my challenges

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

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

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

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

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

The Time of the Wolf

The Time of the Wolf,  by James Wilde.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 17, 2013

All Things New

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Flowers of War

The Flower of War, by Christian Ball.

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

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

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

The Tin Horse

The Tin Horse, by Janie Steinberg.

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

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

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

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

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

The Painted Girls

The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.

This beautiful, atmospheric novel is set in 1878 Paris.  The Van Goethem sisters are down on their luck.  Their father has just died, and the meager wages of their mother are being drunk up by her absinthe habit.  So Marie and her younger sister are sent to the Paris Opera to train for entrance into the ballet, while her older sister, Antoinette, obtains a small part with one speaking line in a stage production of Emile Zola's work L'Assommoir.  During the course of her training Marie is observed by Edgar Degas and becomes one of his primary muses, eventually being immortalized in his work Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  She also attracts the attention of a patron, who has less than honorable interests in her, and is forced eventually to decide between the money and gifts he provides to her and her reputation and modesty.

There is absolutely nothing that I did not love about this book.  Both Marie's and Antoinette's stories are compelling and fascinating.  Furthermore, throughout both threads of the story the reader is immersed in Paris of the late 19th century, experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the place.  You find yourself right there along side the sisters, living every triumph or setback with them, all within the fascinating backdrop of a society in rapid change.  The language is perfect and period appropriate without being hard to read, and the descriptions are virtually paintings in and of themselves.  This book ranks up there with the very best books I have read this year, and I enthusiastically recommend it.  5.0 out of 5.0.

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

Tiger Rag

Tiger Rag, by Nicolas Christopher.

Dr. Ruby Cardillo's life is falling down around her, and she just might be losing her mind as well.  Her daughter, a budding jazz pianist, has just finished up a stint in jail for a drug offense.  Charles "Buddy" Bolden is a jazz age legend whose career dissolved when he slid into lunacy.  Mother and daughter take off on an impromptu, nearly self-destructive trip to New York City, and along the way their family history begins to reveal itself as the younger Cardillo gets pulled into a search for the holy grail of a long lost recording of Bolden, the only recording known to exist.

This book successfully intertwines three stories -- of Buddy Bolden, of modern-day Ruby Cardillo and her daughter, and of the early years of Ruby Cardillo.  Of the three stories, I found the story of Bolden to be the most compelling.  However, after a slightly rocky beginning with the modern-day portion of the story, all three strands of the story captured my imagination and had me hurrying to turn the pages to see what happened next.  I absolutely adore books that combine a present day story with a search to solve a historical mystery, a la The Forgotten Garden, Blackberry Winter, and The House Girl, and this book ranks up there in the top with the best of those types of books.  I don't really like jazz much, but this book almost had me looking up old jazz age greats!

The only problem I had with this book is that the issue of Dr. Cardillo's weird actions, which appear to be a slide into insanity, and which we learn are completely out of character for her, are never explained.  She just suddenly is getting better at the end of the book as the final mysteries are revealed.  I really would have liked that one last thread to have been woven back into the story before the book was complete.  Aside from that, however, this book was a thoroughly enjoyable read. 4.5 out of 5.0.

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

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Liberator

The Liberator, by Alex Kershaw.

In this book we follow in the footsteps of Alex Kershaw as he leads his men from the beaches of Sicily to the very gates of Dachau, through all of the battles and hell that war can bring.  We witness senseless deaths, victories, defeats, and ultimately the birth of a new hope.

This book was quite well written.  I found it easier to read than many a history has been, even a personal history.  At times, however, the narration bogged down in details of military maneuvers and geographical details, and I found myself wishing that more of an overview of some parts of the story had been given.

Over all, I enjoyed this book, but found it a bit of a challenge to finish.  Still, I recommend it, particularly for those interested in the Africa and Italy campaigns of WWII.  3.5 out of 5.

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

Driving the Saudis

Driving the Saudis, by Jayne Amelia Larson.

This book chronicles the experiences of a young American out-of-work actress who accepts a several month assignment working as a chauffeur for members of the Saudi royal family and their entourage during their visit to Los Angeles.

