Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell

This should have been an easy book to love, but it wasn’t. I have loved Cornwell’s other books, and have been intrigued by Stonehenge for many years. Cornwell is admittedly taking on a large task by trying to unlock the mysteries of a 4,000 year old monument like Stonehenge. By using the most recent research and scientific understandings, and weaving in the fictional story of a family at war with itself trying to win the hearts and minds of their own people in a battle to determine who will lead their tribe, Cornwell had all the necessary components for a good book, bit it didn’t quite work for me.

Cornwell’s story revolves around three brothers. Lengar, the oldest, is enamored with wealth and power and when his father, the leader of the clan stands in his way of achieving those things, Lengar kills him and makes himself the head of the clan. Camaban,  Lengar’s illegitimate younger brother has always struggled to know his place in the tribe. Limited by his birth and his deformed foot from being a warrior or leader of the clan, Camaban exiles himself to the forest, communing with the gods until he becomes convinced that he has been given the task of building a temple that will honor sun god above all else. But it is Saban, the youngest brother who is actually tasked with building the temple. Saban is the one who must figure out how to carefully quarry the mammoth stones, moved safely from the quarry to the site of the new temple which is 20 miles away. He must also solve the engineering problem of raising the large lintel stones to the top of the vertically standing stones without breaking them as well as figuring out how best to attach them to the standing stones so they will stay safely in place.

Although the story of Stonehenge is fascinating, I found it very difficult to identify with any of the main characters. They felt flat or sullen and at times quite mentally unstable.  The descriptions of tribal life seemed fraught with instability and although I know that life was precarious then, it seemed like there was far too much unrest, and infighting for any tribe to have survived much less have had the commitment or resources to build such a temple. Unfortunately, Cornwell uses this instability as a plot device to create tension and suspense in the story, while I believe that there was more than enough tension just in the building such a massive structure to sustain a reader’s interest. Although this aspect of the story was disappointing, Cornwell is still a master at writing battle scenes and his characters, aside from being hard to identify with, are fully realized with distinctive motivations for their actions and choices.

Brenda’s rating: ** (2 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith (because we saw it together!)

Book Study worthy? maybe

Read in ebook format.

 

 

 

 

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Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry

Nora was looking forward to visiting her sister. It had been a while since they had seen each other, and Nora is excited to tell Rachel about the artist’s residency she has received starting in the middle of January. Rachel will be happy for her and they will celebrate.  They also need to plan their summer trip Cornwall. Nora is looking forward to Rachel’s cooking, her warm house  and dog and the back yard that is so open. It will be good to be together again.

When Nora gets off the train she expects Rachel to be there in her car to pick her up. but she isn’t. So Nora begins the walk to Rachel’s house imagining that Rachel must have made a last minute run to the store, or forgot the time. But when she gets to the house, Rachel’s car is there. Nora realizes that something is terribly wrong as soon as she opens the door. There is blood, Rachel’s dog hanging from its leash and more blood on the stairs, and then Rachel’s body. Something was terribly wrong, and Nora could do nothing to change it.

The police begin their investigation at first suspecting Nora herself, but once they establish her alibi the case grinds to a halt. There are no suspects, there is no evidence, there is nothing. But Nora is not satisfied and so she moves into Rachel’s house, gives up her artist’s residency and is determined to find out who did this and why.  Nora knows that there is one person who might have a motive. It was something that happened in the past, but Rachel had never given up looking for the person who did it so she could bring him to justice.

Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award, this book has been billed as the next Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. Although there are similarities since all these books are about women who are in desparate straits, there are real differences, too. Berry has created a story about the two sisters who grew up with an alcoholic father and have had a complicated relationship. The secret they carry from their past has caused additional friction between them because while one cannot let it go and the other wants nothing more that to just forget about it because of the guilt she feels for not being with her sister when it happened. So unlike the other books where you have the artifice of unreliable narrators, this book carries a sense of immediacy and honesty that draws you in. Gripping and harrowing, this is a book that you cannot put down until you get to the final page!

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Sharon and Keith

Book Study Worthy: yes

Read in ebook format.

