Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book 6: Instruments of Darkness

Set in 1780, the novel begins when Gabriel Crowther, a local scientist and recluse, receives a visit from Harriet Westerman after she has discovered a body on her morning walk.  Due to an article Crowther had written about forensics that Harriet happened to read, she feels he might be useful in helping discover the reason behind the death before the local law sweeps it under the carpet.  The novel goes back and forth between the country setting of West Sussex and a family in London, whose connection to West Sussex quickly becomes obvious.
Suspicions of the murder fall on the inhabitants of Thornleigh Hall, a place that seems to have a dark past.  Hugh, the current heir (only because the oldest son has disappeared), at one point was interested in Harriet's younger sister, but after an initial courtship he took to drink and moodiness.  In addition to flashing between locations, the novel also goes back five years in the past when Hugh served in the colonies fighting in the beginnings of the rebellion.
The murderer was fairly obvious early on in the novel, but I liked the large cast of characters that Robertson used.  None of them were exactly very original or even that well developed, but there was something about the novel that was rather endearing to me.  The author also did a good job of moving the plot forward (I still think of A Beautiful Blue Death when I read mysteries set in earlier time periods - the author was so concerned with developing the detective's quirks that the murder mystery took second place to tea and scones - definitely not something I'd recommend).  I'd recommend this to someone who is a mystery junkie and really enjoys historical fiction, but might be too simple a mystery or too superficial for a reader that is only one of the two.

Book 5: Catherine the Great

Considering that I majored in both history and gender studies, I must say that I felt that my knowledge of Catherine the Great was rather lacking: I knew she was originally German, that she adored the French before the French Revolution, that she rebelled against her husband and became the ruler of Russia, and that she had love affairs.  I also vaguely remember seeing a movie or miniseries about her on TV in Germany when I was much younger though I only recall one or two scenes, and couldn't even tell you at this point if it was a German production, or simply dubbed from another country (while trying to research this I discovered two films about Catherine the Great made in the 90s that would possibly fit the time line, one with Catherine Zeta Jones, and one with Julia Ormond).  While I learned quite a bit more about Catherine, I'm not quite sure how I feel overall about the book.
It's a well-written book, and very informative - there's absolutely no question about that.  It is also very engaging, and not a dry history.  For the most part, I think Massie also realizes that his readers may not be as familiar with Russian history as other topics in Western history and gives sufficient context.  Sometimes I wish the current popular history books would actually use end notes more to cite their facts rather than just listing sources at the end of the book.  Personally, I would have appreciated a family tree somewhere at the beginning or end of the book, or possibly a lineage of succession since the throne seemed to go through quite a few people between Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.  I also could have used a footnote in the beginning to give some context to the sums of money that were mentioned - when Massie states that Catherine received 100,000 rubles as a gift, it sounds like a large number, but I really had no clue what that would compare to today, or even how that compared to an average man's income in Russia.  Those are minor quibbles.  Still, while I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of the book about Catherine's struggles to rise to power, at the end I felt some ambivalence.  However, I'm not sure if my ambivalence was directed at the book or at Catherine - it's a bit hard to tell since this is a biography.  There were some things that Catherine did that I just didn't like that much, so I think in the end my issues are more with Catherine the person than this book about Catherine.
The first half of the book is a rather straight forward, linear narrative during which Massie chronicles the early life of Catherine, and gives context to some of the people that would play such important parts in her life, including her mother, the Russian empress Elizabeth, and her husband Peter.  Since Catherine wrote a memoir about this part of her life, Massie has some relatively intimate details to draw on, though of course they portray Catherine in a positive light.  Still, while I definitely felt sympathy for Catherine and her unhappy married life (her husband simply wasn't interested in her, even at the best of times, she was more of a companion than a marriage partner, making it rather impossible for her to produce an heir to the throne), Massie still managed to show a certain sympathy to the other people in her life, even as their actions affected Catherine in negative ways.  Elizabeth for example was erratic in her favor, but still had redeeming qualities though they come to light less as she gets older.  Catherine is always ambitious, and slowly learns to make the proper alliances, turning former enemies into allies, and using her spare time to improve herself intellectually.  While Massie certainly shows that Peter wasn't all bad, and in some cases was shaped by his early childhood, he definitely portrays him as a manchild that is in no way ready to lead a country, especially Russia given his hate of all things Russian and love of all things Prussian.
As a result, it is not a surprise that Catherine eventually took on a lover after nine years of marriage, and she and Massie both strongly imply that her son Paul is the offspring from that illicit relationship.  Her husband was wildly unpopular with the military, and with the help of another lover, Catherine gained the support of the military, allowing her to lead a coup d'etat against Peter, and become the ruler of Russia in her own right.  She didn't rule as a regent to her son - a German woman became the empress of Russia.  The fact that she was able to do this is rather impressive, but Russia had women rulers before her, so it's not as big a surprise in some ways as it may have been in other countries.
After this, the book focuses on themes in Catherine's rule.  Massie still tries to keep thing in chronological order, but given all the wars that were going on, he ends up talking about one at a time.  While this helps the reader keeps the wars and their battles straight, there is a disadvantage to this technique: many of these things were happening simultaneousley, so since Massie compartmentalizes these topics, it means the reader doesn't quite realize just how much was going on at any one point in the empire - the war with Turkey, rebellions in the east, the French revolution which severely frightened Catherine, especially given the rebellion she faced herself.  In the beginning of her reign, Catherine was idealistic, and began friendships with some of the most prominent philosophers of the period, to include Voltaire.  She even wanted to end serfdom.  By the end, she had become much harder, and feared the possibility of the serfs speaking out or fighting against their lot.  While this makes sense based on the Pugachev rebellion, it was a bit sad to see her become more jaded as time went.  Based on what Wikipedia says, there were more rebellions than this one, but Massie only briefly mentions one other incident with the serfs at the mines, and one ill-fated attempt to free a former chid tsar from imprisonment.
Her interactions with Poland especially struck me the wrong way - she first forced one of her former lovers to become the king, and then over the years, she along with the rulers of Prussia and Austria parcelled the country up between them.  Poniatowski never wanted to be king, and his last meeting with Catherine after over twenty years of separation was particularly sad to me.  He clearly stayed in love with her much longer than she remained interested in him, and her only reason for wanting him on the throne was that he woud be easy to manipulate.  While I think Massie focuses on showing how Catherine was rather just and lenient in the ways she governed, there were definitely a few occasions where I felt rather sorry for the way she reacted to people, Poniatowski being one of the big ones that comes to mind.
Catherine also made use of favorites like Russian emperors before her (well, empresses - when the rulers were male, the term mistresses was used).  Some of these helped her along politically.  Her first lover may or may not have been the one to get her pregnant with an heir, her third lover Orlov helped her gain the throne, and her fifth lover, Potemkin, was instrumental to Russia's success in the Crimean area.  Potemkin was possibly as ambitious as Catherine and their relationship was definitely odd, to say the least.  Massie portrays Catherine as someone that enjoyed having male companionship, and a series of men provided this to her as time went on.  She parted amicably with all of them, even the ones that cheated on her.
Catherine spent about half her life as the empress of Russia.  The book is basically evenly divided, spending about half its time on her thirty-three years before reaching the throne, and half on the thirty-four years as empress.  As I said, I quite liked the first half and felt it went into great detail.  However, I feel like maybe a larger percentage of the book could or should have been devoted to her time as empress since she had more responsibilities.  While Catherine certainly accomplished many things and became seen as an enlightened ruler of her time, I still would have liked to see a bit more analysis on why she acted the way she did in some cases.  She was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, and bought many pieces that would become cornerstones of Russia's art collection, she communicated with philosophers and rulers of the time, reformed certain parts of Russia, and yet for some reason, I still felt like there was something missing in this description.  I can't quite put my fingers on it - maybe I heard too much about Catherine's favorites, but especially the last part of the book, I didn't really feel like she was real.  It seemed more like Catherine had made an image of herself that she presented to the public, and the book didn't get beyond that public persona.  It is only so noticeable because the first half of the book seems to offer a more intimate glance at the woman.  Despite that, I still enjoyed the book and am glad I read, finally filling in a gap in my knowledge of this woman.  I admit I probably wouldn't have even thought to pick up a book about Catherine the Great if this new biography hadn't been published recently, so I definitely think it was a good thing that Massie wrote this book instead of the market being saturated with yet another book about the Tudors.  Maybe this will lead me to a few more biographies on the subject that focus on different aspects of Catherine's rule.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book 4: The Lost Wife

