Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book 15: The Golden Hour

I stumbled upon this a while back in one of the bookstore's bargain bins but since it concerned a time period I'm usually interested in, I figured I'd give it a shot. It was only $3.99 after all. Given that I hadn't heard anything about it, I wasn't expecting much, and I know that sometimes people have a tendency to set their novels in World War II because it's one of those topics that adds immediate gravitas. This one was set in Italy, an area I haven't read too many war novels on, though A Thread of Grace is absolutely amazing and wonderful and sad. This novel, on the other hand? Well, I am sure that Wurtele is a great person, she seems nice from the novel and all, but I really, really didn't like this book. About half way through I actually thought to myself, "why am I still reading this crap? I should quit. Giovanna's an idiot and I hate her, and this is so unrealistic." Now, I admit I don't finish every book I ever start but usually I don't actually contemplate quitting them. It's more that I decide maybe I should take a break and read something else or alternate between a book I'm struggling with and something else, and then somehow don't make it back to the original book until I just admit that I'm no longer reading it. I actively thought about putting this down and never picking it back up.

The main problem is the narrator and main character, Giovanna. While early in the book, Giovanna tries to convince the reader that she is brave and courageous because of that one time she carried a hawk, at no point do her actions in 1943-45 ever make her seem any of those things. Instead she comes off as spoiled, self-centered, stupid, unrealistic, dumb and flighty. Now some of those things could be okay in a main character, especially since Wurtele uses Giovanna as a character that had no idea of what was truly going on with the Germans, and discovers more about the dark side of the Fascist regimes as the novel progreses. So even though she was annoyingly naive, that could have been okay because the novel shows her growing up. The same could be said about spoiled - it would be okay for her to be spoiled and slightly self-centered if the novel truly charted her becoming aware of the world around her and growing up from there. I believe it attempts to do that, but not very convincingly since all of Giovanna's "war work" seems over exaggerated by her, hence making her sound whiny and spoiled even when she's "helping" everyone. The biggest problem is that this girl is dumb.
Giovanna is a seventeen year old in Nazi occupied Italy, and around the same time she both starts helping the nuns teach the local children and assisting her brother who is in the resistance. The nuns' school is partially occupied by German soldiers and since there are no young Italian men around, Giovanna starts feeling some attraction for a married German officer. The Soldier's Wife did an interesting and pleasant job of exploring a woman's attraction to the occupiers, though not entirely memorable. This novel did not. Basically, Klaus is hot and Giovanna is horny. But you know, youthful stupidity, I'll let it pass. However, why the hell Giorgio would ask for Giovanna's help in anything is beyond me. She's basically incompetent. I mean, yes, she finds food to help supply the partisans but it basically involves her asking half the characters in the novel, and climbing into vegetable gardens. Why, oh why, Giorgio would you ask an indiscreete teen to help you find food? Not only does she tell half the people she knows what she is doing, but some of the others figure it out because she's just so covert. I just kept wanting to ask her if she knew the meaning of the word "secret."

Anyway, as the description of the novel reveals, later in the novel she will end up helping a Jewish man named Marco that her brother brings to her. Once again, I couldn't get beyond her stupidity. She tells more people than she should that she's helping a Jew, and now she's not only revealing her secrets, but those of other people, such as when she tells her best friend that the nuns are helping her shelter him. Dumbass, you do realize there are such things as collaborators? And that even if they aren't collaborators, they could still be tortured for information if anything ever happens? It is at this point that she whines about how busy she is, what with stealing food from vegetable gardens, and helping at the clinic (she is in charge of the supply closet - she got banned from the school after the nuns discovered her little dalliance and had to find something else to do) and hiding Marco (someone else is hiding him, you're just visiting because you're still a horny teen).

There's also this whole plot about her parents don't understand her and treat her like a child. For example, she is very upset when her father makes a joke about her fainting after she tells him she's going to work at the clinic because he just constantly underestimates her. Guess what she did exactly two hours earlier in the book at the clinic? Fainted at the sight of blood! Given her sheltered upbringing, Giovanna has managed to avoid noticing what's been going on with the Jews but after meeting Marco, she becomes aware. After that, there are about 20 pages of her asking everyone she knows if they knew about what was happening with the Jews - obvious much? This is also when she decides that it is now her mission to help the Jews ...

I will say that the novel picked up in the last 80-100 pages, but that's mostly because Giovanna somehow mellowed out a bit and went from being intolerably annoying to eyerollingly annoying. I think it may have also helped that there were some journal entries from Marco's perspective which actually made me want to yell at him because he was putting down exact names of everyone helping him - I just kept thinking, "don't use names, if you are discovered, you are incriminating other people." So basically, the novel went from annoying to bland for the last 100 pages but not enough to justify this novel or turn it around for me.

