Reviews by Sandra H. (St. Cloud, MN)

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The Last Year of the War
by Susan Meissner
An America We Never Knew (11/7/2018)
Susan Meissner's story puts a human face on those who were caught up in the fear of "aliens" living in the US during WWII. Most of us are aware of our putting Japanese citizens in camps during the war but the fact that Germans who had immigrated to the US were also interned was news to me.

The novel centers on Elise Sontag and her family. Elise's father had been in the US for 19 years but never completed his application for citizenship. Thus he and his family are put into an internment camp. However, her father signed papers that stated he could be exchanged for a family of Americans caught in Germany never really believing that would happen.

The novel follows Elise and her reactions to life after she and her family are put in such a camp. She befriends a Mariko, young Japanese girl, who becomes her best friend so while this new life is difficult she adjust. Then her family is sent to war-torn Germany in exchange in an American family trapped there.

The novel shows a part of our history many of us did not know existed for some German families living in the In the United States and then let's us see life in war-torn Germany. I strongly recommend this novel. It would make a wonderful choice for a book group.
Paris Echo
by Sebastian Faulks
A Must Read for Sebastian Faulk Fans (8/21/2018)
Sebastian Faulks' "Paris Echo" will definitely resonate with readers who enjoy following characters who find their beliefs tested. Hannah, a young American, comes to Paris to delve into the past when it was occupied by the Nazis in WWII. and takes in Tariq, a young Moroccan who has fled to Paris hoping to find a better life as a lodger.
As Hannah delves deeper into the lives of the lives
women in Nazi occupied Paris, she uncovers information that changes her views in ways she never expected and Taiiq, too, questions his decision as he learns more about the city he had planned to live in.
Faulk fans will definitely love this book but readers who struggle jumping around in time may struggle. While I gave the a "4" I believe 3.5 is a more accurate reflection of my feelings.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After
by Elizabeth Weil, Clemantine Wamariya
Life as We Do Not Know It (2/24/2018)
How does one process a book that describes the undiscribable to a free, safe, healthy and well off American? Clemantine Wamariya opened my eyes to a life so foreign to me that I had to remind myself I wasn't reading fiction. Her life and the lives of Rwandans who experienced the genocide is must reading for those of us who live in the US. This is also a must read for all book groups and individuals who have the freedom to pick and choose not only what they read but, more importantly, have safe places to live and government intervention programs to help many of our less fortunate. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Make "The Girl Who Smiled at Beads" your book groups's next selection. And be sure to recommend it as a must book for your library.
News of the World
by Paulette Jiles
Historical and Fun (9/13/2017)
Having lived in West Texas, studied Texas history and taught literature set in this country, I found the book a joy to read. Those who are familiar with the film "The Searchers" know about Indians capturing white settlers' children and bringing them up as their own.
My book club members knew little about the history of this time or the setting, so we had a lively discussion.
I strongly recommend a book with a good plot set in an accurately portrayed setting.
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
by Cherise Wolas
A woman's identity (6/6/2017)
"The Resurrection of Jane Ashby" asks several important questions about how a woman identifies herself.

Joan Ashby sees herself as a writer whose life should focus on and revolve around her writing. Her first two books were wildly successful. Then she falls in love with a man who is equally serious about his own career. When they marry, they both agree that career tops family. Then Joan becomes pregnant. After their son is born, Joan puts her writing in second place. And she finds motherhood wonderful after she locates a delightful young woman to care for him and who becomes someone who takes over the chores of the family. When a second child enters the family, Joan's responsibilities change. Her writing suffers but her husband's reputation as a surgeon continues to grow Life becomes complicated and Joan must make choices she never dreamed she would have to make.

