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.

Daisy Jones & The Six

Rating:
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub. date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Mar. 2019 on Audible

I did everything I could to get my hands on an early copy of Daisy Jones & The Six, but friends, I’m so glad I was unsuccessful because that would have deprived me of the joy of listening to this as an audiobook! I usually prefer to read fiction that I think I’m going to love as a paperback because it’s almost never quite as good as an audiobook. But this is one case where I would absolutely recommend reading the audiobook! Audible sold me on this book with the 5 minute sample because it’s read with a full cast, meaning a different voice actor is cast for every single character! It adds so much life to the story when every character is read by a different person and I really felt like listening to this book was an experience in itself. It also works particularly well as an audiobook because the story is written as an “oral history”, meaning almost the entire book is dialogue from the characters as they recount the story. So absolutely read the audiobook, you will not regret it!

For a little background; Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, which was published in 2017 and took the book world by storm in 2018. I read it with my book club and LOVED it, so I was really excited to finally get my hands on this book. Daisy Jones & The Six is set in present day, but tells the story of the rise to fame of fictional rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six in the 1970’s, leading up to the break up of the band in 1979 at the height of their popularity. No one knows the true story of why the band broke-up, but for the first time, the members of the band have agreed to tell their story. So the whole thing reads like an MTV-type documentary, where an interviewer has compiled everyone’s accounts of the band’s rise to fame and break-up to finally give readers the full story.

What makes it so interesting is that because the story actually happened 40 years in the past, the band members are, of course, fuzzy on some of the details and many of their stories contradict one another. Because we don’t really know the truth or the motivations of each of each of the characters (some might be motivated to lie for example), it’s up to the reader to decide where the truth actually lies, which the interviewer postulates, is likely somewhere in the middle.

I can see how this book wouldn’t be for everyone – I personally don’t care about 1970’s rock and roll, although I can see how this topic would be an incentive to pick up this book for other readers – but I was captivated from start to finish! I thought the way Jenkins Reid crafted the story was brilliant, as was her writing. Any author that can tell a story this well written and crafted is definitely talented. Plus the voice actors should really be commended because they did a wonderful job capturing the angst and emotion of each character. This is one book I would recommend listening to at normal speed because the actors really are quite talented and absolutely bring this story to life.

One of the best parts of this book is just how real the characters feel. Dialogue can be tricky to write and some authors are just not good at it. But I genuinely felt like every single one of these characters was a real person and it’s hard to believe that Daisy Jones & The Six are not actually a real band. It’s hard to believe someone could bring music that doesn’t even exist to life in such a real way in a book. The most upsetting part is that none of the music in the book actually exists, because I wanted so badly to be able and go and listen to the album that Daisy and Billy wrote together. I kept thinking during the book that the band reminded me of Fleetwood Mac, even though I don’t even know very much about Fleetwood Mac, but I have heard that some of the story is loosely based on that band, although I’m not sure how much truth there is to that rumour.

The overall story is not that different from any other rock story. It has many of the same themes that we regularly see in stories about musicians. The book is filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but the characters and their relationships are really what bring the story to life. However, while the general themes were pretty standard, I did not find the plot predictable. So many of these kinds of stories involve drug abuse and forbidden relationships that tear our artists apart – this book had those elements, yet it still felt fresh and surprising.

Daisy Jones was a solo artist and The Six was a 6-person rock band led by singer Billy Dunne. Both achieved some level of success on their own, but together they were magic. Daisy and Billy had a tumultuous relationship. They both had very strong personalities and opinions about the music they wanted to create, but when they were able to work together, what they created was magical. Likewise, a distinct personality emerged for each of the individual band members and the producers and family members that surrounded the band. I loved the dynamic between Daisy, Billy, and Camila, as well as the dynamics between other band members such as Karen and Graham, Eddie and Billy, and Teddy and Billy. Plus each character had a really well developed sense of self and struggled as much with their own personal demons as they did with the people around them.

I loved the evolution of each character. Everyone had great personality traits and everyone had flaws. You’d start off loving a character, then find them to be quite unlikable, before finally understanding what they’re going through and liking them again. I’ve heard reviews that some people loved Daisy Jones, while others hated her. I was firmly in the middle. She definitely had a spirit that was to be commended, especially for a woman in the 70’s, but she was also undeniably privileged and entitled and often made bad decisions.

Likewise, I loved and hated Billy. Billy had an obvious conflict with Daisy, but his character was really driven by his personal conflict and fight with addiction. Daisy and Billy definitely brought out each other’s flaws, but they also helped one another to grow in ways they never would have without each other.

