Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gifts of War by Mackenzie Ford

Flap copy from ARC:
"During the Christmas Truce of 1914, a German gives a British soldier a photo, and they make a pact. Hal, the British soldier, promises to find his enemy's English girlfriendm Sam, and let her know her fiance is alive and thinking of her. Several weeks later, Hal- now injured- is discharged from the amry and goes to Stratford-upon-Avon to fulfill his promise. But things take an unexpected turn when he meets the woman in the photo and falls in love with her himself. As their romance blossoms, Sam shares with Hal her most private confidence: her newborn son is of German lineage, information at threatens her reputation and her job as a schoolteacher. Fearful that he will lose Sam, Hal holds tight to the secret- and the photograph- that brought them together."

This book is a hard one to review because it is hard to capture exactly what makes it so very good. No question the book is well-written and historically accurate- not a surprise given that the writer is an historian by profession. More importantly, the characters really breathe and live through the pages of the book; once I started reading, I had a hard time putting this book down. Hal and Sam are both sympathetic characters with realistic flaws, working hard to carve out a life in a time of personal and global turmoil.

I've never read much fiction centered around WWI, and was impressed by Ford's ability to convey the horror of that war with spare prose that highlighted the futility of trench warfare. The secondary characters of Hal and Sam's family added depth and pathos to the narrative; it is difficult to see imagine the story working as well if any were eliminated. There were no wasted words or scenes; every element advanced the plot in some essential way. No spoilers here, but the denouement was simultaneously satisfying and yet disappointing- truly a fitting end to this tale of romance, deceit, war and loss. Highly recommended!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Hollywood is Like High School with Money by Zoey Dean

Flap copy from ARC:
"Twenty-four-year-old Taylor Henning has just landed her dream job as an assistant at a major movie studio. But when her catty co-workers trick her into almost getting fired, she realizes that the old saying "Hollywood is like high school with money" may just be true. The thing is, Taylor wasn't exactly a social butterfly in high school- how is she supposed to do any better the second time around?

That's when she meets her boss's popular sixteen-year-old daughter, Quinn, and has an epiphany: maybe this teenager can teach her how to use her queen bee tactics to succeed in the Hollywood popularity contest. Quinn comes up with a plan to teach Taylor one lesson a week - everything from "fake it 'til you make it" to "it's never your fault" - and soon Taylor finds herself winning the war against rival assistant Kylie. Until that is, she's directed to steal Kylie's boyfriend, and something happens that's not in the game plan: Taylor falls for the guy. Now she must do the impossible- harness her inner mean girl while staying true to herself."

I have to say that I originally thought this book would be another knock-off of The Devil Wears Prada- I was delighted to find that in fact Taylor's boss was a wonderful employer, not a psycho. Of course, her assistant is a psycho, but I can much more readily understand accepting that dynamic of hostility than I can working for someone insane.

The book was funny and the scenarios rang true for assistants. Taylor was not the most sympathetic of characters, but I was invested in her story and thought it unfolded well. Though this book did rely on some fairly improbable coincidences, and I certainly think the roommate was way quirkier than necessary, overall the book rose above others in the genre because of quality writing and an interesting premise. Definitely a good summer read.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Lost Chalice by Vernon Silver

Flap description from ARC:
"Spanning 2,500 years and moving from a Trojan War battlefield to an Athens pottery workshop to an Italian crypt, and involving tomb robbers, smuggles, a Hollywood producer, and a Texas billionaire, The Lost Chalice is a real life adventure story involving the search for an ancient masterpiece missing for more than a decade. Created by Euphronios, an artist renowned as the Leonardo da Vinci of ancient Greece, the chalice disappeared in 1990 after an anonymous European dealer outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an auction at Sotheby's.

The Lost Chalice uses a high-profile crime to open a window onto Italian history, culture, and life. THe cup's tale mirrors the life story of a mysterious contemporary dealer who made a fortune trading in antiquities- including the chalice- supplying the world's greatest museums and rich collectors with artifacts from archaeological sites. The Maserati-driving art dealer holds the key to finding and saving the lost cup, but the discovery of the chalice's fate reveals another riddle- and an even greater missing treasure."

This book tracking the discovery, purchase, loss and rediscovery of ancient Greece vases through the murky world of tomb robbers and black-market art dealers paints a facinating picture of the modern world of museum acquisition. This book is a wonderful and engaging detective story, one that traces the journey of the famous Euphronios krater from its theft from an underground tomb in the Italian countryside to a permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY.

For anyone interested in archaeology, antiquities, or the underground world of museum acquisition, this book is a must read. The writing is crisp and the author's curiosity about the subject matter shines through and helps to draw in readers unfamiliar with the case. The book is non-fiction, but is as easy to read and understand as any novel- the uninitiated will find nothing to scare them off in this narrative. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Escape Under the Forever Sky by Eve Yohalem

Flap copy from hardcover:
"You'd think that being the daughter of the American ambassador would be one adventure after another, right? Wrong.

Thirteen-year-old Lucy Hoffman never gets to see anything beyond the walls of the embassy compound. All she can do is read about the exotic and exciting world outside and imagine what it would be like to be a part of it.

Until she gets kidnapped.

All alone in the Ethiopian wild, Lucy must use her knowledge of African animal life along with her inventiveness, will, and courage to escape and find her way to freedom."

