Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

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Review #82

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac have a strained relationship. Isabelle feels that Vianne abandoned her to a series of convent school and a life of loneliness after the death of their mother. Vianne, still mourning a series of miscarriages, feels that Isabelle is reckless and never stops to think about how her actions may affects others. In a quiet French town in 1940, both sisters are put to the test as the Nazis edge ever closer to the French borders. Vianne believes that France will never fall, and is determined to quietly live and raise her daughter. Rebellious Isabelle longs for a chance to contribute to the war effort. The following years will test their bond, their morality, and their desire for survival.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and immediately fell in love with her writing style and her focus on relationships and the importance of family. I had heard a lot of good things about The Nightingale and was eager to read another book by this author.

There are dozens of novels published every year that deal with World War II and its aftermath. The Nightingale earns its place in the upper echelons of the genre, but ultimately it has to compete with the likes of All the Light We Cannot See and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and sadly it falls a little short. There simply isn’t anything new or surprising presented by this novel. It felt as if Kristin Hannah had a checklist of “Nazi Atrocities” that she was gradually ticked off as she wrote. The things endured by the Mauriac sisters somehow seem obligatory rather than organic.

The novel occasionally includes chapters that are set in the United States in the 1990’s. One of the Mauriac sisters, now elderly and fragile, contemplates returning to France to confront her past and honor the sacrifices made. These chapters are utterly unnecessary and were obviously put there to lead up to a “twist” that lacked any sort of punch.

This novel has been so highly recommended by so many people that perhaps I went in with expectations that were impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, I enjoyed The Nightingale, but apparently not as much as others.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

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Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a red herring. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage. Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

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Review #52

In 1996, the city of Sarajevo is trying to recover after a brutal and devastating siege. Many of the city’s priceless artifacts have been destroyed by the bombings. One special book, however; was smuggled out. The Sarajevo haggadah, an illuminated book used by those of the Jewish faith at Passover, has made its way safely out of harms way. Rare book expert Hanna Heath is summoned from her home in Sydney to analyze and conserve this priceless and beautiful relic. Tucked inside its pages she finds several odd artifacts – an insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain. Author Geraldine Brooks creates a fictionalized history of the book tracing it back to its creation.

I was immensely pleased while I was reading this novel to discover that the Sarajevo haggadah is a genuine artifact that was smuggled out of a museum by its curator during the bombings of the mid-90’s. The book, believed to have been crafted around 1350, is one of the few examples of a Jewish manuscript that contains illuminated pages, since Jewish people at this time had strict laws against the making of “sacred images”. Furthermore, it contains an image of what appears to be an African woman dressed in traditional Jewish clothing, which has baffled historians for centuries.

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An image from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The “African Moor” is in the foreground on the left.

Rare book expert Hanna Heath is thrilled when she is offered the chance to study and restore the Sarajevo Haggadah is preparation for its display in the National Museum. Feeling a stronger connection to books than people, Hanna is immediately intrigued by the rich and unique history of the manuscript. As she finds interesting items tucked into the book’s binding, the reader is then transported to the time and place in history when each particular curiosity was added to the book’s overall mystery. We meet a girl fleeing for her life from the Nazis who ends up finding refuge in a Muslim home. A Catholic priest who saves the book from the fires of the Inquisition. A Jewish family in Barcelona who struggle after being exiled from their home. And a young slave in Seville who is responsible for the book’s stunning illuminations. Each piece of history fits into the overall puzzle of the Sarajevo haggadah to form the picture of a society that is constantly torn apart and brought together by the differences of religion.

This is a fantastic premise for a novel, and I went in to The People of the Book with very high hopes. However, I found myself struggling to truly engage with the characters in Geraldine Brook’s novel. Hanna, as the anti-social and biting protagonist, isn’t given much to do besides marvel over wine-stained pages and lament the destruction of its original bindings. She meets with a variety of people who know more than she does, each of whom are able to further explain the various curiosities found between the pages.

As each mystery is explained, a chapter follows introducing the characters who interacted with the haggadah during that time in history. The difficulty is that each of these chapters are one-offs. We are introduced to these individuals, begin to understand and empathize with their lives, and then are abruptly pulled back to 1996 to hear more of Hanna’s defensive whining. Due to this back-and-forth, The People of the Book is strangely uneven and at times was downright tedious.

There is a pattern apparent in this novel of religion being a driving force for dividing or unifying people throughout the centuries. Too many people believe that the Jews and the Muslims have always been enemies, and forget that they were in fact allies and partners in many advanced civilizations. The Catholic Church persecuted the Jewish community for hundreds of years, and yet there were groups of devout Catholics that risked their lives to shelter and protect those not of their faith. From this perspective, The People of the Book shows that a seven-hundred year old manuscript can still have something to teach us about working together.

This is a book for book lovers. It’s interesting to note that I received my copy from the Toronto Public Library, and it was definitely in a well-loved condition. The spine was pulling away from the bindings, and the pages were dog-eared and stained. While reading this novel I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the history of this copy, where it had been and who had read it before me. Every book has more than one story to tell, after all.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The People of the Book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

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Review #45

London: 1946. The war is finally over, and Britain is trying to put herself back together after the horrors of the blitz. Journalist Juliet Ashton begins exchanging letters with the residents of Guernsey, who are enjoying communication with the wider world after five years of German occupation. As she learns more about them, she begins to be drawn into their lives. Beginning as a mutual love of books, she soon learns all about their island, their relationships, and the impact that the war has left on each of them.

There are so many historical fiction novels that center on World War II and its aftermath. Most of them focus on the horrors of the time period, and the grimBook Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017) determination of the people who struggled to survive its ravages. Given the scarring that World War II left on the collective consciousness of humanity, this does not come as any surprise. What does surprise is when I stumble across a novel like Guernsey Literary Society, which has the potential to be just another look at the bleak circumstances faced by the residents of the occupied Channel Islands but instead manages to be funny, uplifting, and utterly charming.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s epistolary novel does not shy away from describing in detail the hardships undergone by the people of Guernsey. The constant fear and hunger of German occupation are given full attention, and the reader is never in doubt as to the difficulties that these people have had to overcome during the course of the war. However, Shaffer writes her characters with an irrepressible sense of humor that shines through the pages of the book. Small things, such as discovering how the group chose the highly unusual name for their book club cannot help but bring a chuckle even though the characters are in very real danger at the time.  Shaffer details the small victories, triumphs, and friendships that allowed the residents of Guernsey to survive the presence of the soldiers on their island. In a lesser novel these characters may have been described as “plucky” or “quirky”. But Shaffer fleshes them out and gives them distinct personalities which blend together seamlessly to create the picture of a group of people who banded together during a dark time and are sticking together as they rebuild.

If I had to point out one small flaw in this novel, it would be that Shaffer treats the writing of letters rather like the sending of text messages. I cannot envision that someone would send letters back and forth to friends and colleagues multiple times a day, or that these messages would consist of only one or two sentences. How are these messages winging through London or across the English Channel with such speed?

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

This is a book for book lovers, and as a lifelong book lover I found myself completely delighted and enthralled by The Guernsey Literary Society. The main plot of the story begins as two strangers discuss the works of English poet Charles Lamb. Although I haven’t read any of Lamb’s work, I immediately felt comfortable with the two characters who find themselves drawn to one another in order to discuss their favorite section and passages of a book. I have made lifelong friends in much the same way.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Reading everyone!