Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 479 pgs.
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Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, which was the readalong selection for June at War Through the Generations, is a complex story in which Anna Schlemmer has kept her activities during WWII in Weimar secret, even from her daughter Trudy. Although Trudy was a young girl during the war, she remembers very little and what she does remember often comes to her in snatches of dreams and makes little sense. She’s tried to pry the past out of her mother ever since finding a portrait of herself, her mother, and a Nazi SS officer in her drawer at their farm in New Heidelberg, Minnesota.

“It is one of the great ironies of her mother’s life, thinks Trudy Swenson, that of all the places to which Anna could have emigrated, she has ended up in a town not unlike the one she left behind.” (pg. 73)

Blum’s novel shifts from the points of view of Anna and Trudy and shifts in time from WWII to the 1990s, where Trudy has begun a project to interview Germans about their time during the war, as her colleague strives to save the stories of Jews who escaped the Holocaust. But this story begins with a young girl looking to get out from under her father’s thumb in Germany, as war is beginning to seem more likely. Anna falls for a young man, and their relationship is doomed from the beginning. What transpires from that love affair onward takes Anna on a journey into darkness where she is alone and very aloof, even from the local baker, Mathilde Staudt, who agrees to take her in.

“It is as though Trudy has reached under a rock and touched something covered with slime. And now she is coated with it, always has been; it can’t be washed off; it comes from somewhere within.” (pg. 185)

Anna’s silence looms large over Trudy’s life, and it has foisted guilt upon her for a time she barely remembers and a man she suspects is her father. Her guilt is compounded by her mother’s unwillingness to talk about the past and the death of her stepfather, Jack – a former WWII soldier for America. Along the way, Trudy meets an older man who is half Jewish, Rainer, and she begins to see that her happiness does not have to be tied to the past.

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum explores generational guilt and the effects of war atrocities on those who did not commit them but were considered just as guilty as those with whom they associated. Blum’s research is impeccable and her understanding of the guilt and horror of the Holocaust and WWII emerges in the characterization of Anna, Trudy, and so many other secondary characters. Readers will be submerged alongside Anna as she struggles to survive for herself and her child, doing things she would prefer not to. She is forced to remain practical and to deal with any one she encounters with suspicion and caution, and when the past is on another continent she wants her daughter to leave it there. Although I would have preferred greater resolution between Anna and Trudy — whose relationship appears broken from the start of the novel — the ending does provide some hope. The novel carefully explores the question of whether we can love those who save us even as they commit the most heinous crimes and whether the past is best left where it is in order for happiness to be found.

RATING: Quatrain

Read the discussions:

About the Author:

New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels THOSE WHO SAVE US (Harcourt, 2004) and THE STORMCHASERS (Dutton, May 2010) and the novella “The Lucky One” in GRAND CENTRAL (Berkeley/Penguin, July 2014). One of Oprah’s Top 30 Women Writers. Novel THE LOST FAMILY forthcoming from Harper Collins in Spring 2018.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 12+ hrs.
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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Claire Danes, imagines a world not too far removed from where we are now — with the lack of cash and electronic transfers and the nuclear proliferation and antibiotic resistant diseases — but in this new United States known as Gilead, women are prohibited from holding jobs, having money, reading, and forming friendships. They are merely vessels through which children can be created, carried, and born, only to then be given to the households in which these handmaid’s reside. The handmaid’s are merely the vessels through which wives of the elite are able to have children following the devastating disease that renders many women infertile. Yes, it is only the women who are to blame for the infertility, which is why the men are permitted handmaidens with which to procreate.

Offred tells us this tale from the handmaid’s point of view, and none of the characters we meet have their own names, merely names that are adapted from the husband’s leading the households. To bear a child that is not deformed and is healthy is an honor for these women, but they also have very little freedom — forced to live inside the house, not form bonds with other women or men, and required to eat only prescribed foods and avoid all vices.

