a Bulgarian history lesson in a very good book

When I saw an ARC of Elizabeth Kostova’s new novel available for request on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read it because her earlier novel THE HISTORIAN is one of my top… twenty-five favorite books of all time. I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to read it, and I apologize to Ms. Kostova and the publisher for this late review.

As with THE HISTORIAN, THE SHADOW LAND has skips from past to present and back again. This isn’t the easiest thing to follow until you get used to it, because you have to get used to it or you risk missing an important, powerful story.

I won’t compare this novel to the other Kostova book I read any more than that. This one stands alone and it was simply that one that made me want to read this one.

The lead character, Alexandra, comes off as awfully naive, almost to the point of being cliched in her innocent-American-caught-up-in-European-intrigue storyline. The lead man in the story is more original and interesting, though it’s vaguely irritating that he proclaims to be so proud of his Bulgarian heritage but insists that he be called Bobby instead of Aspurah.

One thing it is easy to love about this novel is that, once again, Kostova manages to weave intricate, not well-known Eastern European history into a fascinating story without having the story end up too heavy with historical facts and figures or too light and uneducated. I’ve never learned so much about Bulgaria as I did reading this book and I thank the author for that. That being said, I went into the story expecting folklore (sorry, one more reference to THE HISTORIAN) but I was pleasantly surprised it went into the Communist history of Bulgaria, and of Europe as a whole, instead. This is, as an added bonus, the first book I’ve ever read set in Bulgaria!

Here’s the thing about THE SHADOW LAND, in conclusion –

I would read the story of the Past, of Stoyan Lazarov and his wife and family as they struggled to survive communism. And I would read the story of American Alexandra and Bulgarian Bobby, of their fight to right wrongs and find healing and love. But I am not 100% convinced that the two stories meld together as well as they should. It’s almost… too much coincidence, luck, and circumstance that Alexandra ends up caring what happened to Stoyan. Basically, I want two books instead of one. Which is always a good thing!

The conclusion of the story (as opposed to my conclusion above, it seems) is a little disjointed because of the separate stories. The Bad Guy is the same in both timelines, in both stories, and that’s a good thing. But Alexandra ends up sort of tossed into what is obviously supposed to be a meaningful relationship with a very minor character, making their love lose some of it’s oomph, and Bobby hardly gets an ending at all.

I cared about these people and I want them to have more, darn it!

Overall, though, it’s a good book and it gets four stars from me for Bulgarian history.

I received a copy of THE SHADOW LAND through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own, my review is posted on my blog, on Goodreads, and on NetGalley.


Coming of age in 1970s Alaska… you don’t want to miss this book…

As a reader, I’ve seen Kristin Hannah books everywhere. I’ve never bought one. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps it was fate, because I was meant to read this Kristin Hannah book.

Either way, requesting an ARC, being ever so kindly granted an ARC, and reading THE GREAT ALONE over the holidays was the perfect way to end a year and start a new one.

This book is long, 450 pages, but I could not put it down and I read it in five days between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s one of those books you rush through because you can’t stop and then it’s over and you’re sad… until you realize you can read it again, almost like new because you read it so fast, and all is well again.
I’m not the only one who feels that way about books, am I?

Anyway, I started reading this tale of wild, untamed Alaska at what might seem like an inopportune moment because I live in Erie and for Christmas Erie got… sixty-some inches of snow in the two days before I started this book. I mean, who wants to read about Arctic weather while you are living it?

Me. Apparently.

I knew this for a fact when I started the book and got to 12% without looking up long enough to realize it had snowed another two inches. This after days of being a little weather-obsessed.

Hannah has created a masterpiece for me with this story. The backdrop of remote, unpredictable Alaska being combined with the struggles of a Vietnam POW and a coming of age story for a teenage girl is immediately haunting and magical.

