Friday, March 21, 2014

Winter Garden by Kristen Hannah (audio)

"Nina stared at the women who had raised her and aw the truth at last.  
 Her mother was a lioness.  A warrior.  A women who'd chosen a life of hell for herself because she wanted to give up and didn't know how. 
And with that small understanding came another, bigger one. Nina suddenly saw her own life in focus.  All these years, she'd been traveling the world over, looking for her own truth in other woman's lives.
But it was here all along, at home with the one woman she'd never even tried to understand.
How could any women know her own story until she knew her mother's?"

"They would always be a family, but if she'd learned anything in the past few weeks it was that a family wasn't a static thing.  There were always changes going on.  Like with continents, sometimes the changes were invisible and underground and sometimes they were explosive and deadly.  The trick was to keep your balance.  You couldn't control the direction of your family any more than you could stop the continental shell from breaking apart.  All you could do was hold on for the ride." 

Goodreads Summary: Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family apple orchard: the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, Meredith and Nina find themselves together again, standing alongside their cold, disapproving mother, Anya, who even now, offers no comfort to her daughters. As children, the only connection between them was the Russian fairy tale Anya sometimes told the girls at night. On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise from the women in his life: the fairy tale will be told one last time - and all the way to the end. Thus begins an unexpected journey into the truth of Anya's life in war-torn Leningrad, more than five decades ago. Alternating between the past and present, Meredith and Nina will finally hear the singular, harrowing story of their mother's life, and what they learn is a secret so terrible and terrifying that it will shake the very foundation of their family and change who they believe they are. 

As one reader stated, Winter Garden was a "truly mesmerizing and enchanting novel about survival, enduring love, family, and the choices that can forever haunt you."  I have been a huge fan of Kristen  Hannah (especially with Firefly Lane and Night Road) and was excited that she had ventured in the genre of historical fiction.  I absolutely loved this book!  I am a huge fan of anything World War II and this novel had an unique perspective of the Siege of Leningrad in Russia.  I really enjoyed learning about Anya's story as she told it to her daughters as a fairy tale (which I love) and seeing how it shaped their lives both as children and adults.  Hearing the story told this way made the novel extremely powerful and showed the importance of family and learning to live with the past.  I cried through the entire last hour or so on the way home from work.  This was an amazing book and one that I will remember for a long time!

This book was #3 on my top ten list of 2014.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

"I wonder if our names determine our destiny, or if destiny leads us to choose certain names."

Set in Ancient Eqypt, this novel tells the story of Nefertiti and her marriage to the Pharaoh Akhenaten from the perspective of her younger sister, Mutnodjmet.  Unlike her over ambitious sister, Mutnodjmet has no desire for the royal life that she has been born into and wants nothing more then to be a wife and mother - much like Mary Boleyn in Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl.  As Nefertiti's power begins to rise, Mutnodjmet struggles between loyalty to her family and the quiet life she wants.

I have always been fascinated by ancient Egypt and have been excited to read this book for awhile.  I wish I could say I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would, but I didn't.  A couple of years ago, I might have given the book four stars - or maybe even five - but I've read a lot of books since then and have come to expect a lot more.  I enjoyed reading it, but there wasn't that WOW factor that I've come to appreciate in great novels.  

While the background of the story was interesting enough, I guess I was expecting a lot more.  I didn't care enough about the characters and there seemed to be some inaccuracies with the research.  I understand that not a lot is known about Ancient times, but I felt that author could have done a better job of portraying that characters and the time period.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (audio)

"They carried the sky.  The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity."

"A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, of if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible life.  There is not rectitude whatsoever.  There is no virtue.  As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil."

Goodreads description: "They carried malaria tablets, love letters, 28-pound mine detectors, dope, illustrated bibles, each other. And if they made it home alive, they carried unrelenting images of a nightmarish war that history is only beginning to absorb. Since its first publication, The Things They Carried has become an unparalleled Vietnam testament, a classic work of American literature, and a profound study of men at war that illuminates the capacity, and the limits, of the human heart and soul."

This book was extremely well-written and very powerful.  I listened to the audio book in less than four days and it drew me in from the beginning.  I loved Tim O'Brien's narrative writing style and how the book presented different stories from the same platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The fact that the stories jumped back and forth between pre-war, war, and post-war made the stories even more intriguing.  I've been meaning to read this book for awhile and I'm so glad I did.  Plus it's my fiance's favorite book and he doesn't read - that has to count for something, right?

