Christina on Dracula by Bram Stoker


Christina on Dracula by Bram StokerDracula by Bram Stoker
Published by J S Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction
Pages: 338
Format: Paperback
four-stars
EDITORIAL REVIEW: *Dracula*, by **Bram Stoker**, is part of the *Barnes & Noble Classics** *series, which offers quality editions at affordable prices to the student and the general reader, including new scholarship, thoughtful design, and pages of carefully crafted extras. Here are some of the remarkable features of *Barnes & Noble Classics*: New introductions commissioned from today's top writers and scholars Biographies of the authors Chronologies of contemporary historical, biographical, and cultural events Footnotes and endnotes Selective discussions of imitations, parodies, poems, books, plays, paintings, operas, statuary, and films inspired by the work Comments by other famous authors Study questions to challenge the reader's viewpoints and expectations Bibliographies for further reading Indices & Glossaries, when appropriateAll editions are beautifully designed and are printed to superior specifications; some include illustrations of historical interest. *Barnes & Noble Classics *pulls together a constellation of influences—biographical, historical, and literary—to enrich each reader's understanding of these enduring works. ** *Count Dracula* has inspired countless movies, books, and plays. But few, if any, have been fully faithful to **Bram Stoker**'s original, best-selling novel of mystery and horror, love and death, sin and redemption. *Dracula* chronicles the vampire's journey from Transylvania to the nighttime streets of London. There, he searches for the blood of strong men and beautiful women while his enemies plot to rid the world of his frightful power. Today's critics see *Dracula* as a virtual textbook on Victorian repression of the erotic and fear of female sexuality. In it, Stoker created a new word for terror, a new myth to feed our nightmares, and a character who will outlive us all. **Brooke Allen****** is a book critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The New Criterion, The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The Hudson Review. A collection of her essays, *Twentieth-Century Attitudes*, will be published in 2003.

The classic book Dracula has been on my to-read shelf for forever. I finally came across the book at a book sale in Fairfax County Public Libraries and read it this year… what an eye opener it was! Compared to Hollywood portrayals, I clearly did not know the whole story of Count Dracula.

To begin for those of you unfamiliar with the book and tale, Bran Stoker presented the story through a composition of letters, memoirs, telegrams and similar communications. His main characters he tells the story through are: Jonathan Harker, Mina Murray, Lucy Westenra, Dr Seward and Van Helsing. The tale begins with Jonathan Harker off to visit the Count on business in Transylvania. From there, the story progresses to the tale of Dracula some are familiar with: he travels to London, targets individuals in the town to give them the fateful bite on their necks, and has certain weaknesses such as the cross, garlic and other items. While Dracula’s presence affects the characters in Stoker’s story, they plot to banish him from London and destroy him once and for all.

Now, some may ask why Hollywood portrayals made the story different from what I expected?

  1. I did not know the book was written through a series of first-hand perspectives (letters, memoirs, etc) That was new and limiting to the story interpreted by others.
  2. I always thought there was something more sensual… more sexy about Dracula. I did not get that feeling reading the story. Instead, I felt the creep and danger in his character.
  3. His image when I first met Dracula in the book is FAR from the way Hollywood portrays Dracula… Stoker described him as:

a toll old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.”  (20)

HOLD UP… a WHITE MUSTACHE?! And he was OLD?!

Now, I understand Dracula does appear younger when he arrives in London. But seriously… a white mustache?  Later, when Dracula is in London, he was described as:

“a tall, thin man, with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard…” (186)

Now that is more like it. Yes… he got younger, this description is one many of us our more familiar with. One of my FAVORITE TV series was NBC’s “Dracula” with Jonathan Rhys Myer. This description of the beard and mustache fit his character much better here. But see what I mean on some of the other favorite Dracula’s from the past?

Dracula 1

Jonathan Rhys Myer – NBC Dracula – Image from www.facebook.com/draculaatnbc

Dracula 2

Bela Lugosi – Dracula (1931) – Image from Wikipedia and in public domain

Dracula 3

Christopher Lee – Dracula (1958) – Image from Wikipedia and in public domain

Besides appearances (and praise to NBC’s portrayal from me… but shame on them for canceling my favorite series) … let’s face it: Dracula is still a terrifying concept. After years of watching Dracula movies and TV shows, dressing as a vampire for Halloween, and especially this whole vampire craze in literature and movies today, I am so glad I finally had the opportunity to read Bram Stoker’s classic.

