Book review: ‘Letters from Skye’ by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from SkyePoet Elspeth Dunn isn’t sure what to make of her first fan letter. Arriving in Scotland’s Isle of Skye all the way from America, its author — a young college student named David Graham — has a way with words himself. As David reveals more of his life through their continued correspondence and Elspeth finds herself opening up, too, their friendship — flourishing just before the onslaught of World War I — gradually turns to love.

Having never left the Isle of Skye, any plans to meet in person are thwarted by Elspeth’s fears . . . until she pushes herself to venture outside the isolated landscape. They unite just before David leaves to volunteer as an ambulance driver in France, leaving Elspeth to savor and sort through their stolen days together. Two decades later, Elspeth’s daughter stumbles across the countless letters her mother exchanged with a mysterious American and struggles with her own romantic entanglements at the start of World War II. In 1940, Elspeth’s world has greatly changed — but it also hasn’t. Whatever became of David? Is the past really past?

Jessica Brockmole’s Letters From Skye has enough atmosphere and carefully-curated twists to keep readers invested in its wartime-era drama, spanning two battles and countless family struggles. Told entirely through letters, most passed between Elspeth and David, it’s a romance that unfolds on the page and emphasizes the power of the written word.

Given I’m such a mail nerd, I was all over this.

And I enjoyed it. I actually picked up Letters from Skye after my fiance began emailing me breathtaking photos from the remote Scottish area, his “subtle” way of suggesting we add it to our shortlist for honeymoon destinations. The Isle of Skye is undeniably beautiful, and the idea of anyone living in such an isolated area — especially 100 years ago, when communication was relegated to the occasional slow-moving letter and the ferry your only transportation option — was fascinating.

In terms of place, which plays such an important role in the novel, Skye didn’t disappoint. It was easy to picture Elspeth writing poetry and letters by candlelight, battening down the hatches as a cold wind blows. David’s letters from Chicago held the American warmth and charm one would expect from an optimistic young man on the other side of the Atlantic, and their chemistry on the page was clear. As they laid their hearts through cursive, especially Elspeth’s heavy burdens, it was hard to feel indifferent to their plight.

But something — maybe something small; maybe something big — was missing to push this novel up to 4-star status for me. David was dashing and their romance interesting, but I remained disconnected from Elspeth. Maybe part of it was switching so rapidly between time periods? One second we’re in 1913, the next in 1940. Bombs are falling in Edinburgh just before a younger Elspeth is writing in Skye. Though each chapter and letter is clearly marked, the transitions felt herky-jerky at times. Elspeth’s daughter, Margaret, is enjoying a romance with a young British pilot, but I didn’t feel I really knew or understood her until the end . . . and because her character was never really explored, I couldn’t get psyched about the decisions she was making.

But maybe I’m being overly critical. For those who enjoy historical fiction, as I do, this World War I- and II-era love story spun in enough directions that I was never bored, never flipping pages just to flip ’em. I rooted for the young lovers, even as things got extraordinarily complicated, and the boom! of an ending was totally worth the price of admission. It’s a memorable scene and a powerful one — sweet, maybe not unexpected . . . but I can’t say I wasn’t pleased with how it all turned out.

If WWII-era London or Edinburgh gets your blood pumping or you simply love the epistolary format, Letters from Skye is an engaging read that satisfied my anglophile thirst. I was glad Brockmole didn’t leave us adrift in a loch, making sure to wrap up the messy ends, and I appreciated the additional explorations of family, sacrifice and love. A quick, enjoyable read.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: July 9, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘As Always, Jack’ by Emma Sweeney

Decades after her father’s plane goes down in the Atlantic, Emma Sweeney “meets” the pilot father she never knew through letters saved by her mother from the early days of their courtship. After her mother’s death, these letters — hidden since Emma’s childhood — give her a glimpse at the funny, charismatic and devoted man with whom Beebe had her sons and daughter: Emma herself, born after Jack’s death during the Cold War.

Jack met Beebe Mathewson in Coronado, Calif., just weeks before he was sent overseas with the Navy. Stationed in Hawaii and Tsingtao, China, Jack and Beebe’s nascent relationship begins with his acknowledgment that he’s utterly smitten with her — and their love only strengthens in the following months apart. In Emma Sweeney’s As Always, Jack, a collection of her father’s letters from 1946, we read only his missives to the beauty he left in California — but the affection between them is clear. It would have been wonderful to read Beebe’s letters, too, but they’re nowhere to be found; Emma notes that her heartbroken mother likely destroyed them after her husband’s death.

For me, the highlight of this short-but-sweet collection — published with a prologue and epilogue explaining family history and the letters’ significance — was learning how Emma felt about the father she never knew. Growing up, Emma’s questions about her family’s origins went unanswered. After her mom remarried when Emma was small, she was told to refer to her stepfather as “Dad” and her biological father as “Jack.” It made sense, I guess . . . considering her dad was gone. But it left Emma with a hole in her heart.

