Book Review: Lilac Girls

If you liked The Alice Network, you’ll love this beautifully written, multi-perspective view into an event that crossed continents.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I celebrated my birthday during the state-wide stay-at-home order for coronavirus precautions, but a friend surprised me by dropping a package on my doorstep and singing “Happy Birthday” from my driveway. Knowing I couldn’t get enough WWII books, she gave me this one. It made my whole week.

Cover Description

“Caroline Ferriday is a former Broadway actress and liaison to the French consulate whose life is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France. An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, sinks deeper into her role as a courier for the underground resistance movement. In Germany, Herta Oberheuser, a young doctor, answers an ad for a government medical positions—only to find herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories across continents, as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.”

Characters

Caroline is not your typical New York socialite. She works tirelessly, for no pay, to help those in need, and her stubbornness accomplishes the impossible. Kasia begins the story as an innocent teen, pining for her first love, wishing for life to be normal again after the Nazis and Russians invade. The strength which helps her survive Ravensbrück later makes it difficult to let go of the rage she harbors within. Herta is a woman in a man’s world, striving to pursue her passion of surgery, forbidden to women, when she is swept up in the horrors of the Nazis concentration camp. This trifecta of perspectives provides a global, yet personal, view of a forgotten part of history.

For me, the most interesting perspective was Herta’s. I haven’t read too many books that include the perspective of the Nazis themselves. Despite having been indoctrinated into the Nazi mindset, her initial attitude toward the war is one of cold ambivalence. She only wants to become a surgeon, and when she first witnesses life at Ravensbrück, she plans to take the next train home. Circumstances “force” her to stay.

Her descent into the wickedness of that place kept me turning pages long after bedtime. She even found the Nazis’ new religion “convenient,” as it helped soothe her rioting conscience. No matter how much Herta rationalized her “patriotic” experiments, her “only chance” to become a surgeon, her body knew the truth. Plagued by sleepless nights, Anxiety, Depression, and engaging in self-harm, she is proof that evil takes its toll not only on the victims, but the perpetrators.

Plot

I love that this story does not end with the end of the war. It continues to describe Kasia’s—everybody’s—difficulty in readjusting to “normal” life. Kasia does not rejoice at the end of the war, for Poland trades Nazis for Soviets, an “even trade,” as she calls it. She wrestles with her guilt and her hate until the last page, unable to relate to her loved ones because of it.

Overall, the plot moves slow enough to make the horrors of WWII sink in, but fast enough to make you check the clock and think “When did it get that late?” It is a story of justice, reconciliation, and moving on.

Writing Style

I have been reading a lot of sparse prose in YA lately, so Kelly’s detail-rich writing a refreshing change. Her descriptions made me feel like I could paint each scene, but were not so thick as to slow the plot. Beautiful work.

Conclusion

I never tire of WWII stories. There is always something new to learn, an angle unseen until I crack open another book. If you liked The Alice Network, you’ll love this beautifully written, multi-perspective view into an event that crossed continents.


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English in the Gutter

Profanity is an integral part of the human lexicon, processed in the part of the brain related to fleeing danger rather than processing speech. However, which words a culture considers profane and to what degree uttering them warrants a bar of soap in the mouth varies over time.

Book Review: Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

Though I don’t curse (often) myself, profanity fascinates the wannabe linguist in me. I’m also a fan of John McWhorter’s podcast, Lexicon Valley, so when I heard he was releasing this book, I was number one on the library’s waitlist.

Description:

For as long as mothers have existed, they have scolded their children for saying naughty words. Profanity is an integral part of the human lexicon, processed in the part of the brain related to fleeing danger rather than processing speech. However, which words a culture considers profane and to what degree uttering them warrants a bar of soap in the mouth varies over time.

In this pithy yet thorough account, John McWhorter delves into the historical, sociological, political, and linguistic development of today’s most prevalent curse words. With his genteel style and not a small amount of humor, he examines what gives curse words their power, and why we like them so much.

