Review Time: Lilac Girls

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Lilac Girls is yet another story about the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany in World War II, but it’s one of the most compelling ones I’ve ever read (and I’ve read my fair share of WWII-centered novels). The story follows three women, Caroline, Kasia and Herta, through their very, very different experiences before, during and after the war.

Caroline Ferriday is a moderately wealthy, middle-aged woman living in New York and working tireless to help the people of France as Hitler’s power starts to gain traction in Europe.

Kasia Kuzmerick is a young Polish girl who got caught up in the communications underground, captured and sent to Hitler’s only female concentration camp, Ravensbruck.

Herta Oberhauser is an intelligent German woman whose dreams and aspirations of becoming a doctor and supporting her family got horribly twisted when she answered an ad for a government medical position.

As the conflicts boil over and the war starts raging, the women’s lives are irreversibly linked. Herta, or Dr. Oberhauser as she’s called at Ravensbruck, is the concentration camp’s head “doctor,” performing ghastly operations and experiments on the women of the camp. Kasia and a number of other Polish women were the unlucky subjects of Dr. Oberhauser’s experiments, forced to endure surgery upon horrible surgery in the name of “science.” These women, the women that Dr. Oberhauser experimented on, were given the nickname in Ravensbruck of “the Rabbits” because, among other things, the surgeries hindered their ability to walk, their gait now resembling something more similar to a bunny’s hop than a human stride. Eventually, long after the war ended, Caroline made it her mission to gather the resources to help the Rabbits, organizing medical procedures for them in America that would help eliminate the physical pain they’d been carrying around for so many years.

So that’s the gist of the story. And when I say that’s a very, VERY basic overview, I mean it. This story was so interwoven, so delicately sewed together, that there’s really no way to eloquently summarize it. I’d need a few hours (and a few glasses of wine) to even begin. This story… This story is incredible. It pulls at your heartstrings in ways that you don’t want it to and it opens your eyes to how remarkably different each person’s version of the war can be. And to how quickly everything can change.

It’s not a light read and it’s not always a fun read, but it’s an important read. I’d recommend this one a hundred times over. So go check it out. And when you’re done (and your heart has had a chance to recover), pick up The Nightingale and lose yourself all over again.

Grade:★★★★★

Review Time: Pretty Baby

PrettyBaby

So here we are again. Another month of radio silence from me. March Madness bled into large-scale work events which bled into wedding season which bled into Opening Day which made for a very hectic few weeks for this girl. So after a brief (albeit necessary) hiatus, we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming. And since we haven’t gone over March’s must reads yet, I figured that would be a good place to jump back into it. So let’s do it. First up: Mary Kubica’s sophomore novel, Pretty Baby.

Heidi Wood is a compassionate and dynamic woman with what can only be described as a massively bleeding heart. She works for a non-profit and spends her days trying to better the world for those she knows and those she doesn’t. Which is why when she spots a dirty and bruised-looking young woman on the “El” platform, she can’t shake her from her mind’s eye. When the young woman’s presence on the platform becomes a pattern, Heidi can no longer pretend she doesn’t want to help. After a few attempts, Heidi is able to convince the young girl to join her for a meal in a nearby diner, essentially changing the course of both of their lives.

Willow Greer is 18, alone and hungry. She has a new baby who she doesn’t know how to care for and she has no one to turn to to answer the questions she so desperately needs answered. When Heidi shows up with her open arms, Willow is cautious but optionless, so she takes Heidi up on her offer for food and shelter. Willow and her baby, Ruby, end up in Heidi’s husband’s office, barricading themselves in every chance they get. The questions start swirling almost immediately — from Chris (Heidi’s husband) asking if they really know the girl whom they’ve let into their lives, from Heidi asking if that really could be blood on Willow’s undershirt and from Willow asking if the help is worth the danger.

Similar to The Good Girl and Don’t You Cry, Kubica uses various voices and a non-linear timeline to tell the interwoven story of Willow and Heidi’s relationship. And it just works. Heidi brings optimism and sunshine (at first), Chris brings caution and questions and Willow brings danger and they all work together to form the basis of a fantastic story that shows that you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. And again, another Kubica ending that I did NOT see coming.

Mary Kubica is three-for-three in my books.

Grade:★★★★☆

 

Review Time: Don’t You Cry

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Like I mentioned earlier, I put Don’t You Cry on my library Holds list as soon as I finished The Good Girl and MAN am I glad I did. This story about the search for a missing woman is told by her roommate who is desperately trying to find her and a boy in a small town in Michigan who quickly falls for the new girl in town is captivating, to say the least.

