February 22, 2019

Book Review: The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff

The Orphan's Tale

by Pam Jenoff

Genres: Historical Fiction, WWII
Publisher: Mira Books 
Length: 353 pages 
Published: February 21, 2017 
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"A powerful novel of friendship set in a traveling circus during World War II, The Orphan's Tale introduces two extraordinary women and their harrowing stories of sacrifice and survival

Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep… When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.

Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything."


"We cannot change who we are. Sooner or later we will all have to face ourselves."

The UK edition cover

Excerpt (from the Prologue):

"I should have told someone I was going. They would have only tried to stop me, though. My escape, months in the planning since I'd read about the upcoming exhibit in the Times, had been well orchestrated: I had bribed an aide at the nursing home to take the photo I needed to mail to the passport office, paid for the plane ticket in cash. I'd almost been caught when the taxicab I'd called pulled up in front of the home in the predawn darkness and honked loudly. but the guard at the desk remained asleep.

Summoning my strength now, I begin to climb again, taking each painful step one by one. Inside the lobby, the opening gala is already in full swing, clusters of men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns mingling beneath the elaborately painted dome ceiling. Conversations in French bubble around me like a long-forgotten perfume I am desperate to inhale. Familiar words trickle back, first in a stream then a river, though I've scarcely hear them in half a century."

My Book Review:

Pam Jenoff's The Orphan's Tale is the story of how two women—Astrid, a Jewish circus performer, and Noa, a teenager pregnant with a Nazi soldier’s baby—eventually cross paths and how their lives become entwined.

The beginning chapters and alternating narrators are really captivating, however, the story sacrifices some writing quality whenever it becomes a bit too much like a Hallmark romance/drama which distracts from the gravity and seriousness of the Holocaust backdrop.

Noa's parents kick her out of their house after discovering she is pregnant and when she finds respite in a hospital for teen mothers, she thinks she'll be safe after she delivers her baby. Soon thereafter, however, her baby is taken from her and Noa is left distraught and wandering about a strange town in the middle of winter. When a Nazi train briefly stops nearby, Noa's attention is grabbed by the sound of crying babies. Reaching one of the railway cars, she opens its doors to find the horrific sight of hundreds of stolen, Jewish babies. Crammed, naked, and dying, Noa desperately snatches one of the children and flees, hoping to save both the child and herself in her attempt. When she awakes, Noa finds she has been taken in by a local circus troop, much to the displeasure of Astrid, a famed trapeze performer who has now been tasked with the responsibility of training Noa to perform in a matter of weeks. Like Noa, Astrid has secrets of her own.

The novel's exposition was riveting. However, once Noa settles into life with the circus, her choices repeatedly annoyed me. Astrid's story is compelling, but due to the alternating chapters, the continually focus back on Noa was distracting. The choices she makes to put Astrid's life in danger are beyond frustrating.

The ending was not what I thought it would be and I found it to be a bit too romanticized, though I know there's definitely an audience for this. Overall, it's still a worthwhile book if you’re interested in WWII historical fiction.

February 20, 2019

Book Review: The Hollow by Agatha Christie

The Hollow

by Agatha Christie

Genres: Crime, Mystery
Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 299 pages
Published: August 30, 2011 (Originally published in 1946)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Lady Angkatell, intrigued by the criminal mind, has invited Hercule Poirot to her estate for a weekend house party. The Belgian detective's arrival at the Hollow is met with an elaborate tableau staged for his amusement: a doctor lies in a puddle of red paint, his timid wife stands over his body with a gun while the other guests look suitably shocked.

But this is no charade. The paint is blood and the corpse real!

Christie described this novel as the one 'I had ruined by the introduction of Poirot'" It was first published in 1946 in London. In the USA it was published under the title Murder after Hours. Christie adapted the novel for the stage though with the omission of Hercule Poirot."


"What alchemy there was in human beings."

Alternate cover


"Midge gazed sternly at her. How maddening, how absolutely impossible Lucy was! Really, thought Midge, I don't know why we put up with her!

Yet even as she voiced the thought to herself, she was aware of the answer. Lucy Angkatell was smiling, and as Midgle looked at her, she felt the extraordinary pervasive charme that Lucy had wileded all her life and that even now, at over sixty, had not failed her. Because of it, people all over the owlrd, foreign potentates, ADCs, Government officials, had endured inconvenience, annoyance and bewildernment. It was the childlike pleasure and delight in her own doings that disarmed and nullified criticism....

