Review: In Farleigh Field, by Rhys Bowen

In Farleigh FieldIn Farleigh Field by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘In Farleigh Field’ tells the story of several characters in England in the midst of WWII. As the brutal war continues in Europe, each member of a group of friends plays a pivotal role in the war effort, while remaining largely unaware of the role that each of them are playing. Friendships are tested. Emotions and betrayals run deep. Many hard lessons are learned.

Of all the characters, Ben and Pamela were my favorites. Ben was the “nice guy” that is friend-zoned. He has always loved Pamela, but his affections have always taken a back seat to his friendship with Pamela and Jeremy. The three of them grew up together and Jeremy always seems to outshine Ben. He is the war hero. He has Pamela’s love. Ben is relegated to the role of dutiful friend.

It would be easy to hate Pamela in many ways. She was pretty oblivious to Ben’s feelings for most of the book. She couldn’t see past Jeremy’s handsome face and his cocky demeanor. Many would argue that she was naïve, but I would argue that she made a conscious decision to remain blissfully unaware. She didn’t want to believe what was right in front of her face and she chose to lie to herself rather than deal with the disappointment of facing reality.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t hate her. She was not a bad person. She was just living in a fantasy world. If anything, I felt bad for her. I knew that her illusions of a perfect life with Jeremy would eventually be shattered, but I knew that I would feel no joy when it happened.

Jeremy was easy to hate. He was just too “perfect” from the start, while it was clear that he was anything but. Despite being a war hero that returns home following a miraculous escape from a German prison camp, I couldn’t bring myself to like him.

The guy was a jackass. He was inconsiderate, self-absorbed and manipulative. He showed little regard for Pamela, right from the start, even as she fawned all over him. It was clear that he didn’t care for her in the same way, but he continued to string her along. He clearly knew that Ben did care for her and he enjoyed flaunting her in front of his supposed “best friend”. Hands-down, he was a jerk.

When Pamela’s youngest sister, Phoebe, discovers the body of a suspected spy on the family estate, it sets off a chain of events. Suspicions mount in the community as speculation goes wild. Each working in secret, Pamela and Ben try to get to the bottom of the mysterious soldier’s identity and why he was found where he was. Who was he trying to contact? Is there a traitor in their midst?

Things continue to heat up as the fear of a German invasion increases. Meanwhile, there are several personal battles going on. Emotions run high and betrayals run deep.

While there were several twists and turns along the way, I can’t say that I was particularly surprised by most of the revelations. I never experienced a moment when I was shocked or really felt blindsided. I was somewhat appalled by some of the events that came to pass, but they weren’t really unexpected. Instead, they served only to confirm what I already knew.

Unfortunately, I never felt a strong connection to any of the characters. I really liked Ben and Pamela, but my feelings never went beyond “like”. Accordingly, I wasn’t particularly invested in their lives or the outcome of the story.

All things considered, this story was kind of bland. It was “okay”, but I didn’t ever feel a strong connection to the storyline or the characters. There were some interesting tidbits along the way, but it wasn’t a particularly compelling read for me. I need more emotion in my reads. This one felt a bit “frigid” for lack of a better descriptor.

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Review: Lone Star, by Paullina Simons

Lone StarLone Star by Paullina Simons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Lone Star’ is a beautiful coming of age story, brought to us by the same author that gave us ‘The Bronze Horseman’. It tells the story of a group of teenaged friends from Maine that set out on a European adventure before they begin college. I enjoyed this story immensely.

However, I couldn’t help but to keep comparing it to Ms. Simons’ better-know work, ‘The Bronze Horseman’. In contrast to that epic story, ‘Lone Star’ fell noticeably short, despite being great in and of it’s own accord. In so many ways, it isn’t a fair comparison to make. They are different types of stories and, let’s face it, not many books will ever measure up to the greatness of ‘The Bronze Horseman’ in my mind. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but to compare them.

That being said, I loved the way that Ms. Simons was able to capture the essence of youth in this story. More often than not, I find that teenagers are either portrayed as mini-adults or pre-teens. Accurately capturing the behaviors and emotions of this age group seems to be particularly challenging for many authors. This is probably because their emotions and maturity levels are all over the place. Regardless, I thought that Ms. Simons did a great job of selling these characters as believable teenagers. The one exception to that would be Johnny Rainbow, which I’ll get to later.

