Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 410 pages
On Amazon, on Kobo

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which was our May book club selection, is a suspenseful story centered around Rebecca de Winter, who by society’s standards was charming, beautiful, and unmatched by other ladies of the upper class.  It has been about 10 months to a year since her passing when Maxim de Winter meets a young woman, who remains the unnamed narrator of the story, in Monte Carlo as the paid companion of Mrs. Van Hopper a gossipy and grasping woman who uses any tiny connection to weasel her way into parties, etc.  Once her employer contracts influenza, the narrator is free to do what she likes since a private nurses is necessary.  As a result, she ends up spending a number of afternoons with the enigmatic Mr. de Winter and later agrees to marry him.

“The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end.  They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive.  The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church.” (page 1)

While my copy’s jacket cover speaks of the novel as a “classic tale of romantic suspense,” there was little romance between the unnamed narrator and Mr. de Winter.  While the new Mrs. de Winter is naive and unable to cope with running a magnificent household like Manderlay, she has zero backbone, even as Mrs. Danvers, the home’s housekeeper, plays the dirtiest trick on her.  This narrator is an unlikeable character from the start with her whiny nature and her inability to speak her mind, even to her husband.  Even though in this time period, women were supposed to be obedient and meek, they also were expected to run entire households with a forceful hand.  The new Mrs. de Winter is Rebecca’s antithesis in every way.

“I listened to them both, leaning against Maxim’s arm, rubbing my chin on his sleeve.  He stroked my hand absently, not thinking, talking to Beatrice.

‘That’s what I do to Jasper,’ I thought. ‘I’m being like Jasper now, leaning against him.  He pats me now and again, when he remembers, and I’m pleased, I get closer to him for a moment. He likes me in the way I like Jasper.'” (page 103)

Neither of the main characters are likeable, as the retrospective narrative keeps readers at a distance from their love affair and their romance.  The highlights of the novel were the comical Mr. Favell, Rebecca’s first cousin, and Beatrice, who is plain spoken.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is suspenseful, though ridiculous at times, and there are highly descriptive paragraphs about nature.  The narrative is bogged down by the descriptions and the dream-like conversations she has with herself about upcoming events and confrontations.  While the plot is interesting, it is tough to feel empathy for the main narrator and to cheer her on.

About the Author:

Daphne was born in 1907, grand-daughter of the brilliant artist and writer George du Maurier, daughter of Gerald, the most famous Actor Manager of his day, she came from a creative and successful family.

The du Maurier family were touring Cornwall with the intention of buying a house for future holidays, when they came across “Swiss Cottage”, located adjacent to the ferry at Bodinnick. Falling in love with the cottage and its riverside location, they moved in on May 14th, 1927, Daphne had just turned 20.

She began writing short stories the following year, and in 1931 her first novel, ‘The Loving Spirit’ was published. It received rave reviews and further books followed. Then came her most famous three novels, ‘Jamaica Inn’, ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ and Rebecca’. Each novel being inspired by her love of Cornwall, where she lived and wrote.

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club had a mixed reaction to this one; there were several members who enjoyed the story, but not the descriptions of nature.  There were too many words, one member said.  Others saw the background of the narrator as an obstacle she needed to overcome in order to mature.  One member pointed out that the narrator — even in retrospect — did not seem to offer any judgment about herself and behaviors, leaving readers to wonder whether she had matured at all.  The whiny nature of the character was tough to take for some readers, while other were interested in her little internal debates about others’ reactions to her actions or the actions she could have taken.  A few did not see the relationship between Max and the new wife as very loving, especially when she talks about him petting her like a dog.

11th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge(Set in Monaco)

18th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

31st book for 2014 New Author Challenge.

Death With Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 238 pages
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Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, (on Kobo) reads like a fable with the anthropomorphization of dogs and death.  Saramago’s style lacks punctuation, dialogue separations, and other grammatical elements that many readers come to rely upon, but in this case, these omissions are done with purpose.  Once readers immerse themselves into the narrative, these grammatical signals are not warranted.  The “what-if” scenario in this novel is what would happen if death took a vacation, and no one died — but remained just on the cusp of death and life, unable to improve and get better and unable to fully pass away. 

What transpires is a country in chaos, hospitals overflowing with patients in a sort of stasis before death and nursing homes unable to care for all of the ailing in the most dignified way.  His prose is heavy handed against the government, religion, and business, as well as human nature in general, particularly when explaining the motivations behind the care and disposal of the living-dead.  The absurdity of the scenario and the satire are focused heavily on the internal decision makers and the elite of the church bureaucracy.  Readers will either find his prose humorous in his treatment of these elements, or they will be confused or taking it too seriously that they find the story too limited in scope or too focused on the mundane.

