Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide by Thomas de Waal

The destruction of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16 was the greatest atrocity of World War I. Around one million Armenians were killed, and the survivors were scattered across the world. Although it is now a century old, the issue of what most of the world calls the Armenian Genocide of 1915 is still a live and divisive issue that mobilizes Armenians across the world, shapes the identity and politics of modern Turkey, and has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians for years.

In Great Catastrophe, the eminent scholar and reporter Thomas de Waal looks at the aftermath and politics of the Armenian Genocide and tells the story of recent efforts by courageous Armenians, Kurds, and Turks to come to terms with the disaster as Turkey enters a new post-Kemalist era. The story of what happened to the Armenians in 1915-16 is well-known. Here we are told the "history of the history" and the lesser-known story of what happened to Armenians, Kurds, and Turks in the century that followed. De Waal relates how different generations tackled the issue of the "Great Catastrophe" from the 1920s until the failure of the Protocols signed by independent Armenia and Turkey in 2010. Quarrels between diaspora Armenians supporting and opposing the Soviet Union broke into violence and culminated with the murder of an archbishop in 1933. The devising of the word "genocide," the growth of modern identity politics, and the 50th anniversary of the massacres re-energized a new generation of Armenians. In Turkey the issue was initially forgotten, only to return to the political agenda in the context of the Cold War and an outbreak of Armenian terrorism. More recently, Turkey has started to confront its taboos. In an astonishing revival of oral history, the descendants of tens of thousands of "Islamized Armenians," who have been in the shadows since 1915, have begun to reemerge and reclaim their identities.


REVIEW:
This excellent scholarly look at the events surrounding the expulsion of the Armenian population from the Ottoman Empire during WWI makes for a timely and important read given the recent anniversary of the events. This complicated history is pulled apart to explain to a newcomer exactly how the Armenians came to be where they were and how they came to be the victims of such a tragedy. The descriptions of the killings themselves were presented tastefully and with a great deal of humanity. I was fascinated by the author's presentation of the more modern history of the Armenian diaspora and by the debates within in the community surrounding the issue of defining the killings as a genocide. Though I was familiar with the broad outlines of the issue, this book gave me a much deeper understanding of its impact on politics today. This book taught me a lot about a complex question and a politically vibrant diaspora. Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Rogue's Folly by Donna Lea Simpson

Lady May von Hoffen has been plagued all her prim young life by the scandalous behavior of her widowed mother and the licentious men she consorts with. When she finally finds herself free of her mother and in sole possession of Lark House, she relishes the sense of decorum and freedom it gives her. But the surprise discovery of the injured Frenchman Etienne hiding on her estate—the man who once rescued her from an attack on her virtue and the only man she’s ever been able to trust—turns her newly peaceful solitude into a maelstrom of bewildering thoughts and disturbingly passionate curiosity.

Etienne is a self-avowed rake, and even now is on the run from ruthless adversaries who accuse him of trying to murder a marquess and seduce his wife. Following a stabbing that nearly claimed his life, he finds sanctuary on the land of an unfamiliar estate, hoping to recover and evade capture. But when the lady of the house turns out to be none other than the lovely and innocent Lady May, his feels his heart stir even as his body is gripped by pain and the fear that she will renounce him.

As May nurses Etienne back to health and learns the truth of his supposed crimes, along with a much-needed education on the relations between men and women, a burning desire smolders between the two opposites, and soon they will be forced to trust each other and their feelings in order to save one life and two hearts.


REVIEW:
Another well-written Regency from Simpson, though not one that pulled me in as a reader. It became clear when reading that this must be part of a series, and I certainly felt the entire sub-plot regarding how the two main characters met depended on knowledge from a previous book to set into context. May was a judgmental and sometimes aggravating heroine; it was unclear to me at times what exactly Etienne saw in her. He was in may ways a delight of a hero, though once his whole story unfolded, I was underwhelmed by his dramatic determination to say May from herself. The dramatic tension of the situation (hiding Etienne from the law) helped isolate and pull the two together, though I for one think May would have had better success hiding him in the house and simply telling her servants to keep quiet about the whole situation. All in all this was an OK read, but not one of the best from this prolific author.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Miss Truelove Beckons by Donna Lea Simpson

When Truelove Becket’s betrothed went missing in a naval battle, she vowed never to marry unless she found someone she loved as much. In the seven years since then, the quiet vicar’s daughter has lived a simple and contented life helping the poor people of her village. But now another man has asked for her hand in marriage and, unsure if she is ready to commit to him, she agrees to accompany her beautiful cousin Arabella on a trip to visit friends so she can take time to think it over.

