Book Review ~ Those Who Saved Us by Jenna Blum

We choose to read books for many reasons.  Sometimes the cover art speaks to us from the shelves of a local library or book store and we feel the need to take that book home.  We may chose our books based on reviews  read in Bookmarks Magazine, the book review section of the local newspaper or even because we read a fabulous review here on Planet Books.  LOL!  Well I chose to read Jenna Blum’s haunting novel, Those Who Saved Us, for a fairly unique reason.  The main character has the same last name as I had till I got married in 2004. 

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Those Who Saved Us is a story about a woman named Anna who finds the Nazis invading all aspects of her hometown of Weimar, Germany and putting it on the map due to its geographical relation to Buchenwald concentration camp.  Anna’s father is a terrible parental figure, making Anna’s life miserable and difficult as her sole purpose becomes the huge job of handling every need of his and their home.  She finds relief in the friendship with “The Good Doktor”, Max Stern, and eventually the forbidden love that grows out of their chess games and conversations.  Max is a Jew and the risk of even talking with him is deadly.  Eventually, fear for Max’s life due to his association with The Resistance pushes Anna into action and she hides him in the walls of his father’s house.  Of course, as happened all over Europe in the late 30’s and early 40’s, Max is discovered by Anna’s father and shipped off to the Gestapo.  This is the catalyst for Anna and she quickly leaves her childhood home and becomes apprentice to a local baker and spy for The Resistance. 

Well folks, that is just the beginning of this enrapturing and memorable book.  The book jumps from WWII Germany to mid’90’s Minnesota and back again.  In Minnesota, Anna is an elderly, secret filled woman who has just lost her husband and has a stressed relationship with her middle-aged daughter Trudy.  Trudy is a professor of German history at a university in Minneapolis.  She joins a fellow professor on a project that finds her locating Germans in the area who survived WWII in Germany by any means possible and recording their stories.  Little does she know what one of her interviews will disclose about her own mysterious path and the ways her mother made it possible for the two of them to survive during one of this planets most hellish periods.

The drama and stories that emerge from Those Who Saved Us will stay with me forever.  I have said before that I think it is very important for these historical fiction novels to find a voice.  They may be fiction but they are based on fact and in the case of Those Who Saved Us, Jenna Blum completed a great amount of research thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. 

Those Who Saved Us reads like a drama and horror story at times but provides a lesson in history and how you can never truly escape your past.  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the historical fiction genre but warn you that there are some stories within that will cause your jaw to drop and your stomach to turn. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

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Book Review ~ The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

the-school-of-essential-ingredientsSummary ~ The School of Essential Ingredientsby Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her students’ lives. One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian’s food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen.

Having recently re-located back to the DC area and wanting to create a book club with my friends, I thought that The School of Essential Ingredients would be the perfect first selection.  I think I hit the nail on the head folks!  Lit & The City ladies, what say you?  What a wonderful, fun, interesting, educational and cozy book author Erica Bauermeister has gifted the reading and cooking community with. 

The core of the story is about eight people coming together to take a cooking class at a local restaurant in (I think Seattle) the Pacific Northwest under the instruction of the restaurant owner and head chef, Lillian.  What we get when these people come together from all different backgrounds for one common goal, to cook, is nothing short of a wonderful, memorable and inspirational book.  There’s Helen and Carl, a married couple in their sixties or so, who though they have faced crisis in their marriage are stronger for it and have rekindled their romance.  The observations they make to each other about their fellow classmates are made from experience.  There’s Chloe, who at first is a lost soul looking for romance and a home in the wrong places but then finds love and family where she least expects it.  Claire, a young mother who is loosing herself in her daily life, has the shortest back story of them all but may have gotten the most out of the actual process of cooking.  Antonia is a woman who has left a life of peace, familiarity and family for a new adventure on a new continent but finds herself grounded by her past.  Then there is Ian.  A great character in and out of the kitchen and who finds himself in search of the next culinary challenge to take on. 

Of course I had some favorite characters because of their back stories.  My absolute favorite character was Isabelle and the metamorphosis that took place within her after the exit of her husband and she found herself.  Though now she suffers from memory loss and mix-matched memories, her life was rich with relationships, children and then the adventures she made for herself. 

Tom was my second favorite character because of the depths of his love for a woman and the sorrow that replaced that love.  Food played a huge roll in his relationship with the love of his life and attending the cooking class is equal parts difficult and therapeutic for him.  The curiosity and dread of finding out the details of Tom’s back story made his part of the book extremely effective for me. 

