Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Silent in the Grave (Lady Julia, #1)Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can it get any better than this first line (or two):

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching on the floor.

I absolutely adored this Lady Julia Grey mystery. Newly widowed, Lady Julia is confronted by the dark and mysterious Brisbane with news that her husband's death was a murder. It takes many months for Lady Julia to accept this fact and return to Brisbane for help in finding the murdering scoundrel. What follows is a tangle of passion and deception as the two not only look for the murderer but try to contain the emotions that they feel for each other.

Written in my favorite time period, this novel takes place in upper-class Victorian England. The prose and details are delicious and I love the voice of Lady Julia Grey. Nicholas Brisbane is a Darcy-esque figure, complex and hard to figure out, but he shows his compassion in unexpected ways - like to the impoverished widow Birch. I also like watching lady Julia go from a mousy and sheltered widow to a woman who realizes that being useful is quite wonderful. The ending is a perfect setup for the next installment which I am enjoying immensely right now!

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Review: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

The Westing GameThe Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this clever little story about a collection of seemingly random people that come together when millionaire Sam Westing leaves them his fortune in his will, provided they find out who murdered him. What follows is a quirky story of many characters who bit by bit get closer to the truth.

I liked these different characters, especially brilliant and precocious 13-year-old Turtle Wexler. I felt the author did an amazing job of fleshing out these characters, and, love them or hate them, they have distinct personalities which clash and meld together in hilarious ways.

I finished this book in record time, really devouring it, I just wanted to find out how the story was going to end! This book is intelligently written, keeping the reader involved until the end, just when I thought I knew what the ending was going to be, there was another little twist, and another.

I don't know much about this author but look forward to searching out her other work.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title really explains everything you need to know about this book. It is about the experiences that the American Ambassador to Berlin and his family had during the 1930s when Hitler was chancellor and coming to power. The book focuses mostly on Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha, quite the player in today's terms. They are quite enchanted with Germany when they first arrive but find themselves more disgusted with the anti-Semitic events as time goes on. And while shocked at the things that are happening, they are quite powerless to do anything to stop it.

The top consular official in Berlin, George S Messersmith, America's consul general for germany since 1930 was convinced of Hitler's deranged government but thought few Americans realized the threat. This is a telling quote by Messersmith,

With few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.

I don't think much more needs to be said about the depravity of Hitler and the men he surrounded himself with.

I was a little disappointed in the book. Much of it seemed to focus on how Ambassador Dodd really wasn't suited for his position and that he didn't have the wealth to fete the local officials the way he should. There was tension between Dodd and the "pretty good club" back home in America who wanted him out. Another large chunk of the book focused on Dodd's daughter Martha and her many affairs with men, some even high in the Nazi system like Rudolf Diels. She was very sexual as the book kept pointing out and took great delight in sharing that with anyone she chose.

The book didn't seem to follow much of a plot like Larsen's book, The Devil in the White City, but was more just a random collection of situations. It was interesting to read about the Ambassador's meetings with Hitler. While putting great effort into making Germany the most powerful military nation, he would lie straight-faced about how he wanted peace for the whole world. Hitler was a demented maniac and I thought the book would be more about him, but I should have read the title a little closer I guess, not about him, but the American Ambassador family.

It was interesting to read about how the American government and the German people just didn't realize how destructive Hitler was starting to be. Even some Americans were unkind to Jews. It was different to see that perspective when all I have ever known is the horror of the Holocaust and the extreme un-political correctness of anti-Semitism.

I am always in awe of the enormous amount of research goes into writing a non-fiction book and Larsen definitely has my respect fort that. I just thought I would enjoy this book more than I did.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Russian WinterRussian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the absolutely gorgeous story of Nina Revskaya, once a star of the Bolshoi Ballet who decides to auction her extensive jewelry collection in hopes that it will put to rest memories of the past. Growing up in Stalinist Russia, Nina witnessed heartbreak and persecution as she saw dear friends taken away and makes a devastating mistake that shapes the rest of her life. And then there is Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian who believes that some of jewels he owns connects him to Nina. Grigori, along with auction house associate Drew Brooks decide to solve this mystery and figure out Grigori's confused past.

