my challenges

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, by Mark Seal.

I originally purchased this book for my San Marino selection for the European reading challenge, after it came up on Amazon under a search of "books about San Marino."  I had no idea until I was halfway through this book that it was about San Marino, California, rather than about the country of San Marino.  Oops!  Nonetheless, this was a really interesting book.  It followed the life of probably the greatest serial imposter in recent history, and the man about whom a movie was made (I believe Leo di Caprio played him in the move).

What was amazing to me was how he could con anybody into believing anything about him.  Are people truly that gullible?  And would I fall for his con game as quickly as any of his other victims?  I sat there in repeated amazement at the fact that he could say anything and people would just assume he was who and what he said he was, no matter how improbable.  How on earth did he keep his stories straight as to who he told what?  If he is that charismatic, just think what he could have accomplished at the head of a truly good cause, with the proper intentions.  An amazing story, told in a manner that keeps your interest throughout.  I highly recommend this book.  4 out of 5.

Watching the Door

Watching the Door:  Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, by Kevin Myers.

This book chronicles the life of Kevin Myers, a young, naive journalist, raised in England, who foolishly or bravely accepts a post to Northern Ireland just as the Troubles are starting up their most recent chapter of violence.
This was an absolutely fascinating look inside life in Northern Ireland in that chaotic, frightening period, made all the more fascinating by the fact that Myers was largely seen as an outsider by all concerned, and therefore was able to interact with the highest levels of every political and paramilitary group during his time in Belfast.  What I found most interesting was the sheer randomness of the violence during that period.  Long a student of the most recent Troubles, I had no idea just how random the violence truly was.  I believed that if you stayed out of certain places and keep your nose clean, for the most part you could avoid the dangers, with the exception of just plain bad luck.  This book showed me that things were much more random than I had realized, and that just existing at times was enough to warrant your death.
One minor criticism.  This book will not have nearly the same impact on those who are unfamiliar with the history of Northern Ireland and the major players in the Troubles.  Myers assumes a basic level of familiarity with things, and does not stop to explain what the politics or stance of the groups he mentions are, for the most part, and he doesn't really place the events he describes within the bigger picture of the history of the Troubles.  As a result, anyone not already familiar with Northern Ireland in the 1970s will be a bit lost in places.  Otherwise, this was a fantastic, fascinating book, one I truly enjoyed reading, despite the depressing subject matter.  Definitely a 4.5 out of 5. 

Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned

Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned, by Richard S. Jaffe.

Richard Jaffee has spent his entire adult life defending those charged with capital crimes, that is to say those who if found guilty may face the death penalty.  Others he has defended are already on death row, but have been granted the right to a new trial.
  Yes, I am an attorney, and therefore this sort of thing should appeal to me, right?  Actually, quite the opposite.  Although Michigan does not have the death penalty (thank God!), I hear and read more than enough details about terrible crimes and trial strategies in my daily work to want to read more on that topic in my free time.  This, however, was a fascinating exception.  Jaffe is one of the absolute best defense attorneys out there, and it was a pleasure to read his incredible stories.  This book made me remember why I went into law in the first place -- to stand between the might of the government and those who are defenseless.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who has any interest in the death penalty, social justice, human rights, or true crime.

 I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect this review.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

September's Mid-Month Mailbox

Mid-Month Mailbox

This is the September edition of the mid-month mailbox, where I share the titles that have come through my mail slot over the last month.  This month has been a very good month for me.

Paperback Swap has been good to me:


Confederates, by Thomas Keneally; and

Coventry, by Helen Humpreys.

Volunteers of America has been even better to me:

Caesar, by Colleen McCullough;

The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory;

Of Men & of Angels, by Bodie & Brock Thoene;

The Red Queen, by Philippa Gregory;

The Rossetti Letter, by Christi Phillips; and

The Queen's Fool, by Philippa Gregory.

I also received two ARCs for review from HNS:

How Angels Die, by David-Michael Harding; and

Leeches and Liberty, by Richard H. Kennedy.

I also received digital review copies of eleven additional books.  All in all, a darned good haul for one month.  Now, all I need to do it to find the time to read all of those books!

What books did you get in your mailbox over the last month?

Blackberry Winter

Blackberry Winter, by Sarah Jio.

This book relates the intertwined stories of two different women:  The young, single mother whose son goes missing in the middle of a rare May blizzard (a "blackberry winter") in 1933 Seattle, and the present-day Seattle journalist who sets out to solve the mystery of the missing child during another rare May blizzard.

There are so many good things that I could say about this book.  I loved the characterization.  Every character was spot on and fully fleshed out.  Jio brought each new person I met to life in front of my eyes.  And the dialogue was pitch perfect as well -- never a word or phrase out of place, even when traversing back and forth between 1933 and the present.  In addition, she really evoked a clear image of Seattle and brought it to life in my mind, even though I have never personally been there.  Moreover, the story itself was fascinating and engaging, and I had no trouble at all devouring this book in two sittings.

One small criticism:  things seemed to be just a wee bit too convenient -- the building from which the boy disappeared just happening to be the same building that is owned by the journalist protagonist's friend; the protagonist just happening to get a package from a woman with the same unusual last name as the person she has just discovered to be a close friend of the missing boy and his mother, and that woman just happening to be the daughter of that close friend; the protagonist just happening to be introduced to a woman who's father, it turns out, was involved in the criminal trial involving the death of the missing boy's mother, and who has all of the information to solve the puzzle.  It became a bit unplausable after awhile that all of the pieces of the puzzle would just fall into the intrepid journalist's lap.  That one wee problem aside, this was a fantastic, fascinating story, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  I can't wait to explore Jio's first book now!  I wholeheartedly recommend this book! 5.0

For honesty's sake, I hereby disclose that I obtained a digital review copy of this book from the publisher.  I appreciate the opportunity the publisher gave me.  However, the fact that I received this book as a digital review copy did not affect in any way my review of the book.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Haunted Places

Haunted Places, by Hans Holzer.

I was browsing through Netgalley and saw this book offered and quickly snapped it up, because I had read an earlier book by this author and had absolutely loved it.  Unfortunately, this book did not quite live up to my expectations.  But I am getting ahead of myself.
Let me start by explaining that this book consists of a series of short anecdotes, each about a particular haunted "place" (i.e. not a building, but a field, railroad crossing, etc.) that the author visits, often alone, but occasionally in the company of a medium, and of what he experiences at that location.  Some of these anecdotes are quite fascinating, such as the field where photographs had depicted the ghostly forms of burning monks.  Others, such as the one concerning the ghost who was said to roam the railroad searching for his missing head, were just downright silly.  I do have to admit that one particular anecdote had me peering nervously at the darkness outside the window next to my computer desk and regretting my decision to read this book at night when my husband was away!  However, over all I was mightily disappointed by the lack of substance in this book.

In the previous book I had read by this author, he took great pains to set down a very methodical and almost scientific method that he would follow in exploring the various haunted buildings, and then proceeded to take us through each visit, making use of a medium in each case.  As a result of the time spent setting out a rigorous methodology, and of Holzer's compliance with that methodology, I found that the experiences described had a very strong air of reliability and truth to them.  In this book, however, no such methodology was ever set out, or apparently followed, other than in one or two instances, and so I was left with a much stronger sense of hocus pocus and just plain vivid imaginations at work, rather than any real feeling of confidence in the supposed hauntings, and that detracted greatly from my enjoyment of the book.