“And then, as if time had stopped, nothing happened.  The queen mother neither improved nor deteriorated, she remained there in suspension, her frail body hovering on the very edge of life, threatening at any moment to tip over onto the other side, yet bound to this side by a tenuous thread to which, out of some strange caprice, death, because it could only have been death, continued to keep hold.” (page 3)

Amidst the heavy handed and grim dealings of the government, religion, and medical fields to deal with the crisis of no on being able to die and be buried, Saramago offers readers a look at the darker side of humanity following an initial euphoria that immortality had been achieved.  A deeply philosophical fable, this novel is almost of two minds — focused on the human institutions and their reaction in one half and then focused on the reasons why death has ceased and wanted a vacation from it all.  While the latter half of the book is very reminiscent of those old myths about the gods falling for humans, Saramago never loses sight of who death is and how manipulative and tactless she can be.  She’s romancing a cellist, but in the only way death can, with veiled threats of harm and mystery about her intentions.  Some readers will either love the last third of the book or find it too cliche.

Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa — our April book club selection — examines what it means to face death or the knowledge of death, whether you get your affairs in order and atone for past sins or go out in a blaze of glory.  Saramago will have readers questioning their own mortality.

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club was all over the place with this one, with some really finding it humorous, a few not even finishing the book, and a few others that simply hated it.  While many abhorred the writing style, others didn’t mind it as much, but wanted a more impactful story about individual families or characters — they wanted to see the more human side of things.  None of the members agreed on who the narrator could be, though some suspected God, the Scythe, or Love as the narrators.  While I was dealing with a toddler during this meeting and a migraine, I probably missed a lot of the discussion, which is unfortunate for me, since I’ve read a few of this novelist’s books before and may have been able to help with a bit of the background, etc. for him and his writing.  There is definitely a great number of issues to talk about and definitely will raise dilemmas, but the members will have to get through the book first.

About the Author:

José de Sousa Saramago (1922–2010) was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature.  He was a member of the Portuguese Communist Party.  His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with among others Freitas-Magalhaes. He lived on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he died in June 2010.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 235 pages
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The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway is a truncated look at the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s that lasted about three years, though in this novel, it is reduced to about 30 days.  While the cellist is a real individual, Galloway has crafted him into a larger-than-life character, who signifies the hope that the people of Sarajevo cling to even in the face of dead bodies left to rot in the streets.  In addition to the cellist, who is more of an abstraction than a character with his own perspective, there is Arrow, a young, female sniper, Kenan, who has a wife and three children to care for, and Dragan, an older man who works at the local bakery.  Through alternating chapters, the fear and angst felt by these characters becomes heightened for the reader as they watch people fall to their knees after snipers shoot them or as the shelling begins and their own lives are at the mercy of chance.  The novel has a heavy atmosphere, a gray smoldering that permeates through the pages, weighing down the characters, slumping their shoulders and pushing them into darker places.

“If this city is to die, it won’t be because of the men on the hills, it will be because of the people in the valley.” (page 213)

Arrow has joined the resistance to fight against those that wish to destroy her people and the city, but while she’s been given free rein to choose her own military targets, things are about to change for her, and the hatred she feels for “them” — who are never clearly defined — becomes a motivator and a detriment to her.  Her character is pushed to the limit and she’s forced to make a decision that could be detrimental — a move that was rather dramatic and a bit predictable.  Kenan, meanwhile, is merely striving to keep his family alive, running to the brewery with his water containers to ensure they have enough to get through the next couple of weeks.  He makes these trips trembling in fear, but the fear only momentarily paralyzes him as he remembers the life before the siege and what life would be like without it.  He holds onto his daydreams of a family engrossed in its daily chores and entertainments, and keeps moving.  Dragan has been traveling to the bakery in solitude, rarely speaking to strangers and nearly always avoiding conversation with those he knew before the siege, cutting himself off.  Readers spend a great deal of time with him at an intersection where people are forced to take chances with their lives when they cross — some running, some sauntering, and some zigzagging across.

“‘Give Raza my love,’ she says, leaning in and hugging him.  She feels warm and substantial, much larger than when he hugged her only a short time ago.  She has become real to him again.” (page 115-6)

Galloway’s novel is about what it means to be in the midst of war, without understanding the reasons behind it, and yet, still facing the violence on a daily basis.  Readers will be required to ask themselves what is important, and to draw their own conclusions about why the cellist sits at 4 p.m. for 22 days to play Albinoni’s Adagio — the site of a mortar shelling where 22 people were killed while waiting in line for bread. Although lacking actual political/sociological motivations and the time line of the siege, Galloway seems to have a handle on the range of emotions and reactions people can have in war — whether it be a focus on hatred and revenge or the dissociation people can feel from their own country men in the face of uncertainty and death. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a novel in simple prose that belies the complexity of the moral and emotional issues it addresses.