 

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Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

Sheldon Horowitz agreed to move to Norway to live with his granddaughter Rhea and her husband Lars.  If he had known there were only 1,000 Jews in all of Norway he might have made a different choice, but after his wife died, leaving New York didn’t seem like such a big deal. He was 82 after all and even Mabel, his wife, had noticed that his  mind was slipping. When she had tried to broach the subject of his senility he had just ignored her, but even he knew that something was going on.  “Time was folding in a new way. Without a future, the mind turned back on itself. That’s not dementia,” he thought, “…it’s the only rational response to the inevitable.”  So he moved to Norway where it is blue and cold, and the sun doesn’t set until 10:00 pm in the summer.

One day while Rhea and Lars are out of the house he hears the neighbors upstairs begin squabbling again. They were constantly yelling and screaming at each other in some Balkan language that Sheldon did not understand. This time though the rhythm was wrong. there was no back and forth.  This time there was only the man’s voice just going on and on until suddenly there was a large bang and then footsteps coming down the stairs. He looks out the peephole in the door and sees the woman from upstairs. He knows that a large white car is blocking the entrance to the building, trapping her inside and silently he opens the door. The woman turns, and there clutched in one hand is a pink box and in her other she is clutching a small little boy in a green jacket and blue Wellington boots with Paddington Bear carefully painted on their sides. Sheldon silently ushers them into the apartment  and directs the woman and child to go down the stairs into his rooms. The man is outside the door pounding on it. The door will break soon. The woman gently shoves her son towards Sheldon her eyes wide open with fear. She says something and then turns and goes up the stairs to face the man at the door. Sheldon grabs the boy. Hiding in the closet they hear the screaming and cruelty upstairs.  Sheldon “…pulls the boy to his chest, presses his hands around the boy’s ears,” and says, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. This is the best I can do. I’m so sorry.”

Miller has created the most unlikely hero in Sheldon. a cantankerous ex marine sharpshooter whose mind passes with ease between past and present. But nonetheless Sheldon is so engaging and so very human, you can’t help but cheer on his efforts to save this small child and at the same time admire his tenacity and persistence in the face of the limitations of old age and even senility as he lets his past inform his present and future. Beautifully written, this is one of my favorite books so far this year!

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith, Ken, Marian, Lauren and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

Read in ebook format.

 

 

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My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

As I have confessed previously I am stubborn about reading books that come highly recommended.  It seems like my interest exponentially decreases by the amount of praise a book gets. Yes, I acknowledge I have a problem!

So when I began reading Ferrante’s series starting with My Brilliant Friend and really enjoyed it, I should have just started reading the next book right away. But  I didn’t, much to my chagrin, because when I finally did begin reading A Story of a New Name it was quite amazing!  So far Ferrante scores high on two out of the three in the series and I am now looking forward to reading the third book, hopefully without wasting so much time before I begin!

In My Brilliant Friend Ferrante introduces us to two young girls: Lila, a bold, precocious child with an active and daring mind and Elena, who is smart and aware of her limitations. their friendship began with a dare, and quickly became intense and competitive. Soon the girls who are identified by a teacher as having potential are given extra books to read and and are encouraged to think beyond what their small neighborhood in the working poor part of Naples could imagine for them. As their friendship deepens, Lila encourages Elena to stick up for herself in spite of her family’s unwillingness to support her dreams. Lila’s family has their own struggles as the shoe business they own begins to fail. When Lila helps design some new shoes that become popular, the family business becomes a target of acquisition. Although Lila fights to maintain their independence her brother and father who ultimately have more power than she could ever have, make the decision to go into an arrangement with a wealthy but shady business family. This changes something deep within Lila and she withdraws and loses interest in her studies. These two girls who were so close and had shared so much now seem seem unmoored by the loss of their friendship.

In the second book of the trilogy, Elena continues to pursue her studies, but Lila abandons education and instead marries and enters her husband’s family business. Although on the surface Elena and Lila remain friends their differing paths soon create a distance between them. Elena feels abandoned and betrayed by her friend, who even though she had been insistent that they both study and get out of the limited way of  life they saw in their neighborhood, was instead choosing the very path she had scorned.  This choice raises complicated feelings for Elena, who at least initially sees that Lila’s choice gives her status, money and a certain amount of freedom, that Elena as an unmarried woman does not have. This difference in status and the mixed messages given by Lila’s choices complicates their relationship even further to the point where Elena and Lila begin to live parallel lives that only intersect on rare occasions.

