Friday, October 21, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad first came to my attention when it was picked for Oprah's Book Club, and I imagine the same is true for a lot of people. I read Whitehead's Zone One, another take on the zombie apocalypse scenario, back in 2012 and had fairly mediocre feelings towards it. But I decided to give Whitehead another chance, especially seeing as the premise of this book could not be more different from Zone One.

The Situation: Cora was born a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother, Mabel, escaped years before, making Cora a "stray," and her stubbornness and strong will make her an outcast, even among the other slaves. For the most part she does her work and keeps to herself, never really entertaining the idea of escape, at least not seriously, until Caesar comes along and asks her to join him on his attempt. Her initial "no" eventually turns into a "yes" when Cora is severely punished for attempting to protect another slave. Both Cora and Caesar know it won't be easy, and if caught, the punishment will be creative and hellish, ultimately leading to death. But the pair head to the Underground Railroad anyway, hoping for the freedom that so many dreamed of but failed to achieve.

The Problem: Cora and Caesar may know that escape won't be easy, but they don't quite realize how hard it will be, or all of the different obstacles that can stand in their way. After taking on an extra passenger that ends up slowing them down, their trip is almost over before they even reach the Underground Railroad when a group of hunters find them. And after Cora kills a white boy out of self-defense, the hunters are no longer looking for just a runaway slave, but a murderer as well. Her dream of no longer being someone's property takes her through South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana. The racial climate is different in each location, but no matter how accepting the area may be, Cora must always be on the watch. If she lets down her guard even the slightest bit, she is in danger of being captured and returned to her vengeful master.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in pre-Civil War America. In this book, the Underground Railroad becomes more than a metaphor for the system of pathways, routes, and the people who helped run it, that allowed many slaves to escape to freedom. Whitehead has the Underground Railroad take on a much more literal meaning and role as it becomes a system of actual train tracks that are run underground, with small train cars run by conductors. Many of the stops that Cora comes across are managed by white abolitionists who are risking their own lives and reputations by helping fugitive slaves. And because Cora travels to many different states, never able to settle in just one for too long, the reader is able to see how the different states each deal with slavery and racial tension. In Georgia, Cora is a slave and is treated as such. In South Carolina, things appear to be a bit more hopeful, only for Cora to discover that there are many ways to oppress an entire race of people, even under the guise of helping them. And then there is Indiana, where an entire community of black people, some former slaves and some born free, live together out in the open, almost completely free from outside oppression...almost. Cora's journey takes us through different parts of the US during one of the country's darkest points in history, showing us that slavery in American was not a one size fits all situation.

My Verdict: Yes, it is about slavery. Yes, it contains brutality. And yes, at times it was very hard to read. With that being said, I can see why Oprah picked it. Unflinching honesty is almost always what you want in a book that deals with such a hard subject. But Whitehead isn't brutally honest and graphic just for the sake of being brutally honest and graphic. And Cora isn't the type of heroine who sits and waits for someone else to rescue her, though she does have to depend on people from time to time in order to get away unnoticed. Another great thing about her is that she doesn't despair much, or at least she isn't dramatic about it. When she does lose hope, or when things do look bad, Whitehead gives her emotions, but I got the sense that Cora didn't dwell on them much, or let them overtake her, making her journey a lot easier to follow.  

Favorite Moment: When Cora covers the body of a fellow slave being beaten, at great detriment to her own physical well-being.

Favorite Character: Sam is a white man sympathetic to slaves and assists fugitives and run-aways. He runs one of the stops along the Underground Railroad at risk to his own life and property.   

Recommended Reading: I highly recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This book reaches further back into the slave trade process, starting in Africa, and follows two branches of the same family tree as one family line ends up in America, while the other stays in Africa and must deal with the effects of the slave trade there.    

