my challenges

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, by Mary Sharratt.

Hildegard is only eight years old when her mother delivers her to an isolated monastery where she is bricked into two tiny chambers and an enclosed (but unroofed) garden with another, older girl for a life of imposed piety.  Her only contact with the outside world is the screen between one of the two tiny rooms and the church, and the small revolving slot through which food and books can be delivered.  Not particularly religious herself at such a young age, despite being the recipient from birth of fantastic visions, Hildegard struggles to survive in body and spirit, and the only thing that saves her is the friendship of a young acolyte not too much older than herself.  Given a chance to escape when the rooms are unbricked in order to bring in two additional and very young girls, Hildegard finds herself unable to abandon the two young girls to their fate alone, and re-enters the rooms and is bricked in once more.  Ultimately, Hildegard comes to largely accept her life in the monastery, though she remains unwilling to be imprisoned, and eventually she finds the strength to rebel and insist on freedom for herself and her fellow sisters in Christ.  Eventually, she gives in to the visions, writes them down with the help of her acolyte friend, now a full priest, and founds her own religious community, along the way winning over the pope and various local powerful political figures to her cause and overcoming charges of witchcraft and several powerful and spiteful monks who resent a woman having power similar to their own.

Over all, this was a wonderful book.  There were a few times, I must admit, where Hildegard's own depression threatened to overcome me as well, making it difficult to keep reading, but ultimately I was so drawn into the story and Hildegard's life that I couldn't put the book down, even when the story it told was downright depressing.  Ultimately, this was an interesting and uplifting book, that I recommend highly.  4 out of 5.

I received an advanced review copy of this book.  This did not affect this review in any way. 

The Time of the Wolf

The Time of the Wolf,  by James Wilde.

England in the mid-11th century is in turmoil.  King Edward is heirless and ailing, and William the Bastard is poised to make a claim for the throne the minute the old King dies.  The people are all saying that this is the end times foretold in the bible, and it's pretty hard for the ordinary man or woman not to believe that to be true.  There is one man, however, who can rescue England, and his name is Hereward.  He, aided by a monk and a motley cast of other characters, will do whatever it takes to save the country from disaster and dominion.

This book rescues a long forgotten hero from the mists of time and brings his world and his story to vivid life.  This book is not one for the squeamish as it contains very vivid and violent descriptions at times.  Nonetheless it is an interesting read, particularly if the reader is one interested in the history and politics of the dark ages.

I found this book somewhat difficult to get drawn in to, a little muddled in plot, and rather anticlimactic in its ending.  It is a worthy and laudable attempt to rescue a long forgotten historical figure from obscurity, but not an entirely successful attempt in my opinion.  It certainly succeeds in opening a window on what life was like in England in that time period, but never fully overcomes the flaws that take away from the strength of the story.  3 out of 5.

I received an advanced reader's copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review in any way.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

All Things New

All Things New, by Lynn Austin.
In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Josephine Weatherly and her family try to find a way to resume their lives and recover their former status and lifestyle, only to find that everything is different now.  This book deals with differences in race and state of origin (north versus south), and even more with losing and finding faith and learning how to forgive and to set aside old biases.
I loved this book, and found it almost impossible to put down once I started it.  I loved the realism of the enormous changes that the Weatherly's and their neighbors and friends had to come to terms with.  I have only two criticisms.  First, at times the book became a bit preachy, which I disliked, and I think this distracted a bit from the strength of the story.  More importantly, I felt like everything resolved a little bit too easily in the last pages of the story.  The characters' feelings were too strong, I feel, to have simply resolved into a happily ever after scenario with a blink of an eye, particularly as there was no particular catalyst event to cause the change.  It would have been more realistic to see their attitudes gradually changing over the course of the book.  Nonetheless, this was a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it.  4 out of 5.
I received an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review in any way. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Sum of My Parts: A Survivor's Story of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Sum of My Parts: A Survivor's Story of Dissociative Identity Disorder, by Olga Trujillo, JD.

