This novel alternates back and forth in time to tell the story of its two main characters – Ondine, a gifted young chef who meets Pablo Picasso in theThis novel alternates back and forth in time to tell the story of its two main characters – Ondine, a gifted young chef who meets Pablo Picasso in the South of France in 1936; and her granddaughter Céline, who is trying to track down her grandmother’s lost Picasso painting.
The plot is a little formulaic – I correctly predicted almost every “plot twist” – but the descriptions of Provençal scenery and food are beautiful, and I found myself enjoying the story even though I knew where it was going.
I found Ondine’s relationship with the 54-year-old Picasso a bit implausible, but the author makes us see how he could have been charismatic enough to attract a young girl even though he was a complete misogynist. She also made Ondine strong enough to stand up to him and ultimately benefit from her relationship with him.
If you can get past this and the plot’s predictability, however, this book would make a nice light summertime “beach read.” ...more
**spoiler alert** This book is a morbidly fascinating account of the Donner Party, a group of early American emigrants who famously became snowbound i**spoiler alert** This book is a morbidly fascinating account of the Donner Party, a group of early American emigrants who famously became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains on their way to California and resorted to cannibalism to stay alive until they were finally rescued.
What supposedly makes this book different from others about the Donner Party is that the author has chosen to “follow in the footsteps” of one member of the group, a young newlywed woman named Sarah Graves, and recount how the traumatic experience affected her.
Overall, “The Indifferent Stars Above” is very informative and undoubtedly an exciting read. It gives a thorough interpretation of what happened to the group and why, with a wealth of interesting details about life in the 1840s. Brown intersperses this narrative with modern scientific research on the physiological processes involved in starvation, and the psychological after-effects of cannibalism and other traumatic experiences. In an epilogue at the end of the book, Brown details the trips he took to approximate the journey of the Donner Party, so that he could personally see what they saw and experience, as much as he could, what they experienced.
However, there are two points which prevent this book from being outstanding:
Although Brown set out to tell the story of the Donner Party through the eyes of Sarah Graves, he never really succeeds in making her come alive as a person. He only quotes her directly a few times; most of the time, he just makes speculative statements such as “Sarah probably" felt this or “Sarah must have” done that.
Brown does admit that very little is known about Sarah Graves beyond the scarce written information she left behind and others’ descriptions of her. But this begs the question of why he chose to tell the story through her eyes. He mentions Sarah’s sister, Mary Ann Graves, almost as much as he does Sarah. Mary Ann Graves also seems to have left more first-hand accounts of the experience, so why not tell the story through her?
(view spoiler)[ I suspect the real reason Brown chose to tell the story through Sarah’s perspective is because she lost her father, mother, brother, and her new husband during the journey, and yes, they were all consumed as food by the survivors. Brown probably felt that this fact heightened the poignancy and tragedy of the story. (hide spoiler)]
Also, a map would have been very helpful. The whole Donner Party disaster is dependent upon the routes they did or did not take. They were coerced into taking a “shortcut” to California that turned out to be totally unsuitable for a wagon train, and later on took a wrong turn that added more days to their desperate journey to get help for the survivors. A map detailing these routes would have clarified the situation for readers.
If you can get past these shortcomings, though, “The Indifferent Stars Above” is still a very informative and interesting book, and is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the Donner Party....more
If you’re a rabid Harry Potter fan who’s obsessive about the whole Harry Potter canon, you probably won’t like this new addition to the series. As forIf you’re a rabid Harry Potter fan who’s obsessive about the whole Harry Potter canon, you probably won’t like this new addition to the series. As for me -- I didn’t hate this story. But I didn’t love it in the same way I did the books in the original series.
I really enjoyed re-visiting the world and the characters that J.K. Rowling created in this play, which she has officially acknowledged on her Pottermore Website as being the eighth installment of the series. I liked seeing what kind of adults Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Draco grew to be, and I liked getting a glimpse of other beloved characters.
HOWEVER . . . (there’s always a however when it comes to sequels, right?)
There are two plot points that don’t quite reconcile with the Harry Potter universe that Ms. Rowling originally created, and which are holding me back from giving this story a higher rating.
