Tag Archives: historical fiction

#2: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children.  Two charitable institutions, the Children’s Aid Society and later, the Catholic New York Foundling Hospital, endeavored to help these children. The two institutions developed a program that placed homeless, orphaned, and abandoned city children, who numbered an estimated 30,000 in New York City alone in the 1850s, in foster homes throughout the country. The children were transported to their new homes on trains that were labeled “orphan trains” or “baby trains”. This relocation of children ended in the 1920s with the beginning of organized foster care in America.

Thanks, Wikipedia!

Orphan Train

Almost-18 year old Molly Ayer doesn’t have the most awesome life.  She’s been bounced around the foster system for years and her latest placement is falling apart.  A stolen book might be the end of everything.  In need of community service to avoid juvie, she finds herself in an attic.

91 year old Vivian Daly has hung on to much of her life, boxing things up and storing them away.  Coaxed into helping a needy kid, and not knowing that this is community service for a stolen book, she lets Molly into her home.  Molly dreads spending time with the old woman, although does like the idea of organizing and purging decades of memories.

As they go through each box and Molly tries to create some sort of system, it’s clear that Vi has no intention of throwing anything away.  Molly slowly gets Vi to talk about her things, and as the two begin to get comfortable with each other, Vi opens up about her past.

The main story in this book is Vi’s life and there is a lot of criticism from readers that Molly wasn’t needed.  Vi’s story is told in flashbacks while she and Molly go through the attic.  Molly gets her own chapters that mirror some of Vi’s experiences, but the book could have worked with just one of the stories.  Like most people, I was more interested in Vi than Molly, although I did like seeing Molly open up and begin to trust Vi.  She also brings in technology and is able to research Vi’s life.  If this was only Vi’s story, the ending would have been much different.

I really enjoyed Vi’s story.  I didn’t know anything about the Orphan Trains and as she stood and waited for a family to choose her, I had a feeling it was going to end badly.  This is not Anne of Green Gables.  Like Molly, her placements don’t work out.  She is rarely safe, and yet when given the chance, she latches on to hope and works to make her own luck.

I especially liked her story from her late teens into adulthood.  A chance meeting changes everything and happiness and contentment fill the pages.  Of course the reader is also cringing and looking for any signs of foreshadowing while at the same time waiting for the next fight in Molly’s life.

I didn’t love the ending, especially because Molly’s story is sort of abandoned in favor of a nice closure for Vi.  Again, if Molly’s character wasn’t there, this book would have had to end in a very different way.

My main complaint with the book is that no matter how awesome Vi is, I had a hard time believing the strength of her mind and body.  I know that there are a lot of kick ass elders out there, but for a 91 year old woman, she had no problems with speech or sight.  I had a hard time with her picking up a laptop for the first time and being able to navigate the internet so quickly.  Yes, a lot of people’s grandmothers are very computer literate, but it seemed silly.

This is a great introduction to the Orphan Trains.  I want to learn more and I’m fascinated with how people have been able to find friends and family members who they were separated from.  Not all of the kids were orphans and not all of them stayed with their siblings.  There are organizations working to document the passengers and later generations are finding families they never knew about.

I liked this one a lot.  It made for a good book group meeting, especially when discussing if Molly was really necessary.

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#28: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of WondersIt’s 1666 and the plague has come to a Anna Frith’s village.  Until now, Anna’s life has been on a set path.  She grew up with a drunk and abusive father, then became the wife of a miner, then became a widow with two small children.  Had the plague not come, perhaps she would have remarried and had more children.  No surprises, no changes, nothing outside of the norm.

But when the plague does come, Anna finds herself having and wanting to change her life.  Working as a housemaid for the rector and his wife, she sees firsthand the spread of the plague and watches as more and more of the villagers die.  Soon her own house is touched and both her babies die.  No longer having anything to live for, perhaps she would have gone mad or let herself sink until the plague took her as well.  But serving Rector Mompellion and his wife Elinor, her help is needed to tend the villagers in this time of death.

Mr. Mompellion turns to the pulpit, leading his congregation in prayer, trying to find strength in God to see them through the early stages of sickness.  When it becomes impossible to ignore that this is the plague, he again calls up the power of God and tells his people that they can serve as a beacon and example to all men by secluding themselves from outsiders and stopping the spread of the disease to save their neighbors.  While they suffer losses, they will save lives.  The rich escape before the decision is made but those left behind grab on to the ideal that there is a greater good.  Plans are made for supplies to be left at a safe distance so no one will have to leave the boundaries of the village and neighboring areas are happy to keep them fed if it means their own people will be safe.

