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The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel
The Madonnas of Leningrad: A Novel
by Debra Dean
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.17
548 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars The next best thing to visiting Russia, April 14, 2014
It's 1941 and Marina is a guide at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (St Petersburg). The museum staff are frantically packing up all the museum's treasures and sending them away to keep them out of the hands of the advancing Germans. Throughout the siege of Leningrad, as the city freezes and starves, Marina and her family live huddled in the cellars of the Hermitage.

If you've enjoyed books like Sarah's Key and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you'll probably also enjoy this book which has a similar structure and is written in a similar style. It alternates between Marina's life in WW2 Leningrad and her life as a grandmother with Alzheimer's in present day Seattle. In her younger life, it is her imagination and memories that give her hope and keep her sane, but in her later life they are symptoms of the dementia that is taking over her brain.

What I liked about this book was the way that it captured life in Leningrad at this time and the loving way that so many of the paintings are described. I enjoyed looking them up online and studying them in conjunction with Marina's descriptions. I was interested to read in the afterword that the author had never visited Russia when she wrote the book, but that she was relieved to find how accurately she had conveyed it when she did eventually visit. Many of the events in the book are based on real life events.

So I enjoyed the book but I also feel a bit lukewarm about it. Ultimately the story isn't meaty enough. The romance could have been better developed, or her relationship with her children. It reads like a love letter to the Hermitage more than a compelling story in its own right.

Another book that vividly brings the horrors of the siege to life is the wonderful City of Thieves: A Novel.

The Hive: A Novel
The Hive: A Novel
by Gill Hornby
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.94
74 used & new from $1.09

2.0 out of 5 stars Great potential but falls short, April 9, 2014
This review is from: The Hive: A Novel (Hardcover)
This is a semi-satirical novel about moms at a small English primary school and about the way they revolve around the "queen bee" who runs the fundraising committee. We focus on a core group of 5 or 6 moms who all have their own place in the social standing: inside the clique, desperate to join the clique or immune to the clique. The story follows a school year as they go through their own individual dramas and the pecking order at school gets shuffled.

If anyone should have liked this book, it would be me, because I am highly involved in my children's primary school. I also think that it's a topic that's crying out for a novel. There was a recent article in Boston Magazine entitled "The Terrifyingly Nasty, Backstabbing, and Altogether Miserable World of the Suburban Mom" (you can find it on line) which shows how real and hurtful these kind of dramas are. But this book just doesn't work. We don't care about any of the characters, we don't explore any feelings in depth and the "queen bee" is so simplistically lazy and selfish that it's virtually impossible to believe that everyone wouldn't see through her.

Plus the "bee" metaphors drove me crazy. The analogy is clever but it gets rammed home again and again. Naming character like Bea and Clover and Heather. Naming the school after the patron saint of bees. Frequent lectures from Rachel's Mom about how beehives work. Enough! I get it!

While there are amusing moments here and there, it's overall a tedious read. A friend described it to me as like "Fifty Shades of Grey without the sex".

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel
by Karen Joy Fowler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.65
64 used & new from $8.58

3.0 out of 5 stars No spoilers here, April 4, 2014
Warning: Do not read reviews of this book unless they tell you up front that they will avoid spoilers. You will enjoy this book more if you let it reveal its story in its own good time (around the 80 page mark).

The book is narrated by Rosemary, a student at a university in California who bears the scars of turmoil in her family life growing up. She had a sister whom she lost at the age of 5 and a brother who left home when she was 11. The book is about how she comes to terms with those events and learns the truth about what happened.

I loved the way the book is told. Rosemary has such a frank, funny and fresh outlook on the world. When I started this book I thought it was going to become a firm favorite for me. However as the book went on, I got a bit fed up with the way that Rosemary wallows in her emotions. In this sense it feels like a YA book, that nothing is as interesting to Rosemary as Rosemary is, and the characters that come into her life are all larger than life too. Her friend Harlow is reminiscent of Alaska in Waiting for Alaska which I was perhaps alone in failing to be charmed by.

It's an original and thought provoking book, but somewhere along the line it weakened its grip on me.

Necessary Lies
Necessary Lies

4.0 out of 5 stars A page turner, March 30, 2014
This review is from: Necessary Lies (Kindle Edition)
Set in North Carolina, 1960, this is the story of Jane, a young social worker, and Ivy, a 15 year old who lives with her grandmother and older sister. They take turns narrating the story by chapter. Initially I was far more interested in Jane's story but as the book progresses I got wrapped up in both characters.