Friday, October 14, 2016

Nonfiction: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth

My interest in The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America's First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth comes mostly from the book's setting of my hometown, Austin, Texas. In the late 1800s, the capital of the Lone Star State was the city where several mysterious and brutal killings took place, and Hollandsworth takes an in-depth look at something few people, including many residents of Texas, know much about. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction/true crime book that covers an extremely terrifying time in Austin, Texas. In December of 1884, Austin is not quite the beacon of live music, arts, culture, business, and technology that it is today. In fact, it recently became the capital of the then largest state in the union, after the title was moved from Houston. In the 1880s, Austin was still a small town boasting only 17,000 residents when a young man by the name of Tom Chalmers was awakened by the frantic knocking of Walter Spencer. Spencer, an African American brick yard laborer in his late twenties, claimed that someone has tried to kill him, and has taken his girlfriend, Mollie Smith. As Chalmers was not at all willing to go out into the cold to look for Spencer's girlfriend, he ushered the frantic man out of his house and went back to bed. In the morning, Smith would be found with terrible axe wounds. Hollandsworth describes the body as looking as if Smith had been "ripped open like a calf at the slaughterhouse." For the next year or so, Austin would be seized in terror has six more people will end up murdered in similar ways. Another murder will take place in San Antonio, and yet two more in Gainesville. At first it appears that only black servant women are targeted, but then two of Austin's well-respected white women are also axed down, leading to a different kind of fear, as well as some secrets about both women, and their families, being exposed to the Austin public. And much like the early targets were black, so were most of the suspects, as most of Austin white citizens refused to believe that it could be anyone other than a black man who could do such a thing. Hollandsworth points out how the inherent racism of the time led white officials to routinely round up black suspects and "interrogate" them, though none ever confessed and there was never enough evidence to hold them. In fact, there was never enough evidence to hold anyone, since DNA testing and checking for finger prints weren't really a thing in the 19th century. The city would go through cycles of being gripped by terror, then feeling more comfortable as time passed without incident, only to be gripped by terror again after letting their guard down. Eventually the murders would stop, and Austin would move forward again.

My Verdict: I don't read much true crime, although I do enjoy it, and The Midnight Assassin is no exception. And having it set in my hometown naturally makes the whole thing even more interesting. Seeing old photos of the now bustling city is indeed fascinating, but seeing the photos next to descriptions of how a serial killer attacked his victims and seemed to vanish into the night makes for a different experience altogether. Some of the descriptions are gory in their details, and there are times when reading about the investigations and even the criminal trials are frustrating, especially knowing all that we know today about forensics and crime scene analysis. Something else that proved interesting is reading how elected officials that many Texans learned about in school handled the murders, especially when it became election time and the issue couldn't be ignored. Hollandsworth gives just enough detail without bogging down the narrative, but doesn't hold anything back. And the pacing of the book works well to keep the reader interested, even during the stretches of time between the killings.

Favorite Moment: When the then mayor of Austin, John Robertson, mistakenly hires men from the wrong detective agency, and must cover up his mistake of spending taxpayer money on the wrong people.

Recommended Reading: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood is commonly referred to as the book that started the whole true crime genre. It may not deal with a serial killer, but the murders are still gruesome and take place in small quiet town hat had never encountered anything like it before.        

Friday, October 7, 2016

Historical Fiction: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I have been waiting for the better part of 2016 for Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing to become available. Ever on a quest to read more books by black authors, I immediately put it on my list and gave it a spot on this blog when I discovered its synopsis on Goodreads. I know there are others out there who desire to read more books by writers of color, and I am glad to aid in the search and discovery.

The Situation: In 18th century Ghana, two half-sisters are growing up to lead very different lives, and for the most part are ignorant of each other. Effia will end up leaving her village to be married to a British slaver. Because the woman she knows as her mother is incredibly envious of her beauty, she plots to be rid of her forever. This plot may ultimately land her in a castle, but the building has a sinister purpose, and what happens underneath it has a terrible effect on many of Effia's own people. Her half-sister Esi will end up being one of them. Starting with them, Homegoing tells the story of both sides, switching back and forth between Effia's line and Esi's. One will remain in Ghana, and the other will end up in America.

The Problem: While Effia's line may not be forced to endure the slavery that we as Americans are familiar with, they still have to endure the presence of the British, even after England has stopped trading slaves. The British still desire the land, and they stand to benefit from the different tribes fighting and killing each other. And if that weren't enough, the women in Effia's line must deal with the expectations of marriage and child-bearing, while the men must prove themselves to be strong and work hard so as to not shame their family. It will take several generations for Esi's family to finally escape slavery in America, only to have to endure segregation and Jim Crow. And even after that, the troubles just don't immediately end. Both sides have to fight both for and against where they came from, and where they seem to be going.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in 18th century Ghana and ends up more or less in modern day America, while ultimately going back to Africa as well. Two different stories are told using several different narrators. Effia and Esi both have the same mother, from whom the reader hears very little. Form there, the book travels through six generations before ending up in the present day, switching between the two family lines as it moves forward. Many of them have brothers and sisters, but the story remains focused on one specifically before moving on to one of their children. On Effia's side is an inherent fear of fire, a fear that proves to be validated in one particular story. On Esi's side there is the fear of water, which is also validated, but more because of the long journey slaves had to take on boat from Africa to America. By having the two different stories, Gyasi explores both sides of the potential story: what could have happened by remaining in Africa, and what could have happened by being forced into slavery in a foreign land. None of the stories, on either side, are completely ideal, but many of the people that are focused on do end up happy, while others remain miserable for one reason or another. 