(view spoiler)[The time travel element in the story works totally differently from the way it did when Rowling first introduced it in the third book of the series. In "The Prisoner of Azkaban", Harry and Hermione go back in time in order to fulfill a destiny they were already meant to have, not to completely change history. In this story, not only does the Time-Turner device itself work differently, but it also causes characters to create alternate universes in which other characters and the whole course of history are entirely altered in a “butterfly effect” way. This was a great way to create drama and tension in the plot, but since it wasn’t established that way in the initial series, it kept nagging at me the whole time I was reading it.
The other main plot device – a new character turning out to be the love-child of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange – was not as hard for me to swallow, but only just. I could see Bellatrix having the hots for Voldemort – that was apparent in the original books – but it seems out of character for Voldemort. I always got the impression he wasn’t human enough to experience sexual desire. And how come Draco never knew about it, when he was living in Malfoy Manor the whole time this relationship was going on and when said love-child was even born there? Unless they used the “Muffliato” charm to drown out all the noise! (hide spoiler)]
Also, since "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" is a script and was meant to be experienced in a totally different medium, we don’t get all of the details and history that you would in a traditional novel, and which are necessary for complete character development. This also makes this installment not quite as good as the novels.
I'm sure this story translates MUCH better on the stage than a mere reading of the script, since in a theatrical production you would have real people to flesh out the ink-and-paper version of the characters. But until the play makes its way to the U. S., the ink-and-paper (or digital) version is all I have.
I consider plays (and movies) to be merely adaptations of the books they’re based on. That means I can overlook inconsistencies in them and still enjoy them. I can use “suspension of disbelief” to accept things that don’t quite jive – like the fact that Harry wears glasses when you would think that, as a wizard, he should be able to change his eyesight to perfect 20/20 vision. So I can still enjoy "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" – if not love it.
But if you’re a stickler for details, you’re probably bound to be disappointed in it. ...more
**spoiler alert** This 1979 novel about a Roman gladiator who is revived in the 20th century is part science fiction, part fantasy, and part historica**spoiler alert** This 1979 novel about a Roman gladiator who is revived in the 20th century is part science fiction, part fantasy, and part historical fiction. Overall, it’s extremely good even though it does suffer from several unexplained details and some cultural and sexual biases common to the 1970s.
The plot in a nutshell: A Roman gladiator named Eugeni, from the age of the Emperor Domitian, ends up frozen in the ice of the Arctic (I know, I know, but trust me – the author is skillful enough to actually make this sound plausible). His body is discovered in the 20th century by an oil company drilling for oil. A team made up of a Texan geologist, a Soviet scientist who specializes in cryonics, and a Nordic nun with extensive knowledge of Latin succeeds in reviving Eugeni and piecing together his remarkable story.
The best thing about this book is the author’s superb characterization of Eugeni. His descriptions of his life as the premier gladiator in the Roman Empire are rich with details of classical Roman society. Eugeni’s observations on modern society are priceless, while his struggle to adapt and his ultimate despair when he realizes that the world he knew and the people he loved are really gone forever are very poignant.
Although extremely well-written, the book does have several details that don’t hold up. (view spoiler)[For example, after a fencing match to test Eugeni’s authenticity goes disastrously wrong, the team comes up with a plan to help him disappear that involves the Texan geologist committing suicide, for reasons that are never explained. (hide spoiler)] The modern male characters in this novel, being products of their time, also display some unpleasant chauvinistic traits. (view spoiler)[The Soviet scientist, for example, assumes that the nun is obviously a lesbian because she has chosen to live without men, and he even confesses to a perverted fantasy about buying a female slave so he could use her for kinky sex. The Texan geologist realizes that he never really loved his wife, so he maliciously calls her to tell her so, as if it’s her fault. (hide spoiler)]
If you can get past these flaws, however, The Far Arena is definitely an absorbing, worthwhile read....more
Alison Weir finally pens another biography that meets the definition. Her last two “biographies,” of Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth of York, were based onAlison Weir finally pens another biography that meets the definition. Her last two “biographies,” of Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth of York, were based on such scanty written sources that they should have more accurately been called character sketches. The Tudor period, however, was rich in written source material, which is what Ms. Weir seems to need to write her best.
