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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Unbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption

Laura Hillenbrand has told the riveting story of Louis Zamperini in Unbroken: a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption (#67). 

The son of Italian immigrants living in Torrance, California, Louie was a juvenile delinquent with not much of a future until his older brother Pete nagged him into running.  Obsessed with running, Louie soon was breaking high school athletic and then college records.  His improbable success led to him representing the US in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  He set his sights on the 1940 Tokyo Olympics as his opportunity to win gold and break the four minute mile. 

That is, until World War II broke out.  Louie enlisted and found himself in the Army Air Corps, assigned as a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator.  After a fierce fire fight over the Pacific, his plane went down with only three survivors.  They drifted across the open Pacific in a raft for 47 days until they were picked up by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp.  What Louie and his companions and their families and loved ones at home endured during their ordeal make up the bulk of the story of Unbroken.  But the story doesn't end there.  After Japan surrendered, the prisoners who remained were liberated by the Allies, but many were still trapped in physically damaged bodies or minds and never truly recovered.

It is a marvel that Louie and others like him survived the physical punishment, but the story of how Louie overcame his mental devils and went on to help others is even more miraculous. After his "Daybreak" moment Louie was even more in demand as an inspirational speaker and philanthropist.  He had redeemed himself.

I think part of the reason I found this book so compelling was how much it revealed to me about my own father.  Like Louie, he was a Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.  The picture of Louis in his uniform with his family brought an instant flashback of my father's dress uniform hung carefully away in his closet.  Also like Louie, my father served on a B-24 Liberator although he was a navigator stationed in North Africa and Italy.  My father didn't talk about the war, although he had a drawer full of pictures from bombing runs over Italy, Germany and Austria.  I never thought about the high incidence of downed planes over the water and the perils of being a POW if captured.  It's a frightening thought that the Germans almost looked humane compared to the treatment of Pacific POWs.

Don't miss this powerful book.  Unbroken is unforgettable.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Golden Land

This Golden Land (#66) by Barbara Wood is the first book on my list of Australia-related reading since I am going there in the fall.  I also happen to like Ms. Wood's take on historical fiction so this new book was a perfect blend of style and subject. 

Hannah Conroy is a certified midwife and daughter of the local physician in 1840s England.  She accompanies her Quaker father on an emergency call to the local manor where things go terribly wrong.  Her father is dead, and there are no prospects for a woman alone to practice medicine, so she decides to emigrate to Australia.  On the voyage, she meets Neal Scott, an Americal photographer who is joining a scientific expedition.  Although they are drawn together, each has their own destiny, so they separate with hopes to meet in the future.  Hannah settles in Adelaide where she struggles to set up a practice.  There she meets Jamie O'Brien, a wanted outlaw.  Their paths cross again leading to Hannah's experience in the Outback at a desolate opal camp. 

Ms. Wood weaves in evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape with the bustle of the more settled but expanding Adelaide and Melbourne as her colorful characters establish lives for themselves in this new world.  Will Hannah succeed in influencing the health and wellbeing of the people she treats?  Who does she choose to spend the rest of her life with?  How do her friends fare on their chosen paths?  How do the Aborigines help both Neal and Hannah discover their true paths in life?  You'll just have to read This Golden Land to find out.  It's an enjoyable journey.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Open And Shut

After reading David Rosenfelt's Dog Tags, I had to go back and read more about Andy Carpenter, reluctant defense attorney and ardent dog lover.   Open And Shut (#65) is where it all began.  This book explains how Andy came to be independently wealthy, acquired a dog, found a brilliant partner, and an attractive lover who works with him as an investigator as he unravels a family mystery. 

Andy's father was a successful District Attorney who tried an "open and shut" murder case a number of years ago.  Just before he dies unexpectedly, he begs Andy to take on the appeal for Willie Miller, even though he claims he knows that Andy can't win the appeal.  The senior Carpenter has recently discovered some information about the original trial that leads to the verdict being overturned.  Andy's already on the case when his father dies, but he carries on because his father asked him to, and it's something to keep him occupied as he grieves.  Cleaning his father's house, Andy comes across a hidden photo and starts asking questions.  Someone is definitely not happy about that.  Andy is threatened and beaten up and concludes that his client has been framed.  He's not about to stop digging.

Just as in Dog Tags, Rosenfelt uses humor and some ingenious twists to keep the plot moving along.  I couldn't put the book down and read it in one sitting.  When I reserved the next book in this series, I was delighted to see that he's come out with another installment on order at my library.  Yay library!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Valcourt Heiress

I know that Catherine Coulter is a New York Times best-selling author, and the opening of the book was promising.  She did have me partway through her latest, The Valcourt Heiress (#64) until Ms. Coulter brought in the element of witchery.  She had a good, semi-believable medieval story going to that point.  As far as I was concerned, though, I basically lost interest as the rest of her plot dissolved into ridiculous silliness. 

I really enjoy well done historical fiction.  It should not have to rely on fantasy when the author runs out of other ideas.  Nor did she use the fantasy to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion.  The plot just sort of piddled out with untied threads all over the place, a device that I think personally is used solely to justify yet another sequel.  Contrast  A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (see my previous post) which combines both well-researched historical with a first rate fantasy with gripping effect to this lack luster effort.