I’ve heard some people call this a love story, but it was never really a love story for me. It was more a story about people and relationships. Relationships were central to the story, but it wasn’t always about love. It was also about the power of music as a method of expression and the different ways that we express ourselves and learn and grow from our mistakes. Although I will say, I always look for love triangles where you love everyone in the triangle because I think it brings so much more emotion to a story when you want all 3 characters to be happy, but you know only 2 of them will be together. Daisy Jones & The Six has that kind of love story and it will tear your heart out, but it’s so much more interesting to read about.

There’s more men than women in the story – we’re limited pretty much to Daisy, Karen, and Camila as our female characters – but I loved every single one of them. Daisy had a lot of faults, but I loved how unapologetic she was. She refused to be anyone but who she was and even though she was portrayed by the media as a sex icon, she was an icon on her own terms. She dressed for herself and made decisions for herself, she was always focused on her own gaze rather than those around her. But I loved that Jenkins Reid also drew attention to her privilege. She never really had to work for anything and I loved how her character was challenged throughout the book, both as a musician and as a person.

Karen was probably my favourite female character though and I loved how Judy Greer portrayed her in the audiobook. Karen was another character who knew what she wanted and what she didn’t want and she was never going to apologize for it. Her character was in contrast to what most people would expect from a woman in this era and I loved the way the author contrasted Karen and Camila. Karen wanted to be a successful musician, she was interested in love and sex, but never at the expense of her career, she was comfortable being alone, and she never wanted kids. In contrast, Camila was happy to sit back and support Billy as a musician. She wanted nothing more than to be a mother, and though it was hard, she was content in her life and trusted her husband.

They were both completely different people, who had very different thoughts on what they wanted to achieve in life, but they were best friends and neither was threatened by the other’s ambitions and how they differed. I think a lot of mothers are threatened by women who don’t want kids. I don’t really know why, it’s a personal decision and both are right. But Camila was never threatened by Karen’s differing values and never tried to convince her to feel otherwise. They both accepted and respected the others desires.

I don’t want to spoil what happened to break up the band, but I really liked that it was never really about one specific thing. It was a culmination of all the different relationships in the band. There were different catalysts for different people and I loved how this was a study of all of the band members rather than just Billy and Daisy.

I want to get into some spoilers now, so I’ll just say I absolutely loved this book from start to finish and would highly recommend the audiobook! If you haven’t read it yet, tap out now to avoid spoilers, if you have, let’s keep going!

SPOILERS BELOW

So first of all, because I was just talking about Karen and Camila, I want to say that I loved the abortion scene in this book. It was lovely to see a woman put in a tough situation, but confident enough in herself and her dreams to make the right decision for herself and to not regret it. Karen understood that she wouldn’t have the same luxury to continue her career as Billy and Graham would have if they all were parents. Graham clearly didn’t understand and as much as I liked the two of them as a couple, they weren’t meant to be. I also loved that Jenkins Reid took the typical gender dynamic and flipped it in Karen and Graham’s relationship. So often it’s the girl chasing after the guy, but I loved that Karen was one of the few women portrayed as actually being comfortable alone. I loved how she was contrasted to Camila in terms of their personal goals, and how she was also contrasted to Daisy, who hated being alone.

Finally, I want to talk about that killer spoiler at the end where we discover that the person interviewing the band is actually Julia, Billy’s daughter, and that Camila has passed on since being interviewed. The interviewer tells us at the beginning that some of the individuals have sadly passed on, so at first you’re kind of expecting the typical tragic “musician dies from drug abuse and overdoes” story, but because everyone is being interviewed, you understand that means they’re all still alive. It’s not until later that you realize Teddy was never interviewed because he passed away in the late 70’s. Then we’re thrown for a total loop when we discover Camila passed away mid-interview and that the interviewer is actually hers and Billy’s daughter.

To be honest, I didn’t think that much of it, I was just like, okay, that’s kind of weird, but whatever, doesn’t change that much, just makes it seem weird that everyone was talking about her and her parents in the third person. But I watched Hannah’s (A Clockwork Reader) review on Youtube and she brought up a great point about how that shines a different light on absolutely everything that precluded it. Keeping in mind that everyone is telling their story to Billy’s daughter would absolutely change how they would tell their story and should make us question even further what the actual truth is.

It explains why no one every really says anything bad about Camlia, because people don’t really talk bad of the dead and it makes you wonder what Daisy and Billy’s relationship actually was like since it was probably really difficult for them to discuss the topic with Billy’s daughter. Throughout the whole book, I thought that Billy and Daisy had great chemistry, but I was somewhat surprised with their love story. Billy seemed to genuinely love Camila and Billy and Daisy both hated each other on so many different occasions, that it made you wonder if the music was really enough for them to overcome that. But knowing they’re telling their story to Julia paints everything in a different light and kind of makes me want to go back and listen to the whole thing again.

