Sunday, March 29, 2015

Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is set in France during World War II and tells the story of two sisters - Viann and Isabelle and their lives during this period. Viann Mauriac says goodbye to her husband as he heads to the front to fight for France and she settles into their countryside home in Carriveau with their young daughter to endure wartime and wait for her husband's return. Meanwhile, Isabelle, always a rebel, finds herself working for the Resistance and  risking her life to fight the enemy. Through each of their stories, the reader is transported to France during the war and witnesses the sacrifice and endurance of French women during WWII. Sacrifice and endurance are wrapped in a love story and family drama which captivates the reader.

Viann and Isabelle have a fractured relationship; after the death of their mother when they were both young girls, they were left with their father who was ill-equipped emotionally following the death of his wife to deal with raising his young daughters. Viann, ten years older than Isabelle, was left to care for her younger sister but when Viann marries Antoine, Isabelle is shipped off to boarding school. Feeling abandoned, Isabelle resents Viann and acts out at boarding school and is expelled from school after school. Early on in the war, Isabelle arrives at Viann's home in Carriveau and they must work on their relationship in order to coexist and face the difficulties of Nazi occupation of their town.

Isabelle's rebellious streak persists and she is disgusted by Viann's inclination to do as she is told and to follow the orders of the occupiers. When German Captian Beck "billets" in Viann's home and lives side by side with her, Isabelle and Viann's young daughter, Viann is accommodating in an effort to keep from angering the soldier and in the hope that he will assist in contacting her husband who has been captured by the enemy.  Her approach to the war is to stoically accept the hardships and to try to endure; Isabelle, meanwhile joins the Resistance and distributes Anti-Nazi materials undercover throughout the town. This evolves into her shepherding British and American soldiers that have been shot down across the Pyrenees into Spain - her code name is Nightingale. Two sisters take very different paths during the war but ultimately gain an understanding and a respect for each other.

My Thoughts
This book captured my attention and had me hungrily reading for more - beyond the story of the sister's relationship, I was drawn into the hardship endured by those in the French countryside during the war. The author expertly describes the effects of draconian food rationing and intimidation meted out by the occupying German forces.  There were scenes, reminiscent of those in another Hannah novel, Winter Garden, where Viann broke down furniture to  burn and provide a little heat for her and her daughter through the long, cold winter. I cried twice during this novel - both times during scenes which involved children facing the atrocities of war while their parents plead for mercy for them. Hannah perfectly crafted these scenes  - she made them moving without being overly sentimental.

Ultimately, the appeal of this book lies in how humanity triumphed over the unthinkable horrors of war.

Isabelle's character is based on a Belgian woman, Andree de Jongh who set up an escape route for captured Allied soldiers during WWII.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sunday Salon: March 15, 2015

The Sunday

The Scene: 8:33 am, Sunday: on couch with my trusty sidekick, Prince. He is back from vacation in Florida (he has been down there with my parents since I went to South Africa after the holidays).  They have taken great care of him but I am so happy to have him back.

Reading: While in Florida last week, I was drawn to books with a beach setting so I started reading Silver Girl by Elin Hildebrand.  The book has been on my shelf for a few years and it seemed like a perfect choice for the beach.  I am tearing through the book and glad I picked it up. Prior to that, I finished The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (review coming soon). It is a historical fiction set in France during WW2 and tells the story of two sisters  - one who fights for the resistance and one who lives in the country and tries to survive wartime while her husband is at the front. I loved this book - I even cried twice while reading it. 

Listening: For a while now, I have been listening to Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe - it is the letters of a British nanny in the 80's (Nina) to her sister. The book was lauded as a best book of 2014 but so far I have not seen (or heard) the magic. The re-telling of her mundane days is not capturing my attention but I am nearly done with it and we will see if there is a revelation before the end!  Have you read or listened to this one? 

 Blogging: Last week a blogger and tweeter that I follow, Lisa Adams (@adamslisa) died of metastatic breast cancer. If you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed that I have been re-tweeting the many articles written about this impressive woman. Lisa was first diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 37 and, following a number of years with a status of NED (no evidence of disease), she was diagnosed with metastatic disease in 2012.  When she died last week at the age of 45 she left behind her husband and three young children. 