About the Author:

Steven Galloway was born in Vancouver, and raised in Kamloops, British Columbia. He attended the University College of the Cariboo and the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Finnie Walsh, was nominated for the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. His second novel, Ascension, was nominated for the BC Book Prizes’ Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and has been translated into numerous languages. His third novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, was published in spring of 2008. It was heralded as “the work of an expert” by the Guardian, and has become an international bestseller with rights sold in 20 countries. Galloway has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia.

What the Book Club Thought:

Even though three members were unable to make the meeting, those that were able to attend seemed to like the novel, with one member saying that it was an easy and short read. Two members liked the POV of Arrow best, while one seemed to like both Arrow and Dragan and another preferred Kenan. One member believed that Kenan was the most human of the characters because of his interactions with other people throughout his travels to get water, while another thought that Dragan was more realistic in his detachment from others because of the harshness of war and the constant fear the residents endured. Arrow’s POV was more active, and one member enjoyed the use of strategy she employed in her efforts to protect the cellist. It seems as though this book was well received among the members in attendance.

This is my 78th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, narrated by Simon Vance

Source: Public Library
Audiobook, 9 CDs
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Our August book club selection, His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire book 1) by Naomi Novik, narrated by Simon Vance, meshes the Napoleonic wars with dragons.  The novel opens with the capture of a French frigate run by a crew unwilling to give up its prize, a near hatching dragon egg, to the British HMS Reliant and Capt. Will Laurence.  While the prize is a great find, the hatchling will be very dangerous should it emerge while they are at sea where there are no mates, trainers, or food available. The situation forces the captain to have the men without families draw straws to determine who would become responsible for the dragon and its egg while aboard.

Handlers of dragons are considered second-class citizens, causing severe disappointment among families and generating a great separateness between handlers and their families.  Generally, children as young as seven are taken away from home for training.  While the young John Carver, who is afraid of heights, is selected to be the dragon’s handler, the dragon has other ideas.  When the dragon speaks, the men are astonished as they expected there to be a trick to getting them to speak.  Once named, Temeraire becomes the focus of the Reliant and its crew, and its relationship to Laurence takes an unexpected turn.

Vance’s voices are easily discernible as different characters and he excels at expressing the character’s fears and awe as he speaks their dialogue, but Novik tends to rely a great deal on adverbs to demonstrate fear or anxiousness and in some cases at the beginning the narration seems to contradict itself — either the dragon egg is an unusual find or a well-known item captured in the surgeon’s books about different dragons or there is a three hour trip to London from Madeira or a three hour trip from London to Scotland, but it is unlikely that both would take that long by transport or dragon.  There is a great deal of explanation through the characters about what they know and don’t know about the dragons, which can get tiresome as the descriptions become longer than necessary.

However, the growing relationship between Temeraire and Laurence is endearing.  And the conflicts between handlers about the care for the dragons and Laurence’s expectations about the training build up the tension as Napoleon continues to mount his forces.  While the first half of the book seems to be setting up the world for the dragons and can drag on a bit, the second half picks up speed with the battles and fighting.  The audio, as narrated by Vance, enables readers to become more closely engaged in the relationship between Temeraire and his handler, as they learn how to fly formations in training for battle and as they get to know one another.  There are a number of endearing scenes in which the handler and the dragon curl up together, with the handler reading to the dragon about mathematics, naval history, and more.

His Majesty’s Dragon (Temeraire book 1) by Naomi Novik satisfactorily meshes history with dragons, but the strength of the novel is in the relationships built between the dragons and their handlers.  These relationships are caring and strengthen with the passage of time, so much so that handlers often plan their futures around them.


This is my 53rd book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.


About the Author:

An avid reader of fantasy literature since age six, when she first made her way through The Lord of the Rings, Naomi Novik is also a history buff with a particular interest in the Napoleonic era and a fondness for the work of Patrick O’Brian and Jane Austen. She studied English literature at Brown University, and did graduate work in computer science at Columbia University before leaving to participate in the design and development of the computer game Neverwinter Nights: Shadow of Undrentide. Over the course of a brief winter sojourn spent working on the game in Edmonton, Canada (accompanied by a truly alarming coat that now lives brooding in the depths of her closet), she realized she preferred writing to programming, and on returning to New York, decided to try her hand at novels.  Naomi lives in New York City with her husband and six computers.