Ernt Allbright is listless and tormented in regular life after surviving years as a POW during the Vietnam War. He loves his wife, Cora, and his thirteen year old daughter, Leni, but he doesn’t know how to… he doesn’t know how to be. So when a man named Earl Harlan writes to tell him that his son Bo, who died in Vietnam, would want Ernt to have his land in Alaska, the Allbrights leave Seattle for Alaska.

Earl, as it turns out, is more commonly known as Mad Earl and spends his days with his family in a compound that’s part survivalist, part doomsday prepper, and part anarchist. Mad Earl brings Ernt into the fold and they feed off each other, creating a powder keg that’s always ready to spark. More so for Ernt and the demons he battles from the war.

Leni makes friends in Alaska, despite it all, even developing a crush on a boy. The boy is the son of the man Ernt thinks has eyes for Cora, which doesn’t help anything. The tiny town rallies around Cora and Leni as Ernt begins to beat his wife. The tragedy is that Cora doesn’t think there’s any way out, that as long as Ernt doesn’t hit Leni, that he still loves her…

Her constant refrain to her daughter is that “I wish you remembered him before…” and that becomes a sort of theme for the novel. Everyone has a Before and sometimes it’s all you can do to hold tight and fast to that fleeting memory.

As I said, rural Alaska provides a deadly backdrop for the topics and threads that Hannah weaves seamlessly together. Domestic abuse, coming of age, race relations in the 1970s, mental health care for veterans, political beliefs, the wealthy versus the poor, how the law treats women and how it treats men…

There are parts of THE GREAT ALONE that could seem a little forced, a little too perfect. I think they work. They’re forgivable because of everything else that this book is. I can’t go into too much detail because they’re spoilers and I very much need for you to read this book asap.

Seriously. I know this makes for a terrible review but, let’s face it, if you’re following me, reading my reviews… we have similar tastes in books so there’s a strong you’ll love this book as much as I did. Do. Definitely still love this book.

The rest of the books I’m going to read in 2018, be warned. The bar has been set HIGH.

(Also, if you’re seeing this on the book page on Goodreads or something… just get it. You already want to. You won’t regret it.)

(I received a copy of THE GREAT ALONE from NetGalley & the publisher in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Russia, Russia, Russia… this time in fiction, probably

Russia, Russia, Russia.

No, this isn’t a current events article on the state of things in the world. It could be (and that’s kind of frightening) but it’s not.

This is a review of Karen Cleveland’s spy thriller NEED TO KNOW.

The synopsis as posted on NetGalley, who were kind enough to grant me an ARC of the book, kind of, sort of seems to give away the game in that I knew when I thought ‘yes! I want to read that!’ that a CIA analyst’s husband works as a Russian sleeper agent. That’s why I hit ‘request’ on the page, because it sounded good. And yet the reveal scene, where Vivian finds out that Matt is not actually Matt at all, is really intense. When it shouldn’t be… because I knew he was going to be a Russian agent. So kudos for that reveal!

The theme of the book, even more than Russian sleeper agents everywhere!, seems to be the question of just what would you do if, say, you were a CIA analyst (specializing in Russia, of course) and you found out your husband (and the father of your four children) had been a Russian agent for two decades, give or take. What would you do if, say, he said “no, I never told them anything about you or your work” and “you have to turn me in” in the same breath? Do you believe him? Do you still believe him as more and more lies drip out? Do you find that you still love him despite the lies and despite the fact that you’re now stuck in a giant hole whose walls are about to collapse?

Vivian errs on the side of what seems to be self-preservation. That’s understandable. It’s also questionable. It makes her look pretty terrible at her job, when she’s supposed to be this expert at uncovering handlers and ringleaders, so that the CIA can find the agents. Vivian tells the story of dealing with the revelation about Matt (Alexander) in the present tense, which does make for very intense, dramatic storytelling. She flashes back to earlier moments in their relationship in the past tense, which makes for not the most compelling portrait of her intelligence gathering skills.

Can love really make a person so blind that, as a new mother in a new marriage, you’re not like “I don’t know, honey, I like working the Africa desk… why do you think it’s so important I move to the Russia section? And, you know, not stay home with the kids?”