The author created a richly textured plot that unfolds slowly and gently like the petals of a flower opening, switching from present day Boston back to Russia in the 1950s. I like how she wrote the novel, but it takes some concentration to keep ahold of where the story line is going. I also really enjoyed her characters and feel that they are quite developed and easy to imagine. Learning about Russia during this time period was something new for me; really opened my eyes to the difficulty of living under Stalin's rule. I can't imagine worrying about every word you say or write, even in jest, because it could get you thrown in jail or worse.

The story also dealt with two of my favorite things - fine jewelry and the ballet. I love how the author begins each new chapter with a description of one of the pieces of jewelry up for auction. A neat way to weave the auction in and out of each part of the plot. Also, I liked reading about ballet and the costumes and the exercises, the toe shoes, the pain of joints and toes and the beauty created.

One of my other favorite things is the tender love story between two of the characters (I'm not going to say who) and how they find something in each other that they didn't think was possible. I read over and over again the passage where they have their first embrace - just a simple hug but it was so filled with emotion.

I am definitely looking forward to reading more of this author's creations.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

City of Fallen Angels (The Mortal Instruments, #4)City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Back in the city with the same old gang where someone is murdering Shadowhunters and leaving the bodies in Downworlder territory to be found. Simon is still working out life as a vampire and finds himself in demand because of his unique characteristic as a Daylighter. Jace and Clary are still in the struggle to settle as a couple. One minute things seem fine, but then Jace seems to be pulling away and Clary is left trying to figure out why.

This one has a pretty slow start, in fact I was frustrated for almost the first 100 pages and thought about putting it down. After that, the plot got going and I enjoyed the book more. Clare again creates a creepy and tangible setting and I like her depictions of warlocks and faeries. So, it is still more of the fun from the first three books, but that is a little bit of the problem, just feels a little recycled. There is a bad person out doing bad things and needs to be caught. I did enjoy the tension between Clary and Jace but it felt a little contrived. However, I did enjoy the ending and look forward to what happens next. And yes, I realize that this review is full of contradictions.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review: Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace

Leaving Van Gogh: A NovelLeaving Van Gogh: A Novel by Carol Wallace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Based on some historical fact, this is the story of the last days of Van Gogh. He resides in the small village of Auvers and is befriended by Dr. Gachet ( an actual person who Van Gogh once painted). Dr. Gachet struggles unsuccessfully to help Van Gogh through his mental instability and may have been instrumental in his suicide.

Doesn't sound like a meaty plot, does it? That's because it isn't. If I didn't love Van Gogh so much I would have found this one tedious in the extreme. Nothing happens! Van Gogh paints an amazing canvas, no one is going to ever buy it in his lifetime, so he is impoverished and supported by his loving but in the last stages of syphlis brother Theo who also has a family to provide for, Vincent has an episode of hysteria or maybe epilepsy and on and on. This is helped along by LOTS of internal musings by good old Dr. Gachet.

However, did I mention I love Van Gogh? So I enjoyed imagining him and fleshing him out as a human a little more. I had always heard about his difficult life and depression but this gave some more detail. I also thought more about how many great masters of art, literature or music have been "mad" or had physical difficulties like Beethoven's deafness. In modern times, perhaps many of them may have been diagnosed as bi-polar. So, while this didn't have an urgent plot, it did have some great information about my favorite artist and I really liked that.

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Review: Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

WenchWench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Told from the perspective of Lizzie, a 23-year-old slave, Wench is a tale of women slaves who are taken to a resort with their Masters each summer as their mistress. The slaveholders' wives are mostly left at home and they explain the presence of their women slaves as a necessity, "can't do without her cooking," etc. Lizzie actually loves her master and has born him two children, he treats her pretty well (just tying her to the front porch so she won't escape vs. beating her bloody in public.)

This is a hard story to stomach. I guess I have never thought much about the plight of women slaves specifically. They were property for work, but also for sexual lusts and no one cared or thought that it wasn't ok (besides the slaves). A line from the book really hit me, Big Mama is warns Lizzie to "prepare for a life of violation." It is heartbreaking that these women were basically raped over and over and over in their lives. Many times bearing children who would be torn away from them and sold. Some women would "fix" themselves so they wouldn't bear any more children that would be mistreated. Lizzie has the fortune of having her children with her and they are treated well and recognized as the Master's children. Lizzie hopes that one day they will be freed, but whether that will happen is questionable.

There is violence, there is somewhat graphic sex, there is heartbreak and souls being lost through repeated mistreatment. This isn't a happy book, but opened my eyes to these difficulties I had never thought about.

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