Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag

Title: The Witches of Cambridge
Author: Menna van Praag
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: February 9, 2016
Rating: 4/5 

The Gist:
Amandine Bisset has always had the power to feel the emotions of those around her. It's a secret she can share only with her friends all professors, all witches when they gather for the Cambridge University Society of Literature and Witchcraft. Amandine treasures these meetings but lately senses the ties among her colleagues beginning to unravel. If only she had her student Noa's power to hear the innermost thoughts of others, she might know how to patch things up. Unfortunately, Noa regards her gift as a curse. So when a seductive artist claims he can cure her, Noa jumps at the chance, no matter the cost.

Noa's not the only witch in over her head. Mathematics professor Kat has a serious case of unrequited love but refuses to cast spells to win anyone's heart. Her sister, Cosima, is not above using magic to get what she wants, sprinkling pastries in her bakery with equal parts sugar and enchantment. But when Cosima sets her sights on Kat's crush, she conjures up a dangerous love triangle.

As romance and longing swirl through every picturesque side street, The Witches of Cambridge find their lives unexpectedly upended and changed in ways sometimes extraordinary, sometimes heartbreaking, but always enchanting.

The Witches of Cambridge is a lovely book with just a touch of magic within its pages.  It tells the story of five women, of finding love, of losing love, and of learning to love your own gifts.  Amendine fears that she is losing her husband while also trying to help her mother, Heloise deal with the death of the only man she has ever loved.  Noa's inability to prevent her self from blurting the truth as she sees it have prevented her from having a true friend, let alone a true love, and she soon finds herself at the mercy of a mysterious man with a power all his own.  Cosima wishes for the unrequited love of a child and her sister Kat refuses to admit to love, even to herself.  Together these wonderful women weave a web of magic as they see out their heart's desire and learn to heal themselves.

Menna van Praag writes fantastic worlds where magic is in the everyday and her characters are bound to witch their way into your heart.  She tells a powerful story of friendship, love, loss, and finding yourself.  The women are all very different characters and the plot revolves through their points-of-view.  This keeps the plot moving at a steady pace, though while four of them move in and out of each other's stories, Noa ended up feeling a little disjointed as her story (admittedly the most interesting one) occurs outside of the sphere of the others.  She doesn't have much contact with the other witches, and they are so wrapped up in their own issues that it takes a little too long for them to realize that she is in trouble.  I also have to admit that I wasn't nearly as invested in the sisters' story lines.  I think this is because they are introduced later than the other characters and I was less invested in their tales.

The magic in The Witches of Cambridge simmers just at the surface, with a wonderful sprinkling throughout the plot.  Except for Cosima, the witches are much more passive with their powers, having things happen to them rather than because of any actions that they have taken.  Cosima uses her magic in her bakery, creating fantastic treats for all sorts of reasons, including the attempt to bring her the only thing she has ever wanted - a daughter.  I particularly loved Heloise's storyline as she dealt with the death of her husband and the long grieving process.  We get to watch her 'come back to life' and even find love again, all the while, her magic blooms around her. 

Unfortunately, the ending comes together a little too quickly and easily and I felt some moments that could have been truly poignant were glossed over.  Mostly though, it is great story with some beautifully written characters.    

Monday, February 8, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books
Release Date: February 2nd, 2016
Rating: 4/5

The Gist:
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are  Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety.

Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Salt to the Sea tells the story of four teenagers as they experience the last days of WWII.  As they travel to the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff in an attempt to escape the ravages of war, we learn of the hardships they have already endured and watch as even more horrors befall them.  Admittedly, I do not usually seek out novels of this nature, especially those centered around the holocaust (since having children, I just can't handle the subject matter), but nonetheless this is a story I have not read before.  I knew nothing historically about the disaster to come, but did find it a little frustrating that the cover so clearly gives the plot away.  I realize in historical fiction this is a common theme (I wouldn't expect a book about the Titanic to try and hide the fact that the ship was to hit an iceberg) but I find in these cases I have difficulty keeping my interest in the plot because I am waiting for the disaster to strike.   

While Joana, Emilia, and Florian have stories full of heartbreak and sorrow, the fourth, Alfred is best described as putrid.  The more I read in his point-of-view, the more creepy he became.  He is the epitome of a young man who, in his own mind, is special and it is everyone else who is wrong because they are unable to see it.  He is entitled and lazy, finding a myriad of ways to avoid the work required of the other soldiers.  He becomes infuriated when others do not recognize how wonderful he is.  There is an extra, shiver-inducing, layer in his "letters" to a young woman at home that he was clearly obsessed with and who, expectantly, did not share his feelings.  The fact that I am writing this almost a month after reading the book and still want to strangle Alfred myself is a testament to what a well written character he is. 

There are several scenes that were difficult (especially as a mother) to read.  These usually involved children.  There were some heart-wrenching moments for our main characters and their friends, but also a number that happened in the background, in a mere line or two, and had nearly as much impact.  The story is told through the eyes of our four main characters and each of the sections is rather short.  This keeps the plot moving quickly and allows each character's secrets to be revealed slowly.  I was, however, a little disappointed in the ending.  It didn't seem as developed as it could have been and was overly sweet, given the circumstances. 

Bottom Line: Recommending this book for all my historical fiction fans.