Similar to The Good Girl, Mary Kubica uses an alternating narrative to help drive the story and maintain the suspense. And it just works. Be warned that the two narrators in this story lean on the side of VERY ANNOYING sometimes. But once everything comes full circle, you can’t help but love everyone which really is Kubica’s best quality. I did NOT want to love these characters but I couldn’t resist in the end.

Quinn Collins wakes up one morning to find that her roommate, Esther Vaughan, has vanished out of her room on Chicago’s north side. As morning turns into night turns into morning, Quinn realizes that Esther might not have left of her own volition. Quinn employs her friend, Ben, to help her search for her missing roommate. And what they find during their search slowly changes their perception of who Esther was and makes them question if they ever really knew the girl. Also, as previously mentioned, Quinn is annoying. She obsesses over pretty much everything — Esther, Ben, Esther’s previous roommate, papers in Esther’s room, everything. But, in the end all of her obsessions are justified so… 

Alex Gallo lives a pretty drab life in a small lakeside town in Michigan, busing tables during the day and taking care of his alcoholic father all night long. One day Alex spots a new, beautiful young woman at the diner where he works and he’s immediately transfixed. Alex’s whole life becomes waiting for the girl, whom he calls Pearl, to show up at the diner. She comes and goes, never sticking to a schedule. And Alex loves her. Then one day, Alex finds Pearl living in the abandoned house across the street from his own. And he finally starts to learn about this mysterious girl, though turns out to not be quite who Alex imagined her to be.

Alternating between both Quinn and Alex’s obsessions is as exhausting as it sounds, but eventually, their obsessions become yours and you care as much about finding Esther as both of them do. I will say, though… That ending… I did NOT see that coming. 

Another Chicago-based, suspense-filled story. Another home run.

Grade:★★★★☆

Review Time: The Dollhouse

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The Dollhouse is set in the Barbizon hotel, the legendary New York City residential hotel that has housed countless young ladies as they climbed the ladder to stardom, including Candice Bergen and Sylvia Plath. The story is told in two parallel sections, one following Darby McLaughlin though her months at the Barbizon in in 1952 and the other following Rose Lewin through her current-day research into what life was like at the Barbizon all those years ago.

Darby was enrolled in the Barbizon’s secretarial school, learning the finer points of typing and answering the phone. She shared the halls with models and editorial associates, very few of which she got along with. She did, however, find a friend in the hotel’s maid, Esme. Darby’s story follows the exploits she and Esme got into in the seedy, underground jazz bars downtown and her rocky path to independence from the expectations of her disapproving mother.

Rose is a journalist, living in a condo in what used to be the Barbizon. Almost immediately into her story, Rose’s romance with an up-and-coming politician comes to a screeching halt and Rose is forced to come to terms with the end of what she thought was just the beginning. During this time, Rose starts researching the mysterious woman who lives in the apartment below hers, the woman who is never seen without her veil. Through a series of ethically questionable decisions, Rose comes to be the caregiver to the woman’s tiny dog and is able to get her hands on some additional information about this mysterious woman.

The bones of this story are good. The premise is interesting, the setup is promising, the ties to actual history are intriguing. But the delivery disappoints. The characters aren’t compelling (really, they’re rather “WTF?!” inducing) and the dialogue is really lacking in the believability department. I came to remember something I was told long ago about fictional dialogue: “Good dialogue in novels is like good referees in sports–you only stop and notice them if they’re bad.” Which is absolutely the case here. The dialogue is used as a way to move the story from Point A to Point B, seemingly without any regard for if someone would actually say that. I was caught off-guard so many times by the utter implausibility of some of the conversations that were happening in this book. Also, we get that Sylvia Plath lived in the hotel for a summer. You don’t need to remind us every other chapter. I promise that we remember.

If you can look past those (many) instances of “c’mon, literally no one would say (or do) that,” you might enjoy this story of love and loss and the search for the truth. I couldn’t though. And so this one was a struggle for me. Sorry, y’all.

Grade:★☆☆☆☆

Review Time: Commonwealth

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As promised, Commonwealth had no murders and no mysteries. There was heartbreak and glamour and drama, though, so fear not. The story starts with the meeting–and subsequent disbanding–of two LA families in 1960s and follows the melded group over the course of the next five decades.

There’s the expected drama that comes from breaking up two marriages and vacationing with six kids (four from the Cousins’ marriage, two from the Keating’s). But within the usual drama, there’s an interesting dynamic that forms between the six kids who only spend their summers in the same state.

As the story weaves through the family’s long-ago drama and present-day trials, we follow Franny Keating’s accidental voyage to literary muse-hood. While working at Chicago’s Palmer House, Franny meets her most favorite author, Leo Posen, and they begin a years-long love affair (which is where all of the glamour and most of the drama comes from).