This book forces readers to look at what they value and what they have accepted or refused to do in their own lives. It is therefore a book made for discussion--one that book clubs should read. Unfortunately at 500 pages many clubs will find it a hard sell.
My Last Lament
by James William Brown
War's Human Tragedy (3/14/2017)
Set in Greece at the end of WWII, this fascinating novel pulled me into the lives of the peasants struggling to survive after the Germans have left leaving left them bereft and penniless. Many years later, Aliki, perhaps the last "lamenter" (one who sings a eulogy for the dead) is asked to make a record of the lost art of lamenting. However, Aliki tells her own story of that terrible time, of Stelios, a young puppeteer and the orphan Taki of their struggles and those of their fellow Greeks. The book becomes a lament for the life and traditions and human tragedies inflicted on and by the Greeks who survived this terrible time.
We are all familiar with the stories of WWII in Europe, of the Jews sent to death camps and the Nazi cruelties but this book takes us to a country we have read little about. I strongly recommend the book for book groups.
The Typewriter's Tale
by Michiel Heyns
Read Henry James instead (1/11/2017)
"The Typewriter's Tale" tells of a young woman who has been fortunate to become the person who types for Henry James as he dictates revisions of his works. Having read most of them as well as those of Edith Wharton, I looked forward to this novel. Unfortunately I found it tedious. The author's long sentences and longer paragraphs as well as the early 20th century vocabulary were my major stumbling blocks.

I encourage those who enjoy such prose to read the novel but discourage those who prefer a more contemporary writing style.
Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge
by Helen Rappaport
History at its Best (10/16/2016)
Just finished this absolutely fascinating book about the revolution that set up the Russia of today. It is 1917 and Tzar Nicholas under pressure abdicates. But this book focuses on the results of that abdication in Petrogad ( St. Petersburg) through contemporary letters and diaries of those stationed in embassies, of visitors and other foreigners during the revolution. I was fascinated by Rappaport's reporting feeling as if I too were there appalled, disbelieving and freezing. I learned more about Russia and how the Bolsheviks destroyed the "old" ruling monarchy and the rise of Lenin and Trotsky as I watched the destruction that led eventually to Putin's Russia than any history course could have told me.
Don't miss this book!
The Tea Planter's Wife
by Dinah Jefferies
Fascinating...But Frustrating (7/17/2016)
Set in Ceylon, Dinah Jeffries "The Tea Planter's Wife"begins with a short prologue dated 1913, while the rest of the novel takes place from 1925 through 1933, during the time when race and class differences dictated one's place in society to the beginning of unrest and change within the social structure of that society.

I found the novel both fascinating and frustrating. Jeffries does an excellent job of helping us picture Ceylon and the Sinhalese and Tamil who work for the British landowners. We learn the social obligations and the restrictions that govern those in charge as well as those who toil beneath them. I found this part of the novel fascinating. However too often the sometimes overwrought plot too often made it difficult to accept the various intricacies necessary to develop it. While Gwen, the main character, and her servant Naveena were fully developed, the secondary characters too often remained two-dimensional.

Nonetheless, I recommend "The Tea Planter's Wife" for taking me into a time and place that I know too little about. The novel shows how our perceptions of those who are "different," too often cause us to judge them as inferior beings.
If I Forget You
by Thomas Christopher Greene
A poignant love story (4/7/2016)
Thomas Christopher Green's novel begins with a chance sighting of Margo by Henry in 2012. Twenty-one years earlier they had fallen deeply in love their freshman year in college but were forced apart when her wealthy father learned of their romance.
The book moves back and forth in time in short chapters between the past (1991) and the present (2012) and told alternately through Henry's and then Margo's point of view.
This is a lovely and lovingly told story that draws the reader in. I found myself unable to put down the book. There is much to discuss for book groups about relationships and life choices. I strongly recommend Greene's book.
The Alaskan Laundry
by Brendan Jones
Not a tourist's Alaska (2/10/2016)
Tara Marconi is drifting through life. She has a boyfriend but isn't totally committed. She has lost the mother who was her lifeline and she doesn't get along with her father who blames her for his wife's accidental death. So Tara runs away to a life as far away and as different as a life in the big city could be. She is 18, feisty and scared but determined to succeed in a man's world working on fishing boats in Alaska. She first learned self preservation when her dad took her to a gym to learn boxing after she had been taken advantage of sexually. Now alone with no way to run home if life gets tough, Tara begins her education on Alaska's fishing boats where no one expects her to succeed. Yet she toughs it out and grows from being young and arrogant into a mature young woman.

I enjoyed this very different Bildungsroman and highly recommend it. I do, however, wish it had included the maps which will be in the publisher's final edition.
The Forgetting Time
by Sharon Guskin
Who Are We-- (12/13/2015)
Sharon Guskin's "The Forgetting Time" posits the theory that we that we can take on or absorb the life of another. Focusing on Janie, a single mother, and the child, Noah, she conceives on a week's vacation, plus a lonely scientist, Dr. Jerome Anderson, suffering from aphasia who has spent his life studying the belief that life after death can exist, Guskin's writes an enthralling novel.