As you can guess, I highly recommend this book simply because it is a classic and the writing style is unique. Pair with a glass of red wine (my choice: a Norton). Take it in and don’t forget to surround yourself with garlic before you sleep, and do not welcome in strangers. Oh yeah, and if you look in the mirror next to a friend and do not see their reflection next to yours… run.

pj - christina

Michelle’s Review: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon


Michelle’s Review: Voyager by Diana GabaldonVoyager by Diana Gabaldon
Published by Delta Trade Paperbacks on 2001-08-01
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary, Romance
Pages: 870
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
three-stars
In this rich, vibrant tale, Diana Gabaldon continues the story of Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser that began with the now-classic novel Outlander and continued in Dragonfly in Amber. Sweeping us from the battlefields of eighteenth-century Scotland to the exotic West Indies, Diana Gabaldon weaves magic once again in an exhilarating and utterly unforgettable novel.... Their love affair happened long ago by whatever measurement Claire Randall took. Two decades before, she had traveled back in time and into the arms of a gallant eighteenth-century Scot named Jamie Fraser. Then she returned to her own century to bear his child, believing him dead in the tragic battle of Culloden. Yet his memory has never lessened its hold on her ... and her body still cries out for him in her dreams.When she discovers that Jamie may have survived, Claire must choose her destiny. And as time and space come full circle, she must find the courage to face what awaits her ... the deadly intrigues raging in a divided Scotland ... and the daring voyage into the dark unknown that lies beyond the standing stones.

*Because this is a review of a book in a series, there are some spoilers regarding the previous books in the series, not this one.*

At this point in the Outlander series, I’m becoming quite torn about them.

I was able to defend the series when I had already read the first one. Outlander was unlike anything else I had read at the time and I was definitely hooked. It was romance, it was adventure, historical fiction, and science fiction. It was basically everything without being too crazy.

Dragonfly in Amber was a struggle with France but I still enjoyed it and wanted to continue.

Now with Voyager it was back to being an adventure and it was still enjoyable, but now I have found myself having a hard time defending this book against those who call it drivel or far-fetched.

“Well, Jamie survived Culloden, and then he went and lived in a cave. But he kept living and then became a smuggler and now they’re dealing with pirates…”

There’s no way for it to not sound ridiculous. Which unfortunate because it’s still enjoyable book, it’s just no longer at the same level as the first book.

Another thing that detracted from my full enjoyment is the way the language seemed to skip to me. I know that I have the tendency to read paragraphs out of order, but I swear that too often I thought the characters were in one place only to learn that they were somewhere else. It was like certain details were missing.

All that said, I loved the return to high adventure and I went ahead and bought the next book in the series. Because I’m a sucker for Jamie (as he was manufactured to be irresistible).

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon


Michelle’s Review: Dragonfly in Amber by Diana GabaldonDragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon
Published by Delta Trade Paperbacks on 1992
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Romance, Time Travel
Pages: 743
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
three-half-stars
With her now-classic novel Outlander, Diana Gabaldon introduced two unforgettable characters -- Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser--delighting readers with a story of adventure and love that spanned two centuries. Now Gabaldon returns to that extraordinary time and place in this vivid, powerful follow-up to Outlander.... For twenty years Claire Randall has kept her secrets. But now she is returning with her grown daughter to Scotland's majestic mist-shrouded hills. Here Claire plans to reveal a truth as stunning as the events that gave it birth: about the mystery of an ancient circle of standing stones ... about a love that transcends the boundaries of time ... and about James Fraser, a Scottish warrior whose gallantry once drew a young Claire from the security of her century to the dangers of his.... Now a legacy of blood and desire will test her beautiful copper-haired daughter, Brianna, as Claire's spellbinding journey of self-discovery continues in the intrigue-ridden Paris court of Charles Stuart ... in a race to thwart a doomed Highlands uprising ... and in a desperate fight to save both the child and the man she loves....

After reading Outlander, I was so hooked on the story that I…

spoiled the series for myself.

There’s no good reason why, but I did. I read reviews with spoilers and different wikipedia articles, learning more about the events of each book. Why I didn’t just read the book, I don’t exactly know. But it’s safe to say that many of the reveal moments in this book was not exactly news to me.

