Avenue of Spies by Alex Kershaw

avenue of spiesSubtitle: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris

Rating:   **** (4/5)

Published: Crown, August 2015

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Nonfiction, WWII

Source: Publisher

“Never had so many psychopaths and sadists been based on one street in Paris.” Upon the Nazi occupation of Paris, the most elite and ruthless of them moved into mansions on the posh Avenue Foch, mere feet away from the residence of the Jackson Family. Sumner Jackson, an American doctor with a Swiss wife maintained his practice at the American Hospital, his presence seeming to go unnoticed by the Germans. It was not until he and his wife Toquette became active members of The Resistance, (hiding downed RAF airmen, secreting messages) that they get into trouble. After years of occupation, the Jacksons, including their teenage son Philip, were arrested in 1944, and that’s when the story really got interesting.

It’s not that the book wasn’t compelling prior to their arrest, but I didn’t think it did justice to their individual characters until they had to endure the horrors of captivity. They were treated especially harshly as American political prisoners and faced atrocious conditions in the camps (disease, starvation, exposure, etc). Despite their bravery and selflessness in The Resistance, it would be their incarceration that would be a true test of their resilience.

***SPOILER ALERT*** It was amazing that Toquette survived imprisonment at Ravensbruck: “Of the 550 women deported with her from France on August 15, 1944, she was one of just seventeen who had survived.” And Philip’s survival itself is no less than miraculous. As Allies were sinking ships full of concentration camp survivors, having been misinformed that the vessels were full of fleeing Nazis, Philip narrowly escaped being drown or shot. “…the Bay of Lubeck… one of the great maritime disasters in history.” Sadly, this is where Sumner met his end. Though he had an opportunity to be liberated by the Red Cross, he chose to stay with his patients. Toquette’s own words about her husband were heartbreaking: “…I never ceased to be in love with Sumner, for whom I had moreover a great admiration and respect. He had such big qualities.”

Overall, this was a great portrayal of the terror in Paris during the Nazi occupation and the courage of those individuals who chose to resist evil.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.

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Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman

bradstreet gateRating: *** (3/5)

Published: Crown, July 2015

Format: ARC

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Source: Amazon Vine

It’s hard to live up to comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, especially when it lacks the rich detail and atmosphere that Tartt delivered. After a disjointed prologue and odd first chapter, the book showed a lot of potential, recalling the backgrounds of three main characters, Georgia, Alice, and Charlie. They converge upon Harvard and form friendships with one another for their own selfish purposes. Charlie is enamored with Georgia, who is fiercely guarded, and insecure Alice is smitten in her own way with Georgia. Just weeks before graduation, a fellow student is murdered and a professor is implicated. Not only was Professor Storrow a mentor to Charlie, but it is revealed he had an affair with Georgia, and possibly the murder victim. What follows is much less engaging.

The second half of the narrative follows the trio as they move on with their lives post-Harvard. That’s when I started to lose interest. Venture capitalist Charlie, bipolar Alice, and Georgia, saddled with an infant and cancer-stricken husband – but the memory of Storrow is always on the periphery. Storrow himself reminded me a bit of Gilderoy Lockhart: pompous, vain, and maybe a little desperate, with perhaps a tendency to exaggerate his achievements.

Where this novel ultimately fails is in its lack of resolution. There are too many unanswered questions that make the conclusion anything but fulfilling. If Kirman had kept up the momentum of the first half and added more sinister elements to the murder plot, it would have been solid. But the deviation from the campus atmosphere became mundane. Georgia’s domestic life, Alice’s struggle with mental illness, and Charlie’s business dealings didn’t make for engaging reading. I wanted more about what made Storrow so eccentric and some finality about the poor murdered girl. Overall: good potential, solid first half, not worth it for the last 150 pages.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

HP2Book 2! (1998, 5 stars), here is my mini-review:

It is just as much fun visiting Harry Potter the third time around, witnessing he and his friends grow up.  And Gilderoy Lockhart is the man you love to hate!  It was so sweet seeing Harry become a part of the Weasley family and I enjoyed Hermione’s defiance and disobedience.  I especially loved rereading the details and intricacies of the Universe that can’t be conveyed in the films, though they have allowed me to appreciate the elaborate Wizarding world that Rowling created on the pages.  Even as a 30-something, I’m enamored with this series!