In other words, I don't recommend this novel, and even the Italy setting couldn't save it. I didn't have high expectations but apparently even those were aiming too high.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book 14: The Consolation of Philosophy

This is one of the first reading assignments in my "Antiquities" class (the first one was actually selections of The Dead Sea Scrolls, but those included less than half of the book).  Honestly, for a somewhat religious text written in the 6th century, I was pleasantly surprised by the readibility and the message behind the book.  Naturally, I didn't agree with everything the author had to say, but the first half especially appealed to me.
Boethius, a prominent statesmen in Italy (after the fall of the western part of the Roman Empire), wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned for treason after having been one of the most important advisors to the king of Italy.  He declares himself innocent of the charges, and as this piece begins, he is in despair, under arrest.  It is at this time that his old muse, Philosophy, comes to him, to console him and remind him of himself and the actual path to happiness.
The piece is broken down into 5 books, with varying chapters per part, and is a mix of prose and poetry.  The first part basically addresses the author's despair at his false imprisonment and the changes of fortune he has experienced.  In book 2, Philosophy chastises Boethius for cursing fortune since as she points out, everything he had before this was the result of fortune.  He cannot curse her for her reversal given that he was more than happy to accept her gifts.  This part as well as the first half of the third book involve Philosophy taking down the things people pursue in hopes of happiness even though they bring only false happiness.  Power brings its own obligations, and people that pursue money find themselves needing more and more to protect what they have.
The next half of the text deals more with God and religion, and as a result, the arguments didn't speak to me as much.  The rest of Book 3 argues that true happiness comes only from God, while the fourth book examine the idea of wickedness and why it is that bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  The argument is that the wicked suffer by their wickedness and inability to attain good, but I can't say that argument had me entirely convinced - certainly it may be true, but it's still nice to see some come-uppance.  Also, I would argue that there are people who are evil or wicked and don't know it.  Philosophy also states that wickedness made people less than human.  Finally, the fifth book addresses the idea of free will vs foreknowledge.  The character Boethius has a hard time believing that any actions can be the result of free choice if God already knows everything that will happen and therefore the events must happen.  Personally, this concept doesn't bother me because if I personally don't know the future I will make my choices freely even if someone else has already foreseen them.  Philosophy's final argument for free will is that human perception is different from God's, and that God being eternal, is in all times at once - basically, the future is his present as is the present, so therefore he knows everything because he sees it as it is happening even if it hasn't happened yet.  I know this was written 14 centuries before Slaughterhouse-Five but that concept totally made me think of Tralfamadore.
One reason I was pleasantly surprised by this was due to all the references to Greek and Roman philosophy and mythology.  Only knowing beforehand that it was a Christian text, I thought I could easily be bored with this, but given the time it was written, this was when the ancient texts still were very much a part of the thoughts and culture of the time, and hadn't already been lost or avoided as pagan and inappropriate for a Christian audience.  I am always nervous about philosophy, but I actually enjoyed this - it was broken down into small, easily digestible chunks, and the argument was easy to follow.  It's still philosophy so I doubt I'll be pressing this into people's hands, but for anyone interested in expanding their horizons and braving philosophical texts, this is certainly not a bad starting point.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Book 13: The Secret History

I've heard about this novel quite a few times, and have had it on my "I should get around to that" list for a while but somehow, while I knew the novel existed, my idea of what it was about was completely off.  Maybe it was the title but I think I was expecting something along the lines of secret societies meet National Treasure and that the characters would use old literature and culture to discover some deep conspiracy and secret - but in a very literary and thought provoking way rather than pure popcorn fiction.  I would have rather read that book than the one I read.
This wasn't a bad book but it would have been better trimmed by at least one hundred pages.  The novel reveals a key part of the narrative in the first chapter, and from there flashes back to show how it all developed before chronicling the aftermath.  Basically, five students murder a classmate, Bunny, by pushing him off a cliff, and the question is why did they do it and will they get away with it?  Richard is one of the five killers but he is also the newest member of this odd and tight knit group, all of whom fascinate him.
The twins, Camilla and Charles, Henry, Francis and Bunny are the five students in Julian's Greek class, majoring in the classics.  All of them are from privileged, well off families, and they are the only ones that Julian, an eccentric professor, has accepted into his classics program.  Richard, though coming from a working to middle class background, is fascinated by this world, and with the right clothes and presentation is able to join this group even if it takes him a while to get accepted.
The thing is that none of these characters are likable.  The closest might be Francis and Charles because they seem the least developed.  While the students admire Julian and see him as a friend, he is blind to his students' real situation and his teaching methods encourage them to see themselves as different and better.  After all, he thinks the poor that accept their role and status should be praised.  Given their backgrounds, the students are obviously already used to being treated as better but they certainly didn't need this professor boosting their egos anymore.
Richard is just as bad if not worse because he wants so much to belong and is blinded by these people's obvious faults.  He simply shrugs off murder, and keeps emphasizing how great all these people are despite obvious hindsight, writing this narrative a few years after the occurrences.  Though this was originally published in 1992, the time period of the narrative can feel difficult to narrow down, and it is only in the second half that I felt the novel started having cultural references that truly tied it down to a time period - basically, it almost feels like it could have been the '60s or '70s until a few references to presidents, Mel Gibson movies and Sarah Jesse Rafael's talk show.
The characters are pretentious, elitist snobs, but more than that they are tedious.  While Richard tries to explain that they are brilliant and special, they mostly come off as self involved.  It's basically five hundred pages of drinking.  The first two hundred pages especially seemed to drag at which point the murder of the first chapter occurs.  While the next three hundred pages also could have been trimmed, at least I could understand how Tartt was trying to show everyone's reactions and the pressure they were feeling.  In fact, it feels very Crime and Punishment, and the characters even make a joke about that - while they may be ironic about the connection, it is certainly appropriate: a man who thinks he's exceptional commits a crime and discovers he's just as average as everyone else, and these characters certainly think they are exceptional and that the rules don't apply to them.  While I can certainly see why Tartt made the choices she did in the novel, I wonder if it would have been more interesting when it was first published.  After all, I've read quite a few novels with unlikable characters but none of them left me quite so blah.  For example, I hated the characters in The Dinner but I would still love to see other people's reactions and talk about it.  Maybe The Secret History raised more discussion in 1992, but at this point, I don't think it really stands out.  This novel didn't really make me want to discuss it.  I couldn't see myself recommending this to anyone because like the characters, the novel is too tedious at times.  The main reason I read this now is because I've been seeing Tartt's new novel, The Goldfinch, everywhere, and having read this, I can safely say that I can avoid The Goldfinch, and not feel like I'm missing something.

