Well-written book about a lesser known Nazi

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The Hollow Bones by Leah Kaminsky

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Ernst Schafer was a German zoologist, hunter and explorer with a beautiful wife, Herta.  In the 1930’s, Heinrich Heimler became interested in Schafer and his work.  The SS funded an expedition of scientists to Tibet in a quest to find the origins of the Aryan race in the Himalayans with Schafer in the lead.  But soon the horrors of the Nazi regime began and Schafer is pulled into the manipulative world of Hitler.

When Ernst was a young boy, he and Herta were best friends.  When they met again as adults, they fell in love and were so happy together.  When they decided to marry, they were told that Herta would have to go to a German bridal school to learn how to be a good German wife.  As much as I’ve read about that period in time, I was shocked at how extensive and rigid this schooling was.  But Herta wanted to be Ernst’s wife so she went along with all they threw at her.  But after their marriage, Ernst begins to change.  It’s fascinating to watch the corruption of Ernst by the Nazi regime and sad to see how that corruption begins to eat at Ernst and Herta’s marriage.

The Nazis’ intolerance of imperfection is well known.  Herta had a sister with some disabilities and there was quite a bit included in the book about her, the secrecy the family felt they had to keep and her ultimate disappearance.

One of the narrators of this book is a Panda that Ernst shot and stuffed and placed in a museum.  This was a very unique way to let Ernst’s animal victims have a voice in this book.  I do warn fellow animal lovers that there is a lot of killing of animals, mostly birds, in this book, along with hunting and taxidermy.  It made the book a difficult topic for me to read but it was a fascinating story of a Nazi that I had not read anything about before.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the author in return for an honest review.

 

A very unique blend of literary genres

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Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Solovyov is a naïve young scholor who has been given the topic of General Larionov for his thesis.  General Larionov was a commander in the White Russian Army during the Russian Civil War.  The mystery surrounding him is why Larionov was allowed to live the remainder of his life following the war in the new Soviet Union.  He was even given a pension by the soviets.  Solovyov goes to Yalta where Larionov last lived to find some lost wages of Larionov’s memoir in an effort to solve this mystery.  Along the way, he meets a host of unique characters.

This book is a very unique blend of literary genres.  The author has a dry wit and I enjoyed his humorous satire.  I’m sure I missed some of the satirical references due to not being Russian but there were quite a few that I understood.  The military history could be somewhat dry at times and sometimes quite interesting.  Solovyov is a very likeable character and I enjoyed the romantic parts of the book and the fun that Vodolazkin poked at his main character.  It was a bit slow taking off but once it did, I became captivated by this Russian tale with all of its stories within a story.  This is a true Russian novel with all the complications that Russian novels entail.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publicist in return for an honest review.

A most impressive biography

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Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

The Rev. Willie Maxwell is a preacher who is well known for being accused and/or suspicioned of killing five of his family members for insurance money.  But Willie has a good lawyer (or else he’s very good at casting voodoo spells which some people believe) and he’s always gotten off scot-free.  That was so until the death of his stepdaughter when the girl’s uncle, Robert Lewis Brown, shot and killed the Reverend at the girl’s funeral.  Now Brown must face his own trial for murder and unbelievably, he is represented by the same attorney who represented the Reverend for so many years – Tom Radney.

It had been many years since Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  Readers and publishers had been anxiously awaiting a new book from her.  She needed something special to bring her writing talent to life again.  When she heard of the stories surrounding the Rev. Willie Maxwell, she believed that this was the book she had been waiting to write and she traveled to Alabama to gather research.  She wasn’t new at true crime research as she had been with Truman Capote when he researched and conducted interviews for his book “In Cold Blood”.  Lee was never happy with all the untruths contained in Capote’s book and was determined that her book on the Reverend would be more factual.  And yet, whatever happened to that book she referred to as “The Reverend”?

This is a top-of-the-line biographical work.  I was completely immersed in this story of crime and greed.  I’ve always been fascinated by both Harper Lee and Truman Capote though had never read anything about Lee’s involvement in the Willie Maxwell story.  Even without Lee’s involvement, Maxwell’s story and all the rumors and superstitions surrounding it make a very compelling, bewitching tale.  The addition of Harper Lee in the mix is luscious icing on an already amazing cake.  The author does a stunning job of telling the facts of this story.  It’s one of those situations where truth is stranger than fiction.

I’m blown away that this is the debut work of this author.  She has rendered this story both in a riveting way while keeping it all very factual and true to life.  Not only does she relay the facts of the immediate story of Maxwell and Lee but also includes a history of how life insurance began, the ongoing belief in voodoo in the south, how justice doesn’t always triumph in a courtroom and the workings of artistic creativity.  I had a very hard time putting this one down and will long remember it.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

 

Quite exceptional and destined to become a feminist classic

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

This book is based on a real-life event, which makes it all the more shocking.  Between 2005 and 2009, hundreds of girls and women were raped by eight men from the Mennonite colony they were all part of.  The men used an animal anesthetic to knock out their victims and then raped them.  At first, the women didn’t know they had been raped but only that they would wake up in the morning feeling exhausted with their bodies bloody and beaten.  They were told that ghosts or demons had done it as punishment for their sins or that they were lying or covering up adulterous affairs or that it was all in their imagination.  Very young children were included in these rapes, as well as elderly women.  Some of the women became pregnant.  In 2011, the accused men were convicted.  Even after the arrest of these eight men, the attacks still took place.