Photo credit: Lisa Adams

Lisa wrote beautifully on her blog about living with breast cancer and her fears about leaving her children at such a young age. Her posts were poignant, direct and moving and articulated difficult emotions so well. Her tweets were a mix of pithy insights into the grind of constant treatment for her disease, observations about her children and commentary on the last show she was catching up via Netflix while trying to regain her energy following a treatment. I found myself looking for her tweets everyday and hoping to see that she was getting some relief and evidence that her latest treatment was working to give her a little more precious time.

Lisa's bio on twitter includes the statement: "Doing as much as I can for as long as I can" which I think perfectly demonstrates the way in which she lived her life with incurable breast cancer - she eschewed any notions of "battling" cancer or outsmarting cellular biology but intelligently developed treatment plans with her oncologist to control her disease as much as possible so she could spend precious time with her young children. She focused on the present and encouraged people to "Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems" and urged on twitter "Find a bit a beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can't find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere." Persevere she did and took us along in an effort to educate about metastatic breast cancer, living with the disease and in an effort, I think, to connect and fend off isolation. She will be missed.

You can read her most popular posts here (including one about what to say and not to say to someone with cancer) and also see a collection of the remembrances that have been posted since her death including one by Bethanne Patrick (aka "The Book Maven") and Katherine Rosman of the New York Times. Lisa established a fund at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to fund research into metastatic breast cancer. 

This picture below from my visit to Florida last week is my "bit of beauty" today in honor of Lisa. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review and Giveaway: The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell

The Unexpected Consequences of Love by Jill Mansell is set in Cornwall where Sophie works as a photographer. Happy to be building her new business, Sophie seems content but lives a very narrow life. She has completely shut herself off to dating and the heartache in her past that has led to this is slowly revealed. Josh Strachan, who has returned from the US to the seaside town to help run a hotel, Mariscombe House,  with his grandmother, pursues Sophie and tries to break through her shell. Meanwhile, Sophie's friend Tula has moved from Birmingham and is working at the hotel. Unlike Sophie, Tula is in constant pursuit of love and romance. She is especially interested in Josh even though he barely notices her while he focuses on Sophie.

  My Thoughts
I always find Jill Mansell's books entertaining and love to sink into them - this one was no exception. I felt as if I was transported to Cornwall while I read and became engrossed in the lives of Sophie, Tula, Josh and the other cast of characters. The main character, Sophie,  and her story interested me most. The event in her past that has led to her reluctance to open herself to love is gradually revealed in a series of flashback scenes and deepens the readers understanding of Sophie. Meanwhile, Tula provides comic relief - she is much more lighthearted than Sophie and continually finds herself in scrapes. Sophie, Tula and Josh are supported by a cast of characters that includes Josh's grandparents who have an interesting relationship; Riley, a fun-loving playboy who pursues Tula and Riley's Aunt Marguerite who is a temperamental, self-involved author.

The author expertly weaves the multiple story lines together - there are just enough connections between these characters to make their story cohesive without seeming contrived.  If you haven't read a book by Jill Mansell yet this is a good one to start with - it includes her hallmarks of a cast of characters and an enjoyable story of found love.  If  you are already a fan of the author, like me, this latest book doesn't disappoint!


The publisher is offering a giveaway of the book and you can enter it here: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: Girl Before Mirror by Liza Palmer

In Girl Before Mirror by Liza Palmer, Anna Wyatt is fighting to make her mark in the world of advertising. Relegated to smaller accounts with a target audience of women only, Anna is frustrated as she bumps up against the glass ceiling. She is also facing challenges in her personal life - at forty with a failed marriage behind her, Anna has been on a "time out" from romance and dating but she is starting to realize that, as with her professional life, she is going to have to go after what she wants to get a different outcome. When she is introduced to a self-help book, "Be The Heroine, Find Your Hero", it plays a role in bringing her professional success -but not in the way you expect. As she buys into the Be The Heroine philosophy, she realizes it translates into her own personal life and she begins to combat her long held beliefs about her worth and whether she can risk much to win in love. 

Anna Wyatt grew up with a demanding father and a mother who virtually ignored her children. Anna took care of her younger brother, Ferdie, and tried to provide him with the love she never received from her parents. This upbringing left her with some well-established guards which limit her in her relationships. Following her divorce from a husband to whom she never opened up, Anna has placed herself on a dating sabbatical and essentially opted out altogether. When she looks around the table at her birthday dinner, however, she realizes she wants more than she is getting out of this opt-out approach and the germ of change is planted.

