Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly

genre: children's literature, historical fiction

This is a tale set in medieval Poland, a world of alchemists and beggars, kings and professors, where every hour a special tune is played from the tower of an ancient church.  Within the city of Krakow, intrigue is following the family of Joseph Charnetski - his father is hiding something precious and a band of thieves know more than Joseph does and are willing to fight to get it. Where they find sanctuary, how the tower becomes an important part of their story, that is at the crux of this tale.  A winner of the 1929 Newbery medal, it's about the power of the young to help those around them as well as the depths that greed can sink us.  But even more that all of that, it is a love story for Poland, it's majesty and mystery, it's incredibly volatile history full of conquerors and the conquered and it's crowing jewel of a city.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman

genre: memoir

As the life of a piano-player goes, Szpilman's was a good one.  He lived in Warsaw with his loving and supportive family, making music and enjoying relationships with other musicians.  And then Poland becomes a part of Nazi Germany and Szpilman's entire world turns upside down in the worst way.  His beloved Warsaw is divided into the "Aryan" side and an extensive Ghetto, which bursts at the seams with the Jewish population of the entire city.  Szpilman watches as everything he knows is slowly and systematically destroyed under the thumb of the Nazis.  Soon, Warsaw is no longer the city he knew and there isn't safety anywhere.

This is an incredible, true story.  Written right after the world, apparently while still in shock, Szpilman writes in first person in a detached and yet brutally honest way.  He explores his own emotions as well as he describes all that happens to him and his family.  There is no overarching plot, nothing he is trying to prove.  It's just his story, his own experience, in all its horrifying detail.  What makes it unique among the books I've read of the time period is that he never leaves Warsaw during the war - he manages to escape the concentration camps all together.  It is astonishing to me how he does it and there were a few twists along the way that make his life really feel like a movie.  As a witness to the atrocities of Warsaw as well as to the resilience of the people of this beleaguered city, The Pianist is a very good read.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope by: Wendy Holden (audiobook)

genre: non-fiction

Three women from three different countries. All of them barely pregnant as World War II begins its ugly conclusion. With stories as heartbreaking and inspiring as you can imagine, Anka, Rachel and Priska each manage to bring an infant into the world that survives the end of the war despite concentration camps and labor camps and interminable rides on horrific trains. I think it is important to note that first, the fact that the babies survive, because knowing that everything will be OK is the reason why I could finish this book. Well, not OK. Because the experiences these ladies have during the war are never, in any way OK. But the ending is a beautiful thing, and this true story is remarkable.

It is told mostly chronologically and switches between the three different girls and their own personal experiences.  While it is, obviously, a dark and hard story to listen to, there were also minutes of beauty in unlikely places, of unbelievable luck and what brave souls can do to confront atrocity.  I did find that it was quite repetitious, just by the nature of the fact that the girls stories are similar.  You can only say the same thing so many different ways and I get that, I just noticed it.  It was also a bit hard to keep everything straight in my head, although the author certainly made an effort to differentiate people.

As much as I loved the war stories themselves, I also really liked that we got to follow Anka, Rachel and Priska throughout the rest of their lives to see how things played out for them.  The most powerful part is, of course, what a mother's love can do and what a woman's body is capable of handling.  This one kept my attention all the way through.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Dragon of Krakow and Other Polish Stories by Richard Monte

genre: children's literature, folktales

Do you know of the famous dragon of Krakow, hatched from an egg in a cave under Wawel castle?  Or of the Gingerbread Bees?  These short folktales from all over Poland are told in an engaging and light-hearted tone.  Still, somewhat violent, they do harken back to a different time and definitely have a different vibe than our modern day Disney fairy tales.  They read quickly and gave me a sense of the folklore of the region, which was exactly what I was looking for.  A young reader might appreciate them, there are certainly whimsical elements, but again, some are a bit disturbing :)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz

genre: memoir

When the Krakow Ghetto was created shortly after the beginning of the second World War, the borders were placed right around Pankiewicz's pharmacy.  As a Pole, he could have easily left and found a safer place to wait out the war, but he didn't.  He chose to stay and to not just witness but to help, in so many ways, his less fortunate Jewish neighbors and friends.  This book is his remembrances about the time period.  It is definitely good if you already have some knowledge about this period of time before you read because there is no historical background or context, not even of Pankiewicz himself (how old is he?  does he have a family?).    This book is what he remembers, what he saw, the absolute horror as well as the heroism that he watched through the windows of his pharmacy which looked right onto the square upon which was so much bloodshed and heartache.  It's about his interactions with the Jewish leadership as well as with the many German commanders and toadies that were in charge .

This was hard, hard to read.  It was slow going partly because there are so so many names that I could never keep straight.  There is no narrative or flow, and no trying to create a piece of literature.  It is just the raw truth.  And it hurts.  It is horrific, images that scorch the soul, to think of people, children, infants, treated like less than animals.  To think of him staying, listening, advising, hiding, helping, WITNESSING, over and over, this man is a hero.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (audiobook)

genre: dystopian sci-fi

When you are a Red, you are at the bottom of the totem pole.  You are dirty.  You are digger.  You are working to prepare the surface of Mars for those who will come and find its home a refuge.  In this future society, Darrow knows that being a Red is ridiculous work, but it is at least for a cause.

