Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review -- Code Name Verity

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
My enjoyment rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source:  Nook (#1 reason I hate my Nook -- I can't pass this off to someone and say, "READ IT!")
Genre: YA, Historical Fiction
Objectionable material:  Graphic language and torture

Espionage. Covert military maneuvers. Torture. Nazi resistance. And a friendship that is truly gift.

There is little more to say than Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, has been my favorite book to read this year (so far!).

I’m a junkie for WWII fiction/non-fiction – and this story about Maddie (a transport pilot for the RAF) and her friend, “Verity,” a SOE (a British Special Operations Executive) operative, was unlike anything I’ve read recently.

As told from the perspective of “Verity” after she’s been captured by the Gestapo in occupied France, she tells us about her capture, her suffering, her background and training. But she also tells us about Maddie – and those with whom she trained in Britain.

It is fretful from the first page to the last. I even audibly GASPED during “Verity’s” graphic narrative.

Be patient in the beginning. It’s not an easy book to read, and the 1st person/3rd person narration is a bit tricky – but it is well worth it.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review -- A Vintage Affair

My enjoyment rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book source:  Personal copy
Genre: Fiction; Chick-lit
Objectionable material:  unmarried relations

Can you imagine playing dress up for a living?

Phoebe Swift does…in her vintage dress shop in London’s Blackheath neighborhood. With gowns, skirts, sweaters, bags, satins, crinolines, taffetas, wools, and beading, Phoebe has applied her Sotheby’s expertise to the reemergence of selling and wearing classic clothes.

Her shop draws a variety of customers: newspaperman, Dan, wants to write lifestyle article about her shop; Miles who is trying to please his difficult daughter with the purchase of a vintage gown for a society fundraiser; Mrs. Bell who is selling her wardrobe of vintage clothes, with the exception of a special blue coat; and Emma, whose memory lingers over it all.

This was the quintessential British chick lit book – worthy of a Hugh Grant/Renee Zellweger cast.

Author, Isabel Wolff, has created a boutique any customer would dream of lazing the afternoon away looking at all the exquisitely crafted garments. One only wishes pictures had been included.

The story line and characters are less well crafted, however: a convoluted story where Phoebe is plagued with guilt over the death of a friend; a busted romance; a WWII era missing person; a midlife crisis, divorced Dad – it was like a polka dot shirt matched with a striped skirt.

Regardless of what it lacked, remarkably, I still really enjoyed it. Phoebe was fun – and it made me wish I could play dress up in my grandmother’s closet.

It was a “right place at the right time” kind of book.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

July Book Club & Review -- Nineteen Minutes

Nineteen MinutesNineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
My enjoyment rating: 1 of 5 stars
Book source: Library copy
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Objectionable material: I'm trying to forget all of the material
July Book Club selection

  Summary from the publisher:

"In Sterling, New Hampshire, 17-year-old high school student Peter Houghton has endured years of verbal and physical abuse at the hands of classmates. His best friend, Josie Cormier, succumbed to peer pressure and now hangs out with the popular crowd that often instigates the harassment. One final incident of bullying sends Peter over the edge and leads him to commit an act of violence that forever changes the lives of Sterling's residents. Even those who were not inside the school that morning find their lives in an upheaval, including Alex Cormier. The superior court judge assigned to the Houghton case, Alex - whose daughter, Josie, witnessed the events that unfolded - must decide whether or not to step down. She's torn between presiding over the biggest case of her career and knowing that doing so will cause an even wider chasm in her relationship with her emotionally fragile daughter. Josie, meanwhile, claims she can't remember what happened in the last fatal minutes of Peter's rampage. Or can she? And Peter's parents, Lacy and Lewis Houghton, ceaselessly examine the past to see what they might have said or done to compel their son to such extremes. Rich with psychological and social insight, Nineteen Minutes is a riveting, poignant, and thought-provoking novel that has at its center a haunting question. Do we ever really know someone?”
This was our book club choice for July.
I hated every page.
Was it author Jodi Picoult’s fault?  No…she was a master at weaving a story of angst and conflict and emotion among multiple characters. 
However masterful she was, I couldn’t tolerate the subject matter or the absolute cruelty inflicted by so many people on one another. It was misery in 500 pages.
Surely there are teenagers out there that are not intent on shooting their classmates, or hating their parents.
Regardless of my dislike of the book – our book discussion was electric with commentary.
So, if you want an engaging discussion – I recommend this book.