I found this book both fascinating and horrifying in turns.  The complete contempt most of the family and entourage, in particular the men, for women and for the people working for them as chauffeurs and in other positions was not surprising, given my awareness of the lack of women's rights in that part of the world, but it was shocking and disheartening all the same.  The disgust I quickly felt for the whole visiting group, however, was eventually tempered by the kindness shown by many of the young women working for the family, as well as the nannies.  Despite their wealth, it is a relatively hard life that Saudi royal women lead, with very little opportunity to express themselves or take control of their lives or the world they live in.  I came away from this book with a new respect for what women in Saudi Arabia, even royal women, must endure.

Over all I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  4.5 out of 5.0

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

Confessions of a Male Nurse

Confessions of a Male Nurse, by Michael Alexander.

This book chronicles the experiences of a male nurse in the first few years of his career.  It certainly was an eye opener.  It is quite shocking the complete indifference to the health and safety that top officials can display toward those they have taken an oath to care for.  Likewise, it is shocking the lack of interest some so-called caregivers can display.

My favorite part of the book was the section dealing with Alexander's experiences working with mental health patients.  Wow, is that a different world, and something I certainly do not think I could ever be equipped to properly handle.  His ability to think on his feet, instinctively find the right response most of the time, and keep things in perspective was impressive.

I enjoyed this book, although I would have liked it much more if the author had told us what happened ultimately to the patients he discussed caring for.  Often the reader was left with no idea of what happened after they left Alexander's care.  This is really my only complaint, however.  4.0 out of 5.0.

I received a digital review copy of this book.  This did not affect this review. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler, by Trudi Kanter.

This book tells the true story of a jewish, Viennese milliner from just before the Anchluss through the end of the war, with flashbacks to earlier years and an epilogue that fills in the remainder of her life.  This book captivated me right from the beginning.  Unusually for nonfiction, there was nothing about this book that detracted from the story itself.  There were no long passages about the history of hat making, or the nazi rise to power.  There was just enough background given to allow the reader to follow the story, but not a detail extra to bog one down.  The author did an admirable job of building and keeping the tension at a boil throughout this book, making you feel as if you were right there with her, experiencing the terror of potentially being trapped within Hitler's nightmare with no escape and enemies all around.  I found myself sighing with relief, literally, as good events happened, and feeling almost sick to my stomach as potentially bad events happened.  In short, I was transported back to Europe in the period just before the first world war, and plonked down to share the characters' fates.  I found this to be most effective, so much so that it was hard for me to put this book down.  The fact that the story ends up showing the better side of humanity ultimately, and has a happy ending, just improved on an already enjoyable read.  4.5

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review in any way.
Yesterday's Sun, by Amanda Brooke.

In this unusual book with a touch of the supernatural, a young woman, through the intercession -- or interference -- of an ancient sundial, is given a glimpse of her own future, and finds herself forced to choose between her own life and the life of her long-desired child.

At first I found the whole sundial bit a little hokey and unbelievable.  The story itself, however, was so compelling, and the lives of the characters so interesting, that I found myself unable to stop reading despite being out of my comfort level, and soon it no longer seemed hokey, but perfectly believable.  I also loved the fact that there was very much a mystery within a mystery, as the main characters learned about the history of the sundial and also about each others' pasts.  Ultimately, I could never have guessed the ending, and I absolutely loved it.  I could not have imagined -- and had not imagined -- a more perfect and satisfying ending to this story.  This was a very well done tale, and one that was immensely enjoyable.  I highly recommend this book to readers of all genres.  You won't be disappointed if you give this book a try.  5.0.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review in any way. 
Where the Light Falls, by Katherine Keenum.

This book follows the adventures of a young American artist in Paris in the late ninetheenth century.  It also tells the story of her older, science-minded,  American civil war-damaged love interest and eventual husband.  In a dual plot line, we first follow the young artist, then the veteran, then the young artist again, until the two meet, and then again we follow the one and then the other alternately until we reach the end of the book.

