Goodbye from London, by Jennifer Robson

goodnightfromlondonGoodbye From London explores the experience of am American woman reporter stationed in London during the Second World War. Beginning during the London Blitz, Ruby’s time in London stretches out to encompass the entire war and even brings her to France in the wake of the D-Day invasion. Along the way, she not only experiences and reports on the reality of war on the home front, but also finds her own identity (not to mention, as you might guess from the cover, true love). While this novel wasn’t as emotionally intense as some WW2 books I’ve read recently, it did give a good overview of the British experience from the unique experience of a woman journalist, and it made me want to learn more about real female war correspondents in that era.

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The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck

womeninthecastleThis book was not only extremely well-written but provided an intriguing window into a world I didn’t know much about. The women of the title are three German women living, with their children, in an almost-abandoned castle in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. Two of the women are the widows of men who were executed for their part in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. One of these women is proud of her and her husband’s role in the Resistance; the other resents her husband for putting politics above family. A third woman, apparently also the widow of a resister but not known to the other two, appears and is included in their circle.

As I read this book, I realized I had not read a great deal of fiction about the Second World War from the German point of view, and even less from the point of view of German resisters who opposed Hitler. For all of us who wonder “How could ordinary Germans allow someone like Hitler to seize power, and even support him?”, the novel addresses that through the flashback scenes of each woman’s memories as they see the events of the 1930s unfold.

Anyone who visits Germany even today, 70 years after the end of the war, can see the delicate balance Germans strike between remembering and honouring their own war dead while also acknowledging the horrific crimes their country committed. The Women in the Castle, written by a writer of German heritage who had the advantage of being able to talk to WW2 survivors in her own family, explores how this tension played out in the lives of three fictional women who feel as real and vital as if they had actually been there. I found this book fascinating and really loved reading it.

 

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Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

everythingineverThis novel starts with a tragedy — the disappearance of a teenaged girl, 16-year-old Lydia Lee. The suspense in the story does not derive from our wanting to find out Lydia’s fate — though the characters don’t know for awhile what has happened to her, the reader is told on page one that Lydia is dead. Rather, the mystery to be unravelled is not whether Lydia died or even, really how — though that’s a mystery too, for awhile. What drives the reader through this novel and keeps the pages turning is why Lydia died. The police quickly decide her death is a suicide, but is it? Lydia seems to have been a bright, capable, well-loved high achiever from a stable and happy family. What led her to a situation where she would either take her own life, or run away and put herself in jeopardy that might end in murder? As the story unfolds, we learn that almost every aspect of what people believe about Lydia is a lie — as is much of what appears to be true about her family. Everything I Never Told You is, just as the title suggests, about the things we don’t tell — even to the ones we love. Every member of the Lee family is guarding secrets; some of those secrets might have led to Lydia’s death. This is a novel about parents and children, about hopes and dreams, about prejudice and being an outsider. It’s about how the things we don’t tell can destroy us. It’s beautifully written and very compelling.

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Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard, by Sally Cabot

franklinsbasterNovels bringing to life the unknown world of a real-but-marginal historical figure are a favourite of mine (after all, I wrote one myself), so I was immediately interested in Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard. While the novel does tell the story of Franklin’s illegitimate son William, it focuses far more on the stories of the two women involved: Franklin’s common-law wife Deborah, and William’s mother Anne, with whom Franklin has a brief affair but who lingers on the outskirt’s of her son’s life for years, never acknowledged as his mother.

Deborah, like Benjamin and William Franklin, is a person whose existence we know of from historical record, though as is often the case with the wives of famous men, not much is known about her, especially from her own point of view. Anne is a purely fictional character: the identity of William’s mother is unknown, but in this novel Sally Cabot has done a good job of fleshing out the kind of woman who might have borne Franklin’s child, and how her life might have been shaped and changed by that experience. Both women in this difficult situation are depicted with sensitivity and an appreciation for the culture of the times in which they lived. I found this an enjoyable read.

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The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

cityofbrassThis is the most engrossing, engaging new fantasy novel I’ve read in awhile. Set in the Middle East in the late 1700s and drawing heavily on Islamic mythologies about djinn and other magical creatures, this is a wonderful debut and I was only disappointed to realize that it’s the first of a trilogy and I have to wait for the next two to come out (I hate to wait).

On one level, Chakraborty is playing with some pretty familiar fantasy tropes. I tried to describe the plot to my husband, who also loves fantasy although we often feel quite differently about books. “So there’s this young girl, Nahri, who lives on the streets and is kind of a thief and a con artist, and she has these powers but has no idea what they mean or why she has them…”

“So, like Vin in Mistborn?” says Jason.

The thing is, he loved the Mistborn books and I … did not. And I found Vin’s character really irritating. I loved Nahri in City of Brass, but when he said that I had to admit … yeah, it is kinda the same thing. And then I went on,

“So she accidentally calls up a djinn, and she finds out that she’s part-djinn too, and she has to go to –“

“Hogwarts?”