August book choice:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (I read this 4 years ago...I'm eager to read it again).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Book Review -- Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book source:  Personal copy
Genre:  Non-fiction
Objectionable material: detailed accounts of death by starvation

I’m voting for Pres. Obama in November.

What does that have to do with a book review?

Not much really, other than after reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, I’m grateful that I can vote. For anybody. Period.

Author Demick’s narrative follows the lives of six North Koreans over the span of approximately 15 years – we learn of their education, families, their lives under a totalitarian government, and ultimately, the famine, that claimed nearly 3 million lives (from 1994-1998).

This was a bleak book, but profoundly necessary to read. There is nothing redeeming about living in North Korea. It sucks. But I was amazed that in spite of the deprivation, families were still families who raised children and still wanted the best for them.

Also – the women. I am in awe of North Korean women. In the depths of the famine they were responsible for not only working (nearly 89% of all women “worked”) but they were also responsible for obtaining fuel, food and water (which was nonexistent).

Finally – as we learn the fate of these six individuals (all who defected out of North Korea, which is why we know their story), it’s painful to read how difficult it was to adjust to a free society.

This was great book to read during an election year – because regardless of what side you align yourself with – we are so enormously blessed to live in this country.

I think I’ll go buy some bread now.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Daphne du Maurier -- in her own words

I've really struggled with my thoughts after finishing Dame du Maurier's The House on the Strand the other day.  

While I was at work at the library, I found this on the shelf -- Enchanted Cornwall, a Pictorial Memoir, published a year or so after she died.  In this lovely collection of pictures and book excerpts, du Maurier shares with us the secrets and mysteries of Cornwall -- and how it influenced nearly all of her writing. 

But most specifically, it helped me understand the genesis of The House on the Strand...which for me, was such a strange novel.  Had I read her thoughts first, I might have had a better impression of it.

I knew Strand was an homage to her estate, Kilmarth -- but I learned the following:

I moved to Kilmarth in June 1969...I would visit the empty house and walk around the rooms in a daze, trying to picture the sort of people who had lived in the house before.  I found a lot of dusty bottles in a room in the basement, bottles containing curious things like embryos.  My predecessor had been a scientist, Professor Singer, I began to imagine what he got up to in this old house...

So, her character, Mangnus Lane, the crazy professor with his basement lab filled with bottles and potions, was actually based on a previous tenant of Kilmarth.
Additionally, the time travel story line began here:

I discovered that the house dates back to the 14th century...and that in 1327 one Roger Kylmerth (featured prominently in Strand) owned it and that the foundations of his house are beneath me now...

She adds:

So it was that I found the storyline for The House on the Strand.  It would be set in both the present and past...the hero Dick Young would travel back in time, in this case the 14th century world of Roger Kylmerth, and he would do this not by dreaming...but by means of a drug prepared by his friend, Mangus Lane, in the laboratory full of curious exhibits that I found in the basement.

With regards to Dick's "addiction" to the time travel potion:

...I did wonder...whether people would be put off when they heard it was about a time drug.  Fortunately they weren't and if noting else my use of the drug is a clue to the time of its writing.  The late '60s was the ear of LSD.  Aspects of Dick's altered state of consciousness are certainly similar to the LSD experience, and as a result, people have asked me whether I tried LSD...the answer is that I did not.

I found this personal narrative fascinating...and again, had I known this before I started this book, I would have had a far greater appreciation for the maturation of the storyline.