It’s hard to imagine Beebe’s heartache at having lost the love of her life — especially when no one could explain what became of him. Originally written off as “lost in the Bermuda Triangle,” the case was considered closed after the ’50s plane crash. It’s only in adulthood that Emma discovers what really became of Jack. When she finds her father’s letters, tucked away in a drawer, she knows intuitively that her mother left them for her alone to discover. It’s not hard to imagine they’d been hidden away for quite some time — a relic from a simpler time in Beebe’s life, before everything in her world went dark.

Though Jack’s letters to Beebe make up most of the book (and I enjoyed them), I found myself more interested in Emma’s childhood and the mystery of Jack’s plane crash. Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure most of us have a stack of letters just like Jack’s somewhere in a family attic. I grew up hearing stories of my great grandfather, a World War II veteran, and all the letters he wrote from China when my grandmother was young. I’ve held quite a few in my hands, actually, and talked about my great grandfather’s adventures abroad. Those letters? They’re treasures. My great grandfather’s descriptions of life in the service, the Kodak camera he purchased on the black market in China, the obvious love and devotion he had for his wife and daughter at home . . . they bring tears to my eyes. And Jack’s seem much the same.

Though the missives are likely reminiscent of many written in the 1940s, maybe that doesn’t matter. As Always, Jack is a pleasant read, one I devoured quickly; I chuckled a few times, shed a tear once or twice. I can’t imagine being Emma in that time following her mother’s passing, saying goodbye to one parent while just “meeting” another for the first time. Jack’s letters are a treasure for the Sweeney family — absolutely — and if you’re a World War II buff (though these were technically written after the war) who enjoys epistolary love stories, Sweeney’s collection is a heartwarming way to spend an afternoon.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316758582 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazon
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

GIVEAWAY update on 7/12: Congrats to Erin, lucky No. 5 in my entrants list. I’ve emailed you!

Book review: ‘Save As Draft’ by Cavanaugh Lee

In a thoroughly modern love triangle, heroine Izabell Chin is navigating the treacherous world of online dating — and learning what it could mean to date a best friend. Told exclusively through texts, emails, tweets and Facebook messages, Save As Draft details Izzy’s struggles to become a successful lawyer in Atlanta, Ga., while trying to assess her feelings for Marty, a charming man she met on eHarmony; and Peter, her co-worker and best friend.

Despite having gone on “the best first date of her life” with Marty, Izzy can’t quite shake the feeling that she’s pursuing the wrong man . . . and exchanges between her best friends can’t save her there, either. She has to see where things go with Peter. But that doesn’t mean Marty’s out of the picture . . .

Cavanaugh Lee’s Save As Draft was a fast and occasionally painful look at one woman’s romantic (mis)adventures, and I knew from the start that I would whip through this one in no time. Even after just finishing a book with a similar premise — in terms of online dating, anyway — I couldn’t put this one down. And after reading the acknowledgments and learning there is a real-life “Marty” and “Peter,” I’m even more intrigued. It feels very autobiographical.

The epistolary novel — a book told through a series of letters, say, instead of actual prose — is a familiar one. Reminiscent of Holly’s Inbox, these stories have an addictive, voyeuristic quality that makes you feel as if you’re actually peeking into someone’s private files. As hinted by the title, the most important messages in Save As Draft are not the exchanges that are sent between Izzy and others. It’s everything in between — the pure, unsent thoughts; the messages saved as drafts and never mailed — that are crucial to the story.

And who doesn’t have a million of those?

Nursing a broken heart years ago, I read that writing letters is a therapeutic way to handle your feelings and come to terms with what has happened — you know, without acting like a crazed stalker. I was having a tough time letting go after a break-up and writing to him did seem to make me feel better — even if I knew he would never see my words. Especially since I knew he would never see my words. Letter after letter flowed from my fingertips, all stashed away in a super-secret desktop file.

You know, I should probably find and delete those.

So I related to Save As Draft. It wasn’t as funny as Tales From My Hard Drive, for instance, but it wasn’t meant to be — Izzy’s struggles and ups-and-downs endeared her to us, and I didn’t go into this book thinking I’d have a knee-slapping good time. By the last page, I definitely felt like Izabell was a friend — and I wanted good things for her, especially when things veered off in not-so-great directions.