Overall, this was a really interesting book.  I found the dual plot line method a little confusing, particularly at first, as we were plunged from one plot line into the other without any introduction or warning, leaving you wondering what the heck the one group of people had to do with the other.  There did not appear to be any real rhyme or reason to why the switch occurred at the point it did, either.  But once I got used to the changes in storyline, I really began to enjoy this book.  Each of the characters were interesting, the plot had enough twists to keep you interested, and the period detail and detail about the artistic process itself were very well done without going overboard and losing the reader in inane facts.  The only thing I didn't like about this book is that it ended very abruptly, and with a major change from the ending indicated by the characters themselves, without any explanation why they decided to do things differently, or information as to what happened to them in later years.  It seemed that both could be successful in their chosen careers in France, while possibly only the male protagonist could be successful back in Ohio, yet we were never given any information why they decided to go back to Ohio or how their careers turned out.  I was very disappointed by that.  Otherwise, however, I did not want this book to end and enjoyed it thoroughly.  4.5.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review.
The Aviator's Wife, by Melanie Benjamin.

Not knowing much about Charles Lindburgh, beyond the fact that he and his wife had their baby boy kidnapped and killed, and of course that he had been the first to fly over the Atlantic, I was excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint.

Ultimately, I very much disliked Lindy -- he was not a nice man, and he resembled someone I know a little too closely for comfort -- but I adored this story.  The characters were memorable and well-fleshed-out, and it was easy to get into this story and stay stuck in until the end.  I learned a lot about Lindy and about this era in American history from this book, and thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it.  And then when I finished the book I realized it was written by one of my favorite authors, which I had somehow not noticed until that time.  Bonus!  4.5 out of 5.0.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect my review. 
1356, by Bernard Cornwell.

This book focuses on the lead-up to the battle of Poitiers, culminating with the battle itself.  This was an odd book.  As is usual for Cornwell books, I got drawn right into the story.  Unusual for books by this author, we were dropped into the middle of historical events with no explanation of the background history to guide us, or the personages involved.  As a result, although I found the story itself rather compelling, I never really got a sense of where these events fit in history.  Another interesting thing, I found the subplots much more enjoyable and interesting than the main plot.  Over all I enjoyed this book.  It could have used with a bit more context, however, to allow me to enjoy it fully.  Recommended, particularly to those interested in English or French history, and to Cornwell fans.  3.5

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

Heart of a Champion, by Kim Washburn.

Dominique Dawes is a true inspiration for young women everywhere.  She faced down adversity, including the divorce of her parents, moving away from home to train at a young age, and repeated disappointments in her gymnastics career, before ultimately achieving the ultimate success:  Olympic champion.  This book chronicles her rise from young, talented gymnast through hardship after hardship, and ultimately to the point where she realizes her dream of becoming an Olympic champion.

I had a few problems with this book.  It was a bit stilted in its writing style, and I absolutely hated that the author used commentary from television broadcasts as part of the narrative.  In addition, I found the religious comments a bit over the top.  I realize this is published by a religious press, but still I found it a little overdone and preachy.  Nonetheless, this is an excellent book for young girls interested in sports and looking for a role model.  3.5.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher.  This did not affect this review. 
Victoria Rebels, by Carolyn Meyer.

Life is difficult for young Victoria.  Her mother's friend and confidant, Sir John Conroy, rules her mother and her world with an iron fist.  All Victoria wants is a bit of freedom, but it is not to be.  This book covers the period from when Victoria is around 11 years old and the heir to nothing, through becoming the heir to the English throne, then Queen, and ending with her marriage to Prince Albert.

I found this book very difficult to enjoy.  The characters for the most part were nasty creatures and unenjoyable to read about.  The continual complaining about the same things over and over again became increasingly tedious, until I began to lose patience and compassion for Victoria.  The style of writing in which this was written I found to be a bit annoying, although I recognize that it was done by the author in an attempt to emulate Victoria's own style in her diary.  Unfortunately, the result was that it came out stilted in many instances.  Finally, the book ended very abruptly at an odd place in Victoria's life.  Over all this book was very disappointing.  2.0

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The First Responders

The First Responders: The Untold Story of the New York City Police Department & September 11th, 2001, by Anthea Appel.

