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 Tormented by nightmares, anxiety, and rage, Michael has become cold and withdrawn.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:
 
Add to Goodreads badge
 
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.

_________________________________________

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:


Add to Goodreads badge

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

_________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________

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.

_________________________________________

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

Book Review: Rose Under Fire

Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

17907041In 2012, no new release impressed me more (or made me cry harder) than Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. The author’s newest book, Rose Under Fire, is also set during World War II, and presents the horrors of war through the eyes of a fresh new heroine, Rose Justice.

When we first meet Rose, she is 18 years old, a feisty pilot from Pennsylvania who has volunteered to serve with the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary), a civilian division supporting the Royal Air Force in England by ferrying aircraft back and forth between bases, airfields, and repair centers. The ATA was never intended to see action — but as we see in Rose Under Fire, things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.

While shielded from combat, the ATA pilots face the danger of flying damaged or faulty equipment — and even deadlier, there’s also the danger of incoming German V-1 rockets, known as flying bombs or “doodlebugs”. When Rose pursues and knocks down a doodlebug, she starts a chain of events that leads to her capture by German pilots — resulting in unimaginable horrors as she eventually finds herself a prisoner in the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp.

The author doesn’t shy away from presenting the appalling, inhuman suffering of the Ravensbrück prisoners. Worst off of all are the “Rabbits”, Polish prisoners who have been used as human guinea pigs in cruel, pointless medical experiments which killed many and left the rest horribly crippled. Rose is adopted within the camp by a close-knit group of prisoners, among them several Rabbits, and they all swear to tell the world, one way or another, what truly transpired hidden away behind the camp walls.

Rose is an admirable and loveable main character. She’s not naive, but she does come from a nurturing family in the safe and cozy world of the US — so that while her camp mates recount the years of wartime terror they’ve already lived through, Rose can only recall her birthday parties and swimming at the lake on warm summer days. It’s Rose’s good memories and her gift with words that help them all to survive, as Rose creates poems and stories that the other prisoners avidly soak up, her fantasy worlds providing distraction from the unending suffering in the camp as well as a glimpse of what happiness might once have been.

Within Rose’s camp family, bonds are strong and fierce, and Rose and the others display courage and devotion beyond what we might imagine. Those who survive only do so because of the others’ loyalty and sacrifice. Meanwhile, in the midst of starvation, endless roll calls in freezing weather, rampant disease, and the threat of sudden execution or disfiguring punishment, all the prisoners can do is get through each moment, determined above all to never let the names of the lost be forgotten.

Rose Under Fire is powerful, disturbing, sad, and lovely. The writing is unflinching, and yet also contains the beauty of Rose’s poetry, which she creates first in her head in the camp, and later records in the journals she uses to tell her story when she can’t face the idea of actually talking about her experiences with outsiders. Her lengthy poem “The Subtle Briar” speaks to the prisoners’ clinging to life, even in the face of terror and death:

When you cut down the hybrid rose,
its blackened stump below the graft
spreads furtive fingers in the dirt.
It claws at life, weaving a raft
of suckering roots to pierce the earth…

Rose Under Fire is a companion piece to Code Name Verity. Chronologically, it takes place after the events of Code Name Verity and includes a few characters from the earlier book — but I wouldn’t consider it a true sequel, as Rose Under Fire stands perfectly well on its own. Both books are remarkable achievements, taking young heroic women and placing them at the center of war, and endowing them with courage and grace even in the worst of times and circumstances. If you’ve read neither book, start with Code Name Verity, simply because certain outcomes in this book are referenced in Rose Under Fire. Again, both books certainly stand on their own, but I’d recommend reading them in the order written if only to avoid spoilers for the end of Code Name Verity.

Rose Under Fire lacks the intricate plot twists and reversals that make Code Name Verity so breathtaking. Because the book is told from Rose’s point of view, her survival is never truly in doubt. However, her horrifying ordeal and the complex stories of her fellow prisoners make Rose Under Fire a harrowing and emotional reading experience, and I found myself unable to put the book down until I reached the sad but inspiring end.

Author Elizabeth Wein, with these two books, has taken a chapter of history that may not be as immediately familiar to younger readers today and has brought it to life in vibrant, tangible detail. These books deserve all the praise they’ve received, and I have no hesitation about recommending them, for adult and young adult readers alike.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

 

 

Book Review: The Tulip Eaters

Book Review: The Tulip Eaters by Antoinette van Heugten

The Tulip Eaters

Synopsis (Goodreads):

In a riveting exploration of the power the past wields over the present, critically acclaimed author Antoinette van Heugten writes the story of a woman whose child’s life hangs in the balance, forcing her to confront the roots of her family’s troubled history in the dark days of World War II…

It’s the stuff of nightmares: Nora de Jong returns home from work one ordinary day to find her mother has been murdered. Her infant daughter is missing. And the only clue is the body of an unknown man on the living-room floor, clutching a Luger in his cold, dead hand.

