The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes

The Girl You Left BehindI have to say, I was not expecting to love this book. Like it maybe, or more likely to be disappointed halfway through and feel obligated to finish it. It is not a perfect book by any means, and yet here I sit having finished the novel (in two days), and I am temporarily at a loss for words.

The Girl You Left Behind is about two women: One living in a German occupied town in France in WWI, the other a mourning widow in modern London. Both of them have lost the men they loved; one is off fighting a war with no word if he is dead or alive, the other died suddenly much too young.

The first part of the book is dedicated to Sophie, the Frenchwoman whose town has been occupied by Germans in World War I. Her husband, who is now off fighting in the war, was a painter. He had painted a portrait of Sophie in their happier days, and it now hung in her family’s hotel, reminding Sophie that she wasn’t always a skeletal being of fear and hunger. When the Germans commandeer the hotel, having Sophie and her sister cook for them every night, the painting catches the eye of the Kommandant, a man feared by the villagers.

Later we are confronted with a jolting change in time. Suddenly we are in England in modern times and introduced to Liv, who is now somehow in possession of the painting. She is a widow, struggling to move on, and clings to the painting as an emotional support. When she finally meets a man she thinks she could fall in love with, she learns he works for a company that restores paintings stolen in wartime to the families they belong to, and that her painting, The Girl You Left Behind, is being claimed by the family of the man who originally painted it.

This novel is two in one: a historical fiction account of what it was like to live in German occupied territory during WWI and the horrors that brings with it, and a modern court case driven thriller/mystery in the second half. In the beginning I wasn’t sure how I liked how lopsided it seemed to be…you never meet the present day characters until around halfway through the book, and then closer to the end it flips back and forth again a few times, but somehow it works.

I was reading the first half of Gone With the Wind (about the American Civil War) while listening to this novel on audio, and I think the wartime stories had a greater effect on me in both novels because of that. Both were terrible, bloody wars and it was difficult at times to read about them. It is quite graphic as it details the horrors of war…not gore from the front lines, but the starvation, pure fear, and destruction of a way of life that existed for those left behind.

*some spoilers in the following paragraph*

The modern piece wasn’t quite as good. To me it felt a lot more formulaic and bordered on unrealistic at times. Would Liv really have blatantly dug her heels in on the matter of keeping her painting without even considering the possibility of giving it back to the rightful family at all? I feel like there would probably have been moments of doubt whether she was doing the right thing, espcecially as those around her began to question it (and when she completely cut out Paul without even pretending to listen to what he had to say seemed odd to me, as they had really spent a lot of time together up to that point). Also how was Liv actually paying for everything? I feel like it was super improbable that she’d be able to get as far as she did financially from the spot she was in at the beginning (who would give her a second mortgage with so little money in the bank and presumably terrible credit). Why did Moe suddenly decide she wanted some space from her? And right when Liv needed her resilience and friendship the most? Because it made the dramatic timing of the plot right, that’s why. It was a little disappointing being able to see the blueprints behind the novel as I read, but those are my only complaints! Overall it was still a very good book and I will probably read it again one day.

My favorite character was Moe. Not only did she serve as the quirky silly friend, but she was just such a character! I could imagine her so clearly in my mind, and yet she was always surprising me. I loved how she came back into Liv’s life at the right moment and was able to bring her back to life a little bit, just by being there.

I would definitely recommend this book to a friend, as it was recommended to me. I have to say I enjoyed this book much more than Me Before You, and it gives me hope that Jojo Moyes has written other good books I’d enjoy. Any suggestions on what I should read next??

E.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, by Katarina Bivald

The Readers of Broken Wheel RecommendOne of my favorite books of all time is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. After I recommended that book to a friend (she loved it too), she told me she’d heard of a book often compared to it called The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend. Odd title, I thought, and immediately it went on The List. Then one day when I was very pregnant, I went to Target on a ‘Treat Yourself’ mission (which was really just me trying to do a lot of walking to get little boy out of me) and saw this book. Sold.

It’s the story of a Swedish girl named Sara, who goes to visit her friend Amy in rural Iowa. It is her first trip to America, and her parents are skeptical of letting her go in the first place, but the bookshop Sara had worked in recently closed down and she wanted to see the town her friend had written to her about so fondly. By the time Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, Amy has died. Not sure what to do next, the townsfolk of Broken Wheel rally to make sure Sara is taken care of for the duration of her stay. It is not the trip Sara had imagined, but in time she learns the secrets Amy had kept from her letters, and falls in love with the town.

First, let’s just get this out of the way: It does not live up to Guernsey. Not by a long shot, not for me. But, since that’s one of the greatest books of all time…I really didn’t expect it to.