I must emphasize that there may be eight students and a teacher that make up this wonderful book but they are all held together by the tenth, and at times, most important character of all.  The food!  Erica Bauermeister had me salivating and my stomach growling throughout her intimate and divine descriptions of the class dishes and other recipes being prepared here and there.  It really was cruel and unusual punishment for me since our house with our new gourmet kitchen won’t be ready for another two weeks and then we still have to wait for our household goods shipment to arrive and be unpacked.  Erica’s talent for food writing is spectacular and at times I could smell the ingredients and the dishes as the characters prepared them in class and at home waft off the page and up to my nose! 

I look forward to discussing The School of Essential Ingredients with my book club, Lit & The City, but I also hope if you have read Erica Bauermeister’s masterpiece that you will share with us here at Planet Books your thoughts on it.  Erica Bauermeister’s website can be found HERE.

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Book Review ~ Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

Summary ~ Belong to Meby Marisa de los Santos ~ Cornelia Brown surprised herself when she was gripped by the sudden, inescapable desire to move to the suburbs with her husband. Her mettle is quickly tested by her impeccably dressed, overly judgmental neighbor Piper Truitt—the embodiment of everything Cornelia feared she’d find in suburbia. With Lake, another recent arrival, Cornelia shares a love of literature and old movies—as she forms an instant bond with this warm yet elusive woman and her perceptive, brilliant young son Dev.
Acclaimed bestselling author Marisa de los Santos’s literary talents shine in the complex interactions she creates between three unforgettable women, deftly entangling her characters in a web of trust, betrayal, love, and loss that challenges them in ways they never imagined.

belong-to-me-large2I LOVED THIS BOOK!  I knew by the time I was half way through it that it was going to get a 5 out of 5 rating and that feeling continued on till the end.  If you were a fan of Desperate Housewives before it went over the edge into absolute absurdity, than Belong to Me will quench your bibliophile thirst perfectly.  Like when I read Elizabeth Noble’s The Reading Groupand Jennifer Weiner’s Little Earthquakes, I loved going “in for a visit” with the characters of Belong to Me and now that the last page has been read I miss them already. 

Now I haven’t read the prequel to this book, Love Walked In, but I didn’t feel that I was missing anything because of that.  Belong to Meis told from the point of view of three characters.  Cornelia, along with her husband Teo, is the newest member in a neighborhood just outside of Philadelphia.  Cornelia finds out that when you are the new kid on the block, it might be difficult to find your niche and fit in.  That is proved true by another neighbor and fellow narrator, Piper (nick named Viper by another character).  Piper is in total control of her life and surroundings, or so she thinks.  She discovers that her husband isn’t happy and spends a good portion of the book caring for her best friend, Elizabeth, who is dying from cancer.  The third narrator is Dev.  A fourteen year old boy who’s mother moved them across the country to this new area where they meet Cornelia, Teo and their pseudo-daughter, Clare.  Dev was a very interesting character with his scientific and poetry loving mind.  His story line is full of anxiety, mystery and discovery. 

I can’t even start to tell you my favorite parts of this book because the whole thing was so great.  If you want a juicy, drama filled, funny and fantastically written book to read, than I must recommend Belong to Me!

{Rating: 5 out of 5}

Book Review, Author Q&A and Book Giveaway ~ Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland

Summary : Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland ~ In spirit, there was nothing diminutive about Louise de la Valliere, known to her family as “Petite.” A rambunctious girl who could tame the wildest stallion, the impoverished and unmarriageable Petite was also able to tame the heart of the legendary Sun King, Louis XIV. Once she had captured his eye, Petite was quickly ensconced in his court, where, as his mistress, she was elevated to a titled position. Such a meteoric rise was bound to attract attention of the wrong sort, and Petite’s life was filled with the terrors and tragedies that accompany all internecine tales of palace intrigue. Amid rumors of black magic and sorcery, loved ones would die, and Petite herself would ultimately arrive at a crossroads where she would be forced to choose between her loyalty to the king and her own personal salvation. Teeming with the rich period details that make historical fiction so rewarding, Gulland’s dynamic and nuanced portrait of Louis’ notorious reign thrums with page-turning expediency and deliciously seductive machinations. –Carol Haggas  

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Mistress of the Sun is a lush, engulfing and entirely entertaining example of historical fiction in it’s finest form.  From the very first page I was drawn in and have enjoyed my visits (reading time) to seventeenth century France.  Sandra Gulland has done it again.   Having read her Josephine Bonaparte series years ago, I was extremely excited to receive a review request form Gulland’s “virtual assistant” for her newest novel, Mistress of the Sun.  I was not disappointed in the least. 

