The Cellist of Sarajevo

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Steven Galloway
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 2009 (read Dec. 2019)

It took me ages to read the Cellist of Sarajevo, but it had nothing to do with the book itself. I made the mistake of starting it right before the Goodreads Choice Awards were announced and promptly got distracted by all the awesome books that were nominated. But I made it a priority to finish before my trip to New Zealand and I ended up really liking it.

I knew the premise of the story, but I didn’t realize that the plot was split between 4 (really 3) main characters. I immediately liked the writing, but I was a little unsure of what to expect from the plot. The Cellist of Sarajevo is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The people who were able to get out of the city are long gone and we are left with the civilians who never had the means to get out and haven’t been called to the front to fight. The city is under siege by the men in the hills, who regularly shell the city and set snipers at many of the major intersections. With so many of the city’s services destroyed, it makes daily life very difficult for the people trapped in the city. The safest place to be is indoors, but everyone is forced to venture into the city in search of food and water.

The Cellist, who is based on a real individual, is at the centre of the story, without the story actually being about him. After 22 people were killed lining up for bread, he decides to play his cello in the street for 22 days to honour each of the lives lost.

This book is the kind of subtle literary fiction that I love. There’s nothing really propelling the story – it is just average people trying to survive their every day life in a city beset by war – yet I can’t deny the impact of the storytelling. It’s not the plot that drives the story, but the resilience and tenacity of the individuals. At times it’s hard to discern the timeline of the story, but it never really matters because this book is really only a character study about the kind of choices we make during challenging times. I admire the author for his writing and exploration of the human psyche as someone who was neither in Bosnia during the siege or who has lived through a war. The plot is so simple, yet the characters inner monologues have such depth.

It’s hard to articulate the impact of the writing, but I particularly admired how Galloway wrote both Dragon and Kenan’s characters. Neither are heroes and they struggle with seemingly mundane things, but it rings so true of the long term impact of violence and how it can both make you hopeful and make you question your integrity. Dragon dreams of an escape from the city, while simultaneously acknowledging the gravitas of being where he is right now. Kenan struggles with the exhaustion of taking care of so many people and is tempted to abandon his obligations just to look after himself. War brings people down to their base instincts and needs and I really liked this study of what really matters when it comes down to it. Wonderful writing.

The Great Believers

Rating: .5
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub. date: Jun. 2018 (read May 2019 on Audible)

I listened to The Great Believers as an audiobook and I feel like I’ve been working on it for a long time. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did, there were parts of the book that I really liked, and other parts that I found kind of boring.

First of all, I will say that the scope of this novel is impressive. Makkai tackles a lot in this book. The main plot of the story (for me anyways), centers on Yale Tishman, who is a gay man living in Chicago in the 1980’s and coming to grips with the HIV/aids crisis completely decimating his entire community. The novel opens with the death of Yale’s friend Nico, which in a round-about way initiates a conversation between Yale and Nico’s great Aunt, Nora, who would like to donate her personal art collection to the university art gallery that Yale works for, which would be a huge acquisition for Yale and the gallery.

At the same time, a second storyline is set in Paris in 2015 as Nico’s sister, Fiona, searches for her adult daughter who she hasn’t seen in 5 years since she disappeared into a cult in America called the Savannah Collective. I would never have thought to pair any of these plotlines together, so I was impressed with Makkai for her creativeness and scope of the book.

That said, I didn’t love all of the plots in this book. I thought some parts were a lot stronger than others and it’s what really drove the rating down for me. I’ve described 3 major things: the HIV/aids crisis in the 1980’s, an art acquisition, and a missing daughter. Yale’s storyline about the HIV/aids crisis was by far my favourite. I’ve been privileged to have not had to give this period in history a whole lot a thought, so it was both sobering and fascinating to read about.

I really liked Yale. I thought he was super relatable and I loved reading about his relationships with all his friends and his perspective on the HIV/aids crisis. I thought his story had a really good balance of history, politics, and emotion. I connected with him a lot and it was devastating to watch his friends die one by one and the government do nothing. Makkai weaves in a lot of social commentary without overpowering her novel with it. This was still very much a novel about characters and relationships, with just the right amount of history and politics.

