Month: September 2018

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Review: The Silence of the Girls

In keeping with an unofficial “war” theme but going back in time a smidge….

Thank you to NetGalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the free review copy of Silence of the Girls. This book entirely captured my attention and I am happy to post this honest review.

I could still hear him pleading with Achilles, begging him to remember his own father—and then the silence, as he bent his head and kissed Achilles’s hands. “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and brothers.

Everyone has heard of Agamemnon and Achilles. Epic poems were (literally) written in their honor. But what of the women behind them? What of the women who became spoils of war? The Silence of the Girls imagines the life of Brisesis, princess of Lyrnessus and concubine of Achilles, to present the stories of the women captured, put to work, and expected to love their captors during the Trojan War. The book begins with the fall of Lyrnessus and follows Briseis until shortly after the fall of Troy and the (SPOILER ALERT) death of the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles.

Title Thoughts: Women vs. Girls
At first blush, it felt limiting to call the women taken as spoils of war “girls.” The main “girl” Briseis spends the opening chapter of the book watching her family die and then deciding whether to become a slave or throw herself off a tower. Not exactly a decision for a juvenile to be faced with. These “girls” were nightly expected to sexually service (re: were raped by) the men who had destroyed their homes and killed their brothers, husbands, fathers, and male children. To call them girls felt diminishing—“girls” has the connotation of smallness, meekness, even inconsequentiality. These were women—young women to be sure, teenagers even—but these were mothers and sex slaves and to call them anything to diminish them felt wrong.

And yet, as I read, it was easy to forget that Briseis was young—that she was a teenager, albeit a married one (normal given the time and life expectancy). It was easy to see her as older and wiser, given that her life had forced her to become so.   Perhaps the title was the reminder of the youth of these women—their voices taken along with their safety, security, and- in some cases- innocence.

Stockholm Syndrome
While the events of this book predate the advent the term “Stockholm syndrome” by a few millennia, this naming is what I kept coming back to. When Briseis is taken, she does her duties out of fear that she will be cast out or even killed. Yet as the book progresses, Briseis struggles to continue to hate Achilles. As kindness is shown to her by the other women and by his best friend Patroclus, as Achilles never beats her or treats her with malice (besides generally using her as a sex slave), as she comes to see Achilles’s virtues and even his weaknesses, she finds herself caring for him.

This raised conflicting feelings—Briseis is describing Achilles to us as she comes to have changed feelings for him so it was easy for my feelings to change towards him too. Short vignettes are included from Achilles point of view beginning in Part 2, making it harder to hate him when I saw how hurt he was. I had to keep reminding myself that he was a violent killer who took women and made them his, without anything remotely resembling consent. And yet, he was a man abandoned by his mother and still obviously hurting. (Achilles needed all the therapy). He never treated Briseis as badly as he could have or as badly as others treated their slaves. But wait…as if that wins him a prize? That he wasn’t as forceful while he was raping her as he could have been? On the one hand, there is the idea that this was the time—that Achilles was only doing what was expected of him and was only receiving what was due him according to the customs of the time. But how often do we use that explanation to explain away racist grandpas, as if it’s ok that they didn’t keep up when the world changed?

It is a credit to Barker’s story telling that I still don’t know how I feel about Achilles—that she could take a character I would have assumed was black and white and made him all shades of gray. I connected to Briseis and cared for her as a character. Because I connected with her, I started to care for Achilles, though I didn’t want to and still don’t want to. This aspect of the book—the forgiving of violent men—may be something that some readers can’t accept and that will keep them from enjoying the book. That is totally valid. In some ways, I want that to be my reaction. I want this to be a place where there is no mercy for the men who stole the lives of these women, these girls. But perhaps they were hurting too. Perhaps this wasn’t the role they wanted to be filling either. And while we aren’t in ancient Greece anymore and it’s too late for Achilles, what does this say about the culture now? Are our modern day Achilleses beyond forgiveness? Is it Stockholm Syndrome or is it possible that even a violent man like Achilles can be forgiven and thus find his soul redeemed by one he violated most?*

Writing Style
While I enjoyed the story and connected to the characters, I will admit that I expected a bit more of the prose, knowing that Barker won the Man Booker and that this is a retelling of an epic poem. I wasn’t expecting dactylic hexameters, but I was expecting a bit more lyricism in the writing. Instead, the writing is on par for a solidly (3.5 star) written popular fiction novel. Perhaps the writing felt a bit pop-fiction rather than lit-fic because Briseis, though a princess and wife, was also a teenager and she was our main storyteller. The tone was conversational, a young woman confiding in friends rather than a memoirist carefully editing her words before recording them. The informal style fit the narrator and the story, it just wasn’t what I was initially expecting after hearing “Man Booker Winner.”

Overall, this was an enjoyable read and one I recommend for readers who enjoy historical (very, very historical) popular fiction centered on female characters. This is a book to skip if you have triggers with sexual assault.

Published: September 4, 2018 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Pat Barker
Date read: September 3, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

*It is never the job of the victim to forgive if he or she doesn’t want to and if doing so isn’t safe. In this context, Briseis did care about him and not because she was pressured to do so. It is from that viewpoint that I raise these questions.