Professionally, Anna is also frustrated by being limited in the ad agency to only small accounts with products focused on women. She sets her sights on Quincy Pharmaceuticals and sees an in road via a neglected body wash that has not been actively promoted by the company. She drafts a proposal that ties into the "Be The Heroine, Find Your Hero" theme and gets an audience with the team that manages the product at Quincy. Her proposal resonates and Anna finds herself at the Romance Writers Conference working the connections with her proposed ad campaign. By focusing on a theme that resonated with her and articulated what many women feel, Anna has landed on professional success.  She also finds a love interest at the conference in Lincoln Mallory, a Brit visiting the hotel for business. Lincoln challenges all of Anna's well-established guards and she struggles to take the chance that she knows will bring her success in her personal life.

My Thoughts
I am a fan of Liza Palmer's books - Conversations with the Fat Girl and Seeing Me Naked are two of my favorites. I remember underlining passages in both books because I felt they perfectly expressed my own thoughts and reflections.  I found myself doing the same with this book - Anna's struggles with self-confidence and living safely rather than pursuing what she really wants are so well captured by the author and I suspect will resonate for many women. There were times, however, that I felt this book covered too much ground - there was the story line about Anna's campaign for Quincy, story line about her relationship with Lincoln and then the story line about Ferdie. Each was rich but I felt the book could have been better with a focus on only two out of the three. This was not my favorite book by the author but does have her dialogue laced with humor and wry observations.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Audiobook Review: Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming: Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor who currently plays Eli Gould on The Good Wife and stars in the Broadway production of Cabaret. This book, however, is not about his life as an actor or how he found his calling to act - it is about his tortured relationship with his father who physically and emotionally abused him throughout his childhood. At times difficult to listen to, the book is raw and insightful and ultimately, quite brave.

Alan Cumming is the youngest son of Mary Darling and Alec Cumming and, with his older brother Tom, grew up in Scotland on an estate for which his father was the caretaker. His father was stern and had high expectations of both boys but seemed to reserve his greatest ire for young Alan. In talking about his childhood, Alan Cumming describes fearing his father and how the family walked on eggshells expecting the next outburst. His father often put the boys to work around the estate doing very manual labor and then criticizing the work they did including physically beating them when it was not to standard. In the rare moments when Alan got to act like a child such as when he rode his bike through the village, he recognized how little of that happiness was in his daily life and how he lived with a pervasive anxiety. He repressed that through much of his life but as an adult, its effects began to become obvious and he could no longer ignore it.

As the book begins, Alan is about to appear on the British version of Who Do You Think You Are? and the producers are going through his family tree looking for a line/story to follow. When his father learns of this, he worries that they will discover his secret so he abruptly discloses to Alan that he is not his real father and that Alan was conceived following a dalliance by his mother. At this point, Alan's relationship with his father was non-existent but this news rocks him and prompts him to re-examine what he thought to be true about his father and their difficult relationship. Interestingly, the show actually ended up exploring Alan's mother's family and focuses on Alan's grandfather. Through that, Alan discovers his Grandfather also had secrets and discovers parallels between the his own life and that of his Grandfather.

My Thoughts
At times, this book was difficult to listen to - I could feel my own chest tightening as Alan recounted the cruel words his father spat at him or the blows he struck. There is a tenderness in how he tells the story because, despite all the therapy he has obviously been through to cope with his history, there is still a rawness to his emotions and he has insights which are revelatory.  I thought the story line of the work on Who Do You Think You Are? provided a nice counterbalance to the conflict with his father. It is also emotional but in a different way and I looked forward to the revelations in that story line. After listening to the book, I actually watched Alan Cumming's episode on the show and it was interesting to see what I had listened to played out on the screen and see expressions on his face which he had described in the book.

The book is read by the author and I enjoyed his Scottish accent but more than that I appreciated the authenticity of the reading of a memoir that only an author can bring to the production. In addition, Cumming is a trained stage actor and his professionalism comes through in the reading of the audiobook. All in all, although his story is very painful, his journey through it is a triumph and provides hope. Definitely recommend.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin: Nora Webster, recently widowed, lives in Wexford, Ireland in 1969 with her two young sons, Donal and Conor. She also has two older daughters who now live away from home. As the story opens, Nora is enveloped in her grief over the recent loss of her husband, Maurice, to a long illness and is facing the practical challenges of being a widow. She worries about needing to sell a seaside property that has special meaning for her children and at which she has wonderful memories with her late husband but she cannot afford to keep the small cottage now that she must support her family alone. She faces the pitying looks of her neighbors and the constant flow of people stopping by to check on her. She worries about her young sons and how they are adjusting to this loss but mostly she is blinded to the effects by her own grief. As Nora moves through her grief, she gradually discovers herself.