No one could know how long this self imposed isolation could last, how many people the plague would take, and what would happen to the minds of the survivors.  Anna sees it from many sides.  As a villager, these are her people.  She knows the dead and understand the reactions of the living.  Mr. Mompellion and Elinor are outsiders and can only understand that these people have souls, but can’t fully know who they are as a person.  At the same time, she does see what Mr. Mompellion wants for the village and that he is trying to keep people safe.  He rarely sleeps so he can spend time with the sick and dying.  He promises that no one will die alone and even though it’s making him weak, he travels from house to house tending his flock.  Elinor works in her own ways to help.  She learns more about healing and asks Anna to treat the sick with her.  Anna, knowing she could easily be branded a witch,  at first resists.  She is a servant and does not feel comfortable in Elinor’s company.  She’s also seen first hand what happens to healers when death is inevitable.  When panic and grief set in, friends become strangers and anger turns to madness.  Anna cannot take the chance that she will find herself on the outside.

Still, she respects Elinor and finds herself agreeing that they can help.  While Mr. Mompellion prays and tries to keep the spirit strong, Anna and Elinor do what they can to keep the body healthy.  Anna finds herself acting as midwife and confidant, returning to her cold and empty cottage at the end of the day.  No matter how tired, she doesn’t sleep well knowing that her man and her babies are gone.

As the year drags on, the people begin to lose the sense of community that led them to make the decision to shut their borders.  Neighbors turn on each other.  Men find ways to profit from death.  Ghosts begin whispering and windows, promising cures in exchange for money.  People are angry and scared and watch as the population gets smaller and smaller.

But there are moments of hope and happiness.  Anna and Elinor are able to secure a child’s future by fulfilling her claim on her family’s mine.  Babies are born and survive.  There are moments of peace and calm.  People become ill, but live.  Perhaps they have finally come to the beginning of the end of their exile.

And just as there starts to be glimmers of hope, madness nearly destroys everything.  Faith has grown thin.  In some places connections between villagers has become stronger as they carry the burden together.  In others, people draw inward and know they are the only ones who can save themselves.  People are distrustful.  Nothing makes sense.  Disaster comes to Mr. Mompellion and Elinor.  Anna almost doesn’t survive.

 

I read this book over a week or so, but it’s one I could have read straight through.  So many things happen that it could have become a bunch of tales told not that well, but Brooks is able to keep everything solidly around Anna and it works.  It’s realistic to look at all the places she would be and why so many things would happen.  She’s not just shut up in the rectory’s kitchen.  She’s not just at home alone.  She is tending the sick and trying to help those whose bodies are untouched.  Being Elinor’s servant and then friend, she has access to many different houses.  She sees madness and hope and having all the stories happening makes for a fulfilling book.

I especially liked the ending, although I have read that others did not.  As I said at the start, Anna’s life is not one of change.  She lives in a time where you die where you are born.  You marry young, have babies and work to keep them alive.  You remarry if your man dies and have more babies.  You milk your cow and go to church.  Your path is set.

In one moment, Anna has a chance for something different, and she grabs it.  She could stay who and where and what she is.  She could slip back into her old life.  She could stay in the village and wait for the next husband and the next baby.  But for Anna, she isn’t the same.  Her time in the year of wonders has changed her in too many ways.  She’s no longer a simple servant who falls back on social rules and norms.  She’s seen too much and recognizes her own worth.  She is given an opportunity and knows this is what she is meant to do.  Some would say that this doesn’t fit in with her personality at all and the sudden shift in story is jarring and doesn’t make sense, but that’s the point.  Nothing about the plague makes sense.  Anna knows that she can become something different, so she does.  She’s given a gift and makes it something even better.

There’s a lot in these pages, and I enjoyed the read.  Madness, despair, faith,  sex, murder, hope, agony…  It’s all extremes and it’s very satisfying.

#2: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

KindredI really wanted to like this book.  I was so disappointed.

The plot should have led to an amazing book.  It’s 1976, it’s Dana’s 26th birthday, and things are looking good.  She’s married to a white man named Kevin, they’re in their new home, they’re both ready to write more books, and things are really quite great.

Then she gets dizzy and wakes up near a river where she sees a white boy drowning.  She leaps into the water to save him and is incredibly confused when a she turns and finds a gun pointed in her face with an angry white man yelling at her.

Then she’s on the other side of her living room in her new house.  She’s wet and muddy and Kevin can’t figure out how she got over there.

And here’s the first moment where I thought to myself “Oh no.  This isn’t going to be as great as I want it to be.”

