The Antidote by Shelley Sackier

Fee (Ophelia) lived a charmed life as a child playing with her two favorite people, brothers Prince Rye and Prince Xavi. Then an invasive deadly illness overtakes the kingdom and Rye is shipped off to another land while the new Royal Highness Xavi (set to be coronated once he reaches the age of twenty one) stays behind to learn the ropes assisted by Sir Rollins and the Council. Fee is chosen to learn how to be a healer, studying the flora and mixing various herbal potions to serve the few remaining citizens of Fireli. The rest of the children have been transported to one of the other three realms until the ten year quarantine is lifted. Fee, who must stay hidden from view, only has contact with her best friend, sneaking out at night to spend some precious time away from the scrutiny of the dour Savva who is so critical of her work. Everyone must continue using the antidote to keep them healthy, with a special blend for the two “youngsters”.  Ten years later, Fee, now seventeen, is just biding her time until Rye returns and they can fulfill the marriage contract created by their now deceased parents. Yet the closer they get to the date when they can all reunite, the sicker Xavi becomes, making her fear he won’t make it to his twenty first birthday. Can she use her affinity with the plant world to work her magic and save her best friend? Will Rye forgive her if she fails and his brother dies. Reluctant, but desperate, she asks for help from Savva which leads to a series of unexpected events and secrets which provide answers for questions Fee didn’t know enough to ask.

In The Antidote by Shelley Sackier, the reader is also left in the dark, often not really understanding what is going on or why certain dynamics are important. Slowly they get to understand what is occurring as Fee’s eyes are opened to her destiny. While some of the revelations result in “AHA” moments, Sackier should have given us a bit more background to avoid the confusion. Yes, I appreciate the need for suspense, but if the reader can’t be engaged from the beginning, they just might decide to read a more mentally amenable book. Which would be a shame, because I just loved Fee, Rye, and Xavi, wholesome and well meaning characters whose hearts are in the right place despite their privileged place in society – primitive though it might be (sounding like a tale from the Middle Ages feudal era). Within the pages are lessons on good vs evil and the circumstances which motivate individuals to make questionable choices which benefit themselves to the detriment of others. Moral issues perfect for the YA audience.

However, even upon completing this book, I still had numerous questions about the whys and wherefores which the plot did not fully explain.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin

My father died when I was nine years old leaving my mother a widow with four children, two boys and two girls. I was the oldest. Given the premise of the book The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin which begins with the sudden death of the father at the age of 34 (my father was 37) you would think I could relate to the lives of the four children left behind to deal (three girls and one boy) with this life changing tragedy. While my mom didn’t hole up in her room for three years like Antonia (Noni), she was largely AOL trying to make ends meet, leaving me to watch over my younger siblings. Yet I felt no connection with any of these four who despite their closeness, tended at times to be totally dysfunctional as they drifted apart over the years.

I found this a sad tale all around with even the “happy” times marred with regrets. Beginning at a poetry reading by 102 year old Fiona Skinner in 2079, she looks back on her life relating a past which led to the name Luna being included in The Love Poem, her world renowned publication. Starting with those early years, each of the siblings gets a chance to tell their story as they deal with life’s trials and tribulations directly affected by the traumatic events in their lives. Eldest Renee eschews love, focusing on her career in medicine, sensitive daughter Caroline supplants her own needs by marrying childhood sweetheart Nathan and starting a family, conflicted son Joe keeps searching for a father he can’t accept is gone, and baby Fiona has difficulty forming relationships, numbering and blogging her numerous one night stands. Eventually their issues are resolved, one way or another, and their relationships morph over the years, but the tone is far from upbeat. Then there is Noni who somehow is there but never really a substantive part of their lives, even after she reenters the world. Her preachiness makes her a less than sympathetic character and it is only on her deathbed that she reveals some truths which would have been helpful to share with her kids at an earlier date.

Centered on three locations, Bexley, Connecticut, New York City, and Miami, the narrative switches back and forth from various points of view, using present tense for Fiona then past tense for her siblings. The sections occurring in the future refer to several cataclysmic events, mainly in reference to the effects of climate change. There is a wrap up on the last few pages which brings some closure to those of us who completed the book.

While there were sections of this I enjoyed such as the passages about those childhood years and Joe’s story, the rest seemed to drag on and were at times mundane. I feel the plot could have been tightened up and I question some of the behaviors of the various characters which didn’t always align to my expectations from the text. I simply wasn’t in the mood to be depressed, despite a few upbeat moments.