When I was younger, I read a lot of novels and books about World War II.  These topics still tend to show up quite a bit in my reading lists, though I no longer necessarily pursue them actively.  However, if someone recommends a Holocaust book or I stumble across one at the book store, I will usually pick it up.  While browsing through Barnes and Noble last weekend (I had a four day weekend, and somehow, whenever I feel like I should leave the house but have no clue what to do, I always end up at the bookstore with a chai latte or white chocolate mocha), I noticed this novel on the shelf due to the vintage looking picture in a European setting (it's Prague, but I wasn't looking closely enough to consciously register that at first glance).  After reading the back cover, I was sold.  Now, as many Holocaust novels as I've read, I am not sure if I'm a good judge of them.  Since it is a topic I have read so much over the past, one would think that would make me a harsh critic.  Instead, I seem to have a blind/soft spot for these novels, and I will rarely find faults with them.  For example, in any other novel, I would probably be skeptical of the love story or slightly cynical, but in this case, I basically accept that these characters meet and fall in love quickly (I also started this right after A Discovery of Witches, so I may have felt it was unfair that I bought Josef and Lenka's love story but not Diana and Matthew's, but really these characters are more developed in half the time).
The novel begins with a wedding in the present day.  The groom's grandfather and the bride's grandmother meet for the first time at the rehearsal dinner, and the grandfather feels that he knows the grandmother from somewhere.  The chapter ends with the man, Josef, declaring that he is her husband.  From there, the novel flashes back in time to Prague in the 1930s, and alternate chapters between Lenka and Josef.  The set up is interesting: while Richman alternates between the two characters, the stories are actually very different.  Josef tells a story of life after loss, and his marriage to Amalia, another Jewish woman, whom he met after the end of the war.  While discussing his life after the war, he occasionally goes back further as he reminisces about certain scenes in his life.  However, for the most part, Josef tells about his life with Amalia and his children, their quiet and muted love that is rather passionless but safe.  Both suffer from survivor's guilt, and Josef remains haunted by the thoughts of his first love, Lenka.  Normally, it would bug me if someone was still obsessing about their first love after fifty years, but this wasn't a normal break up - Josef believes that he lost her to the war and the Holocaust.  It's a relationship that ended unnaturally and suddenly and as result, it haunts him.  Lenka's story on the other hand is one of survival, covering her time in Prague, as the rules get stricter and stricter until she and her family are moved to Terezin (Theresienstadt), the "model" concentration camp, or the one that Nazi officials used to show the Red Cross that they weren't mistreating the Jews.
Since Richman uses Terezin as a setting, she introduces many actual historical figures.  Lenka was an art student, and ends up working in the art department, surrounded by men and women whose secret work, buried throughout the camp, survived the Holocaust to give witness to their experiences.  Some of the people Lenka meets and knows include Bedrich Fritta, Leo Haas and Otto Unger.  In fact, Richman's description of Otto's death reminded me of a scene from the TV miniseries Holocaust (back before Netflix, my dad would borrow very random things from the library) which may well have been inspired by the actual artist's life.  The miniseries Holocaust and the film The Last Butterfly both explored life in Terezin since it was such an oddity, though I can't think of many novels at this moment that devote much time to Terezin.  I'm sure there are some, but most tend to focus on the bigger camps (Auschwitz was also addressed in this novel since that's where many of Terezin's prisoners were eventually deported to).  The prisoners of Terezin lived in squalor, misery, and fear, and yet they also had some chances and freedoms that weren't available in other camps.  Richman explains in an interview that her original intent with this novel was to write about the Holocaust from an artist's perspective, and the love story idea came later after she overheard a conversation about a situation similar to the one that starts off the novel.
I thought the novel worked well; obviously, the reader knows that Lenka will survive, but I really enjoyed how Richman explored these characters' lives.  I would warn that part of the back cover was misleading (at least to me).  At one point, it states that "an unexpected encounter in New York leads to an inescapable glance of recognition, and the realization that providence has given Lenka and Josef one more chance."  This novel doesn't explore this second chance.  The wedding is used purely as a framing device, and while part of me was curious how things would play out between Josef and Lenka after all these years, the novel ended exactly where it needed to end.  Basically, I definitely recommend this novel, although one further caveat: my copy of the novel calls it "The Sophie's Choice of this generation" - I feel like that statement does the novel a disservice, not because this isn't a good novel, but because I don't think the storylines of these two novels compare or are really that parallel to each other.  I could be wrong on that, though - Sophie's Choice didn't actually leave much of an impression on me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book 3: Bury the Chains