Book 12: A Conspiracy of Faith

This has definitely been one of my more entertaining reads so far this year.  The third novel in the series, this novel once again features Carl Morck and Department Q of Copenhagen's police force.  Just like in his last two novels, Adler-Olsen flashes back and forth between the cold case squad and either the victims or perpetrators of a current crime that relates to the investigation. One reason I think I like these as much as I do is that unlike many other crime novels, this isn't just about finding the killer before he kills again, but actually about saving current possible victims.
In this case, Carl is alerted when Copenhagen receives correspondence from Scotland.  They have found a message in a bottle, written in Danish, and believe it may require police attention.  As it turns out, that bottle has been sitting in a precinct for about seven years, and was written even earlier than that, but it gets Carl and his team on the case.
Meanwhile, the other chapters tell the story of an unnamed man (or a man with too many names) who is a serial kidnapper.  He targets families in faith based societies that are a bit removed from mainstream (Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.), and then kidnaps their children.  However, since the families know what he looks like, he has to come up with a rather extreme way to prevent them from going to the police after the fact or reporting on him.  As a result, even once Carl is able to place a name to the message in the bottle, he faces resistance from the relatives.
The mystery was very well-developed as well as the various viewpoints, which included the kidnapper, and his wife who is tired of not knowing what her husband does in addition to Carl.  In some senses Carl is still rather dense in his treatment and interactions with his co-workers.  Three novels into the narrative, there are still a few open plot points that I feel either need to be dropped or worked out soon.  For example, there are several clues that there is more to Assad than meets the eye.  While I don't think it is necessary that the whole story is revealed just yet, I think there is too much hinting with no pay off after three novels.  In other words, if Adler-Olsen wants to drag out the reveal, I think he needs to stop playing it up so much, or if he is going to keep playing it up, he needs to give more answers as he goes.  Also, even though Carl has successfully solved a few cases, he is still very uninterested in work sometimes.  While I get the whole grumpy persona, it is obvious that he is a good detective, so it may make sense to not have him attempting to shirk as much anymore as time progresses.  The other hanging string is from his injury, and the reason he was moved in Department Q, all events predating the novels.  I think this is actually being handled perfectly, though I think I'm going to want some resolution on this in the next few novels as well.
Despite those small nitpicks, I'm definitely enjoying this series, and while the last one was a bit dark, especially with the animal abuse, this novel was back to being that great mix of grim and humorous that made me like The Keeper of Lost Causes so much.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book 11: The House Girl

Another book, another disappointment?  I seem to be on a roll.  I compared my Goodreads ratings for this year to one's from last year, and eleven books in, I already had four 4 star ratings, and one 5 star, with only one 2 star.  This year, I already have a 1 star and a 2 star, and even my two 4 star ratings involved an initial debate of 3 or 4.  I realize that I was on a really good streak last year but why am I on such an average one now?  I thought I knew how to pick books by now that I might enjoy!  Of course, it doesn't help when even authors I enjoy have slightly weaker or even disappointing offerings.
This is a another novel set up with the two timeline style that seems to be popular, especially for historical fiction.  In this case, the past is 1852, and focuses on Josephine, a seventeen year old house slave at the Bell estate, who decides to run.  The modern day piece follows Carolina "Lina" Sparrow, first year associate at a corporate law firm in New York.  Her mother is dead, and her father is an artist that has finally found success.  After 20 years of not talking about her mother, her father is finally ready to discuss her with Lina and his latest show focuses entirely on portrayals of her mother Grace.  At this same time, she gets a huge case focusing on slavery and reparations - their client runs a large business and his connections tell him the government is ready to issue an apology, so he wants to capitalize on this opportunity.  Given her connection to the art world, Lina hears about Josephine Bell and Lu Ann Bell - after years of lauding Lu Ann as a great artist that captured the reality of slavery with portraits of plantation life, experts have started to believe that it was Josephine's hand behind the brush rather than Mistress Bell's.
So far, so good.  Given that the case and the mother issues came up at the same time, I expected the novel to find a connection between Josephine and Lina, and for it to turn out that her mother is a descendant of Josephine.  While predictable, I would have had no issue with this development, and enjoyed the way the threads connected.  However, this isn't were the novel went, so while I initially liked Lina, her story was quickly dragged down by too many plot points.  Josephine's story was engaging, but it quickly got drowned out with all of Lina's issues.  Basically, I don't think the two plot lines worked together.  Lina is in charge of finding a plaintiff to put a face to the victims of slavery, and while she quickly sees how Josephine and misidentified art would be a great angle, her intense focus on this one aspect basically makes her look like an incompetent lawyer.  If the case had been about ownership of the art rather than slave reparations, her intense focus on Josephine to the exclusion of everything and every one else would have made sense.  If there was a connection between Josephine and Lina through her mother, I would have believed it.  Instead, she is obsessed with finding a descendant that may not exist.  Early in the novel, she meets a man, Jasper, who believes he is in the possession of Josephine's work, passed down as a family heirloom, so Lina's goal is to find the connection between Jasper and Josephine except that Jasper doesn't identify as black, and has tatoos and piercings.  None of these are a problem but when you are looking for the poster child for the past victims of slavery, that's not exactly going to be what people are going to expect.  Have you heard of the media, Lina?  You might want to make a statement about "post-racial" America but it won't work in a case about reparations for slavery!  Basically, Lina's blindness to the fact that Jasper isn't the perfect plaintiff she's looking for (or even close to a good one) made her seem like an incompetent idiot.  She may be good at research, but common sense?  Sorely lacking.
As I said, I enjoyed Josephine and her story, but the novel got bogged down by Lina.  A large part of the gap is closed with a letter that explains everything that happens, and while it was nice to get that narrative closure, I would have preferred it if those chapters had continued to be told from Josephine's perspective.  Instead of discovering a document that spells everything out for Lina, I would have preferred if Lina just had the bare bones so that I as the reader could have continued to hear more of Josephine's voice.  I think I'm just frustrated because the novel started out promising before it irritated me, and since Lina's mother didn't tie into the Josephine part of the story, that whole plot point just seemed like a waste of time.  The cover is pretty gorgeous, though.

