Review: Make Me a City

“The nearer I get to the end, the more shame I have and the less shame I feel. Every year we pile it up, don’t we, all of us excepting the angels? Maybe that’s why we don’t all go lunatic. And why some of us do.”

Make Me a City (Jonathan Carr, published March 2019 by Henry Holt) is an intriguing tome—marketed as a fictional and “alternate history” to the building of Chicago, the novel is told by a narrator who is, in fact, presenting an alternate history to his peers. Following many disparate threads of remarkably different individuals over the course of one century, the work is exhaustive and, more than once, I wondered how much was rooted in truth (I mean, obviously, I know it’s fiction, but still). Beginning in 1800 “Echicagou” on the estate of Jean Baptiste Point de Sable—unrecognized and sadly victimized founder of the city—and later touching on the vivid lives of John Stephen Wright, Antje Hunter, Gus Swanson, and many others; the novel progresses through time, idling from one strand of the story to the next, offering readers an exhaustive collection of character portraits to feast upon. Each individual is distinctly crafted, each featuring his or her own fears and desires and fervent ambitions, all of which contribute to the city’s creation.

I enjoyed the novel’s odd collection of hosts and found the chapters about Antje, Gus, and Ms. Chappell the most engaging. Historical nuggets can be mined from the pages of the work—though fictional, there are many references to real players in our country’s history, and episodes portraying cultural nuances vividly.

More than once, though, I wondered . . . what is the point? The plot is very loosely constructed, and over the course of 450 pages, readers’ minds are apt to wander without a clear purpose driving the work forward. I know, I know: the point is to give an alternate, fictionalized history of Chicago. But I can’t help but feel that Carr was misled by his editor at times, where narratives could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.

By and large, the breadth of the work was overwhelming. I had to turn back several times to recall key details from previous scenes—I think there are about 12 perspectives through the novel, with 5-6 major players—and was sometimes frustrated by this. However, when a work is interesting, I’ll overlook this annoyance; and I suppose that the fact I finished the novel speaks for itself. Once the pieces began to come together, I couldn’t finish fast enough.

Overall: 3-ish(?) stars. Recommended for historical fiction buffs, mindful readers (this is not an easy/light read, folks!), and fans of generation-spanning sagas.

Thanks to Henry Holt Books for my review copy. All opinions are my own.

Fall 2018 Releases to Add to Your List

I don’t know about you, but this month was F U L L. In fact, it feels like Christmas is coming tomorrow — that’s how frazzled school has me! There are so many great books releasing that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on yet — A Spark of LightThe Witch ElmBridge of Clay — all by some tried-and-true authors that I go back to again and again. There are some other great reads you may not have heard about, though, that I’ve had the pleasure of reading + reviewing — check ’em out below!

  1. The Caregiver by Samuel Park. Simon & Schuster, September 2018. This work focuses on the complex and tumultuous relationship between young Mara Alencar and her mother, Ana, in a Rio neighborhood in the 1970s; and alternately, the relationship between Mara and the woman she cares for within her home in 1990s Bel Air, Kathryn. My full review can be read here.
  2. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. Tin House, October 2018. I’ve already sung a love song to this dark, atmospheric read here. This novel is a very literary work, chock-full of evocative imagery, symbolism, and the kinds of features that make English Lit majors’ hearts go pitter-pat. If you’re in the mood for something with a classic vibe and all kinds of eerie features, this is the read for you. (And if you’re in the mood for something action-packed, keep moving.)
  3. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Collins, October 2018. A dense, thought-provoking tome from a seasoned author, Unsheltered is a tale of two time periods: 1880s and present-day Vineland, NJ. Alternating between Willa, modern-day mother and freelance journalist struggling to hold together the pieces of her crumbling family (and home) and Thatcher, science teacher and sadly undervalued husband to a very unappreciative young wife in the 1880s. The two narratives are connected by the characters’ place of residence, both then and now a deteriorating and poorly cobbled-together structure that is symbolic of their own ragged lives. A bit overwrought in terms of philosophical political conversations, but the story and characters are compelling, nonetheless.
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird (graphic novel) by Harper Lee, adapted and illustrated by Fred Fordham. Harper Books, October 2018. This classic novel, recently chosen as America’s favorite novel per PBS’s Great American Read vote-off, was republished this month with a bit of a twist. The novel was reworked into a graphic novel, which means that teachers who are sharing the classic coming-of-age tale with students will have an accessible option for those kids who “hate reading.” Shudders — is there such a thing? 