Engaging from the start, readers are thrust into this new world and forced to review their own freedoms. How could you become accustom to such a life and not fight it? Offred explains how it comes to pass and why the women remain in their assigned roles, but even in the darkness, there is a light — dim as it may be. Atwood’s Offred is a woman who is resigned to her role because she fears that harm will come to the connections from her previous life. She fails to take action many times because she views her inaction as protecting those she loves. But she also is hampered by her lack of knowledge and her inability to creep about and learn things when the house is asleep.

Danes narration of the book is spot on, and we can feel the emotions pour out of her words. She becomes Offred, she breathes her world, forcing readers right down into the darkness with her. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Claire Danes, is a cautionary tale about extreme measures, but it also serves to remind us that when we are not looking extremes can become reality. It is our duty to be vigilant and stand up and fight before things go too far.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Author:

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master’s degree from Radcliffe College.

We Will Not Be Silent by Russell Freedman

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 112 pgs.
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We Will Not Be Silent by Russell Freedman is a book about a resistance movement started by young boys and girls after they saw what the Hitler Youth movement was really like and what it was about. The White Rose movement ultimately came to the attention of the Gestapo, and while the Nazi regime looked for them, the student network continued to grow.

Through a series of mimeographed leaflets that were left in doors and other locations, the students were able to call attention to Adolf Hitler’s terrible policies and the deaths of Germany’s citizens. Freedman uses a series of historical documents and photographs to chronicle the journey of the Scholls and how they came to oppose the regime and garner supporters.

We Will Not Be Silent by Russell Freedman is a testament to the power of youthful conviction and social networks in opposing forces that are immoral and policies that are wrong.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Russell Freedman received the Newbery Medal for LINCOLN: A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY. He is also the recipient of three Newbery Honors, a National Humanities Medal, the Sibert Medal, the Orbis Pictus Award, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and was selected to give the 2006 May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture.

New Authors Challenge

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 48 pgs
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Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, is a book I picked up to read with my daughter because I love finding new poetry books to read with her.  I want her to at least appreciate poetry, even if she doesn’t love it as much as I do later on in life.  Although this says its a year of haiku for boys, I think even girls can appreciate these short poems and the seasons they represent.  My daughter participates in some of the same activities as boys, such as flying kites and bike riding, and I’m sure when she grows older, she’ll be climbing trees and taking other adventures.

The illustrations are great, very simply drawn and colored, reflecting the poems themselves in their obvious and fun witticisms.  In one of the first haikus, a young boy is flying a kite, but he’s engaged in a game of tug-of-war, and he’s not winning.  I bet you can guess who is.  These poems speak to the imagination of children, like boys making their bikes sound like motorcycles by putting baseball cards and other objects in their wheels.  These boys are imaginative and curious, and they take on anything that comes their way.  It’s hard to imagine them ever being bored.

The wind and I play
tug-of-war with my new kite.
The wind is winning.

Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, is a wonderful collection of poems for boys and girls.  Not only are the poems short enough for younger kids to pay attention to them, but they are about subjects that they are familiar with and probably already engage in regularly.

Rating: Cinquain

About the Author:

Bob Raczka loved to draw, especially dinosaurs, cars and airplanes, as a boy. He spent a lot of time making paper airplanes and model rockets. He studied art in college, which came in quite handy while writing a series of art appreciation books, Bob Raczka’s Art Adventures. He also studied advertising, a creative field in which he worked in for more than 25 years. Bob also discovered how much he loved poetry and began writing his own. His message for today’s kids is to make stuff!”

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 238 pages
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Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, (on Kobo) reads like a fable with the anthropomorphization of dogs and death.  Saramago’s style lacks punctuation, dialogue separations, and other grammatical elements that many readers come to rely upon, but in this case, these omissions are done with purpose.  Once readers immerse themselves into the narrative, these grammatical signals are not warranted.  The “what-if” scenario in this novel is what would happen if death took a vacation, and no one died — but remained just on the cusp of death and life, unable to improve and get better and unable to fully pass away. 

What transpires is a country in chaos, hospitals overflowing with patients in a sort of stasis before death and nursing homes unable to care for all of the ailing in the most dignified way.  His prose is heavy handed against the government, religion, and business, as well as human nature in general, particularly when explaining the motivations behind the care and disposal of the living-dead.  The absurdity of the scenario and the satire are focused heavily on the internal decision makers and the elite of the church bureaucracy.  Readers will either find his prose humorous in his treatment of these elements, or they will be confused or taking it too seriously that they find the story too limited in scope or too focused on the mundane.