Pretend you see someone pitch over in front of you.  You race over to see what’s wrong, to check if she is breathing, if  you need to call for help, or if she just needs a minute.  Your mind is racing as  you try and figure out what needs to be done.  Then she vanishes.  Then she calls your name and you turn around to find her on the other side of the room, wet and muddy.

I don’t know about you, but my reaction would be something along the lines of

Joaquin-Phoenix_OMG

She was right there!  You had your hands on her, then she DISAPPEARED AND SHOWED UP ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM.

Kevin is confused, but it’s more of a “How in the hell did that happen?” angry puzzlement.  Dana tries to explain that she got dizzy then was in front of a river watching a boy almost drown.  Kevin doesn’t really believe her.

DUDE!  SHE DISAPPEARED AND SHOWED UP ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM.  Ignore the part where she is suddenly wet and muddy.  She was right there, then she was not right there, and now she is over there!  You saw it happen!  Why do you think she’s making it up???

ARGH!

Anyway…

After Kevin tries to convince her it was a hallucination or a dream, she tries to get back to the day.  She’s confused, as one would be if they DISAPPEARED AND SHOWED UP – you know what?  Forget it.  I’m not going to get past this part.

And it happens again.  And again.  And again.

Turns out she’s going back in time to the Southern plantation where her ancestors are from.  The white boy she saved from drowning is Rufus, the plantation owner’s son.  And apparently he’s also her super-great-grandfather.

What in the holy fuck?

No one ever told her that her super-way-back-grandmother Alice Greenwood married a white man. And why is she even here with him?

The second time she appears it’s about five years after Rufus almost drowned.  This time he’s about to burn himself to death while possibly taking down the entire house with him.  Dana puts the fire out and the two of them begin to talk, trying to figure out what’s happening.

The first time Rufus calls her a nigger, she begins to suspect that something terrible is going on.

This time when she returns home to Kevin, she’s covered in blood.

She continues to go back and forth to Rufus.  Each time he’s older and his personality is changing.  She realizes she needs to make sure he has a child with Alice Greenwood or she will no longer exist in California in 1976.

This is why this book should have been awesome.  A modern, strong black woman is going back in time to slavery.  She sees what is happening.  She has to become a slave in order to survive, both in the past and in her present time.  She has to quickly learn the rules to stay safe without giving up on her 1976 self.  It’s confusing and terrifying and had so much potential.

But it didn’t work for me.

It was interesting and heartbreaking to see how Rufus changes from a scared white boy to a cruel slave owner.  Even though Dana is brought there to save him and he knows that they are linked together, he still sees her as his property.  Even worse, he knows that he controls when she comes to him.  Dana becomes more and more trapped and begins to lose her sense of self.

Kevin ends up being pulled into the past with her, and this is where the strongest part of the book happens.  Dana is horrified to see how quickly they both fall into their roles of slavery in the South.  Kevin now owns her and this gives her a sense of freedom because his skin color protects her.  As long as she has a white man to claim her, she can’t be sold.  She sees Kevin slipping into an uneasy comfort as he tries to make things better.  He can’t change society, but he feels like he has a chance to do some good.

I don’t know.  I wanted this book to be so much more.  The idea of a black woman from 1976 being transported back in time to her slavery past was fascinating but it didn’t work for me.  I wish I had written this review soon after finishing the book because I can no longer remember what I wanted the book to be.  Because it was a disappointment, I’ve shrugged it off and forgotten the details that didn’t work.  Part of the problem was that I didn’t really care about anyone.  In order for this story to work, I needed to love these people, and I didn’t.  I don’t know if it became a Tell and not Show situation, but I just didn’t care.

Mostly I was frustrated at how Dana lets Rufus live.  I don’t know if it was because she needed him to get Alice pregnant or what, but it didn’t fit in with her character.  She’d get angry but then… eh.  She’d try and teach him that things would be different, but then… whatever.  She’d feel that she was in danger, but not really because he knew she needed to be kept safe.  The two of them are completely locked together but there’s no sense of balance.  Rufus is able to control her in his time because he’s white, but it felt like an afterthought, which makes zero sense because it’s the entire point of the book.

I don’t know.  I wanted it to be more, and it wasn’t and that was depressing.

 

#42 Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie that you knew wasn’t going to end well, but for some reason you stuck with it?  You had a sinking feeling in your stomach that slowly hardened into a rock and just sat there, pressing down, letting you know that things were not going to be OK at the end.  Bad things were coming.  You know it, but you’re going to stand here and watch.

That’s this entire book.