In addition, I was really bugged by the fact that each anecdote was preceded by a seemingly random number.  Although I believe the numbers did go up with each anecdote, rather than hopping around, no explanation was ever given for the numbers, and the numbers were definitely not sequential, i.e. 1 was not followed by 2, but by 43 or some other completely random number higher than 1.  I suspect that the numbers were the author's case numbers, but the end result was that not only were you left wondering why he bothered to include the numbers, but you were further left with the feeling that you were being given only some of the information, and left wondering what the author had not told you about and why.  Furthermore, the tone of voice that this book was told in was very folksey and homey; not at all a scientific presentation, and this added to the lack of confidence in the truth of what was being told.

Finally -- and it's a small thing, but nonetheless important -- there were one or two instances where a whole paragraph would literally not make any sense.  I am a pretty advanced reader -- I have a Master's Degree in history and a law degree -- so I'm fairly sure that it wasn't just me being thick.  Hopefully those will be sorted out before the final copy goes to print.

Overall, this was a rather interesting book.  I certainly didn't have to push myself to keep reading it.  At the same time, it could have benefited from a more studious, methodic approach and tone of voice.   I will certainly continue to read books by this author in the future, but remain a bit disappointed in this particular offering.  Rating: 3 out of 5.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Ironfire, by David Ball.

This book tells the story of the great Siege of Malta, the epic battle between the Crescent and the Cross.  Uniquely, it is told from both sides at once, giving the story much more depth than it would otherwise have had.  Further, each of the primary characters  -- Maria Borg, a Maltese peasant, her brother Nico Borg, also known as Asha Rais, kidnapped as a child and raised in Topkapi at the Sultan's school as a Muslim, and Christien de Vries, a Knight of the Order of St. John, the defenders of Malta -- had his or her own unique, detailed, interesting, and exciting story to tell.  There were very few typos, and very few slow sections, mostly keeping me turning the pages late into the night.  Even the minor characters were fully fleshed out, interesting, and believable.  Over all this was an excellent book, which I enjoyed immensely.  I wholeheartedly recommend it, despite its bookstop like features -- more than 600 pages -- and give it my highest rating.  5.0

Monday, September 3, 2012

At Midnight In a Flaming Town

At Midnight In a Flaming Town, by Lorraine Bateman and Paul Cole.

This book tells the intertwined stories of an English woman studying nursing in Belgium, an American student studying in England and traveling in Belgium, and a Belgian nun, during the period the Germans occupied Belgium in the First World War.  The book starts off a bit slow, and at first I was quite certain that I was not going to enjoy this book, but just about the time I was thinking to give up on it, it got interesting -- really interesting -- and from that point on I couldn't put the book down.  I have to admit that there are some places where this book felt a bit too easy -- like things just happened a bit too coincidentally in order to help the plot along.  Also, the book ends very abruptly, which I did not like at all.  However, the blurb on the inside cover announces that the authors are already at work on the sequel, so perhaps the abrupt ending can be forgiven under these circumstances.  Over all I'd give this book a 3.5. 

Riding with Reindeer

Riding With Reindeer: A Bicycle Odyssey Through Finland, Lapland, and Arctic Norway, by Robert M. Goldstein.

This was another book that I was not at all sure that I would be able to make it through when I picked it up at the local library.  I have not had all that much luck with travalogues in the past, after all.  This book, however, turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Goldstein, a middle aged man with no real history of long-distance biking, took it into his head to travel the "flat" country of Finland by bike, some 2,000 miles worth of travel, often through quite desolate and barren country, all on his own, with no one to keep him company but his own thoughts.  Somehow, he managed to not only survive the journey, but almost to thrive.  To be sure, his trip was not without major ups and downs, but he handled them with surprising aplomb and good naturedness, and I ended up being able to relate to him in a way that I would not have expected.  I think it is probably the very lack of common sense about what he was attempting, together with his undying optimism and his lack of any real athletic background that did it for me.  It just sounds like something I'd do.... I've been known to take it into my head to do some pretty crazy things in my time, and I usually succeed, largely because it never occurs to me that I shouldn't succeed.  I highly recommend this book as an entertaining read, as well as a real, true-life adventure story.  4.0

Swiss Watching

Swiss Watching, by Diccon Bewes.

I've been looking forward to reading this book ever since I first discovered it at, and I was not disappointed.  I know very little about Switzerland, beyond the obvious -- watch makers, precision timing and punctuality, great skiing, even better chocolates, and Heidi, how could we forget Heidi.  This book gave me just the introduction to Swiss history and culture that I wanted, without boring the pants off of me with a long recitation of history.  To be sure there was a chapter on the history of Switzerland, but it was short and to the point, and very much added to the story being told rather than detracting from it.  Separate chapters focused on such things as the mentality of the Swiss, the history of the country, its politics, its views of finances, etc.  Each chapter was fascinating in its own right, and managed to draw me in again and again, leaving me shaking my head in amazement and sometimes leaving me laughing.  Who knew that the Swiss have an island mentality?  Or that in some cantons they still vote by showing up in the town square on the appointed day and time and raising a hand or a sword to indicate a yea vote, which are counted by hand?  Or that any law passed by the government, be it at the canton level or the national level, can be subjected to popular referendum and booted out if enough people dislike it?  Or that large numbers of people have been born, raised, and died in Switzerland without ever having the benefit of being Swiss citizens, because of Switzerland's strict citizenship laws?

Although a bit slow-moving at times, simply because of the subject matter being a bit denser than your average novel, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about Switzerland. 5.0 

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, by Paula Huntley.

This was a very interesting book to read, but by no means an easy book to read.  The images of the life faced by the Kosovars is heartbreaking.  But to begin at the beginning, let me tell you what this book is about.  It is the story of a year in the life of an English as a Second Language teacher who travelled to Kosovo with her husband just after the end of hostilities in Kosovo.  While he worked on an international law project, she taught English at a local school housed in the remains of an athletic complex.

It was easy to let Huntley's students and their families capture your heart, and what I found most heartbreaking of all was not the horrible stories that each of them had of surviving the genocide of the previous few years, but the utter lack of any prospect of things getting any better.  These people literally had virtually no future beyond the bare bones living they were surviving on at the time, no hope of good jobs, no hope of lasting peace, no hope of justice winning out, and all of the outside aide and assistance pouring into the country appears to have had little or no effect, despite the best efforts of hundreds and maybe thousands of people from all over the world.  Instead, everyone seemed to be looking to get out of the country as the only way of supporting their family, while violence, sectarianism, and poverty continued to eat away at the remaining shreds of society in the country.  I was left largely with a sense of hopelessness for the future of this tiny, embattled, and impoverished country.  Not an easy book to read, but recommended to those interested in the Baltics. 4.0 

The Queen's Soprano

The Queen's Soprano, by Carol Dines.

I happened upon this lovely young adult novel at my local library while searching for a book on Sweden to read for the European Reading Challenge.  It tells the story of a young girl in Rome in the period where women were not allowed to sing in public, or much at all beyond religious songs within the confines of a convent.  Our heroine, of course, has magic in her voice, and transfixes everyone who hears her.  Discovered singing for her lover (who she has never met or spoken with personally, but with whom she has exchanged written words and tokens of affection via her family's housemaid), she is sent to a convent.  Managing to find a way out of the convent, she flees to the court of the Queen of Sweden, who has abdicated her throne, converted to Catholicism, moved to Rome, and has her own area in the city under her own rule, in which she encourages women to perform as singers.  She is taken under the old Queen's wing, and stays there until the Queen dies.  She then flees to Spain with a welcoming family as the book closes.