Viscount Drake cut a dashing figure when he returned from war to a hero’s welcome, but the Battle of Waterloo left him a shattered and haunted man. As his dreams are invaded by the terrors of war he becomes a sleepless shell of a man, and as his torment grows he begins to wonder if marriage to the lovely Arabella will help restore him again. But as Arabella coquettishly flirts to secure Drake’s hand and his riches, it is the pretty and practical True he turns to for solace.

With the weight of her marriage proposal bearing down on her, True finds herself irresistibly attracted to Drake’s quiet dignity and genuine distress, just as he finds himself drawn to her honest nature and soothing compassion. When a spark of passion ignites between these two who have both lost so much to war, they will have to confront their biggest fears—and everyone else’s plans for their futures—to discover if love can truly cure all ills.


REVIEW:
This lovely romance follows the troubled return to peacetime of a war hero, trying desperately to reintegrate, and the efforts of a determined family and an unexpected friend to help him heal. Truelove is a great character, sympathetic and kind throughout despite the efforts of her family to sabotage her chance to find a happy ending. Drake is a wonderful hero, troubled by his experiences in the war but still dedicated to the ideals for which he fought. His efforts to rediscover his internal peace which dealing with the marital dreams of a determined mother and her best friend make for an excellent story. This is a quiet story, one that is particularly apt for today's audience with so many returning veterans handling similar issues. Well-written with realistic characters and a heartwarming story, this book makes for a great read.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Cinderella and the Ghost by Marina Myles

When her demanding stepmother died, Ella Benoit knew just how far their fortunes had fallen, unlike her spoiled stepsisters. So she never expected the bequest from her late father. A chateau in France and the freedom to live her own life, all at once!

The chateau has seen better days, but Ella knows she can put the ruined house to rights. The life-size portrait of its first owner, Jean-Daniel Girard, seems to watch her work with approval, even pleasure. With bright blue eyes, strong features, and an athlete's body, the viscount is a tempting sight even now, more than three hundred years after his tragic death. But the more she looks at the portrait, the more convinced Ella is that she's met Jean-Daniel before. In another life, perhaps-or maybe, as the form who haunts the halls at night, invading Ella's dreams...


REVIEW:
Though I was intrigued by the idea of a retelling of the classic Cinderella tale, this books sadly didn't live up to its initial promise. Ella was a completely unbelievable character in either of the centuries in this book, and Jean-Daniel never fully developed as a character at all. Frankly, the darn dog in the picture was a more sympathetic character than either of the protagonists. Everyone was simply too starkly drawn and therefore too one-dimensional to make for a nuanced story. There were also significant problems with the time-travel aspect of the story, though I can't say more without spoiling a key plot element. Between Ella's rank immaturity (her internal dialogue reads like that of a gushy teenager in the throes of a first crush) and Jean-Daniel's overwhelming obsession with sex, this book was a frustratingly poor read.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This Little Piggy by Bea Davenport

It’s the summer of 1984 and there is a sense of unease on the troubled Sweetmeadows estate. The residents are in shock after the suspicious death of a baby and tension is growing due to the ongoing miners’ strike. Journalist Clare Jackson follows the story as police botch the inquiry and struggle to contain the escalating violence. Haunted by a personal trauma she can’t face up to, Clare is shadowed by nine-year-old Amy, a bright but neglected little girl who seems to know more about the incident than she’s letting on. As the days go on and the killer is not found, Clare ignores warnings not to get too close to her stories and in doing so, puts her own life in jeopardy.

REVIEW:
This mystery/thriller takes the reader back to the gritty world of the miners' strikes in the early 1980s. The growing desperation of those miners as well as the crushing poverty that some of them face is well-drawn and gives a remarkable flavor to the backdrop of the story. As Clare attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered baby, she is also trying to rescue her career- damaged almost beyond repair by a personal tragedy she refuses to acknowledge. Her relationship with fellow reporters and police ring true, and it is easy to see why she gets sucked into attempting to create a better like for little Amy. The big twist wasn't much of a surprise to me, but I'm certain the read is supposed to suspect what is going on- only Clare is wallowing in ignorance, unable to separate facts from feelings. I wasn't thrilled with the end as I think Clare should have realized the need to cute ties and run, but that is a niggling quibble. Overall, this is a strongly written and enjoyable story; I will be on the lookout for more by this author.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wagon Train Cinderella by Shirley Kennedy

1851, Overland Trail to California. As a baby, Callie was left on the doorstep of an isolated farmhouse in Tennessee. The Whitaker family took her in, but have always considered her more a servant than a daughter. Scorned by her two stepsisters, Callie is forced to work long hours and denied an education. But a new world opens to her when the Whitakers join a wagon train to California-guided by rugged Indian, Luke McGraw...

