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Book Review: The Greatest Battle

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II, by Andrew Nagorski

I listened to this on audio CD; it was one that I had picked up from a used bookstore several years ago, but hadn’t listened to.  Sadly, when I was about 2/3rds of the way through the book, I realized that the audio book that I had was missing CDs 8 and 9 out of 11.  Unfortunately, I feel like this might have been the best part of the book! 

The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II

The Greatest Battle tells the story of Hitler’s assault toward Moscow in the fall of 1941, as well as the Red Army’s attempt to protect the city.  The author began by comparing and contrasting the backgrounds and styles of Hitler and Stalin.  They were obviously both larger than life figures, but they were also men who had significant similarities in their upbringing.  It was interesting to hear the similarities and ponder whether there was something that could be pinpointed to explain why both men came to power and why they were so willing to resort to such incredible cruelty, even towards their own people. 

The author then explains Hitler’s push towards Moscow; he details the circumstances that gave Hitler an advantage, but also the mistakes that were made that ultimately made the campaign unsuccessful.  The Germans got a late start on their assault, and terribly misjudged the effect of the weather on the roads, and the needs of the troops for warm clothes and supplies.  The mud in the fall, and the freezing temperature and snow in winter severely hindered the army’s ability to complete their mission.

Of course, the Red Army has some major issues as well.  The Russian troops were not well equipped, often sharing a rifle among an entire platoon.  Many of their weapons were outdated or lacked ammunition.  And of course, no story about Stalin’s Russia is complete without speaking of the reign of terror that Stalin inflicted on his own people.  Stalin and the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) often spied on their own people and troops, and severely punished their own people for perceived transgressions.  Stalin literally murdered millions of his own people leading up to and during World War II.  It’s hard to stand up a successful Army when you are assassinating and imprisoning many of your own officers and troops. 

All in all, it was an interesting look into a portion of World War II history that I hadn’t explored much.  I do want to see if I can find a download of the complete book, so I can catch the missing chapters! 

4 stars.  

Book Review: The Paris Vendetta

The Paris Vendetta, by Steve Berry

This was my first book by Steve Berry, who writes secret agent adventure novels. It came from the collection of CD audio books that my mom sent home with me.  And boy was this one ever fast paced!

The Paris Vendetta (Cotton Malone, #5)

Cotton Malone is a retired secret agent for the US Government, who runs a bookshop in Denmark. He is interrupted at home one evening by a young man creeping around his apartment, and when confronted he spins a tale of being followed and being sent by one of Malone’s old friends.  When two men follow and try to kill them, Malone gets tangled up in a new case.  It involves the mysterious Paris Club, a group that is thought to be working to overthrow the world by creating chaos in the world’s financial markets.  Can Malone get to the bottom of this?

The book interestingly touches on the legend of the lost treasure of Napoleon Bonaparte as a side plot.  After Napoleon invaded Russia, he is said to have carted away hundreds of wagon loads of gold, which disappeared.  It has been searched for over the last 200 years, but never found.  Some of the members of the Paris Club have a side deal to find the treasure, which further complicates Malone’s mission. 

The plot of this novel takes the reader all over Europe, to many of the most famous historical sites, including Westminster Abbey, the killing sites of Jack the Ripper, the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides, where Napoleon is now buried.

I don’t normally read action/adventure books, but this one kept my interest with its fast pace and historical intrigue.  Which is a good thing, since my Dad had several more books by Steve Berry that I’ll be reading in the future.  And a final note; it was narrated by Scott Brick, one of my favorite audio book readers!

3 stars.

Book Review: Martha Washington

Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady

Think for a moment about how much you know about America’s first President, George Washington.  Now think for a moment about how much you know about his wife.

Martha Washington: An American Life

Martha Washington was born in 1731, and was quite successful in her own right, even before she met and married George Washington.  But how much do you really know about her?  Patricia Brady’s biography goes into detail on the inaugural first lady’s life, from her childhood to her death in 1797.  She explains what is known about Martha and what has been lost to history, and the fact that women’s stories of the time were rarely told. 

Much of George’s wealth came from his wife, as she was indeed a wealthy woman by the time she married him at age 27.  They had a marriage of love, respect and partnership, and by all accounts George genuinely appreciated his wife’s presence, even sending for her to come to winter camp each year during the Revolutionary War.

It was interesting to learn more about this woman, her strengths and failures, and her life within a period when women typically did not run businesses or manage their own affairs like she did.  It was a worthwhile read!

