The Taster by V.S. Alexander

Book Review


The TasterBook Genre: Historical Fiction, War

Book Series: N/A

Released: 1/30/18 by Kensington Publishing Corporation

Pages: 323  Price: $15.99 Paperback

Links:  Goodreads, Author’s Site

Source: I borrowed this book from my library



Book Synopsis:

Amid the turbulence of World War II, a young German woman finds a precarious haven closer to the source of danger than she ever imagined–one that will propel her through the extremes of privilege and terror under Hitler’s dictatorship . . . 

In early 1943, Magda Ritter’s parents send her to relatives in Bavaria, hoping to keep her safe from the Allied bombs strafing Berlin. Young German women are expected to do their duty–working for the Reich or marrying to produce strong, healthy children. After an interview with the civil service, Magda is assigned to the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat. Only after weeks of training does she learn her assignment: she will be one of several young women tasting the Fuhrer’s food, offering herself in sacrifice to keep him from being poisoned.

Perched high in the Bavarian Alps, the Berghof seems worlds away from the realities of battle. Though terrified at first, Magda gradually becomes used to her dangerous occupation–though she knows better than to voice her misgivings about the war. But her love for a conspirator within the SS, and her growing awareness of the Reich’s atrocities, draw Magda into a plot that will test her wits and loyalty in a quest for safety, freedom, and ultimately, vengeance.

Vividly written and ambitious in scope, The Taster examines the harrowing moral dilemmas of war in an emotional story filled with acts of extraordinary courage.

My Review:

If you follow my blog you might be wondering why I read this book being it is so vastly different from the typical genre of books I read. The short answer is a book talk at work.  I did dread starting this one so much that I put it off until four days before the actual talk was scheduled.  I managed to finish over two days so that should give you a clue to what I thought of it in the end.

Normally I hate historical fiction, and books about WWII even more despite the fact that I agree with the author that we should never forget what happened and believe everyone should be exposed to the atrocities that took place because of the ego of a madman.  I don’t like reading them because they make me mad.  They also make me ashamed of my German heritage despite the fact that all of my ancestors left Germany before 1870 before Germany was even a county. Anyway, those are my personal hangups and have little to do with this book.

I did struggle with the first few chapters of the book as I tried to decide if I liked Magda or not.  Her ambivalence to the war and Nazi’s bothered me in the beginning.  Granted that changed but it wasn’t until that change took place that I warmed up to the character.  This book is quite a different type of story about WWII than most would encounter.  An interesting idea of chronicling what it might be like to live and work inside Hitler’s circle.  To be so sheltered while so much horror is taking place in the country surrounding you.  It was quite a fascinating read that did pull me in.

I did appreciate how the author did expose the main character to the grim reality of what was taking place around her.  She didn’t stay sheltered for long, through her trials and tribulations she grew and strengthened with each new exposure.  All the while remaining frustrated with how little power she actually had to change anything.

The ending was a bit of a surprise and I was delighted with how things worked out for Magda.  She went through a lot and most of her life’s choices were not hers to make if she wanted to survive.

I’m glad I read the book but don’t believe I will be seeking out more WWII historical fiction titles to add to my reading list.  They still leave me wiped a bit emotionally and a tad depressed even though I know how things worked out in the end.  I still feel bad for what happened.  Quickly followed by fear for our future as I think of the madman we have in office currently.

My Rating: 4 Stars


By Blood by Ellen Ullman

Book Review


By BloodBook Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Book Series: N/A

Released: 2/24/2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pages: 378 Price: $16.00 Paperback

Links:  Goodreads, Author’s Site

Buy the Book: Amazon  By Blood: A Novel

Source: I borrowed this audiobook from my library



Book Synopsis:

San Francisco in the 1970s. Free love has given way to radical feminism, psychedelic ecstasy to hard-edged gloom. The Zodiac Killer stalks the streets. A disgraced professor takes an office in a downtown tower to plot his return. But the walls are thin and he’s distracted by voices from next door—his neighbor is a psychologist, and one of her patients dislikes the hum of the white-noise machine. And so he begins to hear about the patient’s troubles with her female lover, her conflicts with her adoptive, avowedly WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother. The professor is not just absorbed but enraptured. And the further he is pulled into the patient’s recounting of her dramas—and the most profound questions of her own identity—the more he needs the story to move forward.

