Sunday, August 27, 2017

Forty Autumns (Book Review)

Title: Forty Autumns
Author: Nina Willner
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2017
Genre: Memoir/History
Plot: After World War II ended, the Russians took control of the eastern part of Germany, where Hanna, a pretty teenager and eldest of a large family, begins to question the repressive communist regime controlling what becomes East Germany. Her father, a respected educator, conforms to protect his family while her mother maintains optimism publicly but privately encourages Hanna to make a perilous escape to freedom in West Germany. Although Hanna eventually marries and settles in the United States, she never forgets her family, despite years with only an occasional censored letter as contact. This book depicts Hanna and her family, including the daughter and author – who amazingly became an Army intelligence officer stationed in Berlin – as well as the fascinating story of the family she left behind, their suffering and perseverance during the forty years before the Berlin Wall came down.

Audience: Fans of WWII historical fiction, books about strong women, 20th century history

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Library

My Impressions: This is an amazing book that reads like fiction but with the chill of knowing it really happened as the author describes. I have read many novels set around WWII but little about the Cold War (unless you count some later Helen MacInnes), and a review I read last year in Publishers Weekly or Kirkus caught my attention, so I was delighted to have this opportunity to review Forty Autumns. I cannot recommend it more highly, and believe Forty Autumns will make a great book group selection when it is my turn to pick.

Willner’s achievement is not merely her ability to tell the story of three generations of courageous women but the way she vividly portrays their parallel lives, their endurance, and the way they kept each other in their thoughts. Her research and careful reconstruction of events she did not personally experience is also impressive.

While Hanna was making a new life for herself in Heidelberg and later when she is living in the US, bringing up six children, she yearns for her family, unaware of the suffering they are experiencing and sending care packages that are rarely received. I liked the way author described the sense of connection between Hanna and her youngest sister Heidi, who met only once when Heidi and her mother briefly visited Heidelberg, but despite a significant age difference, that meeting gave Heidi the courage to resist the communist doctrine she was fed by her community. I especially liked the juxtaposition of the next generation – that while the author is stationed in Berlin as a young intelligence officer her younger cousin Cordula, on the other side of the Wall, is being groomed as an elite athlete for East Germany.

Hanna’s parents are the true heroes of this book: the father who tries to reconcile his love of teaching with the communist doctrine he is forced to incorporate to his curriculum for the sake of keeping his family safe, and the mother who tries to preserve the affection and loyalty that will protect her children through the deprivations they are forced to endure. I also appreciated hearing about the brave individuals who tried to escape but were killed in the attempt and a few, like the intrepid Gunter Wetzel, who flew over in a hot air balloon. It is hard to imagine oneself being that courageous.
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes. Thank you also to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the tour. You can visit other stops by clicking below:

Tuesday, August 15th: Openly Bookish
Wednesday, August 16th: Back Porchervations
Wednesday, August 23rd: Reading Reality
Wednesday, August 23rd: Laura’s Reviews
Thursday, August 24th: Literary Quicksand
Wednesday, August 30th: Bibliophiliac
Thursday, August 31st: Mama Vicky Says
Monday, September 4th: Doing Dewey
Tuesday, September 5th: My Military Savings
Wednesday, September 6th: Tina Says…
Thursday, September 7th: Man of La Book
Friday, September 8th: Eliot’s Eats
Friday, September 8th: Thoughts On This ‘n That
TBD: Wining Wife
TBD: Art @ Home

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Gilded Years (Book Review)

Title: The Gilded Years
Author: Karin Tanabe
Publication: Washington Square Press, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Growing up in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Anita Hemmings yearned for higher education and fell in love with the idea of attending Vassar College after she heard an alumna describe her experience. The only problem – Vassar has never accepted a woman of color. However, Anita is a gifted student and so light skinned she can pass for white and does. Now a senior in the class of 1897, Anita is beautiful, accomplished, and has rich friends, but she is living a lie. When a new friendship tempts her away from her studies, Anita enjoys her first taste of society but can never completely relax for fear that her secret will be revealed, jeopardizing everything she has worked for...

