Book Review ~ Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Summary ~ Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay ~ From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.De Rosnay’s U.S. debut fictionalizes the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver outside the city, then transported to Auschwitz. Forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond, American by birth, moved to Paris when she was 20 and is married to the arrogant, unfaithful Bertrand Tézac, with whom she has an 11-year-old daughter. Julia writes for an American magazine and her editor assigns her to cover the 60th anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups. Julia soon learns that the apartment she and Bertrand plan to move into was acquired by Bertrand’s family when its Jewish occupants were dispossessed and deported 60 years before. She resolves to find out what happened to the former occupants: Wladyslaw and Rywka Starzynski, parents of 10-year-old Sarah and four-year-old Michel. The more Julia discovers—especially about Sarah, the only member of the Starzynski family to survive—the more she uncovers about Bertrand’s family, about France and, finally, herself. Already translated into 15 languages, the novel is De Rosnay’s 10th (but her first written in English, her first language). It beautifully conveys Julia’s conflicting loyalties, and makes Sarah’s trials so riveting, her innocence so absorbing, that the book is hard to put down.

sarahskeyfinalcover

Using a perfect blend of historical fiction and women’s literature, Tatiana de Rosnay has delivered a wonderful, heartbreaking and most memorable novel in Sarah’s Key.  Like De Rosnay’s character, Julia, I was not aware of the Vél’ d’Hiv’ roundups in Paris during WWII.  I love reading historical fiction because if the author did their job correctly, the historical aspect of the story is told well and accurately, the book leads me to questions and to finding more answers. 

Sarah’s Key is not a happy book by any means.  The two main characters de Rosnay introduces to the reader are Sarah and Julia.  Sarah was a little girl, living her life in Paris, France with her loving parents and little brother, when the Nazis started to ravage Europe.  The French police, working in time with the Germans through fear, rounded up Jewish families from all over France, but in this story the focus is on the Paris round up that led to the Vél’ d’Hiv’.  Thinking it was best to hide her younger brother during a raid on her family’s home, Sarah locks her brother in their secret hiding spot, a hidden cupboard in their room, and promises to return soon to free him.  Her plan goes up in smoke when she realizes that she and her parents are being deported from Paris along with thousands of other Jews. 

Flash forward to 2002 and we meet Julia.  An American, living in France for half her life, married to a Frenchman and the mother of a lovely and quizzical tween girl.  Julia is a journalist for an American magazine in Paris.  She gets assigned to cover the sixtieth anniversary of the Vél’ d’Hiv’.  While researching this horrible event in France’s history she discovers the story of Sarah and her family and the ties her in-law family has to them.   Julia is not only bombarded by the harsh discoveries of human suffering she makes while researching her article, she is also suffering in her personal life.  She is faced with decisions she never dreamed she would have to make and finds that life can’t be planned and doesn’t always turn out how you thought it would. 

To talk about the way the book read for a moment, I really liked how de Rosnay didn’t call Sarah or any of her family members by name until later.  It was representative of the thousands and thousands of Jews who were, in a word, exterminated by the Nazis in WWII.  We are like the people of Europe who didn’t do more than watch the Jews drag themselves, unwillingly out of their hometowns and to the camps.  The conditions described in Sarah’s Key were told so explicitly that I felt sick to my stomach at times.  That this is only a fictional re-telling of what happened every day is eye-opening. 

I believe that Sarah’s Key should be read by many and, like Julia, I hope that the horrors of WWII are never forgotten.  As the years go by we are losing war veterans and Holocaust survivors daily.  After they are all gone we will only have history and stories like Sarah’s Key to help us remember.

