American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, by Stephanie Marie Thornton (Review)

“I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.” -Theodore Roosevelt
American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt
by Stephanie Marie Thornton

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 448 Pages

Release date: March 12, 2019

Publisher: Berkley Books

Synopsis: 

A sweeping novel from renowned author Stephanie Marie Thornton…

Alice may be the president’s daughter, but she’s nobody’s darling. As bold as her signature color Alice Blue, the gum-chewing, cigarette-smoking, poker-playing First Daughter discovers that the only way for a woman to stand out in Washington is to make waves–oceans of them. With the canny sophistication of the savviest politician on the Hill, Alice uses her celebrity to her advantage, testing the limits of her power and the seductive thrill of political entanglements.

But Washington, DC is rife with heartaches and betrayals, and when Alice falls hard for a smooth-talking congressman it will take everything this rebel has to emerge triumphant and claim her place as an American icon. As Alice soldiers through the devastation of two world wars and brazens out a cutting feud with her famous Roosevelt cousins, it’s no wonder everyone in the capital refers to her as the Other Washington Monument–and Alice intends to outlast them all.

ratingfour

My thanks to Berkley Books for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

What better time to read this novel than now, during Women’s History Month? I’m a big historical fiction enthusiast, and I was so excited when I saw there was a novel about Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt coming out. Teddy Roosevelt once infamously said “I can do one of two things. I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice Roosevelt. I cannot possibly do both.”

Alice Roosevelt Longworth
A Young Alice Roosevelt; Getty Images

Alice was Theodore’s eldest child and his only child from his first wife, who died shortly after Alice’s birth. Grief-stricken, he sent Alice, whose face reminded him too much of her mother’s, away to live with an aunt for a few years. American Princess follows Alice from this tough beginning to the end of her long life. Thornton explains in the author’s note that she has tried to draw from sources such as Alice’s journal entries as much as possible, and I think she has done remarkable job of bringing Alice to life on the page.

Alice was a magnet for scandal but an absolute delight to read about. She bristled at the constraints placed on her due to her status in society as well as her gender, and felt no qualms about scandalizing high society ladies by whipping out a cigarette or cutting her wedding cake with a sword from a nearby military aide. (True story.) But beneath all the swagger there is a vulnerable interior, which Thornton teases out in this novel. While they were close at the time of his death, Alice and her father struggled for years with a stilted, uncomfortable relationship. Thornton explores some of the romances of Alice’s life, but it was watching her come to terms with the alienation from her father at a young age and develop and loving relationship with him that was truly the highlight of the novel.

When writing about a real figure’s life, it can be a struggle to make the story fit a nice narrative flow, but I felt that Thornton managed it very well here. American Princess is a must-read for avid fans of historical fiction featuring interesting and strong female characters!

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The Huntress, by Kate Quinn (Review)


The Huntress
by Kate Quinn

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 560 Pages

Release date: February 26, 2019

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

From the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novel, The Alice Network, comes another fascinating historical novel about a battle-haunted English journalist and a Russian female bomber pilot who join forces to track the Huntress, a Nazi war criminal gone to ground in America.

In the aftermath of war, the hunter becomes the hunted…

Bold, reckless Nina Markova grows up on the icy edge of Soviet Russia, dreaming of flight and fearing nothing. When the tide of war sweeps over her homeland, she gambles everything to join the infamous Night Witches, an all-female night bomber regiment wreaking havoc on Hitler’s eastern front. But when she is downed behind enemy lines and thrown across the path of a lethal Nazi murderess known as the Huntress, Nina must use all her wits to survive.

British war correspondent Ian Graham has witnessed the horrors of war from Omaha Beach to the Nuremberg Trials. He abandons journalism after the war to become a Nazi hunter, yet one target eludes him: the Huntress. Fierce, disciplined Ian must join forces with brazen, cocksure Nina, the only witness to escape the Huntress alive. But a shared secret could derail their mission, unless Ian and Nina force themselves to confront it.

Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride grows up in post WWII Boston, determined despite family opposition to become a photographer. At first delighted when her long-widowed father brings home a fiancée, Jordan grows increasingly disquieted by the soft-spoken German widow who seems to be hiding something. Armed only with her camera and her wits, Jordan delves into her new stepmother’s past and slowly realizes there are mysteries buried deep in her family. But Jordan’s search for the truth may threaten all she holds dear.

ratingfour

My thanks to William Morrow for sending me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Kate Quinn has such a remarkable gift when it comes to creating seriously captivating characters. It’s been almost a week since I finished reading and I keep finding myself thinking about Nina, a ruthless, Nazi-killing hellcat who probably really needs a hug. I love Nina to death, and her adoration for real-life Night Witch Marina Raskova had me wanting to learn more about these women. (If anyone knows any good documentaries, drop a link in the comments and I’ll love you forever.)

At 560 pages, The Huntress is a somewhat lengthy read, and I found myself annoyed every time I had to put it down. Despite the backdrop of war and violence, the story isn’t super action packed or fast-paced. It’s a bit of a slow burn and very character driven.

I (obviously) found Nina to be the most compelling character, but the story is told through three separate point of view characters. Nina’s perspective takes place during the war, whereas Jordan and Ian’s perspectives take place after, during Ian’s hunt for the infamous Nazi known as The Huntress. Nina exists in both timelines, as she teams up with Ian, but her direct perspective is limited to her life leading up to the war through the first day she meets Ian. Nina comes from a remarkably dysfunctional family, with a drunken and abusive father and siblings she describes as more or less feral. She is damaged in a lot of ways, but her hardships also prepared her for the harshness of war.

Ian also made for a really compelling character. No spoilers here, but he has a personal vendetta that fuels a lot of his desire to take down The Huntress. He has a background as a war correspondent, and gives off a distinct air of survivor’s guilt. He saw a lot of atrocities during his reporting on the war, and I think Quinn really nailed down the psychology of what that can do to a person. Ian, like a lot of people who has endured trauma, has internalized this idea that he hasn’t fully “earned” his emotional disturbances. Soldiers fought and died on the front lines; he wrote articles about it. In the aftermath of trauma, it’s sadly so common to see people downplay what happened to them, to dismiss their rights to their own feelings on the basis that someone else had it worse. Ian exemplifies this mindset and I really appreciated seeing an author portray a character like this in a way that seems to validate that struggle.

Jordan, the final POV character, is a normal young girl living in America who has her life turned upside-down by The Huntress and those who are searching for her. She has suspicions about her new step-mother early on, which she buries to keep her father happy. A lot of her story line, however, has little to do with the rest of the book. She is a budding young photographer who wants to create a career for herself in a time when women were largely expected to get married and be housewives. She sees nearly every scene as if she’s looking through her camera, constantly mentally framing shots even when she doesn’t have her camera with her.

I absolutely enjoyed every page of this story. Quinn’s last novel, The Alice Network, was a ridiculously tough act to follow, but The Huntress did not disappoint in the slightest. This novel is an excellent choice for fans of The Lost Girls of Paris, Lilac Girls. and of course, Kate Quinn’s past work.

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Moloka’i, by Alan Brennert (Review)


Moloka’i
by Alan Brennert

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 405 Pages

Release date: October 21, 2003

Synopsis: 

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

rating

four

“Fear is good. In the right degree it prevents us from making fools of ourselves. But in the wrong measure it prevents us from fully living. Fear is our boon companion but never our master.” 

I was very late to the party when it comes to this novel. I had heard of it and was only vaguely aware of what it was about until recently, when I received an ARC of the sequel from the publisher, prompting me to pick it up in order to better understand the continuation.

Moloka’i follows the life story of Rachel, a young Hawaiian girl who contracts leprosy in the 1890’s and so is forcibly taken away from her family to live in a settlement with others with the disease. This somewhat drastic means of stopping the spread of the infection is, of course, taken from actual historical events, and Rachel’s life is a reflection of the very real suffering that many Hawaiians endured. Rachel is only 7 when she is ripped away from her family and lives in a girls’ home on her new island until she is of age.

Often we would think of a moment like this is the beginning of the end of a life, but Brennert challenges us to think differently about what can constitute a fulfilling life. Without ever diminishing the severity of what Rachel endures, Brennert creates a portrait of a woman who has carved out a life the best way she is able. She grows up, has hobbies and passions, develops intimate friendships, and falls in love.

Moloka’i is a richly imagined life story about overcoming hardship and the importance of found family. Rachel provides an interesting perspective as a character who was essentially removed from society at large and experiences sweeping historical changes from the sidelines. This novel is an excellent choice for fans of novels such as Pachinko and other historical fiction.

