as collaborators. Were they forced and intimidated into entertaining the Nazis, or are they enjoying the extra rations and other benefits of staying on the Nazi officers’ good sides?

Meanwhile, youngest daughter Cristina enters into an ill-advised love affair with a young German officer, and daughter-in-law Francesca, known for her sharp tongue and abrasive ways, waits anxiously with her two small children for news of her husband Marco, fighting on the front lines against the Allied invasion.

Cut to 1955, and the Rosatis are being gruesomely murdered, one by one. I won’t go into detail about which family members have survived the war and which are the murder victims. You’ll find all this out in short order if you read the book, and it’s all quite devastating. The investigating police detective is a woman named Serafina, who fought as a partisan during the war and whose wartime experiences and awful injuries intersect with the fate of so many members of the Rosati family.

Meanwhile, in between the 1943 and 1955 chapters, we get snippets of first-person narration told by the killer in a chilling, detached voice, explaining just how he or she butchered his first victim and what he or she has in store for the rest.

The Light in the Ruins has a grim, inevitable feel to its escalating tragedy. The war story is the more compelling of the two storylines, and it becomes increasingly difficult to read as we progress through the books. From the 1955 chapters, we know fairly early on which family members died during the war, and we spend the rest of the book building up to the awful events resulting in their deaths. The writing is all the more powerful because of the dread in each scene; we know something very bad is coming, and can even guess some of it, but it’s still shocking and horrible to read when it arrives.

That said, The Light in the Ruins is an incredibly well-written and smartly paced book. The plot is constantly moving forward, despite the time shifts, and the clues and revelations pile up in a way that feels organic and well-ordered. Interestingly, I didn’t particularly like many of the characters, even the ones we theoretically should feel more sympathetic toward, but that in no way meant that I didn’t feel horror at their fate and their suffering.

Perhaps the only story thread that I didn’t particularly care for was the love story involving Cristina and the German officer, but it’s only one of many pieces of the whole. Otherwise, I found the connections and relationships among the many characters fascinating. If anything, I’d have liked to know a bit more about Serafina, and would be curious to know what her future holds.

The author does not shy away from describing the terrible events that occur in either timeline, and I suppose some readers will feel that the descriptions might be too graphic. I didn’t feel that way — I felt that it was important to know and understand exactly what happened in order to experience the terror of the characters and get a full sense of the tragedy. Still, for readers who are more squeamish or prefer not to see every last detail, this might be good to keep in mind.

As I was reading The Light in the Ruins, I was often reminded of the wonderful book A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell — and was delighted to see Chris Bohjalian’s praise of that book in his acknowledgements. For more reading on Italy during WWII, I highly recommend A Thread of Grace.

Summing it all up: Is there anything Chris Bohjalian can’t write? I’ve now read, written by him, a legal/medial drama (Midwives), a post -disaster first-person story with a teen girl narrator (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands), one of the spookiest ghost stories I’ve ever read (The Night Strangers), and with The Light in the Ruins, outstanding historical fiction. Clearly, I need to read much more of his work and see what other worlds and genres are contained within his books!

Meanwhile, for an excellent but heart-wrenching slice of historical fiction, I absolutely recommend The Light in the Ruins.

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The details:

Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: July 9, 2013
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Found at a book swap!

Audiobook Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

unbrokenI just finished listening to the audiobook of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and it blew me away. I haven’t been this mesmerized by any book — much less a non-fiction book — in a long time.

In this true story, we follow the amazing life of Louis Zamperini – childhood troublemaker, Olympic runner, WWII bombadier, and POW camp survivor. Louis’s story is so incredible that if it were fiction, I’d have complained, “Come on. How much can one person go through? This is beyond belief.”

Louis’s war-era ordeal began when his B-24 bomber crashed during a search flight for a missing plane in the Pacific. Louis then spent 47 days adrift on a life raft with no food or rations except what he and his companions could somehow catch or collect. Rescue finally came from a Japanese ship, and Louis then spent the next two years in a series of Japanese POW camps, suffering horrible brutality and inhumane, degrading conditions.