The patient’s questions about her birth family have led her to a Catholic charity that trafficked freshly baptized orphans out of Germany after World War II. But confronted with this new self— “I have no idea what it means to say ‘I’m a Jew’”—the patient finds her search stalled. Armed with the few details he’s gleaned, the professor takes up the quest and quickly finds the patient’s mother in records from a German displaced-persons camp. But he can’t let on that he’s been eavesdropping, so he mocks up a reply from an adoption agency the patient has contacted and drops it in the mail. Through the wall, he hears how his dear patient is energized by the news, and so is he. He unearths more clues and invests more and more in this secret, fraught, triangular relationship: himself, the patient, and her therapist, who is herself German. His research leads them deep into the history of displaced-persons camps, of postwar Zionism, and—most troubling of all—of the Nazi Lebensborn program.With ferocious intelligence and an enthralling, magnetic prose, Ellen Ullman weaves a dark and brilliant, intensely personal novel that feels as big and timeless as it is sharp and timely. It is an ambitious work that establishes her as a major writer.

My Review:

Another full disclosure time. I picked this book because the author’s last name began with a U.  I only need an author with an X to have read a book by an author of every letter in the alphabet.  Feel free to give me your recommendations below.   Now for the review.

I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction.  I’m also not usually one to read about the Holocaust.  Not that I am a denier or have anything but the deepest respect for the suffering that people went through.  I simply tend to be a sensitive person and I have trouble separating myself from the fiction I read.  I get emotionally distraught and it affects my mood and how I behave towards those around me.  So I tend to stay away from topics that could upset me.  Not the correct behavior I know but it is the approach I take in reading.  Life sucks why would I want to read about more suffering.  Still, I selected this book from my library because it sounded interesting and filled a reading requirement I needed.

I’m so glad I did.  This book captivated me.  Much like the narrator of the story, I became obsessed with the life the patient was revealing to her therapist.   I guess I am a bit of a voyeur too.  It was a bit of a strange read, however, and I get some of the criticism that has been posted in other reviews.  I almost find myself dividing the book into two different plots.  One plot thread revolved around the therapist and her patient and the other was the professor and his odd circumstance.    The eavesdropping on the therapist and patient being the more compelling plot.

So let’s deal with the professor first.  He needs help.  Serious help.  I can see why he was put on leave and was described as creepy.  It is exactly what he is, creepy.  Some say that his purpose was not well-defined but I disagree.  I think he probably got in trouble for sexually harassing a student and the institution he works for wanted him to disappear for a few months in hopes that the drama he stirred up would be forgotten or blow over.  While I did find him creepy I have to say I did not totally despise him.  I almost feel bad for him as I truly feel he needs help before he hurts someone.  Or it could be that I feel a tad guilty knowing I have become as obsessed with the patient’s story as he has.

Now for the therapist and her client.  This was a moving story and the sole reason I’m glad I listen to this book.  The patient’s story is that of a young woman in search of her identity.  Like many of us, she did not feel like she fit in and desperately needed to connect with her origins to make sense of the life she now leads.  What she learns is not pleasant and logically speaking should hold no reflection on who she is as a person but I can not say I would feel differently if I was in her shoes.  This part of the story is so worth wading through the creepy professor parts.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

Book Review


BottomlandBook Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

Book Series: N/A

Released: 3/1/16 by Grove Press

Pages: 336  Price:$16.oo paperback

Links:  Goodreads, Author’s Site

Buy the Book: Amazon Bottomland: A Novel

Source: I borrowed this book from my library.



Book Synopsis:

At once intimate and sweeping, Bottomland—the anticipated second novel from Michelle Hoover—follows the Hess family in the years after World War I as they attempt to rid themselves of the Anti-German sentiment that left a stain on their name. But when the youngest two daughters vanish in the middle of the night, the family must piece together what happened while struggling to maintain their life on the unforgiving Iowa plains.