However, I still enjoyed the book. It was lovely to go back to Jamie and Claire and see how their marriage evolves. They became very different people in France than they were in the Highlands, which unfortunately took away some of my enjoyment from the book. France became very tedious, dealing more with political intrigue and domesticity. Compared to the crazy adventures in the Highlands, this shift was almost too much and it was comforting to hear the same things echoed by fellow readers. (Including my mother who is reading it now. I have told her the same thing I was told: just get through France and it gets better.)

And that’s true. Without going too much in the details to spoil other potential readers (like I had done myself), the book does get better towards the end. Is it enough for me to give it a higher rating…likely no.

I am torn with my rating. Is it a three, where I liked it but didn’t love it thanks to France and the lack of novelty making it seem a little more ridiculous? Or is it a four, that I loved it enough to want to keep reading the series?

This series has become a little problematic to me. I’ll say more in my Voyager review, but it’s suffice to say that at a minimum I will likely see Jamie and Claire to the end, regardless.

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom


I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Michelle’s Review: Lucky Us by Amy BloomLucky Us by Amy Bloom
Published by Random House Publishing Group on 2014-07-29
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary, Sagas
Pages: 272
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads
three-stars
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND O: THE OPRAH MAGAZINE“My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”So begins this remarkable novel by Amy Bloom, whose critically acclaimed Away was called “a literary triumph” (The New York Times). Lucky Us is a brilliantly written, deeply moving, fantastically funny novel of love, heartbreak, and luck.  Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.   With their friends in high and low places, Iris and Eva stumble and shine though a landscape of big dreams, scandals, betrayals, and war. Filled with gorgeous writing, memorable characters, and surprising events, Lucky Us is a thrilling and resonant novel about success and failure, good luck and bad, the creation of a family, and the pleasures and inevitable perils of family life, conventional and otherwise. From Brooklyn’s beauty parlors to London’s West End, a group of unforgettable people love, lie, cheat and survive in this story of our fragile, absurd, heroic species.

The beginning of this book left me with a smile and feeling like I could finish this book real fast.

The middle and end disproved my theory.

I did not finish it real fast. I don’t know whether to blame feeling tired or stressed or if it was really that I was losing interest in the book. The beginning seemed like it was a story about these two girls and their crazy antics. There was a connection there with the characters and while it felt a little far-fetched, it was okay.

But then I started getting confused as more characters were added to the story, and not just as secondary characters, but sometimes switching to their point of view. Time raced by and I started to feel a little more disconnected from most of the characters. When bad things happened, my emotional reaction was just ‘ok’, instead of actually experiencing it.

That’s not to say that the book wasn’t good–there is a certain art to the way it is written and type of slice of life (but with a definitive and conclusive ending) style that is atypical. My experience of the book was just that the middle to end was less tight at the beginning.

pj - michelle

Ellen’s Review: The Rules of Love and Law by Jeff Russell


I received this book for free from the author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Ellen’s Review: The Rules of Love and Law by Jeff RussellThe Rules of Love and Law by Jeff Russell
Published by Abbott Press on 2014-09-15
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 328
Format: eBook
Source: the author
Goodreads
three-stars
It is 1938 in Baltimore, Maryland. The worst of the Depression is over, a troubled Europe is an ocean away, and all races seem to know their place. But on Thanksgiving Day, a violent assault brings two very different people together and changes each of their lives forever. Juliana Corbeau lives in the city's most prestigious neighborhood, attends private school, and is a near-perfect example of blue-blood upbringing. But when she makes the mistake of taking a walk through Wyman Park at dusk and is attacked by a man, it is Will Stahl, an immigrant's son, scholar, and near-perfect example of a first-generation American, who rescues her. As their unlikely love story begins, they are set on a path where they must not only confront the biases that separate them, but also a tragic miscarriage of justice, a fateful Supreme Court decision, and danger for family trapped in Nazi Germany. When the war finally reaches America at Pearl Harbor, everything changes again, forcing them to make impossible choices about love, justice, family--and ultimately their very lives. In this historical tale, two young lovers brought together by chance must somehow find a way to keep their love and dreams alive amid prejudices, uncertain times, and forces beyond their control.

The Rules of Love and Law by Jeff Russell is set against the backdrop of an America recovering from The Depression and turmoil rising to the forefront in Europe.  The story follows the lives of two seemingly opposite Baltimore residents.  Juliana Corbeau is Baltimore royalty.  Her family lives in the nicest house in the most luxurious neighborhood and makes money through her mother’s railroad dynasty and her father’s upscale jewelry store.  Across the town lives Will Stahl, the son of middle class German and Swiss immigrants.  Will is a student at Loyola prepping for law school application.

