Monday, March 28, 2011

Review - The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis

The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis
454 pages
published 2010

Synopsis from publisher:

Daughter of the Duke of Milan and wife of the conniving Count Girolamo Riario, Caterina Sforza was the bravest warrior Renaissance Italy ever knew. She ruled her own lands, fought her own battles, and openly took lovers whenever she pleased.

Her remarkable tale is told by her lady-in-waiting, Dea, a woman knowledgeable in reading the “triumph cards,” the predecessor of modern-day tarot cards. As Dea tries to unravel the truth about her husband's murder, Caterina single-handedly holds off invaders who would steal her title and lands. However, Dea's reading of the cards reveals that Caterina cannot withstand a third and final invader - none other than Cesare Borgia, son of the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, who has an old score to settle with Caterina. Trapped inside the fortress at Ravaldino as Borgia's cannons pound the walls, Dea reviews Caterina's scandalous past and struggles to understand their joint destiny, while Caterina valiantly tries to fight off Borgia's unconquerable army.

My thoughts:

Jeanne Kalogridis novels are such a guilty pleasure - I've been addicted to "kings and queens" stories ever since I discovered Jean Plaidy as a teenager, and for me there is nothing like getting lost in the world of carriages and corsets and political intrigue to help me relax at the end of the day.

Kalogridis mainly writes about women, and brings them to life in ways not seen in history books. Her Catarina Sforza is strong-willed and impetuous, but also generous and loving, intelligent and passionate. She holds her own with the powerful men in her life, and does her best to beat them at their own game. Catarina is truly a remarkable woman, and I was fascinated with her story.

In fact, my biggest issue with the novel is that, while it is supposed to be the story of Catarina, it is written from the perspective of Dea, Catarina's servant. Dea is certainly an interesting character, and her story intriguing in it's own right, but I was never as compelled to learn what was going to happen to her next. Much of the book was taken up with Dea's struggles, and I found myself wishing we could get more of Catarina's story instead.

But really, it's a minor quibble - I read these novels for the escapism they afford, and The Scarlet Countess fully delivered in that regard. It was full of romance and danger and political maneuvering, and it was a lot of fun to read. If you like historical fiction, don't pass this one up.

Finished: 3/27/11

Source: South Side library

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual situations and violence

My rating: 7/10

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Review - Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
published 2007
269 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

From the best-selling author of The Dew Breaker, a major work of nonfiction: a powerfully moving family story that centers around the men closest to her heart — her father, Mira, and his older brother, Joseph.

From the age of four, Edwidge Danticat came to think of her uncle Joseph, a charismatic pastor, as her "second father," when she was placed in his care after her parents left Haiti for a better life in America. Listening to his sermons, sharing coconut-flavored ices on their walks through town, roaming through the house that held together many members of a colorful extended family, Edwidge grew profoundly attached to Joseph. He was the man who "knew all the verses for love."

And so she experiences a jumble of emotions when, at twelve, she joins her parents in New York City. She is at last reunited with her two youngest brothers, and with her mother and father, whom she has struggled to remember. But she must also leave behind Joseph and the only home she's ever known.

Edwidge tells of making a new life in a new country while fearing for the safety of those still in Haiti as the political situation deteriorates. But Brother I'm Dying soon becomes a terrifying tale of good people caught up in events beyond their control. Late in 2004, his life threatened by an angry mob, forced to flee his church, the frail, eighty-one-year-old Joseph makes his way to Miami, where he thinks he will be safe. Instead, he is detained by U.S. Customs, held by the Department of Homeland Security, brutally imprisoned, and dead within days. It was a story that made headlines around the world. His brother, Mira, will soon join him in death, but not before he holds hope in his arms: Edwidge's firstborn, who will bear his name — and the family's stories, both joyous and tragic — into the next generation.

My thoughts:

This is a gorgeous, heartbreaking work. Danticat's story of the two men who raised her is both brutal and beautiful. She grew up in Haiti and the US during a time of great upheaval in her native country, and her family struggled to live through the fighting and unrest. The shadow of death is present throughout the entirety of the book, from the time Edwidge and her brother Bob are young children to the death of her father at the end of the story, and yet it never seems depressing or bleak. Rather, Danticat shows readers how a family comes together during the worst of times, loves each other through hell and back again, and remains hopeful when things look blackest.

She has written a love story on so many levels - love of country, love of family, love between husband and wife, father and daughter. Her writing is beautiful but not showy, exquisite but not self-conscious. Her story is quiet, and that is where it packs it's punch - those quiet moments in between the excitement, where she pierces your heart with her words.

"When you hear that someone has died whom you've not seen in a long time, it's not too difficult to pretend that it hasn't really happened, that the person is continuing to live just as she has before, in your absence, out of your sight. The day of Marie Micheline's funeral, when I spoke to my uncle on the phone, I experienced the biggest failing of his new voice. Like distance, it masked pain. Still, his pauses were like sobs, the expansion or contraction of his words mechanical traces of sorrow." (p. 135-136)

I do like nonfiction, so it wasn't a surprise to me that I enjoyed this book. But I think it would be a good introduction to the genre for a reader who isn't sure where to start - it has family drama, and the setting in Haiti has current interest for anyone who pays attention to the news. I found this to be an excellent read - highly recommended!