As soon as I started reading I kept asking myself “Are you sure you want to do this?”  For some reason I decided that yes, I did want to keep reading.  I prepared myself to be shocked, sad and depressed.  I knew before I even finished the introduction to the author and his writings that this was going to be one of those books that you can’t shrug off and walk away from and it was going to leave me physically affected.  I was going to be twitching off the sensation of not wanting to remember.  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien did this to me.  I kept wondering why I was reading the book and I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but the book felt important and I felt like I should know what happened, and that’s why I kept reading Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.

I haven’t even gotten to the part where I talk about the book and my face is already twisted into a grimace of not wanting to think about this anymore.

Here’s Goodread‘s summary:

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids recounts the exploits of 15 teenage reformatory boys evacuated in wartime to a remote mountain village where they are feared and detested by the local peasants. When plague breaks out, the villagers flee, blocking the boys inside the deserted town. Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor is doomed in the face of death and the adult nightmare of war.

I read this and thought Lord of the Flies.  I can handle this.  I read Lord of the Flies.  Once.  In high school.  I don’t remember being freaked the fuck out by it.  I’m debating picking it up now to see if it will wash away the sadness of  Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids  by not being as horrible.

I don’t even know how to review this book.  There are semi-spoilers, but not specifics.

Basically if there’s anything in the book that you like, don’t.  It’s going die, or be killed, or get ruined, or go away.  There is no lasting happiness in this book.  A small event would happen that would be nice and a character would be happy and I would be destroyed because I knew something horrible was on the way.  The youngest, sweetest boy finds and falls in love with a dog.  Yep.  We all know what’s going to happen there.  A girl is left behind in the village with the boys.  Yep.  Although I was pleased that she didn’t get raped to death, so there’s a bonus.  The boys have a small victory by finding food and having a festival?  Yeah, that happiness will be done by the time the sun comes up.

The most painful and beautiful thing about this book is the love the nameless main character has for his little brother.  The narrator is older than most of the boys and is one of two unofficial leaders.  Minami is the other, and he is quickly revealed to be calculating and quick.  He doesn’t care for much other than survival and while he has moments of kindness and fun, you know he’ll drop it in a second if he thinks he can profit from cruelty   With the narrator, you get the sense that he is cold and you know that he has committed crimes because he is part of the reformatory school, yet he doesn’t come across as being as hard as Minami.  We see him cradle his little brother when he sleeps and tries to protect him from being cold and scared.  His brother is able to keep a piece of innocence even though he is surrounded by war and violence and the criminal boys.  The younger brother is not part of these boys.  When his father found out that they were being evacuated, he dropped the boy off, figuring he would be better provided for.  He is excited and enthralled by their tales, seeing them as daring creatures and not understanding the danger.

When the plague hits and the boys are left behind, Goodreads lies.  “Their brief attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love, and tribal valor” doesn’t happen.  They realize they are alone, they are pissed, and they break into all the houses to wreck things in their anger.  They don’t put anyone in charge, although they do listen to the narrator when he tries to organize things.  They eat and wander around and are bored.  There is no plan to create some sort of society.  They just kick around and wonder if the adults will come back.

I wonder what would happen if the adults hadn’t come back.  A Korean boy who was also left behind joins the group and teaches them how to hunt for birds and there was some food left behind, but there are no long term plans.  When people start to get sick, the boys panic.  Minami quickly moves into survival mode and will do anything to protect himself.  He works to gain the support from other boys, although I’m sure he’d easily knock them aside if he needed to.  If the narrator didn’t have his brother, he’d probably be the same way.  Minami is a great mirror character for him and I’m curious what this book would be if it was told from Minami’s point of view.

In the end, the adults do come back.  And of course they bring their power and their rules to these boys that they detest and were forced to take in.  They crush any semblance of independence they have created and the boys are immediately placed back into their powerless, outsider roles.

This brings us to the central question of this book: What would you do for the greater good?  For Minami, it’s about survival.  Will he stay independent if he thinks it will lead to escape and freedom, or will he stay put knowing he has a sense of power over the other boys?  Will the narrator fight for himself and his brother?  If you know that you will be defeated, is it better to fight and be knocked down, or to be silent and safe?  The villagers have no connection to these boys at all.  They could easily kill all of them, although they do fear the government and they soldiers who will return to check on them, but will they kill a boy or two if it means protecting their own families and friends?