This book was an enjoyable read that did paint a vibrant picture of Africa and gave some hint of the challenges that face that magnificent continent. Lucy is an engaging heroine who will certainly capture the hearts of young adult readers. She narrates with a clear voice that perfectly captures the trials and petulance of an average 13-year old; sometimes she is a mini-adult and sometimes a child crying for her parents. The other characters in the book are much less faceted than Lucy, perhaps not surprisingly given that most of the narrative focuses on Lucy and her solo journey.

The weakness for me lay in the details; I was originally drawn to this book because of my experiences at overseas embassies, so I was extremely disappointed by the glaring inaccuracies related to that part of the narrative. In my opinion, it wouldn't have taken much research to get details about the Marines and embassy security correct; having so many errors in that central part of the plot undermined the story for me. I also feel there was no real resolution to the kidnapping, no sufficient explanation for the reasons behind it. The book is short, so fleshing out those details wouldn't have added much heft and would have strenghtened the story.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Secrets to Happiness by Sarah Dunn

Flap copy from hardcover:
"Holly Frick has just endured the worst kind of breakup: the kind where you're still in love with the person leaving you. While her wounds are still dangerously close to the surface, her happily married best friend confesses over a bottle of wine that she is this close to having an affair. And another woman asks Holly for advice about her love life--with one of Holly's exes!

Holly decides that if everyone around her can take pleasure wherever they find it, so will she. As any self-respecting thirtyish New York woman would do, she brings two males into her life: a flawed but endearing dog, and a good-natured, much younger lover. She's soon entangled in a web of emails, chance meetings, and misguided good intentions and must forge an entirely new path to Nirvana."

Though I thought this book would be a fairly typical example of the chick-lit genre, I was pleased to discover it was much edgier and funnier than expected. Holly is not your typical heroine, and can in fact be quite annoying at times. Her interactions with the dog Chester unexpectedly make her much more a character than a characterization, and make this novel stronger. Best friend Amanda is easy to dislike, and though I thought her actions could have been more fully fleshed out while the story developed, at the end I was more satisfied with the outcome than I had anticipated.

This was a good book, well-written, funny, emotionally truthful, and if I had written this review the moment I finished the book, it probably would have received 4 stars. I'm giving it 3.5 now because although I finished the book just a few days ago, I have a hard time calling to mind any specifics about the plot without referring to the text. Since I generally have no problem remembering specifics of books I read months (or even years) ago, I was disappointed that this novel left so little impression despite its positive qualities. A enjoyable but ultimately forgetful read; 3.5 stars.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mercury in Retrograde by Paula Froelich

Book description:
"Penelope Mercury, an intrepid reporter at the New York Telegraph, has pounded the pavement for five years from city borough to borough, carrying out her boss's eccentric orders to break stories that seem inconsequential to everyone but him. Finally, she is inches away from being promoted to her dream job -- covering courtroom drama for the paper -- but after one spectacularly disastrous day, she is fired instead.

Lena "Lipstick Carcrash" Lipp encrass has a pretty fabulous life, even by a socialite's standards, as a top editor at the high fashion magazine Y. Long lunches with her girlfriends and afternoons spent shopping at Bergdorf's are all in a day's work. But when Lena's always indulgent parents abruptly cut off her cash flow and kick her out of her beloved West Village duplex for refusing to work for the family business, she is forced to confront the reality of what it takes to pay the bills.

Dana Gluck, a workaholic lawyer, had been married for two years to a man who was perfect on paper but increasingly critical in reality. She hoped that her dreams of motherhood would be fulfilled soon, which surely would also fix their marriage problems. Instead, her husband leaves her for an exchange student/model who, to make matters worse, promptly gets pregnant.

When fate conspires to have these three very different women move into the same SoHo apartment building, they soon discover that having their carefully planned lives fall to pieces might be the best thing that could have ever happened to them. "

I admit I was surprised by how engaging I found this book; though it does center on the lives of three young women in NY, it was certainly not your standard chick-lit offering. All three main characters are complex and watching them work through their personal and professional crises made for an excellent read. Froelich herself seems to understand the possible limitations of the genre, and injects sufficient warmth and humor into the novel to help it rise above the pack. Though I admit everything does wrap up nicely in a bow at the end, I never felt the urge to roll my eyes as the various plotlines sorted themselves so neatly, a testament to Froelich's strong writing and ability to make the reader empathize with the characters. Highly enjoyable!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Flap copy from ARC:
"Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the years following WWII. Though skilled at bookkeeping, she cannot find a job in the miserable Irish economy. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America- to live a work in a Brooklyn nighborhood "just like Ireland"- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Stret, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, a blond Italian from a big family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. He takes Eilis to Coney Island and Ebbets Field, and home to dinner in the two-room apartment he shares with his brothers and parents. He talks of having children who are Dodgers fans. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future."

As the daughter of an Irish immigrant, I picked up this book hoping for another perspective on the immigrant experience, a hope that was more than met by this extraordinary novel. As Eilis' story unfolds, the reader is able to see her grow and change as she learns some of the lessons that Brooklyn has to teach. I was delighted that the borough itself was so obviously a character in the story, exerting its own personality and influence both on Eilis and on the reader.

I heard Colm Toibin read from the book and talk about the experience of writing it- the starting point was a story he heard in his youth, a snippet of conversation that stuck in his head until this book was written. He perfectly captures the confusion and homesickness of a young girl uprooted from all she has ever known, and lovingly documents her gradual transformation into womanhood. This quiet tale will stick with you; though the novel itself was a quick read, the story and Eilis' final choice linger long after the book is completed. Definitely a must read!