Burn Town by Jennifer McMahon

“There is no someday. We spend so much of our lives waiting for someday, don’t we? There is only right now. This is our someday.”

Burn Town just made one of my top favorite books of the year so far. When I read ‘Winter People’, I remember liking it but not enthralled, but I’m glad I decided to try again with McMahon, because WOW.

Burn Town had me hooked in the first 10 pages. HOOKED. By page 35, I had a running list of questions, and by page 50, I couldn’t take my eyes off the page. There are very few books that I’ve read in one day, yet here I am, adding this suspense thriller to the list. I could not put it down.

The whole story starts with the murder of Elizabeth Sandeski, the grandmother of the main character, Necco (Eva). Necco’s father, Miles, witnesses the murderer take his mother’s life, and years down the road attempts revenge. Thanks to a machine that links the living with the dead, Elizabeth reveals who killed her, and Miles takes matters into his own hands- or so he thinks. Years after that, Necco’s mother has a sort of premonition that the family is in danger again, and Necco learns that she’s in danger just before things get foggy and her memories fade to black.

Now, Necco is on the run again with the help of a high school drug dealer, a circus-crazed cafeteria lady, and a part-time private investigator, trying to figure out who is after her and what happened to her family after “the Great Flood”. Everything Necco though she knew is nothing compared to the truth she uncovers.

Absolutely recommend the read, as long as you can handle the thrill of it!

 

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Another recommendation from my friend from the stacks at the local public library.

The Nightingale took me a little time to get hooked on the story- it starts off rather slow (in my opinion). We are introduced to an unnamed elderly (but not old, as she would put it) lady who is reflecting on her life, and she eventually winds her way up to the attic and pulls out a memory box. Within the box, she finds documents dating back to World War II- specifically, identification papers of a Juliette Gervaise.

Trapped in the memory, the reader is taken back to France, 1939. We are introduced to Vianne Mauriac, a school teacher, mother, wife. On a perfectly normal day, she learns that her husband, Antoine, is being drafted to fight for France against the Germans. She is upset but permissive, believing that the talk of war is exaggerated and that he would be returning home soon. Imagining life without Antoine by her side was too much to think about for Vianne- after all, he had been there for as long as she could remember, certainly longer than her father had. Dealing with her own abandonment issues was Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol. Rebelling against the traditional French-woman behavior, Isabelle ran away to home far too often, causing her to be expelled from many boarding schools. After the death of her mother, her father had abandoned them by dumping them at a boarding school. Where Vianne found Antoine and befriended a girl named Rachel, Isabelle was left behind, the forgotten little sister. Now as a rebellious young adult, Isabelle is running for another reason- to survive the storm of Germans coming to occupy Paris.

As the start of the war happens, Vianne and Isabelle can’t let go of the hurt from their past. With varying views on the German occupation, Isabelle decides to join the war effort by secretly aiding the Allies, and Vianne takes a more passive route, complying with billeting soldiers in her home and abiding the German command. As the war wages on, the two seem to lead separate lives. Vianne attempts to stay her ground, doing her best to protect her daughter Sophie from the damages of war, and her neighbors when she can, all the while trying to maintain hope that the war will end soon. Meanwhile, Isabelle is running risky operations to save downed Ally airmen, a crime punishable by death, under the noses of commanding German officers. It is only when their two worlds collide again that the sisters begin to realize that they must put aside their past and hope to have a chance at a future.

Hannah took about 100 pages to get me hooked, but when she did, the hook went straight to my heart. As you all know, I have a weakness for historical fiction, and in particular those surrounding WWII. My great-grandfather was a volunteer of the Red Cross and helped liberate concentration camps in Germany in 1944-1945. We found photos that he took during that time after he passed away… and they will haunt me forever. So when I read these fictional stories, I know there is a very similar non-fictional story out there. A biography, even. And it makes me incredibly hurt and amazed that mankind would do such horrible things to each other, and yet people survived, had a will to survive….

I¬† also wanted to note that while somewhere in the middle of this book, I kept thinking about another novel,¬†Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, about WWII from the French perspective. I kept mentally comparing the two, and for about 100 pages, I kept thinking that de Rosnay’s was a more gripping read… and then Hannah’s hook got into me. What I found most interesting was that de Rosnay actually worked with Hannah on this novel, a few years after her own came out. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so, and if you haven’t read The Nightingale, the same goes for it. Just be ready to grab a box of tissues.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.

Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

I’ll keep this one short because I’m afraid if I say too much, all the plot twists will be revealed! Tatiana and Alexander is the sequel to The Bronze Horseman, one I didn’t realize existed until I started doing a little research after my last book review. I found it online and ordered it, and I think it took longer to ship the book than it took me to read it. It’s over 500 pages, and I couldn’t put it down for about three days.