None of the characters are well-developed in The Valcourt Heiress.  Garron, as the hero is pretty one-dimensional.  His revenge is supposedly motivated by the slaughter of the people at Wareham, his brother's castle, by the mysterious Black Demon.  Frankly, when the Black Demon is finally revealed, no one seems particularly terrified by him, and why would they be?  He is a whining, pathetic loser who does not seem capable of the kind of destruction he is claimed to have caused.  You can't even believe he's capable of pulling the wings off flies, let alone getting a kick out of torturing children.  Nor is Garron intelligent, which he keeps claiming about Merry, the heroine.  Her best developed feature is her tiny braids hidden amongst the glorious, fat red plaits of hair.  Give me a break!  Her hair certainly gets more play than anything else, probably because there isn't much else to this over-wrought heiress.

If I were you, I'd skip this book and move onto something a lot more fun with a much more thoughtful conclusion.  If you're looking for romance, Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet would be a much better place to start.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Savor The Moment

Savor The Moment (#63) is the third book of Nora Roberts' Bride Quartet.  This is wedding cake baker extraordinaire Laurel McBane's story.  If you've read the first two books of the series, you know that Laurel has already been set up to make the sparks fly with Delaney Brown, wealthy attorney and brother of her best friend Parker Brown. 

And that's the plot line for this story.  Laurel has grown up with the Browns.  In fact, since the senior Browns have died, she shares the main house in Greenwich, Connecticut , estate where Vows, the quartet's wedding business, is located.  Laurel's been in love with Delaney forever, and she knows that he loves her, too -  like a sister.  Big problem which you know will be resolved by the end of this book.  You can already see how Parker Brown will close out the circle of friends being engaged in the final book.  But you don't read these books because they're suspenseful; they're just romantic and fun.  Deep down, we do want that happy ending. 

It sure put me in the mood to watch the upcoming Royal Wedding!  (My invitation for that obviously went astray in the mail.  Oh well!  I'll probably see it all better on television anyway...)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing

Indeed.  In Jasper Fforde's lastest, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing (#62) the real Thursday appears to be missing.  It becomes fictional Thursday's mission to find out if the Real World Thursday is actually missing and if so, why she's left everyone behind in a critical moment in the BookWorld.  Not very flattering to find out you've been assigned to solve the disappearance of the highly skilled and respected Real Thursday because you're the most incompetent junior level agent the higher ups could find...

I confess that as much as I've enjoyed the previous books in this series, I did have some difficulty getting into this book.  I don't know if it was because I was distracted while traveling, but I didn't have any problem putting this book down half way through to read a book for the Literary Circle.  I don't normally like to do that.  After I picked it up again, it seemed to move along nicely with the literary asides and wit I look forward to in Mr. Fforde's books.  As I said, maybe it was just me.

Or maybe it was the cover art.  I couldn't make a connection between the 50s stock image and the contents of the book.  Annoying.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Inner Circle

I heard Brad Meltzer being interviewed on NPR about his latest book The Inner Circle (#61).  He mentioned that he had gotten the idea for this novel from a conversation he had had with George H. W. Bush about his time in the presidency. 

At the National Archives in Washington a young member of the archivist staff accidentally finds something he is not supposed to see. In trying to figure out just what it is, Beecher White learns about a spy ring of loyal civilians that George Washington founded to prevent the British from intercepting his communications during the Revolutionary War.  But what if this spy ring has never gone away?  I won't spoil the story for you, but it's a really good story. 

I can tell you that there is a back story to The Inner Circle being on my reading list.  Not only did I think it sounded like something I'd be interested in when I heard Brad Meltzer talk about it, but combine that with the fact that when my sister-in-law was staying with us at Christmas this year, she asked my husband at dinner one night if he remembered one of her co-workers from her MIT librarian days.  He is now the Archivist of the United States.  I knew I had to read this book.  The perfect opportunity came up when those of us who actually come to our Literary Circle meetings faithfully staged our own rebellion.  Our reading list this past year has consisted solely of the classics, which could be easily obtained from the public library.  It's not we have any objections to any of the books we've read, but others in the Literary Circle insisted that we schedule out our entire year's worth of reading in advance.  We did as others requested to accommodate everyone in the group and planned out our list in advance.  The biggest problem was that none of those who had laid down these rules for the Literary Circle bothered to show up at any of the meetings.  By the time we finished our World's Great Books list, we were tired.  The previous two years we had chosen books spontaneously, based on things we had read in the paper, recommended to the group from something we had read ourselves, or that were on the Best Seller list, or that sprang from the lively discussions we used to have.  Since the group wasn't fun anymore, we decided to take it back and make it fun again.  I suggested that we read The Inner Circle since my husband and I had bought a copy with our Borders gift certificate.  Even though we don't meet to discuss it until tomorrow night, I already know that this has been a successful change in strategy.  My husband and I stopped in at the church office one day last week, and our parish administrator (who belongs to the Literary Circle) pointed a finger at me and yelled "It's your fault!"  She claims that I made her stay up until 3:00 a.m. reading The Inner Circle because she couldn't put it down.  Oh, and George Washington's civilian spy ring?  That was real.

