faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #18: Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

There was something about the description of Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer that drew me in – cousins in 19th century England encountering boys and magical intrigue? Sure, why not.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #16: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

First, an admission. I only gave Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters three stars. (proceeds to run from several other cannonballers who gave it higher rankings).

I can understand how this book would rank higher for other readers, and I understand that in many, many ways this is a beautifully crafted novel which opens up one layer at a time. That Jess Walters weaves the narration in such a way that the reader grows with the characters and sees the maturity, the humanity, and the lives which are built out of the beautiful ruin of the choices we make.

That being said, this one didn’t light up my heart.

First, the basics: Beautiful Ruins is the story of Pasquale and Dee, whose lives intersect for a week in Italy in 1962 and again 50 years later. It is also the story of the lives of the people who bring them together and keep them apart. It’s a story which tries to tell us something meaningful, but doesn’t fully land on that idea until the last 30 or so pages of the novel. The book wanted to say something profound about love, hope, doing the right thing, and knowing our place in life – and most emphatically what wanting something more than what is our destiny can do to our psyches. These are big ideas and meaningful places to meditate.

For the rest…

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #15: Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation by Elissa Stein and Susan Kim

There is much about Flow which aggravates me. Some things are quite simple and would’ve been easily corrected. An editor unafraid to attack with the red pen and hack up chapters and suggest deleting entire ones could easily have saved the reader from repetitive information. But other than being needlessly long and repetitive there was a larger problem. The authors, in attempting to be friendly are instead insulting to even marginally informed women. Flow is a book written in a ‘aw shucks ain’t that interesting’ way that aggravated my last nerve.

For more of my complaining about this book…

 

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #14: Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

When I read pyrajane’s review last December I knew I had to read this book. I was not disappointed.

The details in Shine Shine Shine are the making of this novel. Lydia Netzer makes several conscious choices as an author which allow for a type of story we’ve heard a hundred times seem fresh and new by changing the angles through which we view it. At the epicenter of the story are Sunny and Maxon. When Maxon met Sunny, he was seven years, four months, and eighteen-days old. Or, he was 2693 rotations of the earth old. Maxon was different. Sunny was different. And they were different together. This pair is the great love in the novel, and they are also the center of its dysfunction.

By eliminating possessive pronouns throughout much of the narrative Netzer keeps the reader on their toes.  I was immediately intrigued and put completely off-balance throughout the first half of the novel. There is a bit of many genres flitting in and out. It’s the story of a family, it’s the story of a child with autism, it’s the story of damaged adults, it’s the story of birth and death, and it’s a story about robots colonizing the moon.

I’m intentionally leaving out lots of detail about the story, not because it’s unimportant, but because I want you to discover the details for yourself. Be warned that it may be a very slow start, but it picks up.  Be prepared to dislike at least one character at any given time, but also know that your opinion may change as you move farther into the plot. This is the story of the things we do to protect what we love, even when we don’t understand the choices.

“Sometimes it comes to that desperate state, when you have to cling to each other and be alone. When no one else can truly matter. She thought, Ours is one of the epic loves of our generation. Possibly of all time. Who cares if no one sees it, walking by? This story is a love song. Who cares if history won’t remember?” (195).

I give this one a 3.5, it would have been a four if it had picked up sooner.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #12: Exclusively Yours by Shannon Stacey

From Goodreads: “When Keri Daniels’ editor finds out she has previous carnal knowledge of reclusive bestselling author Joe Kowalski, she gives Keri a choice: get an interview or get a new job. Joe’s never forgotten the first girl to break his heart, so he’s intrigued to hear Keri’s back in town–and looking for him. Despite his intense need for privacy, he’ll grant Keri an interview if it means a chance to finish what they started in high school. He proposes an outrageous plan–for every day she survives with his family on their annual camping and four-wheeling trip, Keri can ask one question. Keri agrees; she’s worked too hard to walk away from her career. But the chemistry between them is still as potent as the bug spray…”

I had to stop it there. I’m not saying it was a bad book, it was a perfectly serviceable rom-com but the story did little for me personally. I decided to pick up this series based on Malin’s review of the second book in the series, Undeniably Yours. It sounded like the kind of story I needed after working my way through Nazi-looted artwork. Light and fluffy here I come!