The question is – does the death of a parent – sibling – child mar us for life, seemingly affecting every choice we make, or do we move on beyond the heartache to live our lives free from the guilt of still being alive?

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

We have the technology to create designer babies. Whether this is a desirable capability or the theme for a horror movie remains to be seen, but the ability exists to manipulate genes to result in certain predetermined outcomes.

In My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult creates a morally questionable scenario where little sister Anna Fitzgerald is conceived to provide the stem cells necessary to extend the life of older sister Kate, a victim of leukemia. Unfortunately, the stem cells turn out to be a stop gap measure and increasingly invasive procedures, such as the donation of bone marrow, are necessary to sustain her older sibling’s life. Their mother Sara is desperate enough to do anything to keep Kate alive, hoping each treatment will be the one to conquer the disease.

Anna truly loves her sister, but there’s a bit of resentment since her life revolves around Kate’s needs without any regards towards her own personal thoughts and desires. Now Kate needs a kidney and there is an expectation that Anna will once again step up to the plate – after all, isn’t that her “raison d’être”.  For once, Anna would like some control over her own body. Being only thirteen who has the final say? When does a child get to say “no more” even when her parents say “let’s do it”?

Having an ill child requiring the majority of a parents’ attention can be wearing on all members of the family. Anna isn’t the only one who feels neglected, the oldest sibling, a brother Jesse, seems like a lost cause, acting out in rebellion, usually in antisocial ways. Siblings of families I know who have a child with very specific needs often have issues coping with life. Much of what  Picoult describes rings true, yet there is quite a bit of over-the-top sensationalizing which is guaranteed to mess with ones emotions. This is one story that readily lended itself to a movie format where they added enough additional drama/trauma to hone the viewers  emotions to a frenzy. (By the same title released in 2009 starring Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin and Joan Cusack.)

Picoult is an expert at developing her characters, including a secondary story line involving a lawyer and his former love interest. I especially enjoyed the special relationship Anna had with her fire fighting father Brian who was caught in the middle between his love for all the players in his family.

I remember a similar scenario when in-vitro fertilization was new where a mother had a “genetically altered” child specifically to be a donor to her first born who needed “parts”. I was a new mother at the time and was conflicted. Society was horrified, yet I couldn’t condemn this decision, especially since my mantra is: “There but for the grace of God go I”!  Since then the use of fertilized eggs implanted in women who otherwise would be unable to have a child has been a godsend to so many, including my own daughter. I no longer have a negative viewpoint, but count my blessings on the miracles of science every time I hold my grandson.

Four and a half stars in spite of the tears I shed and an ending which felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. Even though I own a hard copy, I listened to this one performed by a large cast of characters:
Read by:
Julia Gibson
Jennifer Ikeda
Richard Poe
Carol Monda
Tom Stechchulte
Andy Paris
Barbara McCulloh

Everything You Wanted To Know About Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask) by Brynn Tannehill

Brynn Tannehill’s book truly lives up to the title, Everything You Wanted to Know About Trans (But Were Afraid to Ask). Full of questions, answers and explanations as well as statistics to back up the information, the reader is sure to satisfy their curiosity and develop some empathy for the transgender community.  A leading activist, Tannehill dispels many myths surrounding this mostly misunderstood group which faces an uphill battle of acceptance. A part of the LBGTA community, transgendered individuals are often specifically targeted, sometimes finding themselves in dangerous situations. Books such as this are helpful in educating others and hopefully will lead to a meaningful discourse resulting in a greater understanding by those who are cisgendered (people who identify with the biological sex of their birth).  It also will be helpful to those who have questions about their own gender identity and wonder what the future holds for them.

Of concern is that there are too many in society who cannot accept this reality and continue to discriminate as witnessed by the walking back of the legality of transgendered recruits in the military due to President Trump’s transphobic policies and the rubber stamp from the current conservative Supreme Court.

It is evident that Tannehill thoroughly researched this book and its 400+ pages include such gems as the portrayal of the transgendered in the media and personal accounts highlighting individual reactions to their experiences. With an extensive bibliography, the reader can find additional resources to peruse, although the thoroughness of this book makes it a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the transgendered community. Libraries should keep a copy of this title with their reference books to use as a resource as well as several copies to be used for circulation for its patrons.

