Reviews by Diane S.

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The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra
by Helen Rappaport
The Romanov sisters (6/6/2014)
Although much in this book was known to me previously, I did like the way this was presented. The writing is very readable, clear and precise. It focused more on the family, their daily schedules, the people they were in contact with and their individual personalities. History of course invaded the focus, but only when necessary, and how it affected the family and what they thought about what was happening.

I did feel that I received a better understanding of the girls, their individual personalities, their thoughts and hopes for the future. Their first loves or crushes, their schooling and the many people, including Rasputin, who they trusted. I never knew the extent that they were secluded, kept out of the influence of the Russian nobility and I can't help but feel that this did them a huge disservice. They were often thought to be socially awkward, abroad and by their own people. I couldn't help but think that had the two oldest girls been allowed to marry, at least two lives would have been saved.

This book was extensively researched and I very much like that the book did not end of the murder of the Czar and his family but continued on to tell the fate of many of those who had supported the family.
The UnAmericans: Stories
by Molly Antopol
The Unamericans (4/7/2014)
3.5 The thread connecting all these stories is that of the immigrant, hence unamericans. They take place in different times and places. Ordinary people often caught up in matters beyond their control, how tenuous are the connections between people and how they react to these changed circumstances. All looking for clues, their own road maps for the future.

These stories are extremely well written, some seem to be so fully contained they seemed much longer than they appear, fully realized stories. I for some reason, found myself drawn to the story, "Minor Heroes, even though it was rather sad, based on a personal tragedy, I identified with Oren. Though really all the stories are very good and this is definitely a writer to watch.
Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir
by Frances Mayes
Under Magnolia (4/1/2014)
A charming and thoughtful meditation of her youth growing up in Fitzgerald, Ga. Although she early escaped to California and fell in love with Tuscany, buying a house there, it only takes a trip to do a reading at Square Books in Oxford, MS., to bring back much of what it means to be Southern. She quotes Faulkner quite extensively, even visiting his house, though it was not open at the time and she had to be satisfied with peaking through the window and imagining his life within.

Often humorous in her antidotes about her complicated family history, though many are less than joyful, many difficult to relate, her attempt to comes to terms with the past, is evident. The smells of magnolia, wisteria, the pecan trees among others, NeHi orange and wrap around porches, the generosity and friendliness of the people all seem to be calling her back. Infusing her memory with visible evidence. She and her husband actually do move back, but this time to North Carolina.

A charming and insightful read. Now I need to read book:Absalom, Absalom!|373755, which she refers to in her book.
In Paradise
by Peter Matthiessen
In Paradise (3/29/2014)
A rather strange thing happened to me while reading this novel. I went to bed last night, leaving forty pages unread and all set to give this book a three star rating. Not because this is not well written, at 86 Matthiessen has definitely perfected his craft, but because I felt so distant from the characters. Anyway I went to bed and dreamt this novel, that I was one of the participants at the retreat trying to come to terms with the horrible things that have happened there. I woke up realizing that the camp itself, Auschwitz, was the main character and that the characters were only a device used to tell the story.

A week long retreat at Auschwitz, attended by 100 people of diverse nationalities, religions and sex. Headed by a Zen teacher (of which the author is a practioner himself) they are there for remembrance, meditation, hoping to gain an understanding and come to terms with the past. Also a man named Clements Olin, who is said to be a researcher trying to figure out why the Polish author Tadeiz Borowski, who wrote stories and poems of his experiences while sentenced to camp, committed suicide at the age of 28. He is mentioned extensively In the first part of the novel. The pervasive atmosphere effects each of
these people in different ways.

The second part of the novel, unravels the personal lives of many of them, why they are really there, what they hoped to find, feel.This is also when the story of Olin is revealed and he must come to terms with a past, of which has only shortly been made aware.

This is a novel told in a very unemotional matter, the place itself provides the emotion, the awareness of what when on there, what the characters see and feel. Many leave with a new understanding, Olin among them. Some find their lives changed and more secrets are revealed.

So I had to give this a four, it was amazingly constructed, and the reader gets a chance to read about the many different people that have a need to remember. Plus this is the first book I have ever dreamed in which I was a character. Still shaking my head.

ARC from publisher.
Bark: Stories
by Lorrie Moore
Bark (2/19/2014)
A wonderful grouping of eight short stories, the first by this author in many years. I liked all of them, I really do not have a favorite, don't think that has happened before. They are all such a mixture of social and political commentary, many with laugh out loud moments and others with pithy witticisms. She does a masterful job exposing the flaws I her characters and doing it in such a way that they find acceptance. The strange becomes the reality or the norm.

Brilliant collection.

