Without Merit by Colleen Hoover

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Without Merit is due for publication on October 3, 2017.

Merit, a 17 year old senior in high school, has quite the interesting life. Merit’s family of seven is quite possibly the most oddly dysfunctional family I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading about in a book. Merit and her twin sister, Honor, do not share any special twin connections or abilities to read each other closely. In fact, they barely have anything to do with one another and are like polar opposites. Their brother, Utah, only a year older than the twins, appears as perfect and wholesome as they come, which drives Merit crazy. Their rarely-present, laid back father lives with his second wife, Victoria, who was his younger mistress and the reason his first marriage failed. Their son, Moby, provides some rare moments of happiness to those around him, despite his mother monitoring his every move rather than allowing him to just be a curious four year old. The only family member that Merit feels a connection with and wants to spend any time with is Moby, who is easy to love. Here’s the real kicker: Merit’s mother, who is also a Victoria, lives in the basement and refuses to leave due to her social anxiety and general sickness following a struggle with cancer a few years prior. Merit, Honor, and Utah take turns bringing her meals and checking on her. Talk about a strange living arrangement!

Perhaps the oddest thing about the Voss family is that they all live together in an old converted church, which they have named Dollar Voss, because it is split into four living quarters. And the reason they are living in an old church all boils down to the fact that their atheist father, Barnaby, didn’t like the old Pastor’s Labrador retriever, Wolfgang, barking at all hours of the night. Therefore, he bought the church out from under Pastor Brian, forcing he and his dog to move out and leave Barnaby with peace and quiet – or so he thought. The Voss household, readers will find out, is anything but quiet.

Merit is out finding used trophies for her collection one day, when she meets Sagan. The initial meeting leaves her feeling something she hasn’t ever felt before – happiness and excitement. Any hope she has fizzles, however, when she finds out that Sagan is Honor’s boyfriend. Of all the luck! Merit, who has never been in love before, has to fall hard for her twin sister’s boyfriend. What’s worse is when she realizes that Sagan is living in the room right across the hall. Though she tries to avoid him and ignore her feelings of attraction, its impossible.

Meanwhile, Merit stops attending high school unbeknownst to her own father. She goes for days without speaking to anyone in her household, and they hardly notice. She doesn’t think there is anything out of the ordinary about her behavior; she’s just doing what feels right for her situation. After a serious suicide attempt, Merit’s family and Sagan encourage her to seek help. Near the end of the story, Merit realizes that she has depression, which makes sense to readers who have been seeing the signs in Merit’s behavior since the beginning. This story is a unique look at how the affects depression can change an entire family. Hoover does a wonderful job of bringing light to mental illness without focusing completely on the issue. She brings it into the story to add another layer to an already heartbreaking, yet moving story of a family sticking together no matter the obstacles.

Despite all of their faults and mistakes, Merit’s family members are lovable in their own way, as readers learn more about why they are what they have become. When Merit takes the time to look at them with a new perspective, thanks to some help from heartthrob, Sagan, who lives across the hall, and energetic, Luck, her stepmother’s younger brother, she realizes that maybe she is part of the problem. And things she thought were true about Utah, her father, her mother, her stepmother, Honor, and even Sagan weren’t exactly the way she pictured. Sagan and Luck help her to have the courage to seek help, and her relationships with them are stronger for it.

 

 

Hoover’s young adult, stand-alone novel is best for a mature audience due to language and references to drug usage. Though it alludes to sexual scenes, the romance is not explicit in any way. Fans of Liane Moriarty and JoJo Moyes will enjoy Colleen Hoover’s novels. Without Merit, in particular, would be enjoyed by teens and adults alike. This was my first experience with a Colleen Hoover novel, and I look forward to reading many of her other books.

Thank you to Atria Books for the advanced review copy.

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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

9781101883075_f1cf2Lilac Girls is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of three strong-willed women with very unique backgrounds and circumstances, but each impacted greatly by WWII and the Holocaust.

Kasia, a young Polish teenager was taken by train along with her mother and older sister to an all women’s prison camp, Ravensbruck, where she and her sister Zuzanna were subjected to horrible torture, as “rabbits” for (sulfonamide) experiments.by the Nazis.

Herta, a young German doctor who was given the opportunity to employ her physician’s training at an all women’s work camp, Ravensbruk, reports for duty. Little did she realize that she would be the only female doctor and would be responsible for carrying out lethal injections, and horrible experiments on healthy women prisoners.

American actress and society girl, Caroline Ferriday, spends her days working in the French consulate in New York City. She organizes and sends care packages to French orphans in Paris, but her mission chances dramatically when her love, Paul, a French actor is taken to a prison camp. As Caroline tries to locate Paul, Kasia struggles to survive at Ravensbruk (while many of her friends and mother disappear or worse), Herta continues carrying out horrible experimental surgeries in the medical ward at Ravensbruck.

The novel switches back and forth between Herta, Kasia, and Caroline’s stories, causing readers to always be wondering what will happen next to each character. Though it is a rather  large book, I read through it very quickly because of the fast pace.

When Kelly connects the three women together in Part 3, it is so well written, providing some much needed closure to the characters and to readers. Readers will experience so many emotions while enjoying this novel; and I challenge anyone to read it through with dry eyes.