 Nora is in a fog following the death of her husband Maurice. She is haunted by his last days which were spent in pain and in a hospital where she felt he got little support from his doctor. Everyone has an opinion on how Nora should move forward - from her sisters, to Maurice's brother and his wife to her Aunt Josie. Nora finds all their opinions intrusive and no help in determining her path but she is unable to state her point of view. In an effort to keep her emotions in control, she is almost shut down and appears passive. Amid this passivity, however, there are glimmers of her will. At her sister's home for the weekend, Nora takes to the formal front room and reads for an afternoon alone much to the bewilderment of her sister who hurried around the home preparing meals and heading into town to shop. While on vacation at the seaside with her Aunt Josie, Nora strikes out and finds another place to sleep in order to escape her older aunt's snoring. A big part of Nora's movement beyond her grief was getting a job. She returns to an office job at Gibney's where she worked before her children were born. She is initially cowed by the powerful Gibney family and a controlling office manager but slowly but surely she asserts herself and develops a confidence in her skills. Piece by piece, Nora emerges from her grief and returns not to the woman she was before her husband's death but becomes a new woman who knows her mind and isn't afraid to follow it.

My Thoughts
Typical of Toibin's style, this novel is quiet and unassuming. Despite Nora's grief being so central to the story, there is no melodrama and a notable lack of emotion on Nora's part. She suffers quietly and only with fleeting connections to her own emotions and certainly to those of her sons. At times, the distance from her young sons is hard to understand especially given that they are obviously so affected by their father's death and its effect on the family. You do see, however, the fierceness of her love for her sons as she musters up the courage to defend Conor to the Christian Brothers at his school who think he should be demoted a grade. There is a passion there but it is buried beneath her grief and some expectation that she not express her emotions or overtly display her affection for her children.

Nora is an ordinary woman; it is Toibin's skill as an author which brings her to life as she proceeds through mundane activities. He artfully offers glimpses into the woman that Nora is becoming and peeks into her internal dialogue. I was quite impressed by this book and reassured by Nora's ability to emerge from her grief. This is not, however, my favorite book by the author.  The Blackwater Lightship still holds that position but I highly recommend Nora Webster.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Salon: January 18, 2015

The Sunday

The Scene: 8:33 am  - sitting on couch, coffee in hand (as usual on a Sunday!) I have been up for a few hours because I am still dealing with some jet lag since returning from my trip. I love being a morning person for a precious few days after getting back from a trip!  If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen some pics from my trip.  If not, I included a few below:

View from Table Mountain, Cape Town

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Elephants - Chobe National Park, Botswana

 Reading: Fortunately, between the trip and these early mornings, I have been getting a lot of reading done. This morning I finished Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight - it is an excellent mystery/thriller and I think will strike fear in most parent's hearts.  I don't even have kids and was haunted by the secret lives that many kids face while at school. Earlier this week, I finished Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. He is a favorite author of mine and  while I enjoyed his latest book, I am not sure I think it is his best.

Listening: Currently I am listening to Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. The author narrates the book himself and I love listening to his Scottish accent.  But it is painful to hear him recount the (mostly emotional) abuse he faced at the hands of his father.

 Blogging: Yesterday I posted my review of  The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline. I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be reading others by the author. I am hoping to use my short-lived spurt as a morning person to get ahead on blogging this weekend and catching up on reviews.

Watching : While away, I missed the start of Season 5 of Downton Abbey.   I can't wait to catch up on the first 2 episodes - today's project will be figuring out how to stream from my laptop to the TV so I can watch episode 1 and 2 before episode 3 airs tonight.

While I was in the UK for a meeting last week, I heard about a series there that I think I will like - Broadchurch.  Season 2 just started airing in the UK but Season 1 is available here on Netflix.  I forsee a binge-watching session in my future! Have you seen or heard about Broadchurch?

Looking Forward To: Getting back into a routine - vacation was wonderful but now the routine of going to the gym and eating regular meals at home seems welcome!

Hope everyone has a relaxing Sunday!