Book 10: No One is Here Except All of Us

Less than two weeks into the New Year, and I've already discovered my first one star review.  I'm actually surprised because halfway through I thought there were still enough redeeming qualities for two stars, but the more it went on, and the more I wanted it to end, the further my rating went down.  I admit it doesn't help the novel at all that I kept having to force myself to read a few chapters between books I actually wanted to read instead of reading it a shorter period of time, but it was so boring.
Now there are quite a few interesting and good ideas and premises dispersed throughout this novel; unfortunately they are not executed in a way that appeals to me.  Now a lot of the critiques of this book on Goodreads focus on certain small details, and while I agree that those details can be a bit uncomfortable, they didn't bother me or at least weren't the reasons I rated the novel so low.  I think it is entirely believable that a family would give up a child to a couple that didn't have any, though maybe not in the circumstances described.  After all, as Ausubel explains later, parts of the story were inspired by real life - her great grandmother was given up by her parents to a richer aunt and uncle because they couldn't afford all their children.  However this happened before World War I, while Ausubel shifts this action to World War II for her story.  I also think the idea of a village hearing about the atrocities of the Nazis and responding by simply disconnecting from the world is intriguing.  While it wouldn't work in most cases, couldn't it work if a village is isolated enough, and already had minimal contact with the world?  If they decide to cut all ties, could they just be forgotten?
Unfortunately, it didn't work for me because the novel is too dreamlike or fairy tale like, and not in a good way.  Just because the prose is lyrical or poetic doesn't mean it's actually saying anything.  Instead, it kept me disconnected and, honestly, irritated with the characters.  They don't just decide to ignore the world but recreate the world, living in this otherworldly daze.  Even this could have worked if the writing style had changed distinctly when the village is finally confronted with reality, thus jarring the village and the reader back into reality.  However, even when bad things come, the novel retains this disconnected, "it's all a dream" quality so that I didn't even really care.  I feel like she just took it too far, and instead of wondering how the village could stay hidden, I just kept wondering "are these people fucking idiots"?  They just married off a twelve year old, she now has her own kids, and her husband is really good at sleeping?  Seriously, he spends the majority of the novel asleep even though he started out as a likable enough character before becoming completely useless.
I mean, I get the messages she is trying to go for - the Holocaust is so unreal, how couldn't it have been a dream etc etc, but it was so heavy handed.  There's also a whole Rapunzel like sequence with one character wandering through the wilds with her children, completely clueless.  Or another fun part, the narrator decides to write down everything she knows, which is a list of words.  Oh my god, stop trying to be deep.
Anyway, I think if Ausubel had told a straightforward historical fiction story with her family's past as a stepping point, it could have worked for me.  However, she said she tried doing that and it didn't work, so instead she wrote this mess.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book 9: The Soldier's Song

I bought this book over two and half years ago while visiting the Dublin Writers Museum because of course I had to leave with at least one book by an Irish author, and Joyce is scary (I also participated in a Literary Pub Crawl of Dublin during that vacation though I think I preferred the one I did in Edinburgh).  Anyway, for some reason I never quite got around to reading any of the books I bought on that trip, and I'm trying to both reduce my stack of books, and read at least one book related to the Great War every month this year for the 100 year anniversary, so this seemed like a perfect choice.  Overall, it was a solid book - I can't say I regret leaving it to sit for so long but I certainly enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, I also discovered that it's actually the first part of a trilogy so instead of reducing my list of "books to read" by one, I've now added two!
Stephen Ryan is one of very few students at Trinity College in Dublin to be there on a scholarship.  Being from a working class background, he stands out in this environment, and his younger brother Joe thinks he's a sell out.  It's 1914, Ireland is full of debates about home rule and independence, and Europe is on the brink of war.  Despite having only a year left of school before receiving his diploma in mathematics, Stephen signs up as soon as war is declared, becoming an officer in the King's Army.  Lieutenant Ryan ends up in Gallipolli for his first assignment, and as chance would have it, is back in Dublin just in time to witness the Easter Rebellion of 1916 before embarking onto France.  As a result, the novel is able to portray the Western Front and the issues people had there, as well as explore important events in Irish history and politics of the time.
Honestly, I was a bit surprised by some of the novel because one upperclass character seemed to be in the process of being developed as the traditional nemesis but that rivalry was rather quickly squashed.  I actually liked that it didn't go the traditional road, but I also feel like there was enough left open about the character's past that it may be addressed in future installments.  I also enjoyed some of the supporting cast, such as Lilian Bryce, the only woman in the math program and Ryan's slowly developing love interest, and his best friend.  However, parts of the novel seemed a bit superficial, and it jumped around quite a bit at points.  I don't think describing battle action is the author's strength because I didn't feel all too oriented as to what was going on during the fight scenes.  This isn't a big surprise since the novel covered over three years of time in three separate countries and was only around three hundred pages long.
However, while I thought the novel was mostly solid if not exceptional, I thought the last few pages which address PTSD - they even include a session with Dr. Rivers who was also featured in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration - were its strongest.  Maybe I should see the fact that I was most interested in that part as a sign that I need to finish the Regeneration trilogy this year, too.