“No, she has to go to Daevabad, which is this magical djinn city…”

“So basically, Hogwarts for djinn.”

So yeah, there are some familiar fantasy tropes here, but I found them really well done. Yes, Nahri is the classic kid-from-nowhere-who-turns-out-to-be-someone-secretly-powerful, and yes there is a romance plot that could be seen as a bit predictable, though I think the combination of the author’s writing style and the Middle Eastern backdrop kept me intrigued. (Also, the romance plot may be familiar, but the love interest is smoking hot, and not just metaphorically). But interwoven with Nahri’s story is another story, less familiar — that of Ali, second son of the king of Daevabad. Ali’s story is one of power struggles and palace intrigue, of a king who is holding in balance a (gorgeously depicted) city of unruly magical subjects, in which two very different groups of people — the shafit and the daeva — both believe they are marginalized and being treated unfairly by the king (but also hate each other and are easily used as weapons against each other). As Nahri and her djinn guide reach the city and her story begins to interweave with Ali’s palace plots, things hurtle toward a violent conclusion from which the eventual endgame of the series is anything but predictable.

Book 2 comes out next January, and I will be downloading it as fast as it’s available. I can’t wait for the rest of this series.

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The Last Tudor, by Philippa Gregory

lasttudorI have a hit-or-miss experience with Philippa Gregory’s historical novels — I’ve loved some, disliked others, and felt just “meh” about a lot of them. I found The Last Tudor one of the more engrossing ones, as she begins with a story I know fairly well — the nine-day reign of Queen Jane Grey — and continues after Jane’s execution with the stories of Jane’s younger sisters Katherine and Mary, two women whose stories I knew nothing about. Both of them spent much of their short lives in prison or under house arrest for the crimes of marrying without Queen Elizabeth I’s permission. Like their dead sister they were close in line to inherit the throne, and while Elizabeth remained, by her own choice, unmarried and childless, any female heir to the throne with a husband and a male child (or the chance of having one) was a potential threat, a potential rallying-point for the queen’s enemies.

This is a good story, and Jane, Katherine and Mary all come to life as vividly realized characters (Jane perhaps a bit less so than her sisters, but then she did die at 16). Elizabeth I is portrayed as selfish, vain, petty, cruel — almost a monster, which is likely how her Grey cousins would have perceived her as they languished under house arrest, separated from the husbands they married for love. I usually don’t have a problem with writers showing bias towards historical characters, because I think they’re reflecting the views of their own point-of-view characters — e.g. I don’t agree with the people who think Hilary Mantel glorifies Thomas Cromwell and demonizes Thomas More, because she’s writing from Cromwell’s p.o.v. and of course that’s how he sees it. But I do think Philippa Gregory has an anti-Elizabeth bias of her own and it comes through both in this novel and in her earlier book The Virgin’s Lover. While Elizabeth certainly had a petty, cruel side and no doubt was deeply resented by the many people she imprisoned, she had her strengths as well — she was a complex woman. She had to be, to be the first English queen to enjoy a long, successful and solo reign. No hint of that complexity comes through in this novel — it’s hard to imagine this Elizabeth having governed a small-town council much less England in what became known as its Golden Age. 

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Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), by Kate Bowler

everythinghappensKate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason, with its wonderful subtitle, is a memoir about a young, apparently healthy person with her whole life ahead of her, being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Many readers will immediately think of the parallel to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and there certainly are similarities — both very well-written and moving memoirs about an experience no-one is prepared to have in their mid-thirties.

For me there were two important differences. The first is that the unique perspective in Kalanithi’s book came from the author being a medical doctor and now finding himself a patient, looking at the experience of illness from both sides of the doctor’s desk. Kate Bowler’s added insight comes not from the area of medicine but spirituality. She is a professor of religion as well as a Christian herself, and not long before her diagnosis she published a book about her area of expertise: prosperity-gospel churches, that uniquely American type of name-it-and-claim-it theology in which God will give you a bigger house or a fancy car — or healing from cancer — if you just ask with enough faith. While Bowler had never been that kind of Christian herself, being diagnosed with cancer made her better appreciate why people are drawn to that belief — and also more keenly aware of its shortcomings, since it promises what it doesn’t provide.

The other big difference between the two books, of course, is that Kalanathi’s memoir was published posthumously, while Kate Bowler, thankfully, is still with us, living “scan to scan” as she says, with experimental treatments that prolong her life while never entirely removing the shadow of impending death. She hosts an insightful and funny podcast called Everything Happens, and an internet friend of mine got to meet her last week at a conference where she spoke. I’m so glad to know she’s doing well for now … but her book will remind you of the beauty and fragility of every day.

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