Book Review

Book Review: The Gown by Jennifer Robson- 5 Stars

Summary from Goodreads:
London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

This was a lovely, lovely novel. I almost didn’t want it to end!

Miriam Dassin and Ann Hughes became friends when Miriam emigrated from France after the war to work as an embroider for Norman Hartnell, where Ann also worked. Together the two created beautiful, intricate designs on clothing, most notably, the wedding gown for then Princess Elizabeth, who we know today as the Queen! Back in 1947 the two single women spent their days working and chatting, with an occasional evening out with friends or gentlemen callers. Not long after the gown is completed and the royal wedding has taken place, Ann leaves England to join her sister-in-law in Canada, cutting off all ties with Miriam and her love for embroidery, to create a new life, never to look back on her days in England.

In 2016, Heather Mackenzie is struggling with the death of her nan, Ann. When Heather’s mother finds a box of embroideries with only Heather’s name written on top, she makes it her mission to uncover more about her grandmother’s quiet and mysterious past. Traveling from Canada to England with only her nan’s photos and embroideries, not knowing much else about Ann’s time in Britain, Heather has an chance meeting with Miriam and begins to see a the side of her grandmother that she never shared with her family.

A novel of love, loss, feminine strength and determination, The Gown captured my heart instantly. I loved the friendship Miriam and Ann shared and the message of resilience of two strong women bound to take on whatever life throws at them. I highly recommend this novel, and I would go so far as to say it has been my most favorite book I’ve read so far this year!

Book Review

Book Review: Projekt 1065: A Novel of World War II by Alan Gratz- 3.5 Stars

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Michael O’Shaunessey is 13 years old and in Hitler’s Youth. The thing is, he’s not committed to Hitler-he and his parents, Irish ambassadors, are spies. Michael befriends a weak boy at school after he’s ruthlessly attacked. The two of them start training together, to work on their separate weaknesses-Michael has a fear of heights, and Fritz cannot fight- in order to advance in to the SRD.

Michael has a photographic memory which serves him well as a spy. Fritz has shown him plans for a jet fighter plane called Projekt 1065 that Michael memorizes and with the help of an unlikely Ally, is able to reproduce the blueprint.

But when Fritz becomes hardened with all his Nazi training and soon is put on a special “science team” that can only end badly, Michael must pretend to be a complete Zealot to the Nazi cause in order to help the Allies even if it means risking his and his family’s life.

While this is a novel of WWII, it is geared towards younger readers so it is not very graphic with war detail. It can also give young readers a sense of courage and feeling of how to want to do the right thing and help even when it’s hard and you’re in the minority. That said, I just didn’t feel like Michael was that believable of a spy as he would sometimes outwardly show disgust and not show enthusiasm like the other boys when they got to do something “important” for the cause. I was afraid his lukewarm attitude would get him caught. The bravery of a young boy in treacherous times made for an appealing story and I really liked how it ended.

Book Review

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr-5 Stars

 

 

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I don’t have adequate words to write this review. Everyone needs to read it. Yes, it deals with the horrors of WWII, the young teen boys fashioned into soldiers for Hitler’s army, the young girls raped and the senseless killings, constant fear. But it’s more than that- this novel is written in such a beautiful way. It’s not grotesque. It tells the story of a blind French girl, a German orphan training for the Nazis, radio broadcasts of a Professor’s teachings, a cursed gem, and how they eventually converge. Doerr’s writing is magnificent, flowing, descriptive, breathtaking. I flagged so many moving passages- one of my favorite lines, Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever has so many meanings in this novel. It’s repeated frequently, it was a line from the professor’s broadcasts that Werner and his sister Jutta would hear at night. Marie-Laure is blind yet she sees the world and all its beauty even so. Werner, a brilliant young man, has to keep his eyes set on sights of the war and finding traitors, but his eyes aren’t fully open to the other aspects of his life. This is a long book and not one I would want to breeze through reading. It took me almost a month to read it because it’s a book I wanted to take my time with, mulling over every line, because it was so emotionally captivating.

To really touch something…is to love it. (p. 30)

Is it right,…to do something only because everyone else is doing it? (p. 133)

Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever. (p. 376)

But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same? (p. 469)

That first peach slithers down his throat like rapture. A sunrise in his mouth. (p. 471)

 

Book Review

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys-5 Stars

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Between Shades of Gray is a remarkable story of strength during the time of Stalin’s dictatorship. I tend to shy away from war type novels but I have heard so many amazing things about this novel that I knew I needed to read it. Before reading this I wasn’t really aware of the nightmares these people faced under Stalin’s reign of terror.

This book tells the story of Lina, her mother Elena, and younger brother Jonas as they are forcibly removed from their house in Lithuania from the Soviets one day. They are herded like animals in trains with only a rusty hole to relieve themselves from, and a bucket of water and slop for nourishment. Lina’s father, a college professor, never arrived home from work that day, and we later learn he was taken separately and imprisoned.

Lina’s family is a family of intellect and honor. All of the Vilkas family is caring, educated, and show love for family and friends. I don’t know why, but I was thinking this type of family dynamic in the 1940’s in Lithuania would be harsh, poor, and disconnected from each other, but Lina, an artist, was encouraged and praised by her parents for her stories and drawings, except when she became overzealous with hatred for Stalin. Her father tried to warn her to be careful. She was a sneaky thing, always listening in to her father’s meetings, trying to hear what was going on in the countries around her.

 

Lina enters this nightmare as a 15 year old girl and emerges fighting, a strong, passionate, caring young woman.To be shoved into this kind of atmosphere, and not lose yourself to the evil around you, would be extremely difficult. Lina kept her sanity and her strength by drawing and writing. She knew her drawings were unique and, if they made their way to her father, he could locate her by knowing they were from her.

The detail that the author lends to the characters was one of the greatest aspects to this story. Elena, Lina’s mom, was such a graceful, beautiful, kind woman who did not want to give up or give in to the NKVD. She did everything she could to stay alive for her children, all while staying loyal to her family and homeland. I could literally feel the love and genuine sweetness coming from her. Lina was outspoken and had an opinion about nearly everything, but loved her family and pushed through this horrific journey.

Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there. 

Lina was not going to let Stalin win. Even in these horrific conditions, Lina and her mother and brother pushed on. They made friends with those they were enslaved with- Andrius, his mother, Miss Grybas, even the grouchy, depressing bald man. They were all forced to work when they arrived in Siberia-digging holes, making shoes, digging for beets-it was extremely hard manual labor constantly with a puny ration of bread as their payment. They were called fascist pigs from the NKVD. The women were leered at, children disregarded. I can’t fathom the measure of strength it would take to still want to survive after being spit at, worked to the point of utter exhaustion where your legs buckle, or starving daily.

What I loved about the characters is how they helped each other. They risked their lives to steal beets to feed a hungry friend, gave up their ration for a sick child, stole wood to keep everyone warm. No one wanted to do this alone. Even if the risk was great, they valued those around them. Andrius was one of my favorite characters besides Lina. He was the light in this dark tunnel for Lina and Jonas.

Don’t be scared. Don’t give them anything, Lina, not even your fear.

When I finished this book, I just held it in my arms and cried.  I strongly feel everyone, teen and adult alike, should read it. It’s obviously a fictional family but the nightmares they endured are true. The death camps, the suffering, it’s all real, and if you, like me, weren’t aware of the horrors the Baltic people went through, I recommend picking this up.

Krasivaya. It means beautiful, but with strength. Unique.