Book 8: The Secret Keeper

This is the fourth novel available by Kate Morton, and as far as I'm tracking, I'm now completely caught up on her writing.  While this novel displayed many of the same engaging plot twists, and secrets buried in the past, I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as some of her previous efforts, though it was still an enjoyable and engaging read - especially towards the end.
The main reason for that is the character Dolly, or Dorothy.  Laurel is an award winning English actress in her sixties, and her mother Dorothy is dying.  While Laurel and her four siblings all remember an incredibly loving and fun childhood, Laurell also remembers witnessing her mom kill a man on their brother's second birthday in 1961.  While the police files the incident away as the result of a threatening crazy man, Laurell thinks that Dorothy in fact knew the man, and only now is she beginning to wonder more about her mother's life before she came to their small coastal village, and met and married their father.  For some reason, Laurel never quite realized how little they asked their mom about her past until the end is nearly here.
In 2011, Laurel slowly follows up on whatever leads she can find, which includes Google searches, days at the library and going through her mother's things as well as confiding in her brother Gerry, the other witness to the death.  The novel meanwhile alternates her search with chapters set in between 1938 and 1941, slowly revealing Dolly.  At first, Dolly comes off as your average, self involved teen with small dreams of grandeur but as the novel gets more into her story, it turns out that Dolly is a delusional opportunist.  Not only that, but she is naive and stupid about it.  Like Laurel, I couldn't quite reconcile this young, not very likable woman with the rather nice seeming Dorothy that was the mother.  After all, Dolly truly believes that her employer, a rich, bitter old woman, will leave her fortune to her in her will, and develops a friendship with her neighbor Vivien in her mind.  She also is rather rude to her very sweet boyfriend Jimmy.
As a result, I was actually dreading the parts of the novel that went back to Dolly's perspective because she was such an unpleasant (and clueless) person, even if she had others around her (meaning Jimmy) fooled.  It is only in the later half of the novel when the chapters focus more on Jimmy and Vivien that I actually looked forward to the sections set in the past.  By the end, I was enjoying this and the wrap up as much as any other Morton novel, but it does take a bit more commitment to get there, and to get caught up in the ride.  Oddly enough, despite the unpleasant beginning, I would argue that this is the happiest ending that Morton has had in any of her novels, so that part was actually rather pleasant.  It's still bittersweet but not quite as heartbreaking as The Distant Hours or The Forgotten Garden.

Book 7: The Rhythm of Memory

Given how much I enjoyed Richman's novel The Lost Wife, there really was no way I was going to pass this up when I found it for $3.99 in a bargain bin.  Like her other novel, she plays with timelines, basically using the novel's modern day of 1998 to frame the story.  However, she starts the novel with a teaser, Salome's release from prison in 1974 where she has been held to punish her husband for speaking out against Pinochet's regime in Chile.
After these two beginnings of the prison release and the Ribeiro's family life as recipients of political asylum in Sweden, the novel traces the relationship between Salome and her husband Octavio.  Octavio wooed Salome when she was only 17, and they are set up as the loves of each other's lives.  However, when Octavio becomes in politics, his naivety and inability to truly comprehend the horrors of Pinochet place his wife in danger.  He doesn't quite understand that this is different from previous situations in Chile and not just another coup.  Pinochet means to keep power and suppress dissension.
Interspersed with this story is another couple.  Samuel Rudin's family escaped  to Peru from France before the Nazis took over, though their extended family perished in the Holocaust.  Years later, he has become a therapist specializing in war trauma, serving the immigrant community in Sweden.  His wife, Kaija, is a Finnish war baby, meaning that as a child in Finland, her parents sent her to Sweden for safety purposes in 1944.  While the reader reads chapters from her mother's perspective, and sees how much her mother loved her, Kaija never quite comes to terms with this part of her past, and has feelings of abandonment.  Much of this novel revolves around things unsaid or lost, as can be seen with Kaija and her past as well as Salome and Octavio.  After Salome's release from prison and torture, Salome is both angry at Octavio and wants to protect him from the worst, which creates a gulf between them.
I feel like Richman does a very good job of developing the different parts of the story - the early relationship between Salome and Octavio almost had a fairy tale like feel to it, and the tone reminded me very much of South American authors I've read.  I liked all the characters, and Richman treats them all very sympathetically, even when they are doing things that are questionable.  After having read so many novels by Isabel Allende, it was very weird to actually see her uncle appear in the pages of this novel as a character.  He is of course the president that Pinochet overthrows, and the man Allende often refers to as "the poet" - Pablo Neruda - also has a small appearance.
From what I've read of Richman, I quite like her novels and her style.  She tells small personal stories on a large background, and she creates characters it is easy to feel for.  I'll definitely pick up another one of hers at some point.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Book 6: In the Shadow of the Banyan