The story begins Thanksgiving evening as Juliana is strolling through the local park.  She looks up to discover a colored man charging at her.  In the distance Will hears a scream and rushes to Juliana’s aid.  The assailant quickly escapes the scene and is left for the local police to find.  From the start, there is obvious chemistry between the two – something more than a hero and damsel in distress.  Problems arise when Juliana realizes that neither her father nor debutant society will approve of Will’s middle class upbringing.  Similarly, Will’s family constantly warns him that getting involved with a society girl will only lead to trouble despite his insistence that they are only friends.  So starts the tumultuous relationship between Juliana and Will.

If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks, then you will enjoy The Rules of Love and Law.  The plot will remind you of Sparks’ The Notebook in both time period and of love between economic opposites.  The main difference is portrayed in Will’s storyline, as he is not a stereotypical, lovesick protagonist.  Will’s first love is the Constitution.  Everything he has worked for has been to help him achieve his goal of working for the Justice Department.  Through Will, we learn how the U.S. justice system failed to treat minorities equally and about the process of amending the Constitution.  It is Juliana who learns to adapt to Will’s life more so than Will altering his lifestyle for Juliana.

Although they attempt to be no more than friends, the book remains a love story.  There were moments when I wanted to toss my Kindle and yell “just kiss her already” at Will because it takes so long for the pair to realize the strength of their feelings towards each other.  I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it will leave you both upset and satisfied.  I wish Russell hadn’t written such an abrupt ending and that I could learn more about how each character develops; however, it is the ending that I think separates the book from fairy-tale love stories.

Despite liking the story, I felt that I was longing for more out of the writing.  I missed Sparks’ colorful, romantic language, which Russell substitutes with straightforward vocabulary.  The dialogue was more realistic to how twenty-somethings would speak, but again, I like fiction for being able to use fantastic vocabulary.  Certain descriptions also seemed unnecessary or too detective-ish, like “so-and-so was watching them from afar,” which could have been incorporated in a more fluid manner.  I found a couple errors in word choice and spelling, but in all fairness, I’ve also found them in academic works.  Ignoring my concerns, The Rules of Love and Law remains a charming story about discovering love and was an enjoyable read.

Ellen

Christina’s Review: Bella Gioconda by Richard Heket


I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Christina’s Review: Bella Gioconda by Richard HeketBella Gioconda by Richard Heket
Published by Lavender and Chamomile Press on 2014-04-20
Genres: Fiction, General, Historical, Romance
Pages: 167
Format: eBook
Source: the publisher
Goodreads
four-stars
Five hundred years can confuse identity. An old chalk drawing of a girl, Maria, the daughter of a Chianti vintner leaves a Swiss art collector, Claude Beauvin entangled in a Renaissance love story from the past. The drawing is currently owned by a reclusive young widow, Andrea Garibaldi-Chase, who puts the drawing up for auction. With smoldering rumors that Leonardo da Vinci is the artist of the portrait, history is set on fire by a New York art dealer, an art history professor, and an intellectual property crimes investigator from INTERPOL who are all caught up in the drawings history. It's not until after the auction that Beauvin learns who the girl really was, what influence she had over da Vinci and the centuries since, and how his growing feelings for Andrea transcends time and identity.

This book was refreshingly different from others I have read recently. It was short (less than 200 pages) and had a storyline that hit my interest. Art, history, wine… what more could I ask for!

The story crossed over a period of 500 years, alternating between Leonardo da Vinci’s life and 2009 in the United States when a mysterious art piece was about to go to auction. There was interest in the art piece… could there have been a connection with this piece between the infamous da Vinci, or was it just a pretty piece? Could a connection between the piece and da Vinci even be proven if there was one? That is for me to now know and for future readers to find out.

Heket incorporated art history and drawing techniques which really caught my interest. He also added more scientific details, such as fingerprint analysis which added a new element of complexity to the story being told. The story felt believable for me as the author crossed over time and added dialogue between da Vinci and other characters. I escaped into the details and really felt like I was seeing a side of da Vinci that was rarely seen.

Heket added multiple story lines to this book. In addition to the da Vinci story, there was the story related to the piece that was potentially going up for auction. The relationships between the characters and this artwork added a whole other element to the story that kept me wondering how things would end, and would there be a twist?

