Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire

I’ve discovered that alternate fairy tales are kinda my thing. I read and reviewed Lost Boy by Christina Henry, an alternate tale of Peter Pan and Captain Hook. I am in love with the story of Wicked by Gregory Maguire, the alternate Oz story and also hit Broadway musical. Now Hiddensee is my latest find. This book is also by Gregory Maguire and it is an alternate tale of a holiday favorite. I think the title is a little misleading though, because technically the book is not about the nutcracker, but about his creator Dirk Drosselmeier.

We follow Drosselmeier as a young boy who lives in a dark forest near Bavaria. He lives with an elderly couple that he is aware are not his parents. He suffers a near-death experience which opens his eyes to the magical qualities of the forest around him. We follow him through the Bavarian countryside as he works for several families and befriends the children. Finally as a man he is a close family friend of the Stahlbaum family and is very close with Felix Stahlbaum and his two sons whom he makes toys for. Drosselmeier eventually becomes the godfather of Felix’s grandchildren Fritz and Klara. Klara is a frail, fanciful child whom Drosselmeier learns is very ill and her symptoms make themselves known when she starts speaking nonsense about a Mouse King coming to carry her away.

I enjoyed the other little bits of fairy tales that made their way into this book. At the beginning, Dirk hears a story about a brother and sister that venture into the woods and meet an old witch who tries to kill them. Near the end, he asks himself where the little elves come from that help hobbled shoemakers. There is even a cameo by one of the Grimm brothers looking for stories to record. It’s also nice having a background to Drosselmmeier’s story now. Before, he was always the mysterious godfather with an eye patch that no one could pin a life on. Some may argue that now his mysterious character is ruined for the ballet, but I think it helped him. It definitely helped Klara’s character. Giving Klara and illness as an explanation to her fantastic story was, I think, genius of Maguire. Godfather Drosselmeier gives Klara the legendary nutcracker in order to protect her from the Mouse King that she is hallucinating, but it goes to show that he understands the children when their parents scold them for their flights of fancy. It brings out Drosselmeier’s inner child, which we see in the book he never gets to embrace. I believe he also sees himself as the brave nutcracker soldier trying to rescue Klara from a terrible fate.

I highly recommend this book for those of you that like alternate fairy tales. It deviates from the ballet a little, but that is the point. Take a journey with Herr Drosselmeier as he learns to navigate life and love.

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Alexandra is fresh off of a plane in Sofia, Bulgaria when she runs into a family struggling to get into a taxi. She offers her help and comes away with an unexpected adventure in the form of a piece of luggage she accidentally took from them. Inside that mystery bag is an urn with the ashes of a deceased musician named Stoyan Lazarov. To return the urn, Alexandra enlists the help of her own taxi driver and several of the deceased man’s family. She learns of his troubled past and his passion for playing the violin, and when she finally finds the family to which the urn belongs, she is in for a twist of fate.

I’ll tell you… Kostova sure knows how to tell a story. Her characters are so well-developed throughout the entire book. And there are a lot of them. That’s what I think impressed me most about this book. With so many characters introduced, usually we don’t get to wrap everything up, but Kostova managed to leave me satisfied with everyone’s story. Every character, even the ones who die, are summed up by the end. The other impressive element in Kostova’s writing is her detail in describing the landscape in which the story is taking place. Never have I felt the urge to visit Bulgaria until I read this book. Her descriptions of Sofia and the small villages that surround it are incredible. But the description of the mountains is what got me. What I wouldn’t give to visit those mountains.

The only criticizing I have to do for this book is the ending. I also read Kostova’s “The Historian” and, if I recall correctly, I had the same complaint. The ending was too quick. Kostova does such a good job at weaving the story and creating twists and turns that it seems she ends everything quite abruptly. While everyone’s story is summed up in the end, it is summed up very quickly and I feel like she could have made it somewhat more detailed in the end.

Regardless of the quick ending I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope I get to read more by Elizabeth Kostova. I am interested in learning more about Eastern Europe from her stories.