I don’t know. I’m not a CIA agent (thanks to those who are, I could never be one), but Karen Cleveland was in the CIA so I’ll take her word for it, despite my questions. And maybe those questions, maybe Vivian not being super great at her job, at least as it relates to her personal life, are what makes it such a compelling story, one that I could not put down.

There is an ‘80s Cold War vibe to NEED TO KNOW, which is fun and intense. It doesn’t seem out of place either, since there’s a ‘80s Cold War vibe to the present day, which is less fun and more intense.

It’s a quick read. It’s an intense read. It’d make a great tv show. It’s fun! If you like thrillers and espionage, with a touch of romance, please be getting this book!

P.S. I feel like there could be a sequel, given the reveals that end the book. I would definitely read a sequel!

3.75/5 stars

(I received a copy of NEED TO KNOW through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own. My review is posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.)

“After the Parade” by Lori Ostlund

23492669It’s some kind of masterful when you spend the first quarter of a book thinking that the main character is a self-absorbed, ambivalent, almost blissfully ignorant fool but then you read the middle half of the book, getting ever more caught up in his story, and the final quarter of the book realizing that none of those things that made him unlikable and unrelatable at first were his fault and he did grow from them, whether by choice or by force. Sometimes life isn’t anyone’s fault. To alter the title a bit, sometimes life is just a parade it’s hard to see the end of.

AFTER THE PARADE is Lori Ostlund’s tale of a forty-one year old man name Aaron Englund. An ESL teacher, the story begins with him packing up a U-Haul in Albuquerque and leaving for San Francisco. He’s leaving behind eighty-two year old Walter, the man he’s been with for twenty-three years – and known a few years longer. The math works out to mean that Aaron was eighteen and Walter thirty-six when they first became a couple. That fact lands somewhere between unnerving and sad. As a reader, it’s easy to feel bad for Walter at the start. The man he loves leaves on Christmas Eve after nearly a quarter century. He’s elderly.

But then it becomes so much more complicated than that.

As Aaron travels – literally to San Francisco and figuratively to figuring out who he is – his story is told. His memories of an abusive father and a distant mother, who was more distant because of her abusive husband. His memories of never quite fitting in to normal groups at school. His tendency to gravitate toward the outcasts of society, almost as though he is searching for himself in them more than he is searching for a true friend. And so it comes that by the time he meets Walter as a teenager, his father is dead and his mother is gone.

Aaron is inherently a boy in need of something he never had. That he would find comfort in a stable older man when most boys his age would be doing anything but settling down, makes perfect sense. As in all things, defining love and the existence of love is tricky and almost impossible.

In time, woven into a rich story with so many threads, it becomes clear that Aaron teaches English to immigrants because he sees himself as one of them, in a way. He is an observer too, trying to figure out just how to make it through an uncomfortable, unfamiliar world without getting hurt. And maybe get through it with someone to love. The questions his students ask, the stories they tell him… they help Aaron to find himself.

Ostlund’s novel is harsh and sometimes breathtaking in it’s sadness but it is beautiful. Everything makes sense in the end, especially the most perfect of endings.

(I received a copy of AFTER THE PARADE through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Putting the History in historical fiction

Blame it all on Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My addiction to historical fiction, that is. Blame it on Little House on the Prairie and all the books that followed it. My mom read me the books as I learned to read and they were the first chapter books I read on my own. I still have the same copies as I did when I was little, because well-worn books are well-loved books. Obviously. In any case, I spent some lovely early childhood years wishing I lived on the prairie. Mostly. I don’t like bugs and playing catch with pigs’ bladders filled air just seemed… no. I do admit to being a tv fiend as well, so I was definitely influenced by the reruns of Little House on the Prairie that I watched whenever I was allowed.

Huh. Now that I think about it, that was my first book-to-screen adaptation experience. I like that.