Five stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

You don’t call it a World War unless the war affects almost everyone in the world. That is why there seems to be pockets of stories about WWII which we might not have heard about before now. One of the most fascinating secrets from the 1940’s is the subversive activities of the British. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in charge of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Occupied Europe was sometimes referred to as the Baker Street Irregulars (based on their location which is infamously connected to Sherlock Holmes). Also colloquially known as Churchill’s Secret Army, this government organization not only used men, but also had a special Section F which trained and sent women into the field at a time when women were mainly considered as auxiliary units. 55 female agents were sent out as radio operators and couriers with 13 being killed in action, many who died in concentration camps. Their expectations included unarmed combat but they were also trained to use weapons. Once the war was over, the SOE was disbanded. Unfortunately, since these women were not enlisted soldiers, they didn’t get the recognition their male counterparts received. It wasn’t until recently that well deserved medals have been awarded and even then the women had to jump through hoops to prove they deserved this honor.

In her research of this scenario, Pam Jenoff discovered a treasure trove of drama both on and off the field to include in her historical novel, The Lost Girls of Paris. There was secret love, bravery, courageous actions, questionable decisions, rogue behaviors, personal sacrifice, and finally betrayal, all packed into a relatively brief period of time.

To portray these events, Jenoff chose to follow the lives of three women. The book begins in early 1946, shortly after the war had ended, where American Grace Healey, a young war widow, accidentally finds a suitcase left under a bench in Grand Central Station. Opening it to take a peak inside she pulls out an envelope with twelve labeled photographs each featuring a different girl. Her determined quest to uncover the whys and wherefores behind this discovery is a running theme throughout the book.

Next we meet Eleanor Trigg, the one in charge of the secret female agents who were sent to France with their radios to decipher and transmit coded messages to assist the success of the French Resistance and clear the way for the anticipated arrival of American Troops. This time frame in 1944 included the weeks leading up to D Day in Normandy where the importance of  their work superseded everything, including the safety of those in the field. Trigg, feeling responsible for the girls she recruited, kept watch over their activities and wanted answers when anything went awry.

Finally, there is Marie Roux, a single mom, whose motivation for taking on this task is questionable. While fluent in French, there were certain aspects of her character which made her a less than stellar candidate for the position, despite the extensive training she and the other women endured. Yet she still was called to duty and sent to France, expected to execute orders without question (even though following orders was not her strong suit). Through Marie we get into the nitty gritty of espionage, with undercover air flights, hidden radios, and sabotage, all while hiding in plain sight despite the ever present Germans literally living next door. Spoiler Alert: Not everything runs smoothly.

