Book Review: The House at Tyneford

House at TynefordTitle: The House at Tyneford

Author: Natasha Solomons

Genre: Historical Fiction

Star Rating (out of 5): ****

For: Fans of Kate Morton, Kristin Hannah, Downton Abbey

In the turmoil of 1938, 19-year-old Elise Landau’s Jewish parents determine it is not safe for her to remain in Vienna. In her broken English, Elise sends out an advertisement looking for a position as a housemaid, promising to “Cook your goose.” She is offered a position at a grand house in England, where the sparkling gaiety of her well-to-do life in Vienna quickly fades as she takes up her responsibilities as a lowly maid. Her parents have promised to send for her as soon as they can obtain visas to go to America, but as the days turn into weeks and months, Elise slowly realizes she may be trapped in her new status as an invisible servant and refugee.

The sedate pace of the household is rocked when the landowner’s son, Kit, returns. He offers to tutor Elise in English, and they strike up a friendship. When Kit enlists in the air force and the war begins to rage in the air above their once-quiet village, life at Tyneford begins an irrevocable change.

 

This book is beautifully written, with musical prose and fantastic character development. There is a scene near the end where the author describes a symphony written to commemorate a family that fell victim to the Holocaust–it is a spectacular piece of prose that showed the author’s obvious understanding of music’s ability to move our souls. As a musician myself, I felt the book was worth the read just for that scene.

The book has a sad but beautiful ache to it that resonated with me as the characters lives are irrevocably shaped by the events of WWII. Not everyone will like the ending, but I did.

One disclaimer: this is not a Christian book, and there is some premarital sex and descriptions of sexual fantasies that pushed the boundaries for me. Also some significant swearing. Really disappointing in what was otherwise a wonderful read.

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me

AoGGTitle: Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me: What my favorite book taught me about grace, belonging, and the orphan in us all

Author: Lorilee Craker

Star Rating (out of 5): ****

For: Fans of the Anne books; anyone interested in adoption

I quite enjoyed this “literary memoir.” The author (who was adopted as a baby) weaves her story and the story of adopting her own daughter together with relevant parts of the Anne books. As the subtitle says, it ruminates on grace, belonging, and identity, and the prose is quite enjoyable–sometimes beautiful and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. A great read for anyone who loves the Anne books, adoption, or both.

Note: Definitely better if you’ve read the Anne of Green Gables books or at least watched the movie. A lot of the book would probably be lost if the reader wasn’t familiar with Anne’s story.

Book Review: Catherine the Great–Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the GreatTitle: Catherine the Great–Portrait of a Woman

Author: Robert K. Massie

Genre: Biography, Russian History

For: Fans of history, influential women in history, Russia

Star Verdict (out of 5): ****

I’ve always been fascinated by Russian history, so I enjoyed this book. Catherine II is probably the only woman ruler whose reign can compare to Elizabeth I of England, but she is not as well known. She ruled the massive empire of Russia in the mid 1700s, around the time when America won its independence from Britain.

Her life was a whirlwind; from her birth as a poor German princess of a lesser house, to the wife of a physiologically disturbed emperor-to-be before she took the throne from him in a coup and ruled with impressive success until her death. She was a patron of the arts (accumulating much of the massive collection in the Hermitage today), a shrewd politician, oversaw the formation of Russia’s navy in what was formerly a land-locked country, was interested in Enlightenment ideals, established schools and orphanages, and was concerned with the injustices against the surfs a century before the slaves were freed in Britain or America (although she was not able to accomplish much on this front). The book does discuss the many lovers she had throughout her reign, but is never graphic or lurid.

This is a long book (650 pages) but it kept my attention; it might be a bit much for readers who are not as interested in Russia, but if you’re at all interested in Russia or powerful women in history I’d give it a try!

Book Review: Fairest – Levana’s Story (The Lunar Chronicles)

Fairest

Title: Fairest – Levana’s Story

Series: The Lunar Chronicles

Author: Marissa Meyer

Genre: Teen Fiction

Star Rating (out of 5): **

I really wanted to love this series, partly because I enjoyed the first book, Cinder, so much.  Cinder was creative, unique, and delightfully clean, with a selfless and smart heroine.  I was thrilled that the love interest, Prince Kai, was kind, thoughtful, and committed to his duties as a king.  He was a welcome relief from all the bad boys that are so popular in teen fiction.

My enjoyment of Cinder has made me even more disappointed as each book in this series (Scarlet, Cress, and now Fairest) has included more and more inappropriate content.

Fairest tells the back story of the series’ villain, Levana, queen of Luna, and her painful childhood, unmet desire to be loved, and rise as queen.  The first half of Fairest revolves around 15 year old Levana lusting after and attempting to seduce a happily married man who is ten years older than she is.  ***Spoiler warning*** (She eventually uses mind control to force him to sleep with her, in spite of his insistence that she is just a child and he does not love her) ***End Spoiler***  There are numerous references to her older sister’s many sexual encounters, including trying to seduce a bi-sexual man, and it is said that no one on Luna is monogamous anymore.  Meyer even goes so far as to talk about blood on the sheets the night Levana loses her virginity.

Another problematic issue in the series is violence: characters are stabbed, shot, have their throats cut, die in childbirth, are burnt alive, have their feet cut off, are maimed, scarred, lose eyes, etc.   Further disturbing is that a portion of this violence is done merely out the character’s sadistic desire to torture others.  True, this is the story of the villain, but does that make it content that we want our 13 year old daughters filling their minds with?

It’s sad and frustrating, because Meyer is a talented writer.  Her portrayal of Levana is very nuanced; you understand why she is the way she is in the series and pity her as much as you dislike her.  It could have been a great book to use to talk with teens about complex issues of how cruelty can be motivated by insecurity, the power of compassion and grace,  and what can happen when we choose to love unconditionally.  It is incomprehensible to me why Meyer chose to ruin the books with so much content that is wholly inappropriate for young girls.  So disappointing.

Book Review: The Legend of Sheba

Legend of ShebaThe Legend of Sheba: Rise of a Queen

Author: Tosca Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

For: Fans of Francine Rivers, Lynn Austin

Strengths: Character driven, vivid setting, lovely prose

This is a fictional account of the Queen of Sheba (modern day Ethiopia and Yemen) and her interactions with King Solomon of Israel. The book tells the story of Bilquis’ rise to power as queen and then her relationship with Solomon, first through letters and then when she travels to meet him.I was surprised to learn that the Queen of Sheba and Solomon are mentioned in the Bible, the Qu’ran, and Ethiopian history, and Lee draws from all three for her story.

First, the good: the book is stunningly well written.  The prose is beautiful  and Lee draws Saba (Sheba) so vividly that I could almost smell the frankincense and see the gold-laden camels winding through the desert .

Secondly, the character development is very well done.  I loved icy, smart, fearless, and conflicted Bilquis, but I was most intrigued by Lee’s complex depiction of Solomon.  He begins as the wise and confident king of Proverbs, becomes the lover of Song of Solomon, and ends as the disillusioned and tormented writer of Ecclesiastes.

The tension between Bilquis and Solomon was also fantastic.  Lee wrote their complex interactions brilliantly so that you see the conflict of their mutual arrogance and sharp wit alongside their mutual questions,  insecurity, and loneliness.  I found it wholly believable, and many of their conversations and letters profound.

The thing that disappointed me was the ending.  Lee brilliantly develops Bilquis’ journey of questioning her own gods without sounding preachy or condescending, but *Spoiler Warning* (Bilquis never goes beyond recognizing that her gods are futile and Yahweh is different.  Lee did such a wonderful job of preparing Bilquis’ heart to accept the God of Israel that I was really thinking she could write her conversion in a powerful and believable way, and I was nearly heartbroken that she never took it that far.)  *End Spoiler*

There were also some plot developments that stretched, if not directly contradicted the Biblical account.  These are apparently sourced in Ethiopian tradition, so I can understand why Lee choose to use them, however, while I suspect there is typically a grain of truth in many myths, I doubt they are entirely true. Since this is a fictional account it did not bother me terribly, but I would have preferred an ending that was more in line with the Biblical account.

Lastly, Lee is writing about both a pagan culture and an Israelite king whose lust was his downfall, so there is some sex in the book.  The scenes are not graphic but they are there, and they are viewed through Bilquis’ pagan viewpoint, not a Christian one.  Since Solomon never repents in the Biblical account I was not expecting that, but I was hoping that Bilquis would have a change of mind set by the end.

Overall, there was a lot that I absolutely loved about this book.  Unfortunately, when a writer is this good and a story has so much potential, I’m even more disappointed when the ending isn’t the best.  The same could be said about the historical Solomon; the fact that he started so well and was given so much makes his unfaithfulness to God and ultimate downfall all the more tragic.

“Books and Chocolate” Party

Books and Chocolate 3

I recently celebrated my 30th Birthday, which gave me a perfect excuse to host a party!  I hemmed and hawed over a theme and finally just thought, “What are my favorite things?”  The first things that popped into my mind were books and chocolate, and nothing sounds more delightful to me than sitting around with good friends talking about books and eating chocolate, so a theme was born!  Also, I am constantly looking for book recommendations (seriously…all the time) and I figured this would be a good way to give my friends’ Facebook newsfeeds a rest from seeing me post, “Anyone read anything good lately?” for the 4,682 time.

I used an online invitation site to e-mail invitations.  They said:

 Books and Chocolate Party!

It’s my 30th birthday!  I’d love to celebrate with some of my favorite things: friends, books, and chocolate!

BRING: Please bring a copy of your favorite fiction book (unwrapped) to exchange, along with your favorite chocolate candy or dessert to share. Be ready to give a brief summary of the book and why you love it. No gifts, but cards welcome!

ATTIRE: Wear your favorite party dress!  Cocktail, formal, sundress…whatever you feel beautiful in!

For decorations I decided to continue my “favorite things” theme and decorate with roses, lace, and book pages in a vintage pink and cream color scheme.  I had to pull this party off for as close to a zero-budget as I could, so I had to get creative.  First, I used this tutorial to make these darling paper roses.

Books and Chocolate 8

I used pages from a book I purchased at a thrift store two years ago for my Christmas Pinterest party where we made Christmas ornaments.  The pages had gold gilt edges, so in the right light you can see little shimmers of gold in the centers.  So pretty!  I considered buying pink paper for some of the roses so they could match the pink and cream theme, but with a teeny budget for the party I wanted to avoid that if possible.  On a whim I pulled out some red food coloring, put a drop in about half a cup of water, and painted some on a test strip of paper.  It came out the perfect color!  I painted it on thicker on some roses and just a hint on others to give variation and then let them dry completely.  It made the edges wave just a little, which I loved and thought made them look more like real petals.  I hot glued most of them on some twine (leaving a few to scatter on the tables) and strung it on the fireplace.

Books and Chocolate 7

Next I raided my bookshelf and my mother’s for hardcover books.  My mom had some beautiful vintage books and I pulled some of mine that had gilt titles.  I stacked them up, putting burgundy ones on top for the pink theme, and wrapped them in some lace.  These pretty little stacks of books made me so happy every time I looked at them; they are some of my favorite stories and looked so perfect!

Books and Chocolate 9

 

I wrapped more of the lace around mason jars to make candle holders and pretty vases and filled them with cream and pink roses (see above for vase).

Books and Chocolate 10For the table runner I found this lovely idea that perfectly combined the lace and books theme.  Unfortunately these decorative paper punches can be pretty expensive, so imagine my joy when I went to the craft store and found the perfect one on clearance!  At $9 it was the most expensive thing I bought for the party—not bad!  All I did was tape the pages together on the back and punch the edges.  The hardest part was figuring out the spacing for the punch.  I used the punch again to make little party favors, which I’ll talk about later.

Books and Chocolate 11

For my chocolate dessert I made my favorite chocolate cake and, in keeping with the rose theme, frosted it with roses.  It fit perfectly with the rest of the décor and was mmmmm so decadent.  I think this cake deserves a post of its own, so I won’t say more about it here (leave me a comment if you’d like me to post the recipe!)

Books and Chocolate 5

That was it for decorations; now, on to the party!

For an ice breaker I made a list of classic book titles and we played Telestrations.  Telestrations is a combination of pictionary and telephone; basically the first person draws a picture of the book title, passes the pad, and the next person guesses what the title is based on the drawing.  The third person draws a picture of the title the second person guessed (without looking at the first picture), and as you keep passing, drawing, and guessing sometimes the title stays the same and sometimes it changes hilariously.  Showing all the guesses and pictures at the end was so funny!

For the book exchange, first we took turns telling which book we brought, summarized the story, and told why we enjoyed it.  We spent most of the party talking about our books and nibbling on the delicious chocolate treats everyone brought.  It was pure bliss!  And I felt like I got to know my friends even better from hearing them tell about why they loved their favorite books and how they were impacted by them.  Then everyone picked the book they wanted; in theory the person who won Telestrations was supposed to pick first and they we’d go around the circle, but of course no one wanted to be rude so we spent a bunch of time saying, “Are you sure you don’t want this one?  Because there are others I’d like, too!”

These are the books everyone brought:

I had a really hard time deciding what book I wanted to bring for the exchange, so for a little party favor I decided to make a bookmark with a list of my 30 favorite books (since I’m thirty, you know? Smile).  When I went through my “Books I’ve Read” list to narrow it down I came up with 110 favorites on the first try.  Heh.  So, I decided to do my 30 Favorite Fiction Books on one side and 30 Favorite Non-Fiction/Biography books on the other.  I printed them on cardstock, punched the edges with the lace punch,  and made teeny tiny roses for them (those were harder to make than the big ones!)  So, at the end of the party everyone went home with a book and a bookmark.

Books and Chocolate 6

It was so much fun to start my fourth decade off being surrounded by some of my favorite things and people!  And the discussion about books was so interesting that I might have to make it a tradition to host a yearly book-themed party!

What book would you bring to a “Books and Chocolate” party?  I’d love to hear; please leave me a comment!  (Yes…that is a thinly-veiled plea for book recommendations. 😉 )

Book Review: Divergent Series

divergent-trilogy

  • Title: Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant
  • Author: Veronica Roth
  • Genre: Young-Adult, Dystopian
  • Star Verdict (out of 5): ****
  • For: Fans of Dystopian fiction, philosophy, The Hunger Games

Every morning when Beatrice Prior arrives at school she watches as the train flies by outside the school yard and a group of teens in black leap off the moving train, laughing at the thrill.  They are from Dauntless, and their loud fearlessness, confidence, and camaraderie is a stark contrast to the quiet servitude of her family’s faction, Abnegation, where she has learned that selflessness is the highest virtue.

Now that she is sixteen, Beatrice must make a choice that will determine the rest of her life: which faction she will join.  Decades ago, society decided that the evil in the world was not caused by religion, race, politics, or nationalism, but by faults in mankind’s character.  They divided into five factions, based on what they believed was the root cause of the world’s problems.  Those who blamed aggression formed Amity, which values peace above all else.  Those who blamed ignorance formed Erudite, which values information and intelligence.  Those who blamed duplicity formed Candor, which values honesty above all else.  Those who blamed selfishness formed Abnegation.  And those who blamed cowardice formed Dauntless.

On the day she takes her aptitude test to determine which faction she is most compatible with, Beatrice is stunned by her odd results and the cryptic warning she is given not to tell anyone.  The faction Beatrice chooses will become her new identity, family, and position for the rest of her life.  But making her choice won’t be the only hurdle: she must also pass her chosen faction’s initiation, as anyone who fails their initiation is shunned by society and relegated to starvation and a constant fight just to survive as a “factionless.”  Not only that, but if she chooses any faction other than Abnegation, she will have to leave her family behind forever.

My Thoughts:

I confess I started these books with low expectations because most of the young adult best-sellers I’ve read in the last few years have basically just made me want to beat my forehead against them.  Divergent was a pleasant surprise, with a lot of thought-provoking philosophy and interesting character development.  Where Twilight’s message was “Love (lust) is all that matters,” and The Hunger Games’ message was “Survival is all that matters,” Divergent’s message is “Character is what matters.”  Roth uses an interesting plot and likable heroine to explore deep ideas about character, identity, nurture/nature and society.

The thing I was most impressed with was that the author managed to dig into such deep ideas without bogging the plot down.  There are a few flaws in the plot, but overall it was fast-moving and interesting.  Roth shows the strengths of each virtue, but also examines how bravery should not be confused with recklessness or cruelty, peace needs to be protected by a willingness to fight for what is right, truthfulness should be tempered by kindness, knowledge should be combined with compassion, and selflessness does not mean rejecting beauty or refusing another’s sacrifices for you.

The books are quite violent: people are shot, stabbed, paralyzed, poisoned, assaulted, and tortured.  However, instead of having violence for the sake of violence (or shock factor), Roth used it to examine the moral questions and consequences of violence.  In contrast to Twilight and Hunger games, where violence is always black and white (and justified when committed by the “good guys”), Divergent explores when and why violence is justified and also shows the consequences of violence on both the good and the bad.  Granted, there are times when the teens’ actions are just plain reckless, and hopefully the books won’t inspire teenagers to try to go ziplining off the Hancock building.

Also in contrast to Hunger Games, whereas Katniss is traumatized by the violence around her and never rises above it, and (Hunger Games spoiler warning: even decides to perpetrate the same violence against her abusers’ children), Tris is traumatized by the violence she both witnesses and commits, but tries to conquer her fears and, as her father once told her, “Let the guilt teach you how to behave next time.”

The relationships portrayed are also for the most part healthier than those in many teen books.  For example, the books explore how lying damages a relationship, even if the character justified the lie at the time.  Unfortunately, all three books are filled with teenage sexual angst. Although it is never explicitly stated that the main characters have sex (and sometimes they do specifically decide to wait), there are also countless times when they are passionately kissing, removing each others’ clothes, and then waking up together the next morning.  Veronica Roth has said repeatedly in interviews that, as a Christian, she didn’t want to write “smut” but wanted to be true to the teenage experience of love.  Unfortunately, her perspective on teen sexuality seems more focused on the intensity of sexual desire (including a few mentions of homosexual relationships) than on Biblical values of purity and commitment.

Some people have complained about the ending, particularly the way things ended for one main character.  Personally, I was not bothered by it, as I thought it was much more true-to-life than many books.  I was, however, bothered by one massive act of hypocrisy, where the good guys essentially do to the bad guys what they were trying to prevent them doing.

Divergent_film_posterConclusion:

While the books aren’t flawless, I quite enjoyed the interesting plot, great character development, and thought-provoking philosophy.  They are not intended to be “Christian,” but many of the issues are explored from a Christian worldview.  I’m interested to see how they do with the movie; unfortunately I suspect they won’t be able to get inside Tris’ mind enough to get most of the books’ depth across.  Time will tell!