My Review

This book was everything I wanted and more. It details the cultural changes that caused profanity to shift from religious terms to bodily functions to identity slurs with many cogent examples. That my ancestors may have contributed the f-word to the English language makes me inexplicably giddy. That whole chapter had me laughing out loud, which was rather difficult to explain to my husband.

More than how we anglophones use these nine words today, McWhorter explains how the previously innocent words became nasty. Moreover, he describes how their meanings expanded, and how most of them now serve as pronouns. For grammar nerds feeling rebellious, I highly recommend this book. That said, I will caution that McWhorter types out all the words, and reading the stronger ones (e.g. the racial slur) repeatedly was a little uncomfortable, even for me. Readers with delicate sensibilities beware.

Writing Style

McWhorter’s writing style is as smooth and precise as one would expect from a professional linguist. His prose is as elegant as a fine wine. I am a huge fan of his writing, but if you have the chance, I recommend the audiobook as John McWhorter has a lovely voice. That is, assuming you don’t have small children at home.

Conclusion

Nine Nasty Words is not for the faint of heart, but for those with an interest in English’s saltier side, I highly recommend it. With humor and detail, McWhorter tells the story of sailor talk with the elegance and detail of a professor.


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This Tender Land

My Grandmother likes to support local authors, which for her means Minnesotan. Krueger is one of her favorites. He envisioned this book as an update of Huckleberry Finn, and he achieved that goal.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

My Grandmother likes to support local authors, which for her means Minnesotan. Krueger is one of her favorites. This is the second one I’ve checked out from her library.

Cover Description

“In the summer of 1932, on the banks of Minnesota’s Gilead River, Odie O’Banion is an orphan confined to the Lincoln Indian Training School, a pitiless place where his lively nature earns him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee after committing a terrible crime, he and his brother, Albert, their best friend, Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own. Over the course of one summer, these four orphans journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds.”

Characters

Odie is a classic rebel whose longing for a home and family makes him endearing. His spunk and ingenuity provide a great contrast to his strict brother and easy-going best friend, but what is most remarkable is how the characters change throughout the story. The Great Depression provides the fiery furnace to refine young boys into men, and each character’s unique skills play a part in their survival. Their struggles are at once heartbreaking and inspiring, and their loyalty to each other as family is a poignant reminder that love is stronger than blood.

Plot

The plot follows Odie and his friends as they flee the training school’s superintendent and head down the Mississippi River toward their aunt’s home in St. Louis. Along the way, they meet other down-and-out drifters, some alleys, some enemies, some a mixture of both. Overall, the story moves at a good pace and is engaging the entire length.

Writing Style

Krueger’s vivid descriptions capture the feel and struggle of The Great Depression. His prose moves smoothly across the page—neither overly descriptive nor sparse. Of the two of his books I’ve read, I liked this one best.

One thing I admire about Krueger’s writing is that he does not hesitate to portray history’s horrors, especially with the treatment of Native Americans. He sensitively portrays Mose coming to terms with his identity, his people’s history, and his friendship with three white kids.

Krueger also includes elements of mysticism in his writing, in this case with the faith healer and Emmy’s gift. I am not as big a fan of this, but I didn’t find it bothersome.

Conclusion

The author said he envisioned this book as an update of Huckleberry Finn, and he achieved that goal. His spunky protagonists and their harrowing journey capture the spirit of adventure endemic to that tale. Setting their adventure during The Great Depression immerses the reader in time and space much like Where the Crawdads Sing. Overall, their journey of hardship and friendship make for a brilliant read.

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Book Review: The Book of Lost Names

The Book of Lost Names has everything a reader could want—intrigue, heroism, romance, and of course, a special book.

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel

I have my book club to thank for this one, though I’ll admit I read it the month after we discussed it. Better late than never, right?