A few others on my stack that I haven’t gotten to but am looking forward to reading soon:

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Tin House, September 2018. “…the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest.” Coming-of-age novel set in the heartland? Ummm, count me in.
  • An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. Henry Holt & Co., November 2018. A nonfiction work of…true crime?…that follows one woman’s obsessive investigation into a mysterious assumed-suicide at the former Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Upping the ante: she uncovers a string of believed-suicides in previous decades, all at the same hotel. I’m HERE FOR IT.

That’s all for now! Back to the school-and-mama-life grind it is. Happy Halloween, and as ever, happy reading, friends.

Review: Not Our Kind

I’m a sucker for historical fiction. I won’t even try to deny it: I’m obsessed. It’s always been my thing, though, to be honest; my first literary love affair was with the American Girl: Felicity and Little House series, both of which I read numerous times. I daydreamed about living in colonial houses at the start of the American Revolution; and of living in a dugout on the plains, not too far from where I grew up.

Some of my adult favorites include The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. When Harper Books offered an advance copy of Not Our Kind, then, I jumped at the opportunity to read and review the title by Kitty Zeldis (pseudonym). Here’s the synopsis:

One rainy morning in June, two years after the end of World War II, a minor traffic accident brings together Eleanor Moskowitz and Patricia Bellamy. Their encounter seems fated: Eleanor, a teacher and recent Vassar graduate, needs a job. Patricia’s difficult thirteen-year-old daughter, Margaux, recovering from polio, needs a private tutor.

Though she feels out of place in the Bellamys’ rarefied and elegant Park Avenue milieu, Eleanor forms an instant bond with Margaux. Soon the idealistic young woman is filling the bright young girl’s mind with Shakespeare and Latin. Though her mother, a hatmaker with a little shop on Second Avenue, disapproves, Eleanor takes pride in her work, even if she must use the name “Moss” to enter the Bellamys’ restricted doorman building each morning and feels that Patricia’s husband, Wynn, may have a problem with her being Jewish.

Invited to keep Margaux company at the Bellamys’ country home in a small town in Connecticut, Eleanor meets Patricia’s unreliable, bohemian brother, Tom, recently returned from Europe. The spark between Eleanor and Tom is instant and intense. Flushed with new romance and increasingly attached to her young pupil, Eleanor begins to feel more comfortable with Patricia and much of the world she inhabits. As the summer wears on, the two women’s friendship grows — until one hot summer evening when a line is crossed. Both Eleanor and Patricia will have to make important decisions — choices that will reverberate through their lives.

Unfortunately, my excitement was short lived. Not Our Kind began with an engaging start — an unfortunate accident crosses the paths of Gentile and Jew, post-WWII — but soon devolved into a frenzy of hot-and-cold emotions and a cast of characters in a story arc that felt more like a juvenile romance novel than adult fiction.

Characters had every opportunity for depth and complexity, but instead, I found them to be drawn with broad strokes. Where Patricia Bellamy faced a number of struggles — conflict with her only daughter, whom she desperately wants to love; a growing distance between herself and her ghastly husband; the battle between what is right and what is socially accepted — instead, Zeldis spends a majority of the novel focusing on Patricia’s reluctance to sacrifice her social standing, wealth, and personal respect in exchange for treating a Jew as a human being. While this sort of thinking is no doubt par for the course among white Americans after the war, I sincerely wish Zeldis had focused equally — or moreso — on other sources of emotional trauma for the character. In particular, I was largely off-put by the “resolution” of one of Patricia’s most climactic problems in the story; a resolution which was ultimately hastily cobbled together and left me wanting so much more.

Additionally, emotions ran hot and cold — there was absolutely no in-between. One minute, a character was sorrowful and withdrawn; the next, chipper and flamboyant. Decisions were made with about as much thought as it takes to flip a light switch. Major conflicts were resolved more conveniently than I like, and the writing ultimately just felt . . . juvenile. Abundant cliches, an overwhelming abuse of adjectives, cringe-worthy metaphors. *Sigh.*

I know that all sounds bad, and, well, it wasn’t great. However, I did have enough of an interest in the storyline to finish the book; and I feel that the novel would have been stronger if an editor had told the author: don’t make this such a deliberately preachy book — just tell the damn story and let readers come to their own conclusions. Too often, I felt that Zeldis was trying to spoon-feed me the theme; and honestly, that’s something I outgrew in grade school. All of this is sadly too bad: themes like consent and racism ended up feeling like generic concepts the author wanted to write about but couldn’t manage to compose effectively for an adult audience.