It speaks volumes about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s talent. She really did bring these characters to life in the most impressive way, it’s genuinely a bit jarring to me that none of these people are real. There were no throw-away characters, even annoying characters like Eddie were still incredibly relatable. A lot of the characters made bad decisions, but they were so well developed, it was easy to understand why they made the decisions they did.

Phew, well that was the quite the review and I think it’s actually made me appreciate the book even more than I did when I finished. I love when writing a review helps you confirm how you actually felt about a book and this review definitely helped me. I also love when a book makes you feel so much you can write a review this long. So definitely check out this book and audiobook. I know some people haven’t been loving this book as much as they hoped, but I definitely did!

The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Keeping Lucy

Rating: ⭐
Author: T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Aug 6, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a little on the fence of how to rate this book. I read Rust & Stardust last year and really liked it, so I was excited to receive a copy of T. Greenwood’s newest book, Keeping Lucy, in hopes of learning more about a period of history I didn’t know much about. I did like this book and I did learn something, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Rust & Stardust because I felt it lacked in plot.

Finding Lucy is about a family from Massachusetts in the 1970’s whose second child is born with down synodrome. Down syndrome has a sad history in the United States and the delivery doctor strongly recommended enrolling the baby, Lucy, in an institution that could better see to her needs. Her mother, Ginny, was excluded from the decision to give up the baby and years later, she struggles with the loss of her little girl. When Lucy is two years old, a journalist publishes an expose about Willowridge, Lucy’s school, that reveals the deplorable living conditions in which the children are kept. Ginny is horrified and upset by the article and travels to Willowridge for the first time to see the conditions for herself and meet her daughter.

Greenwood definitely has a unique style of writing. It is very simple and straight forward, but does an excellent job of making you feel acutely uncomfortable and anxious. Rust & Stardust was about the kidnapping of Sally Horner, the young girl who inspired Lolita, and made me feel so anxious and frustrated about the way Sally was manipulated and treated. I had a similar reaction to Keeping Lucy in that I found this part of history shocking, I was frustrated by the way the health and justice system worked in the 1970’s, particularly in how it ignores the agency of women, and I was so anxious about the decisions the characters made and the potential ramifications. I flew through the book, reading about 75% of it on a lazy saturday.

I liked that this looked at a disturbing and lesser known part of history, but unfortunately I was a little disappointed in the execution. I was expecting this book to focus on Willowridge, the poor living conditions, the pursuit of justice against the institution, and the fight for custody of the children and for people with Down Syndrome to be recognized as people with a full set of rights. Willowridge is not a real place, but I trust it was imagined based on other similar institutions. Likewise, Ginny is not a real person, but I imagine there are parents out there who unknowningly were advised to send their babies off to similar institutions. In Ginny’s case, she was more or less blindsided by her husband and father-in-law, which plays a large role in the story.

I liked Ginny’s story arc in that it highlights how little agency women had in their lives and relationships. But overall I felt the author missed an opportunity to write a more historically meaningful plot. In order for the babies to be committed to the institution, parents essentially gave up their custody rights to the state. Once the story got going, I was expecting for this to be a story about Ginny’s battle with the state to save her daughter and regain custody while fighting against the antiquanted and sexist beliefs of her father in law, who thought he was entitled to make decisions for his son and family. The story provided a great look at how the patriarchy robbed women of any power or agency and the gender dynamics that often existed in families at this time. But ultimately this story was not about a custody battle, but rather was a drawn out road trip in which Ginny tries to escape with her daughter and the trials she faces as a single woman/mother in rural America. It was an interesting story with a surprising amount of action, but meaningless in that while I understood Ginny’s desperation, her actions were drastic and not realistic. I know Ginny was only try to save her daughter from being returned to Willowridge, but her actions were short sighted and actually really harmful to the result that she wanted. She’s applauded at the end for her good motherly instincts, which I thought pretty rich because she basically just ran away from any responsibility.

Ginny and Martha made a lot of bad decisions that I felt there was really no coming back from. I disliked the ending because I thought it was extremely unlikely and absolved Ginny of any wrongdoing. (view spoiler) What I really wanted to hear about was the struggle all those other families went through in gaining custody of their children and what legal actions were taken against the institutions for their neglect. People with Down Syndrome had to fight for their legal rights, care, and education, and I would have much preferred to learn more about that.

The story did hold my interest throughout the whole book and I sped through it, but the longer GInny and Martha spent on the road, the more I wondered what the whole point was. I didn’t expect them to be on the run for so long and I was really surprised when it ended up being the main plotline of the story. This is a fascinating part of history and I really just wish we had gotten a different story. I won’t fault the author because she did still deliver on a fast paced and interesting story, but personally, it just wasn’t the story I was hoping for and I thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity. I’m still giving it 3 stars because I did learn something and I thought the writing was pretty good, but overall it just left me wanting more.