Part of me wishes I hadn’t read this because it’s so horrible, but at the same time I’m glad I did because it is so powerful.  Having the story told through the boys gives it this sense of innocence even though they are anything but.  There are a lot of penises getting waved around.  But they are boys and this makes them powerless when adults are around.  But the adults are powerless when the soldiers are around.  And the soldiers are powerless when there is war.  People latch onto whatever is going to give them comfort or a sense of control, even if it means others are killed.  Will people protect a group, or will they kill everything if it means they individually get to live?

Having the introduction to Ōe, his life, and his writing was incredibly helpful.  I didn’t know anything about him, and reading this made me understand the story.  I think that’s the reason why I stuck with it and didn’t immediately return it to the library when I realized how ugly it was going to be.  It was truth, it was his truth and I felt by reading it, I was honoring it.

I don’t know who I would recommend this book to.  In a way, I don’t want people to read it because it’s so harsh, but at the same time, it should be read.  Just don’t pick it up if you’re feeling emotionally fragile.

#36: The Birth House by Ami McKay

I was mad for so much of this book, but this means that I cared.  You can’t get mad about something if you don’t think it matters.

Dora Rare is seventeen and living in a remote town in Nova Scotia at the start of World War I.  She’s the first daughter to be born in many generations of Rares, so right away she’s got a strike against her.  She doesn’t fit in and she’s not sure what she should be doing with herself.  Lucky for her, she has Miss B.

Miss B has been the village’s midwife for a long time and caught Dora when she was born.  She’s brilliant when it comes to women’s health needs and can tell  by looking at a swollen belly or a puffy face if something isn’t right.  She knows the prayers to chant, the herbs to mix and the music to set those babies right and calm the mommas down.  She’s an angel.  And when she’s not needed, she’s a witch.  Dora, too, is labeled as a witch as a young girl simply because she was born a girl and doesn’t really belong anywhere.  And now that she’s spending so much time with Miss B, she’s becoming Super Witch.

Dora isn’t sure what she wants and when Miss B tells her she’s destined to take over the business of catching babies, she panics.  She’s too insignificant to be trusted with so much knowledge and with the lives of the town’s babies and women.

She loves Miss B and humors her by staying close and learning.  She decides not to decide and convinces herself that Miss B will live for a good long time and she won’t have to make a decision either way.

And then there’s Dr. Thomas.  Sure, lots of scientific advancements were happening all over the place and doctors were starting to better understand the inner workings of  the human body, but there was the whole problem of What In The Hell Is A Woman?  Clearly there is something wrong with us even under the best of circumstances.  Our wombs are made to bear children, so if you’re not pregnant, then you’re off balance.  But if you are pregnant you’re in a delicate mental state, but if you’re coddled, it’s just going to prove to you that you can boss your husband around.  Morning sickness?  You’re faking it to gain sympathy.  Can’t get pregnant?  You need to sit quietly and eat bread.

The most important thing to understand is that every emotion you’re feeling is a problem and can be cured.  And the way it can be cured is to let men tell you what to do, how to act, the proper way to respond, and make sure you’re maintaining the balance of life and your body by doing everything they say.  Or just stay out of the way and don’t let anyone notice you.  Make sure you’re pregnant.

Oh, and also?  Vibrators.

Man, things were bonkers in this crazy time of yesteryear!  Women were warned not to masturbate or terrible things would befall them.  You’ll start to pee yourself.  You’ll go blind.  Your voice won’t sound sweet.  You’ll become paralyzed.  You’ll morph into some fucked up creature that’s neither male or female.  It’s just not cool to touch yourself.

Now, if you’ll jump up here on the table and let me under your skirts, I’ll  pop in this vibrator and shake your womb clean!  Yep, huff and puff and soon you’ll be pregnant.  But this is not sexual at all.

So… we have this whole aspect of the insanity of women’s healthcare.  Wait, is this a present time book?  No?  So we’ve got all this shit sorted out and men understand how women’s bodies work and aren’t trying to control them or make policy on what can happen in regards to them?  Yes?  That has happened now?  Excellent.

On top of Dora not fitting in anywhere, not being trusted by the townsfolk, being accused of being a witch, and wanting to spend time with Miss B, our friend Dr. Thomas is doing everything he can to shut midwifery down and start the business of making money off of babies.  He’s running the brand new clinic in the big town and makes sure the men in all the nearby villages know that the true test of manhood is to be able to pay for your wife to get knocked the fuck out in the hospital and have her baby in comfort.  Sure, she’s going to be all sorts of wrecked on morphine and chloroform and your kid’s head is going to be gross and dented from being yanked out by forceps, but buddy, all this happened in a hospital and you paid for it!  Sure, Miss B doesn’t take a penny for her services and you might have dropped off a sack of potatoes or something, but this?  This is modern medicine!