Certainly in the future, I plan to read all of the excerpts featured in Enchanted Cornwall prior to reading her novels for her fascinating insight.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review -- The House on the Strand

The House on the StrandThe House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
My enjoyment rating: 2 of 5 stars
Book source:  personal copy
Genre: Classic fiction
Objectionable material: none

Nothing like having your best friend use you as a science experiment.

But that’s exactly what happens to Dick Young. He’s been asked by his long time college buddy (now scientist), Mangus Lane, to imbibe on a potion he’s created to transport him back in time. Mangus himself has taken several “trips” to the 14th century…now he needs confirmation from another source to confirm the secrets to his elixir.

Things initially go smoothly for Dick: he drinks the mixture; transports back to Cornwall of 1335; follows around a group of ancient Cornwallians (I hope that’s what you would call someone from Cornwall!); learns that one in the group, Roger Kylmarth, was the first inhabitant of Mangus’s cottage; also that there is some philandering going on within this group – and then – without much effort – he transports back to the present day.

It becomes quite a bit more complicated when Dick’s wife, Vita, shows up and he has to explain to her his absences and odd behavior. She’s not too willing to accept his recent interest in 14th century history. Regardless of Vita’s concern, Dick decides he really gets his kicks and giggles out of his new found hobby, even if he is becoming more aggressive, starts loosing feeling in his extremities, and sweats all the time.

Then Mangus takes a “trip” of his own and the time travel experiment completely unravels. And not in a good way.

This was one of the strangest books I’ve ever read!  And I love Dame DuMaurier! But this was a huge struggle.

I’ve read time travel books before – but never back to the 14th century – where I have absolutely no context for time or historical participants (i.e. 16th century = Henry VIII).

Also, I was confused from the moment DuMaurier introduced her 14th century characters until the last page: I could never figure out their relationship with one another, why they were conflicted, who was sleeping with whom – and she even provided a genealogy tree in the preface to help the reader – but it was of no help whatsoever. At least to me.

The present day story line was easier to follow, but not by much: All of the locales Dick visited to begin his trips started with Tre --- Treesmill, Treverran, Trevenna – I couldn’t keep them straight. Also Vita, Dick’s wife, was plain annoying (would it have to do with the fact that she was an American?). Every time she entered the narrative, I cringed.

The one upside to this book: DuMaurier is a complete genius in creating a sense of “place” that I was swept away in the locale of Cornwall – the beaches, the farms, the villages – I think her narrative was the only thing that kept me going.

All in all, not an enjoyable read…but I will continue to adore Dame Daphne DuMaurier.

*House on the Strand was written as an homage to her estate in Cornwall, Kilmarth.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review -- The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book source:  Library
Genre: Literary Fiction
Objectionable material: none

Once upon a time there was a circus.

A magical circus. With black and white tents, an eternal cauldron flaming bright in the courtyard, an expertly crafted clock marking time, and mystical performers and acts.

But hidden within the tent walls is a competition between two unknowing participants. Each trying to prove their superiority over the other at the hands of their mentors.

Then the competitors fall in love. Circus allies die. The circus magic begins to fail. The future of the circus must be saved – but by whom?

Erin Morgenstern has created an enchanting story, full of whimsy, wonder and conflict.

Her imagery is brilliant: each circus “exhibit” discovered by the reader is like going down Alice’s rabbit hole, with tales of ice or dreams or clouds or wishes. Her characters are equally distinctive: a tattooed contortionist, a peculiar man in a grey suit, a shadowy father, fanciful twins, and fateful lovers.

Less successful was the story development – it took nearly 300 pages for anything to “happen.” It was pretty to read along the way…but my patience was certainly tested.

Overall, a book like nothing I’ve read before. Totally unique and original. A perfect read to transport you to another world.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy July 4th!

Enjoy being with family, friends and food (and books!), where ever you may be today to celebrate the birth of the greatest nation!

I will finish The Night Circus today...maybe I should pick up something patriotic to end the holiday?  The Federalist Papers?!

Happy Independence Day!