I thought the art acquisition storyline was mildly interesting. I liked the parallels that Nora drew between the artists she knew in WWI and the war that Yale and his friends were fighting in Chicago. I have never really read anything about the art world, except maybe like, the Da Vinci Code or something (lol), so this was a whole new world for me that was intriguing to learn about.

But Fiona’s story set in 2015 didn’t do much for me and is what really dragged down my rating and enjoyment. I found myself tuning out for entire sections of Fiona’s story and I felt like very little happened in her timeline. It took forever for the story to advance and when I finally realized what the “so what” was of Fiona’s story at the end of the novel, it felt a little anti-climactic. Fiona had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter that was an indirect result of the trauma of losing all her friends in the 1980’s. She talks about how you can’t really describe what it feels like to survive a war that none of your friends make it out of and how that impacts the rest of your life without you even noticing. I thought this was a fascinating topic and I was eager to explore it, but I thought Fiona’s relationship with her daughter was a laboured way of doing it. I liked Fiona, but I just thought the modern day part dragged the book down. I also felt like I didn’t get enough context of Fiona’s relationship with Claire as a young girl and so I didn’t understand why Claire hated Fiona so much

Overall though, I did like the book and I would definitely place it firmly in the category of literary fiction. Makkai writes with depth and I loved the characterization of Yale and all the secondary characters in his timeline. It wasn’t as stand out a book as I was hoping, but I’m definitely glad I read it.

Next Year in Havana

Rating: ⭐
Author: Chanel Cleeton
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Pub. date: Feb. 2018 (read Apr. 2019)

Well that was the most disappointing book I’ve read in a while. I was really expecting to like this. I’ve been really into romances lately and I love historical fiction. I haven’t read any books about Cuba, so I thought this was a great opportunity to learn something new. This is my book club’s selection for April, but it immediately got off to a bad start because my co-chair finished the book before I even started it and gave it 1 star! We usually have the same taste in books, but I was still determined to like Next Year in Havana because it has such great reviews and I was so optimistic about it.

But alas, it was not meant to be. I really tried, I kept telling myself I was liking it, but eventually I had to admit to myself that I really just didn’t like it. It took me over two weeks to read and if it hadn’t been for my looming book club deadline, it probably would have taken a lot longer. It was just really boring and I never wanted to pick it up. The topic should have been super engaging, but the author’s writing and dialogue left a lot to be desired and I didn’t believe in any of her characters.

Next Year in Havana follows the classic historical fiction narrative where one storyline is set in the past and one set in the present. Overall, I’m a bit tired of this narrative. I think it’s overdone and the modern day timeline is almost always less engaging than the historical one. However, this was one book where I thought the decision to tell two timelines actually made sense. The modern day timeline is set in 2017, right after Castro’s death, when US-Cuban relations are finally starting to thaw and change. The historical storyline is set in 1958/9 around when Castro was coming to power. Eliza grew up as part of the wealthy Perez family and the change in government results in the exile of her family to America. In 2017, her granddaughter, Marisol, decides to travel to Cuba to spread her grandmother’s ashes under the guise of writing a tourism article (she is a journalist).

I thought the split timeline worked well because both settings are historically important and mark the changes in Cuba’s politics. It was interesting to see the two factions of Cubans: those who stayed and those who left, and how those decisions played a role in how they viewed Cuba into the future. So the setting definitely had lots of potential and demonstrated the differences between the wealthy and the poor and the locals and the exiles.

But I had a lot of problems with the book. The first was with the romance(s). The story starts with Eliza meeting and falling in love with a revolutionary, Pablo, and Marisol being infatuated with her tour guide, Luis. It’s a lot to carry two romances in a book like this and I thought the author did justice to neither. They were both classic insta-love romances and I have very little interest in those types of love stories. I didn’t understand what was attracting any of the characters to each other and there was very little development of them falling in love. Definitely not a slow burn romance type book. I had a little more sympathy for Eliza because of the era she was living in, but Marisol needs to get a grip.

My second problem with the book was the way in which the author conveyed historical information. This whole book was just a huge history info dump and it was extremely un-engaging to read about. Having one of your characters be a journalist is such an uninspired way to communicate history. It’s easy to have a tour guide that explains everything, but it’s boring. At times I felt like I was reading a history book. I’d much rather be shown the history through Eliza’s eyes or through stories she shared with Marisol. I don’t want to listen to a history professor drone on and on about the author’s obviously biased opinions on Cuba.