I actually picked this book up because I was interested in Hochschild's book To End All Wars, but I wanted to check out his writing style before buying a hardcover book by an author I'd never read. While I still haven't picked up To End All Wars, another one of his books, King Leopold's Ghost, has made it to my to read pile since I started reading this. Being an American, I of course had the same American history class in 8th grade, 11th grade, and then the AP version in 12th grade. I also majored in history (among other things) in college, so I'm definitely aware of the big picture history of how slavery ended in the United States and some of the debates and conflicts leading up to the Civil War, and finally the end of slavery. However, I knew much less about what was going on across the ocean in Britain - I vaguely knew that slavery there had ended around 20 years before the Civil War started, and that the British didn't fight a war in the process of abolishing it. It vaguely made sense to me because it's not like England had much use for slavery. As it turns out, that is a very simplified version of looking at it, and this book tells the history of how the British Empire came to abolish first the slave trade and finally slavery itself.
Hochschild introduces the year 1787 as a watershed year for the British abolitionist movement. In Britain, abolitionists didn't refer to people trying to end slavery; it referred to people trying to abolish the slave trade which included the journey over the middle passage that has become so infamous. In the first part of the book, he describes the slave trade, and its importance to the British economy. He states that when the twelve men got together to formally begin the abolitionist movement, banning the slave trade would be comparable to starting a group that intended to get rid of cars - it was simply that big a part of the economy of the Empire and a part of live. He also introduces the men that would have such influential roles in swaying public opinion. For example, there was Granville Sharp, who was involved in a myriad of causes, and from an influential family. He played a role in a court case that would end slavery in England itself. As Hochschild explained, the ruling didn't quite state that, but that's what everyone thought it stated, and in a case of "perception is reality," the court case effectively ended slavery in England - if someone brought a slave there, they weren't slaves any longer. Another important man would be Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, who would be one of the first men to put his story to the page, thus gaining the sympathy of many. Thomas Clarkson was one of the driving forces in the movement and devoted his life to spreading the word. Additionally, the group quickly gained on member of parliament as part of its team, William Wilberforce.
While it wasn't easy going, and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade faced many defeats and obstacles, Hochschild demonstrates just how innovative they were. Many of the things that groups still do today to raise awareness can be traced back to this society, who either invented or perfected the methods, such as newsletters, strategic boycotts (the boycotts against sugar were much more effective than the American boycott of tea), and collections of facts. Clarkson spent a large part of his time finding witnesses that told of the conditions on slave ships, on plantations, and the effect this industry had on white men, who were sometimes kidnapped or forced into contracts as sailors on these ships (speaking of the ill effects this had on white Englishmen helped the cause because it made it hit closer to home). The abolitionists realized that it was easier to raise people's sympathies by giving them the facts than citing religious texts. Though the slave trade wouldn't be abolished until 1807, public interest caused parliament to have hearings on the subject only five years after the society formed.
While slavery wasn't important in England itself, it played a huge role in the British Empire due to the actual slave trade, and the sugar plantations in places like Jamaica. The society originally focused on the abolition of the slave trade because they believed that without a constant resupply of slaves, slavery would eventually die out. While this would not be the case, the slave rebellions in Haiti (or St. Domingue) and the extreme loss of money and life that resulted from British involvement in trying to suppress these rebellions eventually led to more people being opposed to slavery. As it turns out, just because there wasn't a civil war doesn't mean that the British didn't participate in wars that had to with slavery.
I really liked this book - the end of slavery in the British Empire was something I knew very little about and had a rather simplistic view of prior to reading this. Hochschild states that he purposely doesn't get into the politics of the American abolitionist movement, but the book is still far-ranging, covering several decades and places on either side of the Atlantic. It certainly wasn't a simple journey, and Hochschild talks about the way this story was originally written in history. Since slavery was abolished due to both members of parliament, and a group of civilians, there were two routes through which this could have been seen: the benevolent empire giving freedom to all and being a shining beacon to the rest of the world, or a group of revolutionaries that engaged the public and forced the government's hand. For over a century, the first view won out, almost leaving people like Clarkson out of history (Clarkson was the only one of the twelve original members that survived to see slavery abolished in 1838). Fortunately, this book is a rather fitting tribute to the movement, showing how all the events came together that led to the abolition of slavery. Of course freedom didn't solve everything: owners were given financial restitution when the government freed their slaves, and the freed men and women were left to fend for themselves with no resources. Hochschild certainly doesn't try to glamorize the men, and later women, that were part of the different anti-slavery societies. Much like in the States, many of these people were confused as to how they felt about freed blacks and what they felt their roles should be. Some of them were paternalistic while others were oddly conservative when it came to just about every other topic, but overall they achieved something that would have seemed almost impossible when they started. I also liked that Hochschild didn't just show the white perspective. He included Equiano, and the slave rebellions in the West Indies, preventing this from being simply a story about white people being benevolent saviors.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book 2: A Discovery of Witches

