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Review: A Thread of Grace

Reading A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell taught me about an aspect of World War II I previously knew very little, if anything, about … the Italian resistance to Nazi Germany and the assistance they offered to not only Italian Jews but also those fleeing from occupied Austria, Belgium, France, Poland.

Russell sets her historical novel in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding mountainous countryside. The novel spans from 1943 to 1945. The Allies are closing in, and the Germans are making a last push, knowing defeat is drawing near, to destroy as many Jewish lives as possible. Most Italians, at this point, are anti-fascist as well as opposing Hitler, some have embraced communism, and many are willing to put themselves at risk to hide Jewish refugees.

Russell introduces a cast of characters that I quickly grew to love. The star of the show is Renzo Leoni, a handsome, fearless Italian Jew who was injured in the Italo-Abyssinian colonial war and now works for the Italian resistance. Renzo, who drowns his guilt over atrocities committed in Abyssinia in alcoholic over-indulgence, has a gift for impersonation and winning people and is able to insinuate himself into the Nazi ranks under several different guises. His mother Lidia, as fearless and sharp of wit as her son, also aids the resistance effort.

Rabbi Iacopo Soncini and his wife Mirella are also primary characters, as is their young son Angelo. Iacopo is willing to risk his life to protect his flock, despite his wife’s pleas to flee with her and their children to the countryside. Instead, Iacopo remains in Porto Sant’Andrea while Mirella becomes a major player in the resistance effort while seeking safety in the mountains. Angelo, sent into hiding at a Catholic school; provides a child’s view of the atrocities of war and it is heartbreaking.

Claudette Blum and her father Alberto were separated from her mother and two young brothers in France, after fleeing Nazi occupied Belgium. Although the fate of mother and sons is never addressed directly, we can only assume that the train they boarded was headed, not to Nice as they assumed, but sadly, to a Nazi death camp. Seeking safety, father and daughter follow an Italian regiment over the Alps and end up in the same village as Renzo Leoni’s band of resistance militia and Mirella Soncini. Claudette falls in love with an Italian soldier who befriended her during her trek through the Alps, and she eventually joins the resistance movement.

Another memorable character is the deserter Nazi medical officer suffering from tuberculosis who estimates that his signature authorized the death of more than 90,000 people throughout the war. In the beginning of the novel, Werner Schramm is seeking forgiveness. Instead, he finds redemption, as he has the opportunity to use his medical training to save the lives of wounded resistance fighters. Also unforgettable are two Catholic priests and two nuns who defy German edicts and risk their own lives to help the Jewish people living and hiding in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding villages.

This was neither a quick nor easy novel to read, because of the difficulty of the subject matter, the large and varied cast of characters (the author wisely provides a glossary of characters which was extremely helpful – all those Italian names!) and the care with which Russell treated her historical subject matter. But it was well worth the time and effort. In the end it was rewarding, first of all, on an intellectual level, because I learned about a little discussed aspect of World War II. I held my breath throughout the story, fearing for the Jews and their Italian protectors, wondering who would be picked off by the hellish brutality of war, and hoping against hope that these beloved characters would somehow survive despite the odds.

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Review: Summer Sisters

Judy Blume’s books have always been synonymous with childhood to me. Peter, Fudge, and Tootsie will always hold a special place in my heart and I still remember lounging in front of a fan with Tiger Eyes and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret on hot summer days. I hadn’t read any of Blume’s adult novels, until Summer Sisters, and am happy to report that, once again, this talented writer does not disappoint.

In Summer Sisters, Blume brings us another unforgettable character, twelve year-old Victoria, known to friends and family as Vix. Vix lives in Santa Fe, the dutiful eldest of four children. Her parents struggle to make ends meet and much of their time and attention goes into caring for Vix’s youngest and most beloved sibling, Nathan, who has muscular dystrophy.

Vix meets beautiful, free-spirited Caitlin at school and is invited to spend the summer on Martha’s Vineyard with her. Caitlin, who lives with her mother in Santa Fe, spends every summer on the Vineyard with her brother and father. The girls’ first summer together starts a trend that continues through high school and thus Vix and Caitlin become “summer sisters.” Caitlin’s wealthy father and kind-hearted stepmother adore Vix and offer her a scholarship that enables her to attend Caitlin’s private school in Santa Fe and eventually, Harvard.

Summer Sisters is a novel about friendship. The friendship between Vix and Caitlin is enduring, though the two girls couldn’t be more different. The twelve year-old Vix is respectful, eager to please, and follows the rules while Caitlin is wild and outspoken, heedless of rules and expectations. She never wears shoes, rarely bathes, viciously rejects her kind and loving stepmother Abby, and uses sexually explicit vocabulary.

