2013 – Book Reports

Assassination VacationAssassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somehow Sarah Vowell is able to connect the assassination of President Garfield to a discussion about the architectural influences of Frank Lloyd and Pablo Picasso on turn of the century architecture. In this book Sarah, and often her nephew Owen, set out on pilgrimages to uncover the oft-hidden details of the assassinations of President Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Cleveland.

The side-detours to the Dry Tortugas and snake-infested cemeteries are presented with all the sardonic commentary only Sarah Vowell can deliver. I learned a ton in this book and listening to Vowell read it was nothing short of pure joy. Sarah delivers.

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GettysburgGettysburg by Stephen W. Sears

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The staggering detail in Sears’ Gettysburg really brings the hot, muggy, blood-filled days of July,1863 to life. With exacting research and countless first-hand accounts, the decisions, emotions, mistakes and lucky breaks became a story I could not stop listening too. I started listening during a trip to Pennsylvania and walked the battlefield and it really helped to have a visual map in my head. By the close of the book I feel I know the Generals and the men of the Iron Brigade. Sears has made Gettysburg personal and haunting.

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The Midwife's TaleThe Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started out liking this book and found myself wondering why it needed to be so complicated. The story is straightforward enough: a man is poisoned while rebel troops surround the city of York. It’s mid-16th Century England and the war for religious control is in full motion. But the Lady midwife self-selects to prove her friend innocent. She visits unwed mothers, mother’s with dying children and first-time mothers and through those visits manages to anger the political establishment and be noticed by political rivals. The story is overly complicated and the characters are thin. The opportunity for richness is there and the series, if there is one, may develop into something great. I have hope, but the first book is not a homerun.

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Lady of AshesLady of Ashes by Christine Trent
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mrs. Violet Morgan runs Morgan Undertaking in London. The year is 1861 and the US Civil War is ramping up. Her no-good husband sees an opportunity for easy money and sweet revenge for his Pap.

Violet is an oddity; a female mortician and one who offers to embalm the recently deceased. At the home of a recently departed military man, she meets Prince Albert who takes a shine to her. When he dies so suddenly a short time later, Queen Victoria has Violet brought in to prepare the funeral.

They become confidants, though with Queen V it’s more of her talking and Mrs. Morgan listening. None-the-less, she is entangled with the Queen. And her American Yankee friend begins to be more than a friend when Morgan’s husband sneaks off to avenge his family and make his fortune.

The story is okay and the ending stretches credibility a bit but the story is good and the characters are fun. I suspect we’ll be seeing more of her.

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The Woman Who Wouldn't Die (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #9)The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die by Colin Cotterill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dr. Siri is busy eating at his wife’s noodle bar and reminiscing about old times. Then the government and old times come crashing back into his retirement and disrupts his newlywed bliss, which is hard to find for an retired Communist coroner in his 70’s. But bliss he has found.

Until something even more strange occurs: in a small Lao village a woman was shot and killed in her bed during a burglary; she was given a funeral and everyone in the village saw her body burned. Then, three days later, she was back in her house as if she’d never been dead at all. But now she’s clairvoyant, and can speak to the dead.

Like all of Cotterill’s books, I laughed and pondered and thoroughly enjoyed watching Siri appealed to the spirits he sees to talk with him while he chased down old fears and old ghosts now threatening his wife: she is not all she appears to be and their fragile happiness is threaten, along with their lives.

This story more than any of his previous books shows the amazing ‘could have been’ potential of Laos had it not been crushed by war, Communisim, greed and the West.

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Louise's WarLouise’s War by Sarah R. Shaber
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As Hitler’s army marches across Europe, Louise spends her days as much more than a simple file clerk in the secret OSS office in Washington D.C.

The war is far off and still impersonal to her until one day a letter arrives; her best friend is in serious trouble.

Rachel, a Jew in Vichy France, is in constant danger of being rounded up and sent off to the camps. Rachel appeals to her friend Louise for help, but what can she do. Then the small file in a stack of files finds it way to Louise’s desk. The war is at her doorstep and Louise undertakes a dangerous mission to help her friend escape.