Miss B is furious.  She plans on being there for any woman that needs her at any time and no doctor or law is going to make her stop.  Dora is also angry, but she’s also scared.  She knows the power men have and she sees them working with the respectable ladies in town to turn everyone against Miss B.  Before people might pretend not to notice when she was around, but now they are actively working against her and making sure everyone knows it’s illegal not to get medical help during a birth.

Oh, and on top of this?  Dora is going to get married.  I’m still not sure how that happened, but apparently the rich lady in town decided she was the perfect match for her son, so off they go to the altar.  Before that happens though, Archer, her husband to be, is going to humiliate her every chance he gets so she can prove that she is worthy of him by taking it.  Wait, what?  No, it makes sense when Dora explains it.  Seriously.

OK, so then a bunch of bad stuff happens, things get worse for Dora, things get REALLY worse for Dora, and then some cool things happen and then there’s a happy ending.

I did like the book a lot even if I was often arguing with myself by trying to figure out how I would have felt if I was me but born then, and how people who actually lived during this felt.  Someone in my book group made the obvious but smart statement that as soon as an author starts to write historical fiction, his or her spin is immediately all over the page.  You can’t be sympathetic to a character in your book without taking a stand.  And I don’t want a non-fiction account of what was happening.  I want feelings and emotions.  How female of me.

There were a few parts that felt a little forced, but I really liked the supporting cast of characters, so I was willing to accept the travels.

But man… the men in this book?  Holy cow do they not come off well.  Luckily there’s a few to try to tip the scales, but overall?  What a bunch of dicks!

I had already planned on watching the movie Hysteria because I am fascinated by the medicine of vibrators during a time of no touching of the no-no parts, and after reading this I’m even more interested in it.  When a woman is sent to the doctor to be calmed down with a vibrator, I’d like to know more about how that happened.

#18: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I adored this book.  It was romantic in all sorts of ways and it made me want to reread all of the Anne of Green Gables books.

It is written as a series of letters and telegrams sent by and to Juliet Ashton.  Juliet is writer living in London shortly after WWII.  During the war she wrote a lighthearted column under a pseudonym to try and keep spirits up while the bombs fell.  Her editor has sent her on a book tour for the collected columns.  Juliet is exhausted and depressed from representing the humorous Izzy Bickerstaff because people are trying to rebuild their lives and now that the threat of war is over, they find they have to deal with the aftermath which is somehow more depressing and stressful.  Juliet wants to get back to a serious topic that will reflect the hopelessness of the war but turn into a hopeful look at what comes next.  She has zero ideas.

She receives a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams who is from the island of Guernsey.  Dawsey found her name in a used book and writes to her in the hopes she can send them more books.  Juliet knows nothing about Guernsey, but as the book continues she learns that the Germans occupied the island during the war.  They stay there for five years, controlling the islanders’ lives, taking over property, requisitioning food and supplies and holding the people in a war hostage situation.

However, residents are able to find moments of hope and lightness and one way is through the Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Members of the Society meet to discuss books and share whatever food they are able to scrape up, hence the potato peel pie.  It’s an odd mix of people, thrown together by circumstance, but the final members end up helping each other in many ways.  Dawsey in particular becomes more confident and comfortable because of this group.  One of the things I liked about the Society is that anyone can join and many of the members swear they don’t like reading.  However, everyone is able to find at least one book or author they like and even if they reread the same thing every month, they find they are enjoying the Society and the act of reading and discussing books.  This made me incredibly happy because no one was excluded and there was no thoughts that some books were better than others.

Their founding member is a woman named Elizabeth McKenna and no one knows where she is now.  During the war she was caught aiding a Todt slave worker and was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  The members of the Society have taken turns raising her daughter Kit and wait anxiously for her return.  Elizabeth fell in love with a German soldier, much to the disgust of many on the island, and Kit is born out of wedlock.  Her father is dead but Kit is well loved and cared for.  She is one of the few children left on the island because most were shipped to safety when the Germans came.  Many children were never reunited with their families.

As Juliet gets to know the members of the Society (almost all of them are soon writing to her) she finds herself even more eager to write a serious book, but still can’t figure out what the topic will be.

She’s also dealing with a confusing romance.  Mark Reynolds is a publisher from America and decides to marry Juliet soon after meeting her.  Sidney Stark, Juliet’s current publisher and very good friend, is convinced that Mark is simply trying to steal her away from him knowing that she is a very good writer and has the potential to publish wildly successful books.  Juliet does get swept up in Mark’s good looks, confidence and money, and yet she doesn’t seem to fall head over heels for him.