Cover Description

Eva Traube Abrams, a librarian near retirement, is shelving books when a magazine photograph catches her eye. It’s a book she hasn’t seen since the Nazis looted library in a small French town sixty-five years ago, one she dubbed The Book of Lost Names. Now, German researchers are trying to find the rightful owner, as well as crack the code inside it. Only Eva holds the answer.

In 1942, Eva fled Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Upon finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she forges documents to help smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland. Erasing people, and hiding her own faith, comes with a price, one confounded by her attraction to the Catholic forger named Rémy. To help make sense of her competing feelings, she insists on keeping a record of the children’s real names in The Book of Lost Names. The book becomes even more important when their resistance cell is betrayed and Rémy disappears.

Characters

Eva begins the story with clear plans for her English degree, but the war throws her life into chaos, creating immense emotional insecurity. Much of the story takes place inside Eva’s conflicted thoughts. Her guilt, her attraction to Rémy, her tense relationship with her mother, and her concern about the war all feature prominently—too much at first. I had trouble connecting with Eva because it felt like she did nothing but deliberate and worry. Perhaps I saw too much of myself in her. By the end, however, I was rooting for her, and I found the ending to the book emotionally moving.

Rémy is the generic gallant hero found so often in women’s fiction it’s almost cliché—but I liked him anyway. The Catholic priest is similarly standard, but again, I liked him anyway. To use another cliché: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Eva’s mother was underdeveloped. Though her reactions to the circumstances were realistic, her behavior lacked cohesion, feeling…stringy. I can’t think of a better word. Toward the end, I wished the author had spent more time demonstrating the mother’s true feelings directly, instead of Eva hearing them by second-hand report.

Plot

The plot begins with the Nazi’s arrests, slows briefly while Eva establishes herself as a forger, but speeds up again toward the end when the conflict and drama intensify. I will admit I didn’t see the twist coming, but the author should have included more hints. I suspected someone else, and there wasn’t any reason to suspect the real betrayer. The personality change in the betrayer was too dramatic, too quick. Overall, the plot was well-rounded with enough ups and downs to keep me reading.

Writing Style

Harmel’s prose is simplistic but clear. Nothing to swoon over, but it gets the job done.

Miscellaneous

I never tire of reading WWII fiction. The conflict is a treasure trove of stories, and I’m sure we’ve barely scratched the surface. The heroism and self-sacrifice of that age inspire me. Sometimes wonder how my own generation would handle a similar situation. Not well, I fear, but perhaps I am too cynical.

Conclusion

The Book of Lost Names has everything a reader could want—intrigue, heroism, romance, and of course, a special book. Eva’s emotional turmoil is authentic, and her heroism inspiring. In simple but clear prose, Kristin Harmel adds another perspective to our understanding of one of the most defining conflicts of the twentieth century.


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Book Review: January Black

Many thanks to my book club for selecting this one. A great read!

January Black by Wendy Russo

Bookclub is a fantastic source of new books, ones I might not otherwise pick up on my own. January Black was never on my radar, but it was a delightful read.

Cover Description

“Sixteen-year-old genius Matty Ducayn is the son of The Hill’s commandant. As such, he’s expected to conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years—such as walking on the grass—have earned him a reputation for being unruly. When sarcastic test answers finally get Matty expelled from school, King Hadrian offers him a diploma if he can answer a deceptively simple question, and then dismisses the only answer.

To prove his worth to society, Matty wrestles with the king’s word games, the kingdom’s historical record, and laws that don’t make sense. He meets Iris Locke, a street smart gardener, along the way. After enchanting him at a glance, Iris helps his research, keeps him out of trouble, and finally breaks his heart.

Alone again, Matty finds himself on collision course with a deadly law, one he will have to break to answer the king’s question. Was Hadrian challenging him, or teaching him a lesson? Without Iris, it won’t matter, because Matty won’t stand down for anyone else.”