Gulland introduces us to “Mademoiselle Louise-Francoise La Baume Le Blanc de la Valliere” but known as Petite for short.  She is the daughter of a nurturing, book loving father and a realistic mother who worries about the future and looks down upon dreaming and stories.  When Petite is a young girl, she goes with her father on an errand trip when she stumbles across the a beautiful but wild and dangerous white stallion named “Diablo.”  When Petite’s father brings this horse home for the family, and especially Petite, life is never the same again.  After a few years of not speaking and studying at a convent, Petite recovers from her silence and is soon thrust into the world of the French royal family and discovers a love greater than any she has ever had and ever will as the mistress to King Louis XIV, the Sun King.  Petite’s friendships and experiences at Court ensure great reading.

I really enjoyed this book.  There is plenty of drama, character detail and wonderful descriptions in Mistress of the Sun.  Reading three pages felt like I had read twenty because there is just so much detail and story in every line.  If you are looking for a book to take you away this summer, Mistress of the Sun is the perfect book. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5 stars}

gulland021Q&A with Sandra Gulland

PB Being familiar with your Josephine Bonaparte series and now Mistress of the Sun, I am curious about what draws you to these historical French figures?

Sandra – I was drawn to Josephine because her extraordinary life had been foretold. This still astonishes me. As for Louise, of Mistress of the Sun, I was intrigued by her extraordinary horsemanship. She was described as timid, a wall-flower, and yet she became a devil on horseback. This fascinated me.

PB – When researching for your books do you start with a plot idea?

Sandra – I begin with an interest in the character, and then, in closely examining the facts of that person’s life, I begin to get an idea of a plot.

PB – Have you ever come across something you didn’t know about that caused your story to change completely?

Sandra – With every research trip I make, I have to revise completely!

When I started the Josephine B. Trilogy, I assumed that everything I read about her was true. (Novice that I was about historical research.) I struggled writing the second book (Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe). How could a good mother, a good person, do the things historians claimed? (And how, as a novelist, was I going to get the readers to believe it? A novel, unlike life, has to be credible.) Consulting with the French experts at Malmaison, I learned that “the facts” were incorrect. This caused me to change my story, but it also made the story begin to make more sense.

The most pleasant surprises are ones that make a story better. (Warning: spoiler!) Well into writing Mistress of the Sun, I read in a footnote in the Bastille Archives that Louise’s good friend Nicole ended up at the same convent as Louise. 

I’m now working on a detailed scene-by-scene plot (a blueprint, I like to think of it) of my next novel. It’s forcing me to do deep research at the start and I’ve already run into a number of surprises! Fortunately, a “blueprint” is easier to revise than a full draft.

gulland091PB–  In the beginning of Mistress of the Sun, Louise comes upon a dangerous and stunningly great horse named “Diablo.”  The relationship between girl and horse has a mystical sense about it.  Do you believe in magic and miracles yourself?

Sandra – I don’t, as a rule (but I don’t count them out, either). Louise would have believed in them, however.

PB–  Besides Louise de la Vallière, which character in Mistress of the Sun was the most fun and exciting to write?  What kind of connections do you feel when writing life into your characters?

Sandra– I really love Clorine, Louise’s maid. (Whose name, in real life, really was Clorine.) I love that she’s so tough, and no-nonsense, and yet often fainting.

PB – With The Tudors mini-series, and historical fiction genre films like The Duchess, Marie Antoinette and numerous others, do you wish to see either the Mistress of the Sun or the Bonaparte series go the same route?

Sandra– Yes! The Josephine B. Trilogy is now under option; the producers are looking into developing a mini-series like The Tudors. As for Mistress of the Sun, a producer is looking into making it into a movie. I’d love to see these come about. I think the Trilogy would make a wonderful mini-series, and Mistress a fantastic movie. I just hope it comes about in my lifetime. Movie-making is extremely complex: I think it’s a miracle (note: miracle) that any are ever made.

PB –  So far have you enjoyed your book blog tour for Mistress of the Sun?  Do you think that this way of reaching readers is beneficial for you as an author and for the publishing industry?

Sandra– A Blog Tour is excellent, given how difficult travel has become. I’ve been enjoying it. The response has been overwhelming. Thank you for having me on Planet Books!

To learn more about Sandra Gulland and her novels, be sure to check out her website HERE.  Sandra is in the middle of her blog tour for Mistress of the Sun.  To find out where she has been and will be in coming weeks and months, check out her schedule HERE.  Sandra and her publisher, Simon & Schuster, are generously providing a copy of Mistress of the Sun, which was recently released in paperback.  To enter to win Mistress of the Sun leave a comment including the title of your favorite historical novel on this post by Wednesday, May 6th at Midnight EST.  Good Luck!