Finished: 3/17/11
Source: my mom
MPAA rating: PG-13 for tension and violence
My rating: 8/10

Friday, March 18, 2011

Review - Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War by John Scalzi
318 pages
published 2005

Synopsis from publisher:

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce—and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine—and what he will become is far stranger.

My thoughts:

I came at this series backwards - a couple of years ago, I read and reviewed Zoe's Tale, the last book in the Old Man's War series. I fell in love with Scalzi's writing as I was reading that novel, and honestly don't know what it has taken me so long to pick the series back up again. I was completely captivated with Zoe, and in Old Man's War I became equally captivated with her father, John Perry.

Perry is just an ordinary guy - fairly intelligent, with a good sense of humor, who misses his wife. He's the kind of person everyone can relate to in one way or another, so watching him make the journey from naive civilian to battle-scarred soldier is fascinating. I could see myself in his emotions and reactions, and that only served to make him more sympathetic. Perry's group of friends - the Old Farts, as they call themselves - are diverse and interesting, and each feels like someone you would enjoy knowing.

Scalzi is a wonderful storyteller, spinning his tale with humor and tension, keeping the reader turning pages long after they should be in bed for the night. He also gives the reader much to think about - questions about the glorification or vilification of the military, the importance of personal identity and what it means to be truly human - but never in a way that feels heavy-handed or preachy. And I very much enjoy his writing style - here is an excerpt that describes the last time Perry and his friends see Earth:

"And then the Earth slowly began to shrink in the video screen, still massive, and still brilliant blue and white, but clearly, inexorably, beginning to take up a smaller portion of the screen. We silently watched it shrink, all of the several hundred recruits who came to look. I looked over at Harry, who, despite his earlier blustering, was quiet and reflective. Jesse had a tear on her cheek.
'Hey', I said, and gripped her hand. 'Not too sad, remember?'
She smiled and me and gripped my hand. 'No', she said hoarsely. 'Not too sad. But even still. Even still.'
We sat there some more and watched everything we ever knew shrink in the viewscreen." (p.45)

My husband and I read this book together, and both enjoyed it very much. It prompted a rather in-depth discussion about the physics involved in the novel. (As Harry says over and over, I just don't have the math. *grin*)

I love this series, and can't recommend it highly enough. It would be a great introduction to science fiction for someone who is unsure of the genre. Scalzi recently announced on his website that Old Man's War has been optioned for a movie deal - that is one movie I can't wait to see!

Finished: 3/13/11
Source: my shelves
MPAA rating: R for sexuality and strong military violence
My rating: 9/10

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Review - The Moonlit Earth by Christopher Rice

The Moonlit Earth by Christopher Rice
published 2010
362 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

When Megan and Cameron Reynolds' father walked out on their mother, they forged an unbreakable bond. If their father could not be there to take care of them, they would always be there to take care of each other. But life intervenes, and siblings go separate ways . . . until something happens to reforge that bond.

At thirty, faced with disappointments in career and romance, Megan Reynolds returns to the safety of Cathedral Beach, the home of her mother, who lives among the wealthy with no money of her own. Cameron worries that his sister will lose herself around their mothers frivolous life, but Megan worries more about her brother. She worries that Cameron's care- free charm, which makes him popular in both his work as a flight attendant on a luxury airline and the West Hollywood party scene he enjoys, could lead him into danger.

When a bomb goes off in a high-end hotel in Hong Kong, security-camera footage appears on television showing two men escaping: one Middle Eastern and one American. Megan and her mother recognize the young American as Cameron and find that he has become enmeshed with a mysterious family of wealthy Saudis.

In her desperate journey to save her brothers life, Megan uncovers a trail of secrets and intrigue that snakes from the decadent beaches of southern Thailand to the glass skyscrapers of Hong Kong and finds herself part of a dark global conspiracy that involves a member of her own family.

My thoughts:

Did you catch all that? We have family trauma, potential terrorism, global conspiracy, thwarted romance....this was not my favorite Christopher Rice novel, mostly because I think he added one too many plot points and just couldn't quite pull it all together.

Had he wanted to, Rice could have given us a perfectly satisfying novel about the family secrets and tragedies of the Reynolds clan. Or, he could have told Cameron's story, about his whirlwind involvement with the royal Saudi family. Or, he could have given us a thriller about mistaken identity and global secrecy. Unfortunately, in trying to give us all three, he ultimately leaves the reader feeling just a bit unsatisfied. I just didn't feel like any of the three story lines were given enough time to fully develop, and I wasn't ever able to delve deeply enough into the thoughts and motivations of his characters.

Unfortunately, while much of the novel was entertaining, I felt it ultimately didn't live up to it's promise. I'm sure I will read the next Christopher Rice novel, but I don't know that he will be on my "must-read" list after this.

Finished: 2/28/11

Source: South Side library

MPAA rating: R for violence and sexuality

My rating: 6/10