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The Heretic’s Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

The Heretic’s Wife the story of Kate Gough, the fictional wife of John Frith, who was a refugee during the reign of Henry VIII. Kate is a well-educated, Lutheran-sympathizing woman in Tudor London who meets John Frith, a man accused of being a heretic for translating the Bible into English so that any man may read the word of God. The couple lives most of their lives in Antwerp, where English law, mainly Thomas More, cannot touch them. The story mostly follows Kate’s everyday life, but we occasionally get the insight of Thomas More, the King’s Chancellor who seems obsessed with burning heretics; and Anne Boleyn, the woman Henry VII breaks with Rome for in order to set aside is very Catholic Spanish Queen Katherine. We get a look at how each character is dealing with the religious crisis of the day.

I thought the writing was good. I’m glad Vantrease decided to not only stay with Kate. It gave us a little variety on the thinking of the people of the times. Kate and Anne, for instance are sympathetic to the Lutheran cause. They believe William Tyndale, the man working to translate the Bible into English and distribute it to as many Englishmen as possible, is an inspiration. Why not let every man interpret the Bible for his own? While Thomas More is perhaps the man most strongly against such thought. He believes the Lord is supreme power and that the church has the only right to determine what His words mean. He is hell-bent on burning everyone who says otherwise. I also like that Vantrease decided to write Kate as an educated woman. Most women of the era were illiterate and that would have made for a very boring story.

Kate though was not as revolutionary as I would have liked. Yes she was educated, and yes she kind of dropped everything to help with the cause, but she was still reigned in by need/want for children. I would have thought a woman like Kate would not want the burden of children during such a dangerous time. Which leads me to the other thing I dislike about the book and every other historical fiction book set in this time period. The miscarriage. There is ALWAYS a miscarriage in these books. I’ve read a lot that take place anywhere between the War of the Roses and Elizabethan England and each one has a woman losing a child they so desperately wanted. It just feels cliche at this point.

Overall I enjoyed the book because it’s hard for me to hate a book that is written about the Tudor reign. My favorite era in world history is hard for me to criticize too much.

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Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

Officially titled Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America¬†which is a mouthful to put at the top. James and Deborah Fallows are reporters who decided to travel across the United States and write about what they saw in the towns that no one visits. They went to these so-called “fly-over” cities and dug into what really makes this country so appealing. They visited some cities that we’ve heard of such as Fresno, California and Columbus, Ohio, but most of the cities I had never heard of such as Ajo, Arizona; Duluth, Minnesota; Eastport, Maine, and so many more.

What they did when they got to these cities was met the people. They met people in these tiny cities who had lived there all their lives. They met people who came from big cities like New York and L.A. and fell in love with the small town they were relocated to. They met small-town mayors who were working their tails off to better the city in any way they could. They met with school officials who were making a difference in the lives of children that would probably otherwise be forgotten. The Fallows’ wanted to know what made America tick, and they found it in these little po-dunk towns.

Schools were a big theme I found in this book. Every city they went to there was a school mentioned. Many different schools. In a few cities there was a school that was rundown. Small classrooms, not a whole lot of supplies. But the students were proud of their city still. They wanted to help raise it up. In other cities there were schools doing extraordinary things. Schools that started a community garden and sold their crops at local farmers markets. An elementary schools that had a sole focus on engineering. I read about a high school that went from a 44% graduated rate up to a 96% graduation rate because the students were given the help they needed to prepare for college. These are the leaders of tomorrow and they love the little towns they grew up in.

My favorite cities were Duluth, Minnesota and Winters, California. Duluth because it sounded kind of similar to my hometown of Morgan Hill, California. Not the smallest city, but cozy. Has a downtown where restaurants and boutiques thrive. I liked Winters because it was the town I always wished I did come from. So small that all of the kids at the high school had gone through all schooling together. Families that had known one another for generations. All packed tightly in the woods near Yosemite. I think maybe I’ll retire to Winters.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book for those of you looking to find hope for this country. Or maybe for those of you searching for a new home.

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The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

Roger Kahn is a Brooklyn-born newspaper reporter who recounts his years following the Dodgers baseball team before they moved west. The 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers team is the stuff of legends even though they had trouble winning pennants. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Pee Wee Reese are only a few of the names that took the field for this baseball team during the time Roger was reporting on them. He got to meet, and became close with these players. He got to do things most of us only dream of doing.

