Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill

By Greg Mitchell
Crown, 2016. 382 pgs. Nonfiction

The Berlin Wall fell nearly 30 years ago.  Many have forgotten the price people paid to cross that barrier between East and West Berlin.  Before it was built in 1961 Berliners traveled from east to west for daily jobs, school, to visit families – and to flee to the West. Once the infamous barrier was built a person’s life was forfeit for trying to cross it.  Yet thousands and thousands defied the East German government, crossing the barrier by balloon, jumping from windows across the barrier into firemen’s nets in the west, using fake papers, and escaping via underground tunnels joining East Berlin and West Berlin.

In 1961 no one was sure whether western pressure against the Russians and East Germans because of the wall might escalate to war. JFK was already embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis and famously said, “A wall is better than a war.” This compelling book gives accounts of several tunnel projects that were successful routes for escaping East Germans. The author also fills in the details about the political tensions of the time which could easily have flared into war.  SH

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fire By Night

The Fire By Night
By Teresa Messineo
William Morrow, 2017. 306 pgs. Historical Fiction

Shedding more light on less familiar aspects of World War II, The Fire By Night paints an unflinching portrait of the brave American women who served as nurses on the front lines of World War II.

Jo finds herself abandoned with a handful of seriously injured patients, near the German lines.  With few supplies and no support from nearby American troops she is pushed to a breaking point just fighting to keep her soldiers alive.  Jo’s close friend from nursing school, Kay is on the other side of the world.  Her service takes her to a terrifying POW camp in Manila which she is determined to survive. 

Like The Women in the Castle, The Fire by Night tells of the strength of women.  Often unaware of their own resilience until they are truly tested, they have the potential to stare down true evil and utter hopelessness.  Their stories are sometimes left untold but are represented beautifully in these recent works of historical fiction.


The Women in the Castle

The Women in the Castle
By Jessica Shattuck
William Morrow, 2017. 353 pgs. Historical Fiction

Marianne was widowed in 1944 when her husband was executed for taking part in the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  As the war winds down she battles the chaos of her crumbling homeland to find the wives and children of fellow resisters. 

She rescues them from refugee camps, Nazi reeducation homes, and from the hands of the occupying Red Army soldiers.  Those she is able to find, she brings to an old family castle and creates a makeshift family.  Each rescued woman has her own story of loss and perseverance and each has their own secrets to keep and dreams to pull from the rubble left after years of war. 

This is a wonderfully rich story of the strength of the soul and terrors of war.  Each character was a survivor and a hero though their pasts were messy and their choices questionable.  What would you do to keep what was left of your family alive when everything you loved has been destroyed?  The Women in the Castle touched my heart and brought new light to an often forgotten outcome of World War II.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee -- a Look Inside North Korea

By Jang Jin-sung
Atria Books, 2014. 339 pgs. Nonfiction

Having shown his gifts as a poet while still a teenager, Jang was given a job in North Korea’s United Front Department, the government section responsible for inter-Korean espionage. Honored by being invited to meet Kim Jong-il because of his poetry, he becomes one of the “Admitted,” making him virtually immune to punishment for any infraction without approval from the “Great Leader” himself.  In his work he was allowed to read and study books, newspapers and magazines from South Korea so that he could write propaganda as though it had been written in South Korea. Gradually Jang becomes disillusioned with the government of North Korea. Having lived his whole life in Pyongyang, he is horrified when he visits a friend in the countryside and sees the starvation and poverty of ordinary North Koreans. When he violates the rules of his job and loans a restricted book to a friend he suddenly finds himself being investigated by his unit.  Knowing that it is only a matter of time before he is arrested, he and his friend cross the Tumen River into China.

This memoir is far different from other recent books about refugees from North Korea because the author is so familiar with the propaganda tools and techniques of the North Korean government.  He was an insider who experienced the privileged lifestyle of the elites close to Kim Jong-il. He is also a gifted writer, and currently the editor of a website that reports on North Korea. I highly recommend this memoir to those who are interested in North Korea.


The Vicar's Daughter

The Vicar's Daughter: A Proper Romance
By Josi S. Kilpack
Shadow Mountain, 2017, 315 pgs. Romance, Historical Fiction

Cassie is the youngest of six sisters. Her parents have made a rule that she can't be out in society until her older sister makes a match. The problem is that Lenora in in her third season and is so painfully shy that she shows no signs of even being able to talk to a man. When Lenora shows a slight interest in Evan Glenside, who recently became heir of a nearby estate, Cassie decides to take matters into her own hands. She begins to write letters to Mr. Glenside in Lenora's name. Her good intentions become complicated when she finds herself starting to fall in love with Evan. It becomes even worse when he starts to court Lenora, thinking she is the one whose personality he admires from the letters.