And here’s a glimpse of my journal.  I wrote down a lot more quotes this time around…

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A Remarkable Kindness by Diana Bletter

a remarkable kindnessRating: **** (4/5)

Published: William Morrow, August 2015

Format: Trade Paperback

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Source: TLC Book Tours

Four women in a small town in Israel bond over hevra kadisha, the burial circle. When village women die, the burial circle prepares their bodies for internment with ritual cleansing and shrouding. Rachel, Lauren, Emily, and Aviva all have different backgrounds and expectations, but share the peace that this service brings to the deceased and the bereaved.

Aviva struggles with the loss of her son and husband while the other women try to comfort her. Lauren is desperately homesick for her native Boston, and her best friend Emily follows her to Israel after a messy divorce. Idealistic Rachel sees Israel as a place to make a difference in the world. But war is looming, despite their personal obligations and village drama.

I was captivated watching these women evolve over the course of half a decade. Lauren can’t help but be torn between the love of her husband and the life she knew before moving with him to Israel. Stuck in an unhappy second marriage and saddled with twins, Emily tries to resist the temptation of a flirtatious Arab coworker. Rachel falls for Aviva’s son who is on active duty on the front lines, and both of them fear for him constantly. Each woman struggles with something fundamental within themselves and also with the greater conflict brewing around them. The constant threat of a nation surrounded by its enemies was well-portrayed. I even got a little choked up reading the ending on the train, so that is proof that the author succeeded in evoking emotion from a generally dry-eyed reader.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.

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The Good Goodbye by Carla Buckley

good goodbyeRating: **** (4/5)

Published: Bantam, January 2016

Format: ARC

Genre: Mystery

Source: Amazon Vine

Rory and Arden are cousins, inseparable and practically identical, and off to college together. A family misfortune led them to room together at a school neither of them particularly wanted to go to. Just 6 weeks in, they are both sent to the emergency room after a fire starts in their dorm, killing one of their friends. As the police investigation commences, their parents are forced to address some serious issues while their daughters lay unconscious in the ICU.

Rory is the spoiled princess who always gets what she wants and hides behind a false persona of popularity and perfection. Arden is artistic, but more insecure, always living in Rory’s shadow. The book alternates between their two perspectives relaying their relationship over the years, and Arden’s mom Natalie, who is waiting for them to recover. All three of them are frustrating and flawed. Even as manipulative as Rory can be, Natalie is even more annoying for being in complete denial that Arden could ever be imperfect or even guilty.

As the mystery of how the fire started slowly unfolds, the narrative offers glimpses into the past which often seem choppy. Otherwise it was a compelling read and I enjoyed witnessing how the two families are able destroy and sustain each other at the same time. As contradictory as that sounds, isn’t that what family is? Love and disdain are two sides of the same coin and I thought that was portrayed here quite well.

I received a complimentary copy of this book via the Amazon Vine program.

Also by Carla Buckley: The Deepest Secret

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The Secret Servant – Daniel Silva

secret servantRating: ****(4/5)

Published: Signet, 2007

Format: Pocket paperback

Genre: Thriller

Source: Personal Collection

The seventh installment of the Gabriel Allon series may have the highest body count by far as Islamists wreak havoc on European Targets. When Allon is summoned to Amsterdam to purge the files of a recently murdered operative, he becomes embroiled in a plot much more elaborate than he initially suspected. Then the American ambassador’s daughter is kidnapped in London and all hell breaks loose. I hate to say that it becomes formulaic, but there’s the typical wild goose chase after the perpetrators, and per usual, Allon puts himself in a precarious position, confronts the bad guys, gets the crap beaten out of him, etc. But what’s really scary about this book is its portrayal of the Islamic situation in Europe and the danger of radicalism on the continent. Also, considering it was written years before the Arab Spring, it is eerie how it predicts the situation in Egypt and the non-secular hostile attitude of the people towards Mubarak. As always, though, Silva delivers a cunning and intriguing premise for Allon to save the day again, though I was pleased to see him find some happiness at the end and it was “cute” how it was done.

Books 1-6 in the series:

  1. The Kill Artist
  2. The English Assassin
  3. The Confessor
  4. A Death in Vienna
  5. Prince of Fire
  6. The Messenger

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

HP1Since Harry Potter needs no formal introduction (1997, 5 stars), here is my mini-review:

Revisiting this series has been a delight so far. I especially loved Harry’s awe and wonder upon his initial exposure to the wizarding world. I can already appreciate some of the foreshadowing presented: Snape’s contempt of Harry because of James, Neville’s bravery, the connection between Harry and Voldemort. Even after all these years, it’s still a magically delightful experience!

And here’s a look at the journal I kept along the way (keep in mind, a lot of my notes are comparisons to the movie versions, specifically what was left out of the film):

 

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