‘Show don’t tell’ was probably one of the main problems with this book. Cleeton tells us her characters are in love, she tells us about Cuba’s history, she tells us about the conflict Marisol feels between the exiles and those who stayed, but she doesn’t show us any of it. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between her two protagonists because they constantly just cycled through the same thoughts. “he’s a revolutionary, we can’t be together”, “I’m American, we can’t be together”, “it sucks to lose your home and fear for you life”, “it sucks not to have freedom of speech”, “Castro is bad, Castro is bad, Castro is bad.” Honestly, it got so repetitive.

My understanding is that Cleeton’s family basically lived Eliza’s exile, so she’s definitely coming at this story from the perspective of the exiles. I liked that she included a revolutionary, because I really wanted to see and understand both sides of Cuba’s history. Castro represented a lot of bad things to the Americans, but he represented a lot of good things to a lot of Cubans. I feel like the author tried to cover both sides of the story, but her storytelling was still extremely biased and it was not what I was looking for from this story.

This is where my biggest problem with the novel was. I feel like the author took Cuba’s history and its pain and used it to write a drama for the purpose of entertainment. Frankly, I was insulted by Marisol’s character. When she refers to the injustices that have been perpetrated against Cubans, she repeatedly includes herself in that narrative. She refers to Cubans using the collective ‘we’, as if she really understands how Cuban’s have suffered since 1959. I agree that the Cuban-Americans absolutely know their own kind of pain, but she does not understand Luis or what he has been through. She doesn’t get to come back 60 years later and insert herself into Cuba’s story. I know immigrants face their own kind of pain and hardship with the loss of their culture and the diaspora of living in another country. But portraying Marisol as someone who understood what Cubans went through totally erases them from their own story.

It was just so irritating how oblivious Marisol was to much of Cuba’s history and suffering (as evidenced in every single conversation where Luis is explaining some part of Cuba’s history to her). Yet she was so indignant and self-righteous about it. It was the typical “American-comes-to-save-the-oppressed” type of story. Luis was a revolutionary in his own right. He was incredibly intelligent and politically-savvy, so I struggled to believe that he would give an entitled journalist like Marisol the time of day. I hated the ending. I thought it belittled everything Luis had worked for. Cuba’s history is Cuba’s history. You can’t write it into some perfect little historical romance. I felt like this did no justice to Cuba or to Cubans. Am I super knowledgeable about Cuba? Hell no, but I get the feeling its history is a lot more nuanced than this book is able to portray. Sometimes you can’t have nice little endings. Privileged people feel like they can fix everything. But they can’t and sometimes it’s not their responsibility to. Cuba will ultimately be transformed by its own people.

So yeah, I did not enjoy this book. I still learned something from it, but I would much prefer to read about Cuba from a different perspective. I felt like this was very much the Westernized view of Cuba, and I would have preferred to read about it from the point of view of someone who has lived Cuban history first-hand. Mostly I was just insulted that the author took Cuba’s history and used it to write a dramatic, historical romance. It was belittling.

What the Wind Knows

Rating:
Author: Amy Harmon
Genres: Historical Fiction, Time Travel
Pub. date: Mar. 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Amy Harmon is such a great writer. She’s written a ton of books, most of which I haven’t read, but I’m pretty sure she started off writing romance. Then she wrote a 2-book fantasy series (The Bird and the Sword), which I really enjoyed, and lately she’s been writing historical novels. So overall I’m pretty impressed with her scope of work and that she’s not afraid to dabble in other genres. I personally love her writing style – it definitely lends itself well to romance because it is a wistful kind of writing – but it really worked well in this book.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a genre-bending book. I’ve been calling it “Irish Outlander”, because that’s pretty much the closest descriptor I can think of, but it definitely has a very different style than Outlander and that’s really where the comparison ends. This story is initially set in 2001 and focuses on 30 year old author, Anne Gallagher. Anne was raised in America by her grandfather, Eoin, and despite their Irish heritage and the fact the her grandfather grew up in Ireland, she has never been there. When her grandfather passes away, he requests that she finally travel to Ireland to spread his ashes on the loch next to where he grew up.