Arc from publisher.
Worthy Brown's Daughter
by Phillip Margolin
Worthy Brown's Daughter (1/24/2014)
Portland, Oregon is the 1860's is a typical frontier town, a place where things are not very easy. Yet, Matthew seizes the opportunity to relocate there from the east, and he and his wife join the wagons heading over the Oregon Trail. Matthew makes it to Oregon, his wife does not.

Once in Oregon,Matthew who is a lawyer becomes embroiled in a few cases over a property dispute and lands on the wrong side of a man, who does not easily forgive. He also decides to undertake the lawsuit of a negro, the said Worthy, whose daughter in still being held as a slave even though slaves are illegal in Oregon.

Margolin has written legal thrillers for many years so he knows his way around a courtroom. and this one is loosely based on a true incident. Really enjoyed Matthew's character and the rough and tumble of this western town. The corruption and graft, violence never far from the core. It was very unusual for a white man at that time to take on the defense of a black man, yet it was done.

There were a couple of subplots that I felt were not really necessary, taking away from the main plot which was very interesting. Also at the end Matthew's new love interest lectures Worthy's daughter, about doing something with her life rather than being a servant something I did not like and could have been left out. All in all a good solid read.
Mercy Snow
by Tiffany Baker
Mercy Snow (1/13/2014)
Well written, wonderful mix of magical realism, very atmospheric with oh so interesting characters and a glimpse into the harm secrets can hold. To bring together or to tear apart. Love the ending as well, not everything ends happily nor should it, no matter how one wishes it could. Will not forget the character of Mercy, her name says much.
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly
by Sun-mi Hwang, Chi-Young Kim (translator), Nomoco (illustrator)
The Hen who dreamed she could fly. (1/8/2014)
South Korean novelette that can be read as a morality tale, a fable, or a metaphor. I just know that I absolutely adore Sprout, she is one plucky chicken that goes against the established routines at the farm to fulfill her desires. Of course she has quite a bit of luck and quite a few trials. It is a wonderful story about a mother's unconditional love. Setting what you love free and doing what you think is in the child's best interest, above your own wants and desires.

Wonderful little story with plenty of meaning and a wonderful cover.
The Kept
by James Scott
The Kept (1/6/2014)
This is a very dark story , set in the late 19th century, in rural upstate New York. The beginning is very brutal and very explicit and it is this that will set Elspeth the mother, and Caleb who is still very young, twelve or thirteen, on a quest for vengeance.

Extremely well written for a first novel, it is very atmospheric and hard to forget. The scenes, the dialogue all are so vividly portrayed, what they have seen and what they go through so hard to forget. A boy, who had to grow up quickly and way to soon. A mother, who I really did not like until the end, when she finally figures out what it takes to actually be a mother. A story of guilt and justification. The cover is so perfect, the barrenness, the starkness, perfectly fitting for this novel.

Reminds me a little of Bonnie Jo Campbell and her writing. The comparison to True Grit I can also see but like I said I had a hard time liking and forgiving Elspeth. Not sure that I ever did. A good, solid first novel, brutal in nature, but unforgettable.

ARC from publisher.
Archangel
by Andrea Barrett
Archangel (1/6/2014)
Late 1800's and near the turn of the new century and scientific investigation and many inventions are at the forefront of this novel of short stories.

Loved the first story and twelve yr. old Constatine Boyd, who leaves his home to spend summers with his uncles. In 1908 the uncle he is sent to is in a village that has many investigators and inventors, experiments, first efforts at flight and many other things. What makes this story for me is Constatine's enthusiasm, he looks at everything with such a sense of wonder. The reason he spends summers with his uncles is also poignantly revealed.

The second story I was not drawn into, but the other three were very good. Two of the stories included young women trying to convince people that they belong in the world of science, that they can have a place. The last story. the title story, I again loved because it ends as it started with Constatine. Of course he is grown up now.

So science and character studies in a well written book. Really enjoy her writing.
Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon Self-Control, and My Other Experiments in Everyday Life
by Gretchen Rubin
Happier at Home (12/23/2013)
Written in an engaging and easy to read style, I still felt that much of this was just plain ol' common sense. How to be happier at home by sections, show more affection to those you live with, spend some time each day doing something you love, show interest in others personal interests, etc. See common sense, but a good read for those who need reminding or those who are at a lost. May find something in it that will help those who are looking for answers and those who are questioning if what they are doing is going to work.
The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
The Invention of Wings (12/20/2013)
Where to start in trying to explain all the amazing things this novel contained. It is powerful, intense, profound and amazing in every way. The real life Gremke sisters, born into a family of wealth, on a plantation that of course had slaves, in Charleston in the middle of the 19th century, but before the Civil War. This is their story and the story of others who also fought for the abolishment of slavery. It is also the story of Handful, a slave and her mother on the Gremke plantation.