“And then, as if time had stopped, nothing happened.  The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated, she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it could only have been death, continued to keep hold.” (page 3)

Amidst the heavy handed and grim dealings of the government, religion, and medical fields to deal with the crisis of no on being able to die and be buried, Saramago offers readers a look at the darker side of humanity following an initial euphoria that immortality had been achieved.  A deeply philosophical fable, this novel is almost of two minds — focused on the human institutions and their reaction in one half and then focused on the reasons why death has ceased and wanted a vacation from it all.  While the latter half of the book is very reminiscent of those old myths about the gods falling for humans, Saramago never loses sight of who death is and how manipulative and tactless she can be.  She’s romancing a cellist, but in the only way death can, with veiled threats of harm and mystery about her intentions.  Some readers will either love the last third of the book or find it too cliche.

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa — our April book club selection — examines what it means to face death or the knowledge of death, whether you get your affairs in order and atone for past sins or go out in a blaze of glory.  Saramago will have readers questioning their own mortality.

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club was all over the place with this one, with some really finding it humorous, a few not even finishing the book, and a few others that simply hated it.  While many abhorred the writing style, others didn’t mind it as much, but wanted a more impactful story about individual families or characters — they wanted to see the more human side of things.  None of the members agreed on who the narrator could be, though some suspected God, the Scythe, or Love as the narrators.  While I was dealing with a toddler during this meeting and a migraine, I probably missed a lot of the discussion, which is unfortunate for me, since I’ve read a few of this novelist’s books before and may have been able to help with a bit of the background, etc. for him and his writing.  There is definitely a great number of issues to talk about and definitely will raise dilemmas, but the members will have to get through the book first.

About the Author:

José de Sousa Saramago (1922–2010) was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party.  His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with among others Freitas-Magalhaes. He lived on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he died in June 2010.

Incendiary Girls By Kodi Scheer

Source: Little A/New Harvest and TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 192 pages
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Incendiary Girls: Stories by Kodi Scheer (on Kobo) mixes dark humor — really dark humor — with scientific and anatomical knowledge that makes some of these stories even more creepy.  Like the title suggests, a spark is lit in each of these stories that leads these protagonists to re-examine their lives, relationships, and their perceptions of reality.  From a woman whose Muslim boyfriend turns into a camel to a mother who believes her daughter’s horse is her own mother reincarnated, Scheer expects her readers to be open-minded and willing to think outside the box.  While she explores the notion that the body betrays us, she also sneaks in some sly sympathy and humor at our own inevitable fates, which could be missed upon first reading.

“‘Pose for me,’ you say.  Not that he’s moving much anyway.  Pull out a sketch pad and charcoal, then sit across from him.  Forming the shapes first, the underlying structure, is difficult.  This body is unfamiliar. A cylinder, no, an oval for the main part.  Then there is the question of the hump.  Should you add a half sphere on top?

The sketch looks like a cross between a horse and a llama.” (page 70 from “When a Camel Breaks Your Heart”)

Readers will never forget these stories, like the peeling back of skin to reveal muscles in “Gross Anatomy.” But there is more here than the detailed images that will be etched forever in the mind; Scheer raises questions about identity, genetics, family secrets and more.  When tragedy strikes, people spend an inordinate amount of time making things as good as they can for their own children while burying the hurt of the past, and there are those that prepare for the worst before it even strikes through a series innocuous habits and rituals.

Incendiary Girls: Stories by Kodi Scheer is a small, powerful collection of short stories that hits like a sucker punch in the gut, leaving readers questioning their own emotions and world views.  Like the surgeon cutting along the skin to reveal the muscles below, Scheer sheds light on the disembodiment of humanity by war and science amid the absurdity of our conventional lives.  Unsettling, inventive, grotesque, but ever thought-provoking in her use of magical realism.  Something readers are unlikely to forget by a young, female Kafka that even Gregor Samsa should fear.