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, Seven Sisters alumnae, those interested in higher education for women or African American history

My Impressions: This was a fascinating and enjoyable book I didn't want to put down.  I learned about Anita Hemming's story when a fellow member of Roslindale Library’s Race and Inclusion Committee suggested The Gilded Years for our summer reading program (thanks, Talia!), and I liked it so much that I volunteered to lead the discussion. We had 12 people for our July discussion, all of whom had enjoyed it although, interestingly, we differed on our reaction to Anita’s deception. Most seemed to feel that that obtaining the high quality education she would not otherwise have been able to access justified attending Vassar under false pretenses. While I did not disagree, I was a little surprised Anita didn’t feel more guilt at hiding her heritage, particularly as she loved her family and appreciated the sacrifices her parents had made to send her to boarding school at Northfield Seminary (now, amusingly, Northfield Mt. Hermon, an Ivy League basketball feeder).
Anita Hemmings

One of my favorite aspects of the book was reading about William Lewis, who was a football star at Harvard while at Harvard Law School, the first Negro all-American, and a prominent Massachusetts lawyer. The son of former slaves, he attended Amherst College and played football there, and was elected captain by his classmates. I had come across him recently while editing a Harvard Football publication, and was amazed I had not previously known his story.

Although author Tanabe clearly spent significant time researching 1890s Vassar, some of her depictions felt very jarring to me. For example, I did not think young ladies of this era would have spent so much time discussing money – either they would have taken it for granted or like Anita have avoided mentioning it altogether (I wondered how she was able to dress as well as her more affluent classmates or at least avoid their noticing she had fewer or inferior clothes). Having read Carney’s House Party many, many times, I know that Vassar in 1911 required chaperones for interaction with young men, so it is hard to believe that 14 years earlier would have been different – and a well brought up young man of this era would never have pursued a young lady to her dormitory room! Also, didn’t these young Ivy Leaguers have anything better to do than drive to Poughkeepsie all the time? Naturally, I think the Harvard men should say home and hang out with Radcliffe women!

It was also interesting to read this because my niece is leaving tomorrow for her freshman year at Vassar! I am sure she will have a great experience, and not wind up with friends like Lottie.  I gave her a copy of Carney's House Party but I am not sure she has read it yet.  For those interested in the experience of the real-life Carney, Marion Willard, who attended Vassar from Mankato, Minnesota, I recommend Amy Dolnick's delightful Future in a Handbasket, which is based on Marion's letters home.

Source: My copy is from the Boston Public Library – where the real life Anita once worked as a librarian/cataloguer. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Apples Every Day (Book Review)

Title: Apples Every Day
Author: Grace Richardson
Publication: Harper & Row, 1965
Genre: Children’s Fiction, School Story
This was the cover on my sister's copy
Plot: This year there are several new students at Kenner, a modern, coed boarding school in Quebec – dismal Sheila whose recently remarried mother wants to be alone with her new husband; assured and conventional Jerry, determined not to fall behind academically just because attending class is optional; and Phil, who is miserable and runs away. The school is run by a quirky couple without adequate funds; apples are cheap so turn up at nearly every meal. Much of the story is told from Sheila’s point of view, and she gains in confidence and popularity when she gets an unexpected part in her roommate’s play. The characters are entertaining and the way the teenagers vote on school rules (or lack thereof) reminded me a little of The Naughtiest Girl in the School. These kids have infinitely more freedom and use it to create their own structure, becoming (for the most part) mature and empowered.

Audience: Children 9-12, adult fans of school stories

Jerry did not approve of coed hockey
My Impressions: My mother gave this book to my sister Clare for Christmas when she was about 10. We always enjoyed boarding school stories and this is an unusual one, apparently based on the original alternative school, Summerhill, in England (query – isn’t the school in The Silver Chair also based on Summerhill, or is Lewis just condemning coeducation?), although set in Canada.  Many parts of the book were funny, especially Jerry's pained response to the school and his expertise, due to being the son of two psychiatrists, on numerous topics. Sheila's evolution into a reasonably competent teen is satisfying.