Anyway, the thing that naturally happens after when finishes being a child is that one is an adult who understands things just a little bit better. Sometimes not much at all, but a little bit. This happened to me.

It turned out that I don’t just love little girls on prairies in the second half of the 19th century, especially ones who grow up to marry the man they love. Possibly Almanzo Wilder was my first book boyfriend before I knew what a book boyfriend was, even though he’d been dead for forty-plus years. I was too young to know that, or care! Oh but for that simpler time…


But I digress. It turned out that I love all history. Just the word history makes me happy. I have a degree in it, for pete’s sake. And I (still) love to read. So, finding myself an adult in need of something to read, I feel page over spine in love with the genre of Historical Fiction. Though, in retrospect, I realized I’d already read a lot of the stuff – Little House and Anne of Green Gables (Gilbert Blythe was definitely my true first book boyfriend, and he was fictional!) to name just two. But Historical Fiction is definitely my addiction and I am not sorry about it. Show me a cover with a castle or some bygone era fashion and I’ll read the jacket, or jacket equivalent if I’m online. If the jacket and summary make it fairly clear there will be no iPhones or Teslas in the story, I’ll probably give the book a try. If it so much as looks like World War II, the American West, or Tudor England… count me in!

Totally addicted.

But this particular genre is not without it’s drawbacks, as I’m sure anyone who has a favorite genre will say. You see, when you love something, you tend to know a lot about it. And when you know a lot about something, you tend to get annoyed when someone gets it wrong. And when someone gets it wrong in a book you want to love, you tend to want to throw the book out the window.

I love history. So I know things like the fact that the Union Pacific Railroad was completed, thus making the first transcontinental railroad, in 1869. It’s an important part of American history, you see. So when I recently found myself reading a novel about the Japanese internment camps in America during World War II that, apparently for the simple sake of making on character able to have worked on said railroad because… reasons, moved the date to 1895, or later. That’s a twenty-six year difference, or more, because the character says in 1942 that he came to America, then got a job with the Union Pacific as a cook, and was there when the two lines met. And the author wrote him as in his early 20s when he came to America so… he would literally not have have been born when the lines met!

(Incidentally, I do admit that pretty much the only time I’m willing to do math is when I’m figuring out history. Sorry not sorry.)

The author of that book did preface the book by saying that she shortened distances between places (thankfully not between Japan and the United States… just towns in Wyoming) and moved dates around. A little. She said it was just a little. Twenty-six years is not a little!


This is an example of the problem with the genre I love. I used this example because that book and it’s inaccuracies are still on my mind. Because I wanted to read that book. Badly. I didn’t, and that’s on me and my… issues with the genre I love so much it ends up being a love-hate relationship. I don’t think I’m the only one with this book lover problem. I hope.

I do get that these books are meant to be fiction, that drowning a book in facts and details and minutiae is not going to make for a compelling novel. There has to be some adherence to actual history, though. Doesn’t there?

Every article on writing advice and tips says to write what you know. That applies here as much as anywhere. Write the historical fiction (because I want to read it) but keep the history true. Don’t change history to fit your characters, change your characters to fit history. Don’t write that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon 1989 because you want your millennial computer geek to have created a program for Apollo 11 with Mark Zuckerberg. It happened in 1969. Write about someone who created a program in 1969 and leave Mark Zuckerberg out of it.*

The sum of it is that historical fiction should be true to history. Invent characters and places, sure. But – for example…

  • don’t write a novel about the Civil War and leave out the gruesome details of slavery because it is not politically correct today – those details are history
  • don’t have World War II end when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941 – it did not end then, anything else is alternative history and
  • (most importantly) don’t pick what you want to be true about your character and twist history to fit it – work harder on your character instead

And now I will step off my soapbox and go find a historical fiction novel to read. Anybody got any suggestions?

*I know of no books that combine Neil Armstrong and Mark Zuckerberg. I just made that up for the sake of examples.

