Archive for March, 2011

Those Who Save Us is a book that falls firmly in my “WWII” bucket. Sadly, it also falls into my “Average” review category.  The book is told from two perspectives: the first is from the perspective of Anna Schlemmer – a woman who lived in Germany in the 1930’s; the second is from the present-day perspective of Trudy, Anna’s daughter, who is a professor of German history in Minnesota.  Unfortunately, any time I read a chapter from Trudy’s point of view, I found myself skimming or speed-reading to get to the next chapter that was from Anna’s point of view.

The story of Anna’s struggle in Germany as a single mother is sad, daring, scary – everything a book about living in Germany during WWII should be.  It is gripping to read Anna’s story of falling in love with a Jewish doctor who gets put into a concentration camp, and then her method of survival by becoming the mistress of a brutally mean Nazi officer.  Regrettably, this does not make up for the present-day story of Trudy, who is interviewing German immigrants as part of a project for her University and a fellow professor.  Trudy’s mother never shared her story with Trudy, and Trudy’s relationship with her mother was never what we call “warm and fuzzy.”  Further, Trudy has her own relationship issues, which I felt were more of a side issue and the book could have benefitted greatly by leaving them out.

Simply because I only liked half of this book, I had to rate Those Who Save Us as “Average.”


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Adorable.  That’s how I would describe the main character – Balthazar, a Beefeater who works and lives in The Tower of London.  Balthazar, his wife, and their almost 180-year-old tortoise live on the grounds of the Tower and are trying to cope with the loss of their young son Milo.  The crazy thing about this book is that while I was reading it, I almost had no conception of what the time period was.  It was almost impossible for me to decide (for a while, at least), if this book took place in the 1800’s, or in modern-day London.  Given that Balthazar’s wife works in the Lost Property Office of the London Underground, it obviously takes place sometime in the modern age… but it still felt “old” for some reason.

I’ve been to The Tower, and I have seen (from the visitor’s section) the personal living quarters where Beefeaters and their families still live.  Maybe that is why, when I read about Balthazar and the other Tower residents that he interacted with on a daily basis, I was able to conjure an image of his world in my head, which made it all the more amusing to me.  The book reads almost like a comedy and a tragedy in alternating chapters: it is tragic to read about how Balthazar and his wife Hebe are so hurt by the loss of their child and the strain that loss puts on their marriage; but it is comic to read about the antics in the Lost Property Office and the lives of the other Tower residents. And, as if it weren’t funny enough to read about Hebe’s coworker getting things stuck on her head and still working the Lost Property desk, or about the Tower’s Reverend who is an erotic fiction writer; even more hilarity ensues when Balthazar is put in charge of zoo animals that the Palace has decided should reside at the Tower!

The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise is, to use professional book reviewer’s words: witty, charming, delightful, original, heartwarming, tender, clever, amusing and touching.  For any one of these descriptions, I give it a 5-star review.

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I like to read while I’m on the elliptical machine.  For me, this makes the time go by much faster than listening to music or watching TV.  When I read on the elliptical, I use my e-Reader, which makes it so much easier because I don’t have to worry about the book staying open.  I have also found that reading a mystery/ suspense novel on the elliptical makes the time go even FASTER!  Plus, I have found that I will download a wider variety of books onto my e-Reader because no one else can see what it is that I’m reading.  So, I have a bucket of books that are mystery/ crime/ suspense novels on my e-Reader.  The only thing I demand from these novels is that they make me want to keep turning the pages.  That way, my 45 minutes will be done in no time at all!

The most recent book I read on the elliptical was The Postcard Killers, by James Patterson. Last year I started reading James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club books at the gym, and so when I read all of those, I looked for other James Patterson books to fill the gym void.  The Postcard Killers… was a great choice for a gym read.

The Postcard Killers is about a NY detective (Jacob Kanon) who is in Europe following the trail of a serial killer that he believes is responsible for his daughter’s murder in Italy.  The book is primarily set in Stockholm, where the serial killer’s trail has taken him.  The book alternates from the point of view of the serial killer to the point of view of Kanon, to the point of view of the Swedish reporter who ends up joining with Kanon to find the murderers.  This seems to be one of Patterson’s writing styles – to write from the point of view of the killers – and I find that I like that he does this. Because he writes from the killer’s point of view, I know who the killer is.  For some reason, that keeps me drawn into the plot of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed The Postcard Killers. There were some extra plot parts that weren’t absolutely necessary (romantic attraction between Kanon and the Swedish reporter; Kanon’s misery about his dead daughter; Kanon’s cancer-stricken friend in CA), but all in all, the book was still easy and enjoyable reading.  I had just finished reading Stieg Larsson’s trilogy when I started The Postcard Killers, so I think the fact that it was set in Sweden was a major plus for me as I was in a bit of withdrawal from the Larsson trilogy.  The Postcard Killers did what I wanted it to – it kept me on the elliptical machine and not once did I push my e-Reader aside to see how much time I had left in my workout!

