my challenges

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.