Characters

I’m a sucker for smart guys (I married one, after all), so Matty is a winner protagonist for me. He writes programs to predict people’s locations, analyzes pictures in terms of their geometric components, and recites the digits of pi to keep himself from getting too distracted by pretty girls. His rebellious nature takes him far from the stereotypical four-eyed weakling puffing on his inhaler that most intelligent teen characters end up being. Rather than feeling forced, his smarts are a natural part of his character which weave through the narrative. His character reads as a guy who is smart, not “the smart guy.”

The leading lady, Iris, has a past that plays to the intrigue of the plot. For much of the story, I suspected she was a double agent because she was just too perfect. I dislike romantic subplots where the primary love interest has so few flaws, but Iris’s past and the trouble they get into help. The chemistry between them is natural enough to pass.

Plot

The story takes place in the future, which is interesting, but the chief strength is the plot. King Hadrian’s puzzle and the political intrigue it involves kept me turning pages. I predicted most of the twists, including the ending, but that didn’t spoil it. I enjoyed watching everything unfold, and the author did an excellent job tying up all the loose ends.

Writing Style

This isn’t a book you read for its flowing prose and sparkling metaphors like say, Where the Crawdad’s Sing. The prose was simple, and the author explicitly named each character’s emotions, which I found patronizing. She wrote in multiple perspectives, which if you’ve read my own book, The Lies She Wore, you know I usually enjoy. However, this book didn’t need any perspective but Matty’s. The author could have maintained the dramatic tension and tied up the loose ends with only one perspective. I am also not a fan of flash-forwards, which is how the book begins. Matty’s expulsion was dramatic enough to begin the story. Russo didn’t need to jump to the climax to grab my attention.

Miscellaneous

I have mixed feelings about the cover. For me, the most interesting part of the book was the political intrigue, not the romance, but I will agree it is an upgrade from the original cover.

Conclusion

This book was perfect for those times my brain sought entertainment, but no stress. It had enough drama to keep me turning pages, but was light and romantic enough to classify as a feel-good book. Many thanks to my book club for selecting it!


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January Black

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Book Review: The Four Winds

Though Hannah describes life in the Depression with beautiful-but-heart-breaking detail, I was unsatisfied with the ending. This is my least favorite of Kristin Hannah’s books, and I’ve read a lot of them.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I looked forward to reading this book so much that I almost bought a copy instead of waiting to borrow it from my grandmother, but it ended up being my least favorite of Kristin Hannah’s books.

Description

Texas, 1921. Too tall and too old to marry, Elsa Wolcott can’t resist Rafe Martinelli’s attention, but when their unsanctioned relationship ruins her reputation, she has only one respectable option: marriage to Rafe, a man she barely knows.

She grows to love the Martinelli’s farm, and gradually earns the respect of her in-laws, but the Great Depression changes everything. With millions out of work, the drought’s constant barrage of dust storms jeopardize both the farm and Elsa’s marriage. Elsa must make an impossible choice: leave the land she loves or head west in search of a better life for her children.

Characters

Elsa begins the story insecure about her appearance and value, and much of the story revolves around her trying to earn love. She proves herself a hard-working woman who perseveres through trials the modern millennial couldn’t comprehend. After facing numerous rejections, she strives to hold on to her daughter’s affection, but Loreda’s teenage years have pushed them farther apart.

Loreda is a typical small-town girl who dreams of more. Like most teenaged girls, she blames her mother for everything from her father’s unhappiness to the drought. When the family’s dire circumstances push her past bitterness into desperation, she finds she and her mother have more in common than she’d thought.

Plot

The plot centers on the family’s struggle to farm during the drought, descent into poverty, and eventual migration to California in search of a better life. Unfortunately, instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, California offers them only poverty and discrimination.

Mostly, I enjoyed the plot. However, I hated the ending. I’ll describe my thoughts on it below, but if you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next section.


SPOILERS


The book’s main storylines are Elsa learning that she is loveable and Loreda learning to value her mother. However, Elsa doesn’t feel valuable until Jack falls in love with her. In a book that intentionally emphasizes the role of women in the Depression, I hate that Elsa needs a man to show her love. A better ending would have been shown her learning to value herself as she fought for her children’s well-being, especially since the conflict revolves around her relationship with her daughter. Finding satisfaction in her daughter’s love would have been much more satisfying than some man’s sexual attraction.