One of the fascinating things about the book is how dramatically attitudes have changed in the past 50 years. For starters, there is Jane's husband's attitude towards her working - which is shared by many of their contemporaries. Then there is the callous way that the State feels it can mastermind the lives of women on welfare. While the story is fictional, the background is not, which makes it even more horrifying.

This is a tremendously readable book and for a large part of it I had absolutely no idea how the author could resolve all the different problems that were being thrown up. It does get a little silly towards the very end and I also felt that the prologue at the beginning added nothing to the book. Nevertheless if you enjoyed The Help (and who didn't?), you are very likely to enjoy this too.

A Lovely Way to Burn (Plague Times Trilogy 1)
A Lovely Way to Burn (Plague Times Trilogy 1)

4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing new trilogy, March 26, 2014
Stevie Flint is a presenter on a Home Shopping Channel who has been dating Simon, a surgeon, for four months. When Simon fails to show up for a date and then fails to return her calls, she assumes that she's been dumped. However when she visits his apartment to drop off her keys and collect her belongings, she discovers that he's dead. Initial assumptions are that he's killed himself, until Stevie receives a letter that Simon wrote to her before he died and she realises that there were things going on in Simon's life that she didn't know about.

This mystery novel is set against the background of a world that is succumbing to a major pandemic. A new and unidentified virus, known as "the sweats", is rife and there are few survivors. As society crumbles around her, Stevie is determined to unearth the truth about what happened to Simon.

I am the kind of person who fixates on news stories about bird flu and ebola and I have to say that the way that Louise Welsh conveys society unravelling is nothing short of brilliant. It starts with a few people coughing on the Underground, a weary GP commenting that she's admitted a few patients to hospital, more and more people calling in sick at work. Then within a matter of days there are riots at supermarkets, gridlocked traffic leaving the city, police stations closed down, streets on lockdown, radio stations going off air. It all has a surreal, nightmarish feel to it and it is the perfect backdrop for Stevie's determined quest to uncover the truth.

This is an extremely readable book. The central mystery is intriguing although it gets a little bit silly by the end. However the setting is truly memorable. Apparently this is the first book in a new "Plague Trilogy" and I look forward to reading the others.

I received an advance copy for review from Net Galley.

The Woman Upstairs
The Woman Upstairs

4.0 out of 5 stars Wow, March 24, 2014
Nora Eldridge is 40, single and without children. She is a primary school teacher: a good one, the kind you'd lobby to get for your child. Her passion is her art, which she keeps private. Then one day a new family arrive at the school, from Paris. Reza, the boy, immediately steals her heart and as she gets to know his parents her attraction to the family develops into a kind of obsession. Reza's mother Sirena is an artist on the brink of fame and Nora is both drawn to her and jealous of all that she has. The two women will develop a friendship, one which is all important to Nora, but Sirena's thoughts are more difficult to ascertain.

Nora is the narrator and as I read this book I found myself completely inside my head. I didn't always like her but I was fascinated by her, I felt for her and understood her emotions. She describes herself as "the woman upstairs" - part of society but on the peripheral. She explains, "when you're the Woman Upstairs, no one thinks of you first. Nobody calls you before anyone else, or sends you the first postcard. Once your mother dies, no one loves you best of all." She has this intense deeply buried neediness and Reza's family appear to finally meet that need, on all levels.

It's hard to rate this book - the impact it had on me (especially the ending - wow) was enormous but I did feel that it loses its way for a while towards the end, rehashing the same territory, so I've settled on four stars. However I feel quite confident that it will be a book that I will remember and think about for quite some time. I would suggest you avoid reading the Book Description above and the back cover, which contain a mild spoiler - better not to have any idea where the book is going.

The Food of Love Cookery School
The Food of Love Cookery School

4.0 out of 5 stars The next best thing to a summer holiday, March 17, 2014
I seem to have been reading a lot of books with unlikeable characters lately and I was in desperate need of something light and pleasant. This book hit the spot perfectly. It's the story of four different women who come to a week long cooking school in Sicily. We are told early on that "one is hiding a secret, another is hoping to find love again, one is desperate to escape her life ands one has already managed it." Over the course of the week the four women become friends, fall in love with Sicily and plan changes in their own lives.

Nicky Pellegrino lives in New Zealand but her father was Italian and she writes beautifully about Italian life and food. This is the first one that's been set in Sicily and was inspired by an actual holiday that she had. The sense of warmth and history is palpable and the descriptions of the food are mouth watering.