One of the neatest things about this novel is that it is based upon the actual Caroline Ferriday and her work for the Ravensbruk Rabbits after WWII. Kelly came across an article in Victoria magazine about Caroline and her lilacs, as well as her work with the Ravensbruk Rabbits, and was inspired to write this story. She based Kasia and Herta’s characters off of women she had read about in her extensive research as well.

For a debut novel, I consider this to be a masterpiece. It reminds me of two of my other favorite WWI historical fiction novels, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. Kelly’s website (http://www.marthahallkelly.com) has many additional resources that add a richness to the story, such as maps, photographs of her research journey, and video clips. It is clear that Martha Hall Kelly researched thoroughly in order to give a voice to so many important women affected by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. I promise you will enjoy this novel. It is just wonderful.

 

Family Tree by Susan Wiggs

9780062425430_2354bFamily Tree will be published on August 9, 2016 by William Morrow. This is a perfect romantic story for Fall, set mostly in Vermont during maple sugar collection season. Finishing it on the first day of Spring made me long for Fall a bit.

Anna Rush Harlow is living in Manhattan, enjoying married life and her successful career. She is the producer of a hit cooking show starring her celebrity chef husband, Martin. She is unexpectedly surprised and ecstatic when she realizes she is pregnant. However, her life changes in the blink of an eye when there is a freak accident on the production set. A year later, she wakes up from a coma a divorced woman who has lost everything she built her life on in Manhattan. She moves back home with her mother, older brother and his wife, and her nieces and nephews on the family’s maple sugar farm in Vermont. As she tries to pick up the pieces and move forward with a plan in life, she realizes that the place she couldn’t wait to get away from when she was young might just be the place she is happiest. It also happens that Fletcher, her former love still lives in their hometown and is also divorced. Is it too late for Fletcher and Annie, or will they be able to get past the hurt they caused each other when they were younger and life’s plans got in the way?

The story switches between present day after Annie’s accident to when she first met Fletcher, her college years, when she first met Martin and started the cooking show, when she and Fletcher rekindled the flames years later, and finally to her marriage with Martin. Through the flashbacks, readers get to know the real Annie, smart as a whip, fun-loving, and dedicated to her lifelong dream and love of cooking.

Much of the story is heavily centered on family, forgiveness, and second chances. The ending is a little predictable, but I loved the story so much that I didn’t really care. Readers will feel like they are working alongside Annie and her brother as they harvest the maple sap, boil it, and make Sugar Rush, their famous maple syrup. Food and cooking play a big part in the novel as well, as many mouthwatering dishes are prepared and described in detail. I really loved this book, and I know you will too. Fans of romance, contemporary women’s fiction, and regular fiction rejoice – this novel has a little something for everyone.

The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons

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The Song of Hartgrove Hall, written by Natasha Solomons, begins in post-WWII Britain in the 1940’s. The story alternates between 1940s – 1960s Britain and present day, with the same family, the Fox-Talbots, inhabiting Hartgrove Hall. Hartgrove Hall itself has such a pivotal role in this story; the once stately, then crumbling, then restored once more, colonial mansion is a character itself.

The Fox-Talbot brothers, Jack, George, and Harry (known as Fox), have all returned home to Hartgrove Hall after Jack & George fought in the war and Harry was away at college. The only people awaiting them at Hartgrove Hall are their father, the General, his butler and various maids on staff. Their mother passed away when young Fox was only a toddler, leaving the three boys in care of their stern, military minded father. The mansion itself is crumbling, after being used by soldiers as a home base during the war. The home Fox has always loved is falling apart, and he can hardly bear it. The brothers decide to try to save their home, begging the General not to sell, hoping they can make ends meat. Unlike his brothers, Fox has always held a special love for music and his favorite past time is to collect songs, mostly folk songs passed down through the generations in his home country of Britain. He dreams of being a composer, though his brothers and father find it laughable that one of their own be more interested in music than farming or military pursuits.

To celebrate the coming home of the brothers and the end of the war, they throw a New Year’s Eve party at Hartgrove. The eldest brother, Jack, who is loved and treated much like a movie star by anyone he meets, especially ladies, has brought a young Jewish wartime singer named Edie Rose to the party. Everyone is quite taken with the famous, beautiful, young, and talented singer. The problem is, Jack isn’t the only brother who is cast under Edie’s love spell. Young Harry (Fox) is quite taken with Edie, an infatuation which grows into love as they spend time together collecting songs, discussing music, and even performing together over the years. When bonds between brothers come up against bonds of love, herein lies the making of a great romantic love triangle, and this story will not disappoint in that regard.

In present day, fifty years later, Jack is an old man who has lost his wife, Edie, along with his ability or passion for playing the piano. Just when grief and guilt threaten to take him under, his daughter drops off his 5 year old grandson for a few hours out of the blue for Jack to mind. Trying to redirect the young, energetic boy from total destruction of his home, Jack plays a few notes on the piano, and young Robin is enthralled. As it turns out, Robin is quite the piano prodigy, a fact that Jack can hardly believe, but ultimately gives him hope for the future, urging him to live out the rest of his life the best way he can. Is it too late for Jack to seek forgiveness after such a long life together with the one he loved?

Fans of music, historical fiction, family drama, and romance will surely enjoy this novel. It’s a beautiful portrait of a family and how they dealt with the many hardships which life brought them. Readers interested in knowing more about the art of song collecting will find a most helpful notes section about contemporary song collecting and links for more information on the topic at the end of the book.