I wasn't sure how this book was going to turn out. Cassie, Evan and Lenora were all such great characters and part way through the book I realized that this couldn't turn out well for everyone involved. I liked that this book was a little messy and very realistic about what happened once all the secrets were revealed. Too many romance books wrap things up too nicely. This book still had a very satisfying ending and I liked how it got there. This is another great Proper Romance for those looking for a good, clean romantic story.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Exquisite Captive

Exquisite Captive 
by Heather Demetrios
Balzer + Bray 2014, 463 pgs, Young Adult Fiction

Nalia, a young jinni of a powerful and ancient ruling class, is the sole survivor of a violent coup in her homeland of Arjinna. Surviving as a slave on the Dark Caravan, she must obey every command of her master, Malek, until he makes three wishes. However Malek believes he is in love with Nalia and will never make his third wish. Enter Raif, the enigmatic leader of the rebellion. War against the new rulers of Arjinna is not going well and he believes Nalia can make the difference. Raif can break the slave bond magic, but freeing Nalia from Malek proves to be more difficult that either she or Raif had imagined.

I loved this story! The writing is good, and the story is complex and engaging. The characters have depth and faults, and experience a realistic range of emotions. I especially like the emotional maturity displayed by Nalia. Even though she is haunted by past actions that proved to have severe consequences, she still demonstrates strength in dealing with the problems of the present. I also appreciated how the magic was set up. The jinn use element-related magic that varies in strength depending on the race of the jinni, and wishes have binding qualities that aren’t fully understood by most. I would recommend this book to someone interested in a complex story, or a book with magic in a modern setting.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz

Cover image for Survivors club : the true story of a very young prisoner of Auschwitz
Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz
By Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2017, 348 pages, Young Adult Nonfiction

In 1945, in a now-famous piece of archival footage, four-year-old Michael Bornstein was filmed by Soviet soldiers as he was carried out of Auschwitz in his grandmother's arms. Survivors Club tells the story of how a father's courageous wit, a mother's fierce love, and one perfectly timed illness saved Michael's life, and how others in his family from Zarki, Poland, dodged death at the hands of the Nazis time and again with incredible deftness.

This incredible true story is a must read for anyone interested in World War II. Told from the point of view of Michael Bornstein, who was too young to remember the early years of Germany’s occupation of Poland, much of the story is really told as the result of research and interviews with relatives and survivors who knew the family. However, the number of amazing things that had to line up in order to allow such a young boy to survive in a Polish ghetto, and finally in a Nazi concentration camp, is staggering. This story is one that belongs alongside such classics as Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Summer Lovin'

Summer Lovin'
By Carly Phillips
Harlequin, 2005. Fiction, 298 pages.

This cheerful romance is the typical romance where opposites attract, mixed with a generous helping of family drama. Zoe Costas is an independent Greek New Jersey girl who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. Her large family is hoping to formally adopt their foster daughter Sam, until Sam's long-lost uncle randomly shows up. Ryan Baldwin is a handsome straight-laced lawyer from Boston, who is the opposite of everything Zoe would ever imagine in a suitor. As sparks fly, the two discover the real reasons why Sam’s mother ran away and in the process heal two very different families.

This is a fun, happy-ending and fairly predictable beach read. I liked the two polar opposite families and seeing how the romance develops despite differences. The teenage foster daughter’s temper tantrums got on my nerves but Zoe and Ryan’s relationship is entertaining and loveable.


The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper

Cover image for The curious charms of Arthur Pepper
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper
By Phaedra Patrick
Mira Books, 2016, 331 pages, Fiction

Sixty-nine-year-old Arthur Pepper lives a simple life. He gets out of bed at precisely 7:30 a.m., just as he did when his wife, Miriam, was alive. He dresses in the same gray slacks and mustard sweater vest, waters his fern, Frederica, and heads out to his garden. But on the one-year anniversary of Miriam's death, Arthur finds an exquisite gold charm bracelet he's never seen before. What follows is a surprising and unforgettable odyssey that takes Arthur from London to Paris and as far as India in an epic quest to find out the truth about his wife's secret life before they met--a journey that leads him to find hope, healing, and self-discovery in the most unexpected places.