Although Elena has trouble focusing on her studies without the competition and incentive that studying with Lila gave her but eventually she digs in and gains back the approval of the teachers who had seen such promise in her. She becomes infatuated with a young revolutionary intellectual who she begins to engage in conversation just to be able to listen to him passionately expound on his newest thoughts and ideas. This infatuation soon complicates her relationship with another young man who seems to think Elena is promised to him even though she feels nothing friendship towards him and Elena must choose between the two.

Through neighborhood gossip Elena learns that all is not going well for Lila. Hearing from Lila’s sister in law that Lila is being “taught” how to act in her new role as a wife, and that she has been having difficulty “learning” and had returned from her honeymoon with a bruised face, Elena realizes that Lila’s life is not what she had imagined it to be. But when Elena finally visits Lila, she is held at arms length, and although they begin to see each other more often they do not renew the deep relationship they once had.

Things might have gone on this way forever, especially after Elena moves to Pisa to attend college on scholarship, but the summer after her first year in college something happens to change the trajectory of their friendship.  Lila becomes ill and the doctor insists that she must go to the beach for the summer in order to heal.  Lila’s husband asks Elena to go with Lila and keep her company and she agrees. That summer is pivotal in Elena and Lila’s lives. It is a summer of discovering love, betrayal and the bounds of friendship and forgiveness.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this Book to: Marian, Sharon and Lauren

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

Read in ebook format.

 

 

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Books to Read For An Alaskan Cruise: Part Two

To my surprise there are a lot of books written about or set in Alaska, which just goes to show how narrow my reading habits must be! For several years I have been trying to get out of my comfort zone and read from a more diverse collection of authors and to read books that were set in a broader range of locations, so this exercise of finding books for an Alaskan cruise has opened up another avenue for me to explore.

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey was a Pulitzer Prize Winner Finalist in 2012. It is a retelling of a Russian fairy tale but this time set in Alaska in the 1920s. The story centers on a young, childless couple who are homesteading in the rough wilderness and are drifting apart under the heavy physical toll of farming and their loneliness and isolation. During the the first snowfall, in a spontaneous act they build a child out of the snow. By the next morning the snow child is gone but they catch glimpses of a young blond haired girl in the forest. The young couple love this little girl who calls herself Faina, but in this wilderness which is both beautiful and violent, things are not always what they seem.

To the Bright Edge of The World is Ivey’s most recent book (2016.) The story focuses on an 1885 expedition into the the uncharted and untamed Alaskan Territory. Although the expedition has been deemed impossible, Colonel Allen Forester, a decorated war hero, leads a small group of men, up the Wolverine River Valley to the vast territory beyond the edge of the world. During his expedition, Forrester keeps a journal which he hopes will be recovered and returned to his pregnant wife Sophie, if something should happen to him on this journey. As he records their encounters with the natural elements, the wildlife in this serene but often violent habitat and their various encounters with the native tribes, Forestor and his men begin to sense a mysterious force that seems more threatening than the elements for which they had prepared. Meanwhile Sophie, who awaits for husband’s return at the Vancouver Barracks, faces her own tests of faith and courage. Highly regarded by the Washington Post as a “Most Notable Book of the Year,” and by Amazon as one of the “Best Books of 2016,” this book seems ideally suited to those who want to know more about the Alaskan wilderness in a historical context.

Ian McGuire, although British has also written a highly acclaimed novel called The North Water which is set aboard a whaling vessel in 1859. Patrick Sumner, a physician who fled India after Sepoy Rebellion, decides to find refuge from his sins and failures in the north. But he finds that his fellow crew members are carrying secrets that are even worse than his own especially a harpooner named Henry Drax who commits a horrific act. As the the drama aboard ship worsens and the captain’s own criminal intentions are revealed the ship and crew are trapped by sea ice and are forced to winter over. Described as “…dark, violent, tightly wound and impossible to put down,” by one Alaskan blogger, this will probably appeal to those who like their books keeping them up at night!