And it was. But, not light enough for me. My brain wouldn’t turn off to simply enjoy the plot and there was some similarly named characters and some age math which just refused to jive for me. But, all that aside, the story of Joe and Keri and their rediscovery of the love they shared as teenagers now that they are in their mid-thirties certainly kept me interested, and it was nice to see a male protagonist as sexually activated by his female counterpart as she was by him. Something that not enough contemporary romance writers achieve.

This review and all my others can be found here.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #11: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert Edsel

*I’m not sure if a spoiler warning is appropriate, but proceed with caution, I discuss the book in detail*

I found myself drawn to Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men quite naturally. I work in museums and studied to do so. As part of that study, Nazi-looted art and reparations took up quite a lot of time. As part of one of my classes (well, two to be honest) we watched the documentary The Rape of Europa which documents the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)section to preserve the cultural patrimony of Europe. I sincerely recommend it. Viewing that movie led me to seek out more information about the MFAA and found myself with The Monuments Men on my to-read list. I am so glad that I got around to reading it now.

“An informed army, in other words, is a respectful and disciplined army.” (15-16).

The Monuments Men were an incredibly limited force caught up in the largesse of the Allied forces in Europe. Given the scope of the goals of the MFAA, to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat, Edsel chose to focus on the members who formed the initial group which crossed as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This group of eight, along with two members of the museum corps in France, forms the main characters of Edsel’s story. Without funding, transport, or a central commander these initial officers – all of whom came from creative fields of work – were assigned to various divisions spread across Western Europe with the invading Allies. One of their first missions was to prevent as much damage and looting as possible. So, on the fly, the MFAA wrote and published pamphlets for enlisted men detailing the monuments they were likely to come across in any area in order to encourage them to preserve them as best as possible. They were also, initially, running around the French countryside placing ‘OFF LIMITS’ signs on the monuments and culturally important buildings they came across. Within weeks they were running low on signs.

Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.’ – Eisenhower (63).

World War II was unique in American military history in regards to art preservation. It was the only time that there was a concerted effort to protect the cultural artifacts in combat zones. With the strides being made in the arts community, conservers and other museum folk were prepared to help in unprecedented ways, and worked to be included in the military mission.  Beyond this, there was the decision early on to restore cultural property to their original country. This plan would never have succeeded had there not been leadership from the generals at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. It was not flawless; there were areas which suffered devastating losses in many city centers and the near total destruction of Dresden as one example.  Edsel uses some of the most descriptive language I’ve read in a long time as he depicts what was lost and what remained.

“On the outskirts of Bonn, the sun was shining. The buildings were untouched. But like so many other cities, the farther toward the center he [Hancock] drove, the more damage he saw. The town center was mostly destroyed, the result of Western Allied bombing runs, but even here he saw cherry trees in bloom, twisting up among the ruins.” (255).

Much of Edsel’s narrative is spent with the individual Monuments Men. It is through these men, and in their own words often interspersed throughout the book in their letters home, that we are able to see what occurred on the front lines of the Western Front during 1944 and 1945. The suffering they experience, and the amount of work and hours they placed into preserving what they found and protecting what remained. This is the backbone of The Monuments Men, the ordinary service of dedicated men, and what that tells us about a forgotten chapter of one of the best known stories in our collective history.

“Sometimes Stout felt he was fighting another war entirely, a war within a war, a backward-circling eddy in a downward-rushing stream. What if we win the war, he thought, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch?” (237).

Edsel does not shy away from telling the stories of the pieces, collections, archives, monuments, churches, and other buildings which were lost. Through the chronicling of what was lost, we are better able to understand the magnificence of what the MFAA, and the many people who worked with them, managed to save.

“The Germans had used the [Dampierre] library’s renowned Bossuet letters for toilet paper, but after they left, the caretaker found the letters in the woods, cleaned them off, and returned them to the library. Now that was dedication. That was service.” (157).