About the Author:

Kodi Scheer teaches writing at the University of Michigan.  For her work as a writer-in-residence at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, she was awarded the Dzanc Prize for Excellence in Literary Fiction and Community Service.  Her stories have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Iowa review, and other publications.


23rd book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova

The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova is a young adult novel set during World War II when Norway was occupied by the Nazis for five years.  Rather than acquiesce to all of the Nazis demands and become indoctrinated, many of them showed their solidarity in small ways, including wearing paperclips on their clothes and not speaking to those in the community who turned into Nazi informers.

Marit is a young girl of ten when the first bombs fall on Norway, which has become a pawn in the war as the Germans seek to control the ports and the British seek to do the same.  Her parents are eager to join the Resistance and help the British as best they can — her father’s knowledge of bridges and roads and her mother’s ability to speak English — but it forces them to break up the family and send their children to Godøy Island to live with their grandfather Bestefar and their aunt Ingeborg.  While Marit and her brother Lars have spent summers there, Marit does not get along well with her grandfather who she finds favors her brother.

“She couldn’t believe he was actually speaking to her.  She didn’t know if he wanted an answer or not, but she gathered her courage.  ‘But Bestefar, if no one fights back, the Germans will be here forever!'” (page 41)

Casanova’s story is based in fact, which can be found in the notes at the back of the book, and her characters are believable as young children caught in a war they do not understand.  Marit struggles with her morals as she’s forced by her peers to not speak to her friend Olaf in school because his parents turned in a Norwegian to the Nazis.  While Marit is brave at the beginning of the occupation, she falters as any young child would in the face of oppression and danger, and she must come to terms with her own convictions and if they are worth the price she and her family might pay.

Unlike other suspenseful young adult novels in which children are the main protagonists and the most important actors in the plot, Casanova has stuck to the real world dynamics of the world in which children do not know everything and are not the main actors.  Marit demonstrates fear as she strives to deliver the klipfish code and when she encounters the Germans up close.  The Klipfish Code by Mary Casanova is a realistic account of Norway’s struggles during the Nazi occupation without being too graphic about the violence that came with that regime.

About the Author:

Mary Casanova is an award-winning children’s author of novels and picture books. Many of her books stem from her life on the Minnesota-Canadian border; yet some of her stories have taken her as far away as France, Norway, and Belize for research. Whatever the setting for her books, Casanova writes stories that matter–and stories that kids can’t put down.

Her book awards include: American Library Association “Notable,” Aesop Accolades by the American Folklore Society, Parents’ Choice “Gold” Award, Booklist Editor Choice, and two Minnesota Book Awards. Her books frequently land on state children’s choice book master lists across the country. “The greatest reward for me,” Casanova states, “is when a young reader tells me she or he loves one of my books. For me, it’s all about communicating writer-to-reader through a character and story.”

This is my 31st book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Thrall by Natasha Trethewey

Thrall by Natasha Trethewey examines the lines between father and daughter and the African-American experience through a set of personal and analytical poems focused on race and culture.  In “Miracle of the Black Leg,” Trethewey examines the juxtaposition of white and black men in paintings and other artwork in which the leg of one man is taken and attached to the thigh of another man.  There are similarities in pain stricken faces in some images, paralleling their similar situations, but there are also clear disparities in how each man is treated, even if the leg is taken from a newly deceased person.  The imagery she chooses in this poem is particularly haunting, especially when taken in the historical context of how the images are presented throughout the years — with the black donor swept to the side and only the black leg as a representation of the whole.