First off, I must say that the cover image really captured my imagination.  Throughout the book I imagined our heroine looking just like the young lady on the cover.  As for the story itself, I found this book quite interesting to read.  It wasn't the sort that kept the pages turning late into the night by any means, but there were enough twists and turns in the plot to keep me coming back at regular intervals to see what would happen next.  Prior to reading this book, I had not known that women were barred from singing in public, and I found this an eye-opening read in that regard.  I love that even at 46 years old I can still learn a thing or two from a well-researched and written young adult book!  I recommend this book to anyone interested in history and in music.  4.5

In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment

In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment: Destination Estonia, by Douglas Wells.

I picked this book up because I needed a book on Estonia for the European Reading Challenge and had not succeeded in finding any book on Estonia that kept my interest long enough to actually finish it.  I expected this one to quickly join the pile of rejected reads.  Boy was I wrong!  I am so glad I was forced to cast aside several more well known titles so that this was the only book on Estonia in the local library that held any possibility of being interesting, or I would have missed one heck of an entertaining book.  Wells writes from his own experiences with a humor and healthy sense of self-deprecation that surely served him well in newly post-Soviet Estonia.  His retelling of his sheep wrangling experience was particularly enjoyable.  I laughed and laughed as I read it, then had to take the whole chapter and read it to several others it was so funny.  You know you've got a gem when the reader can't keep from sharing the good bits with other unsuspecting friends and relatives!  I enjoyed this book from beginning to end, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about others' adventures or misadventures in a foreign country.  It was not so much about the Peace Corps as it was about being human and finding a way to survive and thrive in a culture so foreign that up might as well be down.  Well done, Mr. Wells!  4.5

White Truffles in Winter

White Truffles in Winter, by N.M. Kelby.

 This book follows the adult life of the famous chef Escoffier, in somewhat linear flashbacks, with the focus on the period after he met his wife, and on their frequently distant relationship.  Ultimately, I enjoyed this book, but I must admit that it was an awful lot of work to get to that result.  The book, for the most part, was incredibly slow moving, with lengthy descriptions of the preparation and creation of various gourmet dishes.  I found that the most interesting, fastest moving sections dealt with the minor character of the Escoffier's maid.  I think that perhaps a reader that actually was familiar with, and enjoyed, gourmet food may have found the story much more engaging than I did.  Over all, I do recommend this book, as the story and the two main characters grow on you over time, until you feel satisfied as the book ends.  Be prepared, however, for a bit of work in the process.  3.5.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Codex 632

Codex 632, by Jose Rodrigues Dos Santos.

This book follows, in novel form, the exploration of who really discovered America and who the man known to the world as Christopher Columbus truly was.  The book opens with the death of a historian who has just discovered explosive information regarding Columbus, information that will change the world's view of the discovery of America, and follows the efforts --ultimately successful -- of a second historian to disentangle and decode the first man's research and find out what he had learned before his untimely death.

This books has elements of the Da Vinci Code in it, but really is much more intellectual than the Da Vinci Code.  If you are not prepared to wade through a large amount of scholarly writing, then this book is probably not for you.  Personally, I found it fascinating and eye opening.  Not only did it involve puzzles and riddles, as well as an interesting plot line, it also educated me on code-breaking, kabbalism, and above all on the age of discovery and Christopher Columbus.  I admit that this book may take a bit of work to get through, but I found it worth every second and every ounce of mental effort.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  5 out of 5. 

The Search for God and Guinness

The Search for God and Guinness, by Stephen Mansfield.

Surprisingly, I had a very difficult time finding a book about Ireland that I could get through, starting and discarding three others before stumbling upon this delightful gem.  Perhaps it is because after living in Ireland for a number of years my tolerance for stereotypes and cutesy-quaint language and dialogue that has nothing to do with reality is very low.  In any event, I am delighted that I persevered, because this book was worth the effort of finding it.

Ostensibly telling the story of the world-famous Guinness brewery from its humble beginnings to its modern-day, market-dominating position, it also tells the story of the Guinness family.  In particular, the book highlights the social activism and social conscience of the family that has kept it ahead of the curve throughout the centuries and has made it consistently the best place to work in Ireland and throughout the world.  It is an inspiring and story and a fascinating one, and I stormed through it in just a couple of evenings of reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it heartily to all as an eye-opening glimpse into an astonishing family and business.  Five out of five. 

Bullets on the Water

Bullets on the Water, by Ivaylo Grouev.

I have discovered that it is almost impossible in the United States to find a book about Moldova, unless you want to read a tourist guidebook, which really seems like cheating for purposes of the European Reading Contest.  Finally, in desperation, I resorted to this book, a series of first-person narratives from recent (at the time the book was compiled) immigrants to Canada, one of whom is from Moldova.

It should be noted up front that this book was compiled in the early to mid-nineties, and is therefore twenty years old.  Surprisingly, perhaps, it seems every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first published.  The range of countries represented is the same range that are found in immigrants today, for the most part.

There were some immediate similarities between all of the different narratives that I found very interesting.  In the first place, virtually all of the immigrants came originally from well-to-do families, with a few notable exceptions.  That suggests that those able to immigrate in today's world are for the most part those that have money to support their leap from known to unknown.  More interesting still, virtually all of the immigrants experienced deep unhappiness, loneliness, and a sense of being misunderstood, stereotyped, ignored in their new home.  Only a few expressed optimism.  It was eye-opening, as initially I expected most of the new Canadian citizens to be happy and somewhat carefree, being at last out of the terrible environments that had caused them to flee their homelands for a new life.  Clearly this is not the case, and after consideration this actually makes good sense.  After all, often their education, work history, and life experiences don't directly translate to what is needed to succeed in Canada or the USA, and the frequent language barrier makes isolation probable rather than possible.

Overall I enjoyed this book and found it extremely informative in an increasingly shrinking world.  I would recommend it heartily.  4 out of 5.

The Pieces from Berlin

The Pieces from Berlin, by Michael Pye.

It was a good thing that I read the back cover of this book for a plot synopsis before starting it, or I never would have figured out what was going on.  This book ostensibly tells the story of a woman who takes in property from German Jews facing imminent deportation to death camps, and then absconds with it to Switzerland at the end of the war, setting up shop as an antiques dealer.  Some fifty years later, a survivor discovers one of their beloved possessions in the shop window, and justice must be done.  That was the story I expected to read, and it sounded plausible and interesting, a unique way of exploring what had happened to the owners of the stolen items.  That was not the story I got, however.  At least, not in any linear, understandable, enlightening form.  Instead, the author hops from one person's perspective to another's, one time period to another, with no warnings or road maps, and sometimes it is not even clear who is doing the talking.

There were a few interesting sections, those sections told from the thief's perspective during the events in question, and those sections told from her son's perspective during the war years.  Otherwise, however, I found very little redeeming in this book.  The characters, for the most part, were so underdeveloped that it was hard to sympathize with them or care about what was happening to them, and there was no real sense of "country," of the book being about Germans as opposed to any other nationality living through the war years.  Even the scenery described, with the exception of some of the rural Swiss locales, was relatively generic.  This book was a huge disappointment, one I expected to love and had high hopes for, and which instead I ended up utterly indifferent to.  As a result, I find I can't really recommend this book, and give it a 1.5 out of 5.