A loner, haunted by a painful past, Luke plans to return to the wilderness once his work is done. But he can't help noticing how poorly Callie is treated-or how unaware she is of her beauty and intelligence. As the two become closer over the long trek west, Callie's confidence grows. And when disaster strikes, Callie emerges as the strong one-and the woman Luke may find the courage to love at last...


REVIEW:
This enjoyable romance set on the wagon train to California and Oregon made for quite the engaging read. The terrible treatment meted out to Callie by her family has turned her into a quiet shadow, but watching her blossom on the trail felt real, as she vacillated between spreading her wings and retreating back into herself. I was also glad to see that her sisters also eventually grew and matured as their circumstances changed. Luke and his family were also great characters, sharing knowledge and a friendly hand to help Callie learn her worth. I wasn't too caught up with the subplot revolving around Magnus the train leader- parts of that did seem a little overdone. Still, all in all, a good read and a decent reworking of a classic tale.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

Spring 1937. In the four years since she left England, Maisie Dobbs has experienced love, contentment, stability—and the deepest tragedy a woman can endure. Now, all she wants is the peace she believes she might find by returning to India. But her sojourn in the hills of Darjeeling is cut short when her stepmother summons her home to England; her aging father Frankie Dobbs is not getting any younger.

But on a ship bound for England, Maisie realizes she isn’t ready to return. Against the wishes of the captain who warns her, “You will be alone in a most dangerous place,” she disembarks in Gibraltar. Though she is on her own, Maisie is far from alone: the British garrison town is teeming with refugees fleeing a brutal civil war across the border in Spain.

Yet the danger is very real. Days after Maisie’s arrival, a photographer and member of Gibraltar’s Sephardic Jewish community, Sebastian Babayoff, is murdered, and Maisie becomes entangled in the case, drawing the attention of the British Secret Service. Under the suspicious eye of a British agent, Maisie is pulled deeper into political intrigue on “the Rock”—arguably Britain’s most important strategic territory—and renews an uneasy acquaintance in the process. At a crossroads between her past and her future, Maisie must choose a direction, knowing that England is, for her, an equally dangerous place, but in quite a different way.


REVIEW:
After a long wait, I was delighted to see a new Maisie Dobbs book on offer- I did miss her. As always, Winspear has written a powerful book about war and its aftermath, though the mystery here wasn't really very engaging. I never felt any connection to the victim or the family he left behind- it was all about Maisie and the impact the case has on her. To be clear, I'm fine with a focus on Maisie- she is the reason I read the books and I love watching her character unfold.

That said, this book was just so very sad. After all the buildup to her finding happiness with James, it was devastating to have it snuffed out so abruptly- hasn't this poor woman been through enough? I was also sad we as readers didn't actually get to experience happy, contented Maisie- it is clear from the opening that her life has once again been marred by tragedy. I was hoping she was going to catch a break- I think she deserves one. A good book, and a must read for those following the series, but I wouldn't recommend reading this as a standalone.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Murder of Magpies by Judith Flanders

It’s just another day at the office for London book editor Samantha “Sam” Clair. Checking jacket copy for howlers, wondering how to break it to her star novelist that her latest effort is utterly unpublishable, lunch scheduled with gossipy author Kit Lowell, whose new book will dish the juicy dirt on a recent fashion industry scandal. Little does she know the trouble Kit’s book will cause—before it even goes to print. When police Inspector Field turns up at the venerable offices of Timmins & Ross, asking questions about a package addressed to Sam, she knows something is wrong. Now Sam's nine-to-five life is turned upside down as she finds herself propelled into a criminal investigation. Someone doesn't want Kit's manuscript published and unless Sam can put the pieces together in time, they'll do anything to stop it.

REVIEW:
This delightful mystery combines great characters, enjoyable intrigue, and a tongue-in-cheek look at the publishing world- what's not to love? Well written and witty, this wonderful series debut pulled me from the opening paragraphs. The mystery is rather complicated but unfolds well, and the glimpses of Sam's life in publishing bring a welcome element of humor to the story. I love a good mystery, especially one not soaked in blood or graphic violence, and will definitely be looking for other offerings from this author. I think this book would appeal to anyone who likes Alan Bradley or Elizabeth Peters mysteries.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Matchmaker's Christmas by Donna Lea Simpson

Twenty years ago, Beatrice Copland committed a reckless and foolish act of deceit that she’s certain ruined the life of a man she’d fallen in love with and led to his wife’s death. Now serving as companion to the stern Lady Bournaud, she leads a quiet life and attends to her duties as a kind of penance. But Lady Bournaud, trying to make amends for her own selfish ways, is opening her country estate to a few select guests for the holidays—including the man Beatrice wronged so many years ago.

