About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, YA, science fiction, I read practically anything and everything. I also love talking about books, and chatting about books with people who love them as much as I do!

Review | The World We Knew, Alice Hoffman

44175791._SY475_Just when I thought I know what to expect from a WWII novel, I come across The World We Knew. Known for novels like Practical Magic, which weaves magic into the real world, Hoffman delivers a novel where magic — dark, forbidden magic — is a tool by which a Jewish mother keeps her daughter safe from Nazis. It’s a lovely infusion of hope into the bleak reality of war, but more importantly, it also raises questions of how far women are willing to go to protect the ones they love.

The novel follows the life of Lea Kohn, a twelve year old girl escaping Nazi Germany. Her mother Hanni has commissioned a rabbi’s daughter Ettie, to create for her a golem, a creature made of clay whose very existence has the single purpose of keeping Lea alive and safe. The catch is that once Lea is safe and no longer in need of protection, she must kill the golem so that it doesn’t grow too powerful to control.

The World We Knew is a moving, fiercely emotional novel that practically bursts with love. Along with the love between Lea and her mother, the girl also can’t help but grow affectionate towards the golem Ava, who becomes a maternal figure to her during their escape and who therefore becomes almost impossible for Lea to kill. There are moments where Lea sees her mother in Ava, or remembers how much her mother loves her because of something Ava does, and it’s absolutely heart-wrenching to read because we know what her mother has sacrificed for Lea’s safety. Alongside that is the heron who follows Lea and Ava throughout their journey, who is linked to the golem in some way that is never fully explained, but that feels just as tangible as the bonds between the human characters.

There is also the fierce love between Ettie and her younger sister, whose safety is the reason Ettie agrees to create the golem in the first place, even though such magic is forbidden. Their escape doesn’t quite go as planned, and the experience shapes Ettie’s determination to help rebel forces take the Nazis down.

Despite its setting in a world filled with hate, the novel’s overarching message is that of love. There are many tragic moments throughout, many instances of sacrifice and of fear, but ultimately, we are left with a promise of hope. And even though the literal angel of death makes several appearances — at one point, unable to see Ava because she is not created by God (I forgot how Hoffman phrases this, but it’s beautiful, chilling and heartbreaking all at once) — the overarching feel is a celebration of life.

While the story is fantastical, kernels of it are rooted in reality. In her letter to the reader, Alice Hoffman writes about a woman who approached her at a book event, wanting her life story to be told. Like Lea, the woman was born Jewish, but was then sent to a convent during World War II to be raised Catholic. Unlike Lea, the woman didn’t have an Ava to protect her, and so while she survived the war, her reality is likely a lot bleaker than the story in this novel.

In that same letter, Hoffman writes, “Fairy tales tell us that we may be lost, we may be forsaken, but there is a path.” And perhaps that’s why the fairy tale treatment in this novel resonated so much with me. Despite all the horrible stuff happening in the world, Hoffman’s world promises a benevolent force protecting you from experiencing anything too horrible. Yet even that reassurance is a complicated one, as it requires much sacrifice and possibly a compromise of one’s own values. Like many fairy tales, the hope Hoffman offers is an ambiguous, complex one filled with foreboding. And that, paradoxically enough, makes it feel even more realistic, and therefore possible, much more than an uncomplicated happily ever after would.

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Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Good Luck Girls, Charlotte Nicole Davis

36381842Aster is a Good Luck Girl, one of many sold by her family to a “welcome house” to earn her keep by having sex with men from the time she turns 16. On her younger sister Clementine’s 16th birthday, Clementine accidentally kills the man who’d purchased her services for the night and turns to Aster for help. Along with their friends Tansy and Mallow, and the welcome house’s best Good Luck Girl Violet, Aster and Clementine go on the run. They are pursued by the family of the man Clementine has killed and by men with powers similar to the dementors from Harry Potter. They are also in pursuit of the Lady Ghost, a figure out of children’s bedtime stories who allegedly has the power to remove the magical tattoos that mark them as Good Luck Girls.