Small Wars

Small Wars, by Sadie Jones.

This book explores the effect that war, and in particular war through terrorism, has on a relationship, and on the individuals, through the experiences of a young family living uneasily and unwillingly in Cyprus in the 1950's after having been posted there by the British military.  This book is much more a picture of what happens mentally, emotionally, and psychologically to a person when they are surrounded by silent menace that can strike with deadly results at any time, than it is an event-based narrative.  I generally do not enjoy this sort of book, as I prefer more action in my entertainment.  This book was not really an exception to that general rule.  I didn't dislike the book, and ultimately I found it rather enlightening, but it was not a fast or easy read by any means.  I felt as if I were slogging through mud, a lot of the time, forcing myself on for the sake of finding out how it ended, without really much caring.  Adding to my difficulty in getting through this book was the fact that the only character that I found endearing and sympathetic, to whom I could relate, was a minor character introduced 2/3 of the way through the book and killed off quickly.  Overall, this book was a disappointment, and I found it largely tedious and the characters more annoying that sympathetic.  I will say that if you enjoy books that take place more within the heads of the characters than in their physical actions, this may well be the perfect book for you.  3 out of 5.

Apples Are from Kazakhstan

Apples Are From Kazakhstan, by Christopher Robbins.
 The following review is from  I went there to get a helping hand with describing this wide-ranging book, and discovered that someone had already written the perfect review.  I wholehearted endorse and adopt this review as expressing my opinions more eloquently than I myself could do.  Please do not quote this review as having been written by me.  Give proper credit.  Thank you!

Christopher Robbins, a guy you'd love to have a beer with and swap stories of adventure, absolutely captured a piece of Kazakhstan with his clever and witty book. He takes on a tough task covering the creation of a country from the rubble of the Soviet days. He adds some history and perspective of an enormous sweeping land and a complex society held together by clans and relations, a land often invaded and subjugated but which has maintained a unique identity with wonderful friendly people.

Most of the world knows nothing of Soviet Central Asia, a region kept under restrictive cover by Moscow for 75 years. This is the land of Ghengis Khan and Marco Polo, of the Golden Horde and Trotsky, of annihilation of male populations in 2 World Wars fought 4,000 miles away, and of shady modern-day JR Ewing's with foreign and local accents. Only in the late 1980's were foreigners allowed in, and from that time forward Kazakhs have experienced a rapid introduction to the modern international world, modern day carpet baggers, internal and external swindles, and a rapid investment from abroad.

Mr. Robbins captured with humor and cynicism the post-Soviet modernization era as Kazakhs have gone through growing pains as a Soviet test ground and land of disastrous Moscow policies that led to devastation of the Aral Sea and contamination of vast areas of Kazakh steppe (this was the nuclear test center for Soviets with over 400 above-ground tests and more underground tests, and significant cancer rates in the area around Semey where the testing was carried out). Yet the Kazakh people have strong national resilience and have moved forward step-by-step, led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, a consumate leader in the right place at the right time to lead his people while carefully balancing competing interests of Western investors and the US government, Russian power and influence, Chinese economic and population pressures, and fundamentalist Islamic forces in the south. It's a tough neighborhood, and President Nazarbayev has done as good a job as anyone could do.

From the dank and seedy basement bar of the Otrar Hotel in Almaty to the grandiose presidential palace in Astana; from the empty steppe space center in Baikonur to his visit to the Aral seaport with no sea for 45 miles, Robbins does a terrific job with humor of capturing this amazingly interesting land of the Kazakhs and the people who live there as they build a new country. Having been involved in Kazakhstan since 1993, I found Mr. Robbins did a fantastic job capturing the heart and spirit of this fine people during an unbelievably difficult period in their history. 

The Bielski Brothers

The Bielski Brothers, by Peter Duffy.

This fascinating nonfiction book tells the story of the Bielski brothers from Belarus, proud, Jewish, and willing to do whatever it takes to survive the Nazi obliteration of the Jews.  We start with the history of the family in Belorus, and quickly move forward to the Nazi period, the brothers' decision to live by their wits in the woods rather than to allow their fate to be determined by the Nazis.  We see how they orchestrated the escape and ultimate survival of hundreds of other Jews, the large group's desperate flight through the thick forests to a place of somewhat greater safety, the decisions they made that allowed them to survive, and the miracle that was their dignified, civilized life and survival.  The book is not without tragedy, but it is a book of hope and determination and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of all odds.

The book does bog down in a couple of spots, primarily when the author delves into the hierarchy and interworkings of the various partisan groups, as well as at the beginning when the history of the "ownership" of Belorus is explored.  Overall, however, this was a marvelous, interesting book that kept me turning the pages much faster than is usual with a nonfiction history book.  I enjoyed virtually every minute of my discovery of this long-forgotten example of courage and brightness in the dark night of the Nazi period, and would highly recommend this book.  4.5 out of 5.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Journey Home

The Journey Home, by Olaf Olaffson

First, I have to say that I spent three days reading this book without ever realizing that the image behind the lettering was a woman's face.  It was only when I pulled up the image on Google Images for this review that it hit me.  Up until now, I just thought it was an abstract image!
That admission out of the way, I have to admit that I didn't really enjoy this book, up until the last hundred pages or so.  Ostensibly, this is the story of a dying woman's journey back home to Iceland, and the re-telling of her life story occasioned by the experience.  In reality, I found the story disjointed and incredibly hard to follow at times, particularly in the beginning, where I would have given up had I not been reading this for the European Reading Challenge.  We hop from present to past to middle-past with no sign-markers to tell us what time period we are reading about at any given time, and with frequent references to "him" that are not identified until much later in the story.  Perhaps this was intentional -- a representation of the way one's mind flits from one memory to another without bidding and without always having an obvious reason for the chronology of the memories being relived.  In that case, the writer probably succeeded.  I found the style of writing to be very difficult to follow, however, never knowing from one chapter to the next what I would be reading about.  While there is an overall chronology of journey from beginning to end, it is so interspersed between seemingly unconnected memories that it is hard to see it until you've read the entire book.  Ultimately, I found the story interesting, and the very short chapters made it a bit easier to keep reading, but I had to work for this one, and can't say that I truly enjoyed myself.  This one is recommended for those who like to work a bit for their enjoyment.  2.5 out of 5. 

Lost Wife

Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman.

This book follows the story of two young Jews in the Czech Republic during the Nazi occupation, their romance, their marriage, their separation and loss of contact, and their lives apart until the meet one another again decades later.
I have to say, this is one of the best books I have ever read.  I wasn't too sure of whether the book would work for me when I started reading it -- it sounded a little unplausible.  As it turned out, I was worried over nothing.  Other than the very occasional, and very short, slow spells, this story carried me along with it, hardly allowing me to put it down, so eager was I to reach the ending and see how things turned out.  The characters in this book were incredibly well drawn and believable, the events completely realistic.  I hated for this one to end.  I wholeheartedly and enthusiastcally recommend this book to all readers.  5 out of 5. 

Daughters of War

Daughters of War, by Hilary Green.

