Monday, July 31, 2006

Summary of July's Adventures

I was determined to see the world through literature during the month of July and so I bagan my journey . . .

I began my journey in St. Louis, Missouri, entertaining vampires, mermaids and all sorts of lycanthropes. My next stop was Italy where I was taken back into history during a time of great art and beauty as well as religious turmoil and persecution. Similarly in Southern France, I found myself in the midst of a crusade as violence and terror swept through the area in the name of God and Christ. Great secrets needed to be protected both then and in present time. I lived on the streets in London, hoping to uncover the motive and identity of a murderer who was preying on the helpless. From there I rose to the the station of courtier, where I spent time in King Henry VIII's court amongst the ladies in waiting. My journey next found me in Russia with a royal family held in captivity during their final days. My heart heavy from that experience, I next traveled to Spain where I met up with a shepherd on a mission to find a treasure near the great Pyramids of Egypt. My heart was lightened.

I found my way to Shanghai where I spent my time learning to survive in a civilian internment camp run by the Japanese. My travels led me to Israel and Palestine, where I hoped to gain some insight into the violence and hate that lives in that part of the world. I next settled down to spend some time in Bombay among the neighbors of Wadi Baug, reminiscing and sharing in their stories of love and regret. I traveled into Germany and through Eastern Europe, and to Brooklyn, New York in the U.S., sharing memories of a war and terrible atrocities. I visited Haiti for a brief time, enjoying the beauty of the land while seeing a mother and daughter struggle with their own personal demons. I spent time in Washington D.C. among the local lycanthrope community, seeing the sights, visiting with the vampire mistress, and attending Senate hearings. I next headed north into Canada, spending time in a suburb of Saskatoon, learning the ins and outs of being a veterinary technician while unraveling a mystery involving a doting mother and her sickly daughter. On my way home, I decided to spend a little time along the coast in Pine Cove, California. It seemed I wasn't the only one traveling through town. I met up with an unpopular demon who liked to eat people.

As much as I enjoyed my travels, I have to admit I'm happy to see July coming to an end. I haven't a clue what August has in store for me, but I have a feeling I'll be visitng with some old friends, helping them solve crimes. It just feels like it's going to be that kind of month . . .

Happy Reading everyone!

(Reviews for all books described above can be found on this blog.)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Review of Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

1992, Perennial
243 pgs
Horror
Rating: * (Good)

First Sentence: The Breeze blew into San Junipero in the shotgun seat of Billy Winston's Pinto wagon.

Reason for Reading: A fellow booklover recommended I read something by Christopher Moore when I mentioned I wanted to read a laugh-out-loud book. This one just happened to be on my shelf, and so I decided to give it a try.

Comments: Over the years, I have heard how wonderful Christopher Moore’s books are, how funny and unusual. I am not sure how long Practical Demonkeeping sat on my shelf, but I finally decided to give it a try.

Set in the quiet tourist community of Pine Cove on the central coast of California, Practical Demonkeeping is the story about a 90 year old man (who looks no older than 25) and his 70 year long traveling companion, a demon named Catch. Catch has a nasty habit of eating people. Ever since Travis called the demon into his service, Travis has wanted to send him back to where he came from. He is hoping that the answer lies in Pine Cove. Meanwhile, A Djin, one of the Old Ones, who lived on the earth before mankind was created, enlists the aid of a local resident to help find Catch. He has an old score to settle with the demon.

Christopher Moore introduces several characters, each one unique. There is The Breeze, a 40ish drug dealer who thinks he’s hot stuff; Billy Winston and his alter ego, Roxanne; Augustus Brine, the general store owner who looks a bit like Santa Claus, the town witch and leader of the Pagan Vegetarians for Peace, Rachel Henderson; Robert Masterson, the town drunk, and his estranged wife, Jenny who is a hardworking waitress; Howard Phillips, the owner of a local restaurant and believer in the Old Ones; and Mavis Sand, who runs the Head of the Slug saloon, just to name a few.

Upon finishing this novel, I felt a little ambiguous about it. I did find it witty and unusual, just as expected, but somehow it was also a little disappointing. I wouldn’t say it was a humorous book all around. There was enough horror in it with the demon eating people to destroy that idea. Upon reflection, I do think it was a good book. Christopher Moore has a talent for the bizarre and his story was fascinating.

Favorite Part: It might be too much of a spoiler to mention my favorite scene—It really wasn’t so much the scene itself as it was Christopher Moore’s description of the scene between Travis and Jenny at her house after their date. It was very creative!

Miscellaneous: I’ve officially achieved one of my reading goals for the year. I have read more books than I read last year (by one).

