Category: Historical Fiction

Review: Cocoa Beach


Cocoa Beach

“Because while houses burned down regularly, and people died all the time, I had never imagined that Simon could meet his end like that. You could not extinguish my husband in mere flames. It simply wasn’t possible.”

I read Cocoa Beach with the Salt Water Reads book club in July. I had never read any of Beatriz Williams’ books before, and I was really excited to start Cocoa Beach. It’s a little bit historical fiction, a little bit literary fiction, and a lot of mystery. I really enjoyed this one, with a few caveats.

Virginia Fortescue, a WWI ambulance driver, meets a dashing English surgeon on the battlefield in 1917. (Quite literally on the battlefield, surrounded by dead and dying men.) Despite trying as hard as she can to not fall in love with Simon Fitzwilliam, she does, and he seems to fall head over heels in love with her. They marry, and it is only after their marriage that she begins to discover he has a dark past of his own. Fast-forward five years, and Virginia learns that Simon has died in a house fire. They have been separated for the entirety of their marriage, and she and her daughter must go to Florida to settle her dead husbands’ estate. The only problem? Virginia suspects that Simon might not really be dead.

Cocoa Beach is a good combination of mystery and light literary fiction. Despite parts of the story being overwritten, Williams gets the tone just right. It took me a little longer to get into the book, but I flew through the second half because I wanted to know what was going on! She drops little hints throughout the novel about the bigger mystery at hand (Is Simon dead? Why are his brother and sister acting a bit odd around Virginia?), and that really kept me hooked into the story. I also can’t speak for the author, but I suspect she might be a fan of the fantastic 1944 film Gaslight. If you like that movie, you’ll find a lot to like about this novel. Virginia knows herself and is a strong character, but Simon’s brother and sister cause her to doubt herself to the point of devastation.

The big problem I have with this book is that it is part of a (loose) trilogy, and I didn’t know that. It is being marketed as a stand-alone novel, but certain parts of the book, and the ending, are confusing and don’t make sense if you haven’t read the other two books, which I haven’t. The other two are The Wicked City and A Certain Age, and apparently they explain a lot more about some of the characters in Cocoa Beach, and the ending of Cocoa Beach is entirely based on those books. I love when authors create stories for other characters in their books, but if a book is marketed as a stand-alone, then it really does need to stand on its own, and not require two other books as backstory just to understand the ending.

Beatriz Williams is a strong writer, and I have put her other books on my TBR list because of that. She is a great storyteller. I just wish that I had known to read those other two books before reading this one, and I would suggest you read those before Cocoa Beach as well. It will make Cocoa Beach much more enjoyable. That being said, I really do like her writing style, and I am looking forward to reading all of her other books.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

EXTRA!

Technically this is categorized as historical fiction, but the story really deals more with character relationships than the historical setting. The time in history really serves more as a backdrop than a major plot point. If you’re trying to read more historical fiction and it’s not a category you usually enjoy, I think this would be the perfect book to add to your list.

 



Review: Echo


Echo

“Music does not have a race or a disposition! Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.”

 

Every once in awhile a book comes along and surprises me by just how much it makes me feel. All books make me feel something, good or bad, but sometimes one is so special that it presses on my heart. Do you know what I mean? That almost physical pressure that is a combination of excitement and emotion and wanting to shout your love for the book from the rooftops. (I didn’t have a heart attack, I promise.) Echo is the kind of book that I want to force everyone I know to read, but that I’m afraid to recommend in case someone doesn’t love it. In which case I guess I’d be down a friend. (Just kidding. Sort of.) This book absolutely moved me and I cannot recommend it enough.

Echo braids together the stories of three children living during the World War II era. Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California. Through different circumstances, each child comes into possession of an enchanted harmonica. Stay with me here. That is the lone element of magical realism in the story, and Pam Munoz Ryan weaves it in perfectly. This is a WWII novel, but different from others that I’ve read. Instead of focusing on the war itself, the story is centered around people who have personal struggles in addition to the war (rescuing a father, finding a family, waiting for a brother to return), and these particular kids are trying to find a way to keep music in their lives at a time when music and instruments were seen as unimportant. In Germany, only Hitler-approved composers were allowed. In America, all available money was thrown at the war effort, and music was a more of a hobby for wealthy families or the lucky ones who had instruments pre-war. Music plays a huge role in Echo, and the characters’ lives are entwined using music as well.