This book follows the story of a well-born young English woman who is bored by and trapped in her mundane carefully-prescribed existence and runs away to become a nurse in Bulgaria during the war taking place there in the years prior to World War I.
 There is absolutely nothing about this book that I did not adore.  From the first minute I was drawn into the story, and had to keep reading and reading and reading until the last page, and then wished there were more pages.  The only complaint I can think of, and it is a minor quibble, is that things seemed to happen a bit too easily at times -- the two female protagonists seemed to have too easy of a time running away from home, talking officials in other countries to allow them to do things -- take their personal car on a train heading to the front lines, for example -- being accepted even when Lenore begins dressing as a man (even though she does it for a good reason!), and learning languages at the drop of a hat.  At times this gives the story a hint of unreality.  Nonetheless, I found myself laughing out loud at the pitch-perfect dialogue, getting caught up in the excitement of Lenore's adventures, feeling overwhelmed by her helpless to help everybody that needed help, and nervous along with her the potential discovery that she is a girl.  This was a delightful read, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the books in this series.  4.5 out of 5.

Wildflowers of Terezin

Wildflowers of Terezin, by Robert Elmer.

The tale of how the Danish people took action to protect and save their Jewish countrymen from Hitler's madness in the face of real personal danger is an epic and important story that needs to be told.  Unfortunately, this was not the book to tell that story.
This book follows the experiences of a middle-aged Lutheran pastor and the young Jewish nurse who saves him from the Nazis and who in turn attempts to save her.  It gives us a glimpse of what things were like in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, and a glimpse of the Danes heroic efforts, but ultimately focuses a little too completely on the insular lives of the two main characters, to the detriment of the bigger story.  We see how the two protagonists take actions to try to save the Danish Jews who they have contact with, and their story is quite intriguing and compelling, I must say.  However, I came to this book knowing that the Danes did something epic and amazing, but not knowing quite how they did it or how they managed to succeed, and after reading this book, I still do not know the answers to those questions.  In other words, this book to my mind could have been placed in virtually any other European country during the war and occupation years, and other than the references to places within Denmark you could not specifically distinguish this book from the story of any other gentile who tried to stand up to the Nazi atrocities.  For that reason this book was a disappointment to me.  Viewed as a snapshot of the broader events, a tale of the lives of the protagonists only, it is an interesting book; but you will not learn much about the big picture of what the Danes achieved by reading this book.  I still recommend this book, but it will be enjoyed more by those simply interested in the love story between the protagonists than by someone reading it as an example of historical fiction.  3 out of 5.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Flower Reader

The Flower Reader, by Elizabeth Loupas.

 This is the story of young Marina Leslie and her efforts to fulfill the dying wish of Queen Mary of Guise.  It is also the story of the politics of betrayal, the lack of voice women had in the sixteenth century, and the reality of court life and the politics of king-making.

Marina, called variously Rinette and Marionette, is a flower reader, but more than that she is a pawn in the hands of those who would determine who is to truly rule Scotland during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots.  Right from the beginning her life is out of her own hands, and so this is as much a story of Marina's struggle to win back control of her own life as it is about solving the mystery of who killed her husband and determining the future rule of Scotland.

Overall, this was an intriguing, fascinating book.  There were a few spots where the going was slow, but only a very few, and those spots were very brief.  I ended up poring through this 400+ page book in two days, that's how interesting it was.  There were definitely some real villains in this book, and a couple of real heroes, and all were skillfully drawn and fleshed out so that even where you disliked the character as a person, you still felt he or she was real and alive.  That is, I've discovered, a real achievement, as so many writers leave their villains half-drawn, mistaking unfamiliarty for unsmypathy.  I loved the mystery that was sometimes the center of the story and sometimes the background, and found it was well written and not overdone.  The only quibble I have with the book is that sometimes the extended descriptions of the food and the clothing became tedious.  Ultimately, however, this was an immensely enjoyable read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.  4.5 out of 5.


Katarina, by Kathryn Winter.

This is the story of the author's childhood as a non-practicing Jew, but a Jew nonetheless, in World War II Slovakia.

I had a difficult time with this book.  The first 2/3 of the book I had to force myself through.  It was slow-moving and monotonous, and I really couldn't warm up to any of the characters particularly.  About the time young Katarina is taken in by a Protestant orphanage, things began to pick up.  Suddenly there were truly likeable characters, and the mood perceptibly lightened.  I enjoyed the last 1/3 of the book, up until the prologue.  At that point the author decided to give us the bare bones of one or two characters' subsequent lives and to leave us absolutely in the dark as to the rest of the characters' fate, even the major characters.  And so, the ending reflected the beginning -- disappointing.  I did learn a little bit about Slovakia's war-period history, but only a very little.  Ultimately, I was very disappointed in this book that had appeared so promising.  2 out of 5. 

Postcards from No Man's Land

Postcards from No Man's Land, by Aidan Chambers.

Seventeen-year-old Jacob Todd is about to discover himself. Jacob's plan is to go to Amsterdam to honor his grandfather who died during World War II. He expects to go, set flowers on his grandfather's tombstone, and explore the city. But nothing goes as planned. Jacob isn't prepared for love or to face questions about his sexuality. Most of all, he isn't prepared to hear what Geertrui, the woman who nursed his grandfather during the war, has to say about their relationship. Geertrui was always known as Jacob's grandfather's kind and generous nurse. But it seems that in the midst of terrible danger, Geertrui and Jacob's grandfather's time together blossomed into something more than a girl caring for a wounded soldier. And like Jacob, Geertrui was not prepared. Geertrui and Jacob live worlds apart, but their voices blend together to tell one story, a story that transcends time and place and war. By turns moving, vulnerable, and thrilling, this extraordinary novel takes the reader on a memorable voyage of discovery.  (Synopsis from

I absolutely adored this book, and I cannot say enough good things about it.  I had high hopes for it, just from the description on the back of the book, but when I started it I was a little nonplussed and immediately thought I was going to hate it, so much so that I very seriously considered just returning it to the library and finding a different book for the Netherlands instead.  What I disliked was the fact that in each of the first two chapters the reader was dropped into the middle of the action with no explanation, and very jarringly at that.  It was like opening a book in the middle and starting reading there -- that's how confusing and in need of explanation it felt.  And then there was what I first thought was either a really bad editing job or a atrocious translation job.  Amazingly, however, by the time I started the third chapter I was hooked.  I eventually realized that what I took for poor editing or translation was the very intentional device of the author writing as an older Dutch woman who had not used English in a very long time, but who was writing out her memories for the eyes of her young American grandson.  All of the characters were spot on, and I came to love them all.  I loved falling in love with Amsterdam right along with present-day Jacob, and I was absolutely fascinated by boy-girl Ton.  I can truly say that I did not want this story to end.  I wanted to keep reading, to watch Jacob's relationship with Hille grow, and to be a fly on the wall to Jacob's very different relationship with Ton.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough, though I warn the reader that you will need to barrel through the first two slightly confusing chapters before you get your bearings.  It's worth the effort!  5 out of 5.

Pope Joan

Pope Joan, by Donna Cross

This novel tells the story of the only woman ever to have been Pope.  It starts with her birth to an English father and a Saxon mother, and follows her through long years where education was denied to her, through her seizing of the opportunity to seize her dreams of education by impersonating her brother after he is killed by a Viking raid, and her long struggles to find a place where she belongs, and ultimately to her election as Pope and her death and the revelation of her true gender two years after her ascension to the position.