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Review of Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn

2006, Warner Books
339 pgs
Fantasy
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: “We have Beth from Tampa on the line.”

Reason for Reading: I enjoyed the first book in the series and decided to give the second one a try. I chose to read it when I did because I was looking for something a little lighter topic wise than what I’d been reading recently.

Comments: What’s not to love about Kitty? She’s not your typical werewolf heroine bent on proving how tough she is. And yet, she has a tendency to stand up for what she believes and land in dangerous situations (which isn’t all that new). Kitty is easy going, intelligent, and witty. She has an innocence about her and yet she’s had her own struggles to overcome and battles to fight over the years.

Having taken her popular radio talk show on the road, Kitty is seeing the country. When she is called to testify before the Senate about the supernatural, she makes her way to Washington D.C. She soon finds herself the guest of vampire mistress who offers her protection while in the city, and amongst a myriad of other lycanthropes, including a rather sexy were-jaguar that catches her eye. As the Senate hearing, led by a Bible thumping Senator, gets under way, Kitty’s curiosity about the research being conducted by the Center for the Study of Paranatural Biology increases. And if that isn’t enough, the infamous Elijah Smith, leader of the Church of the Pure Faith, is called to testify at the hearing, raising all sorts of speculation.

Being a fan of some of the paranormal literature out there today, Carrie Vaughn’s series is fast becoming a favorite. I may not be a fan of the title of the latest novel, but I definitely enjoyed the story. It was entertaining, at times funny, and suspenseful. Carrie Vaughn has created characters that I’m drawn to. Kitty, of course, is a favorite of mine. I like the interaction between Kitty and Cormac, and Ben’s a great character as well. The vampire mistress, Alette, was an interesting character; one I wouldn’t mind delving into more deeply should Carrie Vaughn ever decide to expand on her.

The comparisons between the McCarthy hearings and the hearing about the supernatural were well made. Senator Duke’s fanaticism and prejudice came out clearly in his questioning and arguments during the hearing. There are parallels between the novel and real life in the political arena, although they might not be so obvious upon first thought.

Another theme that ran through the novel was the desire for power, a common theme in books like this. Different characters sought their own type of power in their own way, and there were several different power plays taking place in the novel.

Favorite Part: When Kitty, Jeffrey and Stockton decide to go in search of Elijah Smith. That entire scene, at the camp.

Miscellaneous: Carrie Vaughn’s novel has an added bonus at the end, a short story called Kitty Meets the Band. It’s a funny story about her interview with the band, Plague of Locusts, in which one of the members is supposedly possessed by a demon. It was a cute story that earned a smile at the end.

Review of Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

1994, Vintage Books
236 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Good +)


First Sentence: A flattened and drying daffodil was dangling off the little card that I had made my aunt Atie for Mother’s Day.

Reason for Reading: This seemed like the right book to end my July reading travels with (althoug hit didn't turn out to be the last book I read for the month).

From the Publisher : At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. There she discovers secrets that no child should ever know, and a legacy of shame that can be healed only when she returns to Haiti—to the women who first reared her. What ensues is a passionate journey through a landscape charged with the supernatural and scarred by political violence, in a novel that bears witness to the traditions, suffering, and wisdom of an entire people.

Comments: Breath, Eyes, Memory is a moving story about a daughter and mother tied together by a terrible secret. Raised in Haiti by her aunt, Sophie is suddenly shipped off to the United States at the age of 12 when her mother, whom she barely knows, asks for her. Sophie's new life is not an easy one as she learns a family secret that has haunted her mother for many years. She struggles with her own issues caused by her upbringing and her mother's personal demons as she comes of age. Edwidge Danticat weaves an intricate story about life, tradition, and family. The novel touches upon subject matter that speaks out to women who have been in similar situations.

I do wish the author had delved more deeply into the characters and their back-story. I felt that I only got a glimpse at the characters and was not really allowed to more fully understand them. Edwidge Danticat shows a lot of promise in this novel. I read one of her later novels, The Farming of Bones, a couple of years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. I am looking forward to reading more by this author.

Favorite Part: I enjoyed most the time I spent in the beginning of the book with aunt Atie and Sophie.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Review of Tales From a Child of the Enemy by Ursula Duba

1995, Penguin Books
155 pgs
Nonfiction
Rating: * (Outstanding)


Reason for Reading: I first heard about this little book from an online reading group, although I can’t for the life of me remember which one. I am not really sure what made me take it off my shelf to read, only that I wanted something simple and yet in line with what I have been reading so far this month (July, 2006).

