Life By Kristen

Go, and embrace your liberty. And see what wonderful things come of it. – Little Women

Archive for the category “Books”

Book Review: The Song of the Jade Lily

Synopsis:

A gripping historical novel that tells the little-known story of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai during WWII.

1939: Two young girls meet in Shanghai, also known as the “Paris of the East”. Beautiful local Li and Jewish refugee Romy form a fierce friendship, but the deepening shadows of World War II fall over the women as they slip between the city’s glamorous French Concession district and the teeming streets of the Shanghai Ghetto. Yet soon the realities of war prove to be too much for these close friends as they are torn apart.

2016: Fleeing London with a broken heart, Alexandra returns to Australia to be with her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. Her grandfather is dying, and over the coming weeks Romy and Wilhelm begin to reveal the family mysteries they have kept secret for more than half a century. As fragments of her mother’s history finally become clear, Alexandra struggles with what she learns while more is also revealed about her grandmother’s own past in Shanghai.

After Wilhelm dies, Alexandra flies to Shanghai, determined to trace her grandparents’ past. Peeling back the layers of their hidden lives, she is forced to question what she knows about her family—and herself.

The Song of the Jade Lily is a lush, provocative, and beautiful story of friendship, motherhood, the price of love, and the power of hardship and courage that can shape us all.

My review: 4 stars

I didn’t mean to read two World War II era novels right on top of each other, but it was interesting to do so because they both were quite different and both exposed stories of World War II that I didn’t know anything about which is always great.

The dual timeline trope definitely seems like a trend in the past few years with historical fiction and depending on how it’s handled, what the purpose is with moving story lines forward and similar questions, I am all for it. It works in this case very well I think because most of the arc of the novel is from the contemporary point of view of Alexandra, as opposed to this back and forth with the historical story and it not being clear what the ultimate story line is.

Buy the book here!

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

 

Book Review: Resistance Women

Synopsis:

After Wisconsin graduate student Mildred Fish marries brilliant German economist Arvid Harnack, she accompanies him to his German homeland, where a promising future awaits. In the thriving intellectual culture of 1930s Berlin, the newlyweds create a rich new life filled with love, friendships, and rewarding work—but the rise of a malevolent new political faction inexorably changes their fate.

As Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party wield violence and lies to seize power, Mildred, Arvid, and their friends resolve to resist. Mildred gathers intelligence for her American contacts, including Martha Dodd, the vivacious and very modern daughter of the US ambassador. Her German friends, aspiring author Greta Kuckoff and literature student Sara Weitz, risk their lives to collect information from journalists, military officers, and officials within the highest levels of the Nazi regime.

For years, Mildred’s network stealthily fights to bring down the Third Reich from within. But when Nazi radio operatives detect an errant Russian signal, the Harnack resistance cell is exposed, with fatal consequences.

Inspired by actual events, Resistance Women is an enthralling, unforgettable story of ordinary people determined to resist the rise of evil, sacrificing their own lives and liberty to fight injustice and defend the oppressed.

My review: So far, 4 stars!

I say so far because, in full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading it yet. At 608 pages, it is a pretty dense book and with baby boy arriving in 4 weeks, my brain can only handle so much at one time. It has nothing to do with the writing, the story, or the author’s approach and everything to do with baby brain!

The author has been on my to-read list for a few years so I jumped at the chance to finally read some of her work. Add in my favorite time period of World War II  and I’m really glad I have this book in my hands. As a historian who is particularly interested in women’s history, I am also a huge fan of the publishing trend in the last few years of highlighting hidden women’s stories throughout various time periods, but especially during the life-changing era of World War II.

The book is rich in detail and it’s clear Chiaverini did  A LOT of research on this book which I appreciate on many levels. The book also covers an expanse of time– 1929 through 1946– and follows three women. These factors alone would make the book long, but when Chiaverini adds in her masterful storytelling and dialogue, it’s pretty easy to see how the book came to be 600 pages (I wonder what the earlier drafts looked like!). I appreciate the expanded time period because so often in World War II era fiction it jumps right into Hitler and things going terribly without the slow buildup that led to his rise in power.

