my challenges

Thursday, May 17, 2012

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.

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