Total Pageviews

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls (#584), Martha Hall Kelly's debut novel, is based on real events and people.  In it she intertwines the lives of three women who, due to events in World War II, are destined to play a defining role in each other's lives.  Ravensbruck, the infamous all women's concentration camp in Germany, is the catalyst.  The medical experiments conducted there during the war have largely been forgotten.  Lilac Girls is a gripping reminder.  Non-fiction can lay out the facts, but Ms. Kelly has used the lens of imagination to breathe life and emotional power onto every page.

Caroline Ferriday is an older, single New York socialite whose life revolves around charity work.  Since her family owns property in France, naturally she is involved with work with French orphans.  Her advocacy for the French extends throughout the war and beyond, as she works with displaced persons.  Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager from Lublin, Poland.  When the Germans occupy her city, she is drawn into a network of resistance, ultimately leading to her arrest.  She blames herself when her mother and sister and friends are taken along with her.  Herta Oberheuser is a young female doctor, newly qualified who cannot find work to support her family after Hitler's new social policies are put in place.  According to the Fuhrer, Herta's place is in the home, producing more babies for the Reich, instead of at the operating table.  She answers an advertisement to work at a women's reeducation camp located in a resort area of Germany, never suspecting what the true purpose of the camp is.

Each woman's story is told in alternating chapters, from the glittering ballroom of the Waldorf Hotel to the hourly struggle to stay alive in the camp.  But survive, Kasia and Herta do, although their suffering is not over yet.  Poland is squeezed under Communist Rule, Displaced Persons still need to be found a permanent home, and reparations still made for wartime atrocities.  You don't always like or even admire these three women, but their stories are compelling.  Martha Hall Kelly has done an excellent job in bringing this forgotten chapter of World War II to light.  Highly recommended. 

P.S.  Martha Hall Kelly will be a speaker at 2017's Book!Mania - can't wait to hear her in person.  My sister-in-law and I will definitely be taking a field trip next time I'm in New England to visit Caroline Ferriday's estate in Bethlehem, Connecticut!

Monday, July 25, 2016


Tigana.  It's a name you won't be able to hear, understand or remember if you weren't born there, or are not a sorcerer or wizard.  But Tigana (#583) is the name of an epic fantasy novel from author Guy Gavriel Kay.

In this book, Kay explores the positive effects memory can have, as well as the corrosive and destructive effects when taken too far, or hatreds are nourished down the generations.  In this case, a peninsula standing in for Renaissance Italy with its feuding city states is The Palm.  It's been conquered by Tyrants from both the East and the West because the nine provinces of The Palm could not unite to fend off their attackers.  It is now divided territory with the Tyrants kept in check by their opposite numbers, strong sorcerers both.  When the Tyrant Brandin's son is killed by the Prince of Tigana, Brandin's revenge on the province includes wiping the memory of Tigana from the remaining  inhabitants of The Palm.  But a small number remember, and the Prince of Tigana's son has survived to carry on the fight, biding his time.

There is plenty of action to be had in this absorbing novel, but there's also plenty of food for thought.  Brandin, for instance, is portrayed as principled in his own way, and is a sympathetic character throughout much of the book.  It's hard sometimes as you are reading to know who to root for as motivations are revealed and plot twists uncovered.  Another thing that's difficult about this book is to put it down, both because of the plot and the beauty of the language.  You owe it to yourself to discover Guy Gavriel Kay.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Sent to the Devil

In the second book in a historical mystery series featuring Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Italian librettist who worked with Wolfgang Mozart, Laura Lebow sets Sent to the Devil (#582) in a Vienna torn by political unrest over the Turkish War the Emperor has pledged to fight on behalf of Catherine the Great of Russia.  To make matters worse, a series of horrific murders striking at Vienna's prominent citizens have plagued the city.  Lorenzo is working on a re-write with Mozart of Don Giovanni for the Viennese cast when he begins to receive mysterious coded messages.  Could they possibly be tied to what is going on in the city?

Mozart, Da Ponte and Salieri, the theater manager, are all hoping that Vienna remains calm  enough to allow them to actually present their opera before the theaters are shut down.  Because Da Ponte was able to solve a previous murder for the police (detailed in The Figaro Murders.) he is once again reluctantly drafted to aid Count Benda appointed to lead the official investigation.  When one of the victims turns out to be a retired priest and close friend of Da Ponte, he bows to the inevitable and vows to catch the fiend responsible.