As the girls grow into young women, the differences intensify. Vix sets about rising above the circumstances she was born into and making something of her life in the traditional sense – a Harvard education, a good job, a nice boyfriend, motivated and equally educated friends. Caitlin travels the world from Italy to Argentina on her trust fund, never sticking to anything – college, relationships, jobs – for very long.

The friendship survives despite their differences, even despite a betrayal, and that is the beauty of this story. I was cheering for Vix all along, wanting so much for her – happiness, an exciting job, a great guy. Caitlin was more difficult, but not impossible to love. She was selfish, spoiled, and shallow on the surface. But underneath the tough exterior, she was essentially insecure and scared – scared of death, and of failing – at love, motherhood, and life in general.

Vix’s was the primary voice, but interspersed throughout the book were short, one page narratives by the other characters in the story – the girls’ parents and siblings, their friends and boyfriends – that left me amazed at how well I felt I knew these supporting characters after reading such short snippets of their thoughts and feelings.

When I turned the last page and closed this book I knew that Vix and Caitlin would live in my mind for a long time. They will remind me that what you see on the outside is not always what is inside. That people can rise above their circumstances or be mired down by them. That poverty can be a blessing and privilege can be a curse – life is what you make of it. And most importantly, that a friendship can be a saving grace, but only if you let it.

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Guest Review: Twilight

My daughter Ally is our guest reviewer today.  She recently read the very popular young adult novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and agreed to write a review for me. 

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is a book about Bella who moves from her mom’s house in Arizona to her dad’s house in Forks, Washington. The school that she goes to is a lot smaller then the one she went to in Arizona. Five vampires go to school there, too. They only killed animals. One of the vampires, Edward, was her boyfriend. When she went to see his family and watch them play baseball, three other vampires come to play. Two of them tried to kill Bella and Edward’s family had to help her.

This was a great book. I liked how it was exciting and interesting. There wasn’t any part that was boring. I think the best part was when Edward told Bella that he is a vampire. There are four books in this series and I can’t wait to read the next one.

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Review: The Boleyn Inheritance

Last spring I devoured Philippa Gregory’s acclaimed novel The Other Boleyn Girl and credit it with reviving my latent interest in historical fiction. I was hesitant to pick up the follow up, The Boleyn Inheritance, certain it wouldn’t measure up to the original. But when I saw a shiny new copy on the shelf at the library, I had to take it home.

The Boleyn Inheritance is narrated by three women, only one of which I can say I really knew and liked by the end of the book. Anne of Cleves was a woman of integrity, grace and wisdom, the only wife of King Henry VIII to survive his tyranny. Well, I guess his last wife – number six, Catherine Parr – outlived him, but only because he died before he could kill her. Anyway, there was something satisfying about the fact that the only truly honorable wife was the one to escape alive.

As for the other two narrative voices, Jane Boleyn and Katherine Howard, the characters were just hard to like. Jane was deceitful and scheming, with allegiance to no one but herself. I was shocked to find myself feeling sympathetic in the beginning of the book, given what I knew about her from The Other Boleyn Girl. I kept hoping perhaps she had seen the folly of her ways and reformed, had become a better woman. But alas, it was not so.

As for Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, she was vain, greedy, shallow, and like fellow narrator Jane Boleyn, without moral compass. I could almost sympathize with her despite this because of her age – she was Queen of England at age 15 – and the fact that she had grown up in the perversely driven Howard family without guidance or example. Still, she was difficult to know – or maybe there just wasn’t much to know.

Overall, it was a great read, not quite as good as The Other Boleyn Girl but surprisingly close. I think my issue was with the narrative voice. I preferred the singular narrative voice of Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl. It felt like I got to know her better over the course of the book.

As with The Other Boleyn Girl, I took issue with some of the language, wondering if it was really appropriate to the time period. In several instances, Katherine Howard described someone or something as being nasty. My teenage daughter’s speech is peppered liberally with this term, but was it a commonly used adjective in Tudor England?

The novel provides a fascinating, in depth picture of King Henry’s fourth and fifth marriages, although I wish it had been fleshed out with a little more information about the economic, political and religious state of the kingdom at the time. Gregory does a marvelous job of portraying the decadence of Henry’s pleasure-seeking court as well as the desperate political and social climbing of England’s most prominent families as they schemed and labored to be his most favored, no matter what the cost.