This book was #9 on my top ten list of 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shadows on the Nile by Kate Furnivall (audio)

★ 1/2

Eh, I was not a huge fan of this book.  I read Kate Furnivall's novel The Red Scarf and loved it!  Over five years later, it remains one of my favorite books.  I guess I was just expecting something similar.  Or maybe the book just wasn't for me.  I'm usually not into mysteries and adventure stories unless they have a lot substance to them.  I also noticed that lately I've listened to a few English mysteries, and just can't seem to get into them.  Maybe it's the narrators? 

Twenty years after, her younger brother, Georgie has been taken and replaced with an adopted brother, Timothy, Jessie sets out to find Timothy who has mysteriously disappeared.  She travels to Egypt with her new romantic interest to search for him.  Interwoven with Jessie's adventure, is the story of Timothy's visits to Georgie.

This audio book arrived at the library I work at and I was excited to see both that it was by Kate Furnivall and because I currently reading another historical fiction novel, Nefertiti by Michelle Moran (much better, thank goodness!).  After reading the summary, I was hoping there would be more historical information about Egypt - there was some, but not much.   Some parts were good, but there just wasn't enough there to keep me interested.  One of the major problems I had was with Jessie's character.  She just didn't fit a young women from the 1930s and I kept having to remind myself that the book was set in that time period instead of today.  I was also disturbed by Georgie's situation - even though it was explained, I felt that the characters didn't deal with what happened to the family when the children were young.  

I currently have another of Furnivall's novels, The White Pearl, sitting on my bookshelf at home.  We'll see if this one is any better!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy (audio)

★ 1/2
"We all tell little lies about ourselves, our past, our presents.  We think some of them are minuscule, unimportant.  And other, large and incriminating.  But they are the same.  Only God has enough of the story to judge our souls." Summary: "In 1945, Elsie Schmidt is a naive teenager, as eager for her first sip of champagne as she is for her first kiss. She and her family have been protected from the worst of the terror and desperation overtaking her country by a high-ranking Nazi who wishes to marry her. So when an escaped Jewish boy arrives on Elsie’s doorstep on Christmas Eve, Elsie understands that opening the door would put all she loves in danger.

Sixty years later, in El Paso, Texas, Reba Adams is trying to file a feel-good Christmas piece for the local magazine, and she sits down with the owner of Elsie's German Bakery for what she expects will be an easy interview. But Reba finds herself returning to the bakery again and again, anxious to find the heart of the story--a story that resonates with her own turbulent past. For Elsie, Reba’s questions are a stinging reminder of that last bleak year of WWII. As the two women's lives become intertwined, both are forced to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and seek out the courage to forgive."

I been a bit behind on updating my book blog after I finish a book so bare with me regarding the "borrowed" summaries.  Work, library school, and wedding planning have kept be a little busy lately.  Not too much time for reading, but my hour-long commute and gym time have left a lot of time for listening to audio books.  I was able to finish this one in less than three days :)
I've always been really into historical fiction novels of World War II - especially involving the holocaust - and I'm always amazed when I learn something new.  With this book, it was the Lebensborn Program that Elsie's sister Hazel was involved in.  This was a program in Germany during the Nazi occupation that implemented the intentional raising of "Aryan" children.  I googled lots of information about the program while I was reading the book and was horrified by the anonymous births and the "doing away" with children that did not meet their criteria.  I am always interested in learning about the "German" side of the holocaust as well and this was another example of how the people of the Nazi reign suffered during the war as well.

Anyways, back to the novel...

Being a huge fan of historical fiction, I of course, loved Elsie's story from the very beginning, but I found myself very much enjoying Reba and Riki's story as well.  The author did a wonderful job of bringing out contemporary issues that were relevant to the Nazi ruling - both with Reba's father as a Vietnam veteran suffering from PSD and with Riki's work with the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican immigrants.  Throughout the novel Elsie demonstrates a hidden strength and a great love for her family amidst many obstacles.  This is a book about family, friendship, and forgiveness.  I have to admit I tend to be a sucker for novels that are "wrapped up like packages" by the last page, but the ending was perfect!

I also really enjoyed the aspect of growing up in a bakery that was seen both in Germany during the war and in the present-day United States.  The epilogue includes lots of recipes - great ideas for a future book club meeting!