I am generally a bitter-ender. It doesn't matter how bad a book is: I will finish. So to wave the white flag within the first 50 pages is a pretty bigI am generally a bitter-ender. It doesn't matter how bad a book is: I will finish. So to wave the white flag within the first 50 pages is a pretty big deal. I am beginning to wonder if the Booker prize committee just hands over the top award to whatever is the most over-written, confusing, experimental, abstract, tragic book they read. ...more
Thomas Greene is a classically trained African-American who gets recruited to play at a jazz orchestra in Shanghai in 1936. He falls straight into lovThomas Greene is a classically trained African-American who gets recruited to play at a jazz orchestra in Shanghai in 1936. He falls straight into love-lust with Song Yuhua, who has been sold into slavery to the crime lord that owns the jazz club where Thomas works.
The history felt very solid, but the pace was far too slow. The love story was also underwhelming. Thomas is with Song because...she's pretty? And he got tired of his Russian professional mistress? It clearly didn't work for me and I could never buy into the supposed grand passion of Thomas and Song's love story as Shanghai falls into war. ...more
I have so many feels towards this book I don’t know where to start.
I didn’t like Atkinson’s Case Histories. I don’t quite remember why, but it felt lI have so many feels towards this book I don’t know where to start.
I didn’t like Atkinson’s Case Histories. I don’t quite remember why, but it felt like it was too dull and miserable to be a proper mystery. But she does speculative and historical fiction so much better!
This book follows a large brood of English children growing up in an idyllic English country estate that are battered by the wars that befell the world during the early 20th century. And one little girl whose life plays out in a series of alternate realities throughout the book. It's like Groundhog Day, if instead of repeating the same day over and over, Billy Murray was forced to repeat every major event in his lifetime until he got it "right."
Ursula’s lives could get confusing at times. They were fairly easy-to-follow repeats up until her young adulthood. She was a baby, who was stillborn. She was a baby, who died at birth. She was a baby that survived until she was about three when she drowned. She didn’t drown, she was rescued but then fell out of a window at five. She didn’t fall out of the window – someone called her to dinner in time – but she was struck down by the flu. The Spanish flu killed Ursula several, several times.
Ursula doesn’t quite remember her alternative lives, but echoes remain and she gets a sense of imminent dread when she is at a turning point that could save her or kill her (or another person she’s close to). She also, later, gets severe headaches. I can’t tell if these headaches are to tell her that she is living the wrong life or that she needs to re-route, but I think they are.
Her little brother Teddy, the darling of the family, appears to be an anchor in her life and I kind of suspect that one of Ursula's "missions" in repeating her life is to protect Teddy. In some versions of the Spanish flu event, Teddy dies, and Urusla doesn't stop reliving those events until she saves both herself AND Teddy. Another one of Ursula's missions seems to be to save Nancy – the love of Teddy’s life – from a child rapist/killer. It is really frustrating that although Ursula often manages to save Nancy, she never catches the rapist.
There’s also a lot of terrible things that happen in Ursula’s lives. One of her older brother Maurice’s friends is also a rapist and attacks Ursula – in one life, successfully raping her, putting her down a path of a brutal abortion (the first time she ever has sex? she has no luck) and an abusive, murderous husband. Another time she gets married to a handsome German who also appears emotionally abusive (he hides her passport so she can’t flee Germany), but she does get a daughter she loves (the only lifetime she has kids). She usually has an affair with a married military man who she doesn’t particularly love (in one lifetime, he leaves his family to be with her, but he usually doesn’t). She also occasionally sees an architect named Ralph, but she is never deeply bonded to him, either. In no lifetime does Ursula get to be happily married down the traditional path, or even be in a long-term healthy relationship (I mean, she does have a girlhood romance with a neighbor-boy, once, but that doesn’t particularly count for me). In some lifetimes she goes to university to study modern languages, in most lifetimes she goes to typing school and works for the British civil service. And in one (two?) lifetimes she kills Hitler in 1930! That’s pretty rad. It doesn’t seem to stick, though.
It’s very confusing whether the point (if there is a point) of her reliving her life so often is to kill Hitler. If that’s where the book ended, maybe I would think that. The ending suggests that my pet theory - that Urusla's mission is really to protect Teddy and Nancy - is what is actually the driving force behind the Many Lives of Ursula Todd. Maybe the point is that small victories, and protecting the ones we love, is enough.
This is a fascinating, thought provoking book that felt brilliant and unique. It did end up going a little long (by the really, really long Blitz chapter I was like “well, get to the last life. We have already been through enough of these long depressing ones.”). But it went by quickly and kept me intrigued. ...more
A potentially fascinating historical fiction about a wealthy young Jewish woman who escapes from Nazi Germany by becoming a servant in a British manorA potentially fascinating historical fiction about a wealthy young Jewish woman who escapes from Nazi Germany by becoming a servant in a British manor. Unfortunately, it focused on the uninteresting romance and came off as melodramatic.
Elise is the not-quite-a-servant, not-quite-a-peer at Tyneford. The gentry at Tyneford, the Rivers, kinda treat her like an equal. But she definitely works for them. It's a bizarre quasi-relationship and uncomfortable for everyone.
Elise basically solely hangs out with Kit Rivers, her love interest. The other servants are negligible (except for the strict and old-school butler and the sympathetic but strict matron – more stereotypes than characters). Elise suddenly and for no reason makes friends with two townies who are incredibly thinly drawn and serve no real purpose in this book except to be exposition fairies. Elise hates being a servant, understandably, and refuses to try to fit in. She'd rather run around with the young master of the house and the locals than socialize with her fellow servants. I'm surprised there wasn't more expressed resentment towards her. Instead of becoming a tougher, stronger person, she basically refuses to believe her social situation could possibly change and is lucky enough that the Rivers men adore her and treat her as more than a servant.