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Review: The Opposite of Love

In the opening pages of Julie Buxbaum’s debut novel The Opposite of Love, New York City attorney Emily Haxby reminisces about her recent break-up with her boyfriend of two years. At first glance, Emily seems flippant about the split, which she initiated. Andrew is perfect on paper – an emergency room doctor who actually changes the toilet paper roll and cleans the hair out of the shower drain, he was on the brink of proposing to her – but the reader assumes she just didn’t love him. After all, her biggest regret seems to be the setting she chose to break the bad news (a barbeque joint.)

As the novel unfolds, however, it becomes evident that Emily’s feelings for Andrew were much deeper than it originally seemed. She does love him, and she misses him, enough to lay aside her pride and make a fool of herself trying to win him back. There is a lot going on beneath the surface with Emily that hinders her ability to trust in happily ever after. Her mother died when Emily was only 13 and her father is distant and emotionally unavailable, completely absorbed in his political career.

Emily’s law career and her relationship with her paternal grandfather provide interesting subplots. As a junior at a huge firm, she has to fend off the inappropriate advances of a senior partner and gets stuck working with him on a big case that she finds ethically offensive (think Erin Brockovich, only Emily is defending the bad guys.) Her grandfather is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease and she has to make many of the decisions about his care, while dealing with her own feelings about losing the only family member she is close to.

If all of this sounds a little heavy, don’t worry – it’s not. It is a quick, easy read, a great beach read in fact. I read it while vacationing in Florida, sitting on the balcony of a beachside condo. The book is full of interesting, likeable characters. Once I started reading, I didn’t want to put it down. The best part is that, as the reader, you really get inside Emily’s head – and it’s funny in there.

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Review: The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters

When Olivia Hunt was a child, she used to make up bedtime stories for her little sister Maddie; she called them the True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters. In Elisabeth Robinson’s debut novel, Olivia is now a thirty-something movie producer living in Los Angeles. Maddie is in her mid-twenties, married just over a year, and fighting leukemia. Olivia jets between California and Ohio to be with Maddie and finds herself spinning new tales of the Hunt sisters as she sits by Maddie’s bedside.

During this time Olivia is also struggling to accept demise of a long-term relationship with her artist boyfriend and producing a movie based on the novel Don Quixote. Her take on Hollywood and the movie business is hilarious and likely quite accurate since Robinson herself was a movie producer prior to becoming a novelist.

When I realized that this entire novel is told in letters – from Olivia to her sister, her best friend, her newly ex-boyfriend, her parents and colleagues – I wondered how the author could possibly give enough background and depth to her story. I was pleasantly surprised when she succeeded in doing just that.

Her letters were more detailed than any I have ever written or received, but given Olivia’s character and the tone of the book, they were believable. Through her candid, introspective communication, I came to know Olivia as conflicted and lovable, a mix of hopeful naivety and world-worn cynicism, dedicated to her family and reservedly so to her career, a writer at heart, who could bare her soul most easily with pen and paper.

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Review: Nineteen Minutes

 

 

I’ve come to expect a certain type of book from Jodi Picoult: engrossing contemporary fiction woven around a controversial current issue. Nineteen Minutes, in which she tackles the twin issues of peer bullying and school violence, did not disappoint.

Peter Houghton, an unpopular 17 year-old, has suffered aggressive bullying at the hands of the popular crowd throughout his school career. Over the years, he has grown bitter and resentful, seeking solace in violent music and video games and fantasizing about getting revenge. One day Peter snaps and storms his high school, armed with a car bomb and four firearms. In the time span of a mere nineteen minutes, he kills ten students and injures many more.

Picoult does a commendable job of creating a cast of complex, multi-dimensional characters. She turns a character who has done something unquestionably evil – Peter – into someone the reader feels sorry for, or at least understands on some level. My maternal heart broke for Peter’s mother, Lacy, as she struggled with her feelings about her son … denial, guilt, devastating sadness. Josie, another star of the story, was a member of the popular crowd but had been Peter’s childhood best friend. She lost many friends and her boyfriend in the shooting, but intermingled with her feelings of anger toward Peter was a sense of guilt about the way she and the popular clique had mistreated him.

I put off reading this book for at least a year, because of the chilling subject matter. At one point, I thought I must be crazy for picking it up the summer before my oldest child enters high school. But ultimately, I’m glad I did. Nineteen Minutes has all the elements of a great contemporary novel – an engaging plot, excellent character development, succinct yet lyrical prose. More importantly, it really made me think about the issue of bullying, how we deal with it, and it’s potentially devastating effects.  As Picoult says in the book trailer, it’s a subject we all need to start talking about.

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