“Mad Miss Mimic” by Sarah Henstra

I freakin’ love this book! And I am so sad it only took me two days to read it! I’m going to read it again, no doubt about it.

But onto the details first…

Sarah Henstra’s MAD MISS MIMIC is about one Leonora Sommerville who lives in Hastings House with her sister and her doctor brother-in-law in Victorian era London. Leo, as she prefers to be called is seventeen and her older sister is desperately trying to marry her off despite the facts that she suffers from selective mutism, stuttering, and outbursts of mimicry. Naturally, Dr. and Mrs. Dewhurst decide the bad doctor’s business partner, the future Lord Rosbury, is the perfect match for the unmarried sister – he needs a pretty wife who won’t say much, after all.

This does not work out, for anyone.

As you might expect.

Dr. Dewhurst is perfecting the art of morphine, on the poor of London who suffer terribly at his hands, while keeping his wife dosed up on laudanum. The future Lord Rosbury is arguing for a ban on opium after getting very rich already on importing opium into England. Leo figures she really ought to get married to someone who doesn’t mind her speech problems, of which her sister is absolutely horrible about, so she resigns herself to a life as Lady Rosbury.

But then…

Somebody keeps blowing things up in London and killing people, all related to the potential opium ban. And Leo begins to suspect that Dr. Dewhurst and her future husband isn’t all it seems on the surface. So, with the help of Tom – the lockpick, pickpocket, mechanical genius who is working against the partnership already, she begins to investigate.

And the twist there? Tom loves Leo and Leo loves Tom.

All the wrong social circles, though, of course.

But there is drama, there is suspense, there is medicine, there is mystery, there is history, there is romance, there is angst, there is love… and everybody should read this book!

(I received a copy of MAD MISS MIMIC through NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

“Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue

I didn’t realize I managed to read Imbolo Mbue’s BEHOLD THE DREAMERS just three days but, apparently, I did. Thanks for keeping track, Goodreads addiction of mine!

I think I didn’t realize because I got lost so fast and so hard in this fantastic story of what America means to those who are born here and to those who come here. It seemed like I spent weeks in the fictional lives of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian illegal immigrant, and Clark Edwards, a high powered Wall Street man, as they traverse the uncertain world just before the and just after the 2008 economic recession. And it seemed wholly appropriate to start the book, left too long on my to-read list, just after recent events made news.

I think I appreciated Mbue’s novel more because I read it when I did. I didn’t mean to read a politically, socially relevant to current events story. I meant to read a book by a POC for the reading challenge I’m doing. I accomplished both and I could not be more pleased with it.

Mbue is an immigrant to America from Limbe, Cameroon – the hometown she gives Jende and Neni Jonga – who now lives in New York City. This makes the story that much richer, because she tells a story of her people, a story she knows. And I feel more educated for it. My favorite kind of fictional book is the one that teaches me something and this book taught me a lot.

It isn’t always an easy read. I found myself wanting to shout at Jende for how he treats his wife, Neni. I wanted to hate Clark Edwards because I do not like the power of Wall Street. But… when I sat back and thought about it, none of that made sense. Jende’s chauvinistic, domineering, my-way-or-the-highway persona is… real. Not being a Cameroonian immigrant, I completely trust Mbue on this. The way he treats Neni, as though he is lord of all things, and the way he is subservient to Clark Edwards to an extreme, as though he truly believes Clark is his better, is no doubt indicative of how immigrants straddle two worlds when they come to America. And Clark, though he is one of the main power players at Lehman Brothers, has motivations for working constantly and not seeing his family enough and his motivations are his family. He’s doing what he knows how to do, straddling two worlds as he tries to be two men. I have to imagine, not being a rich New Yorker, that his is not an uncommon, yet human struggle among families there.

I am so glad I read this book and I encourage everyone to read it too. It’s so important and so good.

And now I want to try Cameroonian food too, after Mbue’s mouth-wateringly vivid descriptions!

(I received a copy of BEHOLD THE DREAMERS through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)