Featured image credit:Jonas Jacobsson

Middle-Grade Mini-Reviews: My Real Name is Hanna and Lifeboat 12

Middle-Grade Mini-Reviews: My Real Name is Hanna and Lifeboat 12

I’ve said many times before but I love a good WWII novel.  I don’t know what it is about this time period that I find so fascinating, even after studying it for years in college.  And, thanks to the DBC, I’ve actually started reading more Middle-Grade and younger YA.  I saw My Real Name is Hanna and knew I had to read it. A hot second later, Lifeboat 12 popped up on Netgalley and I requested it too.

Thank you to NetGalley, Mandel Vilar Press, and Tara Lynn Masih for My Real Name is Hanna and Netgalley, Susan Hood, and Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for Lifeboat 12. I enjoyed both books and am happy to post these honest reviews.

My Real Name Is Hanna
My family told stories. We swallowed them in place of food and water. Stories kept us alive in our underground sanctuary. The world continued to carry out its crimes above us, while we sought just to remain whole below.

Hanna’s story is set in Ukraine which made me assume her town would have been subject to Soviet occupation–I know significantly less about the countries that came under the rule of the Soviet Union since Between Shades of Gray is the only novel I’ve read of this time period (though I am interested in more if you want to leave me suggestions in the comments!).  Instead, Hanna’s town, while briefly occupied by the Soviet army, spent more time under Nazi rule.  Of course, anti-Semitism wasn’t new with the Nazis–there were already anti-Semites in town whose feelings were exploited by both the Soviets and Nazis.

The book is told in three parts—The Shtetele, The Forest, and The Caves. The Shtetle sets the stage—Hanna’s family is more privileged than many, with a nice house and a father who is respected and needed for his skills by the non-Jewish families in town. When the book opens, the war has already started but is just beginning to touch Hanna and her family. Rumors begin and mysterious people show up to hide in Hanna’s barn. Hanna is just turning fourteen—that age where so much of her remains a child still, and yet she is old enough to begin to understand what is happening. Old enough to be pulled into the secrets necessary to keep her family and her people safe.

When the town is no longer a safe place, Hanna’s family flees to the woods, to an abandoned cabin. The family has to stay inside most of the time, prepared to flee at any moment. While food was scare in the town, in the forest is where the march to hunger really begins. The family must ration food and even their own energy since they cannot consume enough calories to keep them on their feet all the time. As the Nazis move in, the family and several neighbors from a nearby cabin are forced literally underground, into an extensive network of caves.

The real family this story is based on lived the last 511 days of the war in an underground cave system, with the women and children living entirely underground, never seeing sunshine or feeling even the slightest breeze. Hanna’s family is much the same, with her father or uncle venturing out very rarely to obtain whatever food they might possibly find to bring back to the starving families below ground.

Even underground, the family lives in fear of being caught and is, at one point, walled in to the cave by townspeople.  Even before this moment, many of the townspeople were not just bystanders but actively participated in the hunting down and killing–either outright or through starvation or deportation to the ghettos and camps–of their neighbors.  My Real Name is Hanna is realistic in this regard and does not hide that neighbors are turning each other in.  On the flip side, there are characters who help the family hide, at great cost and risk to themselves.  This is perhaps the aspect of the book that may be the most troubling to younger readers—while the history here is accurate and a topic worth discussion, it is something that would require discussion with parents or other adults reading the book. May we be encouraged, and encourage younger generations, to chose to be the helpers in the face of injustice, even when the cost to ourselves is high.

My Real Name is Hanna sits somewhat squarely in between Middle-Grade and YA (in my opinion). The audience for this book is probably right around middle school readers, with mature fourth to fifth graders able to handle the writing and themes, though too far into high school and the writing may feel a bit young for older readers. This is a book I recommend, particularly for those who are interested in areas like the Ukraine, which is featured less in WWII fiction than areas like France or even Poland yet suffered heavy losses—only 5% of Ukranian Jews survived, only 2% of Western Ukranian Jews with almost no families intact. It is a book with a powerful message of responsibility for our neighbors—this is a book to be discussed, not simply read.

Published: September 15, 2018 (September 18th for Kindle), available for pre-order now from Mandel Vilar Press
Author: Tara Lynn Masih (@taralynnmasih)
Date read: August 26, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Lifeboat 12
Lifeboat 12 is a middle-grade novel in verse told from the point of view of a survivor of the S.S. City of Benares, a boat carrying children being evacuated from London that was sunk by a German U-Boat in September 1940.

Lifeboat 12 is also structured in three parts—Escape, Adrift, and Rescue. Escape sets up the dangerousness of life in London during the Blitzkrieg, Ken’s feeling of being unwanted by his stepmother, and the boarding and sinking of the ship. Adrift is the story of the eight days the survivors spent at sea. And Rescue is exactly what it sounds like—it is the boy’s return home, a return from the grave for their parents had been notified they had been lost at sea. While these three sections make for a hefty book—336 pages—because the story is told in verse, this was a quick read. Hood’s poetry lends the story a spare quality—the narrator is a twelve year-old boy so there are no flowery turns of phrase here. Each of the words seemed chosen for maximum impact, so that I might have only read fifty words on a page, yet the scene was as richly set and the characters as alive as if they were right next to me. The poetry also lent a more dramatic air—with portions of the book feeling as if they were pulled straight from an adventure novel.

