Monday, May 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I just finished a beautiful, melancholy World War II novel, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Two of the main characters, Marianne von Lingenfels, an aristocrat, and Benita Gruber Fledermann, a peasant who married Marianne’s best friend, are introduced at a party in 1938. During the party (at the von Lingenfels country castle), they learn of the rioting and destruction of Jewish businesses and property later known as Kristallnacht. A small group of guests, anti-Hitler intelligentsia, coalesce in their determination to stand against fascism. One of these is Albrecht, Marianne’s husband, and another is Connie Fledermann, Marianne’s oldest and dearest friend, with whom she is more than a little in love. Connie assigns Marianne the task of being "commander of the wives and children." Even though she finds the designation affronting, she takes the task to heart.

The story is told in non-chronological order. The story jumps to the end of the war to find Marianne searching out the wives and children of men who had bound themselves to the resistance. Albrecht and Connie had been among the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler but were caught and executed. During the war, wealth and connections helped spare Marianne the worst of Nazi punishments, but she could do nothing to help her fellow widows. As the war drew to a close, Marianne found Benita and her son Martin, and later, a woman she’d never met but whose name had been on her list: Ania Grabarek, along with her two sons. Marianne brings these families to live with her at an old family castle in the countryside.

The novel tells these women’s stories, what they experienced during and after the war. They are very different but linked through suffering and the desire to protect their children. Each is guarding secrets which are slowly revealed through the course of the narrative.

Although the time shifts in the novel make it a bit choppy, the story holds together well and is, in fact, difficult to put down. The psychological studies of the women are poignant and credible. Marianne is at the center of the book. Extraordinarily strong and full of conviction, she never strays from her sense of duty or her clear-eyed view of right and wrong. While this serves her well as far as moving forward despite aching loss, it does blind her to shades of gray that have influenced the actions of the other women, costing her friendships that might have blunted her own pain.

A varied exploration of the experiences of women inside Nazi Germany, The Women in the Castle is deeply moving, important, and sad.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I was ready to change gears and read a lighthearted Regency Romance, so I pulled Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey from my Netgalley queue. This novel had a premise that enticed me. An orphaned heiress has reached the age where she must marry, but her heart is already given—not to her guardian, but to her guardian’s best friend. This twist on the "he loves her but it’s not honorable to seduce a young ward" plot line sounded like fun.

Lady Eleanor is the heiress, living with her guardian Cousin Charles and his wife. Charles’s best friend is Sorin Latham, an earl (Lord Wincanton). Sorin practically helped raise Eleanor, and is trusted almost as a member of the family. So when he sees Eleanor at sixteen, after a brief absence, and realizes he has inappropriate feelings for her, he absents himself for 5 more years, thinking to wait until she’s safely married before returning.

Eleanor, however, has no desire to marry any of the men who’ve been presented to her. None of them come close to Sorin.

Sorin returns because his duties won’t wait forever. Naturally, he can’t avoid contact with Eleanor. As they are both in need of spouses, they go to London for the "Season," each pretending to be looking for someone else to wed. Charles specifically asks Sorin to help chaperone Eleanor to keep gold-diggers away, so the two spend a great deal of time together.

Each feels the other cares only as a sibling would. Family and friends can see the sparks flying between them, but they are both so insecure that they refuse to believe it. Instead, they embark on secretive quests to win the other over, without betraying their own feelings, lest it ruin their friendship.

While the premise is cute, they drag it out for the requisite 300 or so pages until it is so tedious I no longer cared whether they got together or not. In fact, in the final confrontation between the two, when Eleanor stares at the obvious but refuses to see it, I found myself wishing Sorin would give up and go home and the two could be miserable-ever-after.

More interesting than the relationship between the two was the rival for Eleanor’s affections, a low-class bully who was so deep in debt he would stoop to anything to entrap Eleanor. He was not an actual rival, since no one could stand him. Eventually, desperate, he sinks as low as he could go to cause a scandal that would force the issue. Eleanor is rescued in the nick of time, but here the book lost me completely. Sorin behaves in a way that is so appalling that all his previous shilly-shallying for the sake of behaving honorably appears ridiculous.

So, despite an initially interesting premise and a few entertaining scenes, this was not a Romance I particularly enjoyed.

Monday, May 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Fictional biography is one of my favorite subgenres of historical fiction, and I particularly gravitate towards novels about writers or important people in the lives of writers. So I was pleased to have the chance to read The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber (to be released this summer). This is a dual fictionalized biography of Margery Williams, author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter, the artist and child prodigy, Pamela Bianco.

This is a beautifully written, entrancing book. It is not a story of Margery Williams’ writing career, though her writing is briefly touched upon; it’s more the story of the relationship between mother and daughter, and how that relationship is complicated by Pamela’s early fame and later mental illness.

Margery is portrayed as a solid, loving, steadfast, though sometimes overwhelmed, mother, who is unsure of the correct path to take when her daughter’s artistic genius is discovered. She bows to the wishes of her husband, a more aggressive personality. He lives vicariously through the attention paid to his daughter. Margery, on the other hand, constantly questions their choices, wondering if she should have protected Pamela from the stresses of being a "child prodigy," while at the same time believing that her daughter’s love for painting and talent were too great to suppress.

Pamela, desperate for approval, never feels she is quite good enough. A failed, rather one-sided relationship early in life reinforces Pamela’s insecurities. And then she falls ill with severe depression and battles with mental illness the rest of her life. Margery’s role is to pick up the pieces and lend her support, but she can’t cure Pamela, and this is heartbreaking for her.

The novel delves deep into the emotional roller coaster of obsession, artistry, love, and familial pressures. Alternating between their two points of view, the novel presents different sides to each of the defining events in their lives. Their love, understanding, and forgiveness make this book shine.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Minotaur takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

This novel was a staff pick in a bookstore I was browsing in last weekend. The premise was just so odd, I was intrigued. If you find yourself in the mood for a well-written, sad, and very strange story, pick up a copy of The Minotaur takes a Coffee Break by Steven Sherrill.

The Minotaur is that minotaur, but he is nothing at all what you would expect. An immortal half-bull/half man, he is not mythological but very real, very lonely, and tired.

"M," as he is called by those around him, has settled in to a life as a cook in a steakhouse-type restaurant in a small southern town. He lives in a small trailer park where he has grown comfortable with his neighbors and landlord. He is friends, more or less, with some of his co-workers and tolerates the rest, who try to pick on him because of what he is. M has been around for millenia, so he has a high tolerance level for idiots.

Over the course of a couple weeks, M goes about his business and the reader is treated to the minute details of his daily life and his desperate yearning for companionship. His greatest fear is that the small inconveniences and errors will accumulate to the point where he will have to make a change, move on. His life is a series of moving on, and it wears him down.

Still, hope has not been entirely extinguished. A waitress has come to work at the restaurant who is also different in some respects. M summons up all his courage to make a connection. With so much that can go wrong, is he right to take the leap?

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this unique book is just how commonplace the other characters find it to have a Minotaur in their midst. Some people are put off, some are momentarily frightened, but for most, he just is and they accept it. The reader is able to feel empathy for his very human dilemma, even though his alienation is a result of his not being quite human. This should not read as realistic fiction, and yet, it does.