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
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

Michelle’s Review: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

Michelle’s Review: Wonder Show by Hannah BarnabyWonder Show by Hannah Rodgers Barnaby
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on 2012
Genres: 20th Century, Action & Adventure, Circus, Family, General, Girls & Women, Historical, JUVENILE FICTION, Love & Romance, Orphans & Foster Homes, Performing Arts, United States, Young Adult
Pages: 274
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step inside Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show, a menagerie of human curiosities and misfits guaranteed to astound and amaze! But perhaps the strangest act of Mosco’s display is Portia Remini, a normal among the freaks, on the run from McGreavy’s Home for Wayward Girls, where Mister watches and waits. He said he would always find Portia, that she could never leave. Free at last, Portia begins a new life on the bally, seeking answers about her father’s disappearance. Will she find him before Mister finds her? It’s a story for the ages, and like everyone who enters the Wonder Show, Portia will never be the same.

I was in the mood for a fantasical circus story when I picked up Wonder Show. I wasn’t disappointed.

Wonder Show has the kind of cover that definitely attracted me to it. Add to it the fun synopsis, and it is definitely a book that screams to be read when you’re looking for some quirky storytelling. I was feeling nostalgic over reading The Night Circus…it’s not terribly similar but I would recommend it for those looking for something at least a little related.

In short, it is a very artfully written story with the kind of aesthetic that would be matched well with some Edward Gorey drawings (my favorite!). It’s a story that you can easily read in one sitting. At the same time, I think it’s appropriate for all audiences, even perhaps some younger middle grade ones. It’s dark without being overwhelmingly dark. It’s a Tim Burton-esque story if that makes sense (and if I can be allowed to make yet another reference).

I’m not doing a very good job in writing this review (I haven’t been the best at putting my thoughts into written words lately, particularly in review-form). But I promise I loved it and this has earned its spot on my bookshelf.

pj - michelle

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
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’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
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?


Christina’s Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Christina’s Review: The Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on 2005
Genres: Historical, Holocaust, Young Adult
Pages: 552
Format: eBook
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.
So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down.In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time

I am still trying to figure out exactly why The Book Thief was such a big hit and had so much hype surrounding it…

Was it because “Death” was the narrator?

Or because the book was about a girl surviving in Nazi Germany?

Was it because of the hope developed for the longevity of each character?

Or because the book was about a “book thief” and appealed to many readers who related their love for books?

Did the movie help push this hype?

I do not mean to be critical of the book… it was a good book. But I would not place this story on my “top” list.

For those who have not read the book or watched the movie (I’ve only read the book) – the story is about a young girl (aka the book thief aka Liesel) who discovers the power of words as she learns to read with her foster father (Papa) in the basement of their house in Nazi Germany. The book provoked many emotions: fear, hope, love… The author introduced a range of characters who all played a role in Liesel’s love for reading and stealing: Papa and Mama (Liesel’s foster parents), the Mayor’s wife (a silent agent), Rudy (the mischievous boy-next-door), and Max (the Jewish hide-away).

While I did connect with the character of Papa, I found it hard to become emotionally attached to the other characters in the story (including Liesel). I’m not sure if this is because I felt the book dragged out at times, or if it was because the character development in general could have used more support. Having the story narrated by Death was a unique aspect to the book, however, I found Death’s voice was lost at times. It felt as though the author would get so into the story, the narrator was drowned out and then all of a sudden remembered and thrown back in. I understand it was probably hard to keep up with the constant voice and perspective of Death… maybe this was another aspect of the book that kept me from connecting with the characters (or maybe because having a narrator like Death causes me to anticipate the worst and, therefore, not want to connect with a character who may meet Death sooner than later).

A couple of questions I had and would love others’ insights:

  1. Why did Liesel’s mother leave her with foster parents? At one point in the book the author noted Liesel had the “wrong color eyes” to be living in Nazi Germany at the time, but this never came back into play in the book… was this meant to infer her mother was Jewish?
  2. Was there any significance to Death noting the color of the skies whenever a soul passed? While this helped the reader identify Death as the narrator, I found it distracting from the story since I could not identify a purpose for the color references…

Overall, I found the book to be an easy read (one that I could pick up or put down whenever, which made it ideal for my metro commute). The author was clear in his writing style, and again, I loved the unique approach to the narrator of the story. The concept of a girl stealing books was well thought out and carried on throughout the book (although she could have stolen at least one or two more books to be worthy of the name “book thief”). The book, however, was not a quick read and did take me some time to finish. I would recommend this book for those interested in historical fiction or looking for a book club read. However, I was not sold on the hype and “must read list” others have placed this book in.