The Lady Margaret Douglas is often mentioned in Tudor histories, but always as a background figure. As the daughter, granddaughter, niece and cousin of monarchs who was also in line of succession to the throne, Margaret Douglas was a high-ranking lady who merited inclusion in much of Tudor court life. She is probably best known as the niece of King Henry VIII and the mother of Lord Darnley, who ended up marrying Mary Queen of Scots thanks mostly to his mother’s infamous scheming.
Ms. Weir’s book is the first Tudor biography to focus exclusively on Margaret Douglas and bring her to life. She does a good enough job of this, mostly through surviving samples of Margaret’s letters and poetry. These reveal Margaret as a passionate, ambitious, headstrong, even overbearing woman who nevertheless loved strongly and often suffered for it.
She was certainly not afraid to rebel against the standard conventions of her time. She was imprisoned twice (first in the Tower of London and later under house arrest) for becoming romantically involved with young men of her own choice instead of reserving herself for the arranged dynastic marriage that was the fate of females with royal blood. She also embroiled herself in dangerous political conspiracies in an age in which women were expected to remain in the background.
Although the marriage of Margaret's son Henry Lord Darnley to Mary Queen of Scots was a disaster (mainly because Margaret had spoiled him rotten and turned him into such an unpleasant character that Mary’s Scottish lords ended up murdering him to get him out of the way), it did result in her grandson James, who eventually became King of both Scotland and England. Although she didn’t live to see it, her dynastic scheming was successful. All English monarchs since then have been descended from her, instead of her more famous Tudor relatives Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
Ms. Weir does occasionally indulge in some speculative statements (Margaret “must have” done this; Margaret “probably” did that). Also, the writing is not as vivid and revealing as in some of her earlier Tudor works. However, “The Lost Tudor Princess” is definitely an improvement over her more recent offerings and is recommended reading for anyone interested in the Tudor and Stuart periods....more
**spoiler alert** I really should know better by now. I’ve got to stop being sucked into reading a book just because the marketing shills in the publi**spoiler alert** I really should know better by now. I’ve got to stop being sucked into reading a book just because the marketing shills in the publishing industry compare it to a previous success.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” is the latest book being hyped as the new “Gone Girl.” (Just like how “The Night Circus” was supposed to be the next “Harry Potter.” And how the “Divergent” series was supposed to be the next “Hunger Games.” And so on and so on. . .) Like those previous wanna-bes, however, “Luckiest Girl” is vastly inferior to its predecessor.
“Luckiest Girl” is the story of TifAni FaNelli (the absolute worst name I have ever come across in fiction. She was named that by her nouveau riche mother in an attempt to be chic, so I get it -- it’s supposed to be bad. But I mentally stumbled every time I saw it on the page). TifAni is a woman who suffered several traumas in her youth (view spoiler)[bullying, gang rape, and a school shooting (hide spoiler)], so she has reinvented herself into one of those superficial, materialistic, bitchy New York women, complete with a wealthy fiancé -- a persona that is supposed to make her so superior and invulnerable that she can never be taken advantage of again.
I can take unlikeable main characters, as long as the author makes me identify with what they went through to make them so unlikeable. And that is where this author failed. I can understand, objectively, that everything TifAni experienced was horrible, but the author’s writing tone is so flippant and emotionless that I never really felt her suffering. Also, the shifts back and forth from past to present in the narrative were tedious, and the way TifAni eventually gets her revenge was lame. So this book was ultimately another disappointment....more
I grabbed this book from the library on a total impulse without knowing that it was a sequel to a previous book by the author called “Me Before You.”I grabbed this book from the library on a total impulse without knowing that it was a sequel to a previous book by the author called “Me Before You.” I didn’t have any pre-conceived impressions of the characters or my own ideas of what should happen to them after the events of the first book – and I think that’s the key to whether you will like this book or not.
I think readers who are giving this book so-so or negative reviews are making the mistake of comparing it to the original. Sequels almost never measure up to the original, in both literature and movies. If the original is especially powerful, it’s almost impossible to repeat that level of perfection again. (It’s the reason I refuse to read the so-called sequel to the classic novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.”)