As letters continue to pass back and forth, Juliet finds herself more and more curious about Guernsey and the members of the Society.  She becomes quick friends with many of them, and when they invite her to the island she is eager to go.  When she arrives, everything changes.  She finds the topic of her book and with Sidney’s help, she finds the structure and form.  She learns more and more about the island and is disappointed in herself that she knows so little of what happened outside of London during the war.

She also surprises herself by questioning what she really wants from life and asking herself for the first time who she is now that the war is over.  Everything she assumed would happen isn’t happening and Guernsey, the Society, and little Kit force her to slow down, catch her breath and examine who she is and who she wants to be.

I was pleased with the sweet ending.  Many things happened that I was hoping for, but it didn’t feel syrupy and rainbows.  Maybe that’s because I so quickly realized this book is kin to Anne of Green Gables.  If you miss Anne, pick this book up.

The supporting characters are another delight.  Their personalities are often hilarious (especially the people who are serious) and the stories they tell are wonderful.  The sad parts hurt more because you learn so much about them, and this makes the hopeful moments even stronger.  You want these people to be real, much like I wanted Anne Shirley and her friends to be real.

I also enjoyed it as historical fiction because I didn’t know anything about Guernsey.  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows did a lot of research to bring fictional character to life in this non-fictional setting.  After reading the note at the end about why there are two authors, I loved this book a little bit more.

I’m curious to see how the movie adaptation will work since the entire book is told in letters, but I think it will be an easy adaptation.  I love Kate Winslet and look forward to seeing her as Juliet.

2011: The Review

The fact that I’m sitting down on January 31, 2012 to type up my 2011 review sort of sums up the review…  I did not meet my goal of 52 books.  I was very surprised by this because I assumed I read this much by the middle of each year easily.  Clearly I spend more time watching TV, playing video games (Skyrim owns my soul right now), and letting my iPhone own my life than I realized.

Here are the books I finished last year but did not review, so they did not make it into the CBRIII countdown:

#38: The Nerdist Way: How to Reach the Next Level (In Real Life) by Chris Hardwick

This is a self-help book. I had thought it was a memoir and would have been really disappointed if I didn’t find out it was a self-help book before I got it.  Like any self-help book, there’s stuff in here that is outstanding and there’s stuff in here that made me roll my eyes.  I do like that he framed skills to fit the nerdist mind and I could relate to the negative mindset, but parts of it didn’t work for me.  I think any self-help book is like that though.  I don’t know what I would have thought of this book if I wasn’t a huge fan of Hardwick and the Nerdist podcast.

#39: The Fairy-Tale Detectives (The Sisters Grimm #1) by Michael Buckley

Super cute!  Sabrina and Daphne Grimm have been living in an orphanage and shuffled around from family to family.  The grandmother, who they were told is dead, shows up to claim them and things start to get more and more confusing for the two girls.  Granny Relda calmly explains that fairy tales are real, they’re all related to the famous Brothers Grimm and it’s up to them to solve crimes in their town and keep all the characters in line. 

I would have LOVED this book and probably the entire series as a young’un because the book was massive and had chapters.  I can see a lot of hardcore young readers tearing these up. 

#40: Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch

Another memoir in my quest to live vicariously through others.  This was a great look at Lynch growing up knowing to her very core that she was going to be a star and how she navigated her way and did it.  There’s a lot of interesting things about her improv work and I was really interested in the terrifying exhilaration of working on a Christopher Guest creation.  She talks about how she realized her drinking was becoming a problem and even if she didn’t have some fantastic rock bottom story, it was time to let it go. 

She developed an incredibly mean streak for herself and had a long running, critical, judgemental voice running over and over through her mind.  In her early thirties she was finally able to embrace her sexuality, come out to her parents, stop drinking, and tackle that inner Sue Sylvester.

She comes across as very honest and open in this book and it’s awesome to see her success, not only with acting but with her wife and wife’s daughter.  It’s awesome when there are happy accidents.

#41: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I loved this. 

I didn’t know it was YA until after I started it, but I would have grabbed it anyway.  It’s super creepy and original and I could not figure out what in the hell was happening. 

Did I mention it’s creepy?

The ending was great and set up the next book.  I wasn’t expecting a series, but I’m really happy it’s in the works because there is a lot that can be done with this.

The pictures make this book work.  So, so creepy.

#42: The Gluten-Free Bible: The Thoroughly Indispensable Guide to Negotiating Life without Wheat by Jax Peters Lowell

Yuck.