In Ms. Toews’ book, eight of the raped women meet in a hayloft to discuss what they should do to prevent themselves and their daughters from further harm.  Should they stay and fight or should they leave?  They had a window of opportunity as the men were off trying to raise money for the accused men’s bail.  These women were never told how to read or write and knew nothing about reading a map or where they could go.  They were told if they could not forgive these men, they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  So they had a lot to discuss.  If a women whose 3-year-old child had been raped couldn’t forgive in her heart, wasn’t it a worse sin to say she forgave the men even if she didn’t mean it?  The women in this community were just commodities to these men and had no say in anything.  In reading this book, it was hard to believe that this happened in 2005-2009 and wasn’t something occurring centuries ago.

The author does such an excellent job of delving into the hearts and minds of these courageous women.  I felt their fear and their heartache and their confusion as to what they should do to make their lives bearable.  The suspense builds as the time for the men to return nears.  In trying to decide what they should do, they have lengthy discussions about religion and faith.  There were times they seemed to forget the urgency of their situation and lectured each other.  There’s some humor in this book, despite its dark subject.  It’s one of the most unique books I’ve ever read.  Don’t expect much of a plot as the book is just what the title says it is – women talking.  I think it was quite exceptional and destined to become a feminist classic.  Not all readers will like the format of this book but the emotional depth of this story is just astounding.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Quite an entertaining, charming book

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Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

L. Frank Baum wrote a book that would prove to be one of the most beloved books of all times, “The Wizard of Oz”.  What child doesn’t know this magical story?  This new book by Dorothy Letts tells the story behind the story of the Land of Oz.  The book centers on Maud Gage Baum, Frank’s wife, and fluctuates between the childhood and life of Maud starting when she was 10 years old in 1871 and the time period when the movie with Judy Garland was filmed and released.

Not only was Maud the daughter of a well-known suffragette, she was also one of the first few women admitted to Cornell University.  When she met Frank Baum and fell in love, her degree no longer mattered and off she went with him as the wife of a traveling actor.  Frank was a wonderful husband and proved to be just as wonderful a father to their four sons.  What he wasn’t too successful at was making money.  Though their life was lived frugally, Maud and Frank and their sons were happy and content.  Frank always was able to enrich their lives by his entertaining antics.  He was a dreamer and always dreamed of a better life for them.

The section of Maud’s involvement with the filming of the famous movie and her protective feelings for Judy Garland was very entertaining, though I’m not sure how factually accurate it was.  Regardless, I found this part of the book fascinating, filled with little tidbits about the actors and Hollywood.

The best part of the book is seeing how bits and pieces of Maud and Frank’s lives ended up in his book.  I thought that was very clever of the author and apparently is based on historical fact.  I’ve gotten away from historical fiction but knew I wanted to read this one since I love the movie so much.  I’m glad I requested it as it was very enjoyable and in the telling of the background of a magical story, it was quite magical itself.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

 

Poetic mix of beauty and violence

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What Hell is Not by Alessandro D’Avenia

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

“Take away love and you will have hell.  Give love and you will have what hell is not.” Father Pino

In Palermo, Sicily in 1993, violence runs rampant in the Brancaccio section.  Mafia bosses incite fear into the hearts of the teenage boys there.  That fear is what causes these young teenage boys to carry guns as they begin to test their own violent tendencies.  One teenager, Federico, is more privileged than some in Palermo.  He is a lover of words and has been nicknamed “Poet”.  His teacher, Don Pino, has asked him to help him at the youth club.  A whole new world opens up for Federico as he gets to know what some of these young boys face each day.  When Don Pino is murdered by the mafia, it is left to the young Federico to continue his loving work.

This book is based on the real life of Giuseppe Puglisi, which makes the story even more poignant.  I can’t help but think of the author as being the teenage boy, Federico, since they both have the heart of a poet.  Each short chapter of this book is a work of poetic beauty, some showing the transformative power of love and some showing the devastation that hate brings into the world.  The author’s poetic wording is in sharp contrast to the ugliness of some of the events in the book, which makes the horror seem even more horrific.  It’s not an easy book to read.  First, there are some hard-to-read violent parts, though the author does not resort to using gore to shock his readers.  Also the writing style of the author took me some time to get used to and may not be to every reader’s taste.  He doesn’t always make it clear who’s speaking and because his writing is so poetic, I didn’t always understand what he was trying to say.  It was quite a slow read due to that.  But there are moments of beauty in his writing that make the effort well worth it.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publicist in return for an honest review.

Compassionate story of maternal love

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The Caregiver by Samuel Park

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Ana and her little girl, Mara, take care of each other in their home in Copacabana, Brazil.   Ana works as a voice-over actress but her job brings in little money.  In desperation, she agrees to take a job posing as a citizen with information about student guerillas in an attempt to lure the violent Police Chief Lima from his post.  Ana then makes a decision that tears their lives apart.