Overall: 2/5 stars. If you’re not looking for a super impactful or dense story and enjoy YA fiction, this book will probably be a welcome distraction. Truthfully, if a couple of steamy-ish sex scenes were removed, this would be a great book for those romance-monger teenage girls that populate the halls of my middle school.

Thanks to Harper Books for sharing an advance copy of the novel with me in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Read Next: For Lovers of History

At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.

I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉

One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)

To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
  2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
  3. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
  4. October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
  6. ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
  7. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
  8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.

What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!

Review: Pachinko

My first read of 2018 — at least, the first book I started and finished this year — is a stunner, y’all, and it left me feeling absolutely drained. But in a good way, y’know? I tried explaining my feelings to my husband while I neared the end of the book and he was not having it at all.


#BookwormLife looks a little different now that I’ve got a toy-monger on my hands…

Pachinko had been sitting on my shelf for 11 months. ELEVEN. I chose it as my February 2017 book in my BOTM box, and then I kind of just neglected the poor thing for basically — gulp — an entire year. But, in the spirit of Bookstagram’s #theunreadshelfproject, I made this hefty tome my first read of the year and it did not disappoint. In fact, I’m a little worried about the rest of 2018, because Min Jin Lee set the bar preeeeeetty damn high. (Sorry in advance, Other Books, which I shall spend the year comparing to this one…)


Synopsis: The novel opens in 1910 in Korea, in a small village where a man and his wife run a boarding house. In a few short pages, readers are given a short rundown of a couple generations and introduced to Yangjin, the widower who runs the boarding house in the 1920s, and her daughter, Sunja — a simple but sturdy girl who works diligently and efficiently alongside her mother. Sunja is 16 when she first meets Koh Hansu, a wealthy broker at the local market where Sunja does her shopping. Although Hansu is much older than Sunja, she is drawn to the clean, wealthy, kindly-seeming man when he rescues her from an undesirable situation. The two become friends, seemingly innocently, until one day Sunja becomes something else to Hansu: his lover. The two revel in one another’s company until Sunja discovers she is pregnant — and that Hansu is married with three children of his own. Crushed, Sunja dismisses Hansu from her life and marries another man before moving to Japan. As years pass like the falling of sand through an hourglass, Sunja never forgets the handsome man she had first fallen in love with; but she also remains a dedicated wife and mother to her children. Through many trying decades and oftentimes seemingly insurmountable adversity, Sunja persists in a quest for more than just survival; rather, for the fullness and richness of a life well-lived.


Pachinko is an extraordinary family saga in the vein of Amy Tan’s many works, but set against a backdrop of WWII-era Japan and the postwar culture that continued to discriminate against those of Korean descent. I’ve read minimal works set in Japan (or even told from an Asian culture’s perspective) during the World War II years (and the years following), so I was fascinated by the narrative that Lee offered readers. I was especially surprised to discover the rampant and open racism and hostility that the Japanese displayed toward Koreans, which extended so far as to require Koreans to register for permission to stay in the country when they turned 14 and every 3 years following — even if they’d been born in Japan to begin with.

The novel is so much more than an examination of race or prejudice, though; Pachinko is a love song to women and, in particular, mothers. More than one matron’s dedication to her children is featured in this novel, which explores what it means to truly be a mother — and what it means to be family. I found so much to savor in the flowering of Sunja as she became a mother and defied cultural norms and traditional expectations. It was truly a treat to follow her lifetime throughout the course of the novel and I found myself crying sympathetically at many moments in the book.

The Good: Pachinko is a deeply moving, vivid family saga that provides insight to a different culture than is commonly found in contemporary literature. The characters are all developed so thoroughly that readers won’t be able to help becoming attached — and invested in their outcomes. The length of the novel, though perhaps a deterrent to some, ends up being a huge “pro” for the story, allowing multiple character storylines to play out and the plot to reach a satisfying and not-ridiculous or -rushed outcome.

The Bad: It’s not such a bad thing, per se, but the novel isn’t one that can be read absentmindedly. Pachinko is a demanding work that requires both time and devout attention. I do wish that Haruki’s storyline would have been drawn to some sort of conclusion, but I recognize that he wasn’t a major character and the cliff Lee leaves us at is a concession I’m willing to make.