This novel has been showing up in my Amazon recommendations for a while now, but I kept hesitating.  I think the main issue for me was the part of the back cover that describes it as "equal parts history and magic, romance and suspense" - don't get me wrong, I enjoy a well written love story plot line as much as anyone but the word romance makes me think Harlequin.  When Barnes and Noble had a whole shelf end devoted to the paperback edition of this novel, I ignored my instincts and picked it up.  After all, this could still be an exciting story, and using the term romance may have been a way to appeal to a broader audience.  Unfortunately, I should have trusted my gut.
The most simple way to describe this novel is an adult version of Twilight (except an adult version of Twilight would have sex, and this book doesn't).  I feel a bit bad labeling it as such since the author obviously put a lot of work into the research, and unlike Meyers, can actually write a sentence (is it world-shattering, breath-taking prose? No, but it's grammatically coherent).  However, it suffers from many of the same flaws as Twilight: a controlling man who is supposed to be romantic, two hundred pages of them staring at each other with little plot development, and lots of mooning which was pathetic for a 100 year old vampire but unforgiveable for one who is 1500 years old.  Matthew, our vampire, also spends a lot of time talking about how hard it is to resist Diana and there is a lot of talk about what people, or Diana specifically, smell like (Buffy: "Did anybody ever tell you the whole smelling people thing's a little gross?")
However, a lame love plot with boring characters isn't the novel's only pitfall.  I love historical fiction, and a few authors that have written good historical fiction have talked about some of the temptations they have to avoid: sometimes as part of their research, they discover fascinating and fun facts that have no place in the novel.  It can be hard but as a novelist, it isn't the author's job to tell the reader every little detail they learned, it is their job to make the reader feel like what they are reading is authentic.  The author needs to know the fun, obscure facts to make the novel real but the author isn't supposed to just list all the facts for the reader.  Harkness obviously did a lot of research on a variety of topics, but there are several points where she just drops names or topics and they have no connection to the book.  Matthew is old, got it, does that mean I need to know every single famous person he ever knew?  One or two would have been sufficient.  There are long discussions of wine, vintages and tastes - I drink wine but I can't distinguish flavors very well beyond sweet, fruity, and "not sweet, take it away."  Learning about wine at a wine tasting would be very fun.  Reading about people having a wine tasting is a lot less so, especially when they describe it as tasting like "chalk and butterscotch" - I'm not even sure if that's supposed to be good.  There is a scene where Diana makes dinner for her new vampire friend, and it just gets annoying how much she describes what she might cook for him.  Why do I care?  I don't even cook for myself.  Harkness also repeats herself quite a bit but also seems to contradict herself a lot.  I can't even say how often she mentioned in the first hundred pages that the three species of creatures (daemon, vampires and witches) don't mix or like to interact.
Honestly, the worst part is that this novel actually had some good ideas and really could have gone somewhere if Harkness hadn't been distracted (was the yoga really necessary?) or had tightened her plotting.  Diana, for example, is descended from a long line of powerful witches though she herself as tried to avoid using her powers since her parents were murdered when she was young.  After she accidentally discovers a lost manuscript that has been magically sealed, she attracts the attention of the magical world: the book may contain the origin of their species, an explanation of where they come from and why they exist.  Everyone's reactions to this manuscript also make Diana begin to reevaluate her parents' death - suddenly, it seems like there might be more to their murder.  As a result, Diana begins to realize she needs to learn how to use her powers, and it is obvious that she has the most potential power any witch has had in a long time.  There is also a group referred to as the Congregation which is made up of three representatives from each group of creatures to ensure everyone follows the rules.  Matthew is a scientist, and he and two other vampires, have actually been examining the DNA of the different creatures, and have been able to genetically mark which powers a witch will have.  Their research also shows that magical creatures are becoming weaker and may be on the verge of going extinct.  The novel has a large group of supporting characters, all of whom are more interesting than Diana, the powerful witch, and Matthew, the controlling, love-struck vampire.  However, someone decided that this should be a trilogy so instead of having one tensely plotted suspense novel, the public will get screwed with three meandering novels.  Of course, the second and third one aren't out yet, so maybe I'll be proven wrong.  Not that I'll know, because there is no way I'm picking up the sequel.  The only reason I even finished this novel is so that I could accurately bitch about it.  Below is just an example of some of the lines that annoyed me and my reaction:
"It was ludicrous to think that promises made by creatures in the Middle Ages could affect Matthew and me (274)" - um, sweetie, your boyfriend is 1500 years old - he was one of those creatures.
"She hunts out of biological need.  You hunt because it makes you feel wholly alive (348)." - How the fuck is that better?  And just because this is a vampire novel, do I really need to watch a vampire eat a deer?  Or a rabbit?