In the weeks after Esther and Myrle’s disappearance, their siblings desperately search for the sisters, combing the stark farmlands, their neighbors’ houses, and the unfamiliar world of far-off Chicago. Have the girls run away to another farm? Have they gone to the city to seek a new life? Or were they abducted? Ostracized, misunderstood, and increasingly isolated in their tightly-knit small town in the wake of the war, the Hesses fear the worst. Told in the voices of the family patriarch and his children, this is a haunting literary mystery that spans decades before its resolution. Hoover deftly examines the intrepid ways a person can forge a life of their own despite the dangerous obstacles of prejudice and oppression.

My Review:

Alright, confession time.  I’m breaking my rules by reviewing this book.  I swore after a psycho author harassed me at work I would never review an All Iowa Reads book again.  Ever.  I would read them of course so I could participate in the book discussion held at my library but my thoughts of that year’s title would not leave that room and never be posted on my blog again.

So, why am I reviewing this year’s selection?  Well, mainly because I really liked it.  This is by far the best All Iowa Read’s selection that I have read in my years working in a small town Iowa library.  I am totally shocked!  I have to give props to the panel this year’s title was a good call.

There was so much I could relate to in this book.  Being from Iowa I knew this family, or rather one just like it.  In fact, my best friend growing up was a first generation German and I remember spending so much of my youth at their farm.  I felt like I knew these people and could identify with them even though I am only part German.  I have a feeling that most people are going to be able to either see themselves or someone they know in these characters.

Surprising that isn’t what hooked me, though, it was the mystery of what happen to those girls that held my interest.  This was a well-crafted puzzle that I didn’t quite figure out and was pleased to see how everything turned out.  I also thought this book was very timely for the current immigrant drama going on in our country.  So many forget that their family too came from elsewhere and that they probably weren’t welcome here either.  It seems that after a few generations we forget to have any compassion to those just arriving and how much new blood contributes to our society.  The book delves into to sexism and should remind us just how far woman’s rights have come and just how far they have yet to go.

This was a surprisingly good listen.  I find myself still reflecting on it and remembering my childhood.  I’ve lost connection to that childhood friend and her family, it often happens.  I wish them well, though, and thank them for letting me experience their culture for a time.

My Rating:4 Stars

Crack in the Curtain by Selatin Softa

Crack in the Curtain book cover


Cover art thanks to my husband (and create space), but click on it to visit book’s page over on Goodreads.

I own a copy of the book.


Book Synopsis:

It’s 1984 and life is quiet for seventeen-year-old Osman; the summer is winding down and he is preparing for school to start up. But then, Osman meets Leyla, the girl who steals his heart, at a henna celebration. Theirs is no ordinary relationship as their lives are soon turned upside down by the Communist Regime ruling Bulgaria. Turks are about to be erased; their names and cultural identities stripped from them with the swipe of a pen at the end of a barrel. Osman needs to flee for his life; he needs to search for a crack in the curtain.

My Review:

As you might have noticed there is no star rating for this book. I’m not going to give one.  You might have also noticed by the last name of the author this book was written by my husband.  My review can not be un-bias.  It can’t.   I will be honest and tell you what I really think and give you some insight into what went into this book, but any rating I give should be taken with a gain of salt because I am close to the author.  I did warn him before I read the book that  I would share what I thought, good and bad, of his story when I went to review it, so he has been warned…you have too.

So what did I think about the book… Perhaps more apt is, where do I start?  How do I give an honest opinion and encourage others to read this book, because I think people should read it, while expressing my criticism?  How do I keep myself from being banished to the couch while encouraging this budding new author to follow his dream?  THIS is perhaps the most nerve-wracking review I have yet to write.  It is one thing when an author approaches you on Goodreads or email over a review, but to share a bathroom with them is a whole other matter.