I received this book for free from the publishing company, Lavender and Chamomile Press, and read it on my Kindle. I am glad I took the time to enjoy the story. It was a quick read, an escape, and one that I would pair next time with a glass of wine to correlate with the vineyard location and add to the experience. I recommend this book especially for the art history lover and artist.

pj - christina

Christina’s Review: Vicious by V.E. Schwab


Christina’s Review: Vicious by V.E. SchwabVicious by V. E. Schwab
Published by Macmillan on 2013-09-24
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction, Superheroes
Pages: 364
Format: Paperback
Goodreads
three-half-stars
A masterful tale of ambition, jealousy, desire, and superpowers.Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong.Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end? In Vicious, V. E. Schwab brings to life a gritty comic-book-style world in vivid prose: a world where gaining superpowers doesn’t automatically lead to heroism, and a time when allegiances are called into question.“A dynamic and original twist on what it means to be a hero and a villain. A killer from page one…highly recommended!” —Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of Marvel Universe vs The Avengers and Patient Zero One of Publishers Weekly's Best Fantasy Books of 2013

Before I continue, let me first mention Michelle has previously reviewed this book. Check out her review here. Her take on Vicious is different than mine and one I think you will enjoy… be sure to share yours!

I loved where the book started. Vicious first began with two characters in a graveyard about to unbury a person. The identity of this person was yet to be seen. The relationship of these characters was also a mystery to be uncovered as the story unfolded. V.E. Schwab developed a small cast of characters with a lot of mystery behind each of them, particular their past and the events that drew them together. In short (which really does not do them justice, but I do not want to give away much) the characters were:

  • Eli – a curious and arrogant young man
  • Victor – a friend of Eli’s who does not want to fall second
    • Together, they are ambitious, daring, careless college guys out to cheat death
  • Sydney – a young girl who crosses Victor’s path
  • Serena – Sydney’s sister
  • Mitch – a friend of Victor’s… a guy who tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time

The small cast of characters kept the book and the unfolding plot straight-forward with a set purpose. The chapters were short, making this book a quick read. Schwab bounced back and forth across a period of ten years to show past versus current events. I loved the flash backs or crossing of time comparison she utilized… this added a unique element to the book that kept me entertained. Whenever I started to feel lost or curious on what changed the relationship of characters or made a person who they were, the next chapter tended to be a flashback that added background or an explanation.

The story-line revolved around the existence of “EOs” or Extra Ordinary people: Did EOs exist? If so, who were they? Were they born and EO or did they become one later in life? If they became one, how? Were there different types of EOs?

As the concept of EOs were introduced, I started thinking of X-Men or other Marvel characters/super-heroes. Meeting Eli and Victor and seeing their characters develop, I felt like I was reading about the life of Professor Xavier and Magneto. This made the story-line somewhat unoriginal in my opinion, but still a fun, casual read, and one that will be great for our book club with a promising discussion. A few questions I started asking myself about the book as I reached the end: Was there a hero or a villain, and who do I think was the hero or the villain? How did the characters justify their actions? Was there a right or wrong? What would I do if I was in each of their situations?

One area I did get caught up on early was Eli’s and Victor’s fascination with EOs and the concept of death. It just felt unrealistic to me that a person would behave the way they both did in the first few chapters looking back “10 years ago.” It made the book hard for me to relate to and created an unrealistic world for me to escape to, which is what I usually look for in a book.

Despite this, I felt the read was good overall (above average, hence the 3.5 rating). I also think it was a great book club read since it was thought-provoking. I believe people will have differing interpretations or opinions of the characters, their actions, and the events. I recommend this book as a great for-fun read, or casual read-by-the-pool.

pj - christina

Ellen’s Review: Winter of the World by Ken Follet


Ellen’s Review: Winter of the World by Ken FolletWinter of the World by Ken Follett
Published by Penguin on 2012-09-18
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 928
Goodreads
three-half-stars
THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Picking up where Fall of Giants, the first novel in the extraordinary Century Trilogy, left off, Winter of the World follows its five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—through a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the great dramas of World War II, and into the beginning of the long Cold War. Carla von Ulrich, born of German and English parents, finds her life engulfed by the Nazi tide until daring to commit a deed of great courage and heartbreak....American brothers Woody and Chuck Dewar, each with a secret, take separate paths to momentous events, one in Washington, the other in the bloody jungles of the Pacific....English student Lloyd Williams discovers in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War that he must fight Communism just as hard as Fascism....Daisy Peshkov, a driven social climber, cares only for popularity and the fast set until war transforms her life, while her cousin Volodya carves out a position in Soviet intelligence that will affect not only this war but also the war to come.

