Reviewing LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly (published 2016)

This debut novel is based on real events and real people.  It is set during WWII beginning with the invasion of Poland through the fall and liberation of France. It is not just another Holocaust story, but tells a broader tale. The author’s purpose seems to be to keep this period of women’s history alive as it explores several themes.

Kelly weaves together the lives of three extraordinary women and includes a “doomed wartime romance,” an ambitious career woman striving to make a way into a male dominated field, and the feelings and emotions of two closely attached  biological sisters. The writing is deeply moving and has beautiful, vivid descriptions.  The novel begins  with  and revolves around Caroline, based on a real socialite and employee of the French Consulate in New York City, who is not just “doing her part for the war effort,” but is dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives. The title comes from the lilacs planted at her Bethlehem, Connecticut, home, which today is a museum.  Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to the notorious Ravensbruck Labor Camp along with her doctor sister  because she has been caught smuggling messages to the resistance is the second Lilac girl. A brilliant German doctor, Herta Oberhauser, makes up the third of the trio as she works with the Nazis, operating on the “Rabbits,” of which Kasia and her sister are a part.

One critic describes this fiction-based-on-fact novel as the story of “…unsung women and their quest for love, freedom, and second chances.” I loved the novel for its twists and turns in the plot, its excellently drawn characters, and the way it kept my interest through the final pages. I highly recommend this as a “darned good read.”

 

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THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: A Review of an exceptional immigrant story

Lisa Ko’s 2017 novel, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction awarded by Barbara Kingsolver (for a novel that addresses issues of social justice) is an excellent novel. It is the story of Deming Guo, aka Daniel Wilkinson. The title indicates that everyone in his life leaves, or he leaves other people.  It is an intricate story of “love and loyalty.”

As the story begins, we find Deming with his immigrant mother, Polly, who works in a nail salon struggling to survive in The Bronx. One day Polly does not come home from work, and her boyfriend and his sister, Vivian, the mother’s roommates are not sure what  to do with the ten year old.  Deming, of course, wonders why his mother left him, then soon, why Vivian left him with social services who allowed the Wilkinsons, a middle-aged, white couple who are professors in upstate New York to adopt him.

This is not just an immigrant story, but a mystery that has many surprises along the reader’s journey through the novel. The book deals with expectations: parental expectations ; middle-class expectations, from both biological and adoptive parents; and  Deming’s own expectations from life.  Because of the last, he (Daniel) becomes a slacker, somewhat directionless and lacking purpose. The writer’s point of view alternates between Deming’s and Polly’s, spinning out extraordinary  lives of both main characters. There are happy moments and sad ones as well.  The setting spans the globe, presenting “one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read.” (Laila Lalami, author).  I agree.

A Coming-To-America-To-Make-A-Better-Life-for-Oneself-Story: A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George

I love immigrants-in-search-of-a-new-life stories! This one by Alex George, published in 2012 begins in 1904 and narrates the story of three generations (generational, family stories being another of my favorites) and tells the sweep-you-away love story of Frederick and Jette. Young lovers, they discover that Jette is pregnant and must flee the wrath and disappointment of her mother and family and make a married life for themselves in America. They intend to live in New York, but only have enough passage money to book for New Orleans, and through mishaps and misunderstandings in communication, end up starting their new life in Beatrice, Missouri, a fictional town in a very real county in Missouri.

The story is narrated by their grandson, James. Near the end of the book, James uncovers a family secret that rocks his world and reveals his true identity. It is a “sweeping” story that explores a love of music ranging from Puccini to Barbershop quartets, so popular in America in the 1900’s. It deals with family expectations and the consequences when one does not live up to them, expressed throughout three generations.

There are many memorable characters, of whom Jette was my favorite, both as a young spunky girl and as an old, strong matriarch of an impressive family. In A Good American, “Each new generation discovers what it means to be an American,” and each generation strives to be what Frederick  adopted as his major life’s goal, to be a good American.

A Hard-To-Classify Novel: A Review

The Keeper of Lost Things, a 2017 debut novel by Ruth Hogan, is extremely hard to classify.  It is a love story, a mystery, a ghost story, a good “recipe” for a “good read.”

