review: winter garden

winter gardenTitle: Winter Garden
Author: Kristin Hannah
Published in 2010
Genre: contemporary/historical fiction
Rating: ★★★★★ – a new favorite

Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family apple orchard: the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, Meredith and Nina find themselves together again, standing alongside their cold, disapproving mother, Anya, who even now, offers no comfort to her daughters. As children, the only connection between them was the Russian fairy tale Anya sometimes told the girls at night.

On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise from the women in his life: the fairy tale will be told one last time – and all the way to the end. 

my thoughts on june 19

I have put off writing this review for months now, because I’m not sure how to explain my love for Winter Garden. However, I’ve realized that not talking about it at all is not an option either. I’ll try to sort out my thoughts today, and hope that the resulting review is at least somewhat coherent.

When the novel kicks off, Meredith and Nina’s father is dying and the family has to come to terms with losing the linchpin of their household. Their mother has always been standoffish and cold, which is why the sisters have a much deeper connection with their father. Aside from dealing with the grief of losing a loved one, they also have to find a way to connect with their mother now that their dad isn’t there to mediate anymore.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different, really. Meredith is the “responsible” one. She’s the oldest, has a husband and two adult children, and works for the family company. When their father passes away, she takes over the family business. Nina is the “free” one. She’s a photojournalist, and travels around the world capturing photos of heartbreaking scenes. One is portrayed as uptight, strict, and a creature of routine while the other is free and following her dreams.

At first, I disliked Meredith and loved Nina. As someone who loves to travel and consider themselves independent and free, her character spoke to me more. Whereas Meredith spent a lot of time judging her sister’s choices at the start of the book. About halfway through the story, my perspective on the sisters changed. I started to see Nina as not only free, but also more of a selfish person than Meredith (which is not always a bad thing, people). Meredith is the one who shoulders the responsibility to make life for her loved ones easier, and that’s not an easy role to take.

There’s this weight of guilt and responsibility that comes with taking care of your family. How do you find a balance between taking care of them enough, yet not losing yourself in the process? Meredith reminded me of my mom, in a way, since she is the one who is always working for others and always ready to help, yet never seems to receive any thanks in return. It’s something I’ve been trying to work more on, to say thank you more often, because I don’t want people’s efforts to go unappreciated.

The main plotline of the story is related to the fairy tale their mother tells. I don’t want to give much away here because that would take away from the impact of this story, but just know that it is absolutely heartbreaking. I wanted to hug this woman so badly.

If you’re interested in adult contemporary fiction or adult historical fiction, I would highly recommend this story. While it isn’t my favorite Kristin Hannah novel, it still had the emotional impact I expected from her stories.

Have you read Winter Garden?

review: his majesty’s dragon | Napoleonic war + dragons

his majesty's dragonTitle: His Majesty’s Dragon
Series: Temeraire #1
Author: Naomi Novik
Genre: historical fantasy (adult)
Published in 2006 by Del Rey
Rating: ★★★★ – really liked it

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors ride mighty fighting dragons, bred for size or speed. When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes the precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Captain Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future – and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

my thoughts on - review black (1)

His Majesty’s Dragon is the story of Laurence, a captain in the marines, and Temeraire, his dragon. Laurence’s crew captures a French ship and discover that it has an unhatched dragon egg on board. They’re months away from reaching land, however, and the egg might hatch at any moment. It’s crucial that the dragon bonds with someone as soon as it hatches so they can strengthen the British Aerial Corps. Some unexpected things happen, and Laurence ends up bonding with the dragon, Temeraire.

This book is set during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. I like how Naomi Novik managed to fully immerse the reader in the time period itself, through different tactics.

First is the writing. As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that the writing style reminded me of Jane Eyre. It has that same sentence structure and feeling to it. After looking it up, I realized that Jane Eyre was published in 1847. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel in which I could tell the era it’s set in from the writing itself.