Book 1: Monsters of Men

As amazing as the first novel in this trilogy was, the rest of the novels don't hold up.  Monsters of Men takes up right where The Ask and The Answer leave off, with the beginning of a war between the Spackle and the humans, who are themselves divided into two separate camps.  In this novel, Ness decides to add a third narrative voice, that of The Return, or prisoner 1017, the only Spackle that survived the murders of the previous novel.  While I enjoyed 1017's perspective, Ness also jumped around too much on occasion.  The first 30 or 40 pages, not a single one of his narrators had more than two pages at a time, which made the novel a bit difficult to really get into.
I've also gotten tired of the relationship between Todd and Viola, and the fact that they would sacrifice the entire world for each other.  While I understand that this is young adult fiction, it also just started seeming too unbelievable that these three teenagers (I'm counting The Return as one) would have such a say and an effect on the decisions the adults were making (I think that's one thing The Hunger Games did well - Katniss was a symbol of a movement, but when it came down to it, she was still a tool the adults used).
Also, Ness makes one other decision in the novels, and to me, it actually seems to weaken the rest of the series.  It might just be me, but some of the things that happened in the previous novels were heartbreaking, and this decision actually reverses some of those things.  It cheapened earlier losses.  Also, this goes back to my earlier comment: the characters occasionally acted incredibly immature.  I realize this is because they are about 14 years old, but given all the responsibilities the adults let them have, it is easy to forget how young they are.  Due to this, when they make dumb decisions or harsh judgments, it is hard to be understanding.  Instead of commiserating with the characters, I would often think, "stop being an idiot."  As I said, this is due to the dichotomy of the characters' ages, and the way they are treated.  If this had been the first novel in the series, I would not have recommended it.  However, as the third in the series, everyone will of course read it just for the conclusion.  It's not a horrible novel, but unfortunately, the trilogy as a whole does simply not do the first novel justice.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

CBR III - Read But Not Reviewed

I have till midnight to post the last few reviews for CBRIII.  I definitely slacked off when it came to posting last year, and I'd actually already started slacking towards the end of CBRII so hopefully I can get better at it now that CBR IV has started up.  While I have written over twenty updates in the last two weeks, I'm still nowhere near caught up, and some of the books that are left, I don't even have much to say about at this point.  Some, this is due to the fact that they were enjoyable enough reads at the time but in retrospect, they were really just kind of there.  Others were very good, but it's been so long since I've read them that I really can't even get into the detail they deserve (it doesn't help that my computer caught a virus Christmas Day and was at Best Buy until yesterday).  Anyway, for some of these I might eventually develop the energy to write something more elaborate, but probably not.  Here is the list of books read last year that I didn't review.
One final word on these books - I enjoyed most of them.  Some of them were incredibly well-written, others were fun but had some weak points, but the only one of these I absolutely couldn't stand was Falling Leaves.  It was just horrible.