I've been looking forward to reading this novel for a while, even if other books kept getting in the way.  I would like to visit Cambodia one day, mostly to visit Angkor Wat, and a friend of mine lives there.  As a result I was very interested to read about this darker period of Cambodian history which I had only a vague inkling of.
Ratner is a descendant of one of the Cambodian kings so this novel is very much drawn on her actual experiences when the Revolutionary soldiers took over Cambodia.  However since she was five when they took over in 1975, she chose to fictionalize her experience which would allow her to streamline her story and simplify the large family she had.  Overall, I think the real life story is fascinating, and there are certainly parts of the novel that were riveting, but in the end, I think I was hoping for more from this.
Raami, the novel's seven year old narrator, has lived a life of privilege, surrounded by beauty with her mother, poet-prince father and younger sister.  Up to this point, her largest struggle has been childhood polio which left her with a limp and a weak leg.  When the Khmer Rouge take over, her family is forced to evacuate the capital, and relocate.  Her father gives himself up to protect his family, since he is the most recognizable of the family.  Raami, her sister and her mother are separated from the rest of the family and moved in with an older couple in the country, though they are fortunate with this, as Pok and Mae are a couple that desperately wanted children, and are more than happy to treat this broken family as their own.
While I hadn't read about Khmer Rouge or the Democratic Kampuchea before, many of the themes were familiar from stories of other Communist revolutions, especially Maoist China.  The difference is that this uprising seemed to run on an extreme scale and a condensed time line, so that within only a short four year period, there appeared to be several different purges that are similar to ones that occurred over a longer period in China.  However, the fact that the Revolutionaries wanted to change farming practices to be more productive without listening to the farmers' advice is reminiscent of the policies leading to the Great Famine in China.   The way more radical members of the party turn on others who were more idealistic and fair rather than cut throat and opportunistic also rings familiar.  It is sad to see history repeat itself in different locations.  Estimates believe that between one and three million people died in this four year regime, equaling about a quarter to a third of the population.
The background of the story is heartbreaking, and some of the scenes and experiences of Raami are as well, especially regarding her family.  By the end, she basically retreats into herself to survive.  Yet despite this, I don't feel like this novel or story affected me the way it could have, and I think it may be the writing style.  There are lots of references to poetry given the father's history, but that alone could have certainly enhanced a stark and devastating story.  Instead, there was just something about the novel that felt more cerebral and kept me at a distance rather than truly making me care as much as I should have about the characters.  Perhaps there was too much detail, too much description of some things over others.  I'm not entirely sure, because the scenes that work really work.  Unfortunately, I haven't read any other books, fiction or nonfiction, about Cambodia so I can't compare, but as far as books about oppressive regimes there are better ones out there.  This one isn't completely without merit, but it wouldn't be among the first I'd recommend.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Book 5: Thirteen

This is the concluding novel of the Women of the Otherworld series, and wraps up the Savannah Levine trilogy that started with Waking the Witch.  Overall, I think it was a very fitting ending, though I don't think Savannah is really one of my favorite narrators.  That honor would be reserved for Elena, Eve and Jaime.  Still, it makes sense that the novel would end with Savannah as she is the middle between the next generation of women and the ones that made up the majority of the series.
The world of this series was so large and developed that were was no way Armstrong could have truly wrapped up everything, and she doesn't.  While the main case of this trilogy is concluded, and the characters all face the threat of supernatural exposure, there is so much more left open, basically treating this as yet another novel in the series, with slighlty larger stakes, and a grown up and adult Savannah at the end who has finally realized it is time to move on and become her own person, no longer quite so reliant on others or so self-indulgent.
There are still plenty of questions about the future, including Lucas and the Cabal, and just life in general.  I'm sure Armstrong needed a break from the series after ten years, and this works.  It basically shows that all the characters are going to keep fighting the good fight.  While Savannah is the main narrator of this, each previous narrator gets a chapter from her perspective thrown in, which is nice.  I also enjoyed how one previously dead character's fate ends up being different from what had been thought, and would love to see where that ended up!  In fact, I would definitely enjoy it if Armstrong ever returned to this world, maybe fast forwarded ten or fifteen years when the twins are adults.  While not every novel in the series is great, the majority of them are rather entertaining, and I can definitely recommend the series as a whole.  I gave up on Sookie Stackhouse over halfway through, but this one has kept my interest the entire time.

Book 4: Spell Bound

Spell Bound takes off immediately where Waking the Witch left off, with Savannah's powers gone.  After regretting how the last case ended, she had made a wish that she would gladly give up her spells if only she could fix some of the problems her investigation caused.  As it turns out, someone took her up on her offer.  Having already finished the concluding trilogy of the series, I will say that this one does kind of fill like a middle book.  Waking the Witch introduces Savannah as a narrator and begins some of the plot lines that will run through the rest of the series, while Thirteen wraps them all up.  Spell Bound, in comparison, definitely feels like it's getting things into place.  Since it is Armstrong, it is a very action packed getting things into place, but the central mystery/story isn't that memorable compared to the other two of the trilogy.
Basically, it turns out there is a group of supernaturals that want to expose themselves to humans, and possibly even rule over them.  This impending war has lots of people taking sides - most of the knowledegeable supernaturals, such as the Cabals and the Council know that it is not worth the risks, but some supernaturals that aren't as involved and are more on the outskirts are tired of hiding.  Even the afterworld is seeing chaos, and demons are taking sides - Savannah's demon grandfather and Adam's demon father are on opposite sides of the dispute.  While this supernatural exposure threat is looming, Savannah doesn't have her powers and she has discovered that the witch hunters are not a fairy tale after all, having become the target of one during her last case.  Much of the novel involves these three threads, and how Savannah faces the fact that she has relied overly much on her powers without doing the proper work.  Given the threat, basically all the other characters from previous novels are called in and appear at one point or another, including Savannah's brother Bryce who ends up being a key part of this novel.  Even Eve and Kristof Nast show up through communications with Jaime Vegas.
Overall, I think it was a fun ride like most of Armstrong's novels but I also think this one wouldn't have stood as well on its own, without me having the follow up novel on hand.  In general when I read a series, I try to make myself review one before I read the next but since Armstrong switches up the narrators, I haven't followed that rule as closely with her novels.  There was much less danger of the lines blurring as far as what occured in which book given that they all had distinct stories and different main characters.  This is definitely not the case with these last three because they all have the same narrator, there is so much going on, and the last three novels take place over the course of a week or so.