"See how the story changes:  in one painting
     the Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin,
so black he has no face.  In another, the patient --
     at the top of the frame -- seems to writhe in pain,
the black leg grafted to his thigh.  Below him
     a mirror of suffering:  the blackamoor --" (page 11)
". . . The black man, on the floor,
holds his stump.  Above him, the doctor restrains
    the patient's arm as if to prevent him touching
the dark amendment of flesh.  How not to see it -- 
    the men bound one to the other, symbiotic --
one man rendered expendable, the other worthy
    of this sacrifice?  In version after version, even
when the Ethiopian isn't there, the leg is a stand-in,
    a black modifier against the white body," (page 12)

The title of the collection tells readers all they need to know about the topics covered, including the moral, mental, and physical slavery or servitude as well as the complete emotional absorption that can happen in relationships. As Trethewey examines works of art through a lens of racial demarcation, she also looks at daughters’ relationships with their fathers, which can sometimes be congenial and at other times turbulent. In “Knowledge,” she is looking at the dissection of a woman and the men who stand around her as the cut is made into her flesh, and Trethewey’s narrator concludes that her father was not just one type of man, but each of the men in the room — all at once contemplative, scientific, and artistic, even though at times she felt he were just one of those men.

It is easy to see why Thrall by Natasha Trethewey could captivate a packed audience at the Library of Congress when she was inducted as the newest U.S. Poet Laureate, and hearing a poet read their own work can be the best gift.  While her reading can enthrall you and bring you near tears, her careful word selection in each poem will ensure that you reflect on the meaning of each line in each verse before you even think about the overarching themes of separation and connection as well as their juxtaposition.  A collection that will be on the best of list for sure.

Check out the recap of the U.S. Poet Laureate Event.

This is the 22nd book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel

The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel from the Norwegian, is the eighth book in her Inspector Konrad Sejer series of books.  It is not only a mystery with a adrenaline rush, but also a psychological examination of the criminal and victims minds.  Rather than a mystery that needs to be unraveled, Fossum creates an unsettling atmosphere that keeps readers on the edge.  What will happen next, how will the criminal again strike fear into those around him — neighbors, family, strangers.

And yes, this is a book about fear — the fear of death — the fear of death when it calls.  Death is always unexpected when it arrives, but what if you are lulled into an artificial sense of security by your own contented perceptions of your home and neighborhood?  What if something occurs that simply disrupts your preconceived notions of security?  Fossum asks these questions with each new prank and situation, and she ramps up the anxiety with each page turned.  From the very first pages, readers become aware that the Norwegian landscape will darken and tranquility will become tentative.

“Poor little thing, she thought, and tore its thighs off.  She liked the cracking sound the cartilage made when tearing from the bone.  Light and tender, the meat let go easily, and she succumbed to the temptation to stick a piece in her mouth.  It’s good, she thought, it has just enough seasoning, and it’s lean too.  She filled the pie dish and sprinkled on Cheddar cheese.  The she checked the time.  She didn’t worry about Margrete.  If the child sneezed she would know it immediately.  If she coughed or hiccuped, or began to cry, she would know.  Because there was a bond between them, a bond as thick as a mooring line.  Even the slightest tug would reach her like a vibration.”  (page 2)

However, it is the undercurrent under the surface plot that ripples beneath, providing just enough suspicion to keep readers wondering who the true criminal is.  Readers get a sense of Inspector Konrad Sejer as an honest man whose seen it all, but continues to work for the police as a way to ensure justice.  But readers also get to know how much his life has changed over the years and where his strength comes from — his family and young nephew Matteus.  His health may be failing, but the case is always important, pulling him away from his own misery into that of the victims and even the possible perpetrator.

When death calls, even in its mistiest form, The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel tackles the what ifs and the inevitability that comes with that visit, including the reassessment of behavior and routine, love, and perseverance.  The atmosphere of the novel is by turns complacent and topsy-turvy, and Fossum’s characters must navigate the new world into which they are thrust.

About the Author:

Karin Fossum is the author of the internationally successful Inspector Konrad Sejer crime series. Her recent honors include a Gumshoe Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for mystery/thriller. She lives in a small town in southeastern Norway.

About the Translator:

K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, the Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, and elsewhere. He has worked as the Publications & Communications Manager of The Writer’s Center, an independent nonprofit literary organization based in Bethesda, MD that offers over 300 workshops in writing annually and hosts around 50 literary events a year.  He is known for his work translating Simon Fruelund’s fiction, and he has received a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council.