Years later when Mara comes to America undocumented, she takes a job as a caregiver to a woman, Kathryn, who is suffering from stomach cancer.  Caring for Kathryn brings up memories of Mara’s mother and Mara struggles to come to terms with her past.

This is a beautifully written book about the relationship between a mother and daughter and what lengths a mother would be willing to go for her daughter.  The characters are very well developed and the book is full of heart and compassion.

The author, Samuel Parks, passed away from stomach cancer shortly after writing this book.  At the end of the book, his essay that was published in the New York Times is shared.  It’s called “I Had a 9 Percent Chance, Plus Hope” and it’s a must read for all.  After reading this book, I’m even more anxious to read “This Burns My Heart”.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Entertaining, thought-provoking spy novel

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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

It’s 1940 and Juliette Armstrong has been recruited to work for M15.  She’s 18 years old and quite naïve.  She’s been given the tedious job of transcribing recordings of meetings of British Fascist sympathizers.  But she’s soon pulled even deeper into this frightening espionage world.  When the war is over, Juliette believes the past is behind her.  But she learns that there are still consequences that need to be dealt with.

There are sometimes light hearted moments in this novel that are deceiving because this is quite a deep, thought-provoking work.  While I very much enjoyed Juliette’s witty remarks, there are layers and layers to explore in this book.  I feel like starting the book from the beginning again and dissecting it, scene by scene, which is not something I’ve ever enjoyed doing.   The fragility of loyalty, how thin the line can be between “them” and “us”, how contradictory our inner beliefs can be and how history can be re-shaped in its telling are all explored.

On the negative side, I did get bogged down some with all of the boring transcriptions but I don’t really see how the author could have gotten around those.  Also, while most of the book is very realistic and believable, there were some scenes toward the end that were a bit far-fetched.

Overall, this is was a very interesting and enjoyable read.  Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Gorgeously written literary work

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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Hannah is an American historian who is in Paris to do some research.  She’s writing about the lives of women who were present in Paris during the German Occupation.  She listens for hours to recordings these women made detailing what living in Paris was like at that time and how these women felt about the German soldiers.  As she walks the streets of Paris, memories of her time there ten years before and the love affair she has never gotten over begin to haunt her.  She’s also haunted by the ghosts of the Paris witnesses she’s listening to.

She takes in a boarder, 19-year-old Tariq, who has run away from his home in Morocco.  Tarij isn’t sure why he came to Paris, possibly to find answers to all of the questions he’s had about his long dead mother.  Hannah and Tariq couldn’t be more different and yet they form a friendship.  Tariq is ashamed that he knows so little history and learns that many North Africans hate France for its treatment of Muslims.  One of his newly found “teachers” is a man who thinks he’s Victor Hugo, a homeless man who performs puppet shows in the subway for donations.

This is a gorgeously written literary work, a slow-moving, thought-provoking book.  There are several stories in this book, not only the stories of Hannah and Tariq but also of the women who witnessed Paris during the German Occupation, relating the atrocities committed, and real-life women such as Andree Borrel, a French heroine of World War II who was executed by the Germans.  The ghosts of the past converge with those walking the streets of Paris in the present day and Paris’ history continues to echo into the future.  This is a book that will linger long after the last page is read.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Amazingly creative look at life’s mysteries

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The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star review

A bewildered man wakes up in the hospital and has no memory of past events or even his name.  His doctor tells him his name is Innokenty Petrovich Platonov.  The doctor urges Innokenty to write down all of his thoughts and feelings.  Those writings release a story of a young boy living in Russia in the early 1900’s, traveling through the Russian Revolution.  Some of these memories are blurry and he wonders if they’re real, especially since he starts to see signs of now being in 1999.

The above is a very bare bones description of the beginning of this complex book.  I hesitate to talk too much about plot as I don’t want to spoil this masterpiece in any way for anyone.  This book has so many layers and I read it slowly to absorb as much as I could.  I know I’ll want to read it again someday to find other layers that I may have missed in the first reading.  It’s a book that will make you think about whatever stands out for you.  Possibly it will be thinking about memory and how memories can be different between different people and how events stop being real immediately after happening but live on in people’s memories.  Perhaps it will have you thinking about getting older and the witnesses to your life dying so you begin to lose parts of your history.   The meaning of retribution is explored in a mind opening way.  It will definitely get you thinking about the importance of the written word and how it preserves history and memories.

Regardless of what this book gets you thinking about, it’s a powerful, moving story in and of itself.  It touched my heart in so many ways.  The life of Innokenty Platonov is one that I will never forget.  I’m not a talented enough writer to do justice to a book like this.  All I can say is that it profoundly affected me.

I have long loved Russian novelists and read all of the old Russian classics like “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky and “War and Peace” by Tolstoy.  There was a period of my younger life when that was about all I read.  Now I have another beloved Russian novelist to look forward to and will be reading his book “Laurus” as soon as I can.

Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publicist in return for an honest review.