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review 2017-09-14 05:47
The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy
The Soldier's Wife - Margaret Leroy

As World War II draws closer and closer to Guernsey, Vivienne de la Mare knows that there will be sacrifices to be made. Not just for herself, but for her two young daughters and for her mother-in-law, for whom she cares while her husband is away fighting. What she does not expect is that she will fall in love with one of the enigmatic German soldiers who take up residence in the house next door to her home. As their relationship intensifies, so do the pressures on Vivienne. Food and resources grow scant, and the restrictions placed upon the residents of the island grow with each passing week. Though Vivienne knows the perils of her love affair with Gunther, she believes that she can keep their relationship--and her family--safe. But when she becomes aware of the full brutality of the Occupation, she must decide if she is willing to risk her personal happiness for the life of a stranger.





This bit of WW2 fiction opens during the summer of 1940 on the island of Guernsey (Britian's Channel Islands). Vivienne is a mother of 2 girls: one still in her single digit years, one a teen. While Vivienne awaits the return of her soldier husband, she works through each day's hours holding down the homefront --- taking care of her girls, looking after her mother-in-law who seems to be showing early signs of approaching dementia, and squeezing in social visits with her neighbor, Angie. 


The reader learns that Vivienne's marriage is not the romantic image one might initially craft of the patient military wife. Though dutiful in her responsibilities, Vivienne's thoughts give the reader the impression that her marriage might have been one of convenience more than anything else. She admits to feeling little to no passion around her mister and may even have caught him in a moment of infidelity prior to his going off to war. 


Vivienne also reveals that she had opportunity to escape the island prior to the German occupation, but made the choice to ride the situation out, whatever may come. Though her choice doesn't put her in immediate danger, it definitely has its challenges. While it's not all bad -- the Germans bring chocolates and medical care readily available for everyone on the island via Dr. Max Richter, who comes in with the army -- pretty quickly there are new rules. The German army immediate sets up curfews for the Guernsey residents, a rule that proves to be quite a headache for Vivienne one night when one of her daughters goes missing.


Naturally our concerned momma bear shuns the curfew rule for the sake of her child's safety. Vivienne suffers a mild reprimand for her actions, but the whole incident leads to an introduction between her and Captain Gunther Lehmann of the German Army, a meeting which, over time, leads to a relationship (illicit though it may be) that offers Vivienne the kind of affectionate bond she deeply craves. 


Margaret Leroy's writing style itself is quite rich and beautiful here, it's just the plot itself I found a little on the bland side. There were certainly moments that had a strong pull on me -- particularly one moment near the end that's full of tension & sadness -- I just didn't experience that pull all the way through. Though I did finish the novel, I was hoping for some stronger intensity between some of the characters.  The major strength of The Soldier's Wife is its unique perspective on the challenges people of the era might have had to work around. The kitchen descriptions especially stuck with me: having to make meal after meal out of little more than parsnips (because, at times, that may be all that was available) or trying to brew coffee with a brass can oil lamp!


Another important takeaway that can resonate with today's readers is the transformation with the maturity level of some of the characters. The early chapters introduce us to certain British citizens soured by bad experiences involving a few German soldiers, which leads to a "one bad German = all Germans are bad" mindset already brewing at story's start. But time proves to these characters that such thinking is, in fact, toxic and that the poor choices of one should not unfairly condemn a race / nationality as a whole. 



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review 2017-04-16 12:18
The Angels' Share by James Markert
The Angels' Share - James Markert

Now that Prohibition has ended, what the townspeople of Twisted Tree, Kentucky, need most is the revival of the Old Sam Bourbon distillery. But William McFee knows it’ll take a miracle to convince his father, Barley, to once more fill his family’s aging house with barrels full of bourbon. When a drifter recently buried near the distillery begins to draw crowds of pilgrims, the McFees are dubious. Yet miracles seem to come to those who once interacted with the deceased and to those now praying at his grave. As people descend on the town to visit the “Potter’s Field Christ,” William seeks to find the connection between the tragic death of his younger brother and the mysterious drifter. But as news spreads about the miracles at the potter’s field, the publicity threatens to bring the depth of Barley’s secret past to light and put the entire McFee family in jeopardy. The Angels’ Share is a story of fathers and sons, of young romance, of revenge and redemption, and of the mystery of miracles.