Told from multiple points of view, this story follows Chloe, her best friend, Hannah, and their boyfriends as they travel eastern Europe. Barcelona is their destination, but to gain permission to go on this trip of a lifetime, Chloe had to agree to a few conditions set by her grandmother. She must lay flowers on the grave of her grandmother’s one-time lover, who was murdered by the Nazis in WWII.

Along the way, the four meet another young American traveler. Johnny Rainbow is an incredibly charming young man that seems to be an expert on getting around Europe. He repeatedly crosses paths with the other young travelers and insinuates himself into their group. It was clear that he had eyes for Chloe. The only person that seemed unaware of this was Chloe’s oblivious boyfriend, Mason.

Johnny was a pivotal character in this story. I always had a strong distrust for him, even as he seemed to do everything perfect. In fact, that was probably it. He was just too damn perfect. Like me, Blake was suspicious of Mr. Perfect right from the start.

Aside from his overwhelming charm and charisma, I had a hard time believing that he had done everything that the author would have us believe. At nineteen, he had traveled Europe, making connections virtually everywhere that they were going. He had also been accepted to some very prestigious schools, and promptly been kicked out. He had a band and performed in the US. He was a street performer and a tour guide. Whatever the topic may be, Johnny was an expert on it. Want to go somewhere? He’s already been. Etc., etc. I just found him to be a little too accomplished for a nineteen year-old boy.

Despite not buying into Johnny completely, I still found myself lost in this story. I loved Chloe and as she began to fall for Johnny, I fell for him also. Their story was reminiscent of naiveté, youth and summer flings. It was sweet and innocent and earth-shattering all at the same time.

Meanwhile, I loved Blake also. While I can’t say that I ever grew especially attached to Mason or Hannah, I adored Blake. He was always the steady friend that could be counted on. He was kind and responsible, even while being taken for granted.

When their trip ends, the relationships between these friends are forever altered. Some will grow closer. Some will grow apart. Hearts will be broken. I even cried.

The ending is not necessarily the way that I had envisioned, but I thought it was fitting. In fact, I’d say that it worked out perfectly. Sure, it was kind of sad…but it was kind of beautiful also. I especially liked the tie-in to the characters from ‘The Bronze Horseman’ at the end. That was a really nice touch.

Overall, I thought that this was a fantastic love story. It was sweet and incredibly touching. It may not be the huge, epic romance that ‘The Bronze Horseman’ is, but it is still a wonderful story.

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Review: Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the SeaSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before starting ‘Salt to the Sea’, I had heard quite a lot of praise for the book. In fact, I was a little nervous to start it because I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to it’s reputation. Thankfully, that didn’t prove to be the case. This book was beautiful, devastatingly so.

Ms. Sepetys does a wonderful job of shedding light on the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a maritime disaster that claimed more than 9,000 lives and remains an overlooked part of history. Admittedly, I had never heard of this disaster until reading this book. Perhaps this is the result of a world that was less than sympathetic to German pain and loss following the end of WWII and the unveiling of the Nazi atrocities. Whatever the reason, I am glad that Ms. Sepetys brought this piece of history into the light. This story needed to be told.

Weaving fact and fiction together seamlessly, the author tells the story of a group of WWII refugees trying to flee as the Russian troops gain ground toward the end of WWII. Told in alternating POVs, this book reveals a human side of war. Everybody seems to have something to hide and a different motivation for their actions. Above all else, this story highlights the fight to survive.

Most noticeable in this cast of characters are: Joana, the Lithuanian nurse; Emilia, a young Polish girl; Florian, Emilia’s mysterious rescuer; and Alfred, a young German soldier. There is a full cast of supporting characters as well, such as the shoemaker, that contribute to the richness of this story. Each play a significant role in making this a robust reading experience.

I don’t want to spoil this story for anyone. Obviously, the ship sinks. However, I won’t say much else about the storyline because I think this is a story worth experiencing.

This isn’t a rainbows and unicorns type of story. It is real and moving. At times painful, this book highlights the depths of human depravity, as well as the incredible kindness that people are capable of. This is a story of tragedy and survival. It was raw, gritty and inspiring. I enjoyed this story quite a bit and would recommend it without reservations to anyone that is looking for a good, historical fiction that addresses a lesser-known part of WWII history.