Here's to reading more books this exciting!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts

It's Cambridge University in 1786 and in Jerusalem College one of their privileged young students has gone mad after encountering a ghost.  His wealthy and influential mother wants him cured of his delusion and restored to her at home in London as soon as possible.  To this end Lady Anne Oldershaw hires John Holdsworth, a financially distressed bookseller and the author of the eponymous The Anatomy of Ghosts (#60) a volume debunking the existence of ghosts.  Lady Anne Oldershaw throws in the additional carrot of assessing her late husband's library with an eye to donating it to Jerusalem College.  This part of the commission John is comfortable with, but as he investigates the circumstances surrounding Oldershaw's descent into madness, he is drawn into the mysteries surrounding the exclusive Holy Ghost Society, which seems to have played a key role in events.  How Holdsworth goes about unraveling the threads in this intellectual backwater form the basis for this novel.  The trick is to see if he can accomplish his dual missions without sacrificing his own beliefs and emotions during the unsavory process.

I enjoyed reading this book by Andrew Taylor, even though the ending is not what I had hoped for John Holdsworth.  Mr. Taylor takes his time painting a picture of Cambridge at a time when scholarship for the rich and aristocratic classes was merely a gloss one acquired while developing a social and political network.  The real students were treated as servants and fitted in their studies around waiting on their "betters".  Position was everything and rivalries intense between various factions.  Take your time with this one and you'll discover a whole new perspective on college life.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Death of a Chimney Sweep

Death of a Chimney Sweep (#59) by M. C. Beaton is her latest Hamish Macbeth mystery.  The tiny village of Drim is in Hamish's territory which he patrols from a the small town of Lochdubh.  Who would stuff the body of the English owner of the largest house in town up the chimney?  Some in town think it's the local chimney sweep, until the sweep's body turns up the next day.  It looks like a motorcycle accident, but Hamish doesn't think so.

Hamish manages to solve the motive behind the growing pile of bodies with the help of his beloved animals despite the interference of his supervisors at headquarters, the reappearances of not one, but two ex-fiances, and sundry red herrings. 

Imagine my surprise in the Epilogue when one of the miscreants meets a highly suitable end in my own town!  Yes, one of the plot threads is tied up neatly off Stuart Beach in Florida.  Certainly didn't see that one coming!  A quick, but satisfying read with a cast of eccentric characters.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Matter of Class

If you enjoy Regency romances, Mary Balogh is always a reliable read.  A Matter of Class (#58) is almost more of a novella than a full length book, and can easily be read in one sitting.  Lady Annabelle has disgraced herself and broken the engagement to an heir of a duke arranaged by her father by running away with the family's coachman. 

Reginald Mason in the meantime has been equally busy spending his father's hard earned fortune on frivolous things.  When Mr. Mason senior decides he's had enough, he decrees that Reginald will marry Lady Annabelle, daughter of the earl next door, or be cut off. 

The Masons will get their feet on the rungs of Society's ladder while saving both the earl from financial disaster and Annabell from social ostracism while settling down their bachelor son to boot.  The senior Mr. Mason is happy, but is anyone else?  You'll have to read this one to find out the neat twist at the end.  After all, that's what guilty pleasures are for!

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches (#57) by Deborah Harkness is her debut novel, the first in her planned All Souls Trilogy and already I'm impatient because I have to wait until 2012!!!  to find out what happens next.  Ms. Harkness is a history professor, and her attention to researched detail shows to advantage in A Discovery of Witches

When the book opens, Dr. Diana Bishop is back at Oxford's Bodleian Library researching her area of expertise: the history of alchemy.  A mysterious manuscript delivered to her reading desk sets off all kinds of mental alarms for Diana.  She's a witch and the daughter of two powerful murdered witches, and she knows that the manuscript is bound by a spell.  She can't wait to get rid of it back to the stacks because she has stubbornly resisted all attempts by the Oxford witches to get her involved in the local coven, or to have anything at all to do with witchcraft.  Her plan doesn't work as the Bodleian steadily fills up with more witches, vampires and daemons, all intent on gaining possession of that manuscript by fair means or foul.

Matthew Clairmont, an Oxford fellow and vampire, begins tracking her movements but is also helpful in blocking other creatures from interfering with her studies.  Is his sole motive gaining access to the manuscript itself?  Or is it possible for a witch and a vampire to develop a relationship?  As Diana's safety is at risk, Matthew takes steps to protect her over the objections of both their families.  The Congregation, a powerful alliance of witches, daemons and vampires, is much too interested in Diana...

This is a hefty page turner full of scholarly references to alchemy, troubadours and mitochondrial DNA and a most satisfying read.  It also celebrates the joys of wine and meals shared with loved ones as it bounces from Oxford to France to upstate New York.  I have put out an e-mail to my friends recommending that they download this book immediately to their Kindles, or grab themselves a hard copy.  They won't be disappointed, and I'll have someone to speculate on what could possibly be coming up in the next two books!