Though this book didn’t change my life, it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a few hours — and I felt like I’d finished just as soon as I’d begun. Anyone who has dabbled in the complicated dating world has probably known a Marty or two — and those stories alone were enough to keep me guessing. And reading.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1439190690 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy won from Amused By Books

Book review: ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_societyReading this stunning work of historical fiction, it’s easy to feel the sun warming the beaches of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France — but much harder to grab your heart back when you’ve finished spending time with your new friends Poignancy, Heartache, Gratitude and Stunning Prose. Basically, after you’ve finished reading Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

The novel opens in 1946, just a few short years since the end of World War II and the ravaging of Europe by Hitler’s Third Reich. Much of London is still decimated — dilapidated buildings still stand, but spill their contents onto the streets by the River Thames. Author Juliet Ashton survived the difficult time in England through her writing — and helped others deal with the terror, confusion, pain and harshness of war through her columns in a London newspaper. Often humorous, Juliet’s musings were so popular in England that, after the end of the war, they were published — and sold quite well. Now riding high from the success of her book, Juliet is struggling to find a new subject on which to focus her literary pursuits . . . and is coming up empty.

Told entirely through a series of letters from a great variety of individuals, Guernsey is first and foremost Juliet’s story — but quickly shifts to encompass the lives of so many other exceptional people, too. As Juliet travels England on her book tour and laments her lack of inspiration, a letter from far away drops right into her lap. A man on the island of Guernsey has stumbled across a copy of book once having belonged to Juliet — before the contents of her home were ripped apart in a bomb blast years before. Somehow the book made it to the Channel Islands, still with Juliet’s inscription in the front — and has become a staple at the meetings of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a slightly underground organization developed on the island during the five years in which German troops occupied Guernsey, making its inhabitants captives.

What always stuns me about fantastic historical fiction — particularly those stories which bring life to the people affected and haunted by World War II, one of the greatest blights and tragedies in human history — is its ability to completely transport me to another time, a distant place — and display to me, in a very human way, the toll of war upon those who fight and those who stay. None of the characters in Guernsey were soldiers, but they all knew — and loved — soldiers. None had to pick up and bear arms, but they did bear the daily burdens of not knowing whether their loved ones were safe.

It’s impossible for me — a modern American woman — to begin to understand what it must have felt like, both here and abroad, during World War II. At many times while reading, tears welled in my eyes as characters wrote to Juliet about the Occupation: what they sacrificed, how they survived, the uncertainty which enveloped their entire lives. Not having enough food, or coal, or warm clothing; not having a bed or a roof over their head. Watching prisoners marching through their once-beautiful streets, so thin as to almost disappear. But reading a novel like this reminds me how important it is that though I cannot truly understand, I can try to: and that this period of history, however horrible, can’t be forgotten.

I don’t want to make Guernsey sound morose . . . because it’s quite the opposite, really. It’s a testament to the human spirit. Like other fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read from the time, including The Diary of Anne Frank, Elizabeth Berg’s Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, it’s as much about the unexpected kindnesses as it is about the tragedies . . . it’s about the resilience of the human spirit. It’s about being alive.

If I don’t keep myself in check, I’ll wind up writing a 20,000 word review of this one . . . so I’ll hit upon a few more key points before I let you go:

• Juliet. I loved her — and am pretty sure I would love to be her. She’s intelligent, beautiful, sincere, independent, kind, loving, witty — and a writer. She’s an unstoppable force of nature. Reading her often-hilarious, always sincere letters to her friend and editor Sidney Stark, Sophie, Dawsey and Amelia basically made me . . . want to be a better person.

• The love story. I won’t elaborate — I would never dream of ruining it for you! But it was romantic, sweeping, realistic — gorgeous. My heart swelled to bursting.

• Perspective. Reading this novel forced me to take all my “problems,” throw them into a balloon, fill it with air and then watch as it floated away, completely disappearing from sight. Not only was I entirely caught up in this story while reading, but know now that Juliet and the residents of Guernsey — and the realities of life in a very different, difficult time — will stay with me for days. How blessed am I, in 2009, to live in a world of freedom — and to have a life free of relatively free of hardship, pain or want?

• The writing. Oustanding. The novel was begun by Mary Ann Shaffer, who sadly passed away before its completion; it was then taken up by her niece Annie Barrows, who did a superb completing it. All of the voices blend together seamlessly and, though many of them are similar, each individual letter-writer has a style and tone all their own. There’s no such thing as a “background” character; every person tells a story and has a purpose. No words are minced or wasted. Flawless.

And how fortunate am I to have read this novel? If you have any hesitation about starting it or doubt the sincerity of my crazy high recommendation, I’ll share another quick story: in order to finish the novel this morning, I woke up at 7 a.m. I woke up early — before my alarm clock. I couldn’t bear the thought of going to work without knowing how everything turned out! So I threw a blanket over my head to block out the harsh reading light, made a tiny slit for my eyes to pass through and frantically flipped the pages until I was done. And then I sighed. With pure contentedness.

So you have your orders, friends — get a move on, now. Don’t let me see you dawdling!

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0385340990 ♥ Purchase from AmazonOfficial Book Website
Copy received as a Christmas gift — last year! I’m so ashamed!