Book Review ~ Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee: A Novel

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is a story of survival, both literally and figuratively.  The description on the inside cover of this book says, WE DON’T WANT TO TELL YOU TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS BOOK.  It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.  Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this:  It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.  The story starts there, but the book doesn’t.  And it’s what happens afterward that is most important.  Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it.  When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either.  The magic is in how it unfolds.”  Little Bee

In the spirit of the author and publisher’s request, I will not go into details about Little Bee.  I will tell you that I loved this book.  The writing is wonderful.  The characters are so real I actually wish they were except for what happens to them.  I still find it amazing that a male mind wrote this story which is told from the minds of two complicated, feeling, richly woven women.   The story will stay with you as it will stay with me.  You will want to talk about this book as you read it and when you are done.  When you are ready to talk about Little Bee please let me know. 

{Rating ~ 4.5 out of 5 stars}

You can learn more about Little Bee and author Chris Cleave at his web site HERE.  Below I have included an author interview/book promo video for Little Bee (in the U.K. it is titled The Other Hand). 

Book Review ~ The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

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Unfortunately, thanks to all the hype over the film, I already knew the secret of The Reader when I started to read it.  I don’t think that it ruined the story for me though.  Instead it made each hint into Hanna Schmitz’s secret that much more frustrating.  During the 2009 award season earlier this year, I watched many interviews with actress Kate Winslet.  During one of these interviews she made said some very interesting things regarding playing Schmitz in the movie adaption of The Reader.  “How do you begin to understand the mind of an SS Gaurd?  That was extremely hard for me.” and “I did find my own way of understanding her because she has a secret.” 

The Reader is narrated by the grown up character called Michael Berg.  When he was fifteen he developed a temporarliy debilitating illness and during one of his attacks, while walking home, he meets Hanna Schmitz.  She helps him out and assists him home.  Michael gets better and with the suggestion of his mother, he makes a visit to Hanna’s apartment to thank her again.  Somewhere between the doorway and the kitchen table an affair between a woman in her mid-thirties and this fifteen year old boy (though she is led to believe that he is seventeen) begins and lasts for a few months.  During their affair, Hanna begins to have Michael read to her before she will join him in her bath and bed.  Due to her secret though, the summer ends abruptly when she suddenly leaves town and leaves in her wake a broken hearted and confused teenager.  It takes many years for Michael to recover from this and when he sees her again, it is in the most horrible and unbelievable places he could have ever imagined.  Hanna is on trial for war crimes that occured during WWII and Michael is a law student assigned to cover the trials for a class in post-war Germany.

The Reader is thick with drama, suspense, lust and secrets.  I don’t think it is a book to enjoy due to the serious and heavy subjects but it is an important novel to help remind people of the horrors of war and what the human mind and body is forced to do in those terrible times in order to survive.  I am glad I read The Reader and I am especially interested in seeing the film version as soon as I can. 

{Rating ~ 4out of 5 stars}

Below I have posted Kate Winslet’s interview on CBS Sunday Morning from earlier this year.  In it she talks about her role in The Reader as well as her role in Revolutionary Road.  I LOVE HER!

Book Review ~ Baby Proof by Emily Giffin

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Don’t be fooled by the sweet yellow paper and charming baby shoe charms on the cover of Emily Giffin’s third novel, Baby Proof.  I was pleasantly surprised with how much this story had to offer and how many layers the characters and plot had. 

Claudia is a book editor for a Manhattan publishing house and is great at her job.  She has always known what she wants and one of those things is *gasp* to never have kids.  She meets Ben on a blind date and finds out that they have this in common.  After a quick courtship (seven months or so) they get engaged and then married and begin their “kid-free” life together in their beloved city of Manhattan.  Then one day a switch turns on in Ben and he announces that he would like to have a baby with Claudia. 

So begins Baby Proof by Emily Giffin.  I picked this book up off my TBR shelf to kill time while getting through the last week of waiting for my Kindle to arrive.  I was surprised at how much this book had to offer and that it wasn’t a shallow, light and easy read.  Though Baby Proof falls under the Chick Lit category it has so many layers to it, that I really ended up loving.  I liked the characters, the sub plots were all good and the outcome was acceptable in the end.  I enjoyed reading about Claudia’s job as a book editor (one of my dream jobs) and how she related to the authors and tried to promote them to her best capabilities.  I liked reading about a woman who doesn’t need children of her own in her life in order for it to be a fulfilling one.  Claudia’s husband, Ben, is not a bad guy for changing his mind after a few years of sublime marriage, his priorities changed is all.  That happens to all of us at some points in our lives.  I did like that Giffin didn’t have Claudia give in and she stuck to her wants. 

This book made me do a lot of unexpected thinking and soul searching.  My priorities changed a couple of years ago and now I wish to live a kid-free life.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with that and though sometimes Hubby disagrees with me, our love and adventures are strong enough to enrich our lives together.  We are a great aunt and uncle team to our nieces and nephews and friend’s children too.  Reading Baby Proof brings up a conversation that not a lot of other chick lit books seem to do and I enjoyed the experience and the conversations that came from it. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5 stars}