My husband and I both found the Viennese setting of interest since we had been there recently.  Most of what was the backdrop to Da Ponte's life there is still easily recognizable to the modern day visitor.  Besides, we seem to be following the opera Don Giovanni around the world, having attended a performance of it in the Sydney Opera House, and having made a pilgrimage to the theater in Prague where it received its debut.

Mystery, history, high drama, murder all add up to an enjoyable outing.  I look forward to the further sleuthing adventures of Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Grunt - The Curious Science of Humans at War

I recently read a nationally syndicated review of Mary Roach's latest off-beat science book Grunt - The Curious Science of Humans at War (#581).  Suffice it to say that this critic is not a fan!  He objected to her "jokiness" about the serious subject.  Apparently he is not aware of any of her previous works.  I was relieved when my library hold came through for Grunt to find that I, on the other hand, enjoyed this book every bit as much as her earlier work.  It did make me laugh out loud at one point, but more importantly, Ms. Roach illuminates the hard work and research that goes into making our armed forces safer, more comfortable and healthier whether they're in an active war zone or a more peaceful posting.  Like her previous book Stiff, she also highlights the important and unique contributions the dead (both military and civilian) make to these efforts.

If you're a Mary Roach fan, you know what you're in for here.  If not, this might not be the best book to read over a meal table.  Organ transplants, diarrhea and extremely bad smells as a weapon are not necessarily the most appetizing topics.  Much of it might strike you as weird science, but research and development on these issues have made a positive difference to both active military personnel and veterans.  How do you get enough sleep on a submarine?  What's the best type of material to use for a desert deployment?  When are maggots a soldier's best friend?  Why does the same odor appeal to one person, but repel another?

This is serious business, indeed, but Mary Roach's approach to her topic makes it accessible to the average reader, not merely subscribers to scientific journals.  Perhaps if more books like this were available for younger readers, it might inspire them to pursue a career in science.  Just a thought.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky

I hated to come to the end of Children of Earth and Sky (#580).  To me, that's the highest accolade for an author.  Guy Gavriel Kay intertwines the lives and travails of his characters in such a satisfying way you feel immersed in his world.  In this novel, it's a clash of cultures between the West and East in a time resembling the Renaissance.  Seressa with her lagoons and canals is a powerful merchant power owing allegiance to the Emperor in far-off Obravic.  They trade with the East, ruled by a mighty khalif who conquered the storied city of Sarantium, bringing a religious divide to the world.  As long as the Seressinis are free to trade with the Osmanlis, and to subtly pull the strings of diplomacy, they are content.  The fly in the ointment for them are the raiders of the city-state of Senjan.  They are supposed to leave the cargoes of their co-religionist Jaddite merchants alone, but that doesn't always happen.  Any ships on the sea are fair game for the Senjani.  When they raid a merchant ship from Dubrava returning home carrying passengers from Seressa onboard, they change the course of events that the Council of Twelve in Seressa had planned.

We meet a female archer, Danica, whose mission in life is revenge.  Pero Villani is being sent to Sarantium, now renamed Asharias, to paint a Western style portrait of the Grand Khalif at the Khalif's request.  Surely there are opportunities for the Serrisinis here?  Also aboard are a physician and his wife, bound for Dubrava.  When the physician is killed during the Senjani raid, Marin Djivo, son of the ship's owner, takes it upon himself to protect the widow.  Their stories ebb and flow through the politics and religious and cultural clashes all around them.  The telling of these stories is both beautiful and poetic.

The reader will easily recognize Venice, Prague, Istanbul, Dubruvnik and even Rome in this tale.  The historical details about the Ottoman army, Venetian politics and the spread of Islam to the Byzantine empire and beyond are all accurate, and the emphasis on religious differences is provocative. 

Kay's books are assigned to the genre of Fantasy, and in many ways, that's a shame.  I think many readers who are fans of historical fiction would devour his books if only they realized how well-researched and reflective of the times and places in which he chooses to set his novels they are. They succeed in conveying a sense of time and place that is often lacking in straight historical fiction.  If you appreciate a marvelous story well told Children of Earth and Sky should be at the top of your "To Read" list.