my challenges

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.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More reviews posted.

I have added reviews of Madame Toussaud, Forgotten Fire, Once & Then, The Lost Crown, Reign of Madness, the Cellist of Sarajevo, Band of Angels, and Vienna Prelude.  I am now up-to-date on reviews for the European Reading Challenge, but still have six reviews to do on books that I've read that are not part of the challenge.  Maybe this weekend???