Populated with colorful figures and plenty of period details, this book should be more compelling that it is. The story has great potential but doesn’t live up to it. The writing is flat and two-dimensional. The difficult conversations are skimmed through and Louise is left unknown by us the reader.

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The Twelve Rooms of the NileThe Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gusatve Flaubert and Florence Nightengale collide in Luxor in 1848 bringing forth a friendship and re-imagined selves. Having visited the same sites: Abu Symbal, Dendere, Luxor, Cairo, Thebes, the wonderful Temple of Phille, this book was vividly real to me.

The self-discovery Nightengale experiences is, in part, the purpose of travel. We read their own words, journals, letters and published works, in this made-up encounter and both people are portrayed as the complex and confused revolutionaries they are. But it is only when Nightengale meets another “monster” in Flaubert – like calling to like- that she sees herself and is released from the victimization of Victorian norms.

Their relationship, though intimate and honest, is not primarily a sexual one; they never consummate and yet it is enough. The exploration of the ruins and ancient Egyptians is paralleled in their adventure toward themselves. I loved this book. Fantastic first novel.

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The Jewels of ParadiseThe Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another mastery from Donna Leon. The characters succulent, their words, their steps, their fears, their thoughts — all building deliciously on each previous scene, each previous page. This new heroine has as much potential as Commissario Guido Brunetti did 24 books ago. Leon weaves a centuries old mystery into the present, using greed, fear, faith, betrayal and hope to capture our attention. Perfect. Until the last pages where the book crashes in a worn out mess.

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The Typewriter GirlThe Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Betsey has a bit of a problem; she’s a little too smart and little too willing to do whatever it takes to find her place in the narrow-minded world of the early 20th Century.

As a typewriter girl her job is to type but not think, and above all, not get ideas above her station. She is caught typing her own character recommendation for a new kind of job where being a woman just may not be a liability. True she was planning to leave her job, but hadn’t planned on being caught, humiliated and thrown out without her wages. Betsey’s a risk taker and sometimes those risks don’t work out.

As Betsey’s dreams unravel she sells her hair and brazens her way to Indesea, a burgeoning sea-side resort hoping against hope that she will find a path forward.

Plagued by her own doubts, and the deception and down-right sabotage of others, it is sheer force of will that pushes Betsey to work hard and create a place for herself.

Alison Atlee’s descriptions of the clothes, the houses, the pier and the new-fangled pleasure railroad climbing up the Dover cliffs are spectacular.

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The Brothers of Baker StreetThe Brothers of Baker Street by Michael Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inventive and whimsical, except of course for the murder and mayhem. Reggie and Nigel Heath have their law practice at 221 Baker Street and receive letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Every once in a while they do more than answer and it always leads to trouble. This time the famous Black Cabs of London are being used to commit robbery, assault and murder and Professor Moriarty has his hand right in the middle of it. Very fun.

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Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American RevolutionRough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Simon Schama’s retelling of the creation and decimation of the Sierra Leone colony in the 1780’s is a heartbreaking yet inspiring tale of the desire for freedom by former American slaves as they suffered the harrowing journey from escaped slave to free-person of the British Empire. Slaves endured pestilence, famine, degradation, humiliation and injustice to escape their torment and create a free colony. That the British reran the playbook that instigated the American Revolution in Africa is ironic, heartbreaking and frankly, hope-full. One of the best historical books I have read in decades.

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The Nightingale Shore MurderThe Nightingale Shore Murder by Rosemary Cook
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected more mystery and intrique but got instead, a history of nursing, medical care and the role of women from 1850 to 1930 in Great Britain. I loved this book. Cook threads historical reality with the intrigue and mystery of the brutal and senseless murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, the god-daughter of Florence Nightingale.

As the 20th Century unfolds, women are catapulted from silent homeworker to nurse, politician, small business women to voter. Cook explores the changing role of women in Britain by taking her readers on a journey that parallels the life and death of Florence Nightingale Shore. Well written and worth reading.

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Speaking from Among the Bones (Flavia de Luce, #5 )Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

11 year old Flavia de Luce is tracking down lost organists and long-dead ghosts in this latest release from Alan Bradley. A constant worry to her Father, I am sure, she is an overly-intelligent and independent young girl who takes on the world around her to both see what is truly there and to then shape it to her will.