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Review – Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid


Daisy Jones and The Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 256 Pages

Release date: March 5, 2019

Publisher: Ballantine Books

Synopsis: 

In 1979, Daisy Jones and The Six split up. Together, they had redefined the 70’s music scene, creating an iconic sound that rocked the world. Apart, they baffled a world that had hung on their every verse.

This book is an attempt to piece together a clear portrait of the band’s rise to fame and their abrupt and infamous split. The following oral history is a compilation of interviews, emails, transcripts, and lyrics, all pertaining to the personal and professional lives of the members of the band The Six and singer Daisy Jones.

While I have aimed for a comprehensive and exhaustive approach, I must acknowledge that full and complete accounts from all parties involved has proved impossible. Some people were easier to track down than others, some were more willing to talk than others, and some, unfortunately, have passed on.

All of which is to say that while this is the first and only authorised account from all represented perspectives, it should be noted that, in matters both big and small, reasonable people disagree.

The truth often lies, unclaimed, in the middle.

rating

four

My thanks to NetGalley, BookSparks, and Ballantine Books for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

“We love broken, beautiful people. And it doesn’t get much more obviously broken and more classically beautiful than Daisy Jones.”

Daisy Jones and The Six is the story of the rise and fall of a fictional rock band from the 1970’s. For fans of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Daisy Jones will feel somewhat familiar as a protagonist. An absolute icon in the entertainment world, gorgeous, and stubborn, she is haunted by an all-consuming vice and forbidden love. For Evelyn Hugo, her love of money and her inability to be open about her sexual orientation stood between her and the love of her life. Daisy Jones struggles similarly with drug addiction and an obsession with someone who is emotionally unavailable to her.

In terms of the actual storytelling, however, these novels are quite different. Daisy Jones and The Six is told entirely in the format of an interview with members of the band and others who were close to them professionally or personally. The reader is made to feel as if they are watching a documentary about the band. While this was interesting in concept, it made for rather dry storytelling after a while, and I think this was the main thing that kept me from being able to rate this as five stars. Perhaps this is down to personal taste and your experience may differ greatly, but I felt I would have enjoyed the story a lot more if the interview format was only a portion of the book and was used to break up chapters in a more traditional narrative style.

Billy: Karen was just a great musician. That was all there was to it. I always say I don’t care if you’re a man, woman, white, black, gay, straight, or anything in between – if you play well, you play well. Music is a great equalizer in that way.
Karen: Men often think they deserve a sticker for treating women like people.

Gender played a really interesting role in this novel, particularly in terms of respect and power struggles. Daisy Jones struggles to be taken seriously when she is starting out as a solo artist. She clashes intensely with Billy’s authoritarian style of running The Six when she begins to integrate into their band. Her ultra-feminine style and revealing clothing also get under the skin of bandmate Karen, who has adopted somewhat of a tomboy persona in an attempt to make the men around her take her seriously.

One thing really love about Reid’s work is her ability to write realistically flawed characters while still allowing the reader to feel like it’s worth rooting for them. Daisy Jones is stubborn, selfish, impulsive, and narcissistic. However, we have the benefit of understanding her upbringing (or lack thereof) and the interview format of the book also allows us to see the story through the eyes of an older Daisy, who seems to understand these flaws and to have put work into overcoming them.

Taylor Jenkins Reid had truly brought these characters and the era in which they were famous to life. While this isn’t my favorite of her books (if you’re new to her work, I highly recommend The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo as a starting point), I do highly recommend it. It’s a fun read and will have you wishing for a soundtrack to go with it. And since Reese Witherspoon is producing a TV adaptation, it sounds like we might get just that.

Daisy: I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse.
I am not a muse.
I am the somebody.
End of fucking story.

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Have you read any books in an interesting format such as the interview style of Daisy Jones and The Six? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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The Lost Girls of Paris, by Pam Jenoff (Review)


The Lost Girls of Paris
by Pam Jenoff

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: January 29, 2019

Publisher: Park Row

Synopsis: 

From the author of the runaway bestseller The Orphan’s Tale comes a remarkable story of friendship and courage centered around three women and a ring of female spies during World War II.

1946, Manhattan

Grace Healey is rebuilding her life after losing her husband during the war. One morning while passing through Grand Central Terminal on her way to work, she finds an abandoned suitcase tucked beneath a bench. Unable to resist her own curiosity, Grace opens the suitcase, where she discovers a dozen photographs—each of a different woman. In a moment of impulse, Grace takes the photographs and quickly leaves the station.