One of the reasons I like historical fiction as a genre is because it brings life to often well-known events and provides creative personal insights. What I like even more is when I learn about something I had no clue about before. I’ve read a few novels about the various resistance movements during World War II (The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah being one of my favorites), but this book is based on the German- based spy/resistance movement based in Berlin called the Red Orchestra, which I had never heard of before. This is definitely the area where Chiaverini’s research comes through because there are a lot of facts and information ( I’ve been googling a lot while reading) but they aren’t boring and don’t read like non-fiction.

I’m hoping this weekend I’ll have plenty of relaxation time in my sunroom to finish the book!

Buy the book here!

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Book Review: The Garden Lady

Synopsis: THE GARDEN LADY by Susan Dworkin is a novel about  unexpected love, the silence that becomes complicity, and the magic of redemption.  Urgent and compelling, the story resonates with today’s headlines as it poses the ethical question: How do we live with what we know but choose not to think about or act upon?

Maxie Dash, the heroine of THE GARDEN LADY, is a famous beauty, a fashion icon, the face of many national TV ads. Her first husband, a world-class photographer, took nude pictures of her, which are so beautiful that they now hang in museums.

On the cusp of her 50s, Maxie decides to make one more marriage, something permanent and restful, to a rich man who will guarantee her an affluent life and future security. Amazingly she finds the perfect man. Even more amazingly, she grows to love him. Albert shares Maxie’s passion for the opera and willingly supports her favorite charities. He indulges her delight in public gardens and allows her to endow the community with their beauty. All he asks in return is that she give him her love and her unswerving loyalty and agree to know nothing — absolutely nothing — about his business.

Maxie is sustained by her best friend, the designer Ceecee Rodriguez, whom she treasures as a sister. But she is shaken by the persistent enmity of Sam Euphemia, a fierce young business executive, who suspects Albert of terrible crimes.

Add Maxie Dash to the list of great heroines of contemporary fiction. Smart, funny, enjoying every moment of her hard-won success,  she ultimately faces the truth about her life, moves past denial and realizes that “her loyalty was a side effect of her greed and her greed was a crime against nature and her silence, her willful, terror-stricken silence, the true disaster.”  Her attempt to turn Garbage Mountain, a New Jersey landfill, into a beautiful park is key to her redemption.

 

My review: 3 stars.

This book packs A LOT into its slim 220 pages. It’s not my typical genre of historical fiction or romance, but I’m trying to expand my horizons a bit so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review the book. It was a good palate cleanser after spending most of the winter reading feel-good, happy ending books.

It’s fast-paced which I appreciate in a thriller/suspense like book. Years ago, I read more in that genre (I loved Mary Higgins Clark books through high school and college), but as I had more time to read for pleasure, I found that suspense books often didn’t develop fast enough or the plot dragged on and I couldn’t read fast enough to enjoy. Or I figured out the whodunit? or big twist early on and it ruined the book for me.

In any case, The Garden Lady, while it has a lot going on (love affairs, crime, family drama, etc.) and has a lot of characters, didn’t drag for me and it kept me guessing as to where the author was going with the plot. I appreciated that the author didn’t spend a lot of time with character development that took away from the main plot, but I still felt like I understood who these people were, motivations, etc. The main character, Maxie, is complex and interesting, which helps in her path forward in reaching her goal to build a memorial garden. I know it sounds weird that the premise of starting a garden in honor of a dead spouse can be riveting, but the author’s character development, and the role of the deceased husband Albert (and his past) helps to make it interesting. Trust me!

Overall, I gave it three stars not for any fault of the author, but mostly because of my own reading habits and life. I didn’t get to read it in one weekend as I’d hoped and so it took a few sittings, which had me having to re-read a bit and remember everything that I had previously read– might be pregnancy brain, or just that there is A LOT going on with not a lot of pages.

 

Buy the book!

American Girl

Awhile back I read this article about how many women don’t get rid of their American Girl dolls.

As a gal who grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, I was of course introduced to American Girl pretty early after their arrival on the book and doll market. I can’t recall how I was introduced to the lovely world of Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly (the original 4- Addy and Josefina were added as I was ), but since I was a huge reader, the books came first for me and I plowed through them.