What the book club thought:

It seemed as though most of the members enjoyed the book, and one member said that the historical facts about the Napoleonic wars were accurate for the most part.  Some expressed an inability or slight difficulty in determining the size of the dragons or transports used to move the dragons.  One member, who led the group, pointed out that the illustrator in the back of the book got some of the details wrong in the section that explains the differences between the dragons and their features.  One member said that she was not really excited to read the book because she doesn’t usually read fantasy books, but the author made it seem plausible that dragons would fit into our world.  She also indicated that she wanted one of her own dragons to curl up with and read to, and she would like to read the other eight books in the series.  Another member said that if Napoleon really did have dragons the world might have been more in trouble than it was at the time.  One male member had not finished the book, but said that he would continue reading.  Overall, is seems like the club enjoyed this foray into fantasy novels.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 244 pages
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, first published in 1968, was our June book club selection, and is the basis on which the classic movie Blade Runner is based.  (Previous to reading the novel, I’ve seen the movie, and recent memories of the watching the movie kept me alert for similarities in the book)  Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, who works for little money in San Fransisco’s Police Department, and what money he does make is from bounties on the heads of escaped androids that escape Mars often by killing humans.  Society has evolved to the point at which androids are so human-like that they cannot be sniffed out except through a couple of tests administered by bounty hunters, which will puzzle the reader as to why the android would sit for such a test knowing that to fail means immediate retirement — a.k.a death.

Animals are no different, with many of the animals made extinct by the war and fallout, and residents of this desolate Earth are desperate to own an animal, even if it is an electric sheep.  As David Sedaris says in his essay “Loggerheads” in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, “As with the sea turtle, part of the thrill was the feeling of being accepted … allowed you to think that you and this creature had a special relationship …”  These humans are looking for connections in any way that they can get them, either through animal ownership — such as ownership of electric animals — or through the empathy machine that connects them with other members of society through Mercerism.

“Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet.  Because, ultimately, the emphatic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated.”  (page 51)

In Roger Zelazny’s introduction, he says, “His management of a story takes you from here to there in a God-knows-how, seemingly haphazard fashion, which, upon reflection, follows a logical line of development — but only on reflection.”  He’s correct in that the story shifts from Deckard’s story to that of J.R. Isidore, a so-called special or chickenhead who has been declared genetically unfit to emigrate to the Mars colony.  Isidore lives alone in a dilapidated apartment building filled with kipple, the detritus and radioactive dust, etc.  His condition requires readers to have a lot of patience for his ramblings, which in some cases seem like LSD trips or a schizophrenic break, but in some ways, Dick is attempting to demonstrate another aspect of loneliness and disconnect than what he’s showcased in the human-android relationship.  In addition, Dick seems to want readers to think long and hard about their faith in religion as the subject of Mercerism pervades the story as a way for humanity to connect on a deeper level through technological means.

“Here there existed no one to record his or anyone else’s degradation, and any courage or pride which might manifest itself here at the end would go unmarked: the dead stones, the dust-stricken weeds dry and dying, perceived nothing, recollected nothing, about him or themselves.”  (page 231)

Deckard is a man conflicted about his job, but only after he meets an android he finds attractive, and as with most men living on the edge and crossing over moral lines, he struggles to regain his footing and return to his real life and think little about what he’s done.  While he’s cocky about his abilities to take down androids, that bravado soon gives way to concern, doubt, and even fear.  Dick’s surreal narrative will leave readers guessing about the direction of the chase for the androids and whether Deckard will have the strength to complete his task or whether in completing that task he’ll have a complete breakdown or experience no repercussions what so ever.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick is an exploration not of the future, but of ourselves and our never-ending search for connection with others — whether that is with an android, a spouse, a co-worker, a lover, or an animal.  In his convoluted and disconcerting narrative, the author seeks to upend the beliefs of his readers and challenge their moral boundaries.  Unfortunately, there are big gaps in the narrative and the background about the war that caused the destruction of Earth, the origins of Mercerism, and what exactly is going on Mars — are androids in control of Mars, turning humans into androids, or something else.  These are just some of the issues that are not explored fully in this cerebral exercise.

What the Book Club Thought:

Most of the book club liked the book a great deal, with two members liking it more than they expected to when they began reading it.  Dick is one of the member’s favorite authors.  In the discussion, we touched upon the jabs at capitalism throughout the text in that animals are bought and sold at high prices and the addiction of characters to the mood organ (on which they can preset their mood for the day) and the empathy machine, which allows humans to commune with one another and Mercer.  These machines seemed to leave humans dependent and in a fog, but there is also the surreal portions of the story that left many of us guessing as to whether a spider found by Isidore was real or imaginary and Rick’s sudden transformation into Mercer without the empathy machine after completing his job.