It's post-Prohibition in Twisted Tree, Kentucky. William McFee, an aspiring journalist, is feeling a little stagnant with his writing lately and is just itching to get to work rebooting the McFee family's distillery business. William's father, Barley, doesn't exactly share his eldest son's level of enthusiasm, but still allows William to go forward with the reboot to see what might come of it. All William is certain of is that the family desperately needs a new, healthier direction to move toward. 


Barley is tough on William, referring to him as "a daisy" (a sentiment echoed by William's brother, Johnny) -- weak-natured, prone to panic attacks, preferring to read in the woods rather than hunt. But William doesn't exactly see his father as a role model. Quite the opposite, though he still holds out hope for his father to come around. Already emotionally strained with the difficulties that come along with raising William's physically disabled younger sister, Annie, Barley was left a shell of a man after the death of his son, Henry, from a car crash. Barley was driving the car with Henry as a passenger. Since that day, Barley has largely formed himself into a severely emotionally damaged alcoholic, hesitant to pull himself away from the safe space of his living room recliner. William is forced to watch as over time his parents slowly grow apart and his bonds with his siblings suffer cracks. It's not the life he wants for his family. Before long, just one seemingly insignificant act brings proves to be the impetus that brings about the new life William so desperately craves. 


Behind the family's distillery lies what's known as a "potter's field", a place where poor or homeless deceased with little or no family to claim them can be laid to rest. One such soul is brought to the McFee place. Shortly after the burial is completed, a band of twelve indigent people show up and set up nightly vigils around the plot, even squatting in a portion of the McFee's bourbon rackhouse. These travellers claim that they were followers of the man buried in that grave, a man known as Asher Keating, whom they believed may have actually been the second coming of Christ. William is skeptical. That is, until he sees that his sister Annie's legs seem to naturally free themselves of their crippled state with no immediate explanation. He then starts to suspect that this Asher Keating might have had a connection to the death of William's brother, Henry. 


Soon word travels of the site, bringing more and more people wanting to pray over the grave, needing a miracle. Keating gets dubbed the "Potter's Field Christ". One priest who visits the location even later claims he experienced stigmata upon returning to his church. Once the newspapers start writing of the wonders going on out at the McFee place, patriarch Barley starts to fear the media coverage will begin to swing light on the less noble, long buried secrets of the family's past. When Barley and William decide to team up and travel around to discover what the real story behind Asher Keating was, they discover that even he might have had secrets of his own. They hear plenty tales of Asher using only the laying of his hands on someone to heal depression, consumption (tuberculosis), even blindness. But then there are also accounts of Asher himself battling drug addiction, or even possibly being mentally unhinged or delusional. The McFee men aren't sure what to think, but they can't deny that the lives of so many seem to be changing for the better. It leaves the reader to ponder on the idea that it's not one's past that has to define a soul, only what their heart's true, pure intent is in the here and now. Mistakes of youth or demons of the mind don't have to add up to a life sentence of misery. Every new day presents an opportunity for a clean slate! A realization that comes to Barley almost too late in life, but even he makes his final moments count. 


Personally, I was so pumped to dive into this story. My fella and I travel around the South visiting distilleries as a mutual hobby of ours and I'm well acquainted with the area where this story takes place. Though the town of Twisted Tree itself is ficitonal, there is a brief shout-out given to the very real, very charming town of Bardstown, KY! A beautiful, quaint place to walk around, if you're ever in the area. So yes, right out the gate I would recommend this as a fun read for all the bourbon / whiskey connoisseurs out there.