Anyway, I liked “After You” well enough to immediately re-read it, and will probably be looking for more of this author’s work. I found the main character, Lou, humorous and resilient (although a bit passive about getting on with her life); and her young friend, Lily, vulnerable and ultimately sympathetic (although definitely a bit of a spoiled brat).
If readers of the previous book can approach “After You” as a totally different, stand-alone story without comparing it to “Me Before You” – which I admit is hard -- then I think they might be able to enjoy “After You” on its own for what it is: a look at how people move on after losing someone they love. ...more
Erik Larson's latest, "Dead Wake," about the sinking of the Lusitania, is an excellent read if you want a personalized account of that doomed voyage.Erik Larson's latest, "Dead Wake," about the sinking of the Lusitania, is an excellent read if you want a personalized account of that doomed voyage. Larson uses letters, memoirs, telegrams, and other historical documents, as well as his own distinctive prose style, to give us an idea of how real-life people were affected by the tragedy.
Larson does a good job, as always, of making history read like a suspense novel. He also has a way of making tragic images come to life in very few words. For example, he describes a young boy losing his pregnant mother in the wreck and then hearing later about how a passenger was seen giving birth in the open ocean. He was tormented for the rest of his life by the thought that it might have been his mother. Just a couple of sentences, but they were tough to read.
He includes details I've never heard before, such as the fact that a very rare book was one of the items lost forever in the wreck, and that most sailors didn't bother to learn how to swim. They figured that in a wreck, it was better to go quickly than swim around for hours only to die later.
He gives very interesting descriptions of the operation and day-to-to-day life of both luxury liners and German U-boats. He also made Winston Churchill and the entire British Admiralty look pretty cold-blooded. He presents evidence that tends to support the “conspiracy” theory that the British deliberately allowed the Lusitania to be attacked, in spite of advance knowledge about a U-boat in the area, in order to get America to drop its neutrality and join the war. (Whether readers believe in this theory, however, is up to them.)
My only disappointment with this book is that there's only one photograph in it! I'm sure he could have included more if he wanted to; I've seen them in other books. I'm guessing he didn't want to go to the trouble of getting all the copyright permissions. ...more
What’s with all of these novels lately featuring messed-up main characters? I know there actually are people like this in real life, but I read to escWhat’s with all of these novels lately featuring messed-up main characters? I know there actually are people like this in real life, but I read to escape from real life, not to wallow in it.
Anyway, this book is being touted as the new "Gone Girl." It’s similar to that book in that it includes unreliable narrators. However, "Girl On The Train" is much better written, in my opinion. Unlike most murder mysteries, where I usually know who the culprit is pretty early on in the story, this novel kept me guessing to the end. That’s probably because it gives us not one, but three unreliable (and unsympathetic) female narrators: an alcoholic, an unfaithful wife, and a second wife who used to be The Other Woman.
It’s a gripping psychological study into disturbed personalities and a good murder mystery, but ultimately depressing. So it’s one of those books that’s worth reading once but that I’ll probably never read again -- just like "Gone Girl." ...more
This 13th installment of Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard Tudor mystery series has a plot that should be interesting.
Ursula is asked by her half-sistThis 13th installment of Fiona Buckley’s Ursula Blanchard Tudor mystery series has a plot that should be interesting.
Ursula is asked by her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I to marry a French count to cement diplomatic relations between France and England, although widowed Ursula has no wish to marry again after three husbands. She reluctantly agrees, but then the suspicious death of one of her servants and the disappearance of the count with one of her houseguests leads her and her loyal cohorts into another adventure. There’s even an abduction and escape from a band of Algerian pirates.
So the plot should be action-packed enough to be likeable, right? And I guess I did like it – just not as much as the earlier books of this series. The writing seems wooden, as if Buckley is just dialing it in until she gets to a more interesting point of Tudor history.
I guess I’ll keep reading this series because I’ve come this far already. I’m also curious to see how Buckley handles upcoming crises such as the Babington Plot (which finally leads to Mary Queen of Scots’ execution) and the Spanish Armada. I just hope that these exciting events are enough to make Buckley regain the spark in her writing that made me fall in love with this series in the beginning. ...more
**spoiler alert** I picked up this book for its interesting premise -- a woman studying what makes some women prey to sociopaths becomes a victim hers**spoiler alert** I picked up this book for its interesting premise -- a woman studying what makes some women prey to sociopaths becomes a victim herself. While it was a quick and absorbing read, it was ultimately done in by flat characters, an abrupt ending, and a frustrating main character.