It took me quite awhile to get into the plot. It was past the halfway point before I really felt like I couldn’t put it down. To be honest I was worried for awhile that the book was never going to strike a resonating cord with me. The writing through the beginning seemed to do a little too much telling and not enough showing, and I’m not sure if that has to do with the fact that it was translated from the original Swedish. Sometimes it’s the translation that’s ‘bad’ and not the story. Overall, it was very what-you-see-is-what-you-get; it didn’t have the depth either of character or of plot to really blow me away. However, by the end I was very interested in how the story played out, and it was a satisfying, sweet ending. For me there was just something a little bit odd about the whole thing that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it was the cliches of a micro-community in rural America, or that some of the characters were a little bit over the top…and I’m still not satisfied with the title. But all of this is generally why I avoid contemporary ‘chick lit’ type books, it comes down to a style preference. You may love this type of book & love the style.

I did enjoy the fact that Sara and Amy’s relationship was based completely around their love of books & reading. Sara is a complete bookworm, and there are many passages throughout the novel about authors and books and how Sara feels about them. It’s always risky to do this in case the reader hasn’t read the books mentioned. If they have, there is a great payoff of camaraderie with the character for having thought the same thoughts or sparking a new conversation in the reader’s mind, but on the other hand, if the reader hasn’t read the mentioned books, there are some major plot spoilers. For me, there was a mix of both. I found her thoughts on Dan Brown to be especially accurate ;-) It does seem a little bit unfair for the author to assume that just because someone is reading this book, that he/she should be expected to have read ALL of the other books mentioned. Ultimately there are really only one or two passages with actual plot spoilers, the rest seem to just bring attention to books you may or may not have read – I can see some readers adding to their TBRs while reading this book.

This novel is very much in the chick lit/summer reads category for me. Purely entertainment. This isn’t the type of book that is going to change your life, but it’s a fun distraction from the every day and a fun book for people who call themselves readers.

E.

P.S. No one I’ve ever met in my entire life has made homemade corn dogs or sloppy joes. Just sayin’. These things generally come from the fair (or freezer section), and a can, respectively. It’s the American way.

Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult

Leaving TimeSometimes you just want a book that will grab you early and keep you turning the pages the whole time. I picked up Leaving Time exactly for that reason; Jodi Picoult is pretty reliably compelling, whether it’s a controversial subject, a thrilling court case (…or both), or a mystery (like this one).

Leaving Time is the story of a young girl named Jenna Metcalf in search of her mother, Alice. Alice was a researcher living and working in an elephant sanctuary in Pennsylvania. She ended up there for love, following a man who didn’t think her study on grief in elephants was a waste of time like many of her colleagues. When Jenna is only three, a woman is found dead, trampled to death by an elephant, and Alice disappears. Due to the lazy work of a retiring detective and no missing persons report, there is no investigation into the disappearance. Now a young teen, Jenna takes the search into her own hands. Consulting with a washed up celebrity psychic and the detective whose guilt never went away after the botched investigation, they are determined to find out what happened that night in the elephant sanctuary.

In the format of a typical Jodi Picoult novel, the narrative bounces back and forth between characters. Alice is the only narrator who isn’t in the present. Instead, she acts a flashback character, providing the background story that leads up to the night she disappeared, eventually revealing what actually happened. It is done skillfully, the reader never learns until the end whether or not she is still alive or if her story ends that night. Hers was ultimately my favorite perspective, although an impatient reader would call hers the slowest. I really enjoyed reading about her accounts of elephant behavior observed both in the African wild and in the sanctuary. The elephants definitely have personality, especially Maura, and I enjoyed the sections about them – you can tell, maybe a little too much, that the subject matter was researched well by the author. It reminded me of another of her novels in that way, Lone Wolf. As an animal lover and general softie in life, I could have done without some of the graphic descriptions of what happens to some of the elephants, but Alice is researching grief, so grief-inducing events are kind of necessary and expected. And everyone knows that historically elephants have not been treated very well in captivity, which were some of the hardest parts for me to read.

Another characteristic element of a Picoult novel is a twist ending, sometimes even on the last dang page (Handle With Care, anyone?). Leaving Time is no exception. While I did enjoy the pleasure of the plot completely flipping (a twist you don’t see coming is always oddly satisfying), it also cheapened the whole story in a way. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say this particular twist has been done before, and very famously. The author had to know it was a risk to use it, and I kind of wish I could get into her head to see what the other possibilities were, if there ever were any. For me it didn’t ruin the story because it made complete sense once it was revealed. It wrapped up the storyline of one of the characters in a great way – in fact, you could say the entire story was actually about her. Okay okay, let’s move on…

All things considered, this wasn’t my favorite novel by Jodi Picoult. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read around a dozen. Leaving Time probably floats around the middle of the pack among them. As I said, I wanted something compelling to read, and in that sense it did not disappoint. However, if you are new to Jodi Picoult, I would recommend some of her other novels over this one. Some of my favorites have been Keeping Faith, Handle With Care, Lone Wolf, Vanishing Acts, My Sister’s Keeper, and Plain Truth. Just whatever you do, don’t start with Songs of the Humpback Whale. I couldn’t get through it!

Any other fans of Jodi Picoult out there? Which of her novels is your favorite?