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My Book Buckets

Here’s my problem: Once I start reading a book on a particular theme, I can’t stop. I once read a book on the history of France, and I then proceeded to read 5 other books on French royalty or living in France. A few years ago, I read one historical fiction book about Queen Elizabeth I, and proceeded to read nothing but books on English royalty or life in England for about a year.

As a result, many of the books I have read can be put into buckets because – once I start reading about a topic, I don’t want to stop. Case in point: as I have written about previously in this blog, I recently read The Paris Wife, a book about the wife of Ernest Hemingway. When I finished that, I immediately ordered a real biography of Hadley Hemingway, and while I waited for that biography, I re-read A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.

Last year I read a book called The Mitford Girls, by Mary Lovell. I then proceeded to read The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters and The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (by Nancy Mitford). I am currently reading Voltaire in Love (by Nancy Mitford) and have recently placed on my list of books to read: Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford.

Here are some of my ‘buckets’:

  • WWII
  • England
  • France
  • Royalty
  • Mitfords
  • Russia
  • Crime/ Mystery/ Suspense

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If you are as interested in European royal history as I am, then here are two books that must be read:
   1) Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe; and
   2) Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria

Both books tell the stories behind two miraculous families that ruled Europe.  Both of these books are nonfiction, but they read like fiction.  The books contain everything that a historical fiction book would contain – love, deceit, intrigue, war, death, and family pressure.  The reason these books are even better than historical fiction?  They are all true.

Four Queens tells how, in the 13 century, four daughters of the Count and Countess of Provence went on to become: the Queen of France; the Queen of England; the Queen of Sicily, and the Queen of Germany.  The story reads like a fairy tale, with the exceptional stories of the four beautiful daughters who grew up in a cultured, civilized and lyrical Provence – and were married into European royalty.

Born to Rule tells how, in the 19th and 20th century, five granddaughters of Queen Victoria became Queens of Europe: Alexandra – Queen of Russia; Sophia of Prussia – Queen of the Greeks (and mother to Kaiser Wilhelm); Maude – Queen of Norway; Marie – Queen of Romania; and Victoria Eugenie – Queen of Spain. 

While Four Queens is set during the time of the Crusades, Born to Rule is set in an explosive time in European history.  Born to Rule has the added intrigue of the Queen of England being the grandmother of Kaiser Wilhelm during World War I.  It also explores the Greek and Russian civil wars in the early 1900’s.  Quotes from letters and diaries that were written by the granddaughters make Born to Rule an exceptionally hard book to put down.

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The Postmistress centers on the lives of two women in a small Cape Cod town, and intertwines with the story of a female American radio reporter in London. The book takes place during WWII, and shows small-town East Coast America, alongside London during the blitz.  The book started out well, and then in the middle it truly fizzled for me.  It fizzled so much that I stopped reading it for a few months and only picked it back up because I literally cannot NOT finish a book (it’s not in my DNA). I was glad I picked it back up, because the second half of the book was much better than the first.

The Postmistress‘ title comes from one of the central characters – a postmistress in Franklin, Mass.  Through her, we are connected to the other two central female characters of the book. Although the book touches on many sad and disheartening subjects (London blitz, young love thwarted by death, refugee flight from Hitler), it was hard for me to feel much of anything as I read it.  The interesting parts were far and away any time the story was told from the point of view of the reporter (Frankie Bard – great name), who was based in London, and then travelled around Europe listening to the stories of all the refugees.

I tried really hard to like this book; unfortunately, it did not turn out to be one of my favorites.  The main reason I gave it an “OK” rating? It bored me.

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While reviewing my list of top books, I glanced at Vera (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov). I immediately thought – that story is exactly like The Paris Wife! So now – in addition to the other Hemingway books I’m reading as a result of The Paris Wife (i.e., A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, and Hadley (the first Mrs Hemingway))… I think I’ll have to re-read Vera. I distinctly remember loving it the first time – Stacy Schiff made it seem like a story, and not like a tedious biography. I do know what both of the books taught me – I sure am glad I’m not an author’s wife!!

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