The ownership of androids (which are advertised as an incentive to move to Mars) was compared to that of owning slaves, as well as why bounty hunters were necessary to retire the androids — are they dangerous or just different?  I theorized that perhaps the incentive of owning an android was a ploy to get humans to Mars so they could be replaced with androids.  None of the other members seemed to agree.  One member also questioned from the beginning whether Rick was human or an android, though most of the members assumed he was human.  Other topics touched upon were that the androids were child-like and not as evolved as humans and hence why they sometimes acted with malice, and that perhaps given more time to live, they could develop empathy, thus making them harder to distinguish from humans.

Our July book club selection is His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik.

About the Author:

Philip K. Dick was born in Chicago in 1928 and lived most of his life in California. He briefly attended the University of California, but dropped out before completing any classes. In 1952, he began writing professionally and proceeded to write numerous novels and short-story collections. He won the Hugo Award for the best novel in 1962 for The Man in the High Castle and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best novel of the year in 1974 for Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Philip K. Dick died on March 2, 1982, in Santa Ana, California, of heart failure following a stroke.

This is my 40th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman

Book Source:  Library
Paperback: 308 pages
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The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman, which was our May book club selection (unfortunately, I missed this meeting due to obligations at the 2013 Gaithersburg Book Festival), is based on true events in near the end of Vincent Van Gogh’s life in Auvers, France, in the 1890s.  Told from the point of view of Marguerite Gachet, a story unfolds not so much about Van Gogh but about the cloistered life of a young woman trapped inside her own family home by not only an overbearing and controlling father, but also family secrets.  More than that, it is a tribute to an artist and the tension between that art and the desire to have a normal life, as well as the struggle between family obligation and one’s own desires.

“For a home that had so many colors and vibrant paintings on its walls, there were still so many shades of gray between us.”  (page 182)

Richman does really well in using painting techniques and colors to describe the scenes in Auvers, and it is almost as if the reader has stepped inside one of Van Gogh’s paintings and is walking around among the village’s people.  Another surprising element is that the chapter headings, which often appear in some translated works, are less in-your-face about each chapter’s contents.  The headings also add to the atmosphere of the novel, reinforcing the painting and French aspects of the novel.

“I had gone out to do my errands, as I always did in the early afternoon.  It was a warm, radiant day in May.  The sky was cornflower blue, the sun the color of crushed marigolds.  I have to confess that I walked a little slower that day when I passed by the station.  I knew approximately which train he would be arriving on.  So I walked with smaller steps than usual, carrying my basket of eggs and my loaves of bread.”  (page 1)

From the moment readers meet Marguerite, they can see her rebellious nature, even though her daily tasks showcase her obedience to her father at every turn.  When the secrets begin to unravel, she finds herself less torn between duty and desire and more willing to follow her own mind and heart, even if it means getting caught.  Her father is the most irritating and self-absorbed character as he seeks to ingratiate himself into the artistic community by claiming his tinctures are actual cures.  And the son, Paul, is just as bad as he attempts to please his father at every turn and garner his favor.  The only way he can gain that favor is through Marguerite’s downfall, which she brings about on her own during her fateful meeting with Van Gogh.

The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman is a rich story in character, setting, and nuance.  Van Gogh’s perceptive nature as an artist shines through in his painting of Dr. Gachet as an aging man with sallow features, but it also shines through in his paintings of Marguerite at the piano and in the garden.  A love story in painting that comes alive with each brush stroke, only to be mired by the rain streaked canvases touched by tinctures that are misused and the controlling desires of a man torn between propriety and his obsession with art.

About the Author:

Alyson Richman is the author of “The Mask Carver’s Son,” “The Rhythm of Memory (formerly published as Swedish Tango),” The Last Van Gogh,” and the national best-seller, “The Lost Wife.” She loves to travel, cook, ride her yellow bicycle, and do ballet. She currently lives in New York with her husband and two children.

This is my 33rd book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell

Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat, translated by Anthea Bell, is a dystopian young adult novel set some time after a civil war has torn apart an unnamed nation.  If any of this sounds familiar, it should — Hunger Games — and like Suzanne Collins’ book, kids and adults are required to fight in an Arena, though more in gladiator style with swords.  And the similarities do not end there, but there are differences between this world and Collins’ world, with the Hunger Games capital seemingly more dangerous and the world of the districts more stark.

Mourlevat spends a great deal of time on the boarding school and building the characters of Milena and Helen.  These young girls are taken to a boarding school at the edge of the world, where they must memorize and follow 20 rules to stay out of the SKY, which isn’t the sky at all.  During the year, they have three opportunities to meet in the village with their consolers, who basically provide the children comfort and guidance.  The girls’ adventures begin on one such trip they meet two boys, Milos and Bartolomeo.