E.

Book Review:: Dreamlander, KM Weiland

Dreamlander, KM WeilandDreamlander, K.M. Weiland
Fantasy
544 Pages
Published: November 2012
Goodreads Page
Buy on Amazon.com

Summary::
Chris Redston has always had strangely realistic dreams, but when he went to sleep one night in one world and woke up in another, he began to realize that his dreams were much more than they seemed. In Chicago, Chris is just an ordinary guy, but in Lael, he’s a Gifted. Generally Gifteds, or worldwalkers, only pop up in Lael once a generation, but Chris has the misfortune to be the second Gifted to come to Lael in 20 years. Unfortunately, Chris’ predecessor used the respect and power he had as a Gifted for personal gain and threw the delicate political balance of Lael into war, ruining the Gifted’s reputation and making Chris’ welcome chilly at best.

In Chicago, there are a few who know about Lael (who don’t have the best intentions), and they’re all seeking out for Chris, who is the only one with the power to walk between the worlds. In Lael, Chris finds himself in a world where his very presence is resented and enemies and spies are at every turn. Clumsily, and still in denial, Chris makes the one bad decision that could ruin everything on his first night of world travel. His only ally in Lael is the Searcher, whose life is dedicated to keeping the Gifted safe, and even she is reluctant to trust him. In Chicago, Chris’ friends try to help him, but have no idea the truth of what’s really going on. Chris’ task quickly becomes keeping those he cares about safe, resolving all the problems the Gifted have caused in Lael…and to stop creating new ones.

Review::
I have been a follower of K.M. Weiland’s blog HelpingWritersBecomeAuthors.com for several years, but I’d never read any of her fiction until now. Needless to say, I was very curious to see how she put her writing advice to practice in her own work, and I was not disappointed. Not only is this book written skillfully, the writing is so good you hardly even notice how good it is. Some may consider that a bad thing, but I consider it the best thing in the action/adventure/thriller genres, where the focus should be 100% on the plot, keeping readers so engaged they can’t bear to put down the book.

The initial idea of the book is intriguing in itself, and the dream-world that Weiland creates is quite dimensional and well thought out. In an epic novel such as this, with conflicts affecting two entire worlds, it can be a challenge to reveal information to readers in a comprehensive way that doesn’t pull from the immediate action of the plot, but in my opinion Weiland was able to do just that in Dreamlander. Another thing epic novels tend to ‘have’ to have, are a whole lot of characters, which is also true of Weiland’s novel. There is the main cast for both worlds, both good and bad guys, and in Lael, there are a LOT of secondary characters and insignificant characters needed to advance the plot. The variety of characters was refreshing; most of them were not strictly good or strictly bad. I’m thinking of Orias as a great example of this. He is the Keeper, who is in charge of delivering an artifact to the Gifted which allows him or her to carry things with them through the worlds. Orias appears to be a morally steadfast character when he is confronted with a scenario he just can’t accept and makes unexpected decisions. Through time, Orias is in a constant internal struggle with guilt, consequence, and fear of what is to come, which become the motivators for his actions. As readers, we are constantly confronted with the question of what choice Orias will make. Will he make the ‘right’ decisions? Are his actions worth it? Will he ever be brave enough to make things right? In his unexpected transformations, Orias is a standout character in the novel. The main character is also a little unexpected. Having him unknowingly make the worst decision possible before he is even aware of what is going on was a clever move. The one character I wasn’t sure about through most of the novel was Eroll, but in the end I understood his role in the story. His role could probably have been tightened up in some way throughout the majority of the novel, but as he’s written it’s not too bad. In fact, that’s the only complaint about the whole book that even comes to mind!

I couldn’t put this book down. I started reading it on my phone when I had a spare moment with nothing to do and didn’t have a physical book around (I got it for free during a promotion on Amazon – kindle version – which I found out about through KM Weiland’s monthly newsletter, which you can sign up for here). When I couldn’t find where my actual kindle was, it didn’t matter – I read the whole thing from the screen of my smart phone. That’s how compelling it was. I couldn’t even pause in my free time long enough to locate the reading device necessary to read it comfortably (I actually still haven’t found it, but that’s beside the point). I read much of it lying across the bed so my phone could charge while I continued to read. I skipped meals and I neglected my husband. It’s that good.

Recommendation::
The pages of this book are riddled with action and conflict; I can’t think of even one moment that could be considered ‘boring’ but it’s more than that. It’s not just an exciting plot line, it’s just plain good writing. For that reason, I think this book would appeal to a large audience, including young readers. I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a fast-paced entertaining adventure to get completely immersed into – regardless of if they’ve enjoyed ‘fantasy’ novels in the past. If you’re looking for something engaging to read to re-fire your passion and get back into reading, I think this book could do it. 544 pages may seem like a lot, but it goes so fast you’ll be halfway through before you know it!

Your Turn::
Have you read this book?
Let me know what you thought, post a comment!