Book 3: Waking the Witch

After being introduced as a 12 year old girl in the second novel of the series, Savannah Levine narrates the 11th book in the series as a 21 year old.  For the most part, this novel falls very much in line with the rest of the series, though there is more focus on Savannah growing up, and less on romantic entanglements.  Savannah is an odd character in ways - she has always been presented as spunky, saracastic, very independent and yet when it came time to leave and go to college, she chose to remain in Portland and work as a receptionist at Lucas and Paige's investigation agency.  Still, she is tired of being the assistant, and with Paige and Lucas on vacation, and Adam out of town, she jumps at the chance to take the lead on a nearby case.
Jesse, another supernatural PI, brings her in on the case.  Two women were killed, execution style in the fall, and now six months later, another woman has been found.  There are clues that this may have involved something supernatural or a ritual of some sort.  Savannah quickly discovers the two main suspects of the case but she can't quite see the supernatural angle if it involves them.  She also develops a bit of a connection with the 8 year old daughter of one of the first two murder victims.  A lot of the things in the case just don't quite add up, and two more people end up dead.  As it turns out, there is more going on than Savannah realizes when she picks up the case.  I had my suspicions of a certain character early on, but Armstrong adds in a few twists I wasn't expecting at all.
This novel is a bit different from the rest of the series because while it certainly begins and closes the novel's central mystery, it leaves more unfinished threads than previously novels.  Additionally, it is the first one to end on a cliff hanger.  While they have all had somewhat open endings, implying that certain things would happen as a result of the novel's actions, only Savannah's novel ends with some of the plot lines still in the middle or beginning.  I had already been previously warned that the last three novels are a trilogy compared to the rest of the series, so fortunately, I had the next two novels ready to dive into.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Nonfiction Reading Challenge Sign Up

I was actually hoping for a nonfiction reading challenge to sign up for but didn't notice any before this - or the ones I did notice had too many categories.  Anyway, I'm signing up for Seeker Level (11-15) since that should hopefully encourage me to read at least one a month.

Nonfiction books read so far:

1. Hitler's Furies by Wendy Lower
2. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
3. Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan
4. The Second Treatise of Government by John Locke
5. A Discourse on Inequality by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
6. Karl Marx: A Life by Francis Wheen
7. The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
8. I Don't Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer
9. Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain
10. This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
11. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
12. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

2014 British History Reading Challenge Sign Up

 photo 5eb7dc6d-3019-4e41-b764-241ed9e40e5e.jpg

I thought I was done with challenges for the year but this one is perfect for me, especially considering that I ended 2013 reading two books related to British history, one fiction and one non-fiction.  There aren't any levels, just a requirement to read a minimum of three which I definitely should have no problems doing.  As far as the fiction, I am going to only use one's that specifically focus on past events rather than simply being set in the past (for example, Bellman and Black which I just read is set in Victorian England but it didn't really focus on any specific historical events so I don't think that is quite what was in mind for this).

1. The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
Anyway, here are a few books I hope to get around to this year:

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir
Mistress of the Monarchy by Alison Weir
Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer
More novels by Sharon Kay Penman
Various World War I related books due to the anniversary

Book 2: Bellman and Black

I'm pretty sure that my reaction upon completing a book isn't supposed to be "so what was the point/ what the fuck did I just read?"  I don't think every book needs to have a deeper message (which this one kind of did, but it was a bit cliche, hence the "what's the point") or even a super exciting plot as long as I feel entertained.  Unfortunately, the novel ran out of steam for me about halfway through, which is really unfortunate because I loved The Thirteenth Tale by the same author.

Even this novel had several things going for it but in the end they didn't come together for me.  Though it was set in the Victorian Age, it felt like a fairy tale, especially in the beginning, and I actually quite liked that.  I liked the hints at a larger picture, since it begins with tracing everything back to the time William killed a rook.  When later in life his friends and family start to die, it is hard not to ask if there is something more behind it all, some meaning.  The writing is beautiful, and the story develops a great atmosphere but halfway through I began to think that the atmosphere was in and of itself the point, and wasn't actually building towards anything.

Goodreads has the title listed as Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story, and while one could argue that the main character is haunted, especially towards the last half of the novel as he occasionally will think he is forgetting something vital and finds his sleep disturbed by vague remembrances, it is not at all a traditional ghost story or anything like that - basically it's misleading to think of it that way.