Sir David Chappell spent nearly two decades coming to terms with the haunting memory of his wife’s death. When he receives an invitation to Lady Bournaud’s for the Christmas season, he’s reluctant to go at first, but he’s sure the time away in Yorkshire will be a welcome change from London. Once there, he’s immediately captivated by the youthful beauty and genuine compassion of the lady’s companion, Beatrice Copland—all the while sensing that he’s met her before.

Even as David pursues her and Beatrice realizes she’s still powerfully attracted to the man, she must gently rebuff his advances for fear that her damning secret will come to light and reopen his old wounds. And while Lady Bournaud watches, happily scheming to make matches for all her guests, it may take more than a Christmas miracle for David to free Beatrice’s conscience, and her heart, at last.


REVIEW:
This regency romance had an almost gentle tone that made it a quietly enjoyable read. Beatrice and David were both lovely characters- it was impossible not to hope that they would find love together. There were times where I thought Beatrice was being very hard on herself for what were youthful indiscretions, and I thought it took too long for her to provide a full explanation of exactly what form those indiscretions took. David was very well-drawn and believable as a character, and made for a wonderful hero. The secondary characters were all enjoyable as well, thought it was perhaps stretching belief for three separate couples to emerge from one Christmas party. Still, a little wish fulfillment never hurt anyone...

I would definitely look for more books by this author.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Talking After Midnight by Dakota Cassidy

Marybell Lyman is notorious for two things:
Her look. The wicked hairstyle, multiple piercings and practiced sneer that say: "Stay back—I bite."
Her voice. The syrupy lilt that's her bread and butter at Call Girls, the prim little town's flourishing phone-sex company.

Hunky handyman Taggart Hawthorn is mesmerized by the contradiction: such sweet tones inside such a spiky shell! He wants to know more about mysterious Marybell, to hear more of her sexy talk—all for himself.

But Tag's attentions, delicious as they are, have Marybell panicked. She's been hiding a long time. She's finally got a home, a job and friends she adores. She won't have it all snatched away by another stupid mistake—like falling in love. So when Marybell's past comes calling, she and the Call Girls will prove no one handles scandals like a Southern girl!


REVIEW:
This is one entry into a longer series that doesn't work particularly well as a standalone- at least for this reader. The characters are all too quirky and there are too many of them to take in all at once. It is hard for me to understand why Marybell went to such lengths to hide her identity, and harder still to understand how/why Tag's entire life went down the drain- perhaps these questions would be answered by reading the earlier books in the series. I also found the southern drawl exaggerated and sometimes quite irritating. And as for the Magnolias, I cannot imagine why anyone in town tolerates them. This book was just too over the top for me and I'm not certain I'll be looking for others in the series.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Since You've Been Gone by Anouska Knight

In one tragic moment, Holly Jefferson's life as she knew it changed forever. Now—to the external world, at least—she's finally getting back on her feet, running her bakery, Cake. But inside, she's still going through the motions befitting a twenty-seven-year-old widow.

Then she meets Ciaran Argyll. His privileged and charmed life feels a million miles from her own. However, there's more to Ciaran than the superficial world that surrounds him, and he, too, is wrestling with his own ghosts. Will Holly find the missing ingredient that allows her to live again—and embrace an unknown and unexpected tomorrow?


REVIEW:
I wanted to really love this book, but at times it felt like I was reading two different stories with only vague connections. Holly, her bakery, her house, her friends- these make for a wonderful read as she tries to survive each day as a widow. Ciaran, his ex-fiancee, his father, his personal assistant- these make for an aggravating and incomplete read that left me frustrated. I don't know if more exposition was cut from the final product, or if some of these storylines should have been cut completely instead, but they made the book a very uneven read for me. An ok read, but only because Holly and her situation are so compelling.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

Twenty-seven-year-old Daisy already beat breast cancer three years ago. How can this be happening to her again?

On the eve of what was supposed to be a triumphant “Cancerversary” with her husband Jack to celebrate three years of being cancer-free, Daisy suffers a devastating blow: her doctor tells her that the cancer is back, but this time it’s an aggressive stage four diagnosis. She may have as few as four months left to live. Death is a frightening prospect—but not because she’s afraid for herself. She’s terrified of what will happen to her brilliant but otherwise charmingly helpless husband when she’s no longer there to take care of him. It’s this fear that keeps her up at night, until she stumbles on the solution: she has to find him another wife.