As the creators of American Girl also smartly created the dolls and a whole line of stuff to play to the hearts of the girls who fell in love with them, I had to have one of my own. I was enamored with the Kirsten doll because her name was so close to my own, as well as the fact her family was Swedish which was close enough to my ancestral background of being half Dutch. I was jealous of other friends who had more than one doll, but I didn’t love the stories of the other characters as much, though I’m sure the stories of Molly, the World War II era doll, likely influenced my later interest and studies in the period.

Since I work in the museum world,  I have found that many of my female colleagues who are in my age bracket had an American Girl doll or at least had read all the books. A few definitely thought their interests were related to their love of the brand, and I’m sure that’s at least a little bit true for me too.

As the company expanded its line of dolls and offerings, I got their magazine and other doll accessories, but aged out of the books and dolls by the time they started introducing more historic characters and books. When the original makers, The Pleasant Company, sold to Mattel, they became part of the doll powerhouse it is today with American Girl stores, increased line of doll offerings, and movies. I even applied for a job with Mattel a few years back to be a researcher for them as they were developing new historic characters, but sadly, didn’t even get an interview! I met a lady who worked for American Girl line within Mattel at a conference a few years ago and she confirmed for me it’s a really awesome job.

I have my Kirsten doll up in a bin in my attic and I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of her ( though I think she could use a spruce up to get her braids done again properly). When ever I get around to the KonMari method of decluttering, the doll will definitely still “spark joy” and make me recall one of the loves of my childhood.

Debbie Macomber Books

If you don’t read light romance/feel good books, feel free to skip this post entirely while I get on my soap box for a minute!

I started reading and/or listening to Debbie Macomber books a few years ago when I wanted to feel a little holiday cheer at a time of year that’s usually pretty tough for me. The first year I read one of her books I also think I was trying to make my reading challenge number and her books usually clock in the under 200 pages range so are an easy 1-2 day read.

After reading 2 books of hers in a row this past holiday season, I think I’m done with Debbie.

First off, for a woman writing about women, I find some of her character choices to be judgmental against women. I remember in one from last year (Christmas Letters maybe?), there was this whole bit about how the main female character had put on pounds and needed to lose weight. I get that she’s likely trying to make her characters relatable to the main demographic who read her books, but little things like this really get to me because it was a pointless plot point that didn’t have anything to do with the narrative.

Some of the ways she portrays women and men in very stereotypical ways makes me wonder about Debbie and her lifestyle, views, and opinions. I read an interview where she talks about how being Christian informs her writing, which explains the ‘cutesy’ vibe of most of the romances–I think the most a “love scene” is a few kisses and hand holding. This makes most of the romance seem superficial to me- it’s fluff reading, but I find it hard to believe true love blossoms within a 3-day drive in the snow– or am I being cynical? Of course, some of this is because of the shorter format of many of her books, but she could definitely use the space to develop a relationship more instead of talking about superficial things like weight loss!

Obviously, millions of readers love her as she continues to turn out stories and tops the charts for sales. And of course, I don’t need to read her books and have already made an effort to note similar holiday-themed books and authors to check out next year.

Book Review: The Hollow Middle

Synopsis: The Hollow Middle follows Albert Lesiak, an aging English teacher in Connecticut, who receives a windfall in delayed acknowledgment of the government’s complicity in his father’s cancer death and decides that it is time to live a different life on land he owns in Maine.

When his wife Mary suggests that they could foster or adopt autistic twin boys she fell in love with on a website and could use the stipend money in furtherance of Albert’s vision, Albert gradually perceives himself as possibly adapting to the role of patriarch.

A meditation on the curiosity of making sense and the dilemma of becoming true, The Hollow Middle ambles, mostly, and goes still for periods of various duration, acting like it’s not beholden after all to the rhetorical.

My review: 3 stars.

I was interested in this book because it’s a man’s point of view on the musings of life, becoming a father, and living life on your own terms, even if they seem way out there. I also enjoy novels that look at the male perspective in making sense of various bits of life, so this seemed right up my alley.

I almost wish I’d read this book at a different time of year. It’s not a fast read and is chock full of musings and long chapters. During the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, combined with pregnant brain/feeling sick, I found it hard to settle in with the book and immerse myself in it.