There’s also the obvious difference placed between men and women. It shows in little things, like how surprised Laurence was when a woman wore pants, or in the “proper” way he felt like he needed to interact with them, or in the way he would not give a female trainee the same privileges as the male ones because he needed to “protect” her. Is it annoying that this happens? Yes. However, Naomi Novik managed to show both history and present here. She added those things to the novel for historical reference, but challenges them as well. Either it’s someone else pointing his discrimination out to Laurence, or it’s him realizing how unfair it is.

I will say that my knowledge on the Napoleonic Wars is very limited, and it showed. I was quite confused at times, because you’re thrown in the middle of the war and have to figure out what’s happening by yourself. The sheer amount of places mentioned as well as the tactics and strategy behind the battles went over my head at times.

The story itself is a good mix between battle, training, and character exploration. The pacing never felt off, and it made for a pretty quick read even though the writing is not as easy to digest as most contemporary writing is.

First, Laurence and Temeraire have to get to know one another after the hatching. While I love both the main characters, my heart goes to Temeraire. I love that dragon! He made me laugh out loud multiple times, and I wish to protect him from all evil. As their bond deepens, their affection towards another is so sweet.

I do have a question though. The dragons all talk out loud in this book. In most books I’ve read, it’s more of a telepathy thing. How odd must it look when a dragon talks out loud? How do their mouths form the necessary shapes?

Laurence was an interesting character for me because I usually read about thieves, assassins, mercenaries, etc. when it comes to fantasy novels. Here, we follow a guy who is devoted to his country and duty, and prides himself on being a gentleman. It is so fascinating to read about someone focused on doing his duty and being a good citizen, even if it makes you want to push him into some mischief at times.

The one downside to this book, I would say, is that it’s clearly a set-up for a long series. You have the main characters meet, get to know one another, and train together, so that they can become a well-oiled machine for the battles to come.


I’m glad I finally picked this book up. It sat on my shelf, unread, for years… A few days after finishing it, I went to a used bookstore I love and discovered the next 3 books in the series there! I can’t wait to discover more of Laurence and Temeraire’s adventures. I would highly recommend this series, if the premise sounds at all appealing to you. 

review: the tattooist of Auschwitz | nonfiction, a screenplay, or a novel?

the tattooist of AuschwitzTitle: The Tattooist of Auschwitz
Author: Heather Morris
Published in 2018 by Zaffre
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: ★★★ – it was okay

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is forcibly transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discover that he speaks several languages, he is put to work as a Tätowierer (the German word for tattooist), tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners.

Imprisoned for over two and a half years, Lale witnesses horrific atrocities and barbarism—but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion. Risking his own life, he uses his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive.

One day in July 1942, Lale, prisoner 32407, comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm. Her name is Gita, and in that first encounter, Lale vows to somehow survive the camp and marry her.

my thoughts on - review black (1)

This is the first instance in which I’m glad I waited a while before writing my review. After I finished The Tattooist of Auschwitz, I thought it was pretty great. Looking back on it, I rated it while thinking about it as a nonfiction book. However, it isn’t. And if I look at it as a historical fiction novel, it’s just okay to me.

This is a novel based on the story of Lale Sokolov, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau for 3 years. He was put to work as the Tätowierer, which means he tattooed the numbers on the wrists of other prisoners. It was “better” work than most others had to do, and allowed Lale some privileges, which he used to help others. He traded jewels and valuables the women found in new arrivals’ clothing for food, medicine, and treats, and handed them out to others.

We follow Lale from the moment he is taken to Auschwitz, through his years at the camp and beyond. We see him fall in love with Gita, who was also imprisoned in the concentration camp, and dream of a life together after the war.

It’s a really touching story, especially because the majority of this book is taken directly from Lale’s memories. The author interviewed him often, and built up a personal relationship with him. She tried her best to tell his story in a way that is both hopeful yet realistic. It gets hard to read about the gruesome and horrible things that happened in the camps, which is to be expected. But there’s always that strand of hope, for people like Lale and Gita, who have fallen in love and hope to live and see a better time.