Book 76: Cemetery Girl

This was kind of an odd book for me - Tom, the narrator, is the father of an abducted girl.  It has been four years since her disappearance, and in order to gain closure, his wife has decided to have a memorial ceremony for their daughter Caitlin.  Tom has never believed that their daughter is dead, and this memorial is basically the final straw that finally breaks their fragile marriage.  However, shortly after this, the police find Caitlin, now a surely 16 year old.  While Tom is happy that he was right, he soons finds that living with this daughter whom he doesn't even recognize is almost worse than living with the uncertainty of her fate.
The rest of the novel deals with Tom's questions about what happened, and while at first, the reader also wants these answers, at some point, his obsession becomes alienating.  It quickly becomes clear that after four years of captivity, Caitlin has developed a case of Stockholm syndrome and is in love of her kidnapper.  Tom is unwilling to let this go, and investigates despite the police, his daughter and his wife's wishes.  Tom's descent from likable character to man driven to edge is hard to watch, and as a result, this novel was kind of difficult.  I can't quite say I liked it - I could understand Tom's desire to understand what happened to his daughter, but there was also a degree of possessiveness about it that was rather off-putting.  Basically, it seemed like his desire to know what happened to his daughter had less to do with his desire to help her and had more to do with some type of wounded male pride.  Tom is also rather suspicous - in the beginning he describes that he feels like there was something untrustworthy or risk-taking in Caitlin that may have led to her disappearance, at other times he lashes out against his brother.  Some of this appears to be due to his relationship with his step-father.
Bell also explores some of the different agencies involved in disappearances and cases, and paints a rather grim picture of some of these services.  Even victim advocates have a certain agenda of their own, and it may not always match what the victim or their family need.  I am not sure if I would recommend this book or not - while it was interesting to see the father's take on this (especially after reading Room), this novel turned into more of a thriller rather than an exploration of how a family might deal with this situation.  I'd say I'm mostly ambivalent, but I think that's because the novel started strong.  I didn't really like where it went though.

Book 75: Replay

After Jeff Winston dies in 1988, he wakes up 25 years earlier as his 18 year old self with all his knowledge of the next few years in tact.  Given the chance to start over again, what would most people do?  It is perhaps not a surprise that Jeff uses his knowledge of the future to get rich.  Still, despite all his money, he isn't completely happy, and he dies again on the exact same day in 1988 only to wake up as a 18 year old yet again.  This time, he chooses marital bliss and financial stability over extreme success and riches.  No matter what, each iteration of his life, he dies at the exact same moment of his 43rd year.  During his third "replay" of his life, Jeff discovers another person, a woman named Pamela, who is also replaying her life.  They also realize that each iteration, they have returned at a later point, and that Jeff returns before Pamela.
The two of them fall in love, and spend various iterations together in different ways.  One thing I kind of liked about the novel is that these people don't necessarily become wiser due to their extra time, and there are some choices they make that make them very unsympathetic.  Part of this is that instead of enjoying the opportunity to live life over again, they waste a few lifetimes trying to find answers.  In one of his lives, Jeff spends time involved in the drug culture because he is so unhappy about losing the life he had before and doesn't want to form any bonds or attachments.  Even after Jeff and Pamela meet and fall in love, they don't end up together during every replay - since they come back later and later each time, they have opportunities to change their lives at different times.  Jeff coming back at 25 rather than 18 for example means there are other things he now has a chance to redo and correct.
I quite liked the premise of the novel, and while there were choices that Jeff and Pamela made that I didn't like, I like that Grimwood didn't make his characters infallible.  I know I sometimes wish I could start college over again with my current knowledge but I think that is something everyone can relate to.  However as even this novel portrays, the past is the past, and the only thing that can be determined at this point is the future.

Book 74: Left Neglected

First off, I loved Genova's other novel Still Alice, a portrayal of college professor living with Alzheimer's.  As a result, I was glad that to see that she had written another novel, Left Neglected.  This novel follows Sarah Nickerson, a successful career woman, wife and mother of three.  She and her husband both have very demanding jobs that they enjoy which they attempt to balance with their family lives.  After being involved in a car accident, Sarah wakes up in the hospital with a syndrome referred to as left neglect.  Her brain simply does not register anything in her left field of vision, to include her own body parts.  Since she isn't even aware of these body parts, she has to reteach herself to use them.  This is just one of the issues that Sarah faces now that she must live with left neglect.
While she is at first in denial, she learns some methods to slowly adjust to her new impairment through physical therapy.  Due to Sarah's accident, her estranged mother comes to Boston to help her and her family during Sarah's extended hospital stay.  Eventually, Sarah attempts to return to her job but realizes that this will not be compatible with her new life.  She also spends more time wih her children, and realizes that her son who has had issues in school similarly has a disorder that means normal methods of learning don't work for him, and with her new perspective, she is able to help and understand him much more.
While I actually quite liked Genova's description of how the syndrome works and how it would affect someone's life (and their family), there were other parts of the novel I didn't like quite as much.  Since Sarah eventually decides against returning to her old position, this affects the family's financial situation.  This part of the novel kind of left a bad taste in my mouth because Sarah goes through this whole journey and realizes how she and her husband may have been overly concerned with their material well-being.  While I think these types of circumstances probably help people realize what is important in life, I'm not sure if I felt Sarah was in any position to tell me about priorities - she and her husband owned an expensive home in Boston, two expensive cars and a vacation home in Vermont.  No offense, but I don't think it should have taken an accident to realize that all of these things aren't necessary in life - if you feel overworked and hate your job, then reconsider the need to own two homes.  If you generally want those things, and enjoy your job as Sarah states she did, then more power to you.  I guess the part I disliked is having a woman who owns designer shoes and all these other things start talking about enjoying the simpler things in life, especially since the same job that afforded her all these materialistic items also provided her with health insurance.  Basically, I like the novel a lot when it focused on the day to day adjustments and relationships, but could have done without the little message Genova seemed to add.  It's basically like complaints I read about the last Sex and the City movie - it's hard to relate to characters whose main problem is whether or not they can make a first class flight.  Sarah as a woman with a stressful job and family commitments is relatable - it's when the novel gets into the details of how much her job provides her with that she goes from being relatable to having "rich white people" problems. 
That is a small part of the novel, and while it made me enjoy this less than Still Alice, it's still a very good novel about the mysteries of the brain, and Sarah is generally a likable character. 