I love this girl and her enthusiasm for poisons, death by torture, and sneaking out of the house before sunrise. Flavia is exceptionnel.

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Unnatural Habits (Phryne Fisher #19)Unnatural Habits by Kerry Greenwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phryne Fisher is sometimes a bit too perfect for me. She’s the James Bond of Australia, circa 1928. Her glorious clothes, her incredible body and her insatiable appetite for adventure, love and fast cars don’t sit well with me sometimes, but I always keep reading because she draws me in, too, with her socialist leanings and her disregard for societal constraints.

In Unnatural Habits, Phryne finally becomes a whole person to me.

Girls are missing. Both young, blonde girls and unwed mothers are disappearing and Phryne sets out to find to find them. As her investigation leads her in and out of poverty and wealth, she uncovers a ring of white slave traders and shines a bright light on the dim, dark and disgusting treatment of unwed mothers at the local convent’s laundry facility.

In Unnatural Habits, Greenwood deals with the tragedy of rape, slavery, family shame and the unexpected cruelty hiding in the convent where unwed mothers are sent for care. She pits practices and institutions that are supposed to be ‘good’ against brothels and men’s clubs that are supposed to be bad, and it’s the latter that come out ahead.

My favorite of hers to date.

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Finding Nouf (Nayir al-Sharqi, #1)Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris

Nayir scours the Arabian desert searching for the lost sister of his good friend Othman. A Palestinian immigrant often mistaken for a Bedoin, Nayir is a quiet, devote Muslim trying to come to terms with the modern world and with modern women, During his search for Nouf he must face betryal, confusion, sorry and loss. Finally, Nayir finds hope.

Ferraris winds the reader through the streets and desert paths of Saudi Arabia so clearly it is easy to feel the heat and grit of the desert. She navigates us through the Islamic practices that dictate all interactions between men and women, letting us observe Nayir’s reactions and prejudices. A gentle, lonely man, Nayir is both fascinated and horrified as he discover and later comes to understand women’s desire for more than they are allowed to have. These desires end in hatred, betrayl, murder and in the end, finally, forgiveness and kindness.

A unique murder mystery that really is about the mystery of men and women in contemporary Saudi Arabia.

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The Dead Shall Not RestThe Dead Shall Not Rest by Tessa Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Giants, dwarfs, anatomists and body snatchers populate this mystery set in late 18th Century England. Dr. Silkstone, and American Colonist must work to safeguard the body of his friend, an Irish giant standing over 8′ tall, from dissection and display. When his betrothed, suffering the guilt and horror at something from her past, abruptly breaks off their engagement, Silkstone must fight for Lydia’s vey life.

Betrayal is at the heart of this mystery, based on the scant facts of Mr. Charles Byrne, a very real giant and Dr. Hunter, a real-life anatomist who fanatically chases after the corpses of fascinating men and women. Betrayal drives this book as one after another each character is betrayed and sometimes forgiven.

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The Bloodletter's DaughterThe Bloodletter’s Daughter by Linda Lafferty

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emotional blackmail, a deranged bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor, a frightened town in the Czech countryside and one quiet young woman with a dream she is willing to die for.

It is 1606 and the Hapsburg reign is teetering from war, ineptitude and the violent madness of Emperor Rudolf II‘s bastard son, Don Julius. In a futile attempt to cure Don Julius, the emperor exiles him to a peasant village in Bohemia for treatment. While a stern Jesuit priest from Spain tries to cure Don Julius’ soul, a Dr. and a local bloodletter named Pichler try to balance his humors cure Don Julius by purging the vicious humors swirling through his veins.

Pichler’s daughter Marketa becomes the object of Don Julius’s maniacal obsession. Marketa alone can sooth him; Marketa alone is allowed to bleed him. While she plans her future as a learned physician her naivety and compassion very nearly get her killed.

To win her freedom she must rely on a learned gardener from Prague and a local wise woman and she must confront the very real evil that has possessed her town and her heart.

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