Kahn begins the book by telling his own story. He remembers growing up in Brooklyn and taking the train to Ebbet’s Field. He talks about his parents. His mother and father were university professors and regarded intellect as the real measure of human culture. His mother never understood his love for the game of baseball. His father loved the Dodgers as much as Roger did and took him to games to feed his hunger to see the boys play. Kahn tells of how he came into the newspaper business. Starting as a copy boy and working his way up to be the field reporter for the Dodgers.

Next, Kahn recounts the years he followed the Dodgers team around the country watching them try to win pennant after pennant. He tells of how Jackie Robinson came to the team and the reactions of his teammates. He remembers his friendships with Campy and Duke, and about how sometimes he made them unhappy because of what he wrote. All these boys wanted was to win a world series and he reported on their sorrow when the season ended with no pennant. He also reported on his own sorrow when the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

Lastly, Kahn tells us readers about individual players after their baseball career. He visits each one in their current hometown and writes what they’ve been doing, what they remember about their playing days, and how much they miss the game. He reports about how to get to each city they are currently residing. What surprises him about each player’s lives now that they don’t have to take the field every day. We meet their families and friends. We learn if they have to work or live comfortably with no job. He ends the book with the funeral of captain Pee Wee Reese and the reaction of his team when their leader was gone.

The most intriguing part of this book for me was that it read so much more like a narrative than a biography/autobiography. Each of these players was a character for me rather than an actual person who lived and played the game. Kahn did a wonderful job painting the pictures of cities and people. His writing made this book incredibly enjoyable especially for someone who loves baseball. The Dodgers are in no way my team, but reading about their lives in Brooklyn, and their lives after Brooklyn was such a wonderful experience.

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Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin

First and foremost, I think I speak for all of the Song of Fire and Ice readers in saying, George, what the hell? Why write this instead of finishing The Winds of Winter. We’ve been waiting literal years for you to finish that book only to learn that you’ve been spending your time writing this Targaryen history?!? That being said, thank you George for writing this Targaryen history!!! We’ve all been wanting to know how the ancient Valyrian family took hold of Westeros and held it for hundreds of years. And let me say this book did not disappoint.

Beginning with Aegon the Conqueror and his two sisters coming from Dragonstone to conquer all of Westeros and make it one, united kingdom, spanning until King Aegon III came into manhood and took the realm under his control. We readers are taken on a journey through time to see just how the Targaryens became the dynastic reigning family of Westeros. It is a tale of war, peace, loyalty, deceit, split family lines and marriages that bond it back together. The fact that this book reminded me so much of medieval Britain had me enthralled from the start. The coming of Aegon the Conqueror mirrors William the Conqueror coming to England to claim it for his own. The Dance of Dragons, the war of two different lines of the Targaryen family tree mirror The War of the Roses in which two factions of the same family warred for many decades on English soil. Y’all this was one of my favorite reads this year. I love history, but it seems I love fictional history even more. I think because it is so much more impressive to invent such an elaborate history of events rather than just record actual happenings.

The only wish I have after reading this book is that it went further on to recount ALL of the reigns of Targaryen kings. But the fact that we stopped halfway through the dynasty tells me that there will be another Fire and Blood to continue where this one left off. Again I think I speak for all of Martin’s fanbase when I say, please George, finish The Winds of Winter before you release the second half of the Targaryen history. We would much appreciate it.

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I found this title in a list titled “Books You Won’t be Able to Put Down,” and boy were they right. This book had everything I love within it. History, legends, travel, romance, and plot twists.

The narrator takes us on a journey through time and through most of Europe. She finds a strange book in her father’s study that leads him to tell her the story of how, first, his university mentor, and then he himself took on the hunt for Vlad Dracula, the ancient Wallachian ruler. Told through a series of letters from the university mentor Bartholomew Rossi, and then her father Paul, the narrator must solve the puzzle that led both scholars into Eastern Europe during the Cold War. What they, and she, find is a dramatic turn of events through history.

I think my favorite part of the book what the descriptions of all of the different cities and countries the characters visit. We get to travel through Amsterdam, Istanbul, England, Budapest, and rural France and Bulgaria. All visits include making a trip to historical churches like the Hagia Sophia. Thinking about what these characters must have seen took my breath away. There was a point in the story where I thought I would get turned off by it because it almost became a horror story, and I don’t do horror. But the history within it was amazing, too amazing for me to care about how scary it got.

If there is any bit of a historian within you, read this book. Travel. Learn. See if you can solve the puzzle before the author tells you.

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