Noah is suffering from the belief that he has another life and struggles with the two personalities that war within him. The novel details Janie's attempt to find a solution to her son's agonies and Anderson's attempt to prove his thesis using Noah's struggles. While this sounds dark and deep, it becomes instead a beautifully written story of love and loss.

Guskin's novel offers much for book groups to discuss. Don't pass this up!
The Heart You Carry Home
by Jennifer Miller
Difficult Wars. A Difficult Book (10/16/2015)
Jennifer Miller's "The Heart You Carry Home" focuses on Becca Keller, her father King (a Viet Nam veteran), Ben a veteran of the Iraqi war and her husband of a few weeks, her mother and a number of King's ex Viet Nam veterans. Her mother and The novel focuses on how men and their wives deal with the wounded warriors with PTSD. Half of the novel deals with a veteran, CO Proudfoot, who has created a place where veterans can "find" themselves.

This is a powerful novel but also a difficult novel to follow and understand. The author focuses on contemporary characters, their problems and those of their families. Unfortunately I had trouble understanding the characters, the motorcycle crew, the language and the whole scenario.

I am well beyond someone who knows the language and the problems as well as the kinds of characters in the novel. This is not necessarily the problem of the writer. I believe that I am well out of the readers for whom this novel was focused on.
Thus I think this is a novel for contemporary and younger readers to whom it will certainly resonate.

My rating of the novel reflects that of a 74-year-old woman who has never had a family member involved in war.
When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944
by Ronald C. Rosbottom
A Paris Without Vitality (7/27/2015)
When I think of Paris, I envision a city steeped in romance, the Eiffel Tower, bistros, small caf├ęs, history and, being an American, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. But Ronald C. Rosbotten paints a different picture, one of a more subdued Paris where much of the population learned to live with their German occupiers and to turn their heads when their Jewish inhabitants were sent to Drancy and then to camps. Paris remained
unscathed. It's buildings and parks were not bombed or destroyed. Yes, Hitler admired this city that he had captured but visited only once. It was, he believed, to be his some day.

Rosbottom uses novels, memoirs, historical writings, memoirs, letters, novels by writers such as Camus to paint this picture. While he discusses those who became members of a resistance, he notes that they were never as organized and successful as those in other countries.

Was life easy for Parisians? No. They suffered from food deprivation and many, especially wealthy Jews, saw their dwellings taken over by the Germans. There were many besides Jews who were sent to camps but their numbers were relatively small compared to those in other occupied cities and countries.
This is a fascinating book that does what many more weighty historical volumes do not deal with as there are no battles or statistics showing loss of lives. And the Germans never raze buildings or bomb sections of the city which they see as a city to keep intact and make their own, although Hitler made plans to do so in the last days of the war, it never happened.
I heartily recommend this portrait of the city the world pictured then and still does today as romantic, beautiful and brimming with a fascinating history.
Lamp Black, Wolf Grey
by Paula Brackston
Magic, Mayhem, and Love (6/30/2015)
Set in Wales, Paula Black's " Lamp Black, Wolf Grey" mixes the 6th century with the 21st century in a romantic and suspenseful tale that includes two love stories intertwined along with real and fictional characters. And it works most of the time.

Laura Mathews, a successful artist has not succeeded in becoming a mother. She talks her husband Dan into buying an old house in the Welsh mountains hoping that the change will help them produce a child. She has not counted on meeting the handsome, charismatic Rys who is determined that they should become lovers.

The area is saturated in myth and legend with Merlin along with others becoming real people to sensitive artist Laura. A second plot tells of Merlin's doomed first love to Megan, a young woman very much like Laura. Now, there has to be a villain and the nasty Sir Geraint wrecks the love between Merlin and Megan.

I thoroughly enjoyed the tangled plot but, I must caution readers to remember this is fantasy and they must employ their suspension of disbelief for the novel to work.
Still Life Las Vegas
by James Sie
Searching for "Who I Am" (5/16/2015)
"Still Life Las Vegas," has to be one of the saddest coming of age stories I have ever read. Walter Valentine Stahl, a 17-year-old has lost his mother, his sister, and cares for his father, a weak, depressed man who cannot face lpife. The story is appropriately set in Las Vegas, a city filled with casinos that offer fake worlds to replace reality that is often too painful for those who flock to them.