'About the weekend? Why? What's wrong with it?'

Lady Angkatell sat down on the edge of the bed. It was not, Midge thought, like anyone else sitting on your bed. It was as insubstantial as though a fairy had poised itself there for a minute.

Lady Angkatell stretched out fluttering white hands in a lovely, helpless gesture.

'All the wrong people coming--the wrong people to be together, I mean....'"

My Book Review:

In Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot novel The Hollow, the Angkatell's extended family and a couple close friends gather at their family estate, The Hollow, during a summer holiday. Some come willingly, and others not.

Dr. John Christow is happy to be there with both his wife, Gerda, and his mistress, until the long-lost love of his life appears as well. With all three present, Christow contemplates which of the three women he truly loves most (or at least loves most at the moment). Neighboring private detective, Hercule Poirot, has been invited to the family gathering as well, but arrives to The Hollow just minutes after a murder. It is up to him to piece together the truth behind the murder and the identity of the killer.

As with some Poirot novels, Christie enjoys crafting a lengthy exposition with rising action as introduces readers to her main characters--the assortment of men and women who will compile the possible suspects in the murder. Though this is not an unusual move, it does seem somewhat atypical just how long it takes Poirot to appear in The Hollow--almost halfway through the novel. As explained in the book's summary above, Christie believed she should have completed the novel without her famed, Belgian detective arriving onto the scene at all. As a massive fan of Poirot but a larger fan of Christie herself, she definitely could have made the novel work without him, but it's fine with him arriving on the scene as well. As it stands, Poirot's entrance initiates the path to discovering the truth behind this family's motivations and their untold secrets.

The setting and characters were interesting, but overall the story was not as complicated nor as shocking as it could have been. There were a couple of surprises, but I correctly guessed one of the major plot points; since I'm usually wrong, there was something disappointing in being right, as if Christie should have made the murder plot more difficult to piece together.

November 26, 2018

Book Review: Vactionland by John Hodgman

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

by John Hodgman

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Humor
Publisher: Viking
Length: 272 pages
Published: October 24, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Although his career as a bestselling author and on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart was founded on fake news and invented facts, in 2016 that routine didn't seem as funny to John Hodgman anymore. Everyone is doing it now.

Disarmed of falsehood, he was left only with the awful truth: John Hodgman is an older white male monster with bad facial hair, wandering like a privileged Sasquatch through three wildernesses: the hills of Western Massachusetts where he spent much of his youth; the painful beaches of Maine that want to kill him (and some day will); and the metaphoric haunted forest of middle age that connects them.

Vacationland collects these real life wanderings, and through them you learn of the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, and which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison. There is also some advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Though wildly, Hodgmaniacally funny as usual, it is also a poignant and sincere account of one human facing his forties, those years when men in particular must stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weird dads that they are."


"There are transitions in life whether we want them or not."


"This country is founded on some very noble ideals but also some very big lies. One is that everyone has a fair chance at success. Another is that rich people have to be smart and hardworking or else they wouldn't be rich. Another is that if you're not rich, don't worry about it, because rich people aren't really happy. I am the white male living proof that all of that is garbage. The vast degree to which my mental health improved once I had the smallest measure of economic security immediately unmasked this shameful fiction to me. Money cannot buy happiness, but it buys the conditions for happiness: time, occasional freedom from constantly worry, a moment of breath to plan for the future, and the ability to be generous."

My Book Review:

I had no idea who John Hodgman was when I began listening to the audiobook of this memoir--the cover looked appealing, the book had high reviews, and a copy was immediately available, so I started it. As I listened, I looked him up and the only thing I recognized him from was the old Apple vs. PC commercials where he played the PC guy.

At first I did not know if I was really interested in Hodgman's storytelling. As the memoir progressed, however, he was increasingly candid about his life as an upper-middle-class, privileged white man going through a mid-life crisis. As he opened up and delved deeper, I was more invested in seeing him wade through his privilege, his guilt about his lucky circumstances, and his own mortality. I respected his honesty and and found parts to be humorous, though I was not at all impressed by his tales of drug use nor his obsession with local celebrity and name-dropping.

The memoir is most likable when Hodgman speaks about everyday experiences that most audiences can relate to even if they come from different backgrounds.

