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!

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Review: When Everything Changed by Gail Collins

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the PresentWhen Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author has done a tremendous amount of research in this non-fiction account of the history of American women from 1960 to the present. I really enjoyed reading in detail about events in the 60s and 70s that I only knew vaguely. Collins definitely filled in the gaps for me and really illustrated how different life is now for me as an American housewife and was as a teenager growing up in high school and college. So different in fact that I realize how much I have taken for granted. Not being able to apply for a credit card as a woman? Not being able to purchase a house as a single woman? Wearing pants is outrageous? These things are crazy, unthinkable to me in how I look at and live in the world today. I also liked reading about the 80s and 90s especially where I could relate a bit more and remember some of the things that happened.

Now on to my not so favorite things about the book. I felt a little bit like I was on a merry go round that never stopped during many parts in the book. Such a great amount of research I liked, but sometimes felt she was beating a dead horse. Also, most of the accounts of the women were about the negative experiences they had, but there had to be some ladies that were thrilled to be cloistered at home with children and chores and some whose ambition was to be a wife and mother and had no desire to work or be looked at as anything more. So at times, the book became a bit tedious for me.

That said, I did still enjoy this read and would recommend it to anyone interested in the revolution of women since the 60s.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Moonwalking With Einstein chronicles the journey of Joshua Foer as he goes from observer on assignment to participant in the U.S. Memory Championships. It takes him one year to prepare for the big event and he has much help along the way from memory experts who claim that anyone can master these feats (memorizing several decks of cards, strings of numbers, names and faces, etc) using ancient memory techniques.

I have to admit I was drawn to this book because I feel like I often forget EVERYTHING! I didn't feel like such a dunce after I discovered a chart in the beginning of the book that says the average person forgets information quite quickly, about 50% after an hour and so on until a month later only a fraction of the information seems to be easily accessible. Our current reliance on a multitude of "external memory" devices, i.e. books, pencils and paper, and phones that remember telephone numbers, is the main problem. We just don't have to remember much in our heads anymore.

Foer has done a tremendous amount of research in this book covering some very eccentric characters including Kim Peek, the original Rainman, Daniel Temmet, a probable savant who can do some crazy memory stuff and Ben Pridmore who can memorize 1,528 in order in an hour and the order of a shuffled deck of playing cards in 33 seconds. During his year of training, Foer utilizes such techniques as the "memory palace" - basically a place you can walk through in your mind, placing the things you want to remember in different areas. The key is to imagineitems that you want to remember in unforgettable detail using all the senses you can. I did this on a very simple level and it works!

However, even after rigorously training for the memory championships, Foer says he still has trouble remembering everyday things and questions the usefulness of knowing how to memorize strings of numbers. But I do like the way he describes what he DID learn from this experiment,

How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember . . . no lasting joke, invention, insight or work of art was ever produced by an external memory . . . as the role of memory in our culture erodes faster than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories are the seat of our values and the source of our character.

View all my reviews

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Where She Went (If I Stay, #2)Where She Went by Gayle Forman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to If I stay, this time told from Adam's point of view. Three years ago, Mia came out of her coma, chose to stay and then went to Juilliard and out of Adam's life. Adam is now a bona-fide rock star with the life that goes with it but is still torn apart and confused at Mia's abrupt exit from his life. Mia is poised to become a classical cellist super star and they chance to run into each other in New York City for one night.

Where She Went is so gut-wrenching, I think I felt more emotion in this book than in the first one. Adam has what to some seem the perfect celebrity life, but inside he is still reeling. The author does an amazing job at describing this pain and anger and creating empathy for Adam. I could also see Mia's point of view and enjoyed finding out how the story unraveled.

View all my reviews

Review: Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer

Friday's ChildFriday's Child by Georgette Heyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Naive Hero has worshipped Lord Sheringham her whole life and in a bizarre twist of fate, she gets the opportunity to marry him. Though amiable, theirs is a marriage of financial convenience only, both vowing to stay out of each other's way. Sherry is quite surprised at the "scrapes" Hero gets herself into and finds himself playing rescuer more than he expected. What follows is a delightful story of misunderstanding, folly and love.

Another favorite Georgette Heyer for me. I liked the characters in this book quite a bit. Hero is innocent and gullible to a fault and the situations she gets herself into are really funny. She is also sweet and kind to everyone she meets and has a fierce loyalty to Sherry. Sherry has been given things easily his whole life but it hasn't made him unkind. I love the dialogue between the two of them. I also enjoy the friendships that Hero forms with Sherry's best friends and their protection of her.

One more to chalk up to my Georgette Heyer list!

View all my reviews

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping PointThe Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Malcolm Gladwell has a unique way of talking about subjects I have never in my life thought about. Gladwell defines The Tipping Point as, "a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action." He goes on to say that the world seems static and immoveable but with some penetrating observation, and "with the slightest push - in just the right place - it can be tipped." The Tipping Point is the "biography of an idea . . . the simplest way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves . . . Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."

Gladwell takes a provacative subject, supports it with vast research and palpable examples and gives this big idea the delight of a storybook. Gladwell takes us from the subways of New York to Sesame Street to Baltimore's drug and STD problem to Micronesia's suicide epidemic and back again to Airwalk and the groundbreaking campaign of Lambesis. And this doesn't even cover it all!

I most enjoyed the discussion of the filthy graffiti covered subway cars in New York in the 1980s and the associated high crime rate. A new subway director took seemingly simple ideas like cleaning up the graffiti and arresting fare-beaters and turned them into the start of a lower crime rate.

I loved this book. Gladwell's very readable non-fiction is fun to read and helps me feel that I am still an intelligent college grad who can understand concepts that stretch beyond motherhood and laundry

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston

The Monster of FlorenceThe Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Monster of Florence is a serial killer in Italy who has never been apprehended for 16 gruesome murders committed in the Florentine countryside. A look at the search for the killer and all the bumbles along the way.

I think what was even more horrifying to me than the gruesome murders of 16 people is the extreme miscarriage of justice in this unsolved murder mystery. This passage explains what I am talking about,

The case was the purest distillation of evil I had ever encountered . . . the evil of the depraved killings of a highly disturbed human being. But the case was about other kinds of evil as well. Some of the top investigators, prosecutors and judges in the case, charged with the sacred responsibility of finding the truth appeared to be more interested in using the case to leverage their power to greater personal glory. Having committed themselves to a defective theory, they refused to reconsider their beliefs when faced with overwhelming contradictory evidence. They cared more about saving face than saving lives, more about pushing their careers than putting the Monster behind bars.

Much of the book is about this hubris of prosecutors and police inspectors (two in particular) and the drastic results that follow. I can't believe how many different men have been convicted of this crime and later acquitted but with their lives ruined in the process.

A fascinating read, but less satisfactory to someone who wants a neatly tied up ending.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: How I live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live NowHow I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Troubled teen Daisy is sent to live with her cousins in the picturesque English countryside. Unfortunately her arrival coincides with the beginning of war and occupation with an Unnamed Enemy. Life becomes tragic and difficult as food, water, electricity and safety become scarce.

What I liked most about this book is the unique way it is written; all from Daisy's point of view. She is clever, witty and maintains a sense of humor even in the midst of tragedy.  I also love her cousin, Piper, who is sweet and guileless and has an uncanny knack of communicating with animals.  I'm not sure how I am supposed to feel about the cousin-love relationship that becomes such a part of Daisy's life but it seems to matter less when the Real World is falling apart.

Definitely a read that gives you a good think.

View all my reviews