As the members of the MFAA worked their way across northern Europe, they came across many dedicated art officials who worked tirelessly through the six years of the war in Europe to preserve whatever they could. Edsel works to intersperse all angles of those who worked for the preservation of cultural objects into the story, making the narrative larger than the eight MFAA men featured, or the 350 officers who served throughout the life of the MFAA. Whether it involved hiding artworks, furnishings, and books in mines, in basements, or in keeping records of where Nazi officers had shipped treasures into Germany, or preventing the bombing of strongholds, there were countless people who took part in the preservation work.  It’s for all these reasons and a unique look at a lesser known aspect of World War II history that I heartily recommend this one.  Happy reading!

 “The story of Altaussee, so monumental in the world of art and culture, was quickly subsumed by larger stories – Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, and disintegrating relations with the Soviet Union that would define the new world order as the cold war.” (378).

P.S. This book is going to be a George Clooney directed movie starring Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and a bunch of other faves, in December.

 “I made the visit [to Ohrdruf work camp] deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda’” – Eisenhower (308).

This review is cross-posted.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #10: The Perfect Hope by Nora Roberts

I think I’ve learned my lesson with Nora Roberts’ trilogies. Wait until they are all published and read them in one go, not spread out over the course of a year. I read and reviewed The Next Always in June and The Last Boyfriend in October of last year for Cannonball Read Four. They were enjoyable and looking back The Next Always was certainly my favorite of the three.  The Perfect Hope was a standard wrap up but lacked a certain something to hook me in.

I think that in the waiting for books two and three to arrive at my library and be available I had conjured up the story as I wanted it to unfold and was left disappointed with the story as it actually turned out.Continue reading…

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #9: Gabriel’s Angel by Nora Roberts

Gabriel's Angel

While making what has become my weekly trip to the library I picked up Gabriel’s Angel, a new to me Nora Roberts for a much needed palate cleanser. I’m happy to report that this is not as painful as my previous forays into early Roberts fare this year. While this story is simplistic and lacking in the details that mark Roberts later work it is a serviceable story with well drawn leads and an interesting meet cute. Want to know more?

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #8: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

This one’s going to be a more in depth review than I usually do, so please be aware SPOILERS abound.

 

First, the caveats. I am a northerner who was raised in the South. I grew up in both the New South and the Old South. I am white, my best friend since the 4th grade – some 22 years now, is black. I have a degree in history, I earned a graduate degree in Museum Education, I work at a historic site in the Northeast and I deal with how to interpret the history and consequences of slavery and indentureship as part of my job. I will take part in shouting matches with people who claim lynchings only happened in the South, or a long time ago (it continued in the United States until the 1960s). For these reasons much of what others most likely found difficult to read or shocking, to me, is just par for the course. Jen K and I had virtually the same response to the book.

That said The Kitchen House opens up with one of the protagonists discovering someone she cared for lynched.  What Kathleen Grissom does well in this book is to present the truth of the times she is describing (1790-1810) and the setting of her story (Virginia) accurately. Grissom did her research. She studied slave narratives, interviewed slave descendents; she visited and researched at the Virginia Historical Society, the Black History Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg. If only all historical fiction writers did the same. The problem was not in the research, the problem was in Grissom’s distaste for what she knew and what she found.

Slavery is quite simply one of the great national tragedies of the United States. There is no getting around that. It is virtually impossible not to have a gut reaction to the way in which other humans were treated for hundreds of years in this country (not to mention around the world). The physical, psychological and economic toll is still being felt, and will take much more time and much greater minds than mine or Ms. Grissom’s to come to terms with. But, the suffering that is unfortunately essential in the story of The Kitchen House means that the author must leave her emotions at the door. By not being able to fully put aside her own appalled and disgusted reactions (Grissom’s own descriptions of her reaction in her Author’s note) and simply tell the story, Grissom hamstringed one of her two protagonists and perhaps ruined the final third of her novel.