The reason I can’t give this more than 3 stars, however, is because of the writing. The author explained that she originally meant for this book to be a screenplay. It shows. It’s like they couldn’t decide between a nonfiction book, a screenplay, or a novel and left it somewhere in between. The entire time, I had to remind myself that I was reading a historical fiction book. I began to take everything as facts, because that’s how it was written to be. It felt like reading a memoir. Yet distant in a way, because of the screenplay factor.

If you would look at this book as a nonfiction one, it would be pretty good. Obviously, then the author would have to take out some exaggerations she made and events she changed. If you’d look at it as a screenplay, it could also be pretty good. You’d have to make slight adjustments, sure, but the material is there. As a historical fiction novel, however, it doesn’t really work. There’s too little distance between the reality and fiction, and it makes for a confusing reading experience.

When you’re reading a biography, you don’t really rely on character building or a plot. After all, that’s not what a biography or memoir is about. You’re simply observing someone’s story. A historical fiction novel, on the other hand, does require those aspects. It’s still a work of fiction, and needs to engage its reader. Because those were lacking in The Tattooist, it made it seem like you were reading a biography instead.

The writing style is stuck somewhere between nonfiction book and screenplay, while the changes the author made to the facts make it a historical fiction novel. I think this should have gone through another round of edits, because now it felt like the author didn’t really have a voice. It seemed more like she was telling Lale’s story, like in a biography, but altered some things to serve a more dramatic purpose.


In itself, Lale’s story is very moving. I never even thought about who tattooed the prisoners until I read about the Tätowierer, and it was illuminating to read about his “job” in the camp. However, the writing made this into a confusing read. It’s like the author couldn’t decide which direction to take this story in, so she left it somewhere in the middle instead.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of it?

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy review | were my expectations met?

the lady's guide to petticoats and piracyTitle: The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
Series: Montague Siblings #1
Author: Mackenzi Lee
Published in October 2018 by Katherine Tegen Books
Genre: historical fiction, fantasy (YA)
Rating: 3/5 – I enjoyed it

A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

my thoughts on - review black (1)

The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy was one of my most anticipated reads of 2018, because I absolutely adored the first installment in the Montague Siblings duology. The first book follows Monty, Felicity and Percy as they make a Grand Tour around Europe. The second book focuses on Felicity as she tries to make her dream of enrolling in medical school reality.

STORY

At the start of the novel Felicity works in a bakery in Edinburgh. Surely, in this hub of medical schools and knowledge someone would allow her to study medicine. Her boss (and friend) proposes, after which Felicity deems it high time to leave and return to England. She contacts her brother to ask whether she can stay with him, and leaves immediately. In London she once again tries to gain entry to medical school, to no avail. Who could ever trust a girl to do such work, after all? We women are way to delicate for that.

The story takes off when Felicity finds someone who is willing to take her to a doctor she’s always looked up to, and who is looking for an assistant. Yet things are never as they seem…

All in all, I liked the story. Watching Felicity battle for a place in this all-male profession is empowering yet infuriating. It makes me so angry to see women get invalidated, and to witness the condescension of men. I was rooting for her, and wanted her to be the first female doctor/surgeon. That aspect of the story was one I was very invested in, and is what kept me reading.

Just like the first book in this duology, The Lady’s Guide is a story of travels. Felicity travels through several countries chasing her dream, and takes us with her on this adventure. Unlike in the previous book, I didn’t truly love this aspect of the novel. I felt like instead of being with the characters on their travels, I was getting snapshots – parts of a movie in which someone went ham with jump cuts. The characters decided to go to a certain city or country at the end of one chapter, and have arrived by the start of the next. Since you don’t get to see that much of their actual journey, it takes the fun out of the whole road-trip/tour for me.

While I really enjoyed the story in general, I wasn’t a true fan of the weird fantastical turn it took at the end. I know that the first book did the exact same, but somehow that progression seemed more reasonable/believable than this one.

I think I would have loved the book more if the author had chosen one genre instead of mixing the two. Either we would have gotten the historical fiction novel where Felicity travels the continents to gain entry to medical school, or the fantasy book filled with pirates.