The premise behind the book is not terribly original - I was reminded of books like Heartbreak Hotel and A Week in Winter - but it's well told and makes a pleasant, undemanding, enjoyable read. After reading it I felt refreshed, like I really had been away! The four central characters are interesting and rounded with the exception perhaps of Poppy, who's sweet to the point of dull and just seems kind of...wet. Even her decision to leave her husband (before the book began) seems to have been made without any violent emotion.

I thought this was one of the best books that Nicky Pellegrino has written and I really enjoyed it.

Shift - Omnibus Edition (Silo Saga) (Volume 2)
Shift - Omnibus Edition (Silo Saga) (Volume 2)
by Hugh Howey
Edition: Paperback
Price: $16.45
33 used & new from $13.58

3.0 out of 5 stars Fills in the back story but doesn't really justify its own existence, March 16, 2014
This is the second book in the Wool trilogy and is a prequel to the first book, Wool. Despite being a prequel, it is best read after Wool and not before. It fills in the back story about how the silos came to be built, how the entire operation is run and sheds light on the discovery that Juliet made in the first book. Ultimately it brings us up to the conclusion of the first book.

I am in awe of the world that Howey has created and the thought that he's put into how it operates. I was also fascinated to learn the back story about how the silos came to exist, which is the first third of the book (Wool #6). However the strong beginning starts to lose steam as the book continues. Our lead protagonist, Donald, is simply not that interesting nor likeable and the book seems to get bogged down in side plots that are of marginal importance. I found myself having no real desire to pick this book up and it took quite a long time for me to read it - it's not hard going, but it's slow going.

I still look forward to reading part three and finding out how everything will come together, but I think it's a shame that this book doesn't justify its existence in any way other than filling in a lot of back story. As a story in its own right, it didn't work for me.

On Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Novel
On Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Novel

3.0 out of 5 stars Immense sense of place though a jumbled storyline, March 16, 2014
Davide is born into a family of boxers. “We might be poor, but we were talented”. His father died in a motorbike accident before he was born, so he is raised by his mother, his uncle Umberto and his grandparents, Rosario and Provvidenza. His grandmother teaches him about the beauty of language. His uncle teaches him about boxing.

The book intertwines the stories of Davide, Rosario and Umberto. Umberto once made it to the final round of the National Champs but was beaten. He then started a gym where he has trained boxers since, including Davide’s father. Rosario’s life was shaped by his experiences as a POW in Africa during WW2 where he was one of very few survivors. Davide’s life has been dominated by two passions, both instilled in him at the age of 9: his desire to win the National Boxing Championships and his love for his friend Gerruso’s cousin, Nina.

The three key storylines are all inter-woven. Sometimes you lose track of where you are but it all comes together in the end to form a cohesive picture.

Set over a period of about 50 years, this is an intense and at times poetic story about what it is to be a man in the highly volatile, passionate, violent city that is Palermo. Enia’s writing is reminiscent of what the Impressionists brought to Art – delivering a true sense of place. Palermo is rough, teeming with Mafia and prostitutes and the writing mirrors that, with descriptions of violence, sex, lots of swearing. You feel like you’ve been transported somewhere quite different, somewhere hot and sweaty where violence is never far away.

The Dinner
The Dinner

2.0 out of 5 stars I didn't want to spend anymore time in this horrible man's head, March 14, 2014
This review is from: The Dinner (Kindle Edition)
This book takes place over the course of one evening as two brothers and their wives have dinner in an expensive restaurant. The story is narrated by Paul - his brother Serge is a high profile politician who is likely to be Holland's next Prime Minister. The brothers have sons of a similar age, who have done something which the parents need to discuss. The brothers have quite different ideas about what is the best thing to do in the circumstances, although both families are prepared to make enormous personal sacrifices to protect their children.

It's hard for me to evaluate this book impartially because I had such a strong feeling of repulsion towards Paul, the narrator. This didn't hit me from the word go - in fact, initially he seems reasonable enough - and while he and his brother are obviously not close, you can see that Serge has many annoying characteristics that would wear on you. However as the details emerge of what the children have done - something so terrible as to be completely indefensible - and Paul gradually lets us know more of his own back story, my sympathies for him evaporated. I just didn't want to spend any more time in this horrible, pompous, violent man's head.

The central dilemma is thought provoking. As a parent you do have a natural inclination to protect your child and I have certainly seen parents who take this well beyond the point that I would have thought was reasonable. However as we learn more about Paul and his past behaviour it becomes evident that he doesn't often behave in a rational way. The wives in the story are treated as secondary characters and I wish I had been given clues to understand them better. Ultimately I felt that this was a book that was written to shock rather than to shed light on an interesting aspect of parental behaviour.

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