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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