However, the reason this book came to mind after so many years is that Clare recently asked me to identify a book she once read about a young woman who gets a part in the musical, Kiss Me Kate. I was stumped, and consulted RT Reviews and Goodreads, without success. I also consulted my Betsy-Tacy peeps who were sure the book was Apples Every Day. In fact, Sheila does get the part of Kate but in The Taming of the Shrew, so it was nice to reread this unusual school story but the quest continues. Please let me know if you have any ideas!
Summerhill still operates in England
Source: I was sure our original copy is in my attic somewhere but a preliminary search was unsuccessful, so I requested it from ILL. The very helpful Boston Public Library obtained a copy from Bridgewater State.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Before the Dawn (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: Before the Dawn
Author: Cynthia Eden
Publication: Harlequin paperback, 2017
Genre: Romantic Suspense

Plot: The Killer Instinct series from New York Times bestselling author Cynthia Eden continues as an FBI profiler tracks a case that resurrects ghosts from his past. 

Ex-SEAL Tucker Frost knows that the world is full of evil. He saw it in the face of his own brother, Jason Frost, a cold, methodical, sadistic killer. A killer Tucker put down with his own hands in order to save Jason’s final victim—Dawn Alexander, the only girl who got away from the infamous “Iceman.”

It’s Tucker’s up close and personal experience with evil that’s made him perfect for Samantha Dark’s experimental profiling division in the FBI. Samantha wants agents who have personal ties with killers, who have unique insights into the minds of monsters. And when women start turning up murdered with the same MO used by the Iceman, Tucker is sent back to Louisiana to investigate.

The last person he expects to see is his ex-lover, Dawn. Seven years have passed since the night that Tucker faced down his brother…and since he last saw Dawn. But the dark need still burns just as hot between Tucker and Dawn. As they grapple with a desire that never died, they must also face the shared shadow from their pasts. Both Tucker and Dawn have the same question—has Jason Frost come back from the dead to hunt again? And this time, will he succeed in killing the victim who got away?

Audience: Fans of romantic suspense and of authors such as Linda Howard and Kay Hooper.

Social Media and Giveaway: You can follow Cynthia Eden on Facebook or Twitter.  You can also enter a raffle to win a gift card. a Rafflecopter giveaway


My Impressions: This was a fast paced and entertaining read, set in New Orleans, one of my favorite places. Although it was the second in the series, it worked as a standalone, but I enjoyed it enough to go back for the Eden’s earlier books. It sounds a little odd to say I like serial killer novels (I skip the gruesome parts, which makes books on CD in this genre a bit problematic) when what I actually like are the teams who solve the crimes. I also appreciate characters who have suffered and survived like Dawn, who faced a serial killer and rebuilt her life afterwards. She and Tucker are fairly predictable but the supporting cast provide the real dimension to this story. I look forward to reading more about Samantha Dark (although her name is a cliché a good editor should have discouraged!).

Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes.  Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me.  You can visit other stops on the tour by clicking below:
Tuesday, July 25th: Books a la Mode – excerpt
Wednesday, July 26th: Mama Reads -excerpt and review
Thursday, July 27th: Buried Under Romance
Thursday, July 27th: Deborah Blanchard
Monday, July 31st: A Fortress of Books
Wednesday, August 2nd: Snowdrop Dreams – excerpt
Thursday, August 3rd: Moonlight Rendezvous
Friday, August 4th: Reading Lark After Dark
Wednesday, August 9thBlogging with A
Thursday, August 10thBook Nerd
Friday, August 11thReadaholic Zone – excerpt
Monday, August 14thThe Sassy Bookster
Tuesday, August 15thFrom the TBR Pile
Wednesday, August 16thBecky on Books
Friday, August 18thStranded in Chaos
Monday, August 21stBooks and Spoons – excerpt
Monday, August 21stJathan & Heather
Tuesday, August 29thRomancing the Readers