My Verdict: What amazes me most about this book is that it barely hits the 300 pages mark, and yet there is so much in it. With fourteen total stories, each one incredibly rich in its own way, there is a lot in these pages, and perhaps what makes it so unbelievably short is that Gyasi doesn't waste words or use any filler. Every paragraph and piece of dialogue has a point and adds to the story. And yet, somehow, this book is still an easy read, despite being so rich. Another thing that amazes me is that even while dealing with the difficult subjects of the slave trade, segregation, Jim Crow, and institutionalized racism, the book was never hard or difficult to read. I was never anxious about picking it up again, or got bored because I felt like I had read about this stuff before. Somehow, Gyasi took a subject almost all of us are all too familiar with and didn't make it boring or repetitive.

Favorite Moment: When Marcus, the last story in Esi's line, looks at a piece of artwork and admits to doing the requisite pondering head-tilt whenever another viewer comes near.

Favorite Character: A muscular man known only as H from Esi's line, is 13 years-old when the slaves are emancipated, but ends up a victim of the convict leasing system. A big and scary man with the strength to do some damage, he ultimately ends up a family man and head of his worker's union. For me he represented somewhat of a turning point in Esi's line.

Recommended Reading: There are other books written by black authors that tell the story from the points of view of different family members, but Homegoing is the first one I have read that does it moving from generation to generation. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis tells the story of different siblings all from the same family, as does The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Historical Fiction: In the Garden Room by Tanya Eby

I signed up to be a part of the blog tour for Tanya Eby's In the Garden Room because of its intriguing and somewhat dark premise. With only the description on Goodreads to go by, the reader already knows that a little girl is looking at her mother's dead body, but instead of grief she feels relief. 

The Situation: Eleven year-old Lillian March lives in Traverse City, Michigan with her mother Cora, and her father John. Though they aren't rich - in fact, Cora makes what little she can from cleaning for the Milliken's, whose property they live on - Lillian is fairly content with her life and seems to derive most of her joy from reading the biology books that are brought to her by her father. John also seems happy, though he wishes he could provide more for his wife and daughter. The fact that  he comes home everyday smelling of fish is one of the many reasons Cora is unhappy. She resents having to clean house for a wealthier family, and feels that her youth and good looks were stolen from her, with her husband and daughter being the thieves. The cherry orchard she was promised by John before they were married has yet to arrive, and this gives her justification to lie to her daughter and move them both to the big city of Chicago, while John is away on a long fishing voyage with no clue as to where they have gone.

The Problem: Life in Chicago is nothing like Cora dreamt it would be, and the man she followed there is not the knight in shinning armor she thought he was. Almost immediately, the shared savings that she and her husband had accumulated over the years is almost gone, and all Cora has to show for it is a gaudy dress and a shabby rented room. Young Lillian needs food, and soon it becomes clear she'll need a job too, as Cora can't be relied on to work, too busy chasing the life she has always fantasized about. When things go from bad to worse, and Cora sells her daughter while in a drug-induced haze, it seems like things could not possibly get any darker, until they do. Now John must do everything he can to rescue his little girl before she is lost forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in 1910. The book first starts out in Traverse City, Michigan, but eventually moves to Chicago, where Cora makes her "escape" with Lillian. While Traverse City is peaceful and serene, if a little boring and uptight, Chicago is depicted as the big dirty city filled with people looking only to take what little you have. Everyone seems to want a little more than what they have, which means Cora fits right in. But because she isn't savvy enough to actually make it in the big city, or willing to work, and can't seem to see people for what they really are, the city quickly swallows her, leaving 11 year-old Lillian on her own, for the most part. Eby explores Chicago's worst areas, from the red light district, to the sights, smells, and horrible sounds emerging from the meatpacking district with its slaughterhouses and brutal foremen. No one can be trusted, and everyone is out for themselves. Even little Lillian isn't spared, with those put in charge over her, Cora included, believing that she has to learn how cruel the world is at some point, and 11 years-old is old enough for them. 