CHARACTERS

Felicity, Felicity, Felicity… I absolutely loved your sarcastic sense of humor and communication in the first book. Granted, that didn’t change in The Lady’s Guide. You were as witty as ever, and I greatly appreciate it. You made me laugh out loud and even snort at times. I find your passion for medicine inspiring, and applaud you for not letting go of your dreams.

But I have some things I’d like to discuss with you as well. Why are you so judgmental? Feminism does not mean only supporting women who want to break through in all-male professions and change the world by themselves. It does not encourage you to look down on other women for making choices you wouldn’t make. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Feminism is all about equality, and having a choice. You want to become a doctor? Sure, go for it! You want to create a loving home and find a partner who adores you? EQUALLY AS VALID. Stop thinking you’re so much better than others because you don’t like to wear makeup, and/or don’t want to get married. Thanks.

Also, can you stop treating everyone so horribly? Johanna did not deserve what you did to her. At all. While Monty is a bit of an idiot, he’s a good and kind guy. You shouldn’t talk about him in the way you do.

To be honest, I fell out of love with Felicity in this book. While I still enjoy reading about her character, she managed to make me incredibly mad at times. Especially when she apologized to Johanna for being such a judgmental bitch, but still went on to judge others anyway. Don’t even get me started on how she jumped to conclusions so quickly. 0 to 100 real quick.

I did, however, fall in love with Johanna. This girl who loves makeup and pretty dresses, and is incredibly smart. I would love a book focused on her life!

Lastly, I have to admit that I lived for the Percy and Monty cameos in this book. I just love them so much!

FINAL IMPRESSION

I was a tad disappointed by The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. I was expecting an epic journey from a sarcastic woman determined to break through a male-dominated field. That’s only partly what I got. I still enjoyed my time with the novel (and characters), but I didn’t like how judgmental and rude Felicity was, and how we seemed to skip the actual travel through jumps in time.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Review: Pachinko | a heartbreaking yet beautiful read

pachinkoPachinko by Min Jin Lee
Published in 2017 by Apollo
Genre: historical fiction (adult)
Rating: 4/5 stars – would definitely recommend

A victorian epic transplanted to Japan, following a Korean family of immigrants through eight decades and four generations.

Yeongdo, Korea 1911.

In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

my review

I should have written this review months ago because I read Pachinko in May of this year, and loved it. Although I gave it 4/5 stars, it has become one of my most memorable reads so far. It’s one that will end up on a lot of favorites lists from now on: books that made me cry, emotional reads, favorite historical fiction books, and so on. It deserves a spot on all of those.

Plot

This story follows multiple generations of one family, as well as some of the people they encounter throughout their lives. We start the book off with Hoonie, who was born with a cleft palate and twisted foot. He is the only one of his siblings strong enough to survive. We get a quick overview of his life and marriage to Yangjin. Together they have a daughter called Sunja. She is pretty much the focus of this book. For the majority of the novel, we follow Sunja as she grows older. Aside from Sunja and her parents, we also follow her children, and grandchild.

As you can probably tell, this isn’t a fast-paced book filled with action scenes. It’s a character driven novel, and focuses far more on the people than the plot. I tend to love books that focus on the characters as I end up far more attached to them this way, so this novel was right up my alley.

There’s so much I loved about this story. It taught me quite a lot about Korea in the 20th century, as well as the annexation of the country by Japan and the treatment of Koreans who lived in Japan. Don’t worry, reading this book doesn’t feel like attending a history lecture. Instead, the nuggets of history are interwoven in the characters’ lives. It’s also very obvious that Korea and Japan (just like the rest of the world) were extremely sexist during those times. I’m not going to comment on the world and sexism today, because that’s a rant for another day. While I know that the sexism and troubles of woman are historically accurate, that doesn’t make it any easier to read.

The only downside of this book is that it can be so difficult to read because it’s incredibly sad. This novel is heartbreaking. I honestly felt like nothing good ever happened to this family, and was ready to leap into the book and rescue them all.