The Good Luck Girls is a fast-paced and thrilling western. I love the focus on the girls’ friendships and I love the fierceness of Aster’s love and protectiveness towards her younger sister. I like that the book talks about the power imbalance between genders (girls are valued for their sexuality and men clearly hold much of the power in the society) and class (it’s mostly girls from poor families who are sold to welcome houses, and the lack of money becomes a major plot point in the girls’ escape). I also like that the book talks a bit about how drug addiction can be used by those in power to maintain their position — the Good Luck Girls are given a dose of a drug called Sweet Thistle every night. I thought Violet’s withdrawal could have been handled more realistically, such that it affected her more throughout the story, but overall, I like that the book tackled it at all, and showed how much it affected Violet to miss her daily dose.

Aster and Violet were the main characters, and I loved how complex their personalities were and how much they complemented each other. Along with Aster and Clementine’s sister bond, I also love Violet’s back story, and how the girl whom Aster had always thought of as spoiled and snobby actually turns out to be a lot more vulnerable and in a lot more pain than Aster realized. I do wish that Tansy and Mallow’s characters were fleshed out a bit more, and I hope we get that chance later in the series.

The story talks about a lot of heavy subjects, but it’s told in a fast-paced western / action-adventure style that’s a lot of fun to read. It was awesome seeing the girls kick ass throughout their journey, and I love that so much of their adventures had to do with overturning the power dynamic. For example, when they needed to steal money, they focused on stealing from the rich men they often saw at the welcome house, and Aster often reflected on how it good it feels to see the welcome house clients tasting the fear that the Good Luck Girls had to deal with every night.

The novel ended on a note that’s both hopeful and empowering, yet with a major plot point still unresolved that could potentially end badly. It’s a great set up for a sequel, and I’d be interested to see where Davis takes this series next.

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Thank you to Raincoast Books for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Design Your Next Chapter, Debbie Travis

DesignYourNextChapterBookCoverDesign Your Next Chapter includes some nice, inspiring stories about women who pursued their dreams (their “next chapter”), some nice advice about pursuing your own.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t connect at all to this book, and while her advice was mostly unobjectionable, the disconnect between the book’s apparent intended audience and my own life circumstances left me just dreaming of a Tuscan vacation.

Travis’ message is inspiring and inoffensive enough: pursue your dreams, even when it scares you. To Travis’ credit, she also admits it’s not easy, and gives some good advice on being practical about it, e.g. keeping your day job if you can’t afford to live without a steady income, putting together a solid business plan to get a bank to loan you money for your passion project, deferring/modifying your dream if you need to care for a sick spouse, etc. But for the most part, the examples she gives are those of women whose experiences were similar to her own: middle / upper middle class women who’ve built successful careers, achieved financial stability, and raised children to adulthood, and are now feeling empty and wondering what else there is to life.

In Travis’ case, after years of career success with decorating shows, she falls in love with Frances Mayes’ writing and dreams of opening her own Tuscan villa. So she and her husband combine savings, take out a loan and now operate a women’s retreat in Tuscany. Good for her, and to be honest, her Tuscan retreat sounds like a fun time. The thing is, many of her stories about other women came from women she met at her retreat, which means these are often women who can already afford a Tuscany retreat in the first place. Often, they have a strong support system in place — a supportive spouse, a healthy savings account, money already saved for a large purchase like a house, a large and supportive community of friends, and so on.

I don’t mean to minimize Travis’ accomplishments, nor the accomplishments of the women whose stories she told. Regardless of your life situation, it does take courage to pursue your passion and embark on a “next chapter.” But such a life situation feels so far out of the realm of my own possibilities that I couldn’t quite get inspired.

Again, to Travis’ credit, she acknowledges finances can be a barrier. But she also often glosses over these barriers. She may say that having no savings can be a detriment, but then immediately follows up with how it shouldn’t be a deterrent because it’s a solveable problem. You just need to beg, borrow or barter with your friends, or create a business plan to take to the bank. And fair, you can certainly do that, but because Travis glosses over these barriers so smoothly, I wonder how much of a consideration they actually are / were in how she envisioned this book. It almost felt like an afterthought, a pro forma acknowledgement that there are some legitimate difficulties to pursuing one’s dreams, which is immediately followed up by a fairly simplistic solution. The result is that the book felt like a very Pollyanna — and yes, privileged — approach to pursuing one’s dreams.

The other reason I found it hard to connect with the book is that many of the examples Travis uses involves starting an entrepreneurial business, which isn’t and has never been something that interests me. I wish she’d included examples of people who pursued next chapters that didn’t have to do with going freelance or starting a business.

Overall, the book isn’t bad; it just didn’t resonate at all with me.

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Thanks to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.