Grace soon learns that the suitcase belonged to a woman named Eleanor Trigg, leader of a ring of female secret agents who were deployed out of London during the war. Twelve of these women were sent to Occupied Europe as couriers and radio operators to aid the resistance, but they never returned home, their fates a mystery. Setting out to learn the truth behind the women in the photographs, Grace finds herself drawn to a young mother turned agent named Marie, whose daring mission overseas reveals a remarkable story of friendship, valor and betrayal.

Vividly rendered and inspired by true events, New York Times bestselling author Pam Jenoff shines a light on the incredible heroics of the brave women of the war, and weaves a mesmerizing tale of courage, sisterhood and the great strength of women to survive in the hardest of circumstances.

rating

five

I received a free copy of The Lost Girls of Paris from Booktrib with no obligation for a review. All opinions are my own. 

The Lost Girls of Paris is a beautifully told tale in three alternating perspectives: Eleanor Trigg – SOE recruiter responsible for the division of women being trained to serve as spies and saboteurs.
Marie – One of Eleanor’s recruits, valued for impeccable French and thus her ability to seamlessly blend in in Paris.
Grace – With her story taking place in a slightly later timeline after the war, she is dealing with the loss of her husband when she becomes swept up in the mystery of what became of Eleanor’s girls.

Marie’s perspective became my favorite as the story went on, and while she is a great character, she is decidedly not a great spy. She is not great at working under pressure and makes more than one questionable decision. For some reviewers who did not enjoy the book as much as I did, this seemed to be the major source of frustration.

Personally, I was not bothered and I felt it demonstrated the kind of pressure the department was operating under at the time. The decision to include women as operatives wasn’t something that had been in the works for a long time; it was a decision made quickly in the midst of a horrific war and through pure necessity. Male operatives would stand out too much amidst the dearth of fighting age men left in civilian roles in Paris.

Were all of the female spies in this story totally incompetent? No, and that would have made for a horrible reading experience. On the contrary, one of my favorite things about Marie’s story was seeing how she compared herself to some of the other girls who had trained with her. She feels woefully inadequate in comparison, and above all else, scared. She represents a relatively average woman thrown into exceptional circumstances because desperate times call for desperate measures. She didn’t train for years for this and so was realistically out of her depth.

Eleanor was similarly intriguing in a totally different way: she held this peculiar status of being somewhat of an outsider as a foreigner and so not fully expected while simultaneously holding a position of power. While she has male superiors who look down on her for her origins as well as her gender, she is in charge of selecting, training, and deploying all of their female operatives. Aside from helping to win the war, Eleanor clearly really wants to prove herself.

Grace’s chapters were the least interesting to me from a character standpoint, with her personal issues holding less intrigue than the stories of the other point of view characters, but her obsession with untangling the mystery of the fate of Eleanor’s spies provides a stand-in for the reader’s own intrigue. Marie and Eleanor were in a spy drama; Grace is in a mystery novel.

The Lost Girls of Paris is inspired by true events and is an excellent selection for fans of books like The Alice Network and Lilac Girls. 

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The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo (Review)


The Night Tiger
by Yangsze Choo

Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: February 12, 2019

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

A sweeping historical novel about a dancehall girl and an orphan boy whose fates entangle over an old Chinese superstition about men who turn into tigers.

When 11-year-old Ren’s master dies, he makes one last request of his Chinese houseboy: that Ren find his severed finger, lost years ago in an accident, and reunite it with his body. Ren has 49 days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth, unable to rest in peace.

Ji Lin always wanted to be a doctor, but as a girl in 1930s Malaysia, apprentice dressmaker is a more suitable occupation. Secretly, though, Ji Lin also moonlights as a dancehall girl to help pay off her beloved mother’s Mahjong debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir: a severed finger. Convinced the finger is bad luck, Ji Lin enlists the help of her erstwhile stepbrother to return it to its rightful owner.

As the 49 days tick down, and a prowling tiger wreaks havoc on the town, Ji Lin and Ren’s lives intertwine in ways they could never have imagined. Propulsive and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores colonialism and independence, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and first love. Braided through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.

rating

four

My thanks to BookSparks for sending me a free copy of this book for my role as an official Winter Reading Challenge Ambassador. All opinions are my own. 