Winter of the World, the second installment of Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy, takes place a couple years after Fall of Giants.  Our favorite characters from the first installment return, but the story now follows their children.  Spread across the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, Winter of the World gives a glimpse into life during economic depression, the collapse of the Treaty of Versailles, the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s government, and World War II.  We see characters live through major events like the bombings of London and Berlin, Pearl Harbor, and the division of Germany into occupational zones.

From a history perspective, there are a number of things that I appreciate about this book.  First, some background: There is a stigma surrounding German history during the twentieth century.  The Sonderweg, or special path, is essentially a modern theory that several historians – notably the Fischer school – subscribe to in which the events of German history are culpable for the inevitability of the rise of Nazi Germany.  This is merely an extremely general explanation, but overall, German history is viewed in a negative light due to the infamy of the Third Reich.  Recent debates sparked by the centennial of World War I challenge the notion of the Sonderweg.

Like in Fall of Giants, Ken Follett portrays both the horrendous acts of World War II Germany as well as the German citizens who fought back.  Despite being a fictitious account of the Second World War, Winter of the World does an excellent job challenging the stereotype surrounding the German people of this period.  Follett does not spend his chapters examining the brutality of the SS and Einsatzgruppen against the Jews because everyday citizens did not have access to this information; although, there is an example of violence against the LGBT community.  He shows the enchantment the Nazi party cast over German youth as well as those who rebelled against it.  For this showing the many faces of the German people, I believe that Follett conducted great research and put much effort into this work.

This trend is present in other areas of the book as well.  Victors tend to view themselves as great and containing few flaws, probably because it is the victors who write history, but Follett again shows that this must be challenged.  Winter of the World demonstrates how easily fascism almost spread to the United States and Great Britain.  Before each country battled fascist Germany, Italy, and Spain, many Americans and Brits were just as eager to voice anti-Semitic opinions, challenge democracy, and use scare tactics.  Scenes from Winter of the World include demonstrations, protests, and debates over the future of each country.

While I appreciate the depth Follett explores in history, the story itself was not as compelling for me as Fall of Giants.  Simply, there were too many characters and too many events.  I feel as if Follett wanted to make sure he included every major event, which in turn sacrificed the quality of character development and cohesiveness.  A big part of me wanted to follow the characters I came to know in Fall of Giants.  Yes, you get to continue their stories, but it is through another perspective – their children – and if each protagonist from the first book has two kids, it becomes a lot of characters to learn and build a relationship with.

My favorites in Winter of the World are Daisy Peshkov, daughter of Lev Peshkov; Lloyd Williams, son of Ethel Williams; and Carla von Ulrich, daughter of Maud and Walter von Ulrich; and at times Volodya Peshkov, adopted son of Grigori Peshkov.  These characters had the most exciting storylines, the most developed personalities, and were the easiest to become attached to and sympathize with.  The other protagonists had some exciting moments, but I found them to be mostly dull and just wanted to skip ahead.  Follett also included repetitive moments that seemed unnecessary.  For example in the cases of both Lev and Fitz, the abandoned son meets the wanted son.  Neither instance proved to be as dramatic as Follett probably intended, and neither instance added much substance to the plot.

Looking beyond these issues, I still recommend Winter of the Worlds to any historical fiction or series-loving fan.  The exciting moments make the book worth reading, as does the ability to see what happens to former protagonists.  I’m waiting for the final installment Edge of Eternity to be available for download from my library, so expect a review on the completed series in the near future.