This is my 71st book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark

Maribel Campbell Lowe’s Beautiful Lies (by Clare Clark) ensure that she is mysterious to the reader and London society from the beginning, but as the prose unfolds, readers get glimpses into her past as she attempts to navigate her life in the confines of a London society on the verge of change, in which seances and photography are gaining admirers. Married to radical politician Edward Campbell Lowe, Maribel is thrust into a society full of expectation and one that is changing, but her fateful meeting with Alfred Webster, a reporter, could be her family’s undoing.

But the novel also is more about the society around the Lowe’s and the idea of wearing a mask to your family, society, and to some extent to yourself — hiding the truth from even your own consciousness.  Clark blurs the lines between truth and fiction here in the photographs taken and discussed and as Maribel reflects on her past — lamenting tough decisions she made — and assessing her current situation — finding her way in a relationship with a very busy and outspoken politician.

“”It’s a pity you could not be there when Bill took forty of his Indians to the Congregational Chapel at West Kensington,’ Henry said.  ‘That would have made a splendid photograph.  Apparently, they sang “Nearer My God to Thee” in Lakota.’

‘I am not interested in the Indians as curiosities.  If I am to photograph them it should be as they really are.  The truth, not the myth-making.'” (page 173 ARC)

Maribel is an actress of the first order, as are many of the characters in the novel, as they navigate the complexity of their politics and society at a time when the economy is faltering.  They attempt to hang onto anything that appears true and solid, whether it is Buffalo Bill’s traveling show or spirit photography.  Clark offers very detailed accounts of Victorian society from the clothes to the streets and the economic conditions, but she also provides readers with a stimulating atmosphere that also blurs the lines of reality with those of art.  In many ways, her chain-smoking protagonist’s view of the world permeates the novel so well that the story takes on a mysterious lilt, keeping readers in a state of distanced observation that makes it hard to connect with Maribel on an emotional level.

“Beside the tea chest he hesitated, fumbling in his pockets.  There was the rattle of a matchbox and then the scrape and flare of a match.  Shadows leaped from behind the lines of laundry as he lifted the candle to his face.  Beneath the snarl of his eyebrows his sharp eyes flickered like a snake’s.”  (page 1 ARC)

While the details are appreciated about the House of Commons, the rest of Parliament, the economy, the socialist movement, and other goings on of this era, Clark bogs down the narrative at certain points with these details, which keeps the reader at a distance from her character.  While Maribel smokes obsessively and the prose focuses on it obsessively, the character comes off as careless and even boring at times as she waffles between taking action to improve her happiness and wallowing in the past.  With that said, Clark has written an interesting narrative based upon a real-life politician’s wife who led a double life for many years.

Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark is an unique look at Victorian society plagued by hidden scandals and events that are exaggerated so that they become scandalous by newspapers and reporters.  Disappointingly, the novel drops one of the story lines that was originally set up as one of the things that had the potential to bring down the Lowe family.  Rather the scandals involving politicians and upper class activities uncovered by Webster become the crux of the novel, but the solution to the Lowe’s problem of Webster’s vendetta is unique.  Overall, Clark has recreated the world of the late 1800s and touched upon the hidden lives of many members of society and the masks that humanity wears in public and even at home.

About the Author:

Clare Clark is the author of four novels, including The Great Stink, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize and was named a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and Savage Lands, which was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2010. Her work has been translated into five languages. She lives in London.



This is my 68th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.


To enter to win 1 copy of Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark, please leave a comment below by Sept. 28 at 11:59 PM EST.  You must be a U.S. resident and 18 years or older.


The War to End All Wars: World War 1 by Russell Freedman

The War to End All Wars: World War 1 by Russell Freedman is a collection of historical information about the war enhanced by photos and a good introduction to this part of history for ages 7 and up.  Not only does Freedman offer the political, social, and military ins and outs of the build up to WWI, he illustrates the circumstances of the time period through photographs of soldiers in training, women pinning flowers on marching soldiers leaving for war, women plowing the fields without horses, and event the modern weaponry used.