This book provided a new perspective on September 11 from what I had read before.  Ultimately, although the names and the employers were different, the experiences of the New York City Police Department was little different from that of the New York City Fire Department.  Both suffered from disorganization and confusion, and ultimately tragic loss of life, although the Police Department was a little better organized than the fire department.  At the same time, it was nice to see the police officers get their due after being largely relegated to the background while the fire department, because of their enormous number of casualties, took the spotlight and most of the glory.

Ultimately, while interesting, I didn't learn very much new information from this book.  Nonetheless, I think it plays an important role in the chronicalling of that horrible day, adding one more voice, one more angle to the story.  3 out of 5.

Heads in Beds

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality, by Jacob Tomsky.

This is an expose of the hotel/motel business told in the form of an autobiography of a lifer in the hotel/hospitality business.

This book at times had me laughing out loud at the outrageous behavior of some hotel guests and/or employees.  It also gave me a whole new perspective on, and respect for, those employed in the hotel/hospitality industry, as well as some real pointers on how to obtain the best service and best room or upgrades in my future travels.  It also gave me warning as to how not to treat hotel/hospitality industry employees if I don't want to be grossed out or given ... well, inhospitable ... treatment.

The one major downside to this book was the language.  By that I mean the swearing.  Eventually I mostly got used to the swearing, particularly when it was used in the context of dialogue, but overall there was far too much gratuitous cussing for my taste.

Ultimately, I found this book interesting, entertaining, and informative, and recommend it without reservation to anyone who likes exposes or simply has an interest how hotels really work.  4 out of 5.

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

The Italian Woman

The Italian Woman, by Jean Plaidy.

This book is the second of Plaidy's trio of books about Catherine de Medici.  It also works as a stand-alone work, however.

In general, I thoroughly enjoy Jean Plaidy's books, so I was a little surprised that this one didn't really capture me and pull me in.  In the first place, I found it highly annoying that the first part of the book focused nearly exclusively on someone whose relationship to Catherine de Medici went completely unmentioned.  It was quite some time before I figured out who the woman was and why she might be important in a story about Catherine de Medici.  Also, I found this book a bit tedious after a while -- the scheming of the two factions became repetitive, and there was simply not enough variety to keep my imagination fully engaged.

On the other hand, for someone who is familiar with the Catherine de Medici story and that period of French history, this is a nice addition to other versions of Catherine's life.  There is nothing particularly objectionable about the writing, but at the same time the story is a little lacking in energy and momentum.

Over all, not a bad read, but not a real page-turner either.  3 out of 5.

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

Yellow Crocus

Yellow Crocus, by Laila Ibrahim.

This book follows the lives of a young slave woman and the child she is chosen to nurse from birth and then to act as the child's nursemaid for many additional years.  We suffer the young woman's pain at being separated from her own young son and her husband, enjoy her growing bond with her charge, worry with her over whether she or one of her family will be sold or lent out, causing further and possibly permanent separation, and swell with pride at her dangerous efforts to obtain education and knowledge (through subterfuge) for her children and the other slaves.

At the same time we feel the grief of a toddler torn from her nurse, with whom she is closer than with her own family, her joy at their reunion, her delight in learning, her discomfort with her biological family and the expectations and constraints of southern society, her worry over the fate of her nursemaid, and ultimately the joy and relief of her rebellion and her ultimate reunion with her nursemaid under completely changed circumstances.

This book is an effective and moving social commentary on the evils of slavery, the shackles placed on women in pre-civil war southern society, and the danger of bucking the system.  It is also a rip-roaring good story including plenty of drama, cultural flavor, interesting characters, and romance.

I found this book to be a delightful and quick read, a book it was impossible to put down once you picked it up.  I wholeheartedly recommend it.  5 out of 5.

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

Image in the Looking Glass

Image in the Looking Glass, by Jacquelyn Cook.

In this book, set in the waning months of the civil war on a plantation in Georgia was a fascinating read.  Far from your usual civil war fare, featuring romance, dashing soldiers in uniform, and helpless damsels in distress, this book presents a picture of three very strong women.  Unfortunately, one of the three is not nearly as strong in her mental health as she is in her physical health, and therein lies the crux of the story.

