Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (audiobook)

genre: murder mystery

The Orient Express is traveling through a storm when it is suddenly caught in a snowdrift and stopped. Hercule Poirot, the famous international detective, hardly has time to wonder what's happened before it is clear that there has been a murder on the train - but who could've done it?  Did someone manage to get onto the train at the previous station or is the murderer a passenger on the train?  It will require all his powers of deduction, as well as his excellent grasp of psychology, to figure out what happened, before it's too late.

This is only the second Agatha Christie I've read and I have to say, I did enjoy it.  I actually listened to the audiobook and while it made it a bit confusing to keep the characters straight, Dan Stevens' (Dan Stevens!!) fabulous narration helped a lot, his different voices were incredibly well done.  The story is paced well and there are several interesting characters - caricatures, some of them, but funny none the less.   I found that I didn't really ever guess anything that was going to happen until it was practically handed to me, so that kept me engaged in the story.  Murder mysteries aren't my favorite but this was good fun, probably mostly because of Dan Stevens :)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (audio)

genre: dystopian fiction

Offred's world is a bleak one, living in a future society where plummeting birth rates and a patriarchal dictatorship have resulted in the rights of women being essentially obliterated.  Those who are fertile are compelled to sire children for those in positions of power and violence towards any rebellion is par for the course. Offred's account of her experiences as a "handmaid" illustrates the depths to which people will sink in order to save their own lives as well as what the world can look like when society decides that women no longer have the right to choose their own destiny.

I read this when I was in college and I liked it okay.  I don't know if I understood the intricacies of it and I for sure wasn't an adult who fully understood the plight of women nor a mother so some of Offred's pain escaped me.  I think it confused me a bit, truthfully, because it's not told particularly chronologically.  But this time, it felt timely in an almost sickening way.  Some of it's graphic scenes bothered me but I think they bothered me exactly the way Atwood intended them to - we are supposed to be shocked, supposed to be outraged and disgusted.  I love how plausible it is, how it's horror is so seeped in what societies and people in our world have already experimented with, with disastrous results.  It made me think.  It had my attention.  The writing is actually really, really beautiful at times, sparse and lyrical and intricate.  Is it pretty?  No. Does it leave you with a bad taste in your mouth?  Yes.  And again, I think that's exactly what it's supposed to be.

Also, I LOVED the audio.  Claire Danes does a great job narrating and I loved the full cast pieces as well.  The essays at the end really fleshed out my reading for me and I found myself as involved in those as the novel itself.  Timely indeed.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

genre: magical realism, young adult fiction

Leah has a hard but satisfying life with her parents. Living in Georgia in the late 1840s, she's been taught not just how to hunt and work like a boy, but she's also got a secret: she can find gold the way a diviner can find water. This magic sense, though, could obviously cause no end of trouble so she just keeps that little fact all to herself, thank you very much. When tragedy strikes, though, Leah has to make a tough choice: stay and take her chances in Georgia or put her faith in a dream of gold in California.

I picked this one up because I loved the author's precious series and although this is a very different scene and story, some of the big ideas are still there: strong female character choosing her own way and what a pivotal role an independent girl can fill when times are desperate. Her magical realism is mild and situational but it worked for me, I didn't have to stretch to suspend my disbelief.   I enjoyed the arc of the main cast of characters and found myself really invested in their journey. Great pioneer-era story.

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.
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