Ellen

Michelle’s Review: Defending Jacob by William Landay


Michelle’s Review: Defending Jacob by William LandayDefending Jacob by William Landay
Published by Random House Publishing Group on 2012-01-31
Genres: Fiction, Legal, Psychological, Suspense, Thrillers
Pages: 432
Format: eBook
Source: Purchased
Goodreads
four-stars
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Entertainment Weekly • The Boston Globe • Kansas City Star   “A legal thriller that’s comparable to classics such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent . . . Tragic and shocking, Defending Jacob is sure to generate buzz.”—Associated Press   NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERAndy Barber has been an assistant district attorney for two decades. He is respected. Admired in the courtroom. Happy at home with the loves of his life, his wife, Laurie, and teenage son, Jacob.Then Andy’s quiet suburb is stunned by a shocking crime: a young boy stabbed to death in a leafy park. And an even greater shock: The accused is Andy’s own son—shy, awkward, mysterious Jacob.Andy believes in Jacob’s innocence. Any parent would. But the pressure mounts. Damning evidence. Doubt. A faltering marriage. The neighbors’ contempt. A murder trial that threatens to obliterate Andy’s family.It is the ultimate test for any parent: How far would you go to protect your child? It is a test of devotion. A test of how well a parent can know a child. For Andy Barber, a man with an iron will and a dark secret, it is a test of guilt and innocence in the deepest sense.How far would you go?Praise for Defending Jacob   “Ingenious . . . Nothing is predictable. All bets are off.”—The New York Times   “Stunning . . . a novel that comes to you out of the blue and manages to keep you reading feverishly until the whole thing is completed.”—The Huffington Post   “Gripping, emotional murder saga . . . The shocking ending will have readers pulling up their bedcovers to ward off the haunting chill.”—People   “The hype is justified. . . . Exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing.”—The Washington Post   “Even with unexpected twists and turns, the two narratives interlock like the teeth of a zipper, building to a tough and unflinching finale. This novel has major motion picture written all over it.”—The Boston Globe   “Yes, this book came out in January. No, we are not done talking about it.”—Entertainment WeeklyBONUS: This edition contains excerpts from William Landay's Mission Flats and The Strangler and a Defending Jacob discussion guide.

Defending Jacob was a book club read for me. I’m not sure I would have ever heard of it or read it if it had not been nominated and then selected by my club. A legal thriller is how many people describe it and I cannot think of any better way to label it.

There were periods of dialogue, whether it was between the different mothers at the school or between Andy and Laurie that had me cringing. It felt forced or I simply didn’t agree with either party in the conversation so it grew frustrating. But I don’t think any character in this book was supposed to be exactly ‘likable’.

I particularly enjoyed the excerpts from the transcript of the grand jury hearing that is sprinkled throughout. I like when plots braid a little bit and it definitely helped build intrigue.

I barely read the description of this book before going into and certainly stayed away from reviews. There was something about it that I knew had lead up a twist at the end and I wanted to be surprised.

But even by knowing that a twist was coming made me more alert to different clues left scattered throughout the novel. Whether it was a strange past tense or reflection with some hindsight, I would highlight phrases that I thought were suspicious. I even texted a fellow club member that had already finished the book that I was pretty sure that Andy was an unreliable narrator and some of my other suspicions.

And yet, I didn’t quite guess the actual twist. I was close, but didn’t guess right. So that’s quite something, I think.

The ending just felt a little…squashed somehow. All of a sudden all the ends were being tied up but not in the right order and without a real final moment for me. I wanted just like one or two more sentences at the end with some reflection or emotional confirmation.

But I definitely look forward to discussing this with my book club! I think there are lots of layers to this story that are great for that format and it was a quick/easy enough read to make for a great club pick. No wonder that ‘book club’ is the top genre for this book on Goodreads!

Christina reviewed this too!

pj - michelle

Ellen’s Review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follet


Ellen’s Review: Fall of Giants by Ken FolletFall of Giants by Ken Follett
Published by Dutton on 2010
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Sagas
Pages: 985
Goodreads
four-stars
View our Ken Follett feature page. Ken Follett's World Without End was a global phenomenon, a work of grand historical sweep, beloved by millions of readers and acclaimed by critics. Fall of Giants is his magnificent new historical epic. The first novel in The Century Trilogy, it follows the fates of five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—as they move through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women's suffrage. Thirteen-year-old Billy Williams enters a man's world in the Welsh mining pits...Gus Dewar, an American law student rejected in love, finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson's White House...two orphaned Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, embark on radically different paths half a world apart when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution...Billy's sister, Ethel, a housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts, takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German embassy in London... These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as, in a saga of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, Fall of Giants moves seamlessly from Washington to St. Petersburg, from the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty. As always with Ken Follett, the historical background is brilliantly researched and rendered, the action fast-moving, the characters rich in nuance and emotion. It is destined to be a new classic. In future volumes of The Century Trilogy, subsequent generations of the same families will travel through the great events of the rest of the twentieth century, changing themselves-and the century itself. With passion and the hand of a master, Follett brings us into a world we thought we knew, but now will never seem the same again. Watch a Video

Sitting in my World War I class last semester, my professor asked each student to state their opinion on whether historical fiction can teach anything about the past. In a graduate level course on the First World War, this may seem like a silly question, as certainly everything we read, debate, and analyze uses primary sources as evidence – unless your thesis examines literature of the time. This particular day, however, our reading discussion centered on All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most well known war stories.