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book 73: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner

While I had vaguely heard of Catherine de Medici and knew of her sinister characterization, I actually had no clue what she had done to deserve this description. I honestly had no idea that she was involved in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre even though I had attempted to visit the church where it occurred while in Paris (it was closed at the time).

Gortner uses his novel to try to redeem the maligned queen of France and for the most part he succeeds in making her a likable character that I wanted to root for, even if she employs an astrologer and is a bit superstitious. The problem with historical fiction, however, is that the author is still restrained by facts. As a result, given some of the facts in Catherine's life, it is necessary to portray the character as either completely powerless or incompetent and still have the actions match with history. Maybe it's me, but I'd almost rather have a real evil and entertaining villain than a good person who is constantly thwarted or makes stupid mistakes, at least when it comes to fiction. As a result, I enjoyed the first half of the novel much more than the second half.

In the first half, Catherine is new to the French court and trying to find her way and place therein. Being from Florence, she is not familiar with all the factions, but soon discovers that the deGuise family have quite a bit of power as well as her husband's friendship. She remains in a position of weakness due to her husband's mistress, and the length of time it takes her to produce an heir, which can be blamed on her husband's lack of interest (at least in the novel). Eventually she would have quite a few children, and Mary, Queen of Scotland would be her daughter-in-law.

The second half focuses on after her husband's death when Catherine acts as regent for her sons (three of them would sit the throne). Like many surrounding European countries, this was a time of great religious uproar since Protestants and Catholics didn't seem to find it possible to live side by side. While Gortner portrays Catherine as tolerant, there was only so much she could do against the other houses that were in power and the sweeping religious and political forces. He also portrays her as someone that feels she has been betrayed and becomes harsher and less trusting as time goes on.

Overall, not a bad piece of historical fiction though Catherine's actions didn't always make sense to me given the character Gortner had established earlier in the novel. Her children are all rather unlikable and it's probably a good thing that they were the end of the House of Valois. Catherine herself seems to have a voice similar too many other historical fiction novel heroines, but I definitely enjoyed learning a bit about French history instead of focusing on more English history (her father in law by the way was Henry VIII's contemporary).

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Book 72: Daughters of the Witching Hill

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

This novel wasn't quite what I expected - when the back cover said that the women in this community would eventually be persecuted as witches, I expected the women to be healers who were maliciously attacked.  The women, however, actually believed that they used magic and witchcraft, though they believed they used it for good.  The story is based on true events which took place in 1612 in England, and while the actual belief in familiars and magic threw me off a bit, Sharratt still tells a tale of persecution grounded in historical realities.

There are two main characters, Bess Southerns and her granddaughter, Alizon, and both narrate different parts of the book.  Of the two, I preferred Bess, an old woman caught between two worlds.  She grew up in a Catholic world, and is now a member of a Protestant community.  Along with Catholicism, many of her childhood traditions have been declared evil and superstitious, so that the world around her seems much more drab and unhappy to her than it once was.  She has always had a gift with herbs, but as an older woman struggling to support her family, she also discovers that she has a familiar, so she begins to draw on this familiar to help her heal members of the community.  Bess and her best friend have a falling out due to some misfortunes, and while Bess never believes the worst of her, the rest of her family quickly develops a rivalry with this other woman.

However, in the end it isn't witchcraft or this rivalry that causes the women's downfall.  As usual it is pure greed: one of Bess's friends and customers is a rich landowner and a secret Catholic, which makes her a target for ambitious men.  These men don't care what the cost in life is as long as they can further themselves.  Additionally, Bess is the illegitimate child of a landowner - this hasn't helped her much in life, but it is why she is allowed to live where she does without paying rent.  By accusing her and her family of witchcraft, the land will return back to her half-brother's control.  In the afterword, Sharratt discusses the sources she used for this novel, and the fact that the women in this case really believed they were using magical powers.  She notes that Catholicism left room more belief in magic than Protestantism did, and that many of the incantations the woman described herself as using were actually Catholic prayers.  Certainly, Bess believes she uses her powers only for good, though she sees the ability to turn them into dark forces.  While this wasn't quite what I was expecting, it was educational.  Still, the style takes some getting used to, so I would only recommend this to someone with an interest in the topic.

