Monday, April 25, 2016

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro (audio)


Alizee Benoit is an American painter from France who is working on the WPA (Works Progress Administration) mural project in New York City when World War II breaks out.  Even though she is far away from the war, she worries constantly about the rest of her Jewish family living in German-occupied France.  As she tries to get visas for her family to come to the United States, she faces other personal and political obstacles.  And then she suddenly disappears and her family and friends never hear from her again.  

Seventy years later, her great-niece Danielle is still looking for answers.  Also an artist, Danielle finds a series of paints that she thinks may have been done Alizee.  Dealing with her own problems in her personal life, she connect with the story of her great-aunt and is determined to find the truth that she is looking for.

I have read a lot of books about World War II and the holocaust and am always surprised when I read one that looks at a new aspect of the war.  For this book, it was the obstacles that European refugees faces in order to obtain visas to immigrate to the United States.  I'm not sure how many of the details were completely accurate, but the author told an interesting and unique story of a women's struggle to save her family when she was 1,000s of miles away with essentially no power to do so.  I was struck by Alizee's families letters about the treatment of the Jewish people and their desperation to leave the country.  I also really liked the incorporation of art and the WPA and the story was very compelling.

The main reason I gave this book 4 instead of 5 stars was because it was way too predictable.  I figured out end of the story from pretty much the very beginning and there were a lot of details that seemed to fit too perfectly together in order to make the story to work.  I found myself rolling my eyes a few too many times (especially towards the end), but it was all-in-all a very enjoyable book.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

★★★ 1/2
"Her favorite summer memories were not of events themselves, of picnics, sea bathing, tennis afternoons and cricket matches, but of watching Hugh and Daniel enjoying them and locking into memory the delight in their faces and their open hearts."

This historical novel is set in Rye, a small town in East Sussex of England, in the year 1914.  It is, essentially, the "summer before the war" and everything is going as usual: Hugh Grange has returned for the summer from his medical studies to live with his Aunt Agatha and Uncle John.  His cousin Daniel is trying to publish his poetry.  The town is in the process of hiring a new Latin master.  And in the mist of everything, the country may be going to war.

And then Beatrice Nash arrives with her bicycle and crate of books and her free-thinking spirit soon takes the town by surprise.

I loved the author's first book, 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' and was looking forward to this one as well.  Unfortunately, this one just didn't work they way I expected it to.  The beginning had the same wonderful small-town charm of 'Major Pettigrew' and I loved the character of Beatrice, but then the novel started to go off in all different directions.  There were too many new characters introduced and I felt that the focus drew further and further away from Beatrice and Hugh.  The book dragged on and on and then the ending felt far too rushed and I found myself not caring as much about the characters as I should have.  

That being said, I still enjoyed a lot of aspects of the book.  I really liked the description of Rye and the feeling of pre-war England.  The Belgian refugees also added a very unique aspect to the books and created a lot of comparisons to later periods of history.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (audio)

"But it occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved ones might not be the point.  Maybe the point is their memories - all that they take away with them."

'A Spool of Blue Thread' is the second book that I have read by Anne Tyler (the first one being 'The Amateur Marriage' last month) and it will not be the last.  This was a wonderful book by an amazing author.  

The book tells the story of four generations of the Whitshank family.  There's Red and Abby and their four grown children and we slowly get to meet the rest of the family.  As details are revealed, the family becomes more complicated, but also more understandable.  I love how the story unfolded and we found out more and more about each character.  Anne Typer has a unique ability to incorporate of the everyday details into the realistic lives of her characters.

I cannot say enough good things about this book.  I absolutly loved it and didn't want it to end!!  It was the perfect combination of emotion and character development and I can't wait to read more from this author!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

American Housewives: Stories by Helen Ellis (audio)

★★★ 1/2
"I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading."

I don't usually read a lot of short story collections, but I kept hearing about this one and it sounded interesting.  The stories usually entertaining and were filled with irony and humor.  Most of the  featured "housewives" were a bit overkill, but they did the trick and had me laughing more than a few times.  I also enjoyed the focus on literary and publishing themes.  Some of my favorite stories included "Hello! Welcome to Book Club," "How to Be a Patron of the Arts" and "My Novel is Brought You to By the Good People at Tampax."  