Characters

I grew so attached to Sunja. My heart still aches for her, months after finishing this book. She has such a tough life but she never gives up. She keeps going, so she can provide for her family as best she can. I honestly admire her, although I wouldn’t want her life at all. She just couldn’t catch a break!

I don’t know whether I can truly talk about the characters of this book, because it may be a bit of a spoiler? This is the kind of story you have to discover by yourself, and I don’t want to give too much away.

I will say that this book makes you empathize with the characters. The author manages to stir up such strong feelings in you as a reader. There were people I loved and wanted to protect and others I wanted to hurt.

All in all, this is a gorgeous novel about people making the best of terrible situations.


I genuinely don’t know how to convey my feelings on this book properly. I want everyone to read it, but I can’t properly express how I feel about it. If the premise sounds at all interesting to you, please give it a chance.

Video Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue |A New Favorite

I thought I’d take a different approach to my reviews today. Usually I write out my thoughts on the books I read here. Today, I actually just wanted to talk. So I made a review video! I know it seems like a long video, and I’m sorry. I just got caught up talking about this incredible book! 

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee
Genre: Historical Fiction (YA)
Rating: 5/5 stars – a new favorite

Top Ten Tuesday: Materials to Complement History Classes

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week I will make a list of 10 books, authors or other bookish things surrounding a certain topic. Today is technically a Back to School Freebie so I’ve decided to talk about 10 books, movies, etc. that you can use to complement your history classes!

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah // I know this is a fairly obvious pick, but I couldn’t leave it out. This would obviously supplement classes on World War II, and I think it would be interesting because you’re reading from the perspective of 2 women in France. Women’s roles in the war are highly overlooked, and you get two very different ones here. The quiet rebellion, and the “obvious” rebellion.

The Emperor’s Spy (Rome #1) by M.C. Scott // I think this would be an interesting book for classes on The Roman Empire because it doesn’t just focus on Rome. It also includes Boadicea and her legacy, it follows Judaism and Christianity in the Roman Empire, etc. It has a broader focus than only the Roman citizens themselves.

The Moon in the Palace (Empress of Bright Moon #1) by Weina Dai Randel // Unfortunately, growing up in Belgium I didn’t get much of Chinese history in class. But if you’re looking for a book that is incredible and will teach you something about the Tang and Zhou dynasties -and a Chinese empress- than this is the one for you.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller // I think this could be an interesting addition to classes on Ancient Greece. This retelling of the Iliad tells us a lot about Achilles’ life, but it also allows you to talk about LGBTQ+ people in history (and in the Iliad). 

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys // I didn’t want to pick two WWII novels, but I did. I chose this one in particular because I think the event this book is centered around has been forgotten by most of us. I certainly was never taught about the Wilhem Gustloff, one of the biggest maritime disasters ever. 

Outlander // I know I probably should’ve put the books here. But in all honesty, I think if you were teaching Scottish history, your students will be far more likely to watch a few episodes than to try and tackle those huge books. If you don’t know, this is about Claire who accidentally ends up in Scotland in 1743 -instead of the year 1945 she was in before.

Munich // If you’re talking more recent history, this is a great film to watch -and an interesting way to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is set in 1972 when 11 Israeli athletes are taken hostage and murdered during the Olympic Games in Munich by a Palestinian terrorist group. 

The Help // Another one in which I probably should’ve gone with the book. BUT I haven’t actually read the book. I did watch the movie, which was incredible. This is set in the 1960s in Jackson and it’s the tale of the African-American maids working for the rich white families. I know that this film isn’t perfect. It fails to mention many aspects of the inequalities, and it also has a bit of the white-savior trope. But I do think it’s still a film worth watching. This is recent history, and while we have come quite a way, there is still such a long journey ahead of us.

The Prince of Egypt  // Shout out to one of my favorite animated movies ever. This is the story of Moses -or the Exodus story if you will. Now, I am not religious. But I think this would be a great movie to watch when talking about religion and history, no?

Reign // Warning: I have only seen the first two seasons. Please, do not spoil me. But this is a really fun series about Mary Queen of Scots and her rise to power!


Which historical books, movies and shows would you recommend?