4 stars.

 

Book Review: Unsheltered

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

In poking around on the library’s website, I found a novel by Barbara Kingsolver that looked intriguing. It had been a while since I had read her work, but I had enjoyed the Poisonwood Bible several years ago.

Unsheltered

Unsheltered is the story of two families who live on the same block of Vineland, New Jersey 140 years apart.  It is a planned, utopian city, founded by Charles Landis, a notable eccentric who wanted the community to abide by his rules.

In the present day, Willa Knox and her multi-generational family move into a large, run down home that was willed to them when an aunt passed away. She goes looking for ways to help fund a renovation of the home, including seeking out grants based on the preservation of a historically significant home.

Back in the 1870s, Thatcher Greenwood lived in Vineland, a high school science teacher who is at odds with his principal for teaching evolution based science. Thatcher meets an unexpected ally and friend in his next door neighbor, Mary Treat, a middle aged woman with an interest in botany and small animals and insects.

Kingsolver weaves the two stories together, in her characteristic style of switching back and forth between the families and time periods.  It is effortless and interesting, with her complex character development.  You find yourself invested in their lives, cheering and cursing their decisions, and feeling their pain. 

The historic context of this novel was the real win.  Because Mary Treat is real, and the town of Vineland, New Jersey and its founder, Charles Landis, are real.  Kingsolver makes these real life characters come to life on the page, and tells a part their stories for a new generation of readers. 

5 stars.

Book Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

This book was nominated to be our book club selection for this month; it didn’t win the vote, but I had read the book that was selected already, so I decided to read this one instead.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

How interesting!

The story follows Nikki, a young Punjabi woman who lives in London.  She is struggling to find her identity, after dropping out of law school and experiencing the death of her father.  There is tension with her mother, as she works as a bartender and lives in the flat above the pub.  Her mother fears she’s going down the wrong path; throwing her life away.

Nikki reluctantly agrees to post a profile for her sister on the “marriage board” at the largest Sikh temple in Southall.  While there, she finds a posting for an English and creative writing teacher, facilitating a project for women to tell their stories.  She has no experience teaching at all, much less English or creative writing, but she gets the job because no one else applies.

She is in for a wild ride.  A half dozen widows sign up for the course, with varying degrees of interest in learning English, but almost all of them have stories that they want to tell…  And their stories are erotic!  These women are reliving their experiences with their husbands, or dreaming of the experiences that they would have liked to have had.  What becomes apparent is that these women, who are not supposed to have these feelings or desires, have rich imaginations and stories that pour out of them onto the page.  Nevermind that most of them don’t even know how to write…  They will find a way.

Along the way, Nikki finds herself drawn into the culture of her birth, one she has long held at arm’s length.  She learns that these women aren’t backwards or archaic; instead they honor their rich cultural heritage.

I think this novel could have stood on its own, but the author throws in the excitement of a murder mystery too.  I think I would have enjoyed this book either way, but I’m still not sure whether the side story adds to or detracts from the main plot line.

I listened to the book on audio, and found the reader, Meera Syal, to be engaging from start to finish.

4 stars.

Book Review: The German Girl

The German Girl is the debut novel of Armando Lucas Correa, a Cuban author.  It was published in 2016 in both Spanish and English.

The German Girl

The story is that of two girls, brought together over time.  Hannah Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee fleeing to Cuba via ocean liner in 1939.  And Anna, a 14 year old girl living in New York City.

The perspective shifts back and forth between the two of them as the story unfolds, piece by piece.  Hannah’s flight from Germany, trying to escape the reach of the Nazis.  Anna’s trying to learn why her father left her, and understand why her mother just doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.  I don’t want to reveal much, as the suspense and hold of the story would be diminished if you knew what was waiting around the next corner.

This novel was incredible.  Sweet, and heartbreaking, it pulls you in page after page, not wanting to put it down.  What will happen to these girls as their lives unfold?

5 stars.

 

Book Review: Emma

Emma, by Jane Austen

By all accounts, Jane Austen led a sheltered life.  So perhaps it is somewhat surprising that she had an uncanny ability to see deeply into the emotional lives of people.  Her six novels describe the nuances of people, and she had a gift for writing about the complex personalities of her characters and their daily lives, in a way that brought them to life.  All this despite the fact that Austen lived her entire life in only a few places, without much money or prospects. She never married, and died after a long illness at the age of 41.