Moving on from historical novels we now move onto what one reviewer called “[a]  hardboiled mythical/comic/religious/political page-turner of a novel;” Michael Chabon’s, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  This book is set in a mythical Federal District of Sitka, a “temporary” safe haven for Jewish refugees, created in response to the Holocaust and after the newly created state of Israel unexpectedly collapsed in 1948.  Now, however, after 60 years the Federal District is scheduled to revert to Alaskan control and there is much anxiety and concern among the Jews who have made their lives there.  Against this political back drop we follow Homicide Detective Meyer Landsman, who is investigating the murder of chess prodigy who was killed by someone with the audacity to do it in the hotel where Landsman is currently living.  Landsman is a mess. His marriage is falling apart, his career is going no where and now this murder makes him looks like a fool. But no sooner has he begun his his investigation, when he gets orders from above to leave the case alone for fear that it might harm the delicate negotiations that are taking place around the Reversion. Dropping the investigation, however, goes against everything Landsman believes and as he proceeds he must contend with the forces of evil and obsession and the powers of faith and salvation that are a part of his religious heritage. This is a complicated, highly entertaining, whodunit that, as one reviewer noted, “only Chabon could write.”

Finally,  if you would like to take a deep dive and read a series of books that are set in modern Alaska the Kate Shugak series written by Dana Stabenow is a good place to begin. Stabenow is a prolific writer who won the Edgar Award for this series which is currently comprised of 20 books featuring the reluctant part time detective Kate Shugak and in addition has written several other series featuring other lead characters. Starting with A Cold Day for Murder and ending with her most recent release, Bad Blood, Kate Shugak is often called in by the DA’s office as an investigator. Kate is an Aleut, who left her small village to pursue her education and a career outside of “The Park,” that vast and sprawling hinterland of Alaska, and thus her skills and knowledge of the place and the people there are often invaluable in bringing wrong doers to justice.

I hope that you will find something enjoyable to read among the books I have recommended in these two posts. Let me know what you are reading and who knows, maybe a book club will form while we are on our cruise!

 

Posted in Books to Read for an Alsakan Cruise, Detective novel, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner, Series, Suspense, Thriller | Tagged | 1 Comment

Books to Read For an Alaskan Cruise! (Part One)

This summer our extended family is going on an Alaskan cruise! There will be 20 of us and we will be celebrating some important milestones on this trip, from birthdays (80 and 90 years old) to a big 60th wedding anniversary!  Many hours of effort by other members of the family have been devoted to the planning of this trip, from T-shirts to dinner configurations and many other details that will all contribute to making this an eventful and memorable trip.

So in honor of our trip to Alaska I am offering the following suggestions for our reading pleasure. Although I have not read all of these books, I have carefully chosen them because they were either award winners, their authors are known to be good writers, or they were recommended by trusted sources. So let’s begin.   

Evidently you cannot go on a trip to Alaska without having read Call of the Wild (1903) or White Fang (1906) by Jack London (1876-1916) which are both set in the Yukon Territories during the Alskan gold rush.  Both of these classic books were on every list I consulted in trying to come up with my own.

As a young girl my dad read an abridged version of Call of the Wild to me. It was the most excruciatingly sad and intense story I had ever encountered.  I was both driven to learn what happened next to this amazing dog named Buck, who after being abducted from a safe and loving home must learn how to fend for himself in the wilds of Alaska, and terrified that it might be too painful to find out. I remember tears rolling down my face and my dad asking me if I wanted him to stop reading, and sobbing, “No, don’t stop!”  London’s themes of survival of the fittest, and descriptions of life outside the rules and niceties of civilized society are not sugar coated but presented in all their raw, shocking, honesty.

For the younger members of the family Julie of the Wolves, a Newbery Medal Award winner by Jean Craighead George  is a more nuanced story which also talks about animals and their relationship to people. It is child’s classic about an Eskimo girl lost on the Alaskan tundra and her friendship with a pack of wolves based on George’s own experiences in Alaska with a wolf researcher. I know my daughters read and enjoyed this book when they were in elementary school. Julie and Julie’s Wolf Pack continue the story.