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Review: The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story (Wonder, #1.5), by R. J. Palacio

The Julian Chapter: A Wonder StoryThe Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved ‘Wonder’ and think that everyone should read/listen to it at least once. However, with all of the different viewpoints offered, I felt like one of the most important POVs had been skipped. As much as I detested Julian in ‘Wonder’, I really wanted to know exactly what made him such a mean kid. How does a child learn to behave so hatefully?

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person that felt that Julian’s POV was needed. Immediately upon finishing ‘Wonder’, I went in search of Julian’s POV and I lucked out. The author wrote a separate short story to tell Julian’s side of the story. Of course, I dived right into Julian’s story right away and it proved to be a great decision.

I have to admit that as much as I wanted to hear Julian’s side of events and learn about what motivated him, I was a bit hesitant. Julian was a character that made me feel anger and rage at his actions. I had to keep reminding myself while reading ‘Wonder’ that he was just a child and that he probably didn’t fully grasp the impact of his words. Starting this book, I was worried that I wouldn’t find any redeeming qualities in Julian and that I would spend hours being upset by his callous behavior. Thankfully, my fears were unwarranted.

‘The Julian Chapter: A Wonder Story’ takes place toward the end of the school year and the following summer. It begins when Julian is caught leaving mean notes for Auggie and Jack in their lockers. The Principal and school counselor are tipped off and are able to intervene, finding an especially cruel note before Auggie does.

While Julian’s actions were inexcusable, his family dynamics spoke volumes. I was immediately taken aback by his parents lack of concern for his behavior and their obsession with public image. It was clear to me that this is where Julian’s troubles really started. As a parent, I was appalled by these shallow individuals. Julian’s mother even went so far as to photo-shop Auggie out of the class photo! I just have no words.

Initially, Julian is defensive and doesn’t really grasp the severity of his actions. However, as the story progresses – and with no help from his parents – he comes to see the error of his ways. His grandmother, whom he spends his summer vacation with in France, is instrumental in this.

Julian’s grandmother tells him about a boy that she knew when she was younger. He was disabled and often treated cruelly by the children in the village because they were afraid of him. As a young Jewish girl, hunted by the Nazis, it was this boy that ended up saving her life. Despite the mistreatment that he had endured, he showed kindness and bravery. He risked his own life to save a girl that had never paid him much attention, except to avoid him.

After hearing his grandmother’s story, Julian is able to connect the empathize with Auggie. Finally, he feels genuine remorse for his actions and understands exactly what he did. It was like he turned a new leaf and I really liked this new Julian.

I’m very glad that I read Julian’s story. I was worried about what I would get when I started it, but it did not disappoint. I especially liked Julian’s grandmother. She provided the guidance and wisdom that Julian’s parents failed to.

On the flip side, I could not so easily forgive Julian’s parents. Yes, they too came around a bit at the end, but only with the grandmother twisting their arms. Some explanations were offered for Julian’s mother’s behavior, but I found them to be weak at best. Julian may have been a child, but his parents were not. They should’ve known better. I just couldn’t get past that.

Overall, this was a fantastic story. He isn’t an easy character to like, but this book serves as a reminder that even bullies are human. Despite his despicable behavior toward Auggie, Julian was only a child in need of some direction and positive role models. In the end, he becomes a better person. If you enjoyed ‘Wonder’, I would definitely recommend this one.

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Review: From Sand and Ash, by Amy Harmon

From Sand and AshFrom Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautiful, heartbreaking and inspirational. Loved it! Amy Harmon is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. Each of her books that I’ve read has been incredibly emotional and touching.

‘From Sand and Ash’ is a gripping account of true love in WWII-era Italy. This story held my attention from start to finish. I fell in love with the characters and the visually rich setting. This book was so beautifully crafted that the scenes were nearly tangible.

At the same time, the beauty was in stark contrast to the brutality of the Nazi regime. Although I knew at the onset where the story would lead, it was easy to see how the brutality of the time snuck up on the complacent and disillusioned Italian people. I could relate to the responses from many of the characters that refused to acknowledge the danger until it was too late. The shift was gradual and insidious.

This is undoubtedly one of the most compelling romances that I’ve read this year. The love between Eva and Angelo was unbelievable. They had the type of love that is incredibly intimate and real. They weren’t perfect, but they loved each other in spite of their imperfections.