From the Publiser: A German woman recalls her childhood in the rubble of Hitler's Germany--and the shattering revelation, years later, of the Holocaust in this haunting sequence of prose poems. Interwoven with these are the wrenching stories of the Holocaust survivors and their children who were her neighbors in an Eastern neighborhood in Brooklyn in the mid-sixties. Duba's confrontation with her heritage is unflinching and the stories hard to forget.

Comments: The prose is simple, the stories quick to read, and yet each poem, each story in Ursula Duba’s book share a piece of Germany’s darker history.

A couple of the poems are so full of a child’s innocence. The story about the carpet bombings, the author’s expectations that a variety of different carpets would be falling from the sky brought to mind my childhood fear of water buffalos when I thought they would be stampeding down the street. At the age of five, I had been quick to check to make sure the door was locked, not knowing that a water buffalo was not actually an animal but a source of water. There was also the story the family going on vacation to see the ruins of castles. Why travel so far to see the ruins when they lived among ruins, the children wondered.

Having grown up in Germany, being educated during the time of the 2nd World War, Ms. Duba showed through her poetry that history was not taught in the same way it is now. German children were not made aware of the atrocities committed within their own country. It was only after the war, while on a blind date, that Ms. Duba learned the truth and began her own exploration into her country’s dark history, a history she had lived through and yet had not known about. She shares some of the stories of neighbors and friends in her book, about the separation and loss of family, the guilt, and anger at what had happened. She also takes a look into the hearts of her own family and the impact the war had on non-Jewish Germans, as well as their attitudes during and after the war.

Two poems in particular stood out for me in Ms. Duba’s book. The one called "Footbinding" was one, about the hypocrisy between her mother’s philosophy that men are the hammer and women the anvil as compared to the unjust treatment and practices that other cultures practiced, such as the Chinese and their foot binding of young girls. The other was the poem, "Who Knew the Murderers", in which a Holocaust survivor asks Ms. Duba about her family history and what her family did during the 2nd World War. “They didn’t know about it,” is Ms. Duba’s reply when asked what her family thought about the atrocities that took place, the murdering of millions of people. The survivor wonders how, in all her years, she has yet to meet a German who knew what was being done and yet how was it possible that so many people had been contained and led to slaughter?

Although simple in its presentation, Ms. Duba’s book is thought provoking and conscience raising. This is a book I think would serve a good purpose as required reading in school. It not only reminds us of the horror of the Holocaust, how a civilized society can become barbaric, but also, that the Germans are struggling to overcome their dark history as well.

Favorite Part: I’ve actually already mentioned my three favorite parts: The poems: "Carpet Bombing", "Footbinding", and "Who Knew the Murderers".

Miscellaneous: I was glancing over my list of books read so far this month and was shocked to see how many I have read. This makes book 11 for the month. I was only anticipating reading five or six books this month. It’s been a rich experience at that. I have had the fortunate of reading many touching books during the month of July.

Review of Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar

2001, Picador
271 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: Bombay is awake.

Reason for Reading: Continuing on my journey in books outside the U.S., I decided that Bombay, India was the next stop I would make. I enjoyed the first book by this author I read the year before.

Synopsis from Barnes and Noble Website: At the wedding of a young man from a middle-class apartment building in Bombay, the men and women of this unique community gather together and look back on their youthful, idealistic selves and consider the changes the years have wrought. The lives of the Parsi men and women who grew up together in Wadi Baug are revealed in all their complicated humanity: Adi Patel's disintegration into alcoholism; Dosamai's gossiping tongue; and Soli Contractor's betrayal and heartbreak. And observing it all is Rusi Bilimoria, a disillusioned businessman who struggles to make sense of his life and hold together a fraying community.

Comments: Taking readers into the hearts and minds of several residents of Wadi Baug, Thrity Umrigar leads us through their pasts, sifting through the memories of love, loss, guilt, and long held pride. This is a novel about life, regrets, and survival. There was also a part of the story, sort of an undercurrent that later would become more prominent in the book, of the classism and cultural differences between religious and ethnic groups.

The author’s writing style is beautiful. It flows well and took me right into the lives of the characters and into the heart of Bombay. Ms. Umrigar has created characters whose plights raise an unavoidable sympathy. I wanted to shake Rusi out of his self-imposed fortress, make him let go of his pride and realize that he and Coomi still have a chance at finding the happiness they thought was lost long ago. My heart ached for Tehmi, her loss of love and her will to live beyond just mere survival, and also for Soli, who watched love walk out the door and gave up. I grew frustrated with Dosamai and her desire to stamp out the happiness of others that she herself felt she could not have, her heart darkened by bitterness. I laughed at the image of Jimmy chasing the pig, cheering him on for the sake of love. And then there was Adi Patel whose guilt drove him to the bottle and from the woman he loved.