I found this to be a fascinating, wonderful book.  The characterization was interesting, even where I did not particularly like the character, and nothing ever felt forced or unnatural in any of the characters.  I also learned quite a lot about how the Papacy and the Christian church worked back in the dark age, as well as about education, the place of women, and medicine in that period.  All the time that I was learning, however, I never felt I was being lectured to, or that the author had wandered off on a tangent to the harm of the story being told.  I really enjoyed this book.  Only one thing that I found to quibble about:  There was once scene near the beginning of the book, the scene where we first meet the father and son who will ultimately be Joan's nemesis.  The reader is dropped into that scene without explanation, we witness a grisly death -- of who and for what I reason I still do not know -- and then we see no more of these characters until the last third of the book.  I never did figure out exactly what happened in that scene and why.  Political intrigue of some sort, clearly, by the reasoning was never clear.  That one scene I found distracted from the story by its jarring appearance out of nowhere and by its lack of clarity.  Otherwise, however, this story was masterfully told.   I would give this book a 4.5.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C.W. Gortner.

This book, written from the first-person perspective of Catherine de Medici, covers her life from her youth in Italy (too little of her youth, in my opinion) through her roles as French Queen, then Regent to two of her sons, then Queen Mother, to her death.

It is a fascinating story, for the most part well told.  When I began the first page, I thought I was going to have to struggle to get into the book as I read the first few sentences.  But suddenly I looked up and realized that without noticing it I had somehow read myself to page 50 and was eager to poke my nose back into the book where I'd left off.  Needless to say, that particular worry did not materialize.  In the end I wound up thoroughly enjoying this book, and learning a fair bit about the infamous woman at its core and about the tumultuous period of French history in which she lived and reigned.

Two minor quibbles.  First, the editor appeared to have gotten either tired or lazy at one point about mid-way through, because all of a sudden there were perhaps a half a dozen instances in quick succession where words were left out of sentences, which was a bit distracting.  Second, the author presumed a bit too much knowledge or perceptiveness on the part of at least this reader, because I found myself repeatedly puzzled as to the silent agreements reached between people, indicated by smirks and nods and knowing glances.  The characters, it seemed, always seemed to know more than I did.  I think if some of the private agreements passing between the characters had been spelled out a bit more it would have helped the story a bit.

Nonetheless, over all I found this to be a delightful book, and I don't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is interested in that period in French history.  4.5 out of 5.

Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruth Sepetys.

This fascinating, haunting, horrifying book begins with what must be one of the most incredible and irresistible first lines ever:  "They took me in my nightgown."  I dare anyone to read that first line and not be compelled to keep reading to find out who "they" are, where they took the protagonist, and why they took her in her nightgown.

The book focuses on an event that, horrifyingly given its massive scale and the length of time it went on, I had never realized had even occurred:  The mass repatriation and genocide of the Balkan peoples by the Soviets following the Soviet Union's usurpation of the Balkan States.  I was shocked to my very core by the utter lack of humanity portrayed, though I don't doubt that it is mostly, if not entirely, true to life in the type of treatment that was meted out to those being persecuted.  I could hardly bear to read of the events, yet couldn't put the book down, needing to know what happened to these people that, despite their very human faults, I quickly came to care about deeply.  This is an important book for the story it tells, of which too few people are aware.  I highly recommend this book, but recommend you take along a well-stocked box of tissues as your reading companion on this journey to Siberia.  5 out of 5.

Under a Red Sky

Under a Red Sky, by Haya Leah Molnar.

This is a memoir of the author's childhood as a Jew growing up in Communist Romania in the 1950's and early 1960's.

To be perfectly honest, this book was a bit of a disappointment.  Rather than having a plot, per se, it seemed to unfold more as a series of snapshots of incidents in her young life, and I felt as if the story suffered for the lack of plot tying everything together and keeping things moving.  In addition, virtually none of the characters, beyond the author herself and one or two others -- most notably her young neighbor and schoolmate and one of the merchants at the open air market -- were the least bit sympathetic.  One got the impression that the author either disliked or was embarrassed by virtually her entire family.  As a result, it was really hard to work up any real interest in what happened to them.  Furthermore, while classified as young adult non-fiction, anyone without a prior awareness of the Communist Romanian society, and particularly a young adult, will likely be a bit confused by the references to the Securitate that are scattered throughout the book without any real in depth explanation of who they were, what their function was, and what their relationship to the government leaders was.

I do have to admit that there is one wickedly funny scene about 2/3 of the way through the book, where they are preparing for a costume party.  That one scene, however, is not enough to save this book from the glowering cloud of darkness that permeates this book.  Unfortunately, I would not recommend this book, and probably would not have finished it had I not been reading it for the European Reading Challenge.  2 out 5.

Reviews to date

I've decided to start posting my book reviews as posts, rather than as separate pages.  As for my previous reviews, I've already linked them to the challenge page at Rose City Reader at the pages they are on, so I'm just going to copy and past them all here in this post, but leave the individual pages as they are.  Hope this makes my reviews more accessible.

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, by Carolly Erickson.

I really expected to love this book.  I poured over the Hello America series a few years ago and loved them to pieces, so I figured what's not to love about historical fiction written in the form of a diary, right?  Wrong.  It's not that I didn't like this book; it's just that I didn't really love it, either.

The title of this book says it all:  This work is written from the perspective of Marie Antoinette, in the form of a diary.  It spans the period from her late childhood years in Austria (the Austro-Hungarian Empire I believe is the proper title for the period) through her marriage to the French king and the turbulent period leading up to the French Revolution and the destruction of the monarchy and the rise of the Republic.  It closes with an entry shortly before Marie's execution, and a final entry post-execution from one of her ladies.

The author did a nice job of developing the major characters, and I have to admit I learned a fair amount about this period in French history by reading this book.  Overall, however, I found the book to be very repetitive.  There is only so many times this reader can read a diary entry bemoaning the decline of the quality of life and the fear of what lies ahead before being reading to chuck the book against the wall, and this book crossed that line fairly quickly.  (I've patched the dents in the wall, now.   <.< )  I think the story could have been conveyed more strongly with less repetition of the whining theme and a little faster pace at places.  I would recommend this book to those who are interested in this period in French history as a fairly easy read and a good means of getting a good overview of the important events.  Just make sure to have a coffee close at hand to help you through the more repetitive patches.

I'd give this book a 3 out of 5, meaning borrow it from the library or a friend; don't waste your money on purchasing it unless you really love this author or are a collector of books on this period in French history.

When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman.

I really expected to love this book.  I'd read a number of her other books, and always came away saying that I thought Sharon Kay Penman to be one of the best historical fiction writers I'd ever come across.  So it came as quite a surprise that this book didn't quite capture my imagination in the same way that her other books have.  I still enjoyed the book, but I didn't love it.

This book focuses on the civil war in England, between Stephen and his cousin Maud, the daughter and designated heir of King Edward I, for the English crown.

One complaint I have is that several characters are introduced in the first chapters of the book, apparently as a device for introducing us to the main characters, then dropped and never mentioned again.  I found that to be not only very annoying, but also very confusing, as all of a sudden you are seeing the world through the eyes of someone who appears to have nothing to do with anything, and in fact does have nothing to do with anything as it turns out.  I also found it very difficult to feel strongly about either of the main protagonists, because the point of view kept switching back and forth from one to the other, and neither was made out to be a terribly sympathetic person.  I found myself wondering, even five hundred pages in, just who exactly I wanted to win the war, because I couldn't rouse myself to feel much more than antipathy when either side won a battle.  I will say that the book was extremely well research and very rich in detail and description.  Ultimately, however, I ended up much more interested in, and feeling much more strongly about some of the lesser characters than I did about either Stephen or Maud.  In particular, Maud's welsh half-brother captured my imagination, and the part of the story that took place in Wales seemed the strongest and most enjoyable storyline in the entire story.