Rose Under Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: June 2013 (read Dec. 2018)

I liked, but didn’t love, the first book in this series, Code Name Verity. It was a good book, but it felt a little slow moving to me and I struggled to get into it, so I wasn’t super enthused about reading the second one, but I already owned a copy and I knew if I didn’t read it right after the first book, it was unlikely I’d ever get to it.

I’m so glad I did though because I actually liked this book a lot more than the first book (rare, I know). I would actually call this a companion novel to the first book rather than a sequel, so you could definitely read this one as a standalone, but there are spoilers for how the first book ends, so don’t read it first if you still want to read both books. But the plots are quite different, so if you’re more interested in this one, you could skip reading Code Name Verity.

Rose Under Fire tells the story of Rose Justice, an 18 year old American pilot who travels to England in WWII to fly plane for the Air Transport Authority, who ferry planes between different locations for the Royal Air Force (they are not combat pilots). It is nearing the end of the war and Germany has just been pushed out of Paris. Rose has the opportunity to drop off a plane in Paris, but she disappears on her return flight to England and no one knows what happened to her.

In reality, she ran into some German pilots and they forced her to fly and land in Germany. When she is unable to provide them with any meaningful information, they ship her off to Ravensbruck, the notorious woman’s prison near the Polish border. For those who are unfamiliar with Ravensbruck, it was not a death camp like Auschwitz (though many died there and gas chambers were constructed near the end of the war), but a work camp. But it is most famous for the Ravensbruck rabbits, a group a 74 Polish women on whom horrific medical experiments were completed.

I knew about Ravensbruck and the experiments, but I’ll admit it’s a topic I’ve been avoiding reading about because it’s just too horrific to think about. I avoided Lilac Girls when it was published in 2016 because despite sounding like something I would like, I was too afraid to read it. I’ve read a lot of books about the holocaust, but this is definitely one topic I’ve been avoiding because it’s just so disturbing. However, I really liked Wein’s depiction of the rabbits in this book. Rose is a witness to the rabbits rather than being one of them. Some of the rabbits died in the experiments, but many of them survived and were still living in Ravensbruck when Rose arrives. At this point in the story (late 1944), the Germans have ceased their experiments and in the face of the approaching allies are mostly trying to hide the evidence of the crimes they committed. I liked the depiction because Wein doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, horrible details of the experiments, but rather focuses on the spirit, tenacity, and courage of the women who survived.

Rose carries the story, but it is never really about her. Wein obviously took some liberties with the plot, but generally it is based in truth (not with Rose, but about the camp and the rabbits). What I found most inspiring was how vivacious these characters were, despite being the subjects of such atrocities. Instead of being defeated, they were mad and they wanted justice. Despite being forced to live in terrible living conditions while still healing from the experiments, they had a great capacity for love and willingly took Rose into their family when she was assigned to their barracks. They still had hopes and dreams for their futures. They wanted to continue learning so that one day, when they escaped Ravensbruck, they would still have a future ahead of them and could seek justice against the Nazis. They always looked out for one another and actively rebelled against the Nazis, trying to smuggle out pictures and stories of what had happened to them, ensuring the names of the women would be remembered despite the Nazi’s best attempts to hide them.

What was also inspiring was the respect the rest of the camp paid to these women. Before the allies arrived, the Nazi’s tried to mass murder the entire group of rabbits, and the other prisoners of Ravensbruck conspired to hide the rabbits from them. They hid them among other barracks, in hospital wings, and among the dead, sneaking them food and water to sustain them throughout this time. Everyone recognized that these women had been wronged and deserved to survive in order to tell their stories.

This story is also striking because of parallels to what is happening today in parts of the world (yes, it kills me to type this about a holocaust story). Wein talks about how unrelenting the Nazi’s were in their desire to wipe undesirable people from the face of the planet by the fact that in the face of the advancing allies, rather than leave the prisoners, they were determined to kill as many of them as possible to hide their crimes. Prisoners from Auschwitz and other death camps were transported to Ravensbruck as the allies approached. Gas chambers were constructed to aid in killing prisoners, but mostly they were just left to starve.

When Ravensbruck reached its capacity, prisoners from other death camps would be housed in tents and left without food or water until they died. Some of the rabbits would hide in these tents to escape their own executions and Wein talks about how the prisoners would lie at the bottom of the tent flaps to drink the rain as it poured down the sides because that was the only source of water they had. People literally died waiting to be processed. One of the big headlines in the papers while I was reading this was about the 7 year old migrant girl who died at the American border after walking hundreds of miles with her family to seek refuge, only to die of thirst at her destination while waiting for officials to do something. We have gone down this road before and we must do better, we must be better.