I came away from this book with a feeling of melancholy and yet also with a sense of hope. I felt sadness for all the time wasted on guilt, regret, and anger. Still, I felt hope because of the love that still exists in the hearts of many of the characters, the community’s protectiveness and togetherness, and for the future. Bombay Time is a book I see myself wanting to read again at some later point in my life.

Favorite Part: The story of Tehmi and Cyrus.

Miscellaneous: I wish I had chosen a different time to read this particular book. My reading mood is craving something lighter after having read so many thought provoking and rather heavy topic books.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Rating System

There is nothing like ice cold water on a hot summer day. I'm armed with a bottle and a book to keep me company since my husband is on his way to battle in the Guild Wars (for those who don't know, it's an interactive computer game).

I am currently reading RG Willem's Targets of Affection, a book I am reviewing for Front Street Reviews (http://www.frontstreetreviews.com/). It is the first book for the site I will be reviewing, and I am excited to be a part of the reviewing team there.

I thought perhaps I should give a breakdown of my rating system that I use for my blog reviews. I decided against a numeric or letter grading scale because it can be confusing. I tend to enjoy most of the books I read, and so a top heavy scale is much more functional for me. I do use that infamous "+" now and then for the inbetween ratings, but basically my scale goes something like this:

Excellent (a book that makes me exclaim, "Wow!" upon finishing it. This is my highest rating.)
Very Good
Good
Fair
Poor (I didn't like it--a rating I rarely give a book because I tend not to finish books I don't like, and I won't rate books I do not finish; it just seems wrong to do so.)

Happy Reading!

Review of The Attack by Yasmina Khadra

2005, Doubleday
257 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Very Good +)

First Sentence: I don’t remember hearing an explosion.

Reason for Reading: Although this book was on my radar to a small degree, it especially became my target when I read a couple of comments made my online book friends, both of whom couldn’t finish the book because it was too depressing. What does that say about me? Ha! Despite that, I was drawn to the topic of the book, wanting to understand how and why someone would chose to be a suicide bomber, especially in today’s society when it seems like there is another bombing every day.

From the Publisher : Dr. Amin Jaafari, an Arab-Israeli citizen, is a surgeon at a hospital in Tel Aviv. Dedicated to his work, respected and admired by his colleagues and community, he represents integration at its most successful. He has learned to live with the violence and chaos that plague his city, and on the night of a deadly bombing in a local restaurant, he works tirelessly to help the shocked and shattered patients brought to the emergency room. But this night of turmoil and death takes a horrifying personal turn. His wife's body is found among the dead, with massive injuries, the police coldly announce, typical of those found on the bodies of fundamentalist suicide bombers. As evidence mounts that his wife, Sihem, was responsible for the catastrophic bombing, Dr. Jaafari is torn between cherished memories of their years together and the inescapable realization that the beautiful, intelligent, thoroughly modern woman he loved had a life far removed from the comfortable, assimilated existence they shared.
Comments: I think the publisher best described this novel: ”The Attack portrays the reality of terrorism and its incalculable spiritual costs. Intense and humane, devoid of political bias, hatred, and polemics, it probes deep inside the Muslim world and gives readers a profound understanding of what seems impossible to understand.”

Dr. Amin Jaafari had no idea what his wife had planned nor any idea she had been involved with any terrorist organization. He believed he and his wife were happy. He was successful in his career and widely respected in the community. It came as an utter shock that his wife may have felt differently. So when Amin discovers what his wife has done, he is determined to find out why. Where did he fail? Did she try to give him a sign that she was unhappy and he did not see it? Yasmina Khadra takes readers into the mind of Amin as he struggles with denial, anger, grief, and the need to know why.

There is so much I want to write about this book and yet I do not know where to begin or how to put my thoughts into words. The subject matter is so pertinent to what is going on in the world today in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. The Attack is a powerful and intensely emotional book that offers readers into a mindset so little understood by those in the Western World.

I came away from this book being reminded that no good will come from all the violence. It’s a never ending cycle—everyone blaming everyone else. I don’t know where it started, whose to blame, only that now everyone is at fault for some infraction . . . The answer, the solution, isn’t violence.

Favorite Part: My favorite part of the book was the conversation between Zeev and Amin. Zeev is the kind of person I think it would be fun to sit and converse with. He was a refreshing character in a very disturbing book. Dr. Amin was very lucky that he had such loyal and supportive friends around him during such a difficult time. I admired how they stuck by him and tried to help him through it all despite what his wife had done.

Miscellaneous: Author Yasmina Khadra is a psuedonym for Mohammed Moulessehoul, an exiled Algerian writer.