If you do not consider yourself such, your enjoyment of this story may depend on your sensitivity level as a reader. Though some scenes of violence are depicted, I didn't find much in the way of overtly graphic material in the novel. However, it does touch upon some sensitive topics such as alcoholism, rum-running (bootlegging booze), racism and the KKK, and dealings with the Irish Mob. If this kind of material is of concern to you, you may want to tread carefully and see how you do. Otherwise, The Angels' Share is a quite enjoyable piece of historical fiction with a unique theme that doesn't come up in a ton of novels -- the inner workings of the business of distilling spirits, even the buildings themselves! {I can tell you from experience, standing inside a rackroom, taking in that dusty quiet while you look up at towers of barrels brewing is truly an experience of wonder!} Author James Markert infuses a healthy dose of slang from the era, which gives the whole work a fun, authentic feel that helps immerse the reader into that post-Prohibition time period. 


I also highly recommend reading the author's historical note provided after the close of the novel. Seeing as how the novel is entitled The Angels' Share, I was curious if Markert would likewise mention the flip side of that, what is known as the Devil's Cut. While "angel's share" is explained within the story of the McFees, "devil's cut" is not worked into the novel itself, at least not in the traditional sense. Markert explains that there is a scene within the story that is inspired by the idea of the "devil's cut", but he puts his own unique spin on it. For readers interested in the true history behind the terms, he does provide that in this historical note, along with some notes on "The Golden Age" when, as he says, "there were more bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than people." :-)



FTC Disclaimer: In the case of this title, both TNZ Fiction Guild and BookLookBloggers kindly provided me with complimentary copies of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own. 






"Angels' Share" : The amount of whiskey / bourbon that naturally evaporates from the barrels during the aging process. A portion of the brew evaporates & rises towards the heavens, hence, "angels' share".


"Devil's Cut": The portion of whiskey / bourbon that seeps into the wood of the barrels. Distilleries (namely, Jim Beam) now offer a "devil's cut" strain of their spirits, where they claim they are able to now extract the alcohol that was once considered just a small brewing loss. 



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review 2017-01-02 08:11
City of Thieves
City of Thieves - David Benioff

This is a historical fiction book that takes place during the siege of Leningrad during World War 2. The story follows Lev, a 17 year old Jew who was arrested for looting, and Koyla, a 20-something Russian deserter, on their attempt to find a dozen eggs to be pardoned for their crimes.


Historical fiction isn’t usually my genre especially if it is WW2 related, but I really enjoyed this book and how it looked at things outside of what we talk about during school (somehow my classes decided to ignore Russia when talking about WW2, seriously my history education was lacking). The book is both truly funny and horrifying at the same time. Benioff’s language has a detached quality that allows the reader to fill in a lot of the horror of the situation while giving you the “facts”, he’s telling you the horrible things that are going on but not in a way that is pulling at your heart strings. At the same time you get this strange friendship between Lev and Koyla which is really fun to read.  Also there’s a bad ass lady in here. The reason that this book didn’t get 5 stars from me was that a section of this book got a bit to fictitious and spelled out, which was in contrast to the things I loved about the rest of the book.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-12-28 23:29
The Greatest Gift by Phillip Van Doren Stern
The Greatest Gift: The Original Story That Inspired the Christmas Classic It's a Wonderful Life - Philip Van Doren Stern

For almost seventy years, people the world over have fallen in love with Frank Capra’s classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. But few of those fans know that Capra’s film was based on a short story by author Philip Van Doren Stern, which came to Stern in a dream one night.  Unable at first to find a publisher for his evocative tale about a man named George Pratt who ponders suicide until he receives an opportunity to see what the world would be like without him, Stern ultimately published the story in a small pamphlet and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas card. One of those 200 cards found its way into the hands of Frank Capra, who shared it with Jimmy Stewart, and the film that resulted became the holiday tradition we cherish today.