Lets start with the negative, like a band-aid just rip that off and get it out of the way.  This is a self-publish book, and often they are a little rough around the edges.  Especially for a first book written in a non-native language.  We went over this book many times but still there are going to be mistakes in it.  However there can and often are mistakes in professionally published and polished books by big name authors.  The dialog is a little off at times, a fellow early reader of this book commented that it was too formal, that people don’t talk like that. I didn’t even notice it until she mentioned it to me, but now that she pointed it out I see the problem.  I agree with her, it is too stiff, but it does sound like my husband, he too is a little formal in his speech as well.  I think it comes a bit from where he grew up, how he learned the language, and that in Turkish (his native language) speech is structured differently.  Another problem I found with the text was that it could get a little preachy at times.  The version that was released is MUCH better then earlier editions, but still at times the story gets bogged down with little side trips.  There are also little words missing here and there, we tried to catch them all, but I know we missed some.  I’m talking about A and The or perhaps the wrong tense was used.  I’m sure they will bother more picky readers and grammar police.  Sometimes the story gets a little bit cheesy for my taste, but again this is a cultural diffidence.  Have you ever heard Turkish song lyrics translated to English, they love cheese in that culture and are often a little over the top with the melodrama. In that regard this story is true to the culture it was written about though and while I may have rolled my eyes from time to time it does work for the story.  The characters are not too bad for a first novel either, the only one that I felt fell flat was the love interest Layla, she needed to be developed more and the love interest between Osman and her needed a little more spark.

Now that those unpleasantries are out of the way.  Sorry Sel, I love you but needed to be honest. Lets get into why I think you should read this book.  Despite some technical difficulties this is a good story.  It is also an important story about events in history that are not that well known or remembered.  The story is a historical fiction set in the 1980s during the Name Change Campaign in Bulgaria.  This was around the time of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, right before the Berlin Wall fell.  Bulgaria is not that well known of a country to most Americans (I needed to look it up on a map when I meet my husband) and the assimilation of the Turks in Bulgaria was lost a bit to other events taking place in that same time period.  This year marks the 30 year anniversary of the events that are talked about in Selatin’s book.  These things really happen, he was witness and victim of them.  The actions taken by the Bulgarian government of the time need to be remembered and learned from.  If you wish to know more there are some very good online articles about the events discussed in this book you can find them at the following links: Turkish Assimilation Campaign in Bulgaria 1984-1985  and Assimilation campaign in Bulgaria

This is a fictional story that reads like a memoir set in the Eastern Rhodope mountains when the forced assimilation of the Turks took place.  The Communist Bulgarian government decided to change the identities; names, language, customs, history and religion of the Turkish minority in their country.  They did so by force and those who resisted were punished, sometimes with their life.  This story follows a young Osman who falls in love during these turbulent times and ends up needing to flee the country for his life.  Selatin has done an excellent job of mixing in real actions taken by the government, the atmosphere of the time and blending it in with a fictional love story and fight for survival.

I also enjoyed his descriptions of both Bulgaria and Turkey in this book.  Having been to both countries it was easy for me to pick out and remember the locations he described.  He also gives us some interesting peeks into the Turkish culture of his homeland.  I found the stories and antidotes of Osman’s life in Bulgaria delightful and the way he writes his characters to be true to his heritage.  While this is a work of fiction some of the stories I know are based on events from Sel’s own life.  For instance Osman talks about playing with walnuts as toy soldiers, this is something I know my husband did in his own life.  The book is true to the culture it is written about.  It is not going to sound like a typical American novel, it sounds like something from the culture it is written about and its tone adds a nice authenticity to the story.

For the most part the book moves at a good pace, only a couple of bogged down spots.  The action is good and I can easily picture the events unfolding in my mind.  I hope you decided to give this book a try.  It is a good read and like I said a story that needed to be told.  I think you might find it interesting to get a glimpse into another way of life and find yourself getting wrapped up in the atmosphere of the tale.  I would recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction, books set in other cultures, and even those who enjoy a dystopian novel.  This is after all based on a real dystopian society.  Those that enjoyed the Hunger Games, Divergent or The Testing should definitely give it a go, this is a real case of a government that told its people how it should live, what they could do, language they could speak, even to the point of changing their names at the point of a gun.

I’m very proud of Selatin and hope you give Crack in the Curtain a chance.

Last Train to Istanbul by Ayşe Kulin – 4 Stars

Last Train to IstanbulCover art thanks to Goodreads, click on it to visit book’s page there.

I borrowed this book from my library!

Book Synopsis:

As the daughter of one of Turkey’s last Ottoman pashas, Selva could win the heart of any man in Ankara. Yet the spirited young beauty only has eyes for Rafael Alfandari, the handsome Jewish son of an esteemed court physician. In defiance of their families, they marry, fleeing to Paris to build a new life.