At least, he was told it is.

And when what he loves more than anything is stolen from him and he learns the truth of his own slavery, Darrow is more than angry.  He is willing to do anything to change the society that puts Reds like him down in the dirt.

He is willing to put himself amongst the Golds.

SO.  I had two readers I trust recommend this to me,  The first time, I tried the first maybe five chapters and got so bored I stopped.  It was just like all the other Hunger Games/Divergent trilogy books.  It felt too formulaic. Then reader friend number two had finished the whole series and told me that really, you just have to get halfway into the first book and things pick up.  Oh, and do the audiobook.

I took her advice and she was totally right about the audiobook.  The reader here is incredible and I actually cared about Darrow more when I was listening to him.  He's not a very lovable character and this book is really violent.  Sometimes, surprisingly so.  LOTS of violence.  It is the first chapter in a revolution story and we know how those go.  But it is very intriguing and once I got maybe a third in, I started caring about the world and about what Darrow was trying to do.  Certain plot elements surprised me and I liked what I heard.  Is it too long winded?  Oh my word yes.  Sometimes I needed things to MOVE FASTER but by the end, I felt like I could stick with this story.  I would like to know how Darrow is going to change the universe.  Based on what I know of him so far, I think he can.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Catch a Falling Star by Kim Culbertson

genre: young adult

Carter lives in the aptly named town of Little, California.  She's spending the summer before her senior year making sandwiches and waiting tables at her dad's cafe.  When Adam Jakes, teenage moviestar, comes to town to film a movie, her quiet summer gets far more complicated.  Family circumstances lead Carter to make a crazy decision: agree to be Adam's pretend girlfriend for the length of the shoot.

This was cute.  That's the best word for it.  I liked all the star/astronomy threads and I liked Carter's relationships with her friends.  The dialogue is pretty sharp and the plot moved along well enough.   A few plot points fell a little flat and the ending was sudden in a predictable way, but still cute.  That word again :)     I really did like Carter's arc about her future, some deep thoughts there about talents and hobbies and how complicated it can be on the cusp of growing up.  The romance is pretty predictable but I still liked this one enough to read it in a day.  It's brain candy but sometimes I need that in my life.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J Maas

genre: new adult fantasy

read Court of Thorns and Roses and Court of Mist and Fury first :)

It's time.  Hybern is ready to march on the world and those against him have to find a way to unite or there is no chance of survival.  But Feyre isn't at home preparing with her family, she is in the Spring Court, playing spy and trying to learn all she can.  Can Feyre figure out who to trust in time to find a way for Fae and Human to come together and defeat Hybern?

This is a swift-paced, violent and battle-filled book.  There is action and secrets and plot twists and heartache.  It completely engaged me and I think I liked it best of the three.  I liked how pieces from the first book shifted into place, how ideas that had already been planted in the past could be shaped to change the future.  It is desperate and yet filled with hope.  There were a couple parts that bordered on cheesy for me but I already cared enough about the characters that I could let it go.  I really liked how the bits and pieced tied together at the end, one scene even made me teary in a good way.  This was a pretty epic story overall and between the characters and their powers and the world-building, I was all in.  Great story.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

genre: NEW adult fantasy

Feyre survived her harrowing experiences Under the Mountain, but at a very steep cost.  Not only is she in a newly made body but her heart feels shattered.  Broken and depressed, being with Tamlin SHOULD make her feel safe again, but it doesn't.  And it doesn't help that Rhysand, High Lord of the feared Night Court, is now calling in his bargain to spend part of every month with him in his court of darkness.  When she starts experiencing a power she doesn't understand, Feyre knows that she needs to learn more than how to be politically suave and host dinner parties - but with the world becoming an ever more dangerous place, that's not going to be easy.

First off, this was an absolute page-turner for me.  I loved what happened with these characters and all the new ones I met.  Feyre is an intense and sympathetic woman who learns a lot about herself and what she's capable of - both good and bad.  I appreciated that what she went through Under the Mountain affected her so deeply and how hard it was for her to work her way through.  Second off, I need to note that this is NOT a book for young adults.  It has many graphic sexual scenes that I wouldn't hand to a young teenager.  Sometimes it bordered on gratuitous and it was frustrating because people would be having important, plot-relevant conversations about things while having detailed sex and so when you skipped you missed stuff.

Overall, though, when I get past that, I couldn't get enough of the story.  The magical world-building, the abilities, the romance.  I loved it.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

genre: NEW adult fantasy

In order to provide for her destitute family, Feyre has become a hunter - and she's very good and very focused.  When desperation leads to her to kill an animal that's more than it seems, Feyre is taken from her home to the land of faerie - where humans are most unwelcome.  With a shape-shifting captor (who of course is also incredibly handsome in his faerie-form) and a stubbornness and strength that will either allow her to earn her freedom or get herself killed, Feyre knows one fact: nothing is what it seems.

This story engaged me really quickly.  It's a mesh of Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin, which worked great for me.  It's violent and sometimes more racey than I'd anticipated but the plot moves along quickly and Feyre is an intriguing character.  I liked the secondary characters a lot also and even though it was vaguely predictable, I enjoyed this read enough to continue the series.
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