It's likely that most of us by now have seen the Christmas classic film It's A Wonderful Life at least once by now... but honestly probably multiple times thanks to that copyright loophole that had television stations running it on an almost constant loop for years during the holiday season (that's since been fixed, which is why you don't really see it on tv much anymore). Being a big fan of classic film in general, I remember watching a documentary years ago where the director of the film, Frank Capra, mentioned that the idea came from a Christmas card. Well, I thought he meant someone sent him a Christmas card, and a regular one at that -- you know, the typical snowy scene with a nice 1-2 line sentiment inside. Wrong on both counts it turns, but more on that in a bit.


If by chance you're not familiar with this story, it's a short little tale about a one Mr. George Pratt (changed to Bailey in Capra's film version). George is a good-hearted guy, very selfless nature, always doing everything he can for friends and family even if it means him going without... but during one particularly hard Christmas season where money is unbelievably tight and George feels like he's being crushed by the stress of it all, he in his darkest moment considers what the world would've been like without him altogether. From a place of momentary pain and hopelessness, he makes the wish for this to be so, a wish granted by the angel Clarence. Immediately, George is able to see all the things that would've never come to be had he not been in the world. Through these sights, George is taught the lesson that every soul is important, every soul has a purpose, even if we don't see it right off or if it seems too inconsequential an existence to matter... believe that it does.


That's the basic gist of the story. Now how this story came to be: Well, Van Doren Stern, an editor for a publishing house that printed travel-size books for armed service members, first wrote up the story in 1938 after being inspired by a particularly vivid dream. He tried to sell it for publication, but it seemed at the time no magazine or newspaper offices had any interest in buying it. Van Doren Stern already had some 40 or so books published to his name but they were primarily non-fiction topics. He suspected that maybe he wasn't fluid enough in fiction writing for the story to flow quite the way he intended. His agent theorized that the idea of the story -- an angel temporarily making someone non-existent -- was too fantastical for most markets at that time. Saturday Evening Post rejected it, heck -- Van Doren Stern said he couldn't even sell it to any of the farming magazines! So he stuck the piece away, taking it out every so often to make little revisions here and there. Finally, in 1943, Van Doren Stern decided to pay to have 200 copies of the 24 page printed up. He then sent these out to friends and family as a unique kind of Christmas card that year!


A studio exec at RKO Pictures got ahold of a copy. By March 1944 RKO bought the movie rights to the story. The studio soon ran into trouble though... they found that even with the most skilled writers they had, no one there could quite figure out how to successfully translate the story to screen. Legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra had just gotten back from serving in World War 2, got wind of the story and soon agreed to direct the picture, even taking on the rewriting of the script himself (much to the relief of those RKO execs!). Capra got in touch with old friend Jimmy Stewart (who had been in a few Capra films previously and also newly back from serving in WW2) and quickly got him signed on to play George Bailey. The film was released December 1946 and a classic was born! Eventually.... because the film wasn't a huge box office smash right out of the gate. It took years (and that copyright glitch mentioned above) to build up the audience of beloved fans the film now has today. People became so in love with the film, the original short story has since largely fallen into obscurity! In their later years, Stewart with 70+ movie credits to his name, Capra having written / directed over 50 films himself, both said It's A Wonderful Life was their very favorite film of their careers, Capra even went on to say it was the best film he ever made. 


So how to the film & book compare? Well, there might be a reason the film is more well remembered. I personally found that while the original short story is sweet, I think I am pulled in more by the nostalgia and yearning for simpler times it stirs up rather than the writing itself. It's tough to read that the story went through multiple revisions because even now it's good, but not epic. It's the type of story you might find in an anthology of holiday stories, enjoy in the moment, but then largely forget about. I'd say Capra's interpretation of Van Doren Stern's idea helped keep both versions circulating in the minds of generations of people since the film's release.