My Verdict: This is a tough book to read, particularly if you are sensitive when it comes to acts of aggression - including sexual acts of aggression - towards women and children. It is apparent fairly early on that Eby is not going to hold back when addressing the vulgarity of some of the citizens in early 20th century Chicago. She also does not hold back when it comes to Cora, who is certainly one of the most selfish mothers I have ever read about in a book...and I have read a lot of books that included selfish or jaded mothers (Scarlett O'Hara anyone?). But Cora's inability to care about anyone besides herself makes Lillian's story all the more tragic and heart-breaking. And ultimately, Eby pulls off the difficult task of having the reader understand how a little girl could be relieved at seeing the dead body of her own mother.

Favorite Moment: When John's German friend, Willem, breaks in the face of a pedophile.

Favorite Character: Chester is a young boy whom Lillian meets at her first job in Chicago. At first he seems like a trickster and a smart ass, and he is both of those things. But ultimately he turns out to be both protective and helpful. He reminded me a lot of Gavroche from Les Miserables

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. The book follows three girls who must find a way to keep themselves together after their father dies and their mother drinks away what little money she is able to make as a laundress.  

Friday, September 23, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian by Han Kang took home the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Though a relatively short book at less then 200 pages, it has captivated readers and critics and has to been said to be a truly unique and extraordinary reading experience. It often happens that critically acclaimed books aren't very popular with your everyday reader. So I decided to read The Vegetarian for myself, as the premise does interest me and I was curious to see what got the critics so excited.

The Situation: Yeong-hye is a young wife in South Korea. She lives a fairly ordinary life with nothing particularly exciting going on. Even her husband describes her as "completely unremarkable in every way," though she may have a few small oddities. So together they live an unremarkable existence. But when Yeong-hye has a terrifying nightmare, one which leads her to the decision to become a vegetarian, the little things that only made her slightly strange soon become big problems. It isn't just that Yeong-hye will no longer eat meat, but soon she can barely even look at it, smell it, or watch other people eat it. And while it is certainly possible to eat a healthy amount and maintain a healthy weight without consuming meat, Yeong-hye instead begins to waste away, and eventually she won't eat anything at all.

The Problem: Normally, not eating meat would not be such a big deal; people become vegetarians all of the time. But Yeong-hye's entire family simply cannot understand the change, all being big meat eaters themselves. Her sister and brother are confused, as are their spouses, and her parents simply won't stand for it. After a particularly awful confrontation that leads to a suicide attempt, it becomes clear that eating meat really isn't the issue for Yeong-hye, but no one has any idea what is actually going on with her, and what is to be done about it. And while the decision should be about how to best care for Yeong-hye, for some family members it begins to be about whether they will be able to stand by her and support her as she goes through whatever it is that is causing her to eat so little and waste away before their eyes. It will be her sister, In-hye, who will take on most of the caregiving, but it will cause her to question her own existence and the decisions she has made for her life.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a story of fiction originally written and published in Korean in 2007, and then translated and published in English earlier this year. As I had already mentioned, it has won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, and that is what initially brought it to my attention. Yeong-hye's initial decision to stop eating meat comes after a particularly gruesome dream that makes the act of consuming meat completely repulsive to her. While this will become one of the more mundane decisions she will make throughout the novel, it is still one that is big enough to completely shake her entire family. Broken up into three parts, the novel moves on with not eating meat as a central issue that is always returned back to, but Yeong-hye does other things that are much more strange, shocking, and scary for those that love her and care about her well-being. The book is first told in first-person by her husband; then in third-person from the perspective of her brother-in-law; and then again in third-person, but from the perspective of her older sister. Even when Yeong-hye's only issue seems to be with eating meat, it is clear that something much deeper, more profound, is going on with her. However, she won't communicate, and some of the people around her refuse to even try to understand, and quickly lose patience. While some ultimately dismiss her, others make her issues all about them, and still others take advantage of the situation for their own benefit.

My Verdict: This is one where I am pretty sure there are things that happened or were said that went completely over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway and can see what got critics so excited. Reading the novel is certainly a different experience from the kind of stuff I usually read, one I am glad to have had. And while the three different parts of the book are all told from different viewpoints, I can't say that there was one that was weaker than the others, or that there was one that was stronger and more preferable to me. Sure, two of the characters are more annoying or more frustrating than the other one, but the writing remained strong in all three and they all contributed to the overall success of the novel. While not ever being too gruesome or explicit, the book still manages to be a little scary and incredibly sad, but not so much that it is overwhelming and may make a reader want to put the book down. Kang effectively displays the experience of watching someone spiral downward, and the feeling of helplessness that comes with knowing there really isn't anything you can do.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Yeong-hye manages to laugh, since it is rare for her to even smile.