“The Sky did not deserve its name.  Far from being high in the air above, the detention cell was underneath the cellars.  You reached it from the refectory, down a long, spiral staircase with cold water dripping from the steps.  The cell measured about seven by ten feet.  The walls and floor smelled musty, earthy.  When the door closed behind you, all you could do was grope your way over to the wooden bed, sit or lie on it, and wait.  You were alone in the darkness and silence for hours.”  (page 7)

In the back of the book, the author mentions that the story is based upon the life of Kathleen Mary Ferrier, an English contralto singer.  In some ways the recruitment of Ferrier during WWII is similar to Milena’s mother’s story, but in other ways they are vastly different.  There is a resistance in Winter’s End, but it remains very mysterious to the very end when the network begins to take action against the Phalange.  While the oppressors show no compassion for those different than themselves and shoot down unarmed individuals or send dog-like men against the innocent, the Phalange remain mysterious — their origins, their motivations, and the history with the oppressed.  In many ways, the actions against Milena’s mother and Bart’s father seemed more related to a broken-hearted man, than an over-arching battle between the Phalange and the resistance.

Winter’s End is a thrill ride in the latter half of the book, and it will definitely keep the attention of younger readers.  It’s also aptly named, as the sun seems to be shining more brightly by the end of the novel, though an epilogue about Helen’s consoler and her son was not necessarily needed and seemed like it was tacked on as an afterthought.  Overall a satisfying read, but not near the caliber of other books in this category.

About the Author:

Jean-Claude Mourlevat once wrote and directed burlesque shows for adults and children, which were performed for more than ten years in France and abroad. The author of several children’s books, he lives in a house overhanging the River Loire, near Saint-Etienne, France.

About the Translator:

Anthea Bell OBE is an English translator who has translated numerous literary works, especially children’s literature, from French, German, Danish and Polish to English.

This is my  28th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

Here’s What the Book Club Thought:

Overall, most of us enjoyed the writing in this YA book the most, and there was a great many symbols of French culture, particularly the power of music and symbols to a revolution.  The young lady in the group who selected the book did not like Milena as much because she was too perfect, while another member said she was more like a symbol than a character — harkening to the symbol of the revolution bit that the author seemed to be striving for.  Two or three members were saddened by events that killed off one particular character who had become a favorite, and another member pointed out how there was a lot of build up in the book about the revolution but little action.  One member wanted more of that action, and I think most agreed that the end of the book seemed rushed.  Overall, it was just an OK read for most of the group, with the youngest member planning to give it four stars.

World Book Night 2013

What is World Book Night?

It is one night during the year where book lovers go out in their communities and talk about the books they have loved to those who do not read or seldom do. The program provides givers with the books to hand out — 20 per box — and the givers spend the day/evening out talking about the book they receive.

Who is a Giver?

Anyone who applies and is accepted. This year, my book club — Eclectic Bookworms — signed up and we were lucky enough to be selected to receive 20 paperback copies of City of Thieves by David Benioff.  I picked up the box at my local bookstore Novel Places, which due to some relocation issues could not throw a reception for us.

We divided our box over the weekend and each of us ended up with 4 books each to give away, though one of our members bowed out of the experience.  And since each of us lives in a different part of Maryland, we thought we would cover more ground.  Heck 2 of my copies went to D.C. this morning with my husband, the non-reader, who took them to the office.  I will be checking out my non-readers here in the neighborhood later in the evening to convince them to grab a copy.

My book club really enjoyed Benioff’s book and it produced a lively discussion, appealing to both men and women in the group.  I cannot wait to hear from the other members to see how their efforts fared and where they handed out their copies.  I’ll update this post with any news.

As I haven’t participated in previous years, this is an all new experience, and I’d love to get some ideas about other great places to try and hand out books.

Did you participate? Where did you hand out your copies? And which book did you receive?

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann, is not an epic love story of triumph over evil, but a psychologically and emotionally jarring, dramatized examination of German society as Hitler garnered more and more power, conquered more nations, and turned his own people against themselves.  Otto and Anna Quangel have one son and he was taken from them when he went to the front for the Fatherland.  This event changes everything for them, and their journey begins anew even as they strive to maintain some normalcy.

Meanwhile, Eva Kluge has made a decision to kick her husband out of her life for good and to sever all ties.  He’s a drunkard, a gambler, and a womanizer, and he deserves nothing less than to be kicked to the curb.  However, Enno Kluge only becomes more debased when he encounters Emil Borkhausen — another drunken criminal, but one with a focus on how to best screw the next person over for his own benefit.  There are the Nazi Party members, the Persicke’s and Judge Fromm, as well as Frau Rosenthal, and Inspector Escherich, who all come into contact with many of these characters at times when fates are decided.