The flip side of the novel being full is that you get a really nice understanding of the main character Albert and how he sees the world, makes decisions, and so on. I didn’t find him super likable at first, but as the plot evolved and changes come into his life, you really see how he evolves as a person. This is one of my favorite elements of reading- when a book has great character development and a narrative that pulls that in so that the people you’re reading about seem like someone you know, and often think about after you finish reading.

It was really interesting to read this book as I’m preparing for own big life change, as another great indicator of a book I like is how much it makes me think about my own life. This definitely had moments that gave me pause and a few phrases I even read aloud to Q that I thought pertained to us. Author John Popielaski has a great mastery of language and writing that I definitely enjoyed.

Buy the book! Learn more about the author here.

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. 

Book Review: Tony’s Wife

Set in the lush Big Band era of the 1940s and World War II, this spellbinding saga from beloved New  author Adriana Trigiani tells the story of two talented working class kids who marry and become a successful singing act, until time, temptation, and the responsibilities of home and family derail their dreams.

Shortly before World War II, Chi Chi Donatelli and Saverio Armandonada meet one summer on the Jersey shore and fall in love. Both are talented and ambitious, and both share the dream of becoming singers for the legendary orchestras of the time: Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. They’re soon married, and it isn’t long before Chiara and Tony find that their careers are on the way up as they navigate the glamorous worlds of night clubs, radio and television. All goes well until it becomes clear that they must make a choice: Which of them will put their ambitions aside to raise a family and which will pursue a career? And how will they cope with the impact that decision has on their lives and their marriage?

From the Jersey shore to Las Vegas to Hollywood, and all the dance halls in between, this multi-layered story is vivid with historical color and steeped in the popular music that serves as its score. Tony’s Wife is a magnificent epic of life in a traditional Italian family undergoing seismic change in a fast paced, modern world. Filled with vivid, funny and unforgettable characters, this richly human story showcases Adriana Trigiani’s gifts as a storyteller and her deep understanding of family, love and the pursuit of the American dream.

 

My review: 4 stars.

Adriana Trigiani has done it again! Another masterful book that, through great detail and research, immerses you in a time and place that draws you in and leaves you wanting more. Trigiani is one of my must-read authors for new releases and I’m slowly making my way through her back list.

As a historian, I appreciate the way the author creates a narrative and characters that are appropriate for the time period they write- it’s clear Trigiani takes time to research the appropriate clothing, events, and music- which was especially important with this novel since the two main characters are aspiring (and then successful) musicians.

The reason I enjoy books like this is not just because of the historic settings, but because they books cover an expanse of time so you can truly get to know the characters, see how they develop, and understand the decisions that are made. This book starts in the late 1930s and ends in the early 2000s. This does make for a long book (this one clocks in at 320 pages), but since the dialogue always helps push the narrative forward, it rarely feels slow or that it drags on.

Tony’s Wife is a delight- I loved the music references, the love story, and of course, the big Italian families. It portrays the experience of so many women in the mid- 20th century very well ( and really now, despite changing society)– the struggle between career and ambitions against family and obligations. Chi Chi is a strong woman from the beginning and I appreciated how Trigiani helps the reader to understand her as a character, especially as she gets older and is forced into decisions she may have never thought she’d make 10 or 15 years earlier.

Buy the book!

As part of the TLC Book Tour for this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Book Review: French Letters: Children of a Good War

Synopsis: Four decades after World War II, 1986 is a year of terrorist hijackings, of personal computers and CD players, of AIDS and Miami Vice. It also is a year in which a beloved doctor falls to his death, a Pan Am pilot is shot while trying to foil the takeover of Pan Am flight 73, and when four bitter French widows use their medicines as bets to play poker in their retirement home while a lonely nun observes her vows of silence in an Irish convent. And it is the year when a cache of faded letters is discovered in a cellar, causing Frank Hastings to realize that he is not who he believed he is, and to go in search of his mother.

***

My review: 3.5 stars.