Favorite Character: Yeong-hye's sister, In-hye, is easily the most likeable and relateable. She is the only one who really continues to care for her sister and stick by her.

Recommended Reading: I recommend  either The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. Both novels include female characters who, on the surface, are distant, difficult to read, and ultimately misunderstood. Also, Shelter by Jung Yun is also about a Korean family dealing with their history of abuse.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: First Circle Club by Alex Siegel

I signed up to review First Circle Club by Alex Siegel as part of a blog tour for the book. The description made it sound like a fun and not too serious take on the eternal battle between heaven and hell, and with some mystery, action, and suspense thrown in. It also promises to be the first of a series, so those of you who enjoy this type of thing have more to look forward to.

The Situation: Virgil was a U.S. Marshall killed in the line of duty in the 1970s, and due to some questionable choices he made while performing his job, it was decided that he would be assigned to hell for all eternity. Fortunately for him (or unfortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), he only had to go as far as limbo, or the first circle. While he avoids things like lakes of fire and endless torture, he must file endless paperwork for all eternity, which of course is a sort of torture in and of itself. Fortunately (or again, unfortunately, depending on your view), something terrible and unheard of has happened, and both heaven and hell need someone with Virgil's past experience on Earth to help sort things out. It isn't a second chance exactly, but it is a break in the monotony of endless filing, and gives Virgil a chance to be back on Earth.

The Problem: The unfathomable thing that has happened is that essentially someone has managed to escape hell, and it is one of the last people anyone would ever want roaming the earth again. Daniel was a serial killer when he was alive, and he has decided to resume his work now that he has returned. To make matters worse, he wasn't simply given his old human body to work with, but a stronger one with more power and a better healing ability. But Virgil was also given such a body, as was Lisa, another soul that was condemned to limbo, and Alfred and Sara, two souls that were recruited from heaven. Together, the four of them are to work together to try to hunt down Daniel and send him back to his punishment, and also find out how he was able to escape in the first place as accomplishing such a feat means he is certainly not working alone. If anything, they need to stop him from killing more innocent people.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel with elements of fantasy, and some light humor. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, but does provide enough back story and description to aid in the suspension of disbelief. Virgil and Lisa are souls recruited from hell, as Virgil is a former U.S. Marshall and Lisa is an ex-cop, so both would have experience hunting down dangerous people. Sara was recruited from heaven because of her experience as a medical examiner, and Alfred was a psychologist. In addition to being given bodies with powerful new abilities, Virgil is able to make people feel incredible amounts of guilt and shame just by speaking to them, while Alfred can allow any human to feel peace and an endless amount of trust. Lisa can cause physical pain simply by touching someone, while Sara was given the power to heal by blowing on a wound with her breath. The team must work together using their new powers to hunt down and overcome Daniel, who can make sharp blades out of his hands to better aid in his killing. But they must do so without telling people who or what they are, or limiting the agent of free will for the still living humans in any way. It seems both heaven and hell have a number of rules regarding conduct on Earth that both sides must follow, and violations have their own consequences, with each side maintaining a "budget" that can only handle so many infractions. It's a complicated issue without a straightforward solution, but even the recruited souls from heaven are pretty happy being active again on Earth.

My Verdict: While the battle between heaven and hell is certainly not a new theme, Siegel takes it in his own direction and plays with it, which makes for a fun rediscovery of an old idea for a novel. There are a few things about it that aren't terribly fresh, like having a serial killer turn out the way he has because of an oppressive and religious father; or giving the undead U.S. Marshall, who died when he was about 50ish, a twenty something year-old love interest. Also, while the main objective is to find Daniel and send him back to hell, there is an entire side story where the team must find the incredibly wealthy benefactor who is clearly aiding the serial-killer. For a good 100 pages or so, there is very little talk of Daniel, and he has all but disappeared from the narrative. Perhaps this is something that will be further dealt with in future books in the series, but for this one I found it odd. Other than that, the book is full of action and interesting tidbits regarding how heaven and hell function, with characters that will carry well throughout an ongoing series.

Favorite Moment: Anytime Alfred used his voice to accomplish what he needed.