After the novel introduces William Bellman, the ten year old who kills the rook, it flashes forward to him as a restless and charming seventeen year old.  Though he is the grandson of the mill owner, his father angered his family, and William has certainly not been accepted into it.  However, his uncle Paul has an interest in the boy, and gives him a job at the mill.  From here, the novel chronicles William's hard work and success at the mill as he comes up with innovations, and earns his uncle's respect.  At first the novel gives one the idea that William could easily have been a drifter but with this one opportunity, he becomes a steadfast and stable businessman whom fortune favors.  As time passes, friends and family die, but it is only when the flu sweeps through the village and threatens his family that William questions whether he has earned his good luck.

This is the turning point of the novel as William believes he made a deal, and from here on he tries to remember the terms of that deal as he develops a whole new empire, the store Bellman and Black, named after a man he has seen at all the funerals he has attended, and the man he may have made a deal with.  It is this part of the novel that sets it firmly in the Victorian Era as Setterfield explores the the funeral and mourning traditions of that time period.  Mourning was huge in the Victorian Age, and Queen Victoria herself certainly took part in the extensive (and excessive) rituals developed at that time.  Unfortunately as interesting as the details of the novel were - and I loved the descriptions and all the minor details about the store -, it is at this point that the book lost its footing.  While I was curious if there was something more to Black when he was a funeral guest in Bellman's life, after their interaction in the cemetery, the novel seems to stumble along without its plot.  I stopped caring about William because he stopped caring, becoming so lost in his work that he no longer had the charming personality of the previous parts of the novel.  I know this is part of the message of the novel but I can't say I really cared much more for any of the other characters at this point.

The novel has the occasional few pages between chapters about rooks, and those were poetically written, adding to the potential of the novel and the possible mystery that ended up getting lost.  In fact, those passages and the writing in general were one of the main reasons I debated between whether or not this would rate a 3 or a 2 on Goodreads, but I ended up going towards the 2 because despite the fact that I really liked the last page and other parts of the novel, it didn't work for me as a whole.  Given my love of The Thirteenth Tale, that was very disappointing.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Book 1: Hitler's Furies

The idea behind this book was to explore the role of women in Nazi Germany, and how they participated or collaborated with the regime, only to be mostly ignored in the post war time years, while instead the myth of the German martyr women, victims of rape and air attacks on the home front took hold. While I liked the book and thought Lower made an interesting argument, it felt all too brief, more like this is the beginning of an area of study.  For example, she does not focus on the female camp guards who have already been documented, but instead chooses to look specifically at the women that had were in the know, and some cases had the power and authority to effect things and how they handled themselves.  She looks at the secretaries that signed and typed the orders, the nurses that adminstered the euthanasia, the wives that supported their husbands.
Her argument is that more women participated in the killing than previously thought, and most certainly more people knew more about what was going on.  While many of them may not have been in a position to stop things, they could certainly decide how to react, and whether to visit the ghettoes of East Europe or profit from seized and stolen goods.  In fact some women who were outside the system even chose to take actions that would never have been expected of them, such as wives killing Jews alongside their husbands.
The biggest problem is that while her stories are compelling, she focuses on such a small group of women.  It certainly makes sense that there were more like them but she still does not entirely have the statistics she needs to prove her argument rather than simply make a case.  There are so many points that are touched on briefly in this book that I wish would have been elaborated on further.  For example, she begins to talk about the teachers sent to the East and how they collaborated and helped a system that allowed the Nazis to kill parents and take children that looked "racially promising."  She touches on the nurses, and how they felt they were doing the humane thing by relieving the suffering of the disabled.  She talks about how the women were raised and came of age in an authoritative community and with Hitler's rise to power.  She also briefly discusses some aspects of society that were particularly interesting from a gender studies perspective: while the Nazis worshipped mothers and talked about how they were the most important people in the Reich (after all, how else would one breed more little Aryans), women also had unprecedented professional opportunities as a result of the regime.  The same regime that encouraged women to return to traditional, conservative values also gave them power.
Additionally, when women were actually were charged with crimes, they could use tears and say that it was their husbands' influence to protect themselves for significant punishment.  I think there is certainly more to be explored within this area, but unfortunately this book wasn't as comprehensive as I would have liked, focusing on a rather narrow number of women.  Still, it joins other books that show just how extensive collaboration was, and how much everyone needed to do their assigned parts to make the system work.  Additionally, like Children of the Flames, it demonstrates just how much people got away with and how few were actually held accountable for the mass murders of anyone considered undesirable and attempted genocide of a people.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 Reading Wrap Up

Books Read in 2013/ Cannoball Read V

Reading Challenges (other than Cannoball Read because that's a given):

TBR Reading Challenge
: Complete; 53 read, initially committed to 36.

Historical Fiction
: 43
Keyword Challenge: Complete; 55 books total read (12 required)
Color Coded Challenge: Complete, all 9 categories done.

European Challenge
: 16/50

A list of all the books read for each challenge with links to reviews can be found here.
My reading habits by month:
Books Read: 14
Books Bought: 9
Books Read: 13
Books Bought: 13
Books Read: 14
Books Bought: 13
Books Read: 13
Books Bought: 9
Books Read: 11
Books Bought: 9
Books Read: 14
Books Bought: 14
Books Read: 17
Books Bought: 15 
Books Read: 11
Books Bought: 6
Books Read: 7
Books Bought: 7
Books Read: 9
Books Bought: 7
Books Read: 10
Books Bought: 14
Read: 15
Bought: 17
Total for the year: Read: 148/bought: 133 /Received as gifts: 7
Books bought in 2013 read: 94/Books bought before 2013 read: 53/ Read for school (anthology/online): 1

So yes, books continue to accumulate in my apartment but I read more than I bought in 2013 so that's totally a win!  I should totally go buy some to make up the difference.