I'd still recommend this book, but not quite as highly as I would recommend The Sun In Splendor or Here be Dragons.  I'd give it a 4 out of 5, that is to say, buy it and enjoy it, but commit yourself for the long haul as there will be periods where the going is slow, and dedication is required to make it through to the end of this 750+ pager. 

Alice I Have Been

Alice I Have Been, by Melanie Benjamin.

When I learned that a new historical novel had been published about the girl who was the inspiration for the Alice in Wonderland stories, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy, and sooner rather than later, and this book did not disappoint.  I was drawn in instantly from the first page by the charming voice of the main protagonist, at first a relatively young child, then a young woman, and then finally an old woman, and couldn't wait to turn the pages to see what was going to happen next.  The characterization was excellent.  I could see, hear, and get inside the head of virtually all of the characters, both major and minor.  The detail was impeccable, allowing me to see, hear, and smell the Oxford surroundings that was the setting for this book.  The pace was relaxed but not plodding, and definitely kept me turning page after page all the way to the end, and particularly in the second half of the book.  Perhaps most telling of all, I was sad when I reached the last page, because I was not ready to leave the magical world that these characters lived in.  There is not a detail of this book that I would change.  I enthusiastically give this book a five out of five, meaning get your hands on a copy however you can, and highly, highly recommend it to all.

Madame Tussaud

Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran

This book came to me highly recommended.  For that reason, and because I found the cover photograph annoying, I was prepared to dislike this book.  So often books that receive such high praise just don't quite live up to the hype, in my opinion.  This turned out to be a very pleasant exception.

 Madame Tussaud begins shortly before the French Revolution begins and takes the reader through the twists and turns of French history in that turbulent period, focusing on the seemingly contradictory and always dangerous actions that Madame (for most of the story Madamoiselle) and her family must take in order to keep their business afloat and, ultimately, to keep their heads as events spiral out of control.

There were very many things to love about this book.  The story itself is compelling and quickly draws you in.  Once drawn in, it gradually increases the pace of events, keeping pace with the events it is describing, keeping you turning the pages ever more quickly to find out what happens next.  The characterization of the primary characters was well done, allowing the reader to quickly become attached to Madame and her family and to really care about what happened to them and to the royal family.  The author did a fantastic job of conveying the fear and paranoia and insularity of the times through her writing, so that the reader actually felt what it was like to be living in that place and period.  She also did a lovely job of portraying the horror and overall bloodiness of the time without ever descending into outright gore or getting too horrifying in detail.  There was enough description to leave the reader fully aware of the horror of the events without feeling disgusted or grossed out.  The author also managed to provide just enough details about the wax molding craft to enlighten and fascinate, without boring or losing the reader.

Some minor quibbles I have:  first there were a number of typos that I would have liked to see fixed.  Specifically, on perhaps a dozen occasions a word would be left out of a sentence.  It wasn't enough to keep you from being able to understand what was intended to be said, but it was enough to be jarring as the reader was forced to pull back from immersion in the story to make sense of an incomplete sentence.  Also, major players in the revolution were introduced to the reader with not so much as a word about who they were or background to allow the reader to appreciate their coming importance.  Perhaps that was intentional, as nobodies became somebodies overnight, then fell from grace just as quickly.  However, it did leave me feeling as though I might have appreciated the story a bit more had I known more about the history of the revolution before reading this book.  Finally, and perhaps this is just me being silly, but I detested the cover artwork.  The model is not the prettiest sort, and certainly did not create any fond or favorable feelings in me toward Madame at first viewing.  The clothing looks cheap and costumey, rather than appearing authentic, probably because of the materials of which it is constructed which have nothing of the luxuriousness generally associated with the period.  I do understand that Madame and her family were not wealthy, particularly at the beginning of the story.  A little more attempt at luxurious dress for the model, however, would have helped capture the period a little better.  And then there were the model's hands.  A more ugly pair of hands I don't know if I've ever seen.  I don't find dirty hands -- hands stained from work -- to be unappealing.  But these hands were neither elegant nor work-roughened.  They were just ugly.  Somehow this really bugged me.  Silly, I know, but there you have it.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it quite highly.  I would give it a 4.5 out of 5, because although suffering a few flaws, it was good enough to overcome those flaws and leave me wanting more.

Forgotten Fire

Forgotten Fire, by Adam Bagdasarian.

Being unfamiliar with either Armenian history or the events of the Armenian genocide, apart from knowing that it had in fact occurred, I figured that a young adult book might be a good choice.  I am so, so glad I opted to go easy on myself on this one, because if I had dived headfirst into any of the other books on the Armenian genocide that I had considered, I would have missed one of the most incredible books I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

This book centers on the experiences of an Armenian boy from the days just before the genocide, when he was a carefree boy living a life of luxury, through the loss of everyone and everything he cherished and his efforts to survive against all odds.  I was drawn immediately into the story, and the pace and intensity of the narrative kept the pages turning.  So much so, in fact, that I read this book in one sitting.  The author managed to make his characters sympathetic without making them maudlin.  In addition, each of the characters was sketched out so skillfully (and succinctly!) that I could totally relate to each of them.  As a result, I identified so strongly with the main character that I found myself living and breathing every emotion with him.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  Whether you need to beg, borrow, or steal it, get your hands on this book!  Ranking: 5 out of 5.

The Lost Crown

The Lost Crown, By Sarah Miller.

This book presents the events of the revolutionary period in Russia.  It opens shortly before the beginning of the first world war, with the Grand Duchesses and their parents, the Tsar and Tsarina, living a life of luxury, albeit one that is sharply limited.  The story, told in the voices of the four Grand Duchesses in alternating chapters, presents their increasingly limited and controlled lives as the war goes poorly, the Tsar abdicates his throne, the royal family is taken prisoner and placed under house arrest in increasingly more distant and isolated locations, and ultimately the royal family's execution.

This book was a bit of a mixed bag for me.  I adored the characterization.  The Grand Duchesses were particularly well brought to life, and well-rounded in their characterization. They each had their own unique personality, and those personalities never wavered or became confused with one another through the rotating chapters.  At the same time, this book was way, way too long.  The tempo can only be described as plodding.  You knew what was coming, but it took forever for anything to happen.  It was also extremely difficult to keep track of the passing time because of the manner in which it was written.

Overall, this was an interesting book, but it could have been improved immensely by a good editing and shortening.  I'd give this a 3 out of 5.

Once & Then

Once & Then, by Morris Gleitzman.
This is another book that came to me highly recommended.  I had read numerous glowing reviews before picking it up myself.  That can be the kiss of death, often, but in this case the book lived up to my high expectations.

This book tells the story of two young orphans in Poland during the height of the nazi occupation, a jewish boy and a slightly younger christian girl, and the things that they are forced to do in order to survive.

The story is told from the eyes of the young, jewish protagonist, and at first I found the style of the writing downright annoying.  The tone was one of wide-eyed innocence -- the Nazi's were book burners, and they didn't like the protagonist and his family because they were book-lovers -- and that didn't suit me at all.  After a few pages, however, I realized that it was not willful ignorance but rather that the protagonist really and truly had been sheltered enough that he had no idea of what was going on in the world outside the orphanage where he was living.  From that point on, his innocent take on the world became charming and amusing and heartbreaking all at the once.