The romance between Elise and Kit is sparkless. Which is probably for the best, because (view spoiler)[Kit dies in the war and Elise goes on to marry HIS FATHER. YUCK (hide spoiler)].
Eventually, the entire village of Tyneford gets evacuated, which really happened. That could've been very powerful and heartrenching, but sadly it seemed like a footnote to the romance plotlines and Elise making terrible decisions but somehow always getting what she wants anyway. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Watching Germany descend into madness was fascinating and terrifying. I think it’s important to get this insight – mostly WWII books only look at Germany when it’s already on the road to war. This was when Germany could’ve been pulled back from the brink, but no one developed the willpower to do so.
Martha (the American diplomat's daughter) and her many love affairs added the sex and pizazz to the story. There’s good reason that her brother was barely mentioned while she was prominent. That girl! Was she made of crack? How did she get so many men so desperately (and often pathetically) in love with her?
The first hundred pages were the most interesting. After that it got a bit repetitive – the ambassador was too thrifty for the Old Boys Club of the foreign service! They were plotting against him! Things are crappy in Germany and America is wilfully ignorant! Martha is still sleeping around (okay, that part never actually got boring)! Larson has a bad habit of trying to cram as much of his research as he can into the story even if it bogs it down with boring minutae. I feel like he should’ve slimmed this down. ...more
This book has no plot beyond the horror of the Soviet’s extermination of the Baltic nation’s intelligentsia and their families. There’s a bit of a lovThis book has no plot beyond the horror of the Soviet’s extermination of the Baltic nation’s intelligentsia and their families. There’s a bit of a love story in there to give it hope (though I wish the resolution would have happened on screen). But basically it’s one long death march, with the too-common tale of a happy life shattered by the arrival of soldiers who pack the family into a train, take them to a work camp and make their lives miserable. There’s death, starvation, disease. There’s the survivalists and opportunists and pessimists. There’s moments of kindness in the bleakness. It is unique that it’s a WWII book about the horrors committed by the Soviets (our allies), not the Nazis. It sheds light on an event that has been too often ignored, especially in the West.
I don’t know, I don’t like saying bad things about books like this but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. It wasn’t boring or a slog. It just felt like something I’ve read before and frankly these are stories I never really like reading, because they are so grim and painful. And I never really attached to anyone. This could be because I knew it would be tragic, but also because I kind of feel that Lina and her family are really being used as stand-ins for all the Lithuanians killed by the Soviets. It’s like the requisite tragic things have to happen, all the boxes of bad things have to be checked off. Aw man, I feel like a horrible person just writing these things, like WWII books can’t be criticized. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap that Sepetys does, and it's hard to add something new, to make a story unique and compelling. And then I want to ask myself, why should a WWII book be entertaining? Isn’t it enough that it reminds the reader of the horror that lurks on the edge of humanity and of all the victims of those horrible years? And then I tell myself that it’s a novel, not nonfiction, and it’s purpose is to entertain while enlightening and that it does its job better if it makes the reader truly connect with the characters and connect with the story. But no matter what I'm left with the sticky, sickly feeling of guilt.
Long story short, it's a book worth reading if you're interested in WWII. It's a pretty quick read. Not very long in general and with short chapters. I think it works best for younger people, who have read maybe Number the Stars or Anne Frank's Diary but not a whole lot of other WWII books. And I do hope it does well, because the deaths of all those in the Baltic states shouldn't be forgotten. But I've already read several WWII books this year and I'm soul-tired as it is. ...more
A classic coming of age novel often forced upon high school students. Knowles obviously crafted this book very carefully; it felt like every anecdoteA classic coming of age novel often forced upon high school students. Knowles obviously crafted this book very carefully; it felt like every anecdote or scene had a meaning. I can see why it's often assigned in high school - it really calls out to be dissected and analyzed.
Gene’s complicated bromance with Finny and his unreliable narration is what really sold this book for me. Gene is obviously trying to make it seem that Finny is his best buddy and their friendship is uncomplicated and pure. But even through the unreliable narration, it is glaringly clear that Gene is ridiculously jealous of Finny. Gene is studious, tightly-wound and competitive. Finny, meanwhile, is a Peter Pan figure. He just wants to have fun. He can be selfish about it and like a child doesn’t understand that other people have other motivations or desires. But he also has the simple joy and enthusiasm of a child. He’s flighty but fun. He's sporty and popular and all the things that a boarding school boy might envy.
Finny may be charismatic, but he's also woefully simple when it comes to understanding others. Which is why he didn’t see the betrayal from Gene coming – although Gene’s very soul was quivering with pent-up envy. Gene undertakes one simple vindictive act – (view spoiler)[he bounces a branch that Finny is on, making him ungraceful – but also breaking his leg, which ruins Finny’s athletic capabilities (hide spoiler)]. Sports being the one thing that Finny is good at in school, this is devastating. But it also brings Finny down to Gene’s level and helps water down Gene’s jealousy. Sadly – and completely unexpectedly – this also leads to a chain of events (view spoiler)[wherein Finny dies (hide spoiler)].
I thought the war would play a much bigger part in this story. I thought everything was leading to the characters going to war. But it’s not. The war remains a vague dread on the horizon. It’s more a symbol of the dark adult world in juxtaposition with the carefree joy of youth that is the boarding school. The war could not have existed and the plot would’ve been essentially the same. It was really about life at the boarding school itself, and the complicated friendship between Finny and Gene. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more