Review of Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

1984, Simon and Schuster
279 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Good +)

First Sentence: Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.

Reason for Reading: I couldn’t decide between three books and so I turned to my husband and asked him if I should visit Shanghai, Bombay or Israel/Palestine. He chose Shanghai and so off I went . . .

From the Publisher: "Jim is separated from his parents in a world at war. To survive, he must find a strength greater than all the events that surround him." "Shanghai, 1941 - a city aflame from the fateful torch of Pearl Harbor. In streets full of chaos and corpses, a young British boy searches in vain for his parents. Imprisoned in a Japanese concentration camp, he is witness to the fierce white flash of Nagasaki, as the bomb bellows the end of the war ... and the dawn of a blighted world." J. G. Ballard's enduring novel of war and deprivation, internment camps and death marches, and starvation and survival is an honest coming-of-age tale set in a world thrown utterly out of joint.

Comments: There are many reasons why I prefer to read a book before I see the movie based on that particular book. Unfortunately, I was unable to do that in this case. It was years after first seeing the movie, Empire of the Sun, that I realized it was based on a book. Better late than never, I suppose.

Empire of the Sun is one of my favorite movies and therefore the book had a lot to live up to. Having seen the film several times, my image of Jim will always be that of a young Christian Bale and Basie will always wear John Malkovich’s face. Shanghai and the internment camp just outside the city will always be the version Steven Spielberg created.

In the novel, J.G. Ballard shares his experiences in Shanghai and the Lunghua Camp during World War 2, weaving his own experiences into a fictional tale that tells the story of a young British boy, Jim, who is separated from his parents as the war begins and forced into an internment camp with other European and American civilians. Readers experience the war and life in the camp through the eyes of a boy who doesn’t quite understand all that is going on around him. And yet, Jim understands enough to know how to survive-he learns quickly to adapt both physically and mentally and his resilience keeps him alive. Throughout the book, Jim maintained a sort of naivety that made him a more endearing character, even as his experiences hardened him. He took joy where he could and being so young, it was easier for him to accept what was happening to him and use it to his advantage. He knows that his friends will only use him until they no longer need him. J.G. Ballard pulled no punches in describing the horrible conditions, the death, and the war.

Favorite Part: My favorite part was when the Japanese pilot hands Jim a mango in the airfield. Jim’s love for planes and admiration for the Japanese soldiers was a constant reminder that we are all human. One of my favorite characters in the novel is Dr. Ransome. He was most like a father figure for Jim, constantly looking out for his well being—his health and his education.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Review of the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

1993, Harper San Francisco
167 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Outstanding)



First Sentence: The Alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought.

Reason for Reading: This is a book that came recommended by several different people, however, it was one of my pen pals’ recommendation that finally made me decide to purchase it. I chose to read it when I did because it was the book calling to me the loudest from my shelves of books waiting to be read.

From the Publisher: Paulo Coelho's enchanting novel has inspired a devoted following around the world, and this tenth anniversary edition, with a new introduction from the author, will only increase that following. This story, dazzling in its powerful simplicity and inspiring wisdom, is about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasures found within. Lush, evocative, and deeply humane, the story of Santiago is an eternal testament to the transforming power of our dreams and the importance of listening to our hearts.

Comments: The Alchemist is the tale of a young Andalusian shepherd who sets out on a journey to follow his dream. The shepherd, Santiago, travels through Spain into Africa, crosses the Sahara Desert to reach the Pyramids of Egypt in hopes of finding his unknown treasure. With encouragement and help from several different people along the way, including an alchemist who helps Santiago listen to his heart and realize his dream.

Such a simple book and yet such a deep lesson about hope, love, conquering fear, and striving to be the best a person can be. It is also a story of interconnectedness—between people as well as the life around us. Upon finishing the book, I understand what the publisher Harper Collins meant when it referred to the book as being like “getting up at dawn and seeing the sun rise while the rest of the world sleeps.” That’s truly what it feels like.

Favorite Part: I think my favorite scene in The Alchemist is when the main character is talking with the desert, the wind, the sun and “the hand that wrote all.” It was a revelation for the reader as well as the characters in the book.

Read what Florinda had to say about this book:
The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

Review of The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

2003, Viking
229 pgs
Historical Fiction
Rating: * (Very Good)


First Sentence: Peering through the peephole of her apartment door, the old woman didn't know what to do.

Reason for Reading: Since I seem to be in a mood for historical fiction outside of the U.S., I thought Russia might be the next place I should visit. This book most caught my interest when I was deciding what to read next.

From the Publisher: Drawing from decades of work, travel, and research in Russia, Robert Alexander re-creates the tragic, perennially fascinating story of the final days of Russian monarchs Nicholas and Alexandra as seen through the eyes of the Romanov's young kitchen boy, Leonka.