At its root The Kitchen House is the story of two women: Lavinia and Belle. Lavinia and Belle alternate in narrating chapters of the book, giving us insight into the two different angles of the story. Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks as a very sickly six year old Irish orphan who is indentured to the farm. Being white, young, and sickly she is sent to live in the Kitchen House with Belle. Belle is the illegitimate daughter of the owner of Tall Oaks, Captain James Pyke.  Captain Pyke fathered Belle before his marriage and she was raised until that time by his mother in the Big House. After her grandmother dies and the Captain marries, Belle was sent down to run the Kitchen House under the supervised care of Mama Mae. Mama Mae and her husband Papa George take Belle, and later Lavinia, into their family of House Slaves and the reader follows along with the various threads of storyline which are woven through the complex relationships of everyone living at Tall Oaks.

For the first half of the novel the reader becomes acquainted with the running of a plantation, although we are kept out of the Field Workers lives. Lavinia’s story drives the narrative. Her chapters eat up ten times as much real estate as Belle’s. This is a hindrance to the storytelling while at the same time it speaks greatly to the character development. Lavinia is a dreamer and remains childlike even while being continually exposed to the darker aspects of life. She never completely pieces together the things she sees and experiences, although the reader cannot help but to. I blame this wholeheartedly on Grissom’s own reaction to the atrocities in the narrative (beatings, rape, incest) and as an author she is protecting the character from fully realizing what she is experiencing and in the long run that means that Lavinia moves forward with such naïveté that she nearly brings everyone’s lives to an end.

The counterpoint to Lavinia’s viewpoint is the no nonsense approach Belle brings to bear. Belle is the more complex character with the more detailed personal history. She is the child of the captain and is promised her free papers. She continually refuses them because she does not want to leave her family or the man she loves. She is raped by her half brother Marshall and finds herself pregnant with his child. She waits too long to ask Captain Pyke for her freedom, after his wife Martha hides Belle’s free papers, and he dies before he can grant freedom for herself and her son.  She lives in fear of the day her half brother inherits Tall Oaks and is continually planning her escape, all the while entering into a relationship with a married man. Belle is separated from Lavinia for the second half of the novel and no longer able to balance out her gullibility with her own true understanding of how the world works based on her own experiences.

The second half of the novel finds Lavinia living in Williamsburg with the sister of Martha Pyke once Martha is committed to the Hospital for the Insane. This is where Lavinia’s story begins to unravel, and perhaps her greatest character flaw is revealed. Lavinia will not ask a question. She doesn’t ask about details she doesn’t know about her loved ones or about her own future. Ever. Much of the plot movements in the second half of the novel revolve around Lavinia making decisions about her future without asking anyone with the knowledge to tell her what her options are. Admittedly her options are few coming of age in the first decade of the 1800s, but there were still options available to her. However, because she doesn’t want to offend the Maddens, or reveal that she doesn’t know the terms of her indenture, she careens from poor choice to poor choice. It culminates in her decision to marry Marshall Pyke. Yes, that Marshall Pyke.

Because Grissom kept Lavinia from piecing together the details of life at Tall Oaks she makes the grave error of trusting him and marrying him. If she had not trusted him she could have found herself married to the quite lovely Will Stephens. The most frustrating part to me was that Grissom could have explored the decay of Marshall Pyke without having him marry Lavinia. She did not need to endure his physical violence and subsequently turn into a laudanum abuser as Martha Pyke already had. The lynching we see in the first chapter, which is where we know we are going to find ourselves again at the end of the novel, could have been reached in another way. Instead, because Lavinia is too naive and weak to choose otherwise the final hundred pages of the book read as a litany of sin and destruction.

It is for all these reasons that I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this novel. I’m going with three because it is well researched and written, even if plot choices and character development left me shaking my head in disappointment of what could have been.

This review, like all my others, is cross-posted.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #7: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This one has been reviewed for CBR5 a few times already, so let’s just skip to the meat of the issue:

“The story is summarized as being Bee’s search for her mom, but it’s not. It’s the documenting of a life out of control and the magical realism way in which that life is brought back under control.  And I say this while falling a little in love with the book as it is.”

Read more here.