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ Final Theory by Mark Alpert

Summary ~ Final Theory by Mark Alpert
Columbia University professor David Swift is called to the hospital to comfort his mentor, a physicist who’s been brutally attacked.  With his last words, the dying man gives his former pupil a seemingly random string of numbers that could hold the key to Einstein’s last and greatest secret.
Einheitliche Feldtheorie.  Einstein’s proposed Unified Theory – a set of equations that could explain all the forces of nature – would have revolutionized our understanding of the universe.  But Einstein never discovered it.  Or did he?
Within hours, David is arrested and interrogated by the FBI.  But they’re not the only faction pursuing the long-hidden theory.  A Russian mercenary also wants David to talk – and he will do whatever it takes.
On the run for his life, David teams up with an old girlfriend, a brilliant Princeton scientist, and frantically tries to piece together Einstein’s final theory to reveal its staggering consequences.

cover-final-theory

What a fun, terrifying and thrilling book this was!  Mark Alpert’s debut novel, Final Theory, helped to bring me out of my reader’s block and into a world that, if Albert Einstein had succeeded in discovering the Theory of Everything, would be a far more dangerous and scarier place than the real world already is.  Having a world renowned physicist (in the world of physics and mathematics) for a father may have helped me pick up this book based on the premise but it was the thrill of the chase and the characters that kept me reading. 

David Swift is leading a life as a divorced father, allowed to spend only a few precious hours a day with his beloved son Jonah, when his life is changed suddenly and drastically.  A friend of his has been tortured for information and is dying at a New York City hospital and David has been summoned to see him in his last moments.  It’s in this meeting that David finds himself on a quest to keep Einstein’s Einheitliche Feldtheorie safe from the monsters who are on the hunt for it, which led to David’s friend’s imminent death.  And so David goes on a dangerous, quick paced adventure that will reunite him with a woman from his past as well as a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotic Institute, whom David had interviewed for a book he published about Einstein and his assistants. 

The characters in Final Theory are rich, special, well written and helped to draw me in to this great story.  I was continuously surprised with the plot twists and found myself exclaiming out loud, “Oh my God!” over and over at certain parts of the book.  That’s a good book if you ask me!  It had been a while since I read a real thriller and I enjoyed the quick pace and excitement that Mark Alpert gets across through the written word. 

The last real thriller I read was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.  Last September, the Large Hadron Accelerator at CERN  under the France/Switzerland border (part of the focus of Brown’s bestseller), suffered a malfunction shortly after being turned on for an experiment that would possibly recreate the Big Bang within the particle accelerator.  (You can learn more about that experiment HERE.)  Well, this April, to help promote the May release of the film adaptation of Angels and Demons, Tom Hanks will flip the switch after repairs to the damaged magnets are completed.  This Hadron Accelerator is like the Tevatron at Fermilab, outside of Chicago, which plays a roll in Alpert’s Final Theory.  To learn more about the CERN event click HERE.  I could picture the film adaptation of Final Theory very easily as I was reading it and wouldn’t be surprised if we are lining up at the theatre in coming years to watch that very thing.   

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Mark Alpert is an editor at Scientific American.  His job is to simplify “complex scientific ideas for the magazine’s readers.”  Alpert has made a little video introducing his book, Final Theory, which you can view below. 

Book Review ~ The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee

Summary ~ The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee ~

In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese, with terrible consequences for both of them, and for members of their fragile community who will betray each other in the darkest days of the war.

Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the colony’s heady social life. She soon begins an affair, only to discover that her lover’s enigmatic demeanor hides a devastating past.

As the threads of this spellbinding novel intertwine and converge, a landscape of impossible choices emerges—between love and safety, courage and survival, the present and, above all, the past.

A Novel

Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher was not what I expected.  Not in way of the story but in how I wished to love it from beginning to end.  The first sixty pages or so were slow, unable to grasp my attention for more than a few moments at a time and were full of characters that I couldn’t become emotionally invested in.  Then the arrival of WWII and all that came with it turned the great city of Hong Kong and it’s civilians upside down and with those events a new book emerged to me.  A book full of mystery, deception, love, risk, and horrific descriptions of how brutal war can be. 