Over the course of their courtship, Franny tells Leo the story of her childhood–from the way her mother and stepfather met to the tragic death of an innocent boy on the family farm to the arsonist tendencies of her youngest stepbrother. None of her life is off-limits to her lover and he takes advantage of the opportunity. A few years into their relationship, Leo publishes his next bestseller, Commonwealth (of course), and Franny’s life turns into an open book, though he claims that the story came “most from his imagination.”

Whether from Leo’s “imagination” or not, the Cousins and Keating families have to deal with the aftermath of the book’s release and the wrath of all those memories they worked so hard to forget.

I really liked this book, espeically the way the story separately focused on each of the Cousins-Keating kids as adults, letting us get small glimpses into the full backstory of their childhood. The intrigue of the backstory snippets kept me intrigued (see what I did there?) and kept the story moving forward at each turn. I didn’t love the way the book ended, but I won’t fault a final few paragraphs when the rest of the 300 pages were top notch. So check it out. It’s worth it.

Grade:★★★★☆

Review Time: The Good Girl

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Like I said earlier, I’ve been on quite the mystery/thriller quick lately so I was stoked when I got my hands on The Good Girl by Mary Kubica. It’s a story of a girl kidnapped during what she thinks will be a one-night stand, but it turns out to be much, much more than that. And it was fantastic.

The book is written from the back-and-forth perspective of three influential characters: the kidnapper, the kidnapped woman’s mother and the detective trying to find her. Hearing the various stages of the story from these three very different people with three very different intentions is… well ‘emotionally chaotic’ might be the best way to put it.

Colin Thatcher is paid a hefty chunk of change to kidnap Mia Dennett, the daughter of a prominent Chicago judge. But instead of handing the young woman off to his employer, Colin takes her to a secluded cabin in Minnesota until he can figure out his next move. You really want to hate Colin because what kind of dirtbag kidnaps a woman? But hearing a third of the story from his perspective makes hating him an uncomfortable task because maybe he’s not so bad after all (even though he’s still kind of a dirtbag).

Eve Dennett, Mia’s mother, just wants her baby back, even though Mia moved out of the house the minute she turned 18 and Eve hasn’t had a ton of contact with her since. A large portion of Eve’s third of the story revolves around flashbacks to when Mia and her sister when children and the regrets that Eve has about how their childhood played out. You can’t help be feel for her because we’re all doing the best we can, aren’t we? Also, her husband is a jackass, which tends to complicate things even more.

Gabe Hoffman, the detective assigned to Mia’s case, is the final third of the story. While he’s the least emotional of the three (four if you’re considering Mia), he still pulls some heartstrings during his search for the kidnapped woman and his interactions with her devastated mother.

I love, love, loved this story because the continual switches in narrator kept things fresh and the pace of the story kept you on your toes. And the Scorsese-esque twist at the end really put the nail in the “I love this” coffin for me. All in all.. Get this, read this, love this. You won’t be disappointed.

Grade:★★★★★

Review Time: Rosemary – The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

I’ve had this book about Rosemary Kennedy on my “to read” list for a number of months, and finally got around to diving into it this week. The book tells the story of Rosemary Kennedy, the eldest Kennedy daughter who was kept out of the spotlight by her parents, Joe and Rose Kennedy. Due to what the author, Kate Clifford Larson, attributes to an issue during her birth, Rosemary had developmental and learning disabilities that grew worse as she matured.

You follow Rosemary through her infant to teenage years, feeling sympathy for her as she struggles to keep up with the rest of her exceptional family. Then, at only 23, Rosemary was forced into having one of the nation’s first prefrontal lobotomies, debilitating her for the rest of her life.

The majority of the book focuses on the pre-surgery Rosemary who loved swimming and being around children, opening your heart to the well-meaning girl. Then, as with the real-life tragedy, poor Rosemary goes from functional (if a bit mentally slow) adult to a woman needed constant care in the blink of an eye. The paragraphs in which Larson describes the lobotomy itself are especially heartbreaking because you can see the two seconds it takes to ruin someone’s life forever.

The book is a bit vague at times, but out of necessity, since a vast portion of the notes and records of Rosemary’s life and care are not available to the public. It threw me off a little bit that of the 302 (iPad) pages, 72 of them are reserved for citation notes and indexes, leaving the book significantly shorter than I was anticipating. All in all, though, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy is a fascinating look at the life of a girl who didn’t quite fit the mold that her parents wanted her to fit into and the tragedy that resulted.

Grade:★★★★☆