The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

nightingaleThis was one of my top ten favorite books of 2015. This was a heartbreaking, sad, emotional, and intense read. I knew all that going in because I knew it was about a woman in France in WWII whose husband goes off to the war and the Nazis come to her village. Nazis, French Resistance, concentration camps–I just knew characters were going to die, there would be horrible actions, and it would make me question humanity. Because that’s what any WWII book does to me. But I keep reading them and with every one there is something new I learn, some new viewpoint or facet to the war that I hadn’t thought/learned about. In this case it was the French village and what it was like when it became occupied.

I thought this was a wonderful story. Yes, very sad, but warm moments of hope too. In fact, the structure of the book-beginning with a contemporary situation-lets you know that clearly not everyone is going to die. I actually didn’t think this structure added much and was slightly distracting to me.
So much to think about and talk about, it’s no wonder this was so popular last year and a popular book discussion book.

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Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

roseI was pretty excited when I heard there was a companion novel to Code Name Verity coming out as that was one of the best books I read last year.  I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t remember enough of that book to get this one, but it truly is not a sequel, just a companion.  One of the main characters of Code Name Verity is a friend of Rose, the main character in this book.  That’s nice in that it lets you see how her life turns out during the war, and this does take place chronologically after Code Name Verity, and right up through the end of the war.   Code Name Verity had some pretty intense scenes in it, especially of torture, which I had a hard time reading.  Rose Under Fire is even more intense in that it is primarily set in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  Rose is an American pilot, flying for the British.  She gets captured and sent to the camp.  The details of living (if you can call it living) there are extraordinary and horrific.  Rose makes a family there, especially with the “rabbits”, those women and girls the SS did medical experiments on.  I found this book difficult to read for extended periods of time. And when I got to the end, I cried. And then I read the afterword and cried some more. Mind you, I was doing all this reading and crying at our town park during my son’s soccer game. And then I came home and leafed through National Geographic and saw pictures of mines in Africa and child soldiers and I wanted to cry some more about how human beings can do such terrible things to one another.  OK, so it’s a given that a book set in a German concentration camp during WWII is going to be sad and depressing and hurt your heart. But what else of the book? Well it’s beautifully written.  Rose is a poet and her poetry gets her and other prisoners through long hours.  Her spirit and courage, and that of the other women, too, is amazing and uplifting.  The use of poems and planes all works together beautifully.  This was an incredible book, not an easy read, but so worth it.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

If you know me then you know that when things I like become very popular it kind of makes me not want to be a part of it.  When John Green won the Printz award for Looking for Alaska, I was thrilled. It was a great book (boarding school!) and absolutely deserving of the recognition.  When he gave his acceptance speech it was charming and heartwarming and made it even better. He’s funny and adorable and all the librarians swooned.  Now’s it several years later and phrases like “screaming librarians” and “like a rock star” get thrown around when talking about him and it just all makes  me go “ugh.”  However he has a hotly anticipated new book out and, well, g-d but that guy can write.

Hazel Grace and Augustus are teenagers with cancer who meet at a support group.  Hazel’s cancer is in a state of “ok for now thanks to a miracle drug”, but has left her with an oxygen tank and compromised lungs.  Gus has lost a leg.  They’ve both faced death and are very matter of fact and not maudlin.  Hazel’s favorite book of all time, which she has read many times, is about a girl dying of cancer.  The book ends mid-sentence (and, as I got near the end of this book I worried anxiously that Green would do it to this book) and it drives Hazel absolutely made.  She really must know how things turned out for her characters.  When she introduces Augustus to the novel he, too, embraces it and they become fixated on contacting the author.  The use of the novel is so interesting because the kids quote from it, so it’s like the author has another opportunity to put in things he wants to say-maybe the more philosophical stuff about the human experience. It’s really well integrated.

I love how Hazel and Gus are funny and real (well, in that way that ya characters are-no one is that funny and intellectual in real life, let’s face it.), but how they not only are not stereotypical cancer characters, they also point blank mock them and talk about how the cancer kids are more compassionate and wise but it’s just as likely a total jerk might have cancer, but you can’t say that.  The relationship with their friend, Isaac, is also wonderfully drawn.

The Amsterdam stuff was very vivid for me-the whole time I pictured when Paul and I visited there. Though I’m going to admit something here-when I got to the end of the book, which I was reading in the tub, I read the acknowledgments and it said that the author got to spend two months in Amsterdam, thanks to the Dutch Literature Foundation, and all I could think was “two months to write two chapters set there? Really? and I’m sitting here in a bath that the water is never hot enough and no one’s ever going to pay me to live internationally for two months” and it got very woe is me. So the book ended on a sour note for me. And I’m sure it’s totally offensive to authors for me to express disbelief at the need for so  much research/immersion (check out Brian Selznick’s prep for Wonderstruck), but I’m just saying that I could have provided the same amount of Amsterdam detail. And I visited there 6 years ago for less than a week.

Anyway, this is a beautiful heartbreaking joyful story.  So well written, including a beautiful meaningful title (but a crap cover, what the heck?).  As you would expect with the subject matter, this book made me completely weepy and when I finished I had to excessively hug and kiss and smother my children when I tucked them in because I couldn’t bear the thought of them having a childhood cancer. I found this book emotionally wrenching, in a good way.