November 16, 2018

Book Review: The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

The Indifferent Stars Above:
The Harrowing Story of the Donner Party

by Daniel James Brown

Genres: U.S. History, Nonfiction, Biography
Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 352 pages
Published: April 28, 2009
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Note: Daniel James Brown is the bestselling author of The Boys in the Boat, a 5-star read.

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

Official Book Summary:

"In April of 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of emigrants led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starving and desperate, Sarah and fourteen others set out for California on snowshoes and, over the next thirty-two days, endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.

In this gripping narrative, Daniel James Brown sheds new light on one of the most infamous events in American history. Following every painful footstep of Sarah's journey with the Donner Party, Brown produces a tale both spellbinding and richly informative."


"Aghast at their predicament, Parrado fell to his knees in the snow and took in a staggering realization. Death was the rule, life the exception. Life was at best a transitory dream, set in a universe that was entirely indifferent to his fate. Whether to cling to that fragile dream, Parrado realized then and there, was up to him as it is up to all of us, moment by moment. Whether to embrace what we are all thrust into, squealing with astonishment and rage, or to fall back into the comfortable, dark, quiet realm of the insentient. Nando Parrado decided to fight for the dream. Charles Stanton, it appears, after all his heroic efforts to aid his fellow travelers, had chosen to slip back into the darkness." 

Excerpt (from the Author's Note):

"Even well after the tragedy was over, Sarah Graves's little sister Nancy often burst into tears for no apparent reason. She mystified many of her schoolmates in the new American settlement at the Pueblo de San Jose. One minute she would be fine, running, laughing, and playing on the dusty school ground like any other ten- or eleven-year-old, but then suddenly the next minute she would be sobbing. All of them knew that she had been part of what was then called the 'lamentable Donner party' while coming overland to California in 1846. Recent emigrants themselves, most of them knew, generally, what that meant and sympathized with her for it. But for a long while, none of them knew Nancy's particular, individual secret. That part was just too terrible to tell."

My Book Review:

Very well researched.

I absolutely loved The Boys in the Boat and after reading The Indifferent Stars Above, I feel eager to read most anything Daniel James Brown publishes in the future. Through this book, I learned about not just the Donner party but about the nineteenth-century American backdrop to their tragedy.

The story of the ill-fated pioneers trying to make their way to California says much about the human will to live. Though it is pitched as a biography of just one of the female members of the group, the book is really more of a narrative of all party members. At times it is difficult to keep all of the names straight, but ultimately the book is a shocking, sad, and horrifying account of the winter of 1846-47. It is undeniably depressing and what readers learn about the corrupt business practices that added to the party's ill-advised path and deaths is gut-wrenching.

If you are interested in U.S. history or the Donner party, I recommend Brown's book though it might be too upsetting for some readers.

November 14, 2018

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods:
Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

by Bill Bryson

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Travel, Humor
Publisher: Anchor Books
Length: 397 pages
Published: republished December 26, 2006
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaining guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in)." 


"That's the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it's gone, it's too late to get it back."

Alternate cover


"We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night's snooze--indeed was enjoying a long night's snooze--when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything--through thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight pees--so something big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of undergrowth being disturbed--a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through low foliage--and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.


My Book Review:

This is not only the first Bill Bryson book I have read, it was it was the first time I had heard of him. I know--ridiculous for an avid reader--I am not sure how that happened. I really enjoyed his mix of memoir, dry humor, and research and I look forward to reading more by him.

One day on a bit of a whim, Bill Bryson, an avid traveler and travel writer, decides that now that he's returned to living in the U.S. he'd like to get to know the geography better, and what better way to do it than to hike the entirety of the Appalachian trail. This in and of itself is humorous knowing what a vast undertaking it is and how unprepared Bryson admittedly is to do it. Even funnier, Bryson begs basically everyone around him to considering joining him on the journey to no avail, that is until his equally unprepared frenemy-of-sorts agrees to hike with him and keep him company.

Bryson is very skilled at interweaving the story of his hike with dry humor, history, and a vast amount of research about the Appalachian trail. I thoroughly enjoyed laughing at his stories with him and I learned so much about hiking and this part of the country. I wish I had known about this book before I had read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as this seems to be part of her inspiration. I’d definitely like to read more by him--I am still surprised I had not encountered his books before--and so I am open to recommendations on which of his titles I should try next.