Someone is trying to kill our protagonist.  Or are they?  Is she simply imagining things?  Or are all these close calls the precursors to a successful murder?  And if so, who is the culprit?  Is it one of her two aunts?  Or maybe her charming cousin?  Or that nervous-looking but always watching slave girl?  And exactly who can she trust?

To be sure, there is romance to be found in this book, if a bit faltering and delayed.  But the true story is the mystery of who wants our young, beautiful protagonist dead, and why.  If you are looking for a social commentary, this is your book.  While the slavery issue is not addressed, the issue of the treatment of prisoners of war is often front and center.  On the other hand, if you are looking for a smashing good read and a page-turning mystery, this is also your book.  I highly recommend this book and give it a 4.5 out of 5.

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

After the Fog

After the Fog, by Kathleen Shoop.

This book is set in Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948, at the time of the "killing smog."  The protagonist is a nurse, one of only a handful of medical personnel in the small mill town. When the geological features of the area combine with an unusual weather pattern and three mills pumping out poisonous gases into the air, the town is struck by an increasingly thick and deadly fog, which ultimately strikes down many of the townsfolk who are in weak health, before action is finally taken to shut down the mills temporarily, thereby allowing the smog to dissipate.

I absolutely adored this book.  I do have to admit that at first I found it a bit slow moving and the mood of the book incredibly depressing.  As the story developed however, I found myself staying up far later than I should have just to find out what happened next.  What I loved about this book most was the symbolism -- the thicker the fog, the more confused and in the dark the characters were about each other and each others' acts and motivations and feelings.  Finally, as the fog cleared, the characters came to see things for what they truly were, and came to appreciate that things had worked out for the best, even if they had not worked out quite the way they had expected.  Intertwined with this story is a a mystery never quite fully resolved, but sufficiently resolved to leave you wondering how things worked out.

Over all this was a fabulous story, brilliantly told, which builds throughout until its final denouement.  I highly recommend this book.  5 out of 5.

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


Accelerated, by Brownwen Hruska.

This book is a timely look at a controversial subject that is being discussed and considered all over the country:  the over-medicating of children and young-adults.  It takes place at a top-level private elementary school in New York City, presumably a fictional school, though I'm sure similar schools can be found in many communities throughout the United States.

 The story makes use of caricatures of virtually every stereotype you can imagine, from the rich, lonely, over-sexed mother who makes passes at every father she takes a fancy to, to the mothers who are willing to put their children through virtually anything to try to give them an edge -- in this case occupational therapy to learn how to hold a pencil properly and eyesight training to strengthen eyesight and thereby improve SAT scores in their child's future, to the mother who can do nothing but scream and sob hysterically when her son is rushed to the hospital, while her big-shot husband blusters and orders and demands answers now.  I could not decide for the longest time whether I loved or hated the use of caricatures, or even whether it was intentional.  Ultimately I decided not only that it was intentional, but also that it was a very effective way of showing just how ridiculous people will act in the misguided interest of giving their children an edge in life, whether that is by unnecessary and ridiculous therapy, or by giving their children prescription medication (for ADHD, depression, etc.) at the first suggestion that they might be not quite as focused at school as mom and dad would like, to placing ridiculous expectations on young children -- suggesting that they are somehow lacking or inferior or behind their peers because they act like a normal kid.

I did not necessarily find this an easy book to read; as I said I wasn't entirely sold on the caricature method until nearly the end of the book.  At the same time, it was interesting and often good for a chuckle.  I mean really, who sends their perfectly-sighted child to special therapy to strengthen their eyesight in the hopes of improving their standardized test scores ten years in the future?  It also shone a much-needed lighter spotlight on the over-medication of children.  Over all I recommend this book, and would give it a score of 3.5 out of 5.

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

2012 Year End Round-Up

My apologies for my long absence from posting on this blog.  Unfortunately that's what happens when you have bronchitis, followed directly by pnumonia, followed by a two-week visit from the in-laws, followed by a sinus infection, followed by your boss' retirement and the holiday season.  But I am back now and will be more diligent in posting.  And I assure you the absence was merely from posting, not from reading!!!!  So how'd I do this year?  62 books.  Not all of them have reviews on here, but many do, and I will endeavor to post reviews for the remainder, either full or mini-reviews, over the next couple of days.  So what did I read this year?