Ken is a charming narrator—he’s a boy’s boy, obsessed with planes and always willing to give some help to a pal. Unlike most other narrators in WWII books I’ve read, Ken’s family is poor—I feel like I’ve read novels where everyone was effected by wartime rationing and scarcity, but I’m not sure I’ve read a book where the main character was poor before the book started—where liver was once or twice a week luxury. He represented an under-represented class in WWII narrators. He also doesn’t have a perfect family life—he’s fairly convinced his stepmother can’t stand him and this plan to send him to Canada is partly just to get him out of the house since she doesn’t like him. My heart ached for him when he talked about feeling unloved—while Ken does realize she cares for him by how she reacts when he comes home, my one criticism of Lifeboat 12 is that more wasn’t done with this relationship. With so many kids coming from blended families, books with boys Ken’s age who come to realize that their stepmothers really do care feel necessary.

I knew Lifeboat 12 was based on a true story, but I didn’t realize just how closely Hood stuck to the truth until I read the Author’s Note and afterward. Ken Sparks was a real survivor and the book is based on Hood’s interviews with him as well as her extensive research on the S.S. City of Benares. The Note and afterward are necessary reading—if you pick up this gem, you can’t stop reading at the end of the novel.

Because it is so closely based on fact, I recommend Lifeboat 12 for kids (or adult middle-grade readers) who like books about historical events and adventure tales. The sinking of the S.S. City of Benares was another event I had no knowledge of—Lifeboat 12 was an enjoyable introduction to the event (if one can say learning about a devastating loss of life is in any way enjoyable). This is Hood’s first middle-grade novel after a successful career as a picture book author. I can’t wait to see where she goes next for her middle-grade-and-up readers.

Published: September 4, 2018 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Hood (@shoodbooks21)
Date read: September 7, 2018
Rating: 4 ¼ stars

Featured Image credit: Jonas Jacobsson

August 2018 Wrap-Up

August 2018 Wrap-Up

August was a fair amount of reading but not so much with the writing of blog posts.  I had good intentions.  They were not realized.  Birthday pass?

I finished ten books this month–There There, Drums of Autumn, Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Instructions for a Heat Wave, The Round House, Heads of the Colored People, The Dinner List, I am I am I am, and My Real Name is Hanna.  Thanks to that Gabaldon tome, my monthly total was 2,597 pages for a year total of 20,678 pages.  The three audio books–There There, Instructions for a Heatwave, and I am I am I am–clocked in at 23 hours and 2 minutes for a year total of 208 hours and 29 minutes.  Not too shabby for the old birth month.

I also acquired more books than I want to think about because it’s my party and I’ll buy books if I want to.  I’ll spare you the list but you should be impressed that I still have Amazon credit left.

The Dinner List
The Dinner List was a Book of the Month* pick for August and comes out on September 11th.  I hemmed and hawed over my box last month, trying to decide which books I wanted to get.  I actually hemmed and hawed so much that other people in a BOTM Facebook group I’m in received their books and started talking about them.  I try to make my BOTM picks books I think I will want to re-read since I’m making the splurge and getting them in a physical copy.  The Dinner List is lighter than my usual BOTM fare and yet I’m glad I took a chance and picked it as an extra.  I picked it up last weekend in the middle of two crazy weeks at work and it was exactly the distraction I needed.

The premise is fairly simple and reminiscent of an icebreaker game you were probably forced to play at summer camp–name any five people, living or dead, you’d like to have dinner with.  Thus begins Sabrina’s thirtieth birthday with her best friend, Audrey Hepburn, her ex-boyfriend Tobias, and a few others.  Serle does an excellent job weaving the connections to Audrey Hepburn into the book so that the choice of Ms. Hepburn at the table feels less random than it could, or the throwaway choice every girl who had A Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster on her dorm room wall would make (guilty as charged).  And, as Anne Bogel noted, Audrey makes it work–she brings levity and a bit of magical whimsy to otherwise heavy moments, yet her own actual tragic history brings perspective to others.

I went into The Dinner List wanted an easy escape read and discovered a surprisingly poignant gem.  The writing gave me the easy escape I wanted, the premise made the plot move fast enough to stay compelling, and the characters made me care deeply for each of them.  The Dinner List probes the reasons people leave, why certain people seem drawn to our lives, and what it means to let go.

Published: September 11, 2018 by Flatiron Books (@flatiron_books)
Author: Rebecca Serle
Date read: August 25, 2018
Rating: 4 stars

Cupcake header photo credit: Audrey Fretz

*This is a referral link.  I’ll get a free book if you decide to try it out.  There are always deals going on for a free tote and/or free book.  I’d love to chat if you want to know more, but no pressure. <3