If you haven’t read the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the story follows the life of young German soldier Paul Bäumer and his comrades as they deal with death and survival on the Western Front. The book is an example of anti-war literature and was eventually banned during the reign of the Nazi regime. All Quiet on the Western Front represents not only an example of censorship in the Third Reich, but also represents and portrays that not all Germans were war mongers, how poorly citizens lived at the home front, and the terrors of life in the trenches. The class unanimously decided that historical fiction, when the author does his or her research, can be a good learning tool in history classes.

With this viewpoint in mind, I was excited to start reading another World War I historical fiction Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Fall of Giants is the first book of his Century Trilogy that covers the lives of five interconnected families in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and the United States living through both World Wars and communism. Think Love Actually in novelized form written like the A Song of Ice and Fire books through various points-of-view. This first installment covers the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand through the creation of the Weimar Republic.

Since Fall of Giants spans such a large period of time and follows many characters, it is difficult to provide a short summary that does the book justice. Instead, I’ll briefly describe some of Follett’s protagonists as spoiler-free as possible:

  • Billy Williams begins the story as a young Welsh miner, who uses his religious upbringing to help bring clarity and guidance to his life. When the war breaks out he joins the Welsh Rifles to fight on the Western Front and later finds himself across the world in Vladivostok.
  • Ethel Williams, Billy’s older sister, is a housekeeper at Ty Gwyn, the luxurious estate of the local Earl near her hometown. Circumstances cause Ethel to leave her position and set up a new life in London. Outspoken, Ethel becomes a leading suffragette in London.
  • Earl Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert inherited Ty Gwyn from his father as well as his noble title. Fitz is married to a Russian princess, and they travel between homes in London and Wales. The men in Fitz’s family were respected military leaders. Fitz, longing to gain the same respect of his forefathers, heads the Welsh Rifles during the war.
  • Lady Maud Fitzherbert, Fitz’s younger sister, is a rebellious noble woman who voices her opinion for women’s suffrage. By day she runs a doctor’s office for poor, unmarried women, and by night she attends operas and dinners where figures such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are in attendance. Maud later heads a newspaper to publish her and other suffragette opinions.
  • Walter von Ulrich is a German diplomat, who works in London before the war breaks out. Another example of anti-war sentiment in German society, Walter spends most of 1914 attempting to prevent a pan-European conflict. When this proves to be impossible, Walter returns to Germany to fight on the Western Front.
  • Gus Dewar is a senator’s son from Buffalo, NY and works as an aide to President Woodrow Wilson. His role led him on diplomatic travels to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia. When the United States enters the war in 1917, Gus trains to join other Americans in France.
  • Grigori Peshkov is a Russian peasant, who works in a factory in Saint Petersburg. Grigori is drafted to defend Russian lines on the Eastern Front and later becomes one of the first supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Lev Peshkov, Grigori’s younger brother, escapes Saint Petersburg and eventually finds himself working for a gangster in Buffalo, NY. After being forced to enlist in the American Army, Lev returns to Russia on a mission in Vladivostok.

As a history student, I really appreciate Follett’s note on how he writes his historical fiction: if he finds that a scene could not have realistically taken place or if a character would not have realistically said certain things, he leaves them out. He also consulted several notable historians while writing the book.

I very much enjoyed Follett’s writing, the characters, and the overall story. Despite being fiction, Fall of Giants contains a great deal of general history about the First World War. Since I do study history, some parts seemed too obvious or forced to me, for example something along the lines of “oh the Schlieffen Plan…Germany’s plan to quickly defeat the French and then turn focus towards the Eastern Front…” but to a non-history student, this may be fine.

At its core, Fall of Giants is a love story, a war story, and a story on changing political ideologies. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in twentieth century history as well as to anyone who likes an exciting read. You will easily connect to the characters, become a champion of several, and eventually find yourself sympathetic or disgusted with others.

To my other history lovers, what are your opinions on using historical fiction to learn about the past?

Ellen