Eoin was Anne’s only real family and she is heartbroken at losing him. When she rows out into the lake, she finds herself transported to another time, 1921. Her grandfather is just 6 years old and laments the loss of his parents in the Irish uprising. Anne is mistaken for his mother and becomes part of the family. Her reunion with her grandfather provides little incentive to return to future without him, but life in Ireland in 1921 is undeniably difficult as Ireland fights to be free of Great Britain and become her own Republic.

What the Wind Knows is a bit of a slow burn novel, but I loved it. The characters are well realized and the setting and time are enthralling. Books like this are the reason I keep returning to historical fiction. I really wish more authors would branch out from the WWI and WWII fiction, because there is so much other great history to be told in other regions and eras. I should absolutely know more about Ireland’s history than I do. I grew up in Newfoundland and Ireland has had a huge influence on my own history, so I should really know more about it. I knew very little about the uprising and Ireland’s fight for independence and this was a really great introduction. I feel like there’s so much more to be learned, but it does a good job at introducing you to the hardships that existed in Ireland at this time and how Ireland descended into it’s own civil war in the 1920’s.

While this story is fiction (I mean, it has time travel, so no duh), it does feature some pretty well-known Irish historical figures, the most predominant of which is Michael Collins, who signed a treaty with England to give Ireland independent status, while still being a part of the British dominion. Previously the Irish had been united against the English, but the treaty marked a split between the Irish people – those who supported the progress made by Collins in the fight for independence, and those who demanded a full Republic and split from the Brits.

This history provides the backdrop for the story, but at its core this is still a love story. After the death of his parents, little Eoin was looked after by their good friend, doctor Thomas Smith. It is in Smith’s home that Eoin grows up and Anne and Thomas develop a close relationship. Anne had done a fair bit of research about Ireland for a new book she was planning to write, so she is distraught by the history that she knows will come to pass in Ireland and whether it is in her capacity to change it. She is also acutely aware that she doesn’t not truly understand or fit in in this time and sometimes feels a pull from the loch to return to her time.

I think Harmon did a great job at capturing the history and the two sides of this conflict, but she also writes a damn good love story. I love Outlander, but it’s really more of a trashy Scottish romp than Romance with a capital R. This book is much more soft spoken and I really grew to love all the characters. There’s nothing too surprising in the book, yet I still never knew where the plot was going to go. The writing is dreamy, but there’s still a real tension between the characters that makes you both excited and nervous for them. Time travel is cyclical in nature and because Anne exists in both present day and the past, the reader doesn’t know which came first and whether one will negate the other. If this love story didn’t exist in Eoin’s history, then can it possibly exist in his future? You fall so in love with the characters, but fear for them because you don’t know whether their love is destined to survive.

Overall, I loved the book and the ending. Beautiful writing, beautiful setting, beautiful characters!

A Bend in the Stars

Rating:
Author: Rachel Barenbaum
Genres: Historical fiction
Pub date: May 14, 2019 (read Mar. 2019)

Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Hachette sent me a bunch of books back in January and I haven’t had the best luck with them, but this one definitely stood out. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, but I’ve been finding myself a bit intimidated by it lately. I thought this book sounded really cool, so I was excited to read it and thrilled to find it was really easy to get into, despite having a heavy-sounding topic.

I’ll admit, A Bend in the Stars wasn’t at all the plot I was expecting when I picked it up, but it was really interesting and focused on WWI from a completely different perspective than any other historical fiction I’ve read. Like I said, I love historical fiction, but I’m a bit fatigued with fiction about the world wars because the market is just over-saturated with it and there’s only so much heartbreak I can take. But A Bend in the Stars is set in Russia and while the setting of the story takes place during WWI, it’s not a book about the war.

A Bend in the Stars focuses on brother and sister, Vanya and Miri, just prior to the start of WWI in 1914. They are both Jewish and were raised by their grandmother after the death of their parents. Vanya is a theoretical physicist working at the university, trying to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Miri is a young female doctor working at the local Jewish hospital and is engaged to another Jewish doctor at the hospital, Yuri. They all live in Kovno, a small Russian town that is now known as Kaunas in Lithuania. Miri is about to be named a surgeon, but struggles to be accepted as a female doctor and Vanya is determined to prove Einstein’s theory, but must work against powerful men at the university who want to claim his scientific discoveries for themselves. But the looming war threatens the dreams of both Miri and Vanya and rising tensions against Jewish people threatens their safety.