Echo is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and uplifting book all at once. I was in tears by the end, and was not ready to let any of the characters go. While this is stellar middle grade fiction, I don’t see how adults wouldn’t love it too, even if you don’t usually read in this category. I do think it would be better for around age 10 and up. A cursory knowledge of WWII is necessary to understand parts of the book. I listened to this on audio, and I wasn’t comfortable listening to it around my 6- and 8-year-olds because there were some difficult topics (namely Hitler) that would have been upsetting to them, and they aren’t really able to comprehend an explanation for that yet.

Echo is truly a masterpiece, and Pam Munoz Ryan is a brilliant writer. This book is one of my favorites this year, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come. Please let me know if you’ve read it so we can talk about it!
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

*I listened to this as an audiobook, and let me just say that the narration is the best I’ve ever heard. I mean, the BEST. Audiobooks are a recent addition to my reading life, and I loved the audio for Echo so much that I bought it (Somehow it’s only $3.95 on Audible!) and I do intend to listen to it again. There are several narrators, and the production is amazing. The audio version incorporates beautiful musical elements and performances that add another layer that only reading the book cannot. I truly think, in this case, listening to the book and then reading it would add so much to the experience of the story. Just click on the Audiobook version in Amazon and download it directly to your Audible app, or get it through your library on Overdrive!
Echo on Audible

 

 

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Review: Dreamland Burning

Dreamland Burning

“I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.”

Dreamland Burning is marketed as YA, but if I hadn’t known that I would have assumed it was historical fiction for adults. It is a re-telling of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 (an event I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really know about), but at its heart it is a story about two teenagers finding out who they really are, and how they try to make sense of injustice in the world.

The story is told in alternating chapters between present-day 17-year-old Rowan Chase and 17-year-old Will Tillman in 1921. When Rowan discovers a skeleton under the floorboards of her family’s guest house, she takes matters into her own hands to find out who the skeleton was and how he or she died. What she discovers makes her question who she is and how far race relations have really come in the last hundred years. Will, a teenager in racially-divided Tulsa in 1921, finds himself in the middle of a race war that he doesn’t necessarily want to be in. He must decide not only how to react to a contentious situation, but how his actions will influence the kind of person he is now and in the future.

I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, brought it with me everywhere until I finished it, loved it. Jennifer Latham researched the race riots so well and crafted a compelling story around them that I think anyone would consider a page-turner. The main characters were well-written and I felt like I really knew them. The story itself questioned race relations of the past and present, and made important observations about how far we really haven’t come without blatantly seeming like an author’s agenda. This is definitely fiction, but there’s a lesson to be learned as well. I was fascinated by the events leading up to the race riots and how the fallout from that is still seen in present day. We call it history, but not everything remains in the past.

I will say that towards the end, the family lines and connections got a bit mixed up for me, but that also could have been because I stayed up way too late finishing it. I also wanted to know more about the dynamic between Will and his community. His mom was an Osage Native American, and surely that would have played some kind of role as well. Maybe it’s from having read Killers of the Flower Moon recently, but I did wonder why that aspect was overlooked.

Overall, this is an interesting, well-written, page-turner of a book that I think covers an important, forgotten part of American history. If you don’t usually read YA, please give this one a try. It is such a good story, and really shows how much we can learn from history, and how important it is to never forget the past. As Rowan says, “The dead always have stories to tell. They just need the living to listen.”

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Review: The Other Einstein


“Together, we will become the ideal bohemian couple—equal in love and work.”

This was the Big Library Read (sort a national online book club through your local library and Overdrive) in June. It kept popping up as a suggestion every time I logged into Overdrive, so I finally checked it out. (The Big Library Read books are always available as ebooks during their chosen month-no waitlist!) As much as I loved the cover, I kind of prepared myself for a dry read. But wow. This book was such a surprise. It was so interesting and engaging, and really quite scandalous!