The Piano Teacher is the story of a young British woman named Claire, fresh off the boat in Hong Kong and fresh into a world she didn’t know existed.  She is married to Martin, an older Englishman who concerns himself with work at the Waterworks plant and not with the events that soon fill up his wife’s days.  Claire surprises herself by taking up a position with a Chinese family as their young daughter’s piano teacher.  The affiliation with the Chen’s opens a new world to Claire, full of party invitations, a whole new circle of people and an introduction to Will, the man who will sweep her off her feet and change her life forever.  Will has a story to tell but he doesn’t share details easily.  The first part of The Piano Teacher flips between 1952 and Claire’s torrid affair with Will and ten years prior, telling the stories of Will before WWII and the love of his life, Trudy.    

The Piano Teacher is a rich, disturbing and refreshing look at WWII.  It shows the reader the horrors that more than likely occurred on the other side of the world.  Living in Okinawa, I am familiar with the history of the Japanese invasion of this little island.  In The Piano Teacher you read of the Japanese invasion of another small area of the Orient.  If you are a fan of the 1987 film, Empire of the Sun, this may be the book for you.  Empire of the Sun is one of my all time favorite films based on the autobiographical novel by J. G. Ballard which tells the story of a young boy who is separated from his family when Japanese Forces invade Shanghai and he is sent to a work camp where he survives the war. 

If you have the patience to get through the first few chapters of The Piano Teacher, and maybe you will love it right from the start, this book is worth the time investment.  The characters become vivid and the story builds and builds as the war escalates and reaches the corners of the globe. 

{Rating ~ 3.75 out of 5}

Book Review ~ American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Summary ~ American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld:

On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband’s presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House–and the repercussions of a life lived, as she puts it, “almost in opposition to itself.”

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. But a tragic accident when she was seventeen shattered her identity and made her understand the fragility of life and the tenuousness of luck. So more than a decade later, when she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise, Alice fell for Charlie.

As Alice learns to make her way amid the clannish energy and smug confidence of the Blackwell family, navigating the strange rituals of their country club and summer estate, she remains uneasy with her newfound good fortune. And when Charlie eventually becomes President, Alice is thrust into a position she did not seek–one of power and influence, privilege and responsibility. As Charlie’s tumultuous and controversial second term in the White House wears on, Alice must face contradictions years in the making: How can she both love and fundamentally disagree with her husband? How complicit has she been in the trajectory of her own life? What should she do when her private beliefs run against her public persona?

In Alice Blackwell, New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has created her most dynamic and complex heroine yet. American Wife is a gorgeously written novel that weaves class, wealth, race, and the exigencies of fate into a brilliant tapestry–a novel in which the unexpected becomes inevitable, and the pleasures and pain of intimacy and love are laid bare.

Are we living the life we are meant to live?  That is a big question to ask yourself when you are the First Lady of the United States of America.  A story of a fictional woman with so many realistic characteristics, feelings, expressions and faults, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife  invites you in and doesn’t let you go, even when the last word has been read.  It’s easy to notice some similarities between Sittenfeld’s fictional character, Alice Blackwell, and our now former First lady, Laura Bush, but if you can just read American Wife without researching the real thing, you will be entertained, provoked and you’ll get to know a wonderful and likable character in modern day American fiction.  It is also these similarities between fact and fiction that makes me glad I read American Wife when I did.  I have completed reading this book in the wake of the true life former First Family’s departure from the Washington, national and global spotlight.

American Wife looks at its main character, Alice Blackwell, over her first sixty-one years.  We meet her where the end of the book leaves off, as the wife of The President of the United States but then Alice takes us back with her as she re-evaluates her life and remembers all of the colorful characters that have helped mold her into what she is today.  Alice experiences sadness that some never face in their whole lifetime during the vulnerable and forming years of high school.    It is these events that cause her to question whether she really is deserving of the great pleasures and successes she experiences later in life.

American Wife consists of four parts which are titled with the addresses she lives her life at.  First is her parent’s house followed a few years later by the apartment where she resides when she first meets her future husband, Charlie Blackwell.  Her third home is the beautiful, cozy and sometimes too big but not quite big enough McMansion where Charlie and Alice start to raise their daughter Ella (who at times reminded me of what I know about Chelsea Clinton) and begin to learn about each other in a way that changes them for good but also for better.  Of course the fourth part is titled 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the address of The White House.  At first I wished that Sittenfeld wasn’t leaving such big gaps of time between these sections but throughout she did keep things fresh and do we really need to read all the little, everyday details that fill up the Blackwell’s days? 