Sie uses Greek mythological figures,once popular entertainers (Liberace) and shady characters along with young Walter's drawings to show us his desperate longing for stability and love, for discovering who he is

I'm not sure how I feel about the book. There is much to recommend it and just as much to demand it be reread. I want desperately to talk to another reader which suggests its potential as a book group choice.
He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him
by Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton
We Still Have Much to Learn (2/5/2015)
I sighed when this book arrived wondering why I had put it down as one of my choices. And then I began to read it. I finished it profoundly affected by the bittersweet life of Dr. Perry Baird.

The first 2/3rds of the book is Perry Baird's manuscript describing his life in various mental institutions written both when he was rational and when he was in a manic state. That Dr. Baird fully understood how manic depression(which we now know as bipolar) affects one, makes this section especially riveting as we enter the mind of this brilliant man both when it is rational and when it is manic. At times I felt as if his experience was happening in the 19th century.

The second part of the book details his daughter's childhood memories of her father and through her research an understanding of his disease and it's effects on him, his family and his colleagues. Mimi Baird's persistence in learning her father's story helps us readers understand how far we have come in diagnosing mental illness and how much we still must do to help those who gave it.
Brilliant and troubled, Perry Baird could not overcome a disease he had researched himself. As a friend of his early days said to his daughter Mimi, "He wanted the moon."

I strongly recommend book groups to select this book. There is much to discuss and ponder about mental disease and how we think of it and treat it today.
The Bloodletter's Daughter: A Novel of Old Bohemia
by Linda Lafferty
Cluttered (1/15/2015)
Lafferty's story suffers from inflating. Too much is not always a good thing. About 1/3 of the way through I began skimming. Too bad, because a more tightly constructed story could have made this a fascinating tale.
The Last Flight of Poxl West
by Daniel Torday
The Choices We Make (1/10/2015)
Early in Daniel Torday's novel "The Last Flight of Poxl West," Francine, Poxl's lover says "Isn't it silly... the choices we make." Poxl's life story is concocted of choices. He writes three novels that are rejected by publishers. Then he writes the book that will make him famous. He tells his nephew Eli, "I told the story the best I could... I wrote the book I needed to write." And it is indeed a gripping story filled with choices that will haunt both Poxl and Eli the rest of their lives.

As a young Jewish boy from Czechoslovakia, Poxl's life is filled with betrayals, with lovers, with working for the Civil Defense Department during the London Blitz and eventually flying for the RAF later in WWII. This part of the novel is filled with description so vivid that the reader can feel what it must have been like to be in London or on a bomber flying over Hamburg.

After the war, Poxl moves to New York where he becomes a college professor and a the faux uncle to a young Eli, the only son of a family that recognizes how much each needs the other. Poxl introduces Eli to great art, the theatre, literature and his war memories. Eli adores this man. But eventually both he and Poxl must come to terms with reality, with who they are what made them who they become.

The novel moves between Poxl's memoir and Eli's comments on their relationship. It is sweet and bittersweet and rich--a story that pulls you in. It is much more than a war narrative and a bildungsroman. In the end, you will lean back and think what it means to not only live your life but what it means to understand how live it.
The Same Sky
by Amanda Eyre Ward
A Satisfying Read (11/1/2014)
Too often an author struggles to make a two-strand plot come together successfully. In "The Same Sky,"
Amanda Eyre Ward avoids that problem in two ways. First, she balances each major character's story by alternating chapters devoted to each so readers can watch them develop equally. Second, it becomes obvious early that their lives will somehow intersect. Thus readers become involved equally in both stories. I liked this way of moving the story even though I knew where Ward was going.

We can believe the details of Carla's life in Honduras because we have read about the US border problems and are familiar with undocumented immigrant issues. Ward uses Carla's story to flesh out those issues. Alice's thread is also one that many readers who struggle with the fertility/infertility issues can identify with her. Both of these characters became real to me.

I would have no trouble recommending this novel to my book club members knowing that the issues it develops would stimulate a lively and worthwhile discussion.
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