Under a Painted Sky – book review

Under a Painted Sky

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sammy is a sixteen year old Chinese girl living with her father in 1849 Missouri.  Her mother died in childbirth when they were living in New York City.  They live behind their dry goods store and Sammy gives violin lessons to children.  She dreams of moving back to New York one day while her father dreams of moving to California.  Before either one can see their dreams come true Sammy’s father dies when their store goes up in flames.  Soon after Sammy finds herself on the run after killing a townsman in self-defense.  A young slave housekeeper, Annamae, goes on the run with Sammy  hoping to find her long-lost brother as well as her own freedom.

Disguised as boys and calling themselves Sam and Andy, they soon team up with three cowboys,West, Cay and Peety, who are heading to California to join the Gold Rush.  The young men are able to overlook Sammy’s and Annamae’s differences and accept them into their group.  This is a story about loyalty, young love, friendship, survival and trust.

I liked that this book had two strong young women as its main characters.  It shows them struggling with different awakening feelings and difficult situations.  I also liked that the young cowboys accepted them for who they were and saw past their outer differences that other people could not.

This is not a book that I would normally choose to read.  It was my daughter’s seventh grade summer reading assignment for school.  My daughter struggles with reading comprehension and I often read her books so that we can discuss them together and I can help her navigate the stories and understand what is happening.  The author delivers her story in a nice and easy flowing style.  This is a nice story for a younger reader than myself.  I am sure middle school students can better relate to and enjoy this coming of age story.

Lilac Girls – book review

lilac-girlsRating: 5 stars

The Lilac Girls follows the lives of three women during World War Two and the post war years.  It is a very well researched and moving story of how the war impacted the lives of these women in such diverse ways.

Caroline Ferriday is a single, 37 year old socialite in 1939 with homes in both New York City and Connecticut.   She volunteers full time as head of family assistance for the French Consulate and sends care packages to orphaned French children.

Kasia Kuzmerick is a 17 year old living in Lublin, Poland with her sister Zuzanna and her parents.  She spends time with her best friends Nadia Watroba and Pietrik Bakoski, navigating friendships, crushes, and young adulthood.

Herta Oberheuser is a 25 year old German medical student and a member of the League of German Girls, the female wing of the Nazi Party Youth Movement.

The chapters alternate, focusing on each of these women.  It is a very graphic and disturbing story of life in the concentration camps, specifically Ravensbruck, the only camp specifically for women, or as the Germans called it, a “re-education” camp for women.  Any story of the holocaust is a rough read and Martha Hall Kelly’s detail of life at the camp is unnerving and not for the squeamish.

The book is divided into 3 parts.  Part one starts off in 1939 introducing us to each woman and their lives right before they are forever changed by the war.

Part 2 takes place during 1945-1947 and we see how they navigate the aftermath of war.  Part 3 jumps to 1957 and to what I found to be a very satisfying conclusion.

I went into this story with no prior knowledge of what this book was about except that it was a WWII saga.  I was so impressed with how real the description of camp life was and am always amazed when an author can capture the details of a time that the never experienced.  I read the Author’s  Note afterwards and was surprised to find out that this was a true story and meticulously researched.  Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberhauser are real people and Kasia and her sister Zuzanna are loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her sister Krystyna.  The author said, “My goal with all this research was to write a fictionalized account of the events that took place at Ravensbruck, to take readers to the places that the people involved in the story of the Rabbits passed through, and perhaps give some insight into what they might have been feeling in order to breathe new life that had fallen from public view.”  Matha Hall Kelly succeeded brilliantly.


The Bookseller – Review


Rating: 5 stars

Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped.

Then the dreams begin.

Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps.

Convinced that these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real Katharyn’s life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost of staying Kitty, or becoming Katharyn?

As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined. And how do we know where that boundary lies in our own lives?


This book has been compared to the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow.  That intrigued me because I loved that movie where a young woman’s parallel lives are determined by whether or not she catches a train.  It is a story of what if?  What if she had caught the train?  How would that have effected her life?  The Bookseller is that kind of story.  What if?

This story is told in first person and at a steady pace that piqued my curiosity.  Once Kitty starts having the dreams more of Katharyn’s life is revealed and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.  Katharyn is married to the love of her life and they live comfortably in a house in a wonderful neighborhood.  They have a busy social life as well.  Kitty is settled into her single life trying to keep her struggling bookstore afloat with her best friend Frieda as Main Street USA is giving way to shopping malls.  I found both Kitty and Katharyn to be likable in very different ways.  Katharyn is married with children and Kitty is a single professional, both lives that I have experienced and can relate to.

About halfway through the book Swanson introduces a subject matter that effects Katharyn and it hit me like a ton of bricks.  Suddenly this story went from a fun read to something very real.  I realized how closely my life resembles Katharyn’s.  I could very much relate to her feelings and actions.  At the same time I could relate to Kitty because at this point I could see where the book was going, although it still had one more plot twist in store.

When I was finished with the book I read the acknowledgements and was surprised to read that Swanson had researched this subject matter and knew nothing of it from first-hand experience.  She was spot-on describing Katharyn’s feelings.  It was as if she had drawn inspiration from my life and feelings.  I was very grateful for her understanding.

I cried at parts and maybe that is because of my personal connection to the book, but I think it would have moved me even if this wasn’t the case.  Swanson does a wonderful job of slowly revealing Katharyn’s life as well as describing Kitty’s reactions to experiencing this life in her dreams.

I was looking on Amazon to find other books from Swanson and was surprised to find that this is her first novel.  I look forward to reading her next one.