The Verdict: 5 stars. This is a stellar, impressive work for those who are fans of Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini or Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Although the novel is a bit lengthy, every glorious page matters.

January Reading Roundup

January: A month of renewal, self-improvement, and firmer resolve. I’m speaking about reading habits, of course. 😉

At the end of last year, pregnancy hormones took over and I was quite literally too tired to even read most days after school. (A tragedy, I know.) At the end of December, I realized that September, October, and November had skated by without so much as the completion of one book per month; and friends, that just isn’t right.

Now that the second trimester is well underway, my feverish need to sleep 70% of the day subsided somewhat and I was able to tackle several new reads in January! As a teacher, free time for reading isn’t exactly a luxury; I’m pretty content with my little stack ‘o five! I’ve officially averaged one book per week this year . . . and I’ll drink (grape juice) to that any day.

The Roundup, in particular order (most enjoyed -> most meh):

  1. Descent by Tim Johnston. Genre: Mystery/thriller. I picked up this eerie-looking novel at the local Hastings store as the store heaved its last, sobering, death-rattling breaths. At 70% off, I couldn’t have landed a better deal (unless the book had been given to me, of course). Johnston’s novel opens with an 18-year-old girl and her brother heading out for a run/bike ride in the mountains of Colorado as their parents drowse through the early morning hours of their family vacation. When an accident occurs on the mountain, Caitlin is taken and her family is left to their own devices in the grueling disconnect that comes with her absence. A once-seemingly typical family unit (though not without their flaws) disintegrates at the seams in the months that follow Caitlin’s disappearance. Although the novel was difficult for me to engage with initially, I came to appreciate Johnston’s unique storytelling ability and intentional use of language. The writing became a treat (once Mr. Johnston and I had acquainted ourselves better), and I became entangled in the greatly unexpected complexity and depth of this contemporary thriller. Where so many others have fallen short, Descent holds its own with motifs of distrust, forgiveness, personal anchoring, strife, and familial relationships. At 100 pages, you’ll be invested; at 200 pages, absorbed; and at 250 pages, feverishly racing to uncover the treasure that is Descent. Rating: 4.5/5 — Verdict: You will not regret this one. Unless, of course, you don’t read it.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Genre: Fiction/humor. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Backman’s writing, it became inevitable that at some point in time, I would pick up one of his works. A Man Called Ove is a charming and quick read about Ove (Ooo-vuh, I’ve been told), an elderly-isn man living in a Swedish suburb. Persnickety, irritable, and stereotypically grumpy-old-man-ish, Ove lives alone in a house that once also held his beloved wife, Sonja. Without her, Ove spreads misery wherever he goes. (Truth be told, even with her, he seems to have been a bit sour.) When a new family moves in next door (and breaks about a dozen rules as they go), Ove has no choice but to interact with these imbeciles who can’t back up a trailer, can’t use their own bathrooms, and can’t use a ladder properly. Humph! I won’t share any further plot details at this point, as doing so would give away the premise of the novel; however, I can assure you that this book will make you chuckle, smirk, sob, and laugh out loud a time or two. Ove’s prickly-but-loveable persona are easy to latch onto in this book about friendship, loyalty, death, and living in the wake of death. Rating: 4/5 — Verdict: Cute, sweet, and heartfelt; this book has all the components of a perfect weekend read.
  3. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Genre: Historical fiction. I reviewed this one earlier this month, so I’ll just offer a few brief thoughts here. The Wonder felt like a complex read to me. Not because the language was difficult, or the plot all that challenging; but because the issues of morality, faithfulness, skepticism, and duty created such strong foundation for this novel. Although I didn’t find this book an equal to Donoghue’s Room in terms of interest and “wow-factor,” I really appreciated her intense portrait of unfailing piety contrasted with ceaseless skepticism. Rating: 3.5/5 (I’m adding a half star, FYI) — Verdict: An intriguing and not even remotely preachy novel about sticking to your guns in the face of great pressure? Yeah. Count me in.
  4. The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. Genre: Historical fiction. I’ve also already reviewed this book thoroughly here, so I’ll save you some time and spare you the long synopsis. Writing is a bit clunky throughout the novel, and characters are fairly predictable; but the story offers a unique twist on a widely written-about topic: the persecution of Jews during World War II. While the novel lacks complexity, Belfoure makes up for this shortcoming with an interesting storyline and characters worth rooting for. Rating: 3/5 — Verdict: Worth a read, but not a book that will land on your top 10 list (or even your top 50, if I were to venture a guess).
  5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Genre: Dystopian/science fiction. A slow-moving tale about a group of English boarding students who are seemingly living the dream at Havisham, an immense property tucked away in a secret corner of the country. Readers discover the nature (and purpose) of main character Kath’s life as she reflects on her upbringing at Havisham and her relationships with her peers and teachers. The novel is maddeningly cryptic throughout. Ishiguro’s slow reveal of the mysterious truths that Kath spends her life trying to uncover is purposeful — and enormously frustrating. Overall, I enjoyed the questions this book forces one to consider; namely, what makes us human? And just how great and terrible can our losses be when we wait for the safest opportunities to act? Rating: 2.5/5 — Verdict: Sadly, a “meh” book for me.