Comments: The novel, The Kitchen Boy, begins with a knock on the door as American Kate retraces her grandfather’s past. From that point on, in a shift in viewpoint, her grandfather, who is determined to record his story and see his granddaughter carry out his last promise to the Romanov family, tells the story of the last days of the Romanov family in the summer of 1918. His heart is heavy with regret for the part he played in the brutal deaths of one of the most famous families in Russia as he shares his story about the family’s captivity, their strength, hope, and love for each other.

The author, Robert Alexander, captured the essence of his characters, painting a portrait of a family with his words that creates unavoidable sympathy and compassion, even with the knowledge that the Tsar and his wife had not always made the best decisions in leading their Russia. As the fate of the Romanov family, including the children, is played out, it is hard not to wish it could have been different despite the reality that their deaths were imminent.

My first thought upon finishing the book is that the outcome was not what I expected, although I did expect some sort of twist in the end. The story of the Romanov’s has been romanticized over the years, different versions of history being told and retold with a variety of outcomes. Robert Alexander’s fictional version of the story is one in many, but definitely worth taking the time to read. Although simplistic in writing style, The Kitchen Boy held a great amount of depth and insight.

Favorite Part: The hope that Sister Antonina and Novice Marina’s visits brought the family was perhaps my favorite part of the story. I came away with a lot of respect for the Tsar and his wife in the end—their strength and love for their family held them together right through to the end. It was very admirable.

Miscellaneous: Now to do a little research on the Romanov family . . .

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Review of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory


2001, Touchstone Books
664 pgs
Historical Fiction
Rating: * (Good)

First Sentence: I could hear a roll of muffled drums.

Reason for Reading: This book was a Christmas gift from my parents. I chose to read it now because it is an upcoming buddy read for one of my online groups.

From the Publisher: When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of Henry VIII. Dazzled by the king, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realizes just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane and she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. Then Mary knows that she must defy her family and her king, and take her fate into her own hands.

A rich and compelling tale of love, sex, ambition, and intrigue, The Other Boleyn Girl introduces a woman of extraordinary determination and desire who lived at the heart of the most exciting and glamorous court in Europe and survived by following her own heart.

Comments: Perhaps I might have enjoyed this book more if I wasn’t appalled by the behavior of so many of the characters right from the very first. The young sisters, Mary and Anne Boleyn were pawns from the very beginning in gaining their family power and status in England. With what at first seemed to be a play for more land and money, soon became a game for the king’s affection and the throne. And it didn’t matter the cost. But for every victory, there was a consequence as the family soon discovered.

Philippa Gregory does have a talent for writing a historical novel that doesn’t feel at all like one. And despite it’s size, the book was a fairly quick read. She did not bog the book down with historical details and a description, kept the pace moving steadily, and was able to bring the historical characters to life.

At times I felt sorry for King Henry VIII, and yet his temper and rash decisions made that impossible. With the help of his confidants, including Anne, he bent his own religious beliefs to suit his needs. While religious interpretation is nearly always up for questioning, he used it for his own purpose and gain. It was out of that that he created the Church of England and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

I had little sympathy for Anne throughout the book; however, I shed a tear with Mary at the end—more for Mary’s sake than Anne’s. George was a character I liked and hoped would come out of it okay. He was truly a man who was unable to find any sort of happiness of his own without suffering grave consequences had the truth come out. Mary was much more sympathetic and definitely a good choice of narrator for the story. She still had her faults, but was by far the most promising of the Boleyn siblings.

Ms. Gregory’s book brought out some of the class differences between those living in England at the time, especially in how children are raised. The novel touched upon the double standard of how men may have any number of women as bedmates regardless of marital status and yet it is a crime punishable by death if a married woman does the same.

In the end, I came away having enjoyed reading The Other Boleyn Girl; however, the first part of the book felt more like a juicy gossip column with all the secrets and games played between the courtiers being put into print. I can see why some would find this book a great introduction into historical fiction because of the author’s story telling style. It was light fare.

Favorite Part: William Stafford’s courting of Mary was my favorite part. He was a refreshing change from the Boleyn/Howard family as well as from the Court itself. Finally a character I could like and respect!

Miscellaneous: I figured my vacation week was a good time to tackle this hefty book—although it read quickly anyway. My husband has a flat tire and wouldn’t you know it, the people at the car place replaced the wrong tire!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Review of Lifeless by Mark Billingham


2006, William Morrow & Company
386 pgs
Mystery
Rating: * (Good +)


First Sentence: I won’t waste any time asking how you’ve been, because I know, and I don’t much care.