“No, it wasn’t a letter, it was silly, useless chatter, and not even true at that.  She wasn’t safe at all.  Never in the last ghastly months had she felt herself in such danger as in this quiet room.  She knew she would have to change here, she wouldn’t be able to escape herself.  And she was afraid of who she might turn into.  Perhaps she would have to endure even more terrible things to come, she who had already changed from Lore to a Sara.”  (page 80)

Early on, readers will find Fallada’s style unusual, especially when the author interjects himself into the story to explain the fate’s of minor characters and because each chapter is given a heading, which are unnecessary and mostly give away the contents of those chapters — even those chapters that are a mere three pages and major plot points occur.  There also are moments in the narrative where points of view are switched without a break in the text or a new section beginning, which can leave some readers feeling a little lost or frustrated.  However, later on, these transitions smooth out a bit more and fade away as chapters begin to designate points of view switch.  With that said, Fallada has created a world as close to the real Germany under the Third Reich as can be fictionalized without readers having to read a nonfiction book or having to live through the torture and constant fear themselves.  Although some aspects are overly melodramatic on some occasions and some of the minor characters were a bit superfluous, readers will be swept up in the fear, the pain, and all of the other emotions tied to the Gestapo’s investigations, German residents’ spying, and death of loved ones and dreams.

“‘Who wants to die?’ he asked.  ‘Everyone wants to live, everyone–even the most miserable worm is screaming for life! I want to live, too.  But maybe it’s a good thing, Anna, even in the midst of life to think of a wretched death, and to get ready for it.  So that you know you’ll be able to die properly, without moaning and whimpering.  That would be disgusting to me…'” (page 294)

Fallada throws in hiding a Jewish woman, the spying neighbors, the conspirator cells against the Third Reich, and the high-and-mighty Nazi members.  What’s great is how well all of these subplots, characters, and themes mesh together to highlight the struggle of coping with loneliness, the possibility of death, and the hopelessness of fighting something bigger than oneself because it is right and decent.  While readers may not agree with everything that these characters do, the fear that pervades the German Reich effectively influences each character differently.  Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann, is a wide ranging look at how small actions can lead to either small changes in others or spur wider change.  But it also demonstrates the strength of love that may not be as obvious on the surface or to outsiders.

This is my 16th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.



About the Author:

Born on July 21, 1893, Hans Fallada was one of the famous writers in the first half of the 20th century. Most of his novels were written in German and only 11 of them were translated in English, one of them was “Every Man Dies Alone.” The said novel was first published in 1947. But it was only in 2009 that it was translated in the English language by Michael Hoffman.

Shortly after Fallada completed it, he died in Berlin due to heart failure on the 5th of February 1947.

What the Book Club Thought: (Beware of spoilers)

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada was our March book club pick, thanks to our resident WWII expert Anna from Diary of an Eccentric.  Anna and one other member loved the book and planned to give it five stars, while one member was unsure whether he would rate it three or four stars.  As I had not finished the novel prior to discussion, I had not made up my mind, but was leaning toward four stars, which is where I finally landed.  Two other members did not read the book and one did not finish.  Our youngest member did not participate in this discussion or read due to the content of the novel.

Most of the members enjoyed Fallada’s characters Otto and Anna Quangel and their work with the postcards to open the eyes of fellow Germans to the atrocities of the Reich, while one member vehemently hated Enno Kluge and another member thought Borkhausen was comical.  I agree that Borkhausen was a bit comical, especially given his outrageous decision-making and the events that befell him.  Some members agreed that the writing style was tough to get used to, and that the beginning half was slower than the latter third of the book, which was a fast-paced wrap up of the events and more.  One member did not think the final chapter was necessary, while Anna said that maybe the final chapter was to end the novel on a good note.  I have to agree with Anna that I liked the final chapter in the novel because it wrapped up some loose ends and really ended the novel on a more hopeful note.

One aspect of the novel that was brought up was the role of the cyanide pill in providing solace to one character and torture to another.  It was interesting to see how someone could feel free knowing that the cyanide pill was available, while another character could only feel free once the pill was eliminated from the equation.  I was intrigued by Inspector Escherich, and found him to be one of the most dynamic and complex secondary characters in the book.  It almost would have been more interesting to have seen more of him, but not totally necessary.

Overall, there seemed to be a mixed reaction to the writing style, but overall about half of the members enjoyed the novel.  I did wonder about how prepared one could make himself or herself for death given the circumstances these characters find themselves in, and I also wonder how much of Fallada’s experiences with loneliness and persecution are infused in the novel as well, particularly in the case of Rosenthal and the Quangels.

Shadows by Ilsa Bick

Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick is a better book than the first in the series, Ashes (my review), (if you have not read the first book, beware of spoilers in this review) as the writing is more descriptive and less reliant on the cliffhanger factor for each chapter than it was in the first book.  An EMP blast has caused much of the human race to change, leaving the elderly to rethink their lives and focus on the best survival plan they have.  Meanwhile, the young are scared that they will change into flesh-eating monsters like so many others and struggle to keep away from bounty hunters and others who would use the Spared for their own nefarious gains.