One last note on the book’s genres: definitely historical fiction; young adult; and a great book club selection. We read this for our November Virginia Wine and Book Club pick… some good conversations developed and questions left unanswered for the pondering.

Be sure to check out Michelle’s previous review on The Book Thief (much different than mine!) and tell us what you think!

pj - christina

Michelle’s Review: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. Taylor

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

Michelle’s Review: Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara J. TaylorSing in the Morning, Cry at Night by Barbara Taylor
Published by Akashic Books on 2014-07-01
Genres: Family Life, Fiction, Historical, Literary
Pages: 256
Format: Paperback
Source: LibraryThing
Almost everyone in town blames eight-year-old Violet Morgan for the death of her nine-year-old sister, Daisy. Sing in the Morning, Cry at Nightopens on September 4, 1913, two months after the Fourth of July tragedy. Owen, the girls' father, "turns to drink" and abandons his family. Their mother Grace falls victim to the seductive powers of Grief, an imagined figure who has seduced her off-and-on since childhood. Violet forms an unlikely friendship with Stanley Adamski, a motherless outcast who works in the mines as a breaker boy. During an unexpected blizzard, Grace goes into premature labor at home and is forced to rely on Violet, while Owen is "off being saved" at a Billy Sunday Revival. Inspired by a haunting family story, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night blends real life incidents with fiction to show how grace can be found in the midst of tragedy.

Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night treaded water to avoid becoming too dark but never broke the surface of being completely happy. True to its title, it remained balanced precariously above that water level that makes a sad symphony into complete darkness. Yes, I am calling this book a sad symphony.

And I mean that in a good way! The book follows a family that is surely being plagued by some bad luck, between the recent loss of their eldest daughter, the mother descending not just into a depression, but what could easily be called more than a little mentally disturbed, the father taking to the drink, which essentially leaves the remaining daughter an orphan. I don’t even have to try to defend how this book could be sad.

But what I can state is how the book stopped itself from descending too far down that depressive hole and instead managed to tell a story about the resiliency of people and the town. There were a lot of delicate layers in this book: the town’s preparations for Billy Sunday and religion in general, the mining industry, addiction, mental health, and family. These were all layered in such a way that it at no point felt preachy, or overdone. I think it benefited from a third person narrative with different chapters or sections from different characters’ perspectives.

So yes, the title could not have been a better fit for this book.

pj - michelle

Michelle’s Review: Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Michelle’s Review: Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-ReverteCaptain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Published by Penguin Group on 2005
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 284
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
The novels of Arturo Pérez-Reverte have captivated readers around the world and earned him a reputation as “the master of the intellectual thriller” (Chicago Tribune). His books have been published in fifty countries. Now, beginning with Captain Alatriste, comes Pérez-Reverte's most stunning creation to date: a riveting series featuring the adventures of an iconic hero. Captain Alatriste is the story of a fictional seventeenth-century Spanish soldier who lives as a swordsman-for-hire in Madrid. Needing gold to pay off his debts, Alatriste and another hired blade are paid to ambush two travelers, stage a robbery, and give the travelers a fright. “No blood,” they are told. Then a mysterious stranger enters to clarify the job: he increases the pay, and tells Alatriste that, instead, he must murder the two travelers. When the attack unfolds, Alatriste realizes that these aren't ordinary travelers, and what happens next is only the first in a riveting series of twists and turns, with implications that will reverberate throughout the courts of Europe.

Another from my days of browsing the shelves of a used bookstore, Captain Alatriste tells the story of an ex-soldier mercenary in seventeenth century Spain. Translated from its original form of Spanish, Captain Alatriste tells the story of its title character through the eyes of his protégé and of the state of Spain through snippets of action and pieces of literature.

I didn’t enjoy this book though. I was under the impression that I was in for some swashbuckling tale and high adventure. Or perhaps a story that serves as an allegory for the state of Spain then and now. Instead, I found my translation a bit rough at times (I had a hard time getting into the flow of the language) and too much introspection woven into what was just a ludicrous action plot.

I wanted to like it. I liked the idea of reading something that was popular in Spain. But I fear that I am part of that audience that it just didn’t translate into a hit for. If it had just stuck to the action parts, I would have liked it a lot more. Even if it had stuck to the introspection, the pessimism about the state of Spain and the national pride of its people, I would have at least known what I was reading. Instead I got pieces of both that ended up making the book not feel very cohesive or maintain enough enthusiasm for me.

It’s a real shame because I think there is promise here. But it just wasn’t realized for me.

pj - michelle