Readers looking for an in-depth examination of the period will want to this book because the photos break up the factual litany and provide a human face behind the story.  Some of the surprising pictures for me were of the modern tanks that the British created and the gas masks made for horses.  Ironically, the rebels who were the catalyst behind the war had no idea that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was sympathetic to the Serbs cause for greater free and a larger voice in the Austria-Hungary empire.  In another section of the book, readers will discover similarities between WWI and the Cold War with the build up of armies and weapons, but unlike during the Cold War, the leaders during WWI were unsuccessful in their attempts at diplomacy even though many of the royal leaders were related.

However, don’t mistake this as a completely dark and dreary book because there are lighter moments depicted where soldiers created a snowman and gave him military gear, including a spiked helmet and Mauser 98 rifle.  However, war is far from pretty with the death of comrades from artillery shells to the rampant diseases that quickly spread through the primitive trenches, including trench foot, trench fever spread by bloodsucking lice, and other ailments.

“Added to these indignities was the awful stench that hung over the frontlines, a foul odor that instantly assaulted visitors.  You could smell the frontline miles before you could see it.  The reek rose from rotting corpses lying in shallow graves, from overflowing latrines, and from the stale sweat of men who had not enjoyed the luxury of a bath for weeks.”  (page 68)

To be honest, the photos accompanying the early sections about the serious living conditions these soldiers faced in the trenches are inadequate, but there is little the author could do about that.  The images of men caught up in barbed wire in No-Man’s Land or crossing the battlefield in a cloud of poison gas are simply haunting in a way that the numbers of dead (4 million Russian soldiers by the end of 1915) are unfathomable.  Modern warfare began during WWI with the manufacture of tanks and German U-boats, which were allegedly responsible for the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.  But the United States did not declare war until 1917 after Germans attacked a number of U.S. ships.  There are stunning images of how societies coped with food shortages as trade was disrupted and how people reacted as they were forced to pick up the pieces after soldiers left.

The War to End All Wars: World War 1 by Russell Freedman is a comprehensive look at WWI and all the nations involved, as well as how it impacted not only the societies bombed and destroyed, but also the soldiers.  Despite all the destruction, patriotism drove many soldiers and supporters of the war, and it begs the question when does patriotism become a detriment to society and humanity.

This is my 9th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




This is my 4th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We the Animals by Justin Torres is raw, abrasive, and rough because its characters are “animals” reverting to their baser selves in fear or confusion.  The novel reads like a short story collection, throwing readers into brief moments throughout the lives of three boys growing up in Brooklyn with a Puerto Rican father and a white mother.  Manny, Joel, and the third boy who narrates the story, creates an unconventional coming-of-age story.

“It wasn’t just the cooing words, but the damp of her voice, the tinge of her pain — it was the warm closeness of her bruises — that sparked me.”  (page 17)

These boys are wild and crazy, and their dysfunctional family life has taken them on a roller coaster ride of emotions from anger as their father beats them to deep sorrow when their mother comes home from her job to find their father has left.  These boys run free in the neighborhood, have no manners, and are struggling to find their place in the world.  Are they boys that need the protection of their mother or are they men who can take on their father and be free?  Torres shows episodes in which both of these things are true, but these boys are clearly in between, at an age where things can be magical but reality is too stark to ignore.

Torres’ writing is instinctive and brutal at times, giving this novel an autobiographical feel.  The novel is told from the viewpoint of the youngest boy reminiscing and much of it seems nostalgic, even for the not-so-normal parts of his life — where he sees the good in it and possibly relationships he misses having.  However, even though the novel is told from the point of view of the youngest brother, readers may find themselves disconnected from the characters because the scenes are so clipped and blaze by with quick, bright images that shock them — at least until the end.  At little more than 100 pages, We the Animals takes readers on a quick journey through a rough childhood of poor, mixed-race boys in Brooklyn who have to deal with more than there share of depravity and sadness.

I want to thank Ti at Book Chatter for her review that got me interested in Torres’ work.

About the Author:

JUSTIN TORRES was raised in upstate New York. His work has appeared in Granta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was the recipient of a Rolón Fellowship in Literature from United States Artists and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Among many other things, he has worked as a farmhand, a dog walker, a creative writing teacher, and a bookseller.

This is my 67th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

This is my 18th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.