The great thing about reading books? You can always find a reader that has uncovered an entirely different layer of meaning and value in a work you consider beloved or unworthy. Read any of these titles and have some insight to share? Comment below!

As always, happy reading, friends — and happy February!

Review: The Wonder

I first encountered Emma Donoghue’s writing two years ago after a friend recommended I pick up her uncomfortable and riveting novel, Room. I was immediately impressed by this author’s ability to tackle such a sensitive (and disturbing) topic with finesse. When I learned of her newest release, The Wonder, via Book of the Month Club, it was easy to persuade myself to select that novel.

Set in Ireland in the mid-1800s, the novel opens with its main character — no, not the title subject — nurse Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a widow native to England and trained in the science of nursing by the renowned Florence Nightingale. Lib has been sent to Ireland for a two-week job, parameters largely unbeknownst to her. Upon arrival, she discovers she is to be a “warden” of sorts for young Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl who hasn’t partaken of food or drink (other than water) in four months. Locals — and travelers from abroad — believe the young maiden is a miracle, living according to God’s will. After her first day in the poverty-stricken country, Lib is determined to prove the child is a fraud and wash her hands of the scandal before her two weeks are up, if possible.

Initially, Lib harbors feelings of great resentment — for her job assignment, for Anna’s presumed deceptiveness, for the gloomy conditions of Ireland, and for the zealous Catholics she can’t seem to escape. A nonbeliever, Lib finds the impoverished people of Ireland embarrassingly loony for their dependency upon church teachings and traditional Irish folklore. As the days pass, though, she realizes there is more to these people than meets her hawk-like eye. While her watch winds to a close, Lib becomes ensnared in a frenzied race against time that will permanently alter the course of her life.

The Good: The book is told by an outside narrator; but the narrative most closely follows Lib’s experiences and observations, providing readers with more ample insight into the perspective of the oft-irritating main character. Additionally, though the book is deeply rooted in religious themes, the novel never feels preachy or assuming. As a Catholic, I was fascinated to read about a time period in which members of the Church relied so heavily (and often literally) upon the teachings of scripture and priests. I also thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious feel of this story. During the last third of the book, I jumped from one theory to another, trying to determine how Anna’s story would end. I was not disappointed in the outcome of this novel. (Exception: See the last item on my Not-So-Good list.) Finally, The Wonder is a success due to Donoghue’s contrasting characters and their ideals: the relationships between English and Irish, Catholics and non-believers, educated and uneducated, and so forth. Her novel’s greatest strength lies in the conflicts that she’s so craftily woven together.

The Not-So-Good: This book is a very, very slow burn. One might even say it smolders. . . . While I was intrigued by the premise of the story, I had a hard time truly getting into the book until after the first 3 chapters were concluded. This may be, in part, because Lib is such a remarkably stubborn and one-dimensional character for so long. Her stubbornness is key to the story, of course; but the first two-thirds of the book was infuriatingly tedious. Also, on an admittedly nitpicky point, I was irritated by the volume of italicized phrases throughout the novel. Donoghue used italics frequently to emphasize particular ideas or revelations Lib had throughout the book, and these often just ended up feeling cheesy to me. Again: extremely nitpicky, but the excessive italics grated at me like sandpaper. One final “meh” moment: the epilogue of the book. Many laud the (very) end as the one redeeming quality of the narrative; however, I felt the epilogue was too convenient and not altogether necessary. I’m interested to hear how others feel . . .

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Not the most thrilling or engaging read, but an intriguing piece of historical fiction with a worthy conclusion and mysterious vibe.