Some was hard to read, the whippings and other mistreatment of the slaves, their longing to be free and the many times they had to swallow what they really thought when in their owner's presence. The conversations, the characters, well rounded and exactly right. Sarah Mapps, a black woman who opened the first school for blacks in Philadelphia, a free black and a woman trying to influence others in her own way. So many characters that actually existed in history.

Loved that the author took time to explain her research and her fascination with this subject. She also explains who and what were real and what was not. Always appreciated in a historical novel.

Read yesterday that this has been picked up by Oprah's bookclub and I would not be at all surprised to find that this will be made into a movie someday. Not because it is melodramatic, because it is not, but because the lives of the Gremke sisters need to be acknowledged and more widely known.
My Notorious Life
by Kate Manning
My Notorious Life (12/7/2013)
Written in somewhat of a melodramatic fashion and yes sometimes I felt a little too dramatic yet it was impossible for me to not get caught up in Axie's story. For one thing I just love this character's name, Axie Muldoon, just resonated for me for some reason.

That this book is loosely built on the real life person of a female medical doctor once considered the Wickedest Women in New York, is a plus because it makes the story so much more genuine. This book contains so much history, and I feel that the author's writing was the strongest in her descriptions of the streets of New York, with so many immigrants and orphans, a street that was filthy and not very friendly too many. The orphan trains and the splitting up of families. A journey through women's contraceptive practices of the day, the beginning trade in medicines, where people were willing to part with their few dollars just on the hope that something would work. The trade of midwife and all it entailed and of course Comstock and his moral crusade to clear out profanity of any kind.

Axie is a character that is larger than life at a time when choices for woman were at their lowest. The ending is a little too pat, but I can live with it. I kept thinking what a wonderful mini-series this book would be. Maybe gain a wonderful following like The Midwives and Downton Abbey. Think it would work wonderfully well.
Safe with Me
by Amy Hatvany
Safe with Me (11/26/2013)
I feel in love with Hatvany's first book, or at least the first to be released here called, Best Kept Secret. This one I had a few problems with, I felt it lacked focus, tried to cover too many things. Organ donation is a worthy subject all its own, throw in domestic abuse and one or the other will suffer. This one for me was borderline soap opera material, just one heartbreaking moment after another. She can definitely write, covers pertinent issues of the day but for me this novel was overkill.

Picoult fans will probably love Hatvany's novels.
Brewster
by Mark Slouka
Brewster (11/20/2013)
Late 60's, in a small town called Brewster in New York, three boys and a young girl come of age. Charles Manson was in the news, being drafted for the Vietnam War was a real threat and Woodstock was happening a short distance away, these were circumstances happening outside their homes, but the real threat and the hurt would come from the place they should have been the safest, their own homes.

I was very young during this time period but I remember my best friend's brother being drafted, seeing him in his uniform, leaving for boot camp, wondering if he would have any life left when he returned.. Jon and Ray are such wonderful characters, dealing with the hurts in their families in the only way they knew how. Good boys, troubled boys, boys the reader becomes emotionally involved with, want to save. Heartbreaking and powerful, such a wonderful and poignant book, nostalgic, the tone of the time, perfect. Jon, runs track and that becomes his outlet. Ray, and his family secrets, things he must not tell and a little brother that he loves and to whom he feels responsible. First love and friendship in all its glory and hardship. All seniors wondering how their lives will play out, how the world would change, where they would find themselves in the future.

As they enter the seventies, things will change, the pace of the books speeds up and a horrifying and heartbreaking incident will leave them all reeling, and all their lives will never be the same. As Jon track coach tells him, "You'll be okay, "You can't see it now, but life goes on." That's the thing - it goes on with or without you."

Maybe it's the weather, or that it is getting dark so early and is a bit depressing, but I think this is only the second book that I finished with a lump in my throat and a tissue in my hand., Friendship, pain and memories, the resilience of the human experience.
Rustication
by Charles Palliser
Rustication (11/15/2013)
Love Gothic toned novels and this was a new author for me so I did not know what to expect. Loved it, it is not scary but is very suspenseful, a winding puzzle, and many characters that are unlikable. Our main character is a young man who has been sent down from college he, has been rusticated, for reasons he feels it is in his best interests to keep secret. He is a very unreliable narrator, addicted to opium, obsessed with sex, well that covers just about every nineteen yr, old. so not unexpected, and should be very unlikable. He is not however unlikable, a bit self-centered but his musings were very entertaining.