Reason for Reading: This is a Harper Collins First Look book I was selected to preview. I put my name into the drawing to read it because the synopsis caught my interest.

Comments: It is rare that I read a book in a series out of order, but when the opportunity arose to preview Mark Billingham’s latest, I decided to give it a try. Although at times I felt that I was missing some of the back-story to the characters and previous cases that haunted some of them, I had no trouble following the story in Lifeless. It is a book that touches on topics relevant to today.

Right from the beginning, it is clear that the main character, detective Tom Thorne, is going through a rough patch in his life. His father who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s recently died in a suspicious fire and his superiors thought he had come back to work too soon and put him on a desk job pulling together inane statistics. Recent murders among the homeless population in London seem to have the authorities stumped and Tom Thorne sees this as an opportunity to go undercover to see what he can find out. While his superiors suspect they’ve got a random serial killer on their hands, Tom has other ideas. He believes the killer has a distinct purpose and is targeting specific victims. Tom finds he fits in quite well on the streets among the junkies, boozers, and mentally ill. It becomes more important to solve the crime quickly when it appears Tom’s cover may be blown. Tom and his team have their work cut out for them as they find all the pieces and begin to put them together in hopes of finding a killer and his purpose behind the crimes.

I haven’t had the privilege of reading too many British mysteries other than Anne Perry and P.D. James novels among a scattering of others. I enjoyed Mark Billingham’s gritty story telling style. He stepped inside the homeless community and brought them into a more personal light, reminding readers that they are in fact just like everyone else. The novel also touched upon the topic of homelessness among soldiers. Between one and three to one in five have spent time in the armed forces in the United Kingdom. I don’t doubt that the number of former American soldiers is just as high. While there are some services in place to try and avoid this problem, it is obviously insufficient and not nearly enough.

I will definitely be reading the previous books in the series. Mark Billingham has a new fan of his Tom Thorne series.

Favorite Part: At one point in the novel, Tom is having a conversation with his colleague and they are discussing how close they are to being on the streets themselves. Two paychecks, he says. How true this rings for many people in today’s society.

Miscellaneous: I was actually supposed to read this book back in May, however, there was some sort of printing or shipping error that delayed the book being sent to me. I am glad it finally arrived!

Review of Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

2005, Putnam Publishing Group
515 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Outstanding)

First Sentence: A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.

Reason for Reading: The comments made by fellow book readers made me curious and so when the book was selected as a group read for one of my online book groups, I decided to give it a try.

Comments: The novel begins in July of 2005, set in the Pyrenees Mountains, as the main character, Alice, is drawn to a cave where she finds two skeletons, an altar, and what appears to be the pattern of a labyrinth. She soon finds herself in the middle of an ancient mystery—one where a secret long protected now risks being revealed. There are people who wish to uncover the secret and use the power that the secret holds for their own purpose, one woman in particular who seeks power more than anything else. Another seeks to destroy what is kept hidden and he will kill whoever stands in his way.

As Alice’s story unfolds, memories of a life many centuries before are like shadows in her mind. Her present is linked to the past, to the story of Alaïs, whose tale is also told in the pages of Labyrinth.

Alaïs’ story begins in 1209 in Southern France, on the eve of a terrible crusade to rid the lands of heretics and the like. Intendant Pelletier, Alaïs’ father, takes her into his confidence and tells her of a secret he has long held dear. He puts in her safe keeping a ring and coin, inscribed with a labyrinth, which will identify a guardian of the Grail. She later is given a book that must not fall into the wrong hands. It is one of three books, which had been kept separate for safe keeping, each hidden and kept by a guardian of the Noublesso de los Seres. As Carcassonne begins to fall, it is up to Alaïs to keep the secret safe.

I have heard much in the way of negative reviews about this book and a scattering of positive ones. I had no trouble following the story or keeping the characters straight, which were common complaints made. I found the story mesmerizing, full of suspense as well as drama. Although toted as another story of the Holy Grail (which in this novel offers a fresh and different twist to the original stories), this novel really is so much more than that. It is a story about love, betrayal, conspiracy, faith, murder, and sacrifice.

I was most drawn to the historical story in the novel, reading about the history of the times as well as Alaïs’ story. The cruelty of the crusaders, the massacre of a people kin to genocide because of a difference in religious beliefs, bled from the pages. My heart went out to the Cathers and Jews, as well as others who did not quite fit into the fold of the Catholic Church during that time.

Alaïs’ character touched my heart—her strength and unfailing sense to do what was right were admirable. It was her story that most captivated me. I like to see strong female characters in leading roles, and Labyrinth had several.