Loreda’s storyline is better completed. After seeing her mother lead the workers’ strike, she finally learns to respect her mother’s strength and realizes she possesses that same fortitude within herself. However, the ending rings hollow. Loreda goes to college, like her mother wanted, but I feel like she would have done that anyway. Her newfound respect for her mother, if not her mother’s lifestyle, didn’t change her behavior. If Hannah had made Loreda more resistant to schooling throughout the book, this transformation would have been more effective.


SPOILERS END


Writing Style

In her typical brilliance, Hannah describes life in the Depression with heart-wrenching detail, almost too much detail. Reading her prose is like experiencing the hardships of the Depression first hand—not pleasant. I could almost taste the dust in my mouth. Reading it during a road trip through the desert probably didn’t help.

Miscellaneous

I never figured out why the novel is titled The Four Winds, other than the dust storms’ prominence. Still, it left me wondering, which four?

Conclusion

Though Hannah describes life in the Depression with beautiful-but-heart-breaking detail, I was unsatisfied with the ending. Such well-rounded characters deserved more thematically consistent endings to their emotional journeys. If you are curious about life during the 1930s, this book will bring those difficult years to life, but don’t count on the ending being worthy of a standing ovation.


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Book Review: Salt to the Sea

After I turned the last page, I was so upset there wasn’t any more that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

After reading Fountains of Silence, I had to read another by Ruta Sepetys. This one did not disappoint. After I turned the last page, I was so upset that I made my husband hold me for a solid half-hour. Though I have a stack of books waiting to be read, I wanted more of this one.

Back Cover Description

“Winter 1945. Four refugees. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies, war.

As thousands desperately flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

But not all promises can be kept.”

Characters

A lot of characters act in the pages of this book, but with creativity and skill, Sepetys brings them all to life. Each minor character has a quirk that allows the reader to keep track, and each of the perspective character’s voices is distinct enough that the narrator is clear even if you don’t read the chapter headings.

The main characters are all moving toward the same goal—the Wilhelm Gustloff—but each of them flees a different past. They carry their guilt, fear, in grief in different ways, and their backstories come to light throughout the book. Much like The Things They Carried, you can tell a lot about each character based upon what they took with them, and what they risked to keep it. Eva, for example, risks her place upon the boat by waiting for her mother’s silver.

I liked the author’s inclusion of the delusional German sailor. Constantly teased and never taken seriously, he wasn’t a “villain” per se, but his sick mind served as a reminder that evil is a machine with gears both large and small.

Plot

The innocent refugees are trapped between two evils—the invading Russians behind them, and the Nazis in front of them. They each take their chances with Germany. The tension is high throughout the story; I couldn’t help rooting for each of them as they ran from the horrors of their pasts straight into the jaws of the future.

The story depicts a tragedy that was six times deadlier than the Titanic, yet remains obscure. I love reading about WWII because there are so many aspects of the global conflict. Not only did this story move me emotionally, it educated me. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff, but now, as I often do after reading, I wonder why there isn’t a blockbuster movie about it.

Writing Style

Sepetys uses multiple perspectives for this tale—the right call for a story like this. Because of the shifting perspectives, the chapters are short. In theory, that should make the book easy to put down. I knew I was in trouble about two-thirds in. I spared a token glance at the clock, but I knew I would stay up to finish it. No regrets. Sepetys writing is beautiful and powerful.

Other

I love the cover with the shoes. The “shoe poet” is one of my favorite characters, and the different shoes on the cover highlight the different backgrounds of each character.

Conclusion

You really should have stopped reading a while ago and bought the book, but if you’re not convinced yet, let me add that this book joins only four others with the rank of Binge Read. An incredible read from an incredible author.