Ultimately, this is a book about storytelling.  Storytelling to cheer oneself up, storytelling to keep hope alive, and storytelling to survive.  And all of the stories bear the same innocently amusing view of the world, even though it is clear as the story progresses that much of the character's true innocence has been lost.

I don't think there is a single detail about this book that I didn't end up loving.  I laughed and cried with the characters, and lost myself in their world for a fair few hours.  I now add my voice to the chorus of those celebrating the brilliance of this book, and recommend this book most highly.  5 out of 5.

Reign of Madness

Reign of Madness, by Lynn Cullen.

Juana of Castile, third child of the Spanish monarchs Isabel and Fernando, grows up with no hope of inheriting her parents' crowns, but as a princess knows her duty: to further her family's ambitions through marriage. Yet stories of courtly love, and of her parents' own legendary romance, surround her. When she weds the Duke of Burgundy, a young man so beautiful that he is known as Philippe the Handsome, she dares to hope that she might have both love and crowns. He is caring, charming, and attracted to her-seemingly a perfect husband.

But what begins like a fairy tale ends quite differently.
When Queen Isabel dies, the crowns of Spain unexpectedly pass down to Juana, leaving her husband and her father hungering for the throne. Rumors fly that the young Queen has gone mad, driven insane by possessiveness. Who is to be believed? The King, beloved by his subjects? Or the Queen, unseen and unknown by her people? (Description from

I found myself at a loss to give a good, succinct plot summary of this book for some reason, so I have resorted to using the description.  Hopefully you all will forgive me that minor transgression.

This was an interesting book.  The plot kept me turning the pages just to see what would happen next, and there were no "dead" spots to wade through.  The language was colorful and the dialogue time- and location-appropriate.  Cullen did an excellent job of describing the locations, so that I felt cold and a bit depressed during those scenes set in Flanders, just as Juana must have felt, and warm and hopeful in Spain.

A couple of minor criticisms:  Some chapters were separated by the passage of mere hours, while others were separated by a span of multiple years.  I found it a bit wrenching to lose months or years, without any very good explanation of what had happened in the intervening years, and I felt like the inconsistency of the time-frames between chapters took away from the flow of the story.  I also disliked how the author would have a character fall deathly ill, then end the chapter, leaving the reader to figure out from a few sentences in the next chapter what had happened to that character.  Because these events were major plot features, they deserved more attention than Cullen gave them, I felt.

Poor Mad Juana, so mistreated by all whom she loved and trusted most. 

Overall I enjoyed this book and, despite the flaws mentioned above, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Spanish history or"Mad" Queen Juana.  This book paints a clear and unflinching portrait of the lengths to which medieval men would go in order to gain power, and the utter lack of power, by and large, of women in medieval society.  I would give this book a 4 out of 5.

Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway.

I remember sitting in my mother's kitchen in Michigan during the siege of Sarajevo and crying my eyes out as I listened to the news broadcast telling of the shelling of an outdoor market and the deaths of twenty-two people, their only crime having been to choose that time and place to stand in line to buy bread.  Fast forward twenty years, and my pastor just happened to mention in a sermon the courage of a lone cellist in the face of evil, who performed solo twenty-two days in a row on the very site of the shelling, in honor of the victims, and that a book had been written about the brave musician.  I immediately knew I had to get my hands on that book, and my excitement was well rewarded by one of the best-written, most gripping and moving books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

The book follows the stories of four unique individuals, whose lives ultimately intertwine, without them being aware of this fact.  First there is the cellist himself.  Then there is the father and husband who heads out for water, faces death and narrowly avoids being killed when a mortar shell falls on the area.  There is also the man who heads to the bakery where he works, on his day off, in order to eat there and allow his portion of food at home to go to his relatives.  He, too, nearly dies while crossing a bridge under heavy sniper fire.  Finally, there is the the sniper who works to protect the city and is assigned to protect the cellist.  The book follows a day (or a few days) in the lives of each of these people, condensing into that one short period of time all of the terror, chaos, uncertainty, death, and hope of the people of Sarajevo during the siege.

At first I did not think I was going to like this book, simply because it first appeared that none of the four individuals had anything in common.  Almost immediately, however, I was drawn into each of the four story-lines, and I found that I absolutely could not put this book down.  I ended up reading it in one sitting, something I almost never do.  I was drawn into the four individual's stories so deeply, that I was sad when the book ended.  I wanted to find out what happened next!

I enthusiastically recommend this book, and give it a 5 out of 5. 

Band of Angels

Band of Angels, by Julia Gregson.

This was a disappointing book.  The premise sounded interesting:  A young Welsh girl from the upper class grows up friends with a young Welsh boy from the lower class.  Both leave the strictures of the Welsh countryside to make a way for themselves.  Both ultimately end up in the Crimea, she as a nurse, he as a cavalry officer.  Can they ever meet up and act on the feelings they have for one another, but which were barred by their class differences in Wales?

I generally love nursing stories, and stories of women pushing the boundaries of society and striving to achieve things that they were thought because of their gender to be incapable of, so I expected to be enthralled with this book.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

The writing is smooth enough and descriptive enough, but right from the beginning there is a sense of laboriousness and heaviness to the writing that the story never manages to escape.  It was as if there was a dark cloud over this story from beginning to end, and there was never anything to lighten the darkness, no humor, no joy, no love.  Even at the end, when boy again meets girl, the feeling is more one of relief and closure, not of happiness.

Adding to the darkness of this novel is the negative portrayal of virtually all of the characters other than the main female protagonist.  Even Florence Nightingale, that beloved and revered woman I learned of in my childhood, is tarred with the same dirty brush.

Finally, the pace of this story is agonizingly slow.  It took forever for anything to happen, and even when you knew when it was supposed to happen, the author seemed to squeeze more days worth of tedium into the period than was allotted.  If it were not for the fact that I was reading this book for the Ukraine portion of the European Reading Challenge, I truly think I would have chucked this book long before finishing it.  As it was, I did finish it, but was left very dissatisfied.

Unfortunately I would not recommend this book to others.  I give it a 2 out of 5.

Vienna Prelude

Vienna Prelude, by Bodie and Brock Thoene.

With this book, the first in a seven-book series, I have discovered a new favorite author and series.  This book follows the lives of those people caught in the madness of the rise to power of the Nazi party and the beginning of Nazi Germany's quest for world domination.  We witness events through the eyes of German and Austrian Jews, as well as through the eyes of a brave Austrian Christian family and an equally brave band of foreign journalists, present to witness events and pulled by their consciences to take action rather than merely standing idly by.

I loved everything about this book.  The characterization was spot on.  The dialogue, spanning individuals from many different countries, was pitch perfect.  The plot catches your interest from the first page and draws you in, increasing in pace as the events taking place in the broader world increase, the suspense building and building and building.  And at the end of the book some story lines are are resolved, but others are left open, and new story lines are hinted at, as befitting a story that has only just completed its first act.  I cannot wait to get my hands on the next installment (lucky for me I'm coming to this series late, so all of the other books have already been published!), and I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  A great story, whose characters and events have remained in my thoughts long after I turned the last page.  I give this book a resounding 5 out of 5.