I went into this book with a basic knowledge of Albert Einstein. The Other Einstein tells the fictionalized story of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric. Marie Benedict (who also publishes under the name Heather Terrell) has written a wonderful and interesting historical fiction novel about Mileva and her relationship with Albert. While it is fiction, the story is based in truth, and Benedict clearly did a lot of research. Mileva met Albert met while they were both in school at Zurich’s Polytechnic physics program. Mileva’s father had to petition the school to allow her to register, since it was still not the norm for women to go to such advanced programs. Albert is immediately taken with her and has dreams of living a “bohemian” lifestyle together, working and living as true partners. This is not exactly what happens. What follows is the story of not just two extraordinary physicists, but two people who had a real relationship that fell apart.

This feels very much like a stranger in a strange land late. Mileva is navigating a whole new world: women in university, learning about traditionally male subjects. There is a huge learning curve for her, as well as for the men. She not only has to figure out how she fits in to the male-dominated world of physics, but also how she fits into society as a woman, and how those two personas can work together instead of against each other. She did not want to choose just one personality (scholar or wife), and this is still an incredibly relevant topic today. We can all relate to wanting a group of likeminded people to be around, and not just trying to fit in with the mainstream crowd. Mileva worked very hard to have that, and she was not always successful.

This was an unexpectedly perfect summer read, and although it also unexpectedly broke my heart a little, it made me think hard about relationships and gender roles, and how much weight is still placed on those things. And please forgive this one superficial comment, but it was hard to see how much of a jerk Einstein truly was. I still think of him as Walter Matthau in the extremely fictional movie IQ. (And yes, I realize how much that dates me.)

Whether or not the fictionalized parts of The Other Einstein are completely false or loosely based on the truth, Benedict still lets us into the life of a women who is built up and then systematically broken down, although she does not go down without a fight. The extent to which that happened in real life is still being debated, but it did happen, and Mileva Maric had been all but lost to history. I’m so glad she was brought back to life with this book!

“You are a genius at everything but the human heart.”
Mileva to Albert

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

You might also like The Last Days of Night

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Review: The Women in the Castle


The Women in the Castle

“Hitler must die.”

This review took awhile to write because I wanted to talk about all of the things I loved about the book. This is one of my favorites, and so far it’s my favorite read of 2017.

The events in The Women in the Castle are triggered by the real-life event of a group of resistance fighters attempting to assassinate Hitler in the throws of World War II. They fail, are caught and executed, and their families are left to pick up the pieces during and after the war. The book focuses on three widows in particular: Marianne, Benita, and Ania. Three women living together in a crumbling castle, all with vastly different personalities, all with secrets to keep, must learn how to navigate post-war Germany in the 1940s and beyond. All three are widows with children to care for and reputations that, even though they are known to be resistance widows, have taken a beating simply because they are German.

I love books about aftermath. (Remember Me Like This: A Novel comes to mind and is one of my all-time favorites.) Most books tell stories that occur during a disaster, or the time leading up to a disaster. This book does delve into what happened during the war for the three women, but only so we can see what happens to them, and why, after the war. What happens after a war ends and life is expected to go back to normal? Especially when there isn’t a legitimate normal to go back to. The book really focuses on how these three women not only survived World War II in Germany, but how they survived after the war. It is very interesting to see the aftermath of the war for Germans; people were expected to go on as if nothing had happened, and your neighbor, and perhaps yourself, hadn’t committed atrocities while you turned a blind eye. There was a lot of guilt and trying to bury the guilt.

The dichotomy between beauty and horror in this book is striking. The landscape, the women, even the crumbling castle, serve as the backdrop for the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The Women in the Castle was a much heavier book than I expected, but in the best way. It is about post-World War II, but it delves into what happened during the war too, and the effects wartime actions had on “regular” people. It is a hard look at post-war life, which in some ways, for certain people, may have been more difficult than during the war, when roles and expectations were clearly defined. It’s one of those books that had me Googling that author and the subject matter the second I finished reading it because I wanted to know even more.

I highly, highly recommend The Women in the Castle! However you can get your hands on this book, get it.

There is a good, quick interview with the author, Jessica Shattuck, HERE.

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