While you'll find much of Van Doren Stern's original dialogue worked into the film script and the opening sequence of George saving his drowning brother was kept in the film, there were some notable changes. For one thing, Clarence the angel was much more delightfully memorable in the film. In the book he poses as a random brush salesman, which I found a little odd but as some say, "It was a different time back then." :-P So instead of Zuzu's bell at the end of the film, book Clarence leaves the family one of his brushes... yaaaay. :-S Also changed: the idea of "spinster librarian Mary" from the film was actually "Mary marries one of George's oldest & dearest friends" in the book :-P Mean Old Man Potter, the nasty, manipulative banker that runs Bedford Falls? Not even mean in the book! Nope, he's just a simple photographer in town! Fun fact though: After the movie's release, there were whispers that the film could be interpreted as Communist propaganda because Old Man Potter made bankers look like such an evil sort! 


I'd still recommend checking out the original story if you come across a copy. It's a short little thing so you could probably even read it online for free somewhere. I may not have liked it quite as much as the film but hey, I still gave it four stars for the warm fuzzy holiday factor, that element is definitely there! But this is another one where you're really just doubling up on enjoyment if you experience the story and the film together. 


We may go through some seriously tough times now and then, but as Capra himself said once in an interview shortly before his passing, "It really IS a wonderful life..."


Happy Holidays, everyone! 

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review 2016-12-13 20:42
Child of the River by Irma Joubert
Child of the River - Irma Joubert

A compelling coming of age story with an unlikely and utterly memorable heroine, Child of the River is a timeless tale of heartbreak and triumph set in South Africa at the dawn of apartheid. Persomi is young, white, and poor, born the middle child of illiterate sharecroppers on the prosperous Fourie farm in the South African Bushveld. Persomi’s world is extraordinarily small. She has never been to the local village and spends her days absorbed in the rhythms of the natural world around her, escaping the brutality and squalor of her family home through the newspapers and books passed down to her from the main house and through her walks in the nearby mountains. Persomi’s close relationship with her older brother Gerbrand and her fragile friendship with Boelie Fourie—heir to the Fourie farm and fortune—are her lifeline and her only connection to the outside world. When Gerbrand leaves the farm to fight on the side of the Anglos in WWII and Boelie joins an underground network of Boer nationalists, Persomi’s isolated world is blown wide open. But as her very small world falls apart, bigger dreams become open to her—dreams of an education, a profession, a native country that values justice and equality, and of love. As Persomi navigates the changing world around her—the tragedies of war and the devastating racial strife of her homeland—she finally discovers who she truly is, where she belongs, and why her life—and every life—matters.





**** Heads Up! There May Be Potential Spoilers In The Review Below!! ****



Persomi is the middle child of poor, white, illiterate sharecroppers in South Africa. Finding a love for stories early on in life, Persomi learns to read, losing herself in the books and newspapers she finds in the main house of the farm where her parents work. Persomi also begins to learn something of the rest of the world during tutoring sessions she shares with Irene and Boelie Fourie, the children of the farm owners. While Irene and Persomi have a bit of a grudging acceptance of each other, Irene's brother, Boelie, and Persomi become fast friends in no time. Persomi also has a strong bond with her older brother, Gerbrand. Gerbrand is very protective of his younger sister, especially around the fierce, sometimes explosively violent tempers of their father, Lewies, and their brother, Piet.


That evening Gerbrand said, "Don't slink after me like a sly jackal. If you want to come along, come. If you want to stay, stay. You're a human being with a head on your shoulders, Persomi. It's not just there to keep your ears apart."


Years pass, the children grow up and World War 2 comes to everyone's doorstep. Gerbrand decides to enlist, while Boelie finds himself pulled in the other direction, throwing his hat in with an underground group of Boer nationalists (who were against Africa's involvement in the war). This underground nationalist group participates in some dangerous, extreme methods of protesting, whether it be cutting telephone lines, de-railing trains carrying supplies for soldiers, or blowing up anything that would aid the war effort. Persomi uncomfortably finds herself caught in the middle of the two men she loves most in the world.