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig (audio)


I have to admit that it if wasn't for book club the month I probably never would have picked up this book.  This isn't normally the type of book I usually read.  I wasn't expecting to love it (or even like it all that much), but love it I did and it consumed my thoughts for the last couple of weeks.  Even when I wasn't reading it, I would find myself constantly thinking about the characters as I went through my day.  This is the kind of book that stays with you long after you turn the last page.  It was the tenth book in the author's Two Medicine Country series (none of which I have read), but the author provided enough background that wasn't lost starting towards the end of the series.

The Bartender's Tale is the story of a bartender and his son and the small town image where days went by a little bit slower and everything seemed a just a little less complicated.  The narrator is an older man named Rusty taking place sometime in the present.  He takes us back to the year of 1960 when he was twelve years old living with his father, Tom, as he ran Medicine Lodge, a small-town bar in Montana's Two Medicine Country.  Rusty's mother took off when he was a baby and, after spending his first six years with relatives in Arizona, he came to live with his father.  They live a simple life of having tomato soup for breakfast and fishing on Sundays.  Tom runs the bar while Rusty spends his time in the backroom reading and making paper airplane models.  But, this summer things are about to get a little more interesting.  The diner down the street gets new owners and their daughter, Zoey, becomes Rusty's new "partner in crime."  And then Proxy, a dance from Tom's past, shows up with her daughter Frances and everything Rusty thought he knew about his past is about to change.

This book was wonderful in every possible way.  I loved the description of small-town life in the 1930s.  The imagery and mood was spot-on and the author was able to capture it perfectly.  I loved the relationships between the characters.  Specifically between Rusty and his father, but also between Rusty and Zoey.  Rusty and Tom had such a unique relationship since there was not mother-figure involved.  Tom's love and concern for his son comes though on every page, even though he didn't always know how to handle a situation.  Even though Rusty was young, Tom confided in him and I could feel their mutual respect for one another.  They grew up with only each other and figuring things out as the came and as a team.  The dialogue was quirky and real and the audio version made this even more so.  I also loved the portal of the Rusty's age.  Looking back, twelve seems so young, but it's such as unique age where you feel like you own the world and are, at the same time, starting to see the world differently for the first time.  I so enjoyed Rusty's twelve-year-old perspective on the storyline, even though he was telling the story as an adult.  

The ending wasn't sad, but I found myself bawling after it was over.  I can only count on my hand the number of books that have made me cry.  It was a perfect way to end the story, but I grew to love these characters so much and wanted nothing more than to keep reading about their lives and dreams and interactions with each other.  I was sad to learn that the author had pasted away in April of last year, but I will definitely be reading more of his books in the future - especially the ten other Two Medicine Country novels.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires


This is the story of a little girl and her best friend, her dog.  They do everything together and one day, the girl decides that she is going to make “the most magnificent thing.”  Her dog becomes her assistant, plans are made, and everything seems to fall into place.  After a lot of hard work, she the “thing” is finally finished!  But there’s a problem.  It just doesn’t look right to her.  Or seem to work right.  And it certainly isn’t magnificent.  The girl and her dog go to work again and again, but nothing she makes works.  There is a lot of anger.  And frustration.  And a walk.  And then she realizes that maybe all of her hard work isn’t a disaster after all. 

This is a lovely book with a wonderful message.  It shows something that nearly all young children  - and adults - can relate to: trying and trying and never getting something right.  Things don’t always work out as planned.  But that’s ok.  And it’s ok not to be perfect all the time.  What’s important is the creativity and the process that goes into completing a project.  A concept that I can definitely relate to and a valuable lesson for children of all ages.

The girl’s emotions were realistically portrayed in the story - and her dog was adorable.  The writing was simple and had a perfect pace throughout the book.  I loved the unique illustrations and how the girl and her dog stood out on each black-and-white lined or blue page.

Thank you to Netgalley, Kids Can Press, and Ashley Spires.