With a singular determination, Daisy scouts local parks and coffee shops and online dating sites looking for Jack’s perfect match. But the further she gets on her quest, the more she questions the sanity of her plan. As the thought of her husband with another woman becomes all too real, Daisy’s forced to decide what’s more important in the short amount of time she has left: her husband’s happiness—or her own?


REVIEW:
This moving and deeply personal novel is a wonderful read. Watching Daisy as she tries to come to terms with a terminal cancer diagnosis by searching for her replacement is heartrending. Watching her turn away from Jack, her mother, and her best friend shows how isolating such a diagnosis can be. As she fixates on Jack's graduation to make all their years of sacrifice worth it, you can feel her pain that she herself will not complete her degree, or work in her field, or have children. The book is sad but redemptive as Daisy and Jack stumble through her remaining time and work to just carve out a space to be together. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Unmanned by Dan Fesperman

Not very long ago, Darwin Cole was an F-16 fighter pilot. He was a family man. He was on top of the world. Now? He’s a washout drunk with a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, living alone in the Nevada desert and haunted by an image beamed from one of his last missions as a “pilot” of a Predator drone—a harrowing shot of an Afghan child running for her life.

When Cole is approached by three journalists trying to uncover the identity of the possibly rogue intelligence operative who called the shots in Cole’s ill-fated mission, Cole reluctantly agrees to team up with them.

But in our surveillance culture, even the well intentioned are liable to find themselves under scrutiny, running for their lives, especially when the trail they’re following leads to the very heart of that culture—in intelligence, in the military, and among the unchecked private contractors who stand to profit richly from the advancing technology . . . not merely for use “over there,” but for right here, right now.


REVIEW:
This latest offering by Dan Fesperman is a timely look at the ethics and possibilities of expanded drone warfare. The narrative pace is good but I wasn't as engaged by the characters as I normally am in a Fesperman book. The journalists especially seemed poorly drawn with nowhere near enough information about their backgrounds and motivations to make me feel invested in their story. Cole was a very strong character, and both Sharpe and the AF investigator looking for Cole are wonderful characters even though they only appear briefly. I certainly thought the journalists were very inept and poor at their jobs which rather undercut their involvement in this plot. All in all a good read, though I recommend The Double Game as a better example of Fesperman's talent.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni

Tracy Crosswhite has spent twenty years questioning the facts surrounding her sister Sarah’s disappearance and the murder trial that followed. She doesn’t believe that Edmund House—a convicted rapist and the man condemned for Sarah’s murder—is the guilty party. Motivated by the opportunity to obtain real justice, Tracy became a homicide detective with the Seattle PD and dedicated her life to tracking down killers.

When Sarah’s remains are finally discovered near their hometown in the northern Cascade mountains of Washington State, Tracy is determined to get the answers she’s been seeking. As she searches for the real killer, she unearths dark, long-kept secrets that will forever change her relationship to her past—and open the door to deadly danger.


REVIEW:
This deftly plotted mystery centers on an enjoyable new police heroine searching for closure after the rape and murder of her sister decades before. After her sister's death, Tracy's world and family fell apart; she eventually went into police work herself after years as a high school science teacher. When her sister's body is finally found, Tracy pushes to reopen the case; though someone was convicted of the crime years ago, she has always had her doubts about the identity of the killer because of her questions about the way the investigation was handled. The mystery here is good as is the way the narrative jumps back and forth in time to show us glimpses of Tracy's past. Though the twist was not such a surprise, it was still well handled and believable. My one quibble is that once the police chief and other realized that an adult Tracy was going to push, they could have saved everyone a world of hurt by confiding in a fellow law enforcement professional. Still, an enjoyable read; I'll be on the lookout for future installments featuring this investigator.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car. Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well. He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.

But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants. As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.


REVIEW:
This excellent novel tells the tale of one small town in Croatia trying to come to terms with its wartime history. Newly arrived from England, Laura and her family see a lovely town where they cam built a summer home and a future business. Handyman Duro sees the town where he grew up superimposed with the blood-soaked memories of the war. He has complicated relationships with two other men in the town, relationships that become more clear as the story of Gost unfolds. Laura wants to see only Gost as it could be, while Duro can't escape from Gost as it was. Having lived in the region, I think Forna does an excellent job laying out the complex and painful efforts of the war's survivors to come to terms with the ethnic cleansing that turned neighbor against neighbor. Highly recommended.