Book Review: The Return

With a charming protagonist and intriguing premise, I can see how a devoted fan would love this book. As someone who merely grabbed it off the stack, my opinion differs slightly.

The Return by Nicholas Sparks

Though I’ve enjoyed a couple Nicholas Sparks’s books, I wouldn’t describe myself as one of his core readers. This one was a loan from the Library of Grandma. When reading it in public, I unwittingly gained entrance to a secret club of Nicholas Sparks fans who smiled and gave me an OMG-don’t-you-just-love-him look I didn’t quite understand. They asked which of his books was my favorite, with the expected reply apparently being ALL of them. After finishing, I determined 1) Nicholas Sparks’s books are best read in private because 2) Nicholas Sparks fans are a special breed of human who speak a language made almost entirely of sighs of longing.

Description

When a mortar blast injury sends surgeon Trevor Benson home from Afghanistan, he regroups in the dilapidated cabin he inherited from his grandfather. Love is the last thing he expects to find while tending his grandfather’s beehives, but the mysterious Natalie Masterson captures his attention. The deputy sheriff seems to reciprocate his feelings, but she reveals little of herself, even though she assists him in investigating his grandfather’s strange last words.

To discover the meaning of his grandfather’s final message, Trevor tries to recruit the sullen teenager from the trailer park down the road, Callie. She offers few clues until a crisis reveals a connection between the elderly man’s passing and her own troubled past.

Characters

Trevor Benson has the right mix of serious backstory and charm to make him intriguing and attractive to the average reader. I appreciated the openness with which he relates his struggles with PTSD and the positive light in which he views his mental health treatment. A devoted grandson and all-around good guy, he is easy to love.

Callie starts off as a flat character with stereotypical teenage stonewalling. She gains depth by the end, but I would have liked more of her situation to leak through earlier. Natalie is interesting at the outset, but her backstory is too predictable for the mystery to keep the reader’s attention.

Plot

The plot waffles between Trevor’s rapid-onset infatuation and the mystery of his grandfather’s last journey, which leads him to seek information from the sullen teenager. I liked that all the subplots intertwined in the end, but they felt disjointed toward the beginning, almost as if they were different books. I had trouble getting into this book and only finished because I wanted to return it to my grandmother when I visited.

Writing Style

Sparks’s prose is light in tone and full of detail, though far from breathtaking. The story reads like a walk through the neighborhood, ambling unhurriedly and stopping to appreciate life’s simple pleasures. Though hardly action-packed, the style was appropriate to the target audience.

Conclusion

With a charming protagonist and intriguing premise, I can see how a devoted Nicholas Sparks fan would love this book. As someone who merely grabbed it off the stack, I can say it was an enjoyable read, but one I’ll quickly forget. Too many subplots hindered my ability to engross myself in the story. While the author tackles many deep topics in the characters’ backstories, he takes too long to introduce them, and lacks time to explore them sufficiently before the end. As far as Nicholas Sparks books go, I much preferred Safe Haven and The Notebook.

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The Return

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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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The Book of Lost Names

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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: A Very Large Expanse of Sea

I picked up this book because I love reading about people who are different from me. Not a lot of young adult novels feature Muslim protagonists, so I grabbed this as soon as I saw it available the library.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

I picked up this book because I love reading about people who are different from me. Not a lot of young adult novels feature Muslim protagonists, so I grabbed this as soon as I saw it available the library.

Back Cover Description

“It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.”

Characters

I love that Shirin breaks so many stereotypes. She’s a fashionista and break-dancer. I appreciate the author’s describing the break dance moves for a neophyte like me. I also liked that the author portrayed a varying level of piety. One of my favorite passages was when Shirin’s mother asks her and her brother if they said their prayers, and they lie and say they did. The mom rolls her eyes and says to do better with their afternoon prayers, and they lie and say they will. That’s an exchange a lot of young people can relate to.

If I had met Shirin in real life, her “back off” vibes would have scared me away long before I got to know the wounded heart inside her. Shirin is so disillusioned and bitter she is difficult to like. I have trouble immersing myself in that much anger.

The author mentions Shirin writing in her diary a lot. I wish she had included some of those entries in the book to show her softer, vulnerable side. Without that, getting to know Shirin is like singing Christmas carols to the Wicked Witch of the West. We see more of her inner self later in the book, but I almost didn’t make it that far.

Plot

The tough girl falling for a sweet guy is a common theme in young adult literature, but I always have trouble believing the guys are that persistent. Perhaps that comes from being an invisible wallflower in high school. Mafi gets away with it by making Shirin beautiful and stylish and orchestrating the circumstances such that the leading male finds her lack of interest in basketball refreshing. Still, as far as this trope goes, I much preferred Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory.

The plot’s main asset is an excellent portrayal of the arbitrariness of popularity. I won’t spoil it by including details, but it exposes the hypocrisy of high school (and adult) social circles. Much like real life, the characters transition from social lepers to reigning sovereigns with the speed of a viral video.

Writing Style

The author’s tone was consistent with the protagonist’s voice—short sentences and curt language. Not a style I gravitate to, but well-executed and fitting for the story. The plot moved at an acceptable pace, and I got a decent sense the setting. As Shirin often moved from school to school, I felt it appropriate that the setting didn’t receive too much attention. After so many moves, she wouldn’t care enough to invest in making it home.

Other

The cover image is hard to read, and it doesn’t reveal the premise of the book. I first discovered this book on a recommendations list, so I already knew what it was about, but a browsing reader wouldn’t.

Conclusion

If you are into tough-girl protagonists, or if you have a similar life experience to the main character, then this book is well-written enough to warrant spending money. For shy girls like me who have trouble relating to that type of character, it’s a library read. Either way, worth reading.


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