Now, if you haven’t read the first book, stop right here. Seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Still with me? Okay. The sequel follows Tatiana as she figured out how to live without Alexander in America. She and her little boy, Anthony, take up residence on Ellis Island, and Tatiana becomes a nurse, aiding the sick who enter as refugees and captives of the war. All the while, she holds on to the nagging feeling that Alexander hasn’t left her, that he must be alive…. and though she doesn’t quite know it, he is. He’s narrowly escaped death not once, but a handful of times, and he won’t stop holding on to the hope that he will see Tatiana and their baby again.

It’s an epic love story novel, and if you loved The Bronze Horseman, you’ll love reading their final chapters in Tatiana and Alexander.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

I can’t remember how long this book has sat on my bookshelves, in various homes, and not once been opened. When I was sorting through my stacks not that long ago, I put it in a “to read” pile and have only just gotten to it. I don’t know what took me so long, but let me tell you it will stay on my bookshelves.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons is a heart wrenching love story. It follows the lives of Tatiana and Alexander, who are drawn together on the day that the Soviet Union enters World War II. Young Tatiana, age seventeen, can’t help but fall for the man whom her sister, Dasha, has already laid claim to- Alexander, a Red Army soldier. But they can’t help wanting to be together, so Alexander takes on a protective roll for Tatiana and Dasha’s family as they prepare and brace themselves for the war in Leningrad. As Tatiana and Alexander get closer, secrets are reveal, lies are formed, and their romantic interest in each other is put aside, despite their desire.

As the war goes on and the Germans get closer, Tatiana’s innocent optimism is replaced by the need to remain hopeful of survival. She supports her family, but her family treats her more as a servant than a daughter. When her own mother, in hushed tones, said that she wanted her son, Pasha, home safe instead of Tatiana, Tatiana runs off to the war front to try and find her missing brother and bring him home. When Alexander finds out, he gathers a troop of soldiers and leads them to the front to bring Tatiana back. After searching for her, he finds her buried under a pile of bodies, barely conscious but alive. After digging her out, he does what he can to help her, but she has a broken leg and is weak. The railroad systems back to Leningrad at the war front were bombed, so he carried her for kilometers on his back, overnight, to the nearest station and held her up until she was delivered safely to a hospital bed in Leningrad. Through all this, their bond strengthened deeper.

Even as Tatiana healed, she still doted on her family’s needs. Through the winter of 1941-1942 during the Siege of Leningrad, she bared starvation, cold, bombing, and thieves to gather the small rations available for her family. Alexander helped when he could, supplying the family with extra food that he could get with his soldier rations. Things got bleaker and bleaker, with millions dying around them from starvation, cold, and disease. Though terribly weak herself, when Dasha couldn’t physically stand Tatiana went out and sought help from Alexander. He managed to get them evacuated across the Road of Life on Lake Ladoga despite the dangers, but his love-triangle relationship with Dasha and Tatiana did more personal damage. He sent them off with Tatiana’s heart breaking, and Alexander didn’t know if he’d ever see them alive again.

When Tatiana and Alexander meet again, it is six months later. Dasha dies, but the ghost of her remains everywhere in the small refuge village with Tatiana. Tatiana and Alexander have to sort out their messy relationship, and though it wasn’t easy, they finally mend each other’s broken hearts. When Alexander returns to battle, Tatiana knows she can’t survive without him, and follows him back to Leningrad because she knows he needs her to survive as well.

As a hopeless closet romantic, this novel (all 900 plus pages) had me hooked. I had to know what would happen to Tatiana and Alexander. Would they survive the war? Would they be together? What happens if one of them dies? And there is plenty I’ve left out in this summary- sparing you all the great plot twists and turns. If you haven’t read this and you love historical fiction, love stories, Russian culture, or anything about WWII, then you must read Simons’ The Bronze Horseman.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

After turning the last page, it’s no wonder why “Eat, Pray, Love” became a best seller. Now, I’m aware I’m about 10 years late on this band wagon, but honestly my 15 year old self wouldn’t have understood the beautiful journey that the author embarked on. Which also makes a point that even a decade later, this book is still entirely relative and just as inspiring to a younger generation. If you haven’t read this book, read it now. Don’t even finish the review- go get a copy, curl up somewhere really comfortable, and just read.

Ok, now that you’ve read the book- and those of you who ignored my advice- this book follows along the spiritual and personal growth of the author, Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s written as a personal account, and I promise it’s not some mumbo-jumbo point of view where she tries to push her religion on you. It’s funny, witty, heart wrenching at times, and so truthful. She spares some details, but nothing is left untouched as she describes how she changed her own life after falling apart during a failed marriage. She travels to Italy, learning the language and tasting the finest foods (Eat). She then spends months in an Ashram in India and reconnects with her spirit (Pray). And finally, she travels to Indonesia to find balance, and in turn finds peace and (Love). (See what I did there?)

