The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I don’t know when books are allowed to be tagged “oldie but a goodie”, but I think The Time Traveler’s Wife should definitely be considered in that category. Published 15 years ago, this book became a national bestseller, was turned into a movie, and is still popping up on my Instagram feed with people stating it’s on their TBR and they can’t wait to read it.

The book plot is ultimately a love story, compounded by time travel. In alternating points of view, we follow the relationship development of Clare Abshire and Henry DeTamble. Clare has known Henry almost her whole life, since she was six. At that time, Henry was 36, but in his life, the first time they met he was age 28. He can’t explain it, but he has been time traveling since he was five, moving between the past, present, and future with very little to no control, always landing at a different time period naked, hungry, and usually on the run.

Henry, the son of a violinist and a singer, had a wonderful childhood until he was five, when tragedy struck and his mother was killed. He too was in the same accident, but he managed to survive. Henry’s father was devastated, and turned to alcohol for comfort, in turn leaving Henry to practically fend for himself. This left him literally mentoring himself in the art of time travel (the duplicity is so complex!) with subjects such as pick-pocketing, lock-picking, and “how to use oddball things like Venetian blinds.” He wishes that he knew how he could control the time travel, but he does know that no matter what, he has to be ready to survive any situation he is tossed in.

Clare is the daughter of a well off family with problems of their own. She often spends time in the meadow a ways off from her house, and one day Henry appears. At first, she’s highly suspicious, but after some clever conversion with Henry, she’s excited to be let in on his secret. She provides him with clothes, food, and shelter, as well as safeguards him. As she ages, she is eager to hear more about him and his life in the future- which is also a large portion of her own future.

As the two stories weave together, we learn that Clare is one of the few constants in Henry’s life, and despite their hardships, they know their love is strong enough to withstand the test of time.

Niffenegger will have you giggling one moment and crying the next. Her ability to manage a timeline driven plot with a time traveler is outstanding and surprisingly easy to follow- not to mention the foresight and foreshadowing that is worked in. It’s so eloquently written, and I adore the language that comes from each character- so intelligent, witty, and honest. I’ll stop gushing, but if this is still on your TBR pile, definitely give it a read.

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Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells

I finally got around to reading the first of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood series. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for about three months now, and I was dragging my feet about reading it. But once I started reading, I had a hard time putting it down.

Little Altars Everywhere follows the life of the Walker family and the lives around them There’s Vivi Abbott Walker, the mother and a cornerstone of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, and then there’s Big Shep Walker, the farmer father. These two have four children (well, five counting an infant son that died four days after he was born)- Siddalee, Little Shep, Baylor, and Lulu. Each one has their own stories to tell, and every story is brutally honest. Each character has their own growing pains, vices, and struggles, and holds nothing back from the reader when discussing them.

Vivi talks about her glory Ya Ya days, of when she was popular and fun, a wannabe actress in New York, a walking party. Then, when she became a mother, things changed. She made sacrifices. She loved her children, but she loved herself more. And drinking more. And before the kids are even old enough to understand what she was happening, she turned into a violent and abusive woman, trying to fight her inner demons brought out by alcoholism.

Big Shep, used to the torrid actions of his wife, tried to provide for his family- be the family man, without having the time to actually be with the family. More often than not, when he was with his wife, they were arguing, making up, and then arguing again. And when things got to be too much, he would run away to duck camp, and hide out. He wanted to do right, but he didn’t have the stomach- and in other ways, the clout- to do it.

The four kids are pretty much left to their own devices, and nurtured as much as possible by Willetta, their housemaid. As they grow into adults, they reflect on their childhoods and the way their parents influenced their adolescence and adulthood.

I absolutely adored this book, even with the heartbreaking issues caused and brought about by Vivi’s alcoholism. I love the voices that Wells has given her characters- each sassy, blunt, honest, witty… reading the book was like sitting in a room, listening to your family bickering. The sarcasm that flies, I tell ya! I’m really looking forward to reading the next in the series- the Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood – and getting to learn more about the four Ya Yas. If you haven’t read this book, I give it two thumbs up, and suggest you at least watch the movie that the book inspired!

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.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

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?“”

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

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.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

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.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

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.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This book is another that has sat on my bookshelf but never been read. I’d seen the movie a few times, and knew it had to be good because I thought the movie was good. As always, the book was even better.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

As I’m sure you all know (because seriously, this book has been out for TWO DECADES!) the novel is the fictional memoirs of a young girl names Chiyo (who becomes Sayuri) who was sold as a young child to an okiya, a geisha house. She suffers the loss of her family and abuse from those in her okiya, but finds hope when meeting a chairman who shows her an act of kindness. She eventually becomes a “little sister” under a great geisha named Mameha, and becomes a great geisha herself. All the while, she hopes that her training will bring her back to the chairman she met as a child, and does all that she dares to follow her own dreams, for once.

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(Photo Credit: Google Images)

It’s a lovely story, and Golden has written it so convincingly (as far as I’m concerned) that several times I caught myself Googling to see if certain names were fictional or not! And because I had seen the movie, as I read I could hear the woman who narrated the movie narrate in my mind. I also really enjoyed the imagery in the novel- it was a good balance between descriptive and concise. Plus, the similes and metaphors were a really nice touch to really portray details in Sayuri’s feelings and environment. For example:

“The walls were covered with a pale yellow silk whose texture gave a kind of presence, and made me feel held by them, just as an egg is held by it’s shell.”

Another thing I appreciated was the conversational narration that reminded the reader of who a certain bypassing character was- as if Golden knew that if he didn’t add that information, the reader would go leafing through the pages to place the name.

Overall, I loved the ability to see through the eyes of Sayuri, and to spot the cultural differences not only in the geisha way of life, but in the Japanese way of life. Even though I had seen the movie and knew where the general story line was going, I got so caught up in the experience with her that many times I didn’t know that I already knew the outcome. It was a very good read, which of course I didn’t doubt, and I’ll certainly be returning it to my bookshelf.

 

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.