A scandal, a plot , a cook who does not really know how to cook, an old house, threatening letters, a murder and there you have it, all the ingredients for a wonderful story. Those letters are very graphic in nature but are necessary to the story. They actually provide clues, though I was not able to decipher these clues and spent most of the book wondering what was going on. Love these types of stories and this one was very good.
The Facades
by Eric Lundgren
The Facades (11/9/2013)
A very hard book to pinpoint or place into any known genre. There is a city called Trude, once known as the Munich of the Midwest, now known as a good place to commit suicide. A city that has decaying mansions, broken down buildings and an authoritarian mayor bent on destroying the towns library. Its beleaguered starring man is Sven, whose wife Molly has disappeared. He wants only to find her and finds clues everywhere but inside himself.

In a little over two hundred pages this book includes a assisted living center called Traumhaus, where one must apply to be admitted. Where scrabble games are a spectator sport and where a group of residents called "The Pinkies", yes they wear pink bathrobes and slippers, are the envy of the other residents.

There are gun toting librarians in ski masks manning a reference desk that most are afraid to approach.They are called the Trude 13, they sleep in the library, and refuse to leave because the mayor wants to blow up the building. It is important to note that the author works at a public library in St. Louis. Of course everyone thinks the mayor is upset with the library because he returned a waterlogged romance book (of course it was that way when he checked it out) and had to pay for the book.

Sven and his son are left to themselves, a job Sven is not up to. Of course there is a church ready to step in. What would a decrepit town be without a church preparing themselves for the second coming. Anyway there is so much more and I have to admit I really enjoyed reading this. For a first novel it is very good. The meaning, well that I think will change for each person that reads this. There are many different ways to go. Of course there is always the possibility that one many not find any meaning, but they will have a great time getting there.
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
by Ann Patchett
This is a story of a happy marriage (11/7/2013)
I have read Ann Patchett's books for a long time now, long enough that I can see her improving in her craft, book by book. This grouping of essays cover a wide range of subjects that she has written throughout the years.

So interesting how she started her writing career and how she approaches her writing now, the care she puts into her research. Very interesting. Marriage, her Catholic faith, RV travel, and of course her dog Rosie. Loved how she talked about her dog, can tell she is madly in love with the pooch. Marriage, what it means and the importance of this in her life.

Of course, her bookstore Parnassus in Tennessee, which I hope to get to one day and her unsolicited quest as the head of the movement of the independent bookstore. This book made me feel that I knew her much better, more in depth, a little up close and personal. I enjoyed reading these essays and think she has many interesting things t say.
Quiet Dell
by Jayne Anne Phillips
Quiet Dell (10/27/2013)
Based on a true case that had haunted the author for decades, Quiet Dell is the story of the murders and investigation that took place during the 1930's, of a serial killer that preyed on vulnerable women. A subject that is not typical for this author, but something that she felt she needed to write.

I remember stories, told by my Aunt about the Lonely Hearts, widows who would write to men, a match up pen pal sort of thing, that has been replaced by computers today. Widows left in dire circumstances due to the depression and had very little recourse. Loved the black and white pictures that accompanied this novel as well as many of the details. My problem with this book, is that the main character is a woman, a journalist and so much of what she does and experiences just does not ring true. Not sure that a woman would have had the freedom at the time, or been so accepted by the men in professional capacities as is related here. Also her love affair with the bank manager just seemed awkward as did some of the dialogue.

That said, this is still a very good novel, a look back in history and a book that will find readers of many genres. How much harder it was to piece things together back then when one so relied on witnesses, paper trails in the truest sense, and just pure investigation and foot work. Though this killer had many different aliases, he was just pure evil.

My favorite parts where when the young girl Annabel is mentioned, the writing flows, becomes poetic and I felt she was a great favorite of the author. A bit of fancy.
Cartwheel
by Jennifer duBois
Cartwheel (10/23/2013)
Had quite a while to consider my rating on this book and why so much of it just did not gel with me. I never paid much in depth attention to the Amanda Knox story, so my knowledge of said story is just bare bones. So while this is being compared to that case or said to be the trigger for this novel, I have no way of knowing. What I know is that there were two women, college exchange students and one somewhat hunky neighbor, having relationships with both and than of course there is the murder of one of the girls and the other is said to have been the perpetrator.

So basically yes, this book does follow those lines, but where it deviated from the story I cannot comment. The writing in this book is very good, but something bugged me about it, not the story itself but the way it is written. I never really engaged with the characters or the story, never became emotionally vested in the outcome. Felt like it was just a story I was reading, or a recitation of facts without depth and only scratching the surface.

Anyway had a very hard time rating this, because on one hand the writing was very good and on the other, the style of the story just did not work.
Others may not have the same difficulty, it is certainly of popular interest and not all readers have the same reaction.

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