Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter

by Oliver Potzsch
translated by Lee Chadeayne

This book was on my reading list for several months before I finally broke down. My biggest reservation was the subject matter, German witch torture and trials in the 1600's, because I got my fill of the Salem witch trials when I was in high school; since that time I have pretty much avoided this topic. For whatever reason, I decided to go ahead with The Hangman's Daughter, I'm a sucker for titles!

The premise of the story is a small German town accusing the town midwife of being a witch after finding some dead children with strange marks drawn on their shoulders. The town's hangman and physician begin a mission to clear her name and avoid another witch-hunt, recalling the previous one in 1589 that led to nearly 60 of their women being burned at the stake. The idea had potential, but the execution just wasn't there (no pun intended). The first thing to put me off was the author's excessive use of similes, many that were odd in the context causing me to think about the comparison rather than the story and disrupting the flow of reading. Another thing that bothered me was the sensationalism, particularly during the chase section, which wasn't believable and seemed to drag on only to make the book longer. And a minor thing, I think the book would have been better named The Hangman of Schongau,  more reflective of the plot.

I did think the information about hangmen was interesting and apparently true to history. The author is a direct descendant of the Kusil dynasty, who were apparently the most famous line of hangmen in Bavaria. I also liked the controversy regarding the advance of medical knowledge and treatments that was universal during this time.

The book was an okay read, but not one I would enthusiastically recommend.  I am not sure if something was lost in translation?

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

by Susan Gregg Gilmore

Don't judge a book by it's cover, which in this case looked promising based on the title. Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen is supposed to be a great Southern novel comparable to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but trust me the only thing they have in common is the Southern (and a great title). I found the story and characters dull and seemed to be reading just to finish the book. Much of the dialogue and storyline seemed unbelievable. I also had issue with the chronology of the narrator, Catherine Grace, because she kept bouncing around in her life from nine to eighteen years old and particularly in the beginning it was hard to decide how old she was at the moment.

The thing I find most intriguing is how highly rated this book is on Amazon. Whenever I have such difference of opinion I wonder if we've actually read the same book. If you want a great Southern novel read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Girl With a Pearl Earring

by Tracy Chevalier

I first saw this book several years ago on display at B&N and considered reading it. Many times I have picked it up only to set it down for another selection. When I began the reading challenge and saw a selection for a book with gem or jewelry in the title, I knew immediately I would choose Girl With a Pearl Earring.

The book is set in a Dutch village during the 1600's and tells the story of Johannes Vermeer and several of his paintings, including the book's namesake, by whom it is narrated. Griet is a teen when she takes the job as maid to the Vermeer's. She soon catches the attention of the master and painter who begins to use her as his apprentice, teaching her to grind bones and mix paints. She even suggests a few adaptions to some works that the artist accepts.

What I really liked about this book were the descriptions of the paintings and the stories about how and why each was created (of coarse it is fictional, but fun to consider the possibility). I used this website  to find each painting Griet describes. I also liked the explorations of color and balance discussed throughout the novel. I do not have an eye for these details, but I appreciated getting a glimpse of how an artist might work and look at things.

Now I need a trip to view these paintings in real life: New York, Washington DC, or Amsterdam would do!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thirteen Reasons Why

by Jay Asher

This isn't really a book to like or dislike because of the seriousness of the topic: teen suicide. I am sure suicide should be addressed more openly and I believe Asher was trying to create a discussion starter in Thirteen Reasons Why. As I read this book, I tried to look at it from the perspective intended (Young Adult) and I think the author did present many stressors faced by teens, from fitting in, drinking, drugs and sex to loneliness. Two characters narrate the story, often in alternating paragraphs or sentences.

The main thing that makes this a bit disturbing is that one narrator, Hannah, has committed suicide and has left her story behind in a series of tapes for a number of her peers that she "blamed" for her decision to end her life. The other narrator, Clay, is one of those on the list listening to the tapes as the story of Hannah's troubles unfold. Although I had trouble with Hannah's blame game, it is sadly probably realistic from a teen's point of view. She just took common high school incidents very hard and couldn't get past them, so they started piling up beyond where she could be positive about anything and even to the point of self-sabotage.

One of the main messages I took from this book is our responsibility to others, how our actions affect the lives of others, often in ways we might never realize. Also how important it is for us to be sensitive and maybe even looking for those in trouble.

I honestly can't say if I would want my teen to read this book because I think it gave too much credence to the idea of a suicide victim blaming others and didn't get to a point of how that person could face and deal with their distress.

This was our July book club selection and I realized it can also count toward my book challenge as a book with a number in the title. Killed two birds with one stone!

Thursday, July 7, 2011


by Michelle Moran

When I began reading Nefertiti I thought I would like the story, but as it progressed through time I was just reading to finish the book. I don't know a lot of Egyptian history so as I read, I also did some google searches just to get a perspective on accuracy. This book did make many speculations on what little is actually known about Nefertiti and to some extent that has to be expected in a fictional account. A few inaccuracies bothered me because they weren't necessary for the story line, so why not be factual when you can?

The main thing that dragged the book down for me was character development. The story began when Nefertiti and her sister (Mutnodjmet) were young girls, Nefertiti was egocentric and domineering while her sister was weak and submissive. The Pharaoh Akhenaten was portrayed as a jealous man on the brink of insanity.  Throughout the book they were always acting and reacting in the same fashion, Nefertiti bossing sister, parents and husband; sister expressing self-pity; and Akhenaten doing unbelievable things so the people would love him. Just started seeming unbelievable after a while. The characters just never grew so they started to become dull.

Since so little is known about Nefertiti I found the author's take on the possible history to be an interesting idea (not sure about the plague concept... maybe could have been a plague, but would they really call it Black Death at that time?) The story is narrated by the sister, about whom even less is known, but it does present how tied to (and obsessed with) the crown these families become. The style and perspective is much like The Other Boleyn Girl.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Kitchen House

by Kathleen Grissom

For the most part I liked this book. Ms. Grissom does a good job creating likeable (and unlikeable) characters who endure a host of tragedies. The Kitchen House is told from alternating first person narratives of two characters, both of whom are slaves on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Lavinia's enslavement is presented on two levels, first as an indentured servant to the house and finally as the wife to an abusive, alcoholic husband. Belle's slavery, too is unusual, having grown up in "the big house" the daughter of the homeowner and one of his slaves. After the death of mother and grandmother, Belle is sent to serve in the kitchen house.

Besides these two unusual circumstances of slavery, all other characters are rather stereotypical: slaves, sickly matron, evil plantation master, kindly relatives. The plot is moved forward from one misfortune to the next, but I didn't find it either surprising or depressing and maybe even expected. I liked the characters, the plantation and the concept enough to keep reading, and although the end ties mostly into a nice bow, it isn't perfect.

At times I did not think the voices of the narrators were in accordance with their current level of maturity, particularly Lavinia, who also seemed overly naive and unable to catch on to the obvious. Belle's story seemed to fill in where Lavinia fell short.

I think this is a quick and easy read that gives good representation of pre-civil war plantation conditions.