This likely would have been a higher review for me but with life and work happenings ( including being at an exhausting work conference for 3 days), it took me longer than usual to read. I had a few days in between readings so found myself having to go back and remind myself what was going on- this isn’t a critique of the author, his writing, or the book, but more about where my brain was at for the past couple weeks.

The French Letter series is a new one to me, as is this author, but I agreed to review the book because of my interest in World War II.  Children of a Good War is the third book in the series, but I didn’t feel like I missed anything or was confused by characters, plot lines, etc. by not having read the previous two books ( though I did add them to my to-read list).

Without giving up too much of the plot, the story centers around Frank Hastings, a writer who is estranged from his brother Peter, a pilot. The two brothers come together after the death of their father (the doctor), and it is revealed that Frank’s mother is not the same as Peter’s. Letters from World War II are found and the mystery surrounding Frank’s mother, and his father’s time in France during the war are made known. There are other revelations about Peter too, and again without giving a lot away, both of the brothers are changed by what they learn of their parents and how they view themselves and their relationship with each other.

Part of the 3.5 stars for me aside from the time it took me to read was that there were a lot of different characters to keep track of, which didn’t help with my slow reading. The author is definitely creating a distinct and clear ‘universe’ in both the modern and historic timelines– it’s clear a lot of research and time went into crafting the novel with its details, subplots, and development. Some of the background helps inform the main narrative, but there were a few that left me feeling a bit clueless like I’d missed something. That being said, I appreciate novels where you can see the personal development, realizations, and self-discovery of a fictional character, so this book gets good marks for that.

Buy the book!

 

I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.

Julia Child, J.K. Rowling & Toni Morrison

Julia Child, J.K Rowling, Toni Morrison. Any guess what these women have in common?

Other than being huge for their contributions to society and culture, all three women earned their success, achievements, and fame later in life.

All three of them are my beacons of hope for achieving my dream of publishing a novel.

Julia Child (whose birthday today inspired this post) was only 32 when she went to French cooking school. Her groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was not published until 1961 when she was 49 and her PBS show started just 2 years later.

J.K. Rowling was 36 years old when the first Harry Potter was released. Toni Morrison’s first book (The Bluest Eye) was published in 1970 when she was 39. She’s gone on to write many important novels and won a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize for Literature. Rowling and Morrison both wrote much of their first novels in the hours before they went to their day jobs.

I’m not saying I’m anywhere near close to the greatness of these three women. But they remind me that dreams never go away as you age. That things you want are worth fighting for and making priorities. I think of them when I even just spend 5 free minutes jotting down a plot idea or researching something for the novel ideas I have (which are many at this point).

In all the career exploration and deep thinking I’ve done as I try to figure out what’s next for my career, so many articles and pieces of advice say to think about what you wanted to do when you were a child. My answer, even for the short period of time when I wanted to be a doctor (until I found out I have a weak stomach for blood), always involved books and writing. I’m 35 and more clueless than ever about where I want to go in life with my career, but I know writing and publishing a novel is in me and that there is no time limit on achieving it. That’s where my mind wonders during the day and what I need to make time to do.

 

 

Summer Reading

There really isn’t a lot different for my reading in the summer than there is in the winter, except I try to keep it light and not too involved since I often read outside and get easily distracted.

My goal for reading this year is 80 books and as of today I’m just over halfway to my goal. I took Thursday and Friday off this week after the Wednesday holiday, so hoping to enjoy some lazy days reading.

This past month was a total of 8 books– almost made it 9, but I didn’t read as much as I thought I would this past weekend, so didn’t finish it before the calendar turned to July. For this month, I’m going to focus on reading from my Kindle and my personal bookshelf. Funny that even with Kindle, I’m not reading books I own!

Here’s a rundown of the books from June!

Educated– Tara Westover (audio)

Matchmaking for Beginners– Maddie Dawson (Kindle)

All We Ever Wanted– Emily Giffin (advanced reader copy)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (hardcover)

Number the Stars– Lois Lowry (Kindle)

Calypso– David Sedaris (audio)

The Dressmaker– Kate Alcott (hardcover)

Uncommon Type: Stories– Tom Hanks (audio)

The Sun is Also A Star– Nicole Yoon (hardcover)

Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows– J.K. Rowling (hardcover, borrowed from friend)

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