The aforementioned main character, Morgan, is a grad student in psychology writing her thesis on what makes some women victims. All I can say is she had better consider a different line of work. This is a woman with so little self-awareness that she can't even recognize how she constantly puts herself at risk -- jumping into relationships with men she meets online; going home with total strangers; hooking up with anonymous men on Tinder; walking alone in dangerous neighborhoods.
You can tell the authors (it's actually jointly written by two women) are trying to portray her sympathetically as a kind, trusting person who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt (they make a big deal about how she fosters rescue dogs). However, she actually comes off as an incredibly gullible person who does not learn from past experiences.
The characters in this book are also curiously undeveloped for what is supposed to be a psychological thriller. Take Morgan again as an example (although all of the characters show this lack of growth to some degree). (view spoiler)[Morgan endured a traumatic rape when she was younger, which is excruciatingly detailed in a flash-back scene. (hide spoiler)] Most people who go through a horrible experience like this would suffer some after-effects, even if it's only to develop a sense of caution about who you decide to trust. But Morgan seems strangely unaffected by it, and blithely goes on to indulge in all of the unwise behaviors mentioned above.
If the authors had made Morgan a more complex, paranoid character – the sort of person who triple-locks her door, carries mace spray, and is wary about forming relationships with anyone; and then falls victim to a sociopath in spite of all of her defenses – now THAT would have been an interesting story. By having Morgan make herself such an easy target, the authors eliminated a major source of the tension and suspense that a “thriller” is supposed to have.
I stuck with the book to the end because I wanted to see who really killed her sociopathic fiancé (although I actually guessed who it was quite early on). But ultimately I wouldn't recommend it. This was a fascinating story idea that could have been told much better....more
When I first heard about the plot of this book, I thought, “Oh, please. Not another Dan Brown wanna-be!” A secret society, famous historical figures,When I first heard about the plot of this book, I thought, “Oh, please. Not another Dan Brown wanna-be!” A secret society, famous historical figures, a search to find a mysterious object, clues hidden in cryptic code – what else was I supposed to think?
However, I was pleasantly surprised. This story about a young man who takes a job in a 24-hour bookstore and finds out it’s much more than that does have some of the more fantastical plot elements of a Dan Brown or Katherine Nevell novel. But it never goes overboard on the fantasy, and manages to stay firmly grounded in its own reality (once you make that first suspension of disbelief, of course). In fact, the final solving of the mystery seems almost mundane compared to some other novels, but in a blessedly credible way.
This book does have its flaws. The characters are lacking in development, there are too many convenient coincidences, and you never get the feeling that any of the characters are ever in actual danger. However, the author’s casual yet enthusiastic writing tone helps to make up for this, as well as some of the fascinating ideas he presents.
The best thing about this novel is how it makes the case for good old-fashioned ink-and-paper books, and re-affirms how they will never really become obsolete even in this age of digital information. In fact, this novel even shows how they could co-exist, and how modern technology can be used to preserve the past.
Try to read this book in paperback format at least once so you can enjoy the glow-in-the-dark cover! ...more
I have never read a more tedious book about such an interesting person in my life.
Like many readers, I picked up this book to find out more about theI have never read a more tedious book about such an interesting person in my life.
Like many readers, I picked up this book to find out more about the life of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who helped to crack the Nazi Enigma code during World War II, came to be considered the father of the modern computer, and is the subject of the recent movie “The Imitation Game.”
While the author (who is a mathematician himself) did a good job of piecing together Turing’s life from what written sources exist, he went into WAY too much detail about the abstract math theories that Turing’s work was based on, with no attempt to “translate” it for a general audience. This does a disservice to ordinary readers who are being introduced to this man’s remarkable achievements and tragic end for the first time, only to get swamped by the mathematical minutia.