This is the true story of a survivor of horrendous physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, who did what she had to survive.  In this case, what was necessary was for her mind to take action to protect Olga from the knowledge of what was happening to her, through dissociation, resulting in Dissociative Identity Dissorder, formerly referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder.  Olga grows up, escapes to college, marries, graduates from law school, and accepts a position with the U.S. Justice Department, quickly becoming one of the highest achieving women attorney's in the Department, all without any knowledge of her childhood, which she believes was poor, but not unhappy.  And then something triggers a memory, and her body reacts physically to it, and her whole world begins to unravel.  This book chronicles not only her childhood and the terrible abuse she suffered at the hands of her own family, but her prolonged and difficult recovery.

This was a fascinating book to read.  It was very difficult to read in the beginning when we are exposed to the abuse she suffers from those who should have loved her and protected her.  At the same time, the story is compelling and keeps you turning the pages, and the process of her recovery is nothing short of fascinating.  Olga is a remarkable, intelligent, and extremely brave woman, and her story is enlightening not only for those who have suffered a similar experience, but also for those who have never known anything about dissociative identity disorder.  I highly recommend this book.  4.5

I received a digital review copy of this book.  This did not affect my review in any way.

An Eye for Glory: The Civil War Chronicles of a Citizen Soldier

Eye for Glory: the Civil War Chronicles of a Citizen Soldier, by Karl Bacon.

Michael Palmer has a happy, content life with a wife and three children, good friends, a rewarding religious life, and a successful general store in Rhode Island.  But God is asking more of him and some of his neighbors -- that they join the Union army and fight to free the black men and women of the nation from slavery.  His sense of duty is strong, his understanding of why God has called him and his friends to this duty is less strong.  Through Second Antietem, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, and many other historic battles, he struggles to keep his spirits up, to preserve his life, to take care of the men around him, and to live a godly life.  Ultimately, he first loses his soul and his faith, and then, in the twilight of his years, regains it, sharing his story for the sake of his children and his children's children.

At times I found this book to be a bit too preachy.  Nonetheless, the story itself was compelling, particularly during the chapters discussing the battles.  The story did drag in some areas, particularly those areas that focused on Michael's internal struggles to the exclusion of any actual physical action.  However, those who persevere through the slow spots are rewarded with a very interesting and heartwarming conclusion to the story. 3.5.

I received a digital review copy of this book.  This did not affect my review in any way.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Flowers of War

The Flower of War, by Christian Ball.

This novel, based on a true story, is set in a small convent school in Nanking, China, during the Japanese Imperial Army's invasion and destruction of Nanking.  During the chaos of the invasion, a group of prostitutes from a local brothel climb over the walls and join the handful of children left at the school, all seeking refuge and protection.  The Japanese are not following the conventions of war, and so there is little the small staff can do to protect any of the individuals trapped inside the convent.

I was extremely disappointed in this book.  I have heard for years about the "Rape of Nanking," and the promise of a historical novel on that subject had me very excited.  What a let down.  I didn't find any of the characters very likeable, and the story itself was less than compelling, more a slog through the history than a moving story.  There was nothing wrong with the language used or the descriptions, but I simply never was able to get into this story.  It never captured my imagination, and I couldn't relate to or empathize with any of the characters.  Moreover, the resolution of the book, where one character meets another to find out what happened to her is less than convincing, and we are left with a question of whether the individuals are actually who they are thought to be.  All around a disappointing read.  2.0 out of 5.0.

I received a digital review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review in any way. 

The Tin Horse

The Tin Horse, by Janie Steinberg.

It has been more than half a century since Elaine Greenstein's twin sister, Barbara, ran away from their life in the Jewish Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Elaine has, over time, found some sense of peace with the disappearance of her sister, who was always so different from her and often was her rival.  But in preparing to move to a retirement community, Elaine runs across some old paperwork that brings the memories of their shared childhood back to life, and sparks a new, and ultimately successful, search to find her long lost sister.

This is another of those books I love, that combines a modern day story with a historical mystery.  In this case, we relive life in a Jewish neighborhood in the 1920's and 1930's, with all its stereotypical (but accurate) facets.  We also experience the thrill of detective work and unraveling a mystery.

This book had me transfixed from the opening page.  I simply could not put it down, and found myself totally immersed in the story and the setting.  I found the language and descriptions charming and spot on, and really got a sense of what it must have been like to live in Boyle Heights in the early part of the twentieth century.  I adored the ending, where the two sisters meet up after more than fifty years apart.  Again, the language was spot on and realistic, and their reactions to one another just what one would expect.

This was a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it to all readers.  5.0 out of 5.0.

I received a digital review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review in any way.