Arthur Pepper is surprisingly willing to go with the flow. The more he finds out about his wife’s life before she met him, the stranger things get. Yet Arthur embraces it all with surprising acceptance even when he finds himself in unusual situations. He’s less curmudgeonly than Fredrik Backman’s beloved Ove, but he finds himself surrounded by characters who are even more interesting. Fans of books about people who go through unlikely transformations (like A Man Called Ove, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, or Etta and Otto and Russell and James) will love this book.


The Burning Point

The Burning Point
By Tracy McKay
By Common Consent Press, 2017. 269 pgs. Biography

The subtitle perfectly summarizes this book, "a memoir of addiction, destruction, love, parenting, survival, and hope." Tracy weaves the story of her friendship, marriage, and later divorce to her husband David. The book is written with flashbacks and portions of her blog to tell her experience as a single mom, living in near poverty, and raising her children one of whom is on the Autism Spectrum. While David's decisions had a vast influence on not only her life, but her children's as well, Tracy doesn't bash him at all. She shows his humanity and his wonderful qualities and how addiction impacted their family.

Tracy writes with hope and love amidst some truly difficult situations. I've read Tracy's blog, Dandelion Mama, for years and while I was familiar with her story, this memoir was incredibly interesting to read. I was brought to tears several times reading about not only the hardships she faced, but also the many good people who helped her during her trials.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Vaccine Controversy: the History, Use, and Safety of Vaccinations

The Vaccine Controversy: The History, Use, and Safety of Vaccinations 
by Kurt Link, M.D.
Praeger Publishers, 2005, 196 pgs. Nonfiction

 Vaccines save countless lives every year by preventing a multitude of dangerous diseases. In The Vaccine Controversy, Dr. Kurt Link explores the history and use of both the common and uncommon vaccines used in the United States and other parts of the world. The book begins with explanations of how the immune system works, how the different types of vaccines are made, and how vaccines trigger an immune response. He then discusses several disasters and near misses in the history of vaccines. A significant portion of the book takes an in-depth look at each vaccine and the disease it prevents. This book maintains relevancy despite the publishing date because much of the information is historical and the effects of the disease stay relatively the same over time.

 This book was fascinating! I really liked how the author presented rather complex medical information in a way that was easy for someone without a medical background to understand. The second thing I appreciated most about this book was the depth with which it examined each disease. A study of the disease is a vital part of any research on vaccines, and this book did a wonderful job of keeping those two facets of the subject together. While the author states he is a strong supporter of vaccination programs, he didn’t shy away from the mishaps and disasters that have occurred because of vaccines. He does a good job of keeping an informative tone without inserting lots of opinions. Despite the title, the controversies surrounding vaccinations were only lightly discussed. This book could use an updated edition, but overall I found it to be highly informative, and would recommend it to anyone looking to expand their understanding of vaccines and the diseases they are meant to prevent.


Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living

Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living
By Shauna Niequist
Zondervan, 2016. 236 pgs. Nonfiction

Shauna wrote five books in nine years and has spent considerable time on the road promoting those books and speaking to audiences of various sizes. As she started to realize the toll this schedule was taking on herself and her family, Shauna knew that something needed to change. In this book she writes essays on how she is making changes for the better and how these changes are not always quick or easy.

I really enjoy Shauna's writing and have read several of her other books. These essays gave me a lot to think about and consider how I can make changes in my own life. In particular, I loved the essays entitled You Put Up the Chairs, On Stillness, and Heart and Yes. I'd recommend this book to anyone who's looking for ways to find a little more peace in their crazy schedules.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard 
By Susan Crandall
Gallery Books, 2013. 308 pages.

Starla Claudelle has run away from life with her overly strict grandmother and plans to make her way to her mother whom she hasn’t seen since she was three. But the road from Cayuga Springs, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee is not easy for a nine-year-old, and Starla soon meets more trouble than she bargained for. On the road Starla meets Eula, a black woman traveling with a white baby. Together, Starla and Eula learn a new meaning of friendship and family as they look out for one another on Starla’s journey.

Though this story deals with difficult topics such as abuse, racial inequality, teen pregnancy, and abandonment, the details are toned down due to Starla’s nine-year-old perspective. What really resonates with me is how the story illustrates the transformative power of love in someone’s life. Readers will enjoy Starla’s spit-fire attitude as well as her endearing deep south vernacular. This is a great pick for book club discussions and is now available as a book club set at the library.