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Book Review: Far from the Tree

I’m a sucker for stories that feature adoption, so Far from the Tree had been on my wish list for a while.

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

“Let’s go to Barnes & Noble and get you a book,” my grandmother said after visiting her and her sister. In my head I think I’m way too old for that, but FREE BOOKS so YES PLEASE.

I’m a sucker for stories that feature adoption, so Far from the Tree had been on my wish list for a while. My relatives, being who they are, responded to my choice with, “That’s a paperback; go grab some more.” Thus, I will review the five books they bought me that day as soon as I can get through them all.

I love my family.

Back Cover Description

“Grace, Maya, & Joaquin are siblings who are unaware of one another’s existence, until Grace gives up her own child for adoption—and feels compelled to seek out her biological family.

Maya, Grace’s loudmouthed younger sister, is quick to search for traces of herself among her bio siblings. But she’s not quite sure where it is that she belongs. And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, never found a family. In Joaquin’s life, there are no heroes, and secrets are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him. Can these strangers conquer their fears, share their hearts, and trust in each other enough to become a family?”

Characters

Each of the siblings has their own well-developed personality—the goodie-two-shoes, the loudmouth, the stoic protector. Despite these differences, they discover random ways they are similar to each other. For example, they all like mayo on their French fries. I liked that the author included a lesbian character whose plotline did not focus on her identity or on people’s acceptance of her identity. It is a part of her character, woven naturally in, but Maya has her own story.

Plot

The cover’s description doesn’t do this story justice. The plot is far more complex and beautiful than it implies. I particularly liked Grace’s story. Grace is a pregnant teen, but the story didn’t revolve around her discovering her pregnancy, panicking, and deciding what to do about it. Instead, the story begins with her reminiscing about the decision she already took and explores how it affects her afterward.

Even while “Peach” is in her womb, Grace’s love for her is clear. She eats healthful foods and hunts for the perfect adoptive parents. After she gives her child up for adoption, she misses her in a physical way that her own parents can’t understand. This prompts her to search for her own biological mother. She wants to know she isn’t alone in feeling this way. She wants to know she made the right choice.

Benway treats each of the sibling’s plotlines with the same respect for the complexity and beauty of the messy thing we call family. The story is one of hope, healing, and love, and I enjoyed every word.

Writing Style

Benway writes a lot of reflective thinking into her prose, which usually annoys me, but she gets away with it because that panicked overthinking fit well with her teenage protagonists. I like that she sometimes describes feelings with colors.

Other

I love the title of this book, and, though hard to look at, I like the cover too.

Conclusion

Book I cannot praise this book enough for its portrayal of what it means to be a family—unconditional support, forgiveness, and love. It takes an unflinching look into life’s greatest complexities, and instead of trying to simplifying them with platitudes and easy answers, appreciates the beauty of a mess.


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Shadows in the Water

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—no matter who gets hurt.

Shadows in the Water by Jo-Anne Tomlinson

I don’t normally read a ton of suspense, but after beta reading more of it recently, I’m developing a taste for it. This is my favorite of the ones I’ve read.

Description

Someone tried to murder India Peters, but that’s not even the biggest news in the beachside community of Army Bay. Brandy Hamilton, desired and despised queen bee, disappeared the same night.


When India wakes up, her memories are missing along with her childhood-friend-turned-hated-nemesis. Somewhere in her foggy brain lies the answer to how India went from social pariah to member of Brandy’s elite circle: Brandy’s sister Sadie, the good twin. Rory, the track star. Ben, the hot boyfriend. Avery, the rich douche. Elton, the cocky loner.


But things in Army Bay are only getting stranger. Her parents, her frenemies, the girl she likes, even the police—they all know more than they’re willing to share. To uncover the truth, India will have to expose the town’s dark secrets no matter who gets hurt.

Characters

Biracial and bisexual India Peters is a cynical teen who learned the hard way that high school can be hell, but she wakes up to discover she’d become someone else. A popular someone who cares about things like free-range chickens. India’s investigation into the past helps her define her present—which India is she? The pariah and stoner or the popular progressive?

