my challenges

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.