If you love a forbidden love story, this is your book. Never has there been a couple with the odds stacked against them more than these two. They fought for each other and their love, refusing to give up no matter how hopeless their situation might have seemed.

This story was inspirational and heartfelt. I was deeply moved by Eva and Angelo’s story. Not only was this book highly entertaining, but it was the type of book that leaves a lasting impression. I will not be forgetting these characters and their plight anytime soon. I can only hope that it will be made into a movie at some point.

If you’re looking for a suspenseful, heartfelt story, this is a great choice. This is the type of book that feeds the soul. It is beautiful and inspiring. This is a new favorite of mine and one of my top reads for the year.

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Inspirational WWII-Era Story

Number the StarsNumber the Stars by Lois Lowry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second of the books that we listened to on my recent multi-generational, girls road-trip, was ‘Number the Stars’. I could not have chosen better. This story was suspenseful, educational and deeply emotional. With an age range of 5 years-old to 88 years-old in the car, this book managed to hold all of attention.

Like most readers, I’ve read plenty of books set during the WWII era. Some were graphic and shocking in their descriptions of the horrendous acts that took place. Others, like ‘Number the Stars’ go a far more subtle route, choosing to leave much to your imagination, while providing just enough information so that the reader can figure out exactly what is going on.

With two children in the car, subtle and less graphic was an obvious benefit. However, I was amazed by the depth of understanding my 9 year-old had of the story that unfolded. I was incredibly impressed by the way the author was able to craft a story that appealed to such a broad audience.

Set in a German-occupied Denmark in WWII, ‘Number the Stars’ tells the story of a teenaged Annemarie Johansen. She and her family helped rescue her best friend, Ellen Rosen, and her family. The two girls had grown up together. Like their daughters, the parents were best friends also, having been neighbors for years.

When the German occupation becomes increasingly hostile, the writing is on the wall for the Jews. The Johansen’s are ordinary people that took extraordinary risks to stand against injustice in the only way they knew how. They become active in the resistance movement, helping to smuggle targeted groups of people to safety.

I don’t want to give too much away, because this is a story that I believe should be read and experienced by everyone. I will say that it was deeply sentimental and thought-provoking. There was plenty of action and suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat, but nothing too terrifying or gory for children.

This is the first WWII book that I’ve read about the Danish resistance movement. I greatly enjoyed learning about the Danish culture and the role that Denmark played in WWII. The stories about the King of Denmark were especially inspiring.

Mostly, this story was inspirational. It is about everyday people that do incredibly courageous things when backed into a corner. It is about the strength of the human spirit. This is the kind of book that makes you reevaluate your values and what you consider important in life. Everyone needs a reminder every once in a while, especially as the holidays approach.

I loved every minute of this story. It is another one that should probably make the “mandatory reading” list for school-aged children, lest we forget the lessons of the past. The audio was fabulous as well. I highly recommend this book to everyone.

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Beautiful and Inspiring

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of those books that has been sitting on my TBR list forever. Finally, I decided to give it a go. Although it isn’t my usual type of book, I found it to be a beautiful story.

‘The Book Thief’ tells the story of a young girl, Liesel, growing up in Germany during WWII. After the death of her brother, she is put into foster care by her mother. Unlikely as it may seem, she goes on to form a close relationship with her foster father as she grows up in a nation inundated by the Nazi regime.

Along the way, Liesel forms a friendship with a neighborhood boy, Rudy Steiner. She falls in love with books and takes to stealing during that trying time. In so many ways, her childhood mirrored any other “normal” happy childhood. However, the over-bearing presence of Hitler’s Nazi influence loomed in the background. The fear and lack of control felt by Liesel and her community was palpable.

When her foster parents choose to hide a Jewish man, Max Vandenburg, in their basement, Liesel’s story becomes even more complicated. There is no denying the brutal reality of life under the Nazi regime. I held my breath, waiting for their secret to be discovered.

While some parts of the story were predictable, given that we all know how WWII ended, other elements of this story surprised me. I had put off reading this story for quite some time because I expected it to be rather bleak. While there were some depressing, gloomy topics that were addressed, I was glad to find that the book did not take on that vibe entirely. Mostly, I found the story to be enlightening and inspirational.

Overall, this was a fabulous book. I can see it becoming a standard “required reading” book for school-aged children. It’s definitely one that I’ll have my daughters read. This was a beautiful story that should serve as a cautionary tale and a reminder to us all.

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