Frantic to find Rose, Nora puts aside her grief and frustration to start her own search. But the contents of a locked metal box she finds in her parents’ attic leave her with as many questions as answers—and suggest the killer was not a stranger. Saving her daughter means delving deeper into her family’s darkest history, leading Nora half a world away to Amsterdam, where her own unsettled past and memories of painful heartbreak rush back to haunt her.

As Nora feverishly pieces together the truth from an old family diary, she’s drawn back to a city under Nazi occupation, where her mother’s alliances may have long ago sealed her own–and Rose’s—fate.

In this novel of family history and secrets, the past is never truly the past. Nora thinks she has finally achieved real happiness in her life, with a fulfilling career, a home shared with her beloved mother, and a perfect little daughter to love and cherish. When the brutal murder and kidnapping take everything Nora loves away from her, she refuses to sit and wait for the police investigation to play itself out, when there are no leads and no substantial clues.

As Nora begins to dig, she starts to realize that there are secrets that her mother never shared, and if she is to have any hope of finding Rose, Nora must understand who her mother’s enemies are and why.

The Tulip Eaters opens in 1980s Houston, but the action and the central drama quickly move to Amsterdam and other points in the Netherlands. It soon becomes apparent that the secrets of Nora’s mother’s identity and actions during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in WWII are enormously important to someone — enough to kill for, even 30 years later.

As Nora starts uncovering fragments of clues that may lead to answers, she is increasingly at risk, both physically, as the killer’s associates want to scare her off and perhaps stop her for good, and emotionally, as she is forced to confront the possibility that her mother’s secrets may be uglier than she could have imagined.

The details that emerge about the Dutch experience under Nazi occupation are startling and eye-opening. As one contact points out to Nora, most Americans’ conceptions of what happened start and end with Anne Frank. But the experience of the Dutch Jews was much worse than that might imply, as most were shipped off to concentration camps while their non-Jewish compatriots turned a blind eye, whether out of malice or simply to protect their own families.

The early chapters of The Tulip Eaters felt a bit melodramatic to me, as well as unfocused. When the police detective arrives to view the crime scene, is it necessary to describe the fact that he has “No wedding band, the but the pale ring of flesh on his left hand showed it had not been long since it had been removed”? This, plus a few other descriptions of his looks, gave me the impression (thankfully false) that he would become a love interest or at least play a significant role in the book, but he actually fades into the background after a few chapters. It almost felt as though the author was going to make him more important to the plot, and then changed her mind.

The title itself is a bit of a misnomer. During the war, starvation among the Dutch people was so extreme that they had nothing to eat except tulip bulbs pulled from the fields and boiled into a barely edible soup. Interesting, but this has practically nothing to do with the plot, other than getting a brief mention as background to everything else going on.

Still, despite these minor quibbles, overall The Tulip Eaters is quite good. It provides a window into a chapter of history that is relatively unknown, and as the novel moves farther along and we delve deeper into the clues to Nora’s mother’s past, the tension mounts and the suspense and dread become much more intense. There are elements within the novel that give it a somewhat soapy tone, but the overall mystery centered around the murder and kidnapping was intriguing enough to keep me reading until I got some answers.

As a reminder that the past is never really gone, as well as a lesson on some of the horrors of the Holocaust, The Tulip Eaters is quite effective. That, combined with a crime to be solved and clues to be unraveled, make The Tulip Eaters a fast-paced, moving, and engaging read.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The Tulip Eaters
Author: Antoinette van Heugten
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Contemporary adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin MIRA via NetGalley

Flashback Friday: The Caine Mutiny

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight — and you’re invited to join in!

Here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My pick for this week’s Flashback Friday:

The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

(published 1951)

From Goodreads:

The novel that inspired the now-classic film The Caine Mutiny and the hit Broadway play The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Herman Wouk’s boldly dramatic, brilliantly entertaining novel of life — and mutiny — on a Navy warship in the Pacific theater was immediately embraced, upon its original publication in 1951, as one of the first serious works of American fiction to grapple with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. In the intervening half century, The Caine Mutiny has become a perennial favorite of readers young and old, has sold millions of copies throughout the world, and has achieved the status of a modern classic.

The Caine Mutiny is the book that brought us the iconic character of Captain Queeg, immortalized on film by Humphrey Bogart and famous for such gems as:

Aboard my ship, excellent performance is standard, standard performance is sub-standard, and sub-standard performance is not permitted to exist.

Is Queeg incompetent? Cowardly? Or mentally unbalanced, perhaps dangerously so? That’s the moral dilemma that the junior officers on board the Caine must confront, deciding whether the safety of their ship demands overthrowing their leader — or whether the fact that Queeg is a poor captain is irrelevant to the fact that military men must obey the chain of command, period.

The Caine Mutiny is an exciting, intelligent read — at once an accurate portrayal of the alternating dangers and boredom of life at sea, an exploration of the inner workings of men under pressure, and a rollicking tale of a band of brothers that isn’t quite as noble and self-sacrificing as most war movies might have us believe. Filled with storms at sea, wartime engagements, and plenty of legal drama, The Caine Mutiny is a modern classic of wartime fiction.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building 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!