The science is definitely what peaked my interest in this book. I love a good book about boundary-breaking women who challenge the gender norms of their time, and I was really intrigued about the race to prove relativity, which is something I didn’t know much about. As a story, there were some parts I didn’t really love. I think the author could have done a better job at plotting the story and in developing her characters, but I learned a lot in this book and I really appreciated this different historical perspective.

Like I said, this book is a WWI book that isn’t really about WWI. The fact that war was about to break out is critical to the story because it created a huge sense of urgency and tossed the entire country into chaos, but it’s really only the backdrop for a greater story. I’m still a little fuzzy on the history of general relativity, but my understanding from this book is that Einstein had developed his theory of general relativity, but didn’t have the equations to prove it. Vanya was working to develop the equations and believed they could be proved using a photo of a solar eclipse that catches the bending of light. Vanya is a fabricated character, but there is real history behind the work he did.

At the same time that tensions were mounting between Germany and Russia, a solar eclipse was scheduled to occur that placed Russia in the line of totality (complete eclipse). Vanya believes that if he can find a photographer, he can develop the equations to solve relativity. Harvard believes in him as well and offers him a position if he can solve relativity. With war looming and tensions rising against Jews, it becomes even more important for him to solve relativity in order to get his family out of Russia.

But war breaks out just before the eclipse and Vanya decides to enlist before he is conscripted so that he can request his locale. Yuri agrees to travel with him and aid him while Miri will remain at the hospital. After the eclipse, they plan to meet in St. Petersburg to immigrate together, but things don’t go according to plan and Miri is forced to flee Kovno as well.

I think my favourite part of this book was the exploration of what it meant to be Russian and Jewish during this time period. I think we tend to think of antisemitism as something that was born with Hitler and WWII, but a hatred and distrust of Jewish people was around for a long time before Hitler arrived. Jews were used as a scapegoat for the country’s problems and were viewed as expendable soldiers when WWI broke out. Even before WWI, Jewish people in Russia were the victims of Pogroms, which were violent anti-Jewish riots that have been occurring in Russia since the mid 1800’s.

So I did really like the history in this book and I did learn a lot. But I do think the story suffered a little bit from the writing. I think the author relied a too heavily on plot for this book when I would have preferred to see more character development. We are constantly propelled forward from location to location with the story taking us all over Russia. I struggled to believe some of the drama in the story, particularly how persecuted each of the characters were. War is tearing the country apart and I thought it would be easy for characters like Miri and Vanya to slip through the cracks, but they were pursued all over Russia and I just didn’t think they were important enough to warrant it. I also felt like the author tried to force these emotional, cathartic moments, but they fell a little flat for me because I struggled to bond with the characters.

Vanya was insanely driven to the point that he was totally blinded to everything else happening around him, at the expense of his own personal safety. Yuri seemed interesting enough, but I never felt I really got a sense of who he was and he came across as a bit of an emotionless robot. Sasha and Miri were interesting characters, but I think their story was a little over-dramatized as well. However, I loved that this book had a genuinely upsetting love triangle. I think I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I live for love triangles where you love each of the characters equally. Often there’s one person you don’t like as much or two of the characters have better chemistry, but I love it when you like all the individuals because it really makes you empathize with the main character in deciding who to be with. It was genuinely upsetting when Miri had to choose.

The ending of this book is all kinds of drama. Personally I didn’t really love it. The author packs a lot of stuff into the end and much of it is shocking. I really didn’t anticipate the story going the direction it did and I felt it kind of lost its historical value at the end and became and bit more of a soap opera. I was sad to learn Vanya wasn’t actually a real person, but it did inspire me to do some research into when and how relativity was actually solved, which is also pretty interesting.

Overall I think this is a solid 3-star read. Even though I didn’t love the story, it was still very engaging and I do really appreciate this historical perspective, which was the highlight of the book for me. As a debut novel, this is pretty impressive and I will be interested to see what else Barenbaum publishes in the future.

A Bend in the Stars is available for purchase in stores May 14, 2019.