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.


Winter Garden – Review

Winter GardenRating: 5+ stars

Anya Whitson is a cold and distant mother to her two daughters, Meredith and Nina.  Meredith runs the family’s apple orchard and married while Nina is an award winning photo journalist who has difficulty placing down roots.  The only fond memories Meredith and Nina have of their mother is an unfinished Russian fairy tale she used to tell them at bedtime.

Evan Whitson is a warm and loving father and husband.  Meredith and Nina are closer to their father than their mother, and closer to their father than they are to each other.  When their father falls ill he makes his daughters promise him to make their mother tell the fairy tale in its entirety.  They don’t understand why but their father believes the story is the key to understanding their mother, the woman he truly loves.

Their mother agrees and tells the story in bits and pieces over various nights, and always told in the dark.  As the story unfolds the truth of Anya’s past life in Russia is revealed and the truth will forever change Anya, her daughters, their relationships with each other and their loved ones, as well as their own outlook on life.

Winter Garden is a devastating and haunting story.  It made me want to hug my family tightly and be grateful for my own life’s path.  This is a heart-wrenching and beautifully told story about family secrets, relationships between mothers and daughters, war, of love lost and found and the triumph of the human spirit.

After reading The Nightingale (also heart-wrenching) and now Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah is clearly my new favorite author.  Her writing is beautiful, moving and insightful.  The ending of this book blew me away.  My mouth dropped open and my heart was in my throat.  I was emotionally drained and reaching for the tissues.  I highly recommend this book.