Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls Martha Hall KellyLilac Girls
by Martha Hall Kelly
Pub Date: April 5, 2016

I had fully expected this book to be another disappointing novel about women in World War II, with me getting irritated at the characters and the writing and being upset that a great story was botched by the author. (Can you tell I’ve been burned before?) I had such a bad attitude starting this book I could barely get through the first chapter. And then someone on Twitter said they couldn’t put the book down, and I decided to push through my misgivings and give it another shot. AND I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

The book focuses on three women at the beginning of World War II – Caroline, Kasia, and Herta – all from wildly different backgrounds, all with wildly different paths ahead of them. You have no idea how their stories work together, as one is an American socialite, one a Polish village girl, and another a German doctor. And as the stories unfold through the entirety of the war and its aftermath, and the reader starts to guess at what is going to happen, you won’t be able to put the book down, either. This is almost edge-of-your-seat reading, with a little bit of romance thrown in to not only add to the drama, but also lessen the blow of the stories being told.

The author details in her afterward about all the research she put into the book, and it shows in a very good way. It’s a difficult read in sections because these are atrocities that happened to real people, and the author does not skimp on detail. I was reading this book at a restaurant and had to fight back tears as I read. I don’t want to give away too much because I think that would lessen the impact of the book, but remembering that these are real things that happened to real people will break your heart. And it’s eerie to read about refugees in the 1930s and 40s and all the pushback from other countries and reflect on what’s going on in our world today. Even in the span of the book some people were quick to forget the horrible things done to each other.

At nearly 500 pages this book can seem a little daunting, but it is a journey worth having. You are going to cry when you read this book, but the tears are worth shedding. This is absolutely going to be one of those frequently talked about books (at least among us folks in the book industry it will be), and would make a somber but enlightening read for a book group. Or even an intense read on your own. The author provides a bibliography in the back of the book, and I’m guessing most readers are going to want to read even more about these women’s stories. This book is heartbreaking and devastating, yet also beautiful and hopeful, and well-crafted and engaging to keep you reading from beginning to end.

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Awkward, by Svetlana Chmakova

AwkwardAwkward
by Svetlana Chmakova
Pub Date: July 21, 2015

Peppi Torres has 2 Cardinal Rules for surviving school: #1- Don’t get noticed by the mean kids and #2- Seek out groups with similar interests and join them. Unfortunately for Peppi, she broke the first rule on her first day when she trips over her own feet, drops everything, and is helped by the nerdiest boy in school. What could she do when the mean kids start to tease her? She had to push the nerdy boy away from her. Now she has been in school for a couple months, and she still regrets pushing him. Peppi avoids him, especially when she realizes he is a member of the science club—the enemy of her art club.

This story is cute, and reminded me of my middle school days. I remember being the band geek that was so nervous about being noticed. Peppi and Jaime (the nerdy boy Peppi pushed) reminded me of those quiet kids in school, the ones who don’t say a word in class and dread being called on by the teacher. Throughout the story, Peppi learns she is stronger than she believed and that even the people who seem to have everything together have their own problems.

Not only was this graphic novel a sweet story of growing up, it also shows a variety of people without being forced. Most stories have the typical white, physically fit kids with maybe one character who has a different skin color. The illustrations in this book includes the beautiful black Miss Tobins, Jaime’s mother in a wheelchair, Akilah Saib in a hijab, and the middle school students who are all different sizes and shapes. After reading books for Black History Month in February, this aspect really stood out to me.

I would recommend this story to those who love to have a quick trip back in time to when life revolved around the school social hierarchy and an afterschool club could define your existence. It’s a sweet story about finding friends in the most unlikely places and working together to make something incredible.

Be Frank With Me, by Julia Claiborne Johnson

Be Frank With Me Julia Claiborne JohnsonBe Frank With Me
by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Pub Date: February 2, 2016

You know the movie Benny & Joon, right? Excellent 90s flick that you must make time for if you haven’t already. One of the most memorable scenes is a young Johnny Depp in the diner:

So imagine Johnny Depp’s character in Benny & Joon except nine years old, and you have an idea of who Frank is.

Our protagonist Alice works for a New York editor. One day her editor gets contacted from one of his long-time clients, the reclusive M.M. Banning – she wrote one book many years previous that was a smash hit and continues to sell every year. M.M. Banning retreated to a house in California with minimal contact with the outside world, but had recently been swindled out of most of her money and needs cash. So she tells her publisher she will write another book (sure to be a smash no matter what – think along the lines of the recent Harper Lee book), but she has stipulations. She needs an assistant to run the house and her son so she can write the book. Alice is sent to keep house and make sure M.M. Banning writes her book on deadline.

When Alice shows up to the house, she gets a cold greeting from M.M. Banning, also known as Mimi, but is immediately entranced by Mimi’s eccentric nine-year-old son Frank. Frank has an extremely high IQ, dresses like an Old Hollywood star, complete with monocle, and doesn’t really know how to interact with children his own age. You are going to fall in love with Frank. The kid has his own coping mechanisms for dealing with real life, and Alice (to her credit) rolls with the punches. She can’t touch him unless he allows her to. She can’t touch his things. He has very elaborate ways of explaining very simple things. He references classic films a lot. And Mimi very literally holes up in her office typing and rarely emerges except to bark at Alice.

This is an adorable story. Here are a group of misfits, in one way or another, making up a household together. There’s the underlying mystery of Mimi herself that Alice tries to figure out during her time in the house, but really you just love Frank and his antics. Frank had shades of the eccentricities that my siblings and I had as kids (and still have to some degree), that I just felt a great love for the kid immediately. There’s a lot of depth to the story, too, even with the overall light-heartedness of the storytelling. These are flawed, real characters that you will come to understand and appreciate through and because of those flaws. And there’s the adorable and quirky Frank through the whole story that will give all the warm and fuzzies. I wish more kids could be allowed to be more like Frank, actually. Or retain his spirit and individuality more as they got older.

If you’re in need of a book comfort read, pick this one up. It’s soothing, it’s funny, it’s got just the right amount of conflict to keep things interesting. If you ever felt like an odd duck growing up, you’re going to love Frank.