If you’re a math specialist yourself and can understand the theories, then you will probably enjoy this book. Laypeople who want to know more about Turing, however, should probably read one of the more recent, general biographies that have been written about him....more
I’ve read several books with plots set in World War II, but this one is the one that haunts me the most.
“All The Light We Cannot See” is reminiscentI’ve read several books with plots set in World War II, but this one is the one that haunts me the most.
“All The Light We Cannot See” is reminiscent of “The Book Thief” in the way it focuses on two children who grow up during the prelude to World War II, but it has an original, distinctive style of its own and is just as well-written in its own way. Also like that book, it portrays how ordinary people were affected and shaped by the war, and the sufferings they went through (yes, even the German people. Many German people did not agree with the Nazi regime, but it was almost impossible to openly stand up to it).
This novel, however, has some interesting twists – the two young people who are its main characters are on opposing sides. One is a blind girl who ends up working for the French resistance, one is a young Nazi-trained soldier with a genius for electronics but also with a conscience that makes him more and more aware of the atrocities of the war he is fighting. There is even a hint of fantasy in the existence of a mysterious diamond with supposedly magical powers.
The story is told in short, alternating point-of-view chapters, and switches back and forth in time (which some readers may find confusing or distracting, but which I thought added to the suspense) until their stories finally converge during the siege of Saint-Malo in Brittany.
Best of all is the author’s lyrical, precisely detailed writing; his masterly crafting of his characters; and the sense of hope he ultimately leaves us with as he shows how people can retain their humanity even in the depths of war....more
This could have been a really fascinating subject for a historical fiction novel in the right hands, but unfortunately the author chose to go the sensThis could have been a really fascinating subject for a historical fiction novel in the right hands, but unfortunately the author chose to go the sensationalist route.
This novel is about an actual woman, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, who was the mistress of Lord Hunsdon at Queen Elizabeth I’s court. She was married off when she became pregnant (which was usually what happened with royal or aristocratic mistresses then); and later became the first professional woman poet in England. This much is known about her from written historical sources.
There is also speculation that she might have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s sonnets about “The Dark Lady,” usually on the rather slim evidence that she was one of the few women he would have known at court who had dark hair, complexion, and eyes because of her Italian heritage.
There is no actual evidence that she and Shakespeare were lovers, and certainly no evidence that she wrote the play “Macbeth” as the author Sally O’Reilly has her doing, but of course anything is possible. It also helps O’Reilly’s story-line that the timing and provenance of many of Shakespeare’s plays are so mysterious, and that it was customary for authors to do a good deal of “borrowing” from other sources back then.
It’s an interesting premise for a historical fiction novel, so I can see why O’Reilly wanted to write about it. And she does do a good job of portraying what every-day life was like in Elizabethan England, as well as the difficulties, prejudices, and downright sexual predation that women had to deal with then, especially any woman who was ambitious to make a name for herself in her own right. I gave the novel an extra star for this very authentic treatment.
But O’Reilly ruined it for me when (view spoiler)[she had Aemilia start to dabble in the black arts and call up a demon to get her revenge. I know it was a superstitious age in which people did believe in witches. I can also accept that there were people who practiced what was believed to be magic or witchcraft, but was in reality knowledge about medicinal herbs and astute judgments about human nature. But O’Reilly treats the demons and all as if it actually could have happened, which clashes with the realistic tone she used in other parts of the story. (hide spoiler)]
It was like she wanted to write both a historical fiction and a fantasy story, but few authors can make these two styles mesh well together.
I was also disappointed, but not really surprised, that O’Reilly chose to (view spoiler)[ make the Earl of Essex Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son. (hide spoiler)] This is a common speculation that many historians and scholars have made. Of course anything is possible, as I said before. However, rumors of secret lovers and illegitimate children were also common slanders that many single or widowed female rulers were subjected to back then. It is extremely unlikely that Queen Elizabeth – a ruling monarch who lived every aspect of her life in public -- could have had illegitimate children without a lot of people knowing about it. I wish O’Reilly had resisted this easy method of titillation.
I’m sure there are many readers who will like this type of novel, but I prefer even my historical fiction to have a more realistic tone, so this book just didn’t do it for me. Which is too bad, because I think this novel could have been so much more....more