Her quest for the truth leads her to interact with the town’s characters. Each person has plenty of motive to harm Brandy, but not everyone is what India expected. The large cast kept me guessing throughout the story, but each character is so unique and well-rounded that I didn’t struggle to keep them straight as I have in similar books.

Plot

With every clue India uncovers come at least a dozen more questions. The more she uncovers about the towns people and their competing motives, the more dangerous her investigation becomes. Even the police are suspect. The plot twists and turns as it careens toward the finish at a pace fast enough to give the reader whiplash, but not so fast as to neglect character development and tension building.

Writing Style

With sharp wit, sarcasm, and an unapologetic use of the f-word, Tomlinson captures an edgy teen voice that fits perfectly with the tension in the story. The prose is clear with creative descriptions that set the tone, a pleasure to read.

Conclusion

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—even when her investigation leads her way too close to home. With a large cast of shady characters and enough twists to keep the reader guessing, Shadows in the Water is an excellent addition to teen suspense. I couldn’t put it down.


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Book Review: Home Front

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set, but I still feel its themes are relevant today.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set. For me, the most interesting part was reflecting on how much has changed in American culture since then.

Cover Description

“Like many couples, Michael and Jolene Zarkades have to face the pressures of everyday life—children, careers, bills, chores—even as their twelve-year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a soldier she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a batter of his own—for everything that matters to his family.”

Characters

So many books aim for a “strong female lead” by putting breasts on a masculine character, but Jolene has a refreshingly feminine strength. As a mother, her number one priority is her daughters. She takes on a great emotional toll to spare them pain, and she sacrifices her personal preferences to keep the family running. She is strong, yet vulnerable, feeling intense emotions even as she perseveres through her trials. Jolene is three-dimensional, a shining example resilience.

Including Michael’s perspective prevents the reader from picking sides in their marital disputes. He is flawed, and his struggle with being Mr. Mom resonates with anyone who has ever worked with children. My one critique is that by the end of the book, he seemed too perfect. I have serious doubts that a man would be so persistent given Jolene’s repeated refusal of reconciliation.

Would I have said that had I read the book in 2012 when it was published? Has my opinion of people declined so much? I’m not sure. It seems to me the more “connected” we are through technology, the shorter our attention spans, and the less effort we are willing to put into our relationships. Jolene and Michael’s marriage is an example of love as a choice, of the extensive hard work needed to last until death do us part. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that kind of love very often in times where a minor disagreement will lead to “unfriending.” Reading this book makes be think we could all use a dose of the past.

Plot

The story falls into two parts: Jolene’s deployment and her adjustment to coming home. Interspersed are Michael’s struggles as a functionally single parent. The central conflict is Jolene being deployed to Iraq, and Michael’s lack of support for her. For me, it was interesting to reflect on what dominated the headlines back then compared fills our screens now.

Overall, the plot is well-paced, somewhat predictable, but that isn’t a bad thing in a character-driven novel. I enjoyed watching Jolene and Michael grow as individuals and as a couple.

Writing Style

Hannah’s descriptions are evocative without being too high-brow. She has a talent for showing the passage of time via small things—flowers blooming, weather patterns, characters growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Her prose is clear and easy to read without lacking substance.

Miscellaneous

I read this book long after it was published, but I still found it relevant. The themes of reconciliation, supporting your spouse despite disagreements, love as a choice, and coming home both mentally and physically are as pertinent today as they were in 2012.

The story draws attention to mental health in a relatable way that is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because we have made great strides in PTSD research and management since this book was set. Discouraging because so much stigma still surrounds mental health, even though increased isolation and false-faced social media have led to an even greater need to destroy that stigma.

Conclusion

As usual, you can’t go wrong with a book by Kristin Hannah. With her characteristic clear and beautiful writing style, Hannah explores the intimate landscape of human relationships. The themes of this moving story continue to speak to the heart.



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Home Front

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