my challenges

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?