Pam Jenoff, known for the novel The Orphan’s Tale as well as other stories based on WWII and the Holocaust, has found another tale which highlights the heroic role of women during wartime. Parts of this novel were fascinating but despite the fact that it was inspired by real events, some of the details seemed too far fetched to pass the smell test. Even if true, the complexities of the situation were so simplified as to be ridiculous at times which took away from the seriousness of the situation. However, the plot quickly flowed through the eyes of the three women and the reader can’t help rooting for their eventual success despite the reality that when it comes to war there isn’t always a big bow to wrap up a happily ever after ending. The best we can hope for is a couple of colorful ribbons.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The question is: How accurate does an author have to be when writing an historical novel? If it’s fiction shouldn’t they be allowed to take some poetic license, otherwise the book would be more in the nonfiction realm. Well then, do certain topics require a heavier touch? Perhaps books covering more recent history need to be a little more accurate than most so as not to offend those who have lived through those events. (The Cellist from the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo had some harsh works for the author Steve Galloway for adding his own twist to this real life occurrence). What about The Holocaust? While the survivors are quickly reaching the end of their lives, places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum maintain vast records documenting the details surrounding the Nazi concentration camps. They are obsessed about the truth and find offense in inaccuracies which they fear will be fodder for those who believe the Holocaust was a hoax.
Heather Morris had the opportunity to meet Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who while imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 was forced to tattoo numbers onto the arms of thousands of incoming prisoners. At the age of 87, Lali was looking for someone to record his story and what an incredible tale he had to tell. Over a period of three years Morris met with the Holocaust survivor taking extensive notes. After his death in 2006, she created a screen play based on her interviews, but she eventually revised her efforts and published a fiction novel entitled The Tattooist of Auschwitz, changing a few of the details to dramatize the story. Based on this publication, Lali’s story is in the process of becoming a miniseries (although written by Jacquelin Perske and not Morris) with an air date sometime in January 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz (consisting of Auschwitz and its sub-camps, Birkenau and Monowitz) was the only death camp where the prisoners were tattooed, using a series of numbers and sometimes letters to identify not just the captive but the circumstances which led them to be imprisoned. The Tattooist of Auschwitz centers on the charismatic and plucky Lale whose adeptness at five + languages resulted in the “privilege” of being selected as the concentration camp tattooist with all the “perks” which accompanied that position. With sleeping and eating arrangements far superior to those of the other captives, Lale had a better chance of survival. However, by “cooperating” with the enemy, even if under the threat of death for disobeying orders, he feared retribution from the other inhabitants of the camp whose situations were so much more untenable. The reality was that his loyalties remained with his “friends” and he regularly slipped extra rations to those in need. Through ingenuity, chutzpah, and luck, Lale found a way to acquire and distribute contraband allowing some relief from the constant hunger endured by the prisoners. Ultimately this book takes a romantic turn when Lale meets the love of his life, Gita, inspiring a determination that the two of them would survive this ordeal despite the numerous obstacles which stood in the way of them achieving this seemingly impossible dream.
So what is the uproar about the lack of authenticity all about?  Morris, living in Australia, made the mistake of claiming this book was thoroughly researched and 95% accurate, a claim she had to walk back when some glaring recognizable errors as well as a host of logistical inaccuracies were revealed. This raised the hackles of The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum who felt that since the book was based on an actual survivor of the holocaust, the author had a greater responsibility when presenting this story to the world.
Morris responded that she would leave the facts to the historians and the  museum decided to treat the novel as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”,  which is just fine for the majority of readers who responded positively to this book. Of interest is the comment made by Heather Morris stating that Lali applauded the idea that she was not Jewish, wanting someone with a clean slate to portray his traumatic tale, an opportunity she used to create her debut novel.
While I was annoyed at some of the bigger gaffs (such as Lale obtaining the unavailable penicillin on the black market to treat Typhus when PABA was the accepted treatment at the time), it was the actual writing style which disappointed me. I also felt there should have been more depth in the characterizations and that certain events could have been more fully explored in the plot line. Written in the present tense, this novel reflects the fact that the original intent was to present a screenplay, not a book. Which is not to say that this story isn’t worth reading, it’s just that I expected more.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Bonner Publishjng Australia for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

Every Sunday in the congregation at my church there is a immigrant from Iran who prays at the communion rail longing to reunite with her son who was left behind when she emigrated to the United States. Through hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck she was able to sponsor the arrival of one of her sons, but her eldest is stuck overseas due to the current ban on refugees from certain middle eastern countries. Somehow he has made his way to Turkey and her heart is at high alert, hoping that his return to her loving arms is not just a pipe dream. Every time I see her, I pray that her dearest wish comes true.

So when I began to read The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, I could vicariously relate to the premise. A husband, wife and young child have left Korea for the United States, not realizing that a Civil War was imminent or that the conflict between the North and South would wreck havoc with their lives. It seems that their youngest daughter was left behind with family members and now there is no way they can reunite despite their best efforts. The tale is basically told from three points of view, Inja who finds herself quickly migrating with her relatives to South Korea away from the rebels who are brutalizing their neighborhood in the North, her sister Miran who is becoming Americanized in her new homeland, and Najin their mother who is heartbroken that she cannot find a way to reconcile her family so instead sends frequent care packages to show how much she loves her displaced child. Even though they eventually once again become a family, the ten plus years of separation have repercussions that are not easily resolved, especially when there are secrets hanging over their heads.

A sequel to the novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter, much of this story is based on the author’s experiences as one of the children who came with her parents to the United States for an extended visit in 1948 only to be forced to stay put when the Korean War broke out in 1950, leaving her baby sister to survive the upheaval with the help of her grandmother back in their homeland. The friction portrayed between the siblings is based on reality, since it was not until Eugenia connected with her roots that she began to understand the dynamics which had influenced both their lives.

A great idea, despite the uneven pacing and plot development, made worthwhile if only as an exploration of an honorable people caught in an untenable situation. This is an approachable story dealing with a country which is very much in the news as our President plans to meet once again with Kim Yon Un to continue a discourse once again encouraging a ban on the development of nuclear weapons so that the 60+ year Korean conflict might one day be history.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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