But when the Nazis invade France, the exiled lovers will learn that nothing—not war, not politics, not even religion—can break the bonds of family. For after they learn that Selva is but one of their fellow citizens trapped in France, a handful of brave Turkish diplomats hatch a plan to spirit the Alfandaris and hundreds of innocents, many of whom are Jewish, to safety. Together, they must traverse a war-torn continent, crossing enemy lines and risking everything in a desperate bid for freedom. From Ankara to Paris, Cairo, and Berlin, Last Train to Istanbulis an uplifting tale of love and adventure from Turkey’s beloved bestselling novelist Ayşe Kulin.

My Review:

So.  You might be wondering if you have the right blog.  Yes, this genre fiction lover does upon occasion read outside of her comfortable box and this book is one of those exceptions to my regular reading  interest.  Before I get to the ‘real review’  I thought I would give you some background information on me to give you a better idea why I picked this book.  Basically I’m married to a Turk, oh sure he was born in Bulgaria, but he is a Turk (up until WWI his part of Bulgaria was included in the Ottoman Empire.  With the collapse of the empire, ending of the war and the redrawing of boarders his family found themselves outside of the newly formed Turkey).  Because of this I have visited Turkey a total of 8 times for vacation and visiting family,  I love Turkey and the Turkish people.  So in our house we will often bring home Turkish treasures that we find in the stores (towels, clothes, food, jewelry and books) simply because it came from or is about Turkey.  Often I have used the line “It’s made in Turkey” to justify a lovely bracelet or ring that catches my eye…hubby falls for it every time…  Anyway,  I was recently browsing for titles to add to the library book order and came across this book and thought it would be one my husband and other patrons in the area might like, WWII stories are popular in my town.  This is why a book that typically would never catch my eye ended up on my reading list.

I am so glad it did.  While I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of this book, I’m glad I read it.  The reasons I tend to not watch movies or read books about WWII and the persecution of  Jews is because it makes me angry.  Angry over what happen to millions of people and that for most of the war the world turned a blind eye to Germany and their attempt to erase an entire people from the earth.  I have very strong opinions about Germany and how I feel they should be regarded,  I will try to rope them in for this review.

This book is simply a beautifully told story that chronicles the actions that several Turkish diplomats took to save not only Jewish Turks, but Jews of many nationalities from the grasp of Hitler.  The brave actions of these men are not well-known in the world and I hope with stories like this one, these brave souls can get the recognition they are due.  They stood up and did what they could to save lives.  They did this without the support of their government and to the risk of not only their lives but those of their families.    In retrospect they couldn’t save many, only 35,000 lives from what I can find on the internet, but they did something when so many would do nothing.

From what I can tell the author did quite a bit of research and incorporated many of the actual events that took place into her book.  Sure she tweaked them a bit to fit her plot, but one of the scenes involving Turks being rounded up and put on cattle cars and a brave diplomat boarding and refusing to leave the train without those passengers really happen.  It was such a moving chapter for me and to know someone really did that makes me proud to be married to a Turk.

The story moves at a good pace, moved back and forth in time in the beginning which was a little confusing, but that stops once you get into the story.  The translation leaves some Turkish words in the text, but it isn’t too distracting or difficult to figure out what they mean.  The characters are believable and good examples of different types of Turkish personalities I’ve known.  It was an interesting portrayal of the country at this time period.  Turkey was a young country, having just rebuilt herself from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.  She did not want to risk anything by entering WWII, and we get to see how they worked so very hard to keep Turkey a neutral country. We also get a glimpse of what life was life at home for well-to-do families in Turkey during WWII.  I imagine they were very much like those of Western families of influence.   But like Turkey herself, even the main family this story revolves around, is stubborn on both sides.  They are willing to cut their noses off to spite their face and in this case it not only cost one family precious time together it almost cost them their lives.

My only complaint is that the end felt rushed.  There was this whole build up of getting the Turks out of Paris and the reunion of families I would have liked to see more of what happen after their arrival in Turkey.  The story made me cry and get angry at times, it also made me cheer and smile.  Like I said it is a beautiful story and I hope you give it a try to learn a little about what these Turkish heroes did to save the lives they could.