Take a large portion of characterization equal parts of Anthony Perkins, once a celebrated author of short stories; Laura, his recently betrayed assistant, who is struggling both financially and emotionally; and Frank, handsome but scarred (literally) gardener…

Pour mixture into a large old house with a locked study filled with…what? and add a dash of a teenage Downs  Syndrome girl named Sunshine, a pinch of a grumpy ghost, a dollop of short vignettes inspired by sometimes sad circumstances.

Mix with a wooden spoon until the plot thickens (pun intended), and ladle into a baking pan. Bake in the heat of a sexual attraction until humor is emitted from the touch of a finger, and the reader has a story about “second chances, endless possibilities, and joyful discoveries.

Promise from the recipe writer:  The results will be most enjoyable!

 

TUESDAY TEASER

This meme hosted by The Purple Booker asks readers to take the book they’re currently reading, open it at random, and copy a couple of sentences that might tease other readers into reading the same book.

I love books about books, reading, and people who love books. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald is just such a book.  It is her first book, her debut novel, which tells the story of Sarah who comes to visit the US from Sweden to see her elderly Book Buddy, Amy, only to find a surprise.  While spending her time in Broken Wheel, almost a ghost town, Sarah re-opens Amy’s small shop as a book shop, using Amy’s vast collection of books as her merchandise. Here is an excerpt from near the beginning of the book:

As she enters the local cafe, Sarah meets Grace, the toughest, shotgun-toting woman in town who owns the place.  Grace speaks: “You must be the tourist,” she said.  The smoke from her cigarette hit Sarah in the face.”

“I’m Sarah.  Do you know where Amy Harris lives?”

“The woman nodded,  “One hell of a day”, a lump of ash from her cigarette landed on the counter…” “She leaned over the counter. Amy’s dead, she said.”

This is one of the funniest, laugh-out-loud-books I’ve ever read, and it makes me want to go an see what Sarah brought about in Broken Wheel, just through the introduction of books into people’s lives.

THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE: A Review

Donna Everhart’s debut novel, available in large print, like any novel about childhood abuse, is hard to read.  This one is even more so because it is told from the child’s point of view.  From the opening of the story, we know that Dixie’s Uncle Ray is in jail.  As the plot unfolds, Eleven year old Dixie’s “spidey sense” that something is just “not right,” alerts the reader to expect the worst.  Dixie and her brother, AJ, already have a rough life living with a depressed  mother who has anger issues and a father who drinks to escape. Set in Alabama in 1969, Dixie struggles with the need to lie to cover for her mother and to keep the other girls at school from labeling her family as “white trash.” She becomes a deliberate and accomplished tale-teller, resorting to lies even when they aren’t necessary. When she tries to tell AJ and later her mother what Uncle Ray has done, no one will believe her.  Seldom have I met a heroine so young with such spirit and courage.

This is a difficult book to read as it peels away layers of family secrets leading to the eventual harsh ending.  There is a ray of hope at the end, one thing I require of any book I read before I will say it is a good book.  This is not an enjoyable book but one that book clubs and individuals might take on to open thoughts or discussions about a very serious problem.

 

GIRL IN TRANSLATION: A REVIEW

This 2010 debut novel by Kimberly Chang is a wonderful immigrant story with the young protagonist (based on the author, herself),coming of age under the worst of circumstances and overcoming, magnificently,the highest of obstacles. She is from China, surrounded by a foreign language and culture as she enters the U.S.  Her misunderstanding of words and phrases she hears in English are almost humorous to the reader as she enters seventh and eighth grade to discover that she has a “talent for school”, especially in the areas of math and science.

She and her mother are sponsored by a spiteful, jealous aunt to whom they are indebted and forced to live in squalor in a condemned apartment in the Bronx. The girl finds herself “growing up between two worlds” and experiencing the thrill and anxiety of young love. The love story has an unusual but satisfying ending. As she “staggers under the weight of her family’s expectations and the depths of her culture confusion” she keeps her integrity and high ideals, always true to herself. Only she can and must find a way out from under all this for her and her mother. The story takes her through the first year of college, then has an epilogue that occurs twelve years later which wraps things up nicely.

It is a good read, and I am pleased to recommend it.