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and was constantly finding sources of inspiration from Liz’s (I feel like I know her, so I’m going first name basis here) writing. I had to keep a stack of flag-post-its to keep track! So, a few things that spoke to me:

  1. “L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle…. ” Italian for ‘The love that moves the sun and the other stars’. Speaking about the language and this example made me want to learn the language myself- or atleast make a better attempt at my dream to be bilingual.
  2. “Attraversiamo”. Italian for “Let’s cross over” as in cross a street. It takes on more meaning to the author, but she’s right- it’s fun to say!
  3. “”Dear God, that family needs grace.” She replied firmly, “That family needs casseroles,” and proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.” Amen, Liz, amen.
  4. Om Namah Shivaya. I honor the divinity that resides within me.” A mantra that found its way into my head after reading the author’s tale about it.
  5. “You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be.” The author’s friend’s advice is too good not to laugh or ignore!
  6. “Ray Charles could see your control issues!” When a book makes a joke and I laugh sincerely, that’s when I know it’s good.

I plan to buy this one for my personal library, and I encourage you to do the same if you haven’t already. I know it’ll be one that I’ll pick up for a little inspirational reading. So good you guys, so good. Okay I’m done gushing. Just read it!

 

“Lone Wolf” by Jodi Picoult

Oh, Jodi Picoult… I don’t have favorites, but you are at the top of my list when I think of amazing authors. To take a novel and make a person think so deeply about real life situations, right and wrong, ethics and values, and life or death… that’s something beyond special, and it’s completely enrapturing.

I’ve read most of Picoult’s work, and eagerly look to the next new novel, so I bought Lone Wolf shortly after it came out, which has been a few years now. But, I never got around to reading it. I just kept it stashed in my purse, or by my bed, as the back-up book for whenever I didn’t have something to read and was in need. Being in the current transition of moving out of my apartment, I’ve been too afraid to take a book out of the library. I don’t want to lose a book in the shuffle. So it seemed like the perfect time to actually crack the spine of Lone Wolf.

Now, here’s where I’m going to deviate from the system here. I’m only 50 pages in, but I’m not going to review on anything further than those 50 pages, and here’s why. I am not but 50 pages in, and I’m already having some serious ‘deep conversion’ in my head. THAT is what impresses the hello out of me when I say that Picoult is an amazing author.

So here’s the summary as of those 50 pages. We meet Luke, a man who lives, eats, and sleeps wolves. He has a teenage daughter, named Cara, who has lived with her dad and doesn’t seem to mind his eccentric parenting methods. Luke’s ex-wife, Georgie, has moved on to a new husband and twins, but ends up rusing back into his and Cara’s life when the hospital calls about the car accident they were in. She’s immediately concerned about Cara, and blaming Luke for everything, until she learns that Luke was in the accident and worse off than Cara. Because she’s the ex-wife, she isn’t privy to next-of-kin information, so she immediately calls her son, Edward, Clara’s older brother, who moved to Thailand to get away from the family problems. It’s the typical “broken family bonding due to family tragedy” scenario, but it works like a charm to lure in the reader.

Picoult uses multiple points of view separated as chapters per person to get into each character’s thoughts, and this aids the reader in keeping track of them. In “Lone Wolf”, I was immediately drawn into the comparisons of human vs. animal nature and nurture. As an animal person who has make it a passion to study and learn animal behavior, I find the parallels of the wolf pack behavior to human behavior fascinating. Picoult uses Luke’s point of view for this, and I’m really interested to see where she takes it as I read further.

I also want to point out a piece from Edward’s point of view that make my brain fire up:

“Mistakes are like the memories you hid in an attic: old love letters from relationships that tanked, photos of dead relatives, toys from a childhood you miss. Out of sight is out of mind, but somewhere deep inside you know they still exist. And you also know that you’re avoiding them.” (pg. 57, Picoult)

This resonated with me. I’m a perfectionist, I hate making mistakes, and as quickly as I learn from them, I stash that memory away and don’t want to reflect on them once I’m past it. And of course I’m an over thinker so I went through about 10 scenarios that fit that quote. It’s only just a part of Edwards stream of thought, but it made me, as the reader, think about the way my own conscious thoughts roll.

All of this, from 50 (or so) pages into this book. Now, I don’t know how it’s going to end, but all I’m saying is that there is always something at the end of a Picoult book that blindsides me, and I’m eager to find out what it is. And, I highly suggest you check out some of her other works.