“We were a chocolate-box family, I thought. Brightly wrapped on the outside and oozing sticky darkness within.”

The Night Tiger is such a rich and magical story, full of bits of Chinese culture and thoroughly developed, interesting characters. The story alternates between 11-year-old houseboy Ren’s perspectives and that of a young woman named Ji Lin. Their stories are woven together, oddly enough, by the severed and preserved finger of Ren’s deceased master, which has inadvertently fallen into Ji Lin’s possession before Ren could reunite it with the rest of the body in its grave. Chinese folklore says that the body must be made whole in death or the departed cannot rest.

Ren’s story is dominated by a desperate need to locate the finger, while Ji Lin is enmeshed in a family drama propelled by a violent stepfather, a secretive mother, and a forbidden romance. (A side note and minor spoiler here: the romance aspect of this book was by far my least favorite; Ji Lin is in love with her step brother, and they’ve lived together since they were small children. No, they are not blood relatives, but they grew up together as family and I had trouble viewing them as anything other than siblings. End of spoilers.

The magical realism in the novel was really beautifully done, mainly woven into dreams, vague senses, and whispered-about folklore which may or may not be true. There are rumors of men who can turn into tigers, though we never see one, and a sense that those who have departed can still tip the scales in events of the living world in small ways. The end result is a magical, dreamy story that still feels anchored in the real world.

If I have any complaint about this book it’s that it did take me a while to become invested in the story and characters. The pacing early on feels a bit slow compared to the whirlwind of events at the end of the story. However, the overall story felt well worth the time investment by the end. The Night Tiger may be a great choice for fans of The Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker, or The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

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Review – The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris


The Tattooist of Auschwitz
by Heather Morris

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 262 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis: 

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

A vivid, harrowing, and ultimately hopeful re-creation of Lale Sokolov’s experiences as the man who tattooed the arms of thousands of prisoners with what would become one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust, The Tattooist of Auschwitz is also a testament to the endurance of love and humanity under the darkest possible conditions.

rating

two

I adore historical fiction and read more about WWII than any other historical time period, so it pains me to give this a negative review. I seem to be in the minority opinion on this book, judging by the 4.32 Goodreads average rating, but to say that the author’s style didn’t work for me would be an understatement.

Let me start with the story itself. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is based on a true story, and Lale’s story is definitely one that deserved to be told. Taken into the most infamous of Nazi concentration camps and forced into a kind of complicity in order to survive, Lale is sympathetic while being morally complicated. He struggles with the moral implications of his actions throughout the book, wondering if the extra rations he’s able to obtain and share with those who most need them can truly justify his cooperation with the Nazi guards by tattooing his fellow prisoners. He has a comparatively easy job and a position of relative safety in the camp, and this comes with it a sense of responsibility to those around him.

The love story (also based on Lale’s real life) should have been a highlight of the story for me, but I was never able to get invested. There’s something beautiful and bittersweet about finding a source of happiness and light in one of the darkest situations one can possibly encounter. However, the writing in this regard fell very flat for me; Lale falls in love with Gita more or less at first sight. For a young and romantic-minded man looking for any sense of comfort in Auschwitz, this is understandable, but Morris never fleshes out Gita’s character enough for this romance to be sustainable. We learn very little about her as a person, and so it became difficult to understand Lale’s continued infatuation with her as the story continued.

Finally, the main drawback of the book seemed to be the author’s personal writing style, and the issues I had with this became much more clear to me when I read this from the author’s Goodreads profile: “I originally wrote Lale’s story as a screenplay – which ranked high in international competitions – before reshaping it into my debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz.” It feels like there are a lot of echoes of the screenplay left over in the final product, as if Morris edited the original document rather than re-imagining it from scratch to better suit an entirely different medium. The end result is detached and mechanical in a lot of passages, reading more like stage directions than novels at times. (I’ve lost the exact place, so I cannot quote the passage, but one in particular stuck out like a sore thumb, describing someone standing up from a desk, taking off the hat they were wearing, and placing it in a specific spot on a desk in such unnecessary detail.)

Overall, I thought this novel had a lot of promise, but it unfortunately fell flat due to the author’s lack of experience in writing novels as opposed to screenplays. There is definitely a beautiful story somewhere under all the rough writing; there’s still a possibility of this being adapted into a movie, which I would love to see, despite my lackluster experience with the book.

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