As her mind and body mature into that of a young woman, so do her dreams of a proper education, a yearning for a gripping romance that leads to deep love, and a desire to fight for peace, justice and equality for all races / tribes in her little corner of the world. Dedicating herself to her vision, Persomi finds a way to put herself through law school. Thanks in large part to her friendship with Indian merchant (later medical student) Yusuf, Persomi becomes acutely interested in equal rights activism. One college assignment requires her to write a paper on a law either in the works or newly established, so Persomi decides to write something on the Asiatic Land Tenure & Indian Representation Act. She is shocked to discover her professor chooses to grade her lowly for her opinion (which he disagrees with). He even goes so far as to comment that the thoughts she expresses "border on Communism"! Persomi starts to get the impression that lawmakers might be crafting these laws for selfish means, her suspicions fueled by the realization that any argument she makes against these laws gets her the labels of "communist" or "revolutionary".


The days and the weeks and the minutes dropped into a black hole. If she worked hard enough, ran far enough, showered quickly enough, and washed her clothes daily, she didn’t hear the desperate cries of the minutes and the seconds.


But the night became a menace. 


At the bottom of the darkness lay a pain that gripped her, a loneliness that kept her chained to the bottom. Because at night the memories came unbidden. And with the memories came the longing, harsher every time, and more painful.

She had never hurt so much, or been so alone....


She walked slowly to her mountain, to her cave. She knew the way, knew every stone and every tuft of grass and every crevice. 


She had known the cold would come. The cold night was more bearable than the cold fire burning her up from the inside, freezing her. 


She rolled into a ball. Nothing eased the black pain that was everywhere. The broken moon limped through the dark sky. 


Not only that, she also soon finds that the Land Tenure Act, along with the Group Areas Act will prove to be one of the biggest fights of her life. All this right before the idea of apartheid is gearing up to take off. But Persomi won't be silenced. She stands up for what she believes in. She continues to speak out against the utter wrongness of the Acts, which put restrictions on where South African's Asian citizens would be allowed to live or run businesses, regardless of whether they owned the land outright or not. In one instance, when one family protests the Acts (as they are being affected directly) Persomi is the only one willing to argue their case in court, all the while having to dodge Boelie's urgings that she drop the fight (as he's in favor of the segregation; in fact, even Persomi's very best friend, Renier, makes statements that even he would be in favor of black and Indian mine workers being placed in reservation camps!)... the one major hurtle to their friendship they constantly struggle to build a bridge across. This becomes even more the tug-o-war once Boelie is named leader of the National Party.


I do sometimes regret things I've said or done. But more often I've regretted things I didn't say or do."



Author Irma Joubert was a history teacher for 35 years before becoming a novelist and that clearly plays well into her historical fiction books (this being only the second to be released in English, though she is widely published in South Africa and the Netherlands). That said, the war element was more of a background feature in this particular story... at least when compared to The Girl From The Train (her first book released in English, also with a WW2 theme). Though maybe more of a background feature, the war still makes its presence known to these characters. Inspired by true events, the tale Joubert crafts here is one of grit, perseverance, resiliency, and an unshakeable belief in the power of faith and love in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Joubert's way of building her environments creates a lush reading experience, infused with the most tactile sights & sounds -- you can practically smell the grass and mud, feel the wind on your own skin! In this world we meet realistic characters doing their best to push through the most heartbreaking hardships.

When compared to Joubert's earlier release, The Girl From The Train, I noticed not only a similar time frame and a connection to South Africa as the one found in Child of the River, but I also saw some distinct similarities between the relationship seen in Train's two main characters, Gretl & Jacob and that felt between River's Persomi & Boelie. Hard to decide which story I preferred, they were both so good! While I think I savored the physical environment of Child of the River a bit more, I think I favored the relationship of Train's Gretl & Jacob over Persomi & Boelie.


POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: Persomi's father, Lewies, is an alcoholic who beats his wife and older children; it's also hinted that he may have sexually assaulted one of his daughters.


FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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