Thursday, May 4, 2017

Books Read in March and April

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
The story: Marianne, privileged widow of a Nazi resister, has survived WWII, barely intact. A key player in the resistance movement herself, she is determined to find other resisters' widows and bring them and their children to her once beautiful castle. She finds Benita and Ania, and the three women and their children become a family of sorts. But Benita and Ania turn out to have their own secrets and desires, and Marianne will have figure out how to accept that other people had choices to make that didn't necessarily align with her choices.
Me: I love WWII novels, and this one is one of the best I've read yet. It took me a while to get into it, but I am so glad I took the time to stick with it. I was reading/teaching Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief with my high school world literature class at the same time I was reading this, and I found Shattuck's novel provided incredible perspective into still another dimension of the war. Shattuck is an incredible, insightful writer. She explores various dimensions of these complicated women without ever judging their decisions and motivations or telling the reader what to think. I am amazed that, with the plethora of WWII themed books there are still fresh stories to tell, but there are—and this one certainly is. Highly recommended.

Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty.
The story: It's the first day of kindergarten. Jane is a young, single mom with a tragic story. Celeste, mother of twin boys, is a flawless beauty with a secret. Madeline, friend to both of them, finds that her ex-husband and his new wife just happen to have their daughter in the same kindergarten class as her youngest. Something terrible happens to a kindergarten parent, and somehow these three are involved. Moriarty tells the story through several viewpoints and does it so well that you can hardly put down this book. Another absolutely mesmerizing read from Moriarty!
Me: I read this in one day. I mean, I love Moriarty's books. All of them, so far. She's perceptive, funny, and oh so real. With every book of hers I read, I just think how does she come up with this--these plots, these characters, everything? She's fantastic. Highly recommended.

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford.
The story: William is a 12-year-old Chinese American boy in an Seattle orphanage who discovers that his mother is, in fact, still alive. Willow Frost, his long lost mother, is a Hollywood screen star. When the two finally connect, Willow tells William her tragic story, including why she had to give him up.
Me: Blah. This was our April book club's pick, and it was just not terribly engrossing. I loved Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but this one just fell flat. It was terribly sad and stark, and yet I never really felt connected to any of the characters. We did end up having a lot to talk about at our book club meeting, but we all agreed that it was a hard book to get through.

The Tenth Circle by Jodie Picoult.
The story: Fourteen-year-old Trixie is the cherished daughter of stay-at-home Dad, Daniel, and professor mom, Laura. Everyone has secrets, of course, and when these are brought out into the open, their insulated world explodes.
Me: Just… so much drama. How much can possibly happen in one book? Nonetheless, I kept reading, even though, well, Alaska. How can a 14-year-old girl just catch a plane to Alaska and end up as part of a sled dog team? It's been a long time since I've read a Jodie Picoult novel, and it will probably be a long time until I read another one. But it was entertaining and really well written. The characters were great-- just way too much happened.

Saving Grace by Lee Smith
The story: Florida Grace is the narrator of the story. Her father, Pastor Virgil, is the fire-and-brimstone, charismatic leader of a snake-handling, signs-following church in Scrabble Creek, a mountain town in the Southern Appalachians. The family is dirt poor, relying on the goodness of the congregation mostly for food, shelter, and clothing. Florida Grace yearns to be just an ordinary kid, one without the baggage of snakes and signs and poverty. Eventually, disaster strikes and the family breaks apart, leaving Grace to find her way.
Me: I love snake-handling stories, I'll admit. I'm fascinated by the practice and the people who adhere to this belief system. Lee Smith is an absolute master of dialect and an incredibly storyteller. She knows Appalachia and avoids stereotypes, instead giving these characters rich, full inner lives. Highly recommended if you enjoy contemporary Southern literature.

Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Multiple re-read of a book I teach for my high school World Literature Class. Review here

Prayers the Devil Answers by Sharyn McCrumb
The Story: Ellie Robbins is newly widowed, and the only way she can figure out how to survive is by taking over her husband's job—and being a woman sheriff in the 1930s in Appalachia is a hard sell. She manages to do it, nonetheless. Loosely interwoven with this story is another one of a marriage that did not end well. The two stories connect toward the end.
Me: Another bleh. I am a big fan of Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad novels; She Walks These Hills was incredible. But I actually desperately wanted to toss this novel aside unfinished. The only reason I kept reading was because I was intrigued by the beginning of the novel by a scene involving a strange mountain custom (the Dumb Supper). I kept thinking that we'd get back to that scene, but it was only loosely referred to again, and not convincingly at that.