There were really helpful sections of this book where the author sticks purely to the facts.  The sections on gluten free grains and flours is outstanding.  She knows what she’s talking about.

However…

There is a lot in this book where she speaks in universal statements that are simply not true and incredibly off-putting if this is not your experience and reality.  She often reminds you about how bad you felt when you kept losing all that weight and didn’t know why.  Remember when your bones stuck out?  Remember when you were so very skinny?  Yeah, that doesn’t always happen.

She also gives tips that work for her and she assumes that everyone will be comfortable and on board.  She talks about how she understands that at first you won’t be comfortable going into a kitchen in a restaurant to read all the labels and make sure the cooks are using clean pots and pans and cleaning off the grill if needed.  Since you won’t feel comfortable doing that right away, just bring your own food and have them cook that.  In clean pots and pans and on a cleaned grill if needed.  WHAT??!?!  Yeah, because that’s totally a comfortable moment!

The part that made me put down the book and groan in pain was when she got to the affirmations.  Yes, I understand the power of positive thinking and I agree that it is important.  However, I am not going to suggest to my newly diagnosed Celiac husband that he walk up and down the bread aisle in the supermarket whispering “You will no longer hurt me.”

I’m sure some people adore this book.  They will love her attitude and find her tips work for their personality.  I am not one of them.

It’s great for the facts, but for me, the tips and behavior suggestions were so alien that they almost negated everything else.

#43: Missy by Chris Hannan

I grabbed this one off the shelf knowing nothing about it. 

Opium addicted, prostitute Dol follows the silver boom miners looking to make money and have a fabulous time.  Nearly permanently gonged out on missy, she wanders aimlessly from party to party and her next dose.  She stumbles upon a violent pimp and his huge stash of missy, steals it, and then must figure out how to get rid of it  before the original owners kill her and everyone she knows.

While all of this is happening, her band of flash-girl friends is falling apart.  Some are killing themselves, some are trying to get out of the business.  On top of everything, Dol’s mom flits in and out of her life.

I almost abandoned this book several times.  I didn’t care about Dol.  Her character was static to the point of being infuriating.  Her friend Ness is done with the life and wants to be a respectable business owner.  She desperately tries to get Dol to come with her, but Dol keeps leading her on and using Ness’ own hopes to fund her missy addiction.  The other flash-girls had no personalities other than what was laid out in the original descriptions.

Dol’s mom was interesting in her desperation.  She’s been in the game too long but knows no other life.  It was incredibly depressing watching her fall apart while maintaining a false ideal of being glamorous and better than anyone else.  Even sadder was Dol’s ongoing attempts to win her mother’s respect and love, or at the least get some any type of attention from her.

I did like the end of the book.  Dol has a great moment of introspection and it changes everything.  I thought it would come sooner and even though I wasn’t too attached to the book, it was incredibly satisfying when it happened. 

#44: The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson

More Chick Lit.  This one follows some of the major Chick Lit themes: cancer, sisters, relationships, career, kids, marriage…

There were some clichéd themes, but they often work in Chick Lit, so I only roll my eyes when they aren’t well written.

I liked the structure of this one.  The entire book is told through emails, faxes, letters and other written correspondence from Olivia.  She’s a super powerful Hollywood exec and is infuriated and befuddled by her wide-eyed small town little sister.

Her letters capture their fights and Olivia’s frustrations with love and work.  And then Maddie gets cancer and things change.

One of the things I really liked about this book is that things don’t get all syrupy sweet and perfect once Maddie gets sick.  Family issues are still there and the same fights continue to happen.  Even while the family pulls together, they still push each other’s buttons and push each other away.

It was also really entertaining to see the different sides of Olivia.  You’d see a professional fax she sends to a coworker followed by a pissed off email to a friend followed by a venting, desperate letter to a different friend all covering the same material.  I liked how Robinson captured this truth and show how we all have different voices depending on who our audience is.

There were a few sort of throwaway moments where Robinson slips in some Hollywood fame.  There’s one crazy scene where Olivia describes a date that is completely surreal and ends with the unnamed actor playing the banjo.  Steve Martin, perhaps? 

Robinson is a real-life Hollywood producer, so it’s no surprise that these sections of Olivia’s life are so well written.  Mixed with Maddie’s cancer and family drama, it made for a good read.

***

And there we go!  The 44 books of 2011.  I think there were a few more in there that I started and didn’t finish and maybe a re-read, but these are the ones that made the list.  A mere 8 books more and I would have met my CBRIII goal.

It’s going to happen in 2012 though.  I WILL DESTROY THOSE BOOKS IN THE FACE!