Review: An Eclectic Mix for the End of Summer

As my summer winds down and the last few weeks of personal freedom come to a close before the start of another school year, the familiar frenzied urge stirs again within my soul. It is time: I must read as many books as possible before my precious reading-for-pleasure hours dwindle to scraps of minutes here and there, between ball games and during plan periods and after the soft snores of my husband have begun.

Without further ado, I offer you fairly brief reviews of the eclectic combination that comprised my reading list for the beginning of August:

  1. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. Genre: history, true crime. img_4096 This nonfiction work, originally published in 2002, vividly paints a picture of 1890s-era Chicago and its strife to pull off one of the greatest one-uppers in history: the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, or World’s Fair. Following the debut of the Eiffel Tower, American architects felt a need to deliver something far more grand than the structure they felt was really quite hideous. In fewer than three years, several of the nation’s greatest architects, engineers, and creative minds collaborated to design the White City, a paradise so beautiful and magnificent it’s almost a mirage next to the crime-laden, filthy “Black City” of Chicago. While Larson spins a tale of the pop-up city and America’s obsession with proving itself capable of refined tastes and flourishes of beauty, he weaves in another captivating narrative thread: the development of Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as H.H. Holmes — America’s first serial killer. The story alternates between the many misfortunes and setbacks faced by the fair’s developers, and the inexplicably successful life of a most charming murderer. While many were frustrated that the bulk of the novel is dedicated to the building of the fair (and as such, that the title of the book is misleading), I would argue that Larson’s alternating storylines painted a vivid picture of the time period, place, and people, vital to readers’ understanding of how an individual like Holmes could get away with heinous crimes for so long. Holmes’ horrific crimes are mostly alluded to throughout the book, which is perfectly fine with me; I did not seek a macabre retelling of every evisceration or slaughter. The author provides a wealth of detail in describing the construction of Holmes’ castle, in which a gas chamber, crematorium, and body-chute all play prevalent roles. Readers are rewarded with a thrilling finish that is both mesmerizing and deeply chilling. I loved this book for its rich historical details and easy readability. 4/5 stars
  2. The High Divide, by Lin Enger. Genre: western, historical fiction. img_4095 This 2014 publication, set in the great Northern Plains of 1886, follows the melancholy tale of a family struggling for clarity after husband and father Ulysses Pope takes off without saying a word of farewell, and offering little explanation. True to small-town Midwest living, the Pope family’s Minnesota neighbors begin to gossip, certain the man has left for another woman. Meanwhile, the family struggles to survive in their dire financial straits. Ulysses’ teenage sons, Eli and Danny, take off after their father after intercepting a mysterious letter from an unknown woman in Bismarck, North Dakota. Faced with the threat of losing both her husband and her sons, Gretta Pope embarks on her own wild goose chase across the country, determined to salvage at least part of her family. Along the way, Gretta and her boys discover truths about their father they could never have dreamed — and all begin to ask themselves if their family is really what it seemed. This western is rich in its themes of the resilience of family ties, the expansive western frontier, and the great injustices committed by the U.S. government and its citizens due to a misled sense of “patriotic” duty. Overall, I enjoyed this story of a man’s struggle for redemption, but found the first half dragged on a bit and the ending was a bit too convenient and contrived for my taste. 3.5/5 stars
  3. Winter Garden, by Kristin Hannah. Genre: fiction. Published in 2010 by Kristin Hannah (author of The Nightingale), Winter Garden tells the story of two sisters and their mother, each quite estranged from the others. img_4097Raised in an awkward home by a loving father who couldn’t quite make up for the distant frigidity of their Russian mother, Meredith and Nina are two distinctly different adults. Meredith is the image of a perfect wife and mother: she’s devoted the last twenty years of her life to raising her two daughters, who are well on their way to becoming successful women in their own rights. For all the love she didn’t receive from her own mother, Meredith bestows her own affection twofold upon her daughters — unfortunately, the same can’t be said for her treatment of her husband. Nina, on the other hand, lives a wild, unpredictable life as a world-famous photographer, known for her work in war-torn third-world countries. The three Whitson women are forced together again after the death of the family’s patriarch, and after a lifetime of ignoring one another, sparks are bound to fly. The novel reveals a lesser-known tear in the fabric of our world’s history in an engaging story you’ll want to stay up late to read. I was captivated (again) by Hannah’s fantastic storytelling abilities in this exploration of family relationships — especially, what it means to be a good wife and/or mother, while retaining personal identity. 4/5 stars

Now . . . I’m off to squeeze in a couple more reads before in-services begin Wednesday. Read on, friends.