American Wife is a wonderful work of fiction, reportedly inspired by Laura Bush and the biographies, Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady by Ronald Kessler and The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush by Ann Gerhart.  The detail in the characters, plots and events are so rich that I felt like I was sitting down with a woman who had experienced more than most and she was willingly sharing stories about all of it.  My only regret is reading a newspaper review of this book at some point before reading it.  The critic pointed out Sittenfeld may have used Part 4 of American Wife to portray her own negative opinion of our 43rd President.  This became distracting as I read this last segment of a book that I was really enjoying.  Sometimes fiction is just fiction and you have to read it as it is and not look for hidden meanings left by the author. 

I have been reading the reviews and articles linked on Curits Sittenfeld’s website since finishing American Wife and was struck with one reviewers observation.  In her Article in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd says, “It’s the sort of novel Laura Bush might curl up with in the White House solarium if it were not about Laura Bush.  It would be interesting to hear how that lover of fiction feels about being the subject of fiction.” 

{ Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

For more about Curtis Sittenfeld and American Wife, be sure to check out http://curtissittenfeld.com/.

Book Review ~ The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

Summary ~ The Little Giant of Aberdeen CountyFrom Publishers Weekly~Starred Review.  Baker’s bangup debut mixes the exuberant eccentricities of John Irving’s Garp, Anne Tyler’s relationship savvy and the plangent voice of Margaret Atwood. In an upstate New York backwater, Truly, massive from birth, has a bleak existence with her depressed father and her china-doll–like sister, Serena Jane. Truly grows at an astonishing rate—her girth the result of a pituitary gland problem—and after her father dies when Truly is 12, Truly is sloughed off to the Dyersons, a hapless farming family. Her outsize kindness surfaces as she befriends the Dyersons’ outcast daughter, Amelia, and later leaves her beloved Dyerson farm to take care of Serena Jane’s husband and son after Serena Jane leaves them. Haunting the margins of Truly’s story is that of Tabitha Dyerson, a rumored witch whose secrets afford a breathtaking role reversal for Truly. It’s got all the earmarks of a hit—infectious and lovable narrator, a dash of magic, an impressive sweep and a heartrending but not treacly family drama. It’ll be a shame if this doesn’t race up the bestseller lists.

What an absolutely enthralling, exciting, depressing, uplifting, tear inducing, story-telling book we have in Tiffany Baker’s debut novel, The Little Giant of Aberdeen County.  Truly Plaice is a larger than life character in every sense of the phrase.  She is physically enormous and continues to grow and grow but not only in body but in character, soul and heart.  Truly is not dealt the best hand in life.  Her birth ends her mother’s life (she was huge from the beginning) and when her father passes away and leaves her sister Serena Jane and Truly at the hands of townspeople, the two are forever separated from each other.  They were separated from each other from the very beginning of life though.  Where Truly is large, sturdy, loyal and ugly (on the outside), Serena Jane is petite, beautiful, fragile, flighty and interested in helping herself and not others. 

Truly’s story takes us through her life and there we meet the people who imprint themselves on her soul and in our minds forever.  The doctor/brother-in-law who torments Truly his whole days through and is the most evil character I’ve read in a long while.  The boy who stole Truly’sheart through letters while he was in the jungles of Southeast Asia, fighting for our country.  The teacher who was the first to call Truly by the name she feared to hear the most at a young age; Giant.  The pseudo-sister she finds in Amelia and Amelia’s family who took Truly in when she had no where else to go, and taught her to take life’s punches as they come but to watch out for yourself at all times.  The story that comes about through the relationships that Truly has with these folks is one I won’t soon forget. 

In The Little Giant of Aberdeen County there are representatives of good and evil and then there are moments of grey that can’t be placed in a specific category.  Tiffany Baker has an All-American story that will no doubt hold your attention and imagination past the last page. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

You can also check out The Washington Post’s review of The Little Giant of Aberdeen County HERE.