Favorite Character: My favorite of the four was certainly Alfred. With his voice, he was able to disarm almost everyone instantly, and given much more time, he would have them sobbing in his arms, telling him about their child and their long hard road to a regrettable life of violence.

Recommended Reading: It won't be nearly as fun as this book, but I still recommend, Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy. The part about hell, or the Inferno, is of course the most interesting, but I recommend reading the whole thing.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Historical Fiction: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite my desire to steer away from historical fiction that deals with World War II, here I am covering a book that does exactly that. Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly follows the lives of three women as Hitler takes over Poland, and then sets his sights on the rest of the world. I suppose what ultimately interested me was the fact that the story doesn't stay in one place, and offers a variety of perspectives.

The Situation: It's 1939, and Caroline Ferriday is volunteering for the French Consulate in New York City. As a woman who is officially considered a spinster, she occupies her time garnering support and donations for French orphans across the pond, especially as it looks like Hitler won't be stopped anytime soon, and in fact seems to be gaining power by the day. In Poland, a young teenage girl named Kasia has come face to face with German occupation, and her family must think fast if they want to stay alive and not have everything taken from them. And then there is Herta Oberheuser, a young German female doctor who wants little more than to be recognized for her medical and surgical ability in a male-dominated field.

The Problem: Once WWII officially starts and Hitler lays claim to both Poland and France, getting donations to French orphans becomes near impossible, but Caroline and her mother press on, even using their own resources when necessary. But in Poland, Kasia must fight for her own survival as she, her mother, and her sister Zuzanna are taken prisoner and placed in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. Here is where they will cross paths with Herta, who gets her chance to advance her career by performing awful and horrifying experiments on the prisoners, all in the name of serving Germany and giving punishment to people the Nazis view as good as dead anyway. Eventually the war will end, but will Caroline's orphans get what they need to survive? And will Kasia survive the daily horror she is put through for the cause of the Nazis? And when things do finally end, will Herta be held responsible for her part in that horror?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in various locations during and after World War II. Caroline's story remains mostly in New York City and Connecticut, while Kasia remains in Poland and at Ravensbrück, later making a trip to the states. Herta is staunchly loyal to Germany and the Nazi cause, but what she really wants more than anything is to practise medicine and be recognized for it. She actually has no desire to stay at the concentration camp when she first arrives, but the opportunities for advancement and recognition become too good for her to pass up, a decision that makes her a target once the war ends and people are arrested for war crimes. In Herta that reader is given a look into how easily people can justify their actions in the name of loyalty to their country. Both she and Caroline Ferriday were real people in history, while Kasia and her sister were based off of a different pair of sisters that ended up at Ravensbrück. Naturally, Kelly took some liberties with the story, but what happened at Ravensbrück is real. And while Caroline may not have had first-hand experience with the war and could never really know the suffering that was endured by Kasia and administered by Herta, even her life is effected as friends back in France become victims of Hitler's occupation. The events of WWII were not confined by either geography or time, as many of the horrors didn't end with Hitler's death, especially for Kasia. Most books about WWII end once the war does, but Kelly continues telling Caroline, Kasia, and Herta's stories well into the 1950s.

My Verdict: Even though for me this is yet another book about WWII, I have to say that it is a good one and I am glad I picked it up. It certainly helps that Kelly chose to tell the story through three different women in three very different situations in life. Even though Kasia's story in particular was hard to read at times, due to her imprisonment at a concentration camp, the book still managed to not be a difficult read. Herta's story could also be hard to face, but mostly because of her unfeeling, calloused, almost uninterested view of the prisoners she was in charge of. While she was completely sold on what Hitler was trying to do, it was still clear that she was out to advance her own career, and would have had zero interest in serving the Reich if it didn't involve making her a better or more well-known doctor. The nuances of her character made her more than just the evil Nazi doctor whose demise the reader looks forward too. Just like Kasia is more than just a Polish prisoner, and Caroline is more than a bleeding heart from New York. Lilac Girls is a WWII story that isn't ever set on the battlefield or in the air, but lives are often still at stake and the damage just as real.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Herta is found guilty for her crimes against humanity.

Favorite Character: Zuzanna is Kasia's older sister who manages to remain hopeful and full of joy, while also remaining practical and realistic, even in the most tragic of circumstance. Her and her sister support each other through their imprisonment, but somehow Zuzanna manages to come out the less bitter of the two, even though she physically suffered the most. 

Recommended Reading: For another novel about WWII, told from the point of view of different women who live through it, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.