The Summer Before The War

by Helen Simonson, 2016, Random House, New York

This novel centers on the experiences of a young woman who is trying to make her way in life just before WWI breaks out.

The story has some interesting moments but the characters are pretty standard fare; the good guy, the heroine, the jackass lord, the young schoolboy who is interested in his school subjects but is afraid to show it because of fear of being ridiculed by his classmates, etc.  The story also didn’t move along very well in places so it became a bit tedious.  In spite of all of the above, the writing is fairly good and it’s not a really bad read; just not great. 2 1/2 stars

The Nix: a novel

by Nathan Hill, 2016, a Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York

This book is pretty fascinating.  It interweaves topics such as computer game addiction with the anti-war protests that occurred during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, along with Nordic myths.  The author did a fair amount of research on all of these topics and managed to pull them together into a compelling novel.

As with many novels, however, the author relied heavily on some improbable circumstances which sometimes strained my belief.  I would cut him some slack in this regard as the story he spins is pretty fascinating.4 stars

Small Island, A Novel

by Andrea Levey, 2004, Picador Books, New York

This book is about a man and a woman from Jamaica who married and then immigrated to England after WWII.  It highlights the degree of racism that existed in England and the difficulty these individuals had in adjusting to their new surroundings.

The book wasn’t very interesting in the beginning but became more readable as I became more familiar with the characters.  The writing is pretty good and the story picked up once I was into it.  Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable read, but certainly not what I would categorize as a great book. 3 1/2 stars

Origins of a Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe, by Warren Zimmerman, 1999, Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York

Warren Zimmerman was the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Balkan War broke out in the 1990’s.  The book relates his meetings with the leaders of the various  republics (Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia) that split from Yugoslavia and he provides his assessment of their personalities and ideologies.  In fact the book is a little bit like a memoir in addition to a historical work.

This book was a very hard read for me as the names were hard to keep track of and I didn’t know much about these countries or their histories.  Although I have rated this book fairly high due to its content, I found myself having a hard time staying with it  In fact, I usually started to fall asleep while reading it after only a few pages.

The most startling conclusion that I came to after reading this was the damage that certain individuals can inflict on their fellow countrymen when they implement their intentions, particularly when their intentions are fused with a extreme nationalistic ideology.  In our recent presidential campaign here in the U.S. one of our candidates has professed strong nationalistic views, i.e., America First.  As I read this book I was struck by how similar the personalities and ideology of Slobodan Milosevic and  Donald Trump seem to be.  Both seem to have had a strong dislike of foreigners, want to control the press (media), and harbor feelings that they have been somehow wronged by their enemies.  These are all the characteristics of a demagogue.  Scary.

While I greatly appreciate Zimmerman’s analysis of what caused the breakup of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars, it was a bit depressing to read while at the same time our own presidential election was underway.  Both of these together was a bit too hard to take.

4 stars

Skink, No Surrender

by Carl Hiaasen, audiobook read by Kirby Heyborne, 2014, Random House, LLC

This is a very light weight novel about a girl who runs away to meet a guy she met on the internet and the subsequent search for her by her friend and a wacky old guy who was once the governor of Florida.  It is hardly believable but it was fun to listen to on our way to Florida.

2 1/2 stars

The English Girl

by Daniel Silva, audiobook read by George Guidall, 2013, Harper-Collins Publishers

This book was just plain terrible.  I was really disappointed because I had listened to another book by Silva that I really liked.  This one had a bit of a plot, but there was a voluminous amount of rehashing information from his other books.  Whenever a character was introduced, Silva spent an inordinate amount of time going over that character’s past history and episodes.  I kept wondering when he was going to tell me about what was going on in this book!

I can usually hang on to the bitter end, which is what I did with this book.  When the end of the book came, I felt myself breathing a huge sigh of relief.1 1/2 stars

Orphan Train: A Novel

by Cristina Baker Kline, audiobook read by Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren, 2013, Audible, Inc.

This is a book about a young, alienated girl in Maine who begins to establish a relationship with an elderly lady.  She, at first, does not recognize that she has much in common with the lady, but begins to discover that they both were abandoned by their families at an early age.

Apparently, orphaned children were routinely sent on trains to the Midwest to find homes.  There they encountered many hardships which are vividly described in this book.  Despite the suffering, however, many of these young children went on to live successful and fulfilling lives

The book was enjoyable to listen to but, as I have experienced with other books, the ending seemed very rushed.  There was probably at least another chapter or two that needed to be written.  It’s disappointing to go through an entire books and leave with a feeling that the work was unfinished.

3 1/2 stars

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss

by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, 2016, Harper

This book is basically a compilation of emails that Anderson Cooper exchanged with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, when she was over ninety years old.  I was impressed with how sharp and articulat his mother is at this advanced age.

The book encapsulates the kind of conversation we should all have with our parents before they are gone.  My own conversation with my mother was not very deep.  I did have several good exchanges with my father before he died, but not as deep as the conversations that were captured in this book.

What I learned was that it is important to ask your parents probing questions about their lives.  There is a lot to learn.  It’s too late for me, but maybe I can have these  conversations with my sons before I, too, am no longer here.

3 1/2 stars

In Harm’s Way

by Doug Stanton, 2003, Henry Holt & Company, New York

This book is about the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis in the Pacific Ocean toward the end of World War II.  The book is well researched and well written.  The U.S. Navy made a number of operational mistakes that led to the ship’s sinking by a Japanese submarine and the sinking probably could have been avoided.  The Navy tried to pin all the blame on the ship’s captain and court-marshalled him.  The book uncovers who the real culprits were but also tells about the sailors and officers of the crew.

This was a pretty interesting book to read although it did seem to bog down a bit toward the last half of the book.  There was a movie by the same name with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas that was made in 1965.

3 1/2 stars

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah, Audible Audio Edition, narrated by Polly Stone, 2015, Macmillan Audio

This is the story of two sisters in occupied France during World War II and the two different paths they pursued to survive the Nazis.  The one sister pursued active resistance while the other sister tried to comply with the demands of the occupiers.

The book paints interesting contrasts between the two sisters’ approaches and also links their differences to the personalities of the two sisters.  The book also depicts the hardships of the occupation in stark terms.

I didn’t find the book to be all that compelling, probably because I have read so many similar accounts.

3 1/2 stars