Labyrinth was a book I found best read in quiet moments where I could dedicate my full attention to it. This is definitely a book to savor. The author’s writing style is very descriptive and at first I worried this might detract from the book, however, it suits the mood and tone of the book very well. Labyrinth is not a fast paced thriller, nor is it an easy read. It has a depth that comes more often to literary fiction than a suspense novel. It is a novel rich with history and heart.

Favorite Part: The historical portion of the story most intrigued me. I know so little about that time period, including about the Crusades. Alaïs and Sajhë were my favorite characters—they both were such honorable people. Their dedication and sacrifice was admirable. Although at first I wasn’t sure about him, Alaïs’ husband, Guilhem du Mas, earned by respect by the end of the book. His heart was in the right place.

Miscellaneous: Occasionally a book I’ve just finished leaves behind a sort of afterglow that I can’t quite shake. And this was one of them. I truly loved the story and it not only earns a perfect rating from me, but it also is among my top two reads so far this year.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Review of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Durant

2004, Random House Publishing
397 pgs
Fiction
Rating: * (Very Good +)


First Sentence: No one had see her naked until her death.

Reason for Reading: The story sounded interesting and it came highly recommended.

From the Publisher: "Alessandra Cecchi is not quite fifteen when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family's Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter's abilities." But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra's parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control. Alessandra and her native city are caught between the Medici state, with its love of luxury, learning, and dazzling art, and the hellfire preaching and increasing violence of Savonarola's reactionary followers. Played out against this turbulent backdrop, Alessandra's married life is a misery, except for the surprising freedom it allows her to pursue her powerful attraction to the young painter and his art.

Comments: I was not sure what to expect when I began reading The Birth of Venus. My interest in reading came and went, and during one of the moments of interest, I signed up to be a part of a bookring. Right before I picked up the book, I wondered if perhaps I was having one of my lack of interest moments but the pressure of getting the book back in the mail and onto the next reader spurred me on.

It did not take long for me to be swept away in Alessandra’s memories of life during the late 15th century. I was taken back into history during a time of great art and beauty as well as religious turmoil and persecution. Although not a connoisseur of that time in history, my curiosity has grown and I will no doubt eventually find my way to other books set in that time period.

The book was much more than I expected. A serial killer is on the lose in Florence, oppression in the name of God threatens the city, family in turmoil, spiritual questioning and growth, and forbidden love fill the pages of The Birth of Venus.

Sarah Dunant crafted a beautiful story that stirred the heart as well as the mind. Alessandra is such a strong character, both in will and heart. She was compassionate and creative. It was impossible not to be drawn to her, to share in her struggles and triumphs.

Favorite Part: The reunion between the painter and Alessandra was perhaps my favorite scene in the book. The chemistry between the two characters leapt off the pages. The character of Alessandra’s husband pleasantly surprised me. From the description of their marriage in the summaries of the book that I read, I was sure he would be despicable. However, I had a lot of respect for him and felt he was a good man overall. Erila was another favorite character of mine. She was full of spirit and a loyal friend to Alessandra despite her station in life.

Miscellaneous: This book was part of a bookring through BookCrossing. It was sent to me from Roscoe, Minnesota.

By Way of Introduction


I'll be honest with you. The reason I decided to set up this blog at this very moment instead of tomorrow or two months from now is because I am avoiding the book I am reading. It isn't that I am not enjoying the book on some level. I do like it. I think I am in the mood for something different, something more intense and suspenseful. And so, here I sit at my computer, the storm clouds settling in overhead for another thunderstorm, wondering what in the world I should write in my first blog post.

Whenever anyone asks me what my hobbies and interests are, the first thing that comes to mind is reading. I love to read. It's like breathing air. I rarely go anywhere without a book and on those rare occasions that I don't have one around, I feel as if I am missing a limb. My interest in reading goes beyond just that. I also have an obsession for books. I collect them at a rate faster than I can read them. Much to my darling husband's chagrin, our spare bedroom is now the TBR (To Be Read) room, full of the hundreds of books I own but have yet to read. I am indeed a bookaholic.

I began keeping a reading journal about three years ago, jotting down my thoughts and feelings about the various books I read. I don't pretend to be any good at reviewing the books I read, mind you, which is probably why it's taken me so long to get up the courage to start a blog. Still, there is a part of me that wants to share my thoughts with others out there and this is one opportunity to do that.

Along with my book reviews, I hope to share some of my other musings with you, whether it be about books, sometimes movies or television, and on the rare occasion something outside of those topics completely. I hope you will enjoy visiting my blog!


Currently Reading: Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar
Just Finished: The Attack by Yasmina Khadra
Just Watched: Clerks II