More recently, Nick Jans wrote a book called A Wolf Named Romeo, about the true life experiences of a large wild wolf who began to periodically visit the people of suburban Juneau, Alaska over the course of six years. Based on his own initial encounter with this wolf in 2004, Jans an award winning writer and photographer narrates the story of this unique wolf  who defied the norms of wolf behavior and befriended first the dogs and then the people on the outskirts of Juneau. Jans intersperses the story of Romeo with his vast knowledge of wolves and the natural environment of Alaska which gives us added insight into how rare and special this encounter with a wolf was to the people and dogs of Juneau.

Finally, here are two books that actually talk about what it is like to live in Alaska. The first is Winds of Skilak, a first hand account of a young couple who moved from the suburbs of Ohio to Skilak Lake, Alaska. There they must learn how to survive the cold and isolation and learn to cope without electricity or running water. Winner of the 2014 Indie Award in the memoir category and a finalist for USA’s Book of the Year for 2014, this book tells what it is really like to live day to day in the Alaskan wilderness.

The second book by NPR contributor and author, Heather Lende is entitled If You Lived Here I Would Know Your Name. Lende lives in Tiny Haines Alaska, 90 miles north of Juneau which is accessible mainly by water or air-when the weather is good.  Lende writes the social column and the obituaries for the local newspaper and thus can be counted on to know everything that is going on in the town. Chatty and insightful, Lende gives us glimpses into what life is like in a small town in the middle of no where, from the high school principle who moonlights as Roy Orbison or the  the community’s mourning the life of a civic minded “aging hippie,” who gave so much, we are reminded how relationships and connections are the glue that holds us all together.

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, when I will offer some more award winning fiction set in Alaska! Hope you are getting excited about our trip, like I am!

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books to Read for an Alsakan Cruise, Children's Books, Fiction, memoir, Non Fiction, Prize winner, Series | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

City of Secrets by Stewart O’Nan

I am often surprised by what I learn reading books, especially historical novels. There are so many details, and interesting things that get lost in the telling when you only talk in general terms about what happened during and after a great conflict like WWII.

In City of Secrets, O’Nan tells about what happened in 1945 in Palestine and the city of Jerusalem. The British had been given a mandate by the UN to administer a portion of the Ottoman Empire which at that time was called Palestine, in 1923. But during and after WWII, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fled from the holocaust in Europe to Palestine. The British who already had their hands full with civil unrest between Jews and Arabs in the mandated territory, and having just quelled a major Arab revolt in 1936-39 were less than thrilled to have more Jews coming in to disrupt the uneasy peace. As a result, the refugees were hunted down by the British and when found were forcibly deported back to Europe. In response an underground resistance among the Jews living in the territory emerged and many new refugees were hidden in plain sight by giving them new identities and jobs. The new refugees, in gratitude for their new life, also became a part of this vast and competing network of various underground factions which supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Brand is one of those refugees. He came alone having lost everyone he had ever loved. He survived, but rather than celebrate his good fortune, the guilt weighs on him and he cannot explain why he and not the others lived through this extraordinary terror. Now in Jerusalem, driving a taxi provided by the underground faction that also gave him his identity, he is able to travel throughout the city without suspicion and provides rides and other services to those who helped him.  He quickly becomes a member of a small cell, unaware of any other members in the faction’s hierarchy-a safety measure in case someone gets caught and is tortured for information.

Slowly Brand begins to put the horrors of Europe behind him and becomes engaged in the fight for Eretz-Israel or a Jewish State. He falls in love with Eva, a woman who is in his cell, and slowly becomes an integral part of the cells activities. But as he is sent on more and more dangerous missions by Asher, the cell’s charismatic leader, he begins to suspect that he is being used. Brand also begins to discern a shadowy outline of a larger hierarchy and plan within the faction as he occasionally sees meetings and exchanges that he probably wasn’t supposed to see. But by the time he finally puts the pieces together it is too late and the tragic outcome changes the course of history.

O’Nan raises interesting questions about trust and control. What happens when we give our allegiance and support to movements that are ultimately beyond our control?  Can both faith and despair lead us astray? What is the human response to tragedy and betrayal? These questions and more could not be more relevant to our world today and O’Nan’s lucid and matter of fact prose helps us see the questions with all the more clarity.

Brenda’s Rating: **** (4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Ken and Keith

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format

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