1. The Man in the Rockefeller Suit - Mark Seal (non-fiction)
2. Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast – Kevin Myers (non-fiction)
3. Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned – Richard S. Jaffe (non-fiction)
4. Blackberry Winter – Sarah Jio
5. Haunted Places – Hans Holzer (non-fiction)
6. Ironfire – David Ball
7. At Midnight in a Flaming Town – Lorraine Bateman and Paul Cole
8. Riding with Reindeer: A Bicycle Odyssey through Finland, Lapland, and Arctic Norway – Robert M. Goldstein (non-fiction)
9. Swiss Watching – Diccon Bewes (non-fiction)
10. The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo – Paula Huntley (non-fiction)
11. The Queen’s Soprano – Carol Dines
12. In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment: Destination Estonia – Douglass Wells (non-fiction)
13. White Truffles in Winter – N.M. Kelby
14. Codex 632 – Jose Rodrigues Dos Santos
15. The Search for God and Guinness – Stephen Mansfield (non-fiction)
16. Bullets on the Water – Ivaylo Grouev (non-fiction)
17. The Pieces from Berlin – Michael Pye
18. Small Wars – Sadie Jones
19. Apples are from Kazakhstan – Christopher Robbins (non-fiction)
20. The Bielski Brothers – Peter Duffy (non-fiction)
21. The Journey Home – Olaf Olaffson
22. Lost Wife – Alyson Richman
23. Daughters of War – Hillary Green
24. Wildflowers of Terezin – Robert Elmer
25. The Flower Reader – Elizabeth Loupas
26. Katarina – Kathryn Winter
27. Postcards from No Man’s Land – Aidan Chambers
28. Pope Joan – Donna Cross
29. Confessions of Catherine de Medici – C.W. Gortner
30. Between Shades of Gray – Ruth Sepetys
31. Under a Red Sky – Haya Leah Molnar (non-fiction)
32. The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette – Carolly Erickson
33. When Christ and his Saints Slept – Sharon Kay Penman
34. Alice I Have Been – Melanie Benjamin
35. Madame Tussaud – Michelle Moran
36. Forgotten Fire – Adam Bagdasarian (non-fiction)
37. The Lost Crown – Sarah Miller
38. Once & Then – Morris Gleitzman
39. Reign of Madness – Lynn Cullen
40. The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway
41. Band of Angels – Julia Gregson
42. Vienna Prelude – Bodie & Brock Thoene
43. The Italian Woman – Jean Plaidy
44. Off Balance – Dominique Moceanu (non-fiction)
45. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why – Amanda Ripley (non-fiction)
46. Below Stairs – Margaret Powell (non-fiction)
47. The Children’s Blizzard – David Laskin (non-fiction)
48. It’s So Easy – Duff McKagen (non-fiction)
49. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America – Dave Von Drehle (non-fiction)
50. The Last Train from Hiroshima: The Survivors Look Back – Charles Pellegrino (non-fiction)
51. Heart of a Champion: The Dominique Dawes Story – Kim Washburn (non-fiction)
52. After the Fog – Kathleen Shoop
53. Echoes of Distant Thunder – Frank Slaughter
54. How Angels Die – David-Michael Harding
55. Tales from Michigan Stadium – Jim Brandstatter (non-fiction)
56. The Wolverines : A Story of Michigan Football – Will Perry (non-fiction)
57. Image in the Looking Glass – Jacquelyn Cook
58. Yellow Crocus – Laila Ibrahim
59. The First Responders: The Untold Story of the New York City Police Department and September 11, 2001 – Anthea Appel (non-fiction)
60. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality – Jacob Tomsky (non-fiction)
61. Embracing the Elephant – Lori Hart Beninger
62. Merely Dee – Marian Manseau Chatham

If I have counted correctly, 38 of those books were read for the European
Reading Challenge.

36 books were fiction, 26 were non-fiction.  43 were books checked out of the local library, 5 were books I purchased, and the remaining 14 were ARCs.  Given that this is my first year as a blogger, and that my original goal for the year (before I started my blog) was 30 books, I think I did pretty well for myself!

So how did you do this year?