Book 71: Secrets of Eden

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Secrets of Eden begins after Alice Hayward and her abusive husband are found dead, victims of a murder-suicide.  The first part of the novel is narrated by Stephen Drew, the pastor, that baptized Alice that same day, and their deaths have shattered his faith more than many of the other tragedies he has seen in the past.  During the baptism, Alice uttered the word "there" to him, and in retrospect he believes this was her way of saying she was ready to die.  It is debatable whether this is true or if it is something he must tell himself to ease his guilt.  Drew comes off as a sympathetic but flawed man, and while at first the reader can only guess why this particular case had such an effect on Drew, it is confirmed quickly enough.

It is a good thing that Drew was the first narrator because it helped build up the reader's sympathy for him.  The next two narrators have rather different views of him, starting with the state's attorney whose long years at work have taught her to find the worst in all, and particularly men.  She quickly suspects Drew of hiding something, and doesn't believe that the case is quite as it seems.  The next narrator is Heather, a woman who had been on a book tour in the local area, and found herself drawn to the pastor.  She writes about angels and believes in guardian angels.  Additionally, her own parents died in a murder suicide, so she believes that she may be able to help the Hayward's fifteen year old daughter Katie cope.  Her interest in Drew is based on a quote from a newspaper article that makes it clear he has lost his faith.  She finds herself drawn to him, and despite their very different belief systems, Drew is also interested in her.  However, Heather is more damaged than she tries to let on, and very unforgiving of any perceived slights or breaches of trust.

The final part of the novel is told from Katie's perspective as she deals with her new parent-less status, and the media circus that her parents' demise inspired.  All the characters are very well drawn, though Drew does have the advantage of being the first narrator, so the reader automatically wants to trust him despite what some of the other narrators may end up believing about him.  Bohjalian's novels all tend to have rather different topics, but he excels at character development.  They all have very distinct voices, and well developed backgrounds.  He also does a great job of portraying how the characters view themselves and how they are viewed by different people in the narrative.

Book 70: In the Garden of Beasts

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

While I've heard raves about The Devil in the White City for years, it wasn't until Larson wrote a book related to World War II that I was interested enough to actually read one of his books. In this book, Larson explores the first years of Hitler's regime as seen through the eyes of the American ambassador, William Dodd. Dodd was an unlikely fit for this position: he was a historian and his goal was to complete a series on the Old South. He originally became interested in civil service because he hoped it would give him more time to focus on writing his book because he could not find the time while serving as a professor. He had hoped to get a position in a small country, and the position in Berlin was certainly not what he had hoped for or wanted. After a discussion with his wife, he took the position, and his adult children accompanied their parents on this trip.

Among other American diplomats and ambassadors, Dodd was seen as an oddity, and they disagreed with many of the things he was doing: most ambassadors tended to be from money, and would live lavishly to impress whichever country they were serving in. Dodd refused to do, and planned on living within his salary. He also hated parties and late nights, which made him a rather odd fit. While in Germany, there were forces abroad and at home working against his appointment. Dodd had spent time as a student in Germany, so while he was at first excited to return, he also began seeing how Germany had changed. One of the problems is that it was hard to tell what was really going on in Germany: on the one hand there was quite a bit of mob violence, but things did seem to be calming down. Dodd attempted to be very diplomatic in his first months in Germany in the fall of 1933. He was hesitant to warn Americans against traveling to Germany, and many American tourists actually didn't see the dark side on short visits. However, the facade would crack for some - groups of Nazis would beat people that didn't return Hitler salutes, even if they were Americans.

Larson spends half the book focusing on Dodd and his growing awareness of Germany's descent into madness, his refusal to show support to the Nazi government (for example, he and the ambassadors of many other countries made the decision not to attend annual rallies in Nuremberg), and his problems dealing with the Germans as well as his own lack of trust in some of the other Americans. The other half concerns Dodd's daughter, Martha, who becomes involved with a series of men while in Berlin. She dates a high Nazi official, as well as a Soviet spy, and has various other suitors. At first Martha is very excited and enamored with Germany but as time wears on, she begins to see the dark side. It seems like Larson tried to use Dowd to tell the political piece and then used Martha to tell the more personal side, though Martha's story is anything but typical. In fact, while it is hard to tell how much Dodd knew about Martha's personal life, everyone else certainly seemed to know, and her behavior was viewed as rather scandalous.

With hindsight, it seemed like it Dodd long to see just how bad the Nazis were, but in reality, he was far ahead of his counterparts in realizing that their regime would eventually lead to war. At first he believed the Germans when they said they wanted peace, but in only a few months, he would realize and report that they only wanted peace in order to prepare themselves for war. Overall, I quite liked this book since it discusses World War II from a viewpoint that is new to me. I never would have thought to look into the story of the first American ambassador to Hitler's regime, but it was definitely a good way to see how the world viewed Hitler's rise.