Emma

Emma is no exception to Austen’s talent for character development.  She is a bright, vivacious young woman who lives with her sickly father in the small village of Highbury, sixteen miles outside of London.  She has decided that she will never marry. 

Emma spends her days socializing, taking care of her father, matchmaking for her friends, and forming opinions about all her neighbors and acquaintances.  Sometimes her meddling goes awry, as when she convinces her friend Harriet that a Mr. Elton is interested in courting her, and encourages to discard another suitor whom Emma deems not good enough.  When Mr. Elton returns from Bath with a wife, well, OOPS…  Emma continues along this way, a wealthy society girl with nothing better to occupy her time than judging everybody she comes into contact with. 

The most action in the novel are a foray to a nearby home to pick strawberries, a minor run-in with a band of gypsies, and planning a ball that almost ended up not happening.  Many describe Emma as Austen’s worst novel due to this lack of action, but it still contains the rich character development.  You still see Emma’s strengths and flaws, and find yourself relating to her cringe-worthy moments.  I mean, we’ve all been there.  You become invested in the characters.  I found myself truly wanting them to succeed or fail. 

That said, it is probably still my least favorite of the Austen novels, but I’m still glad I finally read it. 

3 stars. 

Book Review: The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield

The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded Age, by H.W. Brands

This book was on sale at my local bookstore a few years back and it piqued my interest…  Murder?  Romance?  The Gilded Age?  Bring it on!

The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded Age

I had never heard of Jim Fisk, and you probably haven’t either.  He was a stockbroker and corporate executive, and one of the robber barons of the gilded age.  Have you heard about the 1869 Black Friday Gold Panic?  Yep, that was Jim Fisk and his business associate Jay Gould, trying to artificially manipulate gold prices, during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.  Thanks to their connections to Boss Tweed, and their buying off of New York judges, they managed to avoid prosecution.

Jim Fisk was married, but that didn’t stop him from having a high profile affair with Josie Mansfield, and setting her up in an apartment as a kept woman.  All was going swimmingly, until Josie decided to leave him for another business associate of his, Edward Stokes.  The scandal escalated and eventually culminated in Jim Fisk’s murder.  But who was responsible?

Brands’ book explores the lives of the elite robber barons of the Victorian Era, as well as the corruption that was rampant across New York during the period.  It was interesting to see how the various players were tied together, and how money ruled above all else.

3 stars.

Book Review: Keep Moving

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity and Change, by Maggie Smith

“Accept that you do not get to choose who loves you, who keeps their promises, who forgives.  But you can choose to love, to keep your promises, to forgive.  Choose well.  Have — and live — your own say.  Keep Moving.” 

Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change

Maggie Smith experienced the crushing loss of divorce, after 20 years of marriage.  To begin healing and moving on, she told herself that everyday, she must write.  It might be nothing but a few sentences, but she wrote.  This book is a collection of the things she wrote, the things she told herself to keep moving.

Each quotation expresses the profound sorrow of loss, but also the idea of hope.  In reading them, her readers can choose which resonate the most; which quotations help them to keep moving.

“Tell yourself kinder truths.  You are not failing at life; you are reeling, sure, but you are succeeding at surviving.  Keep Moving.”

5 stars.

 

Book Review: The Sanatorium

The Sanatorium, by Sarah Pearse

Le Sommet is a luxury hotel located deep in the mountains of the Swiss Alps.  It is also a converted tuberculosis sanatorium.  Elin Warner is a British police detective who is on a leave of absence from her job after an attempt to apprehend a murderer goes horribly wrong.

The Sanatorium

The hotel has recently opened after an extensive revisioning, fraught with conflict, protests, and the disappearance of the principal architect. 

Elin’s brother is getting married, and she would like to repair their estranged relationship, as he is the only family she has left.  Elin and her boyfriend head up for a week at Le Sommet, where her brother’s fiance works.  While they are there, the road up is wiped out due to an avalanche, and the funicular is stopped due to high winds.  And then, the murders begin. 

The police can’t get there, because all access is blocked.  But Elin can help, by beginning the investigation.  Does she have the nerve?

Sarah Pearse thriller takes the reader on a fast paced murder mystery with a series of twists and turns.  Don’t assume you know who did it!  She weaves the story of the hotel’s prior life as a sanatorium into her novel, making its history an integral part of the story.  Even though this isn’t a genre I typically go for, I was intrigued the whole way through!

3 stars.