And yet, this remarkable man survived, spirit intact. He managed to hang on through one long period of deprivation and physical hardship after another, maintaining his hope and courage, supported by memories of his family’s love as well as the friendship of the other prisoners by his side.

I am so glad that I finally read (heard) this book. The narration is no-frills, but quite good. I was afraid that a non-fiction audiobook would be too dry to hold my interest, since my attention does tend to wander quite easily when I listen to books. No worries needed, in the case of Unbroken. I was as fascinated by this book as I’ve ever been by any suspense novel, and found myself both breathless with anticipation and moved to tears at times.

With the movie release scheduled for Christmas day, Unbroken is getting a renewed burst of media coverage — although as far as I can tell, it’s been on the the bestseller list continuously since it was published. (According to the New York Times, it’s been on the list for 181 weeks!). If you’re thinking of seeing the movie but haven’t read the book, I’d say read it first. I loved all the little details of Louis’s life, the quotes from letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, the interviews with family members and friends, and the historical context in which his story takes place.

Unbroken is a rich and moving story, and I just can’t recommend it highly enough. Whether in print or via audio, it should not be missed.

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The details:

Title: Unbroken
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: First published 2010
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/History
Source: Purchased

Audiobook info:
Narrated by Edward Herrmann
Length: 14 hours

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetTalk about being late to the party. I’ve been hearing about this book for years (since its publication in 2009, to be more precise), and yet it never quite made it into my hands until this month. Thanks to an upcoming book club discussion, I’ve finally read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet… and all I can say is, what took me so long?

This sad, sweet, and ultimately hopeful book is about love, friendship, family, and second chances. Centered around a shameful period in US history, Hotel is set at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, as communities of Japanese Americans are forced from their homes and into internment camps. In 1942 Seattle, 12-year-old Chinese-American Henry Lee attends an all-white school, wearing the “I Am Chinese” button that his father forces on him to make sure everyone knows that Henry isn’t one of the enemy. Bullied and alone, Henry hates his new school until he meets the lovely, artistic new student, Keiko, daughter of a Japanese-American family. Henry and Keiko become fast friends, but Henry knows he’s breaking his father’s rules every moment he spends in Keiko’s company. When Keiko’s family is forced out in the evacuation of Japantown, Henry is bereft — but with the assistance of his musician friend Sheldon, he finds a way to stay connected with Keiko even in the distant and desolate camp to which she and her family are relocated.

Family is really at the heart of this slim book. Henry’s parents are so determined that he should be an American that he’s forbidden to speak Cantonese in their home — but since neither parent speaks English, the family spends years never really speaking to one another. Family loyalty is tested again and again, as Henry must choose between obedience to his parents — Chinese loyalists who are virulently anti-Japanese — and his need to help Keiko and her family. Keiko too must choose between the possibility of shelter and escape or staying with her parents and brother.

The time period of the books switches between the 1940s and the 1980s, when we see Henry as a recent widower with a cordial but distant relationship with his only child. When a trove of war-era items is found in a boarded-up old hotel in Japantown, Henry’s memories of Keiko are rekindled, and he begins a journey of rediscovery that starts to heal the rift between Henry and his son as well as presenting the possibility of recapturing a long lost love.

Through it all, these well-defined characters struggle for understanding and connection, forced apart by circumstances beyond their control, fighting to do what’s right, even when what’s right isn’t always clear. Loyalty, love, and friendship are all tested in different ways, and the recurring theme of jazz music nicely highlights the characters’ feelings and experiences.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a lovely book about a tragic piece of history. More than just a glimpse of the past, though, Hotel offers a glimpse into the hearts of its characters. Deeply affecting and full of period detail, this is a book that will be in my thoughts for quite some time to come.

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The details:

Title: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: 2009
Length: 290 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased