Mini-Reviews #3: June Books, Part 1

Still making my way through my review backlog, so here are some more short ones:

Lilac GirlsUnexpected Everything, The

Martha Hall Kelly, Lilac Girls — For the past few years, I’ve really gravitated toward books set during World War II, especially those dealing with the “home front” experience rather than the actual fighting. So I think I wanted to like this book more than I did. I found the story of Kasia, a Polish girl imprisoned in Ravensbrück, to be the most compelling. I especially liked how the book follows her (and the other characters) long after the war is over and shows the psychological scars that still remain. But I didn’t like Caroline’s story at all; I found her the least interesting character, and the romance between her and Paul didn’t do anything for me. The book is worth reading if you like the time period, but I’d recommend Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire for a better book on Ravensbrück.

Morgan Matson, The Unexpected Everything — I’ve said it before, but it’s true: Morgan Matson writes the perfect summer reads! I really enjoyed this one, which centers around politician’s daughter Andie and a summer that doesn’t go quite according to plan. One of my favorite aspects of the book is that Andie has a really close group of girlfriends, and those relationships are just as important as her newfound romance. I’d definitely recommend this book as an adorable summer read, especially for those who enjoy YA.

Summer Before the War, TheDarker Shade of Magic, ACocaine Blues

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War — I really enjoyed this quiet, character-driven novel, although I wouldn’t recommend it to those who love lots of action and unpredictable twists. The plot (such as it is) centers around a young woman who moves to a rural English village to become the new Latin teacher. As one might expect, she meets with some resistance from the locals because of her youth and gender, but she also wins over some key players, including the unconventional Agatha Kent and her two nephews. Most of the book involves the resulting social politics, although the titular war (World War I) does intrude near the end.

V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic — This book hooked me from the first line: “Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible.” The novel is an exciting blend of fantasy and sci fi, combining magical artifacts with parallel universes. The hero is a conflicted, magic-wielding prince, and the heroine is a scrappy thief and would-be pirate. In short, I loved it and have already purchased book 2, A Gathering of Shadows!

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues — After watching and LOVING “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” I decided to pick up the first book in the series. Phryne is a wonderfully entertaining character: intelligent, rich, attractive, and determined to get the most out of life. I also really enjoyed the setting of 1920s Melbourne, where Phryne rubs elbows with all sorts of people, from wealthy blue bloods to socialist cab drivers to feisty maidservants. I did miss Inspector Jack Robinson, who apparently has a much smaller role in the books than he does in the TV series. I also didn’t care too much about the mystery, but I still liked the book for its setting and protagonist.

Review: Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog PrintsP.J. Brackston, Gretel and the Case of the Missing Frog Prints

In the small town of Gesternstadt in 18th-century Germany, Gretel is something of a local celebrity. Her first claim to fame is being the Gretel, the one who escaped the clutches of an evil witch along with her gluttonous brother, Hans (a.k.a. Hansel). Now, the 35-year-old woman makes her living as a private investigator, and the biggest case of her life has just fallen into her lap. She has been summoned by Albrecht Durer the Much Much Younger, whose beautiful and beloved frog prints have been stolen. Gretel takes the case and travels to the busy metropolis of Nuremberg, accompanied by Hans, who wants to attend the city’s world-famous sausage festival. She soon stumbles across a variety of surprises, including a housecleaning hobgoblin, a secret brothel in the basement of a fancy hotel, and a veritable mafia of talking mice. And, naturally, her most promising suspect is later murdered at the scene of the crime. Can Gretel discover the thief, return the prints, and catch the murderer, all without being sidetracked by her dimwitted brother?

I got very excited by the premise of this book, which sounds like a delightfully subversive romp through both mystery and fairy-tale tropes. And indeed, there’s lots of fun stuff in this novel. Gretel has some wonderfully entertaining characteristics: she’s determined, confident, and extremely pragmatic. Hans is a good foil for her, reminding me of a Teutonic Bertie Wooster. But at the same time, I never found a reason to care about these characters; they don’t really develop over the course of the novel. Some of the humor also seemed forced, and the mystery itself was nothing special. I did enjoy the weird genre mashup of mystery plus fairy tale, and I would potentially read the sequel when it comes out. But a novel that’s pure spoof has got to be funny enough to justify itself, and I’m not sure that this one is. It certainly never reaches the zany heights of P.G. Wodehouse! Again, this book is an enjoyable read, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by it.

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

This sprawling novel tells the stories of two children growing up on opposite sides of World War II. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who is a locksmith working for the Museum of Natural History. She has been blind since the age of six, so her father has built a tiny replica of the city for her to memorize. But Marie-Laure is uprooted from these familiar surroundings when the Germans invade Paris and she has to flee to her great-uncle’s house on Saint-Malo. Meanwhile, Werner is a German orphan whose knack for fixing radios changes the course of his life. Instead of being doomed to a life of coal mining, he is chosen to attend a school where he will be trained as a Hitler Youth. Werner soon learns that the school is grueling and brutal, a place where weakness is mercilessly punished. But his desire to become a scientist, combined with fear for his own safety, keeps him silent. Werner’s story eventually converges with Marie-Laure’s in 1944, when the Germans are trying to hold Saint-Malo against an Allied invasion.

I was eager to read this novel after seeing several rave reviews, but unfortunately I have mixed feelings about it. I didn’t particularly like the novel’s structure, which constantly moves between Werner’s story and Marie-Laure’s, as well as jumping back and forth in time. Every time I got invested in one storyline, the book would jump to something else, which was frustrating. Also, there’s not a whole lot of plot in the book; it’s more a very detailed depiction of everyday life on both sides of WWII. That’s interesting in its own right, but I often became impatient with the meticulous descriptive language, especially when it came at the expense of the story. On the other hand, I’m very impressed with the character of Werner in this book. It’s easy (and justifiably so) to paint the Nazis as pure villains, but Werner manages to be a complex character whose motives are usually better than his actions. It helps that both he and Marie-Laure are children throughout most of the book, which makes them more sympathetic. Overall, I do think the novel is worth reading, but I’m glad I got it from the library rather than buying it.

Review: The Neruda Case

Neruda Case, TheRoberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case (trans. Carolina De Robertis)

Cayetano Brulé, one of the most respected private investigators in Valparaíso, is on his way to meet a prospective client when he stops at a restaurant for lunch. When he opens the menu, he sees a photograph of Pablo Neruda and immediately recalls his first case as a detective, in which his client was the Nobel laureate himself. Suddenly it’s 1973, and Cayetano (a Cuban by birth) is somewhat adrift in his adopted homeland of Chile. At a political party with his wife, Cayetano meets Neruda for the first time, and they soon strike up a conversation. Later, Neruda invites Cayetano to his home and makes a surprising request: he wants Cayetano to find a missing person, a doctor whom Neruda knew many years ago. Cayetano’s search takes him to Mexico City, Havana, and even East Berlin, and he eventually learns that Neruda’s desire to find the doctor is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, Chile is also experiencing a period of upheaval, as Salvador Allende’s Marxist government is succeeded by the dictatorship of Pinochet.

This novel attempts to do many different things, with mixed results. As a mystery, I think it falls flat; there is no real urgency to Cayetano’s search, and the results of his investigation ultimately don’t matter very much to the story. The book is more successful at painting a portrait of Pablo Neruda at the end of his life. I feel like I got a sense of his personality and his importance to Chile as a political figure. Best of all, this book does a wonderful job of depicting the political situation in Chile at the time and relating it to the wider issue of global politics. It’s no coincidence that Cayetano mostly visits Communist countries, in an era dominated by the Cold War and the ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The novel is definitely not neutral on this subject; both Cayetano and Neruda favor Allende’s government, while Cayetano condemns his wife’s more radical Communism. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting much more than I was by the story. So I’m glad I read this book, but I won’t be seeking out any more installments of the series.

Review: Double Cross

Double CrossBen Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Seventy years ago, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy and began the campaign to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe. Many circumstances contributed to the success of the D-Day invasion, but one of the most important factors was the campaign of disinformation being fed to the Germans by a network of double agents whose sole purpose was to convince the Abwehr that the Allies would be landing at Calais rather than Normandy. Had these agents failed, the Germans would have concentrated their forces at Normandy, most likely stopping the Allied invasion in its tracks. This book tells the stories of the individual double agents involved in this task, including Serbian playboy Dusko Popov (“Tricycle”), Peruvian socialite Elvira Chaudoir (“Bronx”), and Polish nationalist Roman Czerniawski (“Valentine”). Ultimately, Macintyre makes a convincing case for the proposition that the Allies would never have won the war on the battlefields had they not already won the intelligence war.

This book gives a wealth of fascinating detail about the six men and women who acted as double agents in Britain, allegedly spying for Germany but really working for the Allies. I was shocked to learn that British intelligence had actually discovered and turned every German agent in Britain at the time! Because of this, the Allies were able to present a unified message to the Germans, subtlely directing their attention away from Normandy and toward other possible invasion sites. Some of the specific stories in the book prove once again that truth is stranger than fiction: for example, Dusko Popov thrived on creating networks of sub-agents that were entirely fictional, yet he retained the Abwehr’s complete trust. I also loved the fact that these double agents were handled in Britain by the Twenty Committee, so named because the Roman numeral for 20 is XX, or “double cross.” In short, if you’re interested in true stories of WWII-era espionage, Ben Macintyre is your man!

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under FireElizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire

Rose Justice is an American pilot who has just come to England to help with the war effort. Though women aren’t allowed to fly planes in combat, she is able to get a job with the Women’s Air Transport Auxiliary ferrying planes back and forth within Allied territory. At first Rose sees her work as a grand adventure, a fascinating change from her sheltered upbringing. But her life is instantly, horribly changed when she is captured by the Germans in the middle of a routine flight from France to England. She is immediately arrested and transported to the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück. There Rose confronts the hideous realities of this war for the first time, including the brutal scientific experiments performed on a group of young women known as “rabbits.” But depsite the horrific treatment Rose endures, she forges close bonds with a small group of fellow prisoners and somehow manages to hold onto hope.

This companion novel to Code Name Verity is equally powerful and moving, although it struck me in a very different way. I loved CNV for its suspense, its elements of espionage, and its intense portrayal of friendship. This book is not as suspenseful; we know from the start of Rose’s narrative about Ravensbrück that she is remembering her experiences after she has escaped. It’s also not as personal (if that’s the word I want) because while Rose forms incredibly close bonds with her fellow prisoners, the emphasis is less on individual relationships and more on the experience of Ravensbrück as a whole. Neverthless, this book did strike me on a very deep personal level. It’s easy to become a little desensitized to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, simply because we’ve heard about them so many times, but this book certainly made them vivid for me. The most horrifying thing is that similar atrocities are still occurring in parts of the world today. So this is not an easy read, but I think it’s a very important one.

Review: Borrower of the Night

Borrower of the NightElizabeth Peters, Borrower of the Night

This novel introduces Vicky Bliss, a confident, no-nonsense art historian and professor at a small Midwestern university. She and her colleague/boyfriend Tony stumble across a clue to a lost work by Tilman Riemenschneider, a 16th-century German woodcarver. They decide to embark on a friendly competition to see who can discover the artifact first — a competition Vicky is determined to win. She sets off immediately for the supposed location of the artifact, Castle Drachenstein in Rothenburg, Germany. Unfortunately, Tony is hot on her trail, along with several other parties interested in recovering the lost masterwork. As Vicky and her competitors begin their search, they soon realize that something is amiss at Castle Drachenstein, and the root of the trouble lies in the distant past. Is the castle being haunted by the ghost of a former countess, or is there a less supernatural explanation for the danger Vicky finds herself in?

I’ve read and enjoyed the first few books in the Amelia Peabody series, so I was interested to try this series as well. Overall, I thought it was a fun read and a pretty decent mystery. The emphasis wasn’t so much on the “whodunit” aspect of things; rather, the novel focuses on the suspense and danger evoked by the gothic setting. In that respect, I was reminded a lot of Mary Stewart’s novels (which I also really enjoy), and the archaelogical aspect of the plot called to mind “Indiana Jones.” I also liked reading about Vicky, whose sassy comments and progressive (in the 1970s) views always seemed to stir up trouble. I didn’t always like or agree with her, but she was consistently amusing! Overall, I found this book a fun read and will definitely be picking up the sequels at some point.