Alex, Chris, and others are thrown into a whirlwind fight for their lives as they are separated and sent on their own journeys where they will uncover the truth and learn more about the Changed than they ever expected.  Unlike the first book where readers follow Alex’s point of view for most of the novel, Shadows is made up of more than just some of the main characters’ points of view from the first book, but several others.  At first this can be disconcerting given that the chapters move quickly are immersed in nearly constant action and are very short in some cases.  However, once the reader adjusts to the constant shifts in POV, they are swept up in the action and the chase — and in some cases, merely speeding through certain aspects of the 500+ page book to get to the story lines they really want to uncover.

Oh God, help me, please, help me.  Alex felt her mind begin to slip, as if the world was ice and begun to tilt and she was going to slide right off and fall away into forever if she didn’t hang on tight.  Her heart was trying to blast right out of her chest.  She was shaking all over, the hay hook in its belt loop bouncing against her right thigh.  The pyramid, row after row of skills, loomed at her back:  all that remained of those who’d stumbled into this filling field before her.  And of course, there was the smell — that familiar reek of roadkill and boiled sewage.”  (page 21)

Minus a prologue in the beginning, the novel takes off right where Alex was left in the last book.  And readers who were looking for more horror and death than they got in the last book will get their just desserts here, with a little nasty sex thrown in for good measure.  It’s hard to believe this is a young adult novel, and readers should beware that this is a novel for older teens, rather than younger readers.  Bick’s writing is much improved over the last novel, and it helps to garner readers’ emotions and attachments to the characters of Alex and Tom.  However, there are still so many unanswered questions from the last book that are left unanswered.  Not only that, more questions and riddles are raised and left unanswered in this novel.  Bick is treading a fine line here, and unless the final novel in the series addresses a great number of these questions and mysteries, readers could be disappointed.

Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick is an adrenaline rush that pushes readers to not only think about the heat of combat and the survival skills they would need in a post-apocalyptic world, but also about the concept of trust and family.  When is our best efforts to save those we love and help them enough and when is it time to let go and move on?  Do you trust those who are nicest to you or do you still treat them with a degree of suspicion?  For Alex and Tom, there is never enough effort, and a healthy dose of suspicion is what keeps you alive.  The horrifying aspects of this novel are likely to turn off some readers, while attract others, but there are deeper themes at work here, and it is clear that Bick is attempting to tell a story that pays homage to those soldiers racked with guilt and still living daily nightmares of war.

About the Author:

Ilsa J. Bick is an award-winning, best-selling author of short stories, e-books and novels. She has written for several long-running science fiction series, most notably Star Trek, Battletech, and Mechwarrior:Dark Age. She’s taken both Grand and Second Prize in the Strange New Worlds anthology series (1999 and 2001, respectively), while her story, “The Quality of Wetness,” took Second Prize in the prestigious Writers of the Future contest in 2000. Her first Star Trek novel, Well of Souls, was a 2003 Barnes & Noble bestseller.

What the Eclectic Bookworms Thought (BEWARE of SPOILERS):

Shadows by Ilsa Bick was the book club selection for February.  With the multiple perspectives in this book, the members expressed a hard time following all of them and/or whether all of them were necessary.  While some preferred to keep the perspectives to a manageable number, another observation was that with Alex, the main protagonist, in a different area and experiencing things outside of Rule, it would have been difficult to keep the book from only her perspective.  The gore did not bother most members, which made the second book in the series read more like horror and less like science fiction or fantasy; some were taken aback by the sexual chapter, with the youngest member of the group not reading those sections at all.

The member who nominated Shadows was angry that the book left readers hanging about the fate of some characters, but it was pointed out that cliffhangers are often the case in second books when a third book is planned.  One member really enjoys Alex as a character, while two others pointed to Tom as their favorite.  Meanwhile, the group members all speculated about where the third book would go with most of us agreeing there would be a battle between Rule and the other Amish-like society mentioned, as well as a possible three-way dual between Chris, Wolf, and Tom or at least Chris and Tom in a sort of romantic gesture to win Alex’s affections.

The group seemed split on whether the overall reason would be explained for why some kids changed into cannibals and some did not.  We’ve speculated that the brain chemistry of the changed had been closer to normal levels than those that did not change, though Lena — one of the characters pointed out as most annoying — seems to have fallen in the camp of the changed with this book.  Overall, it seemed as though at least two members liked the second book in the series more than the first, while three or four members liked it even less with a couple people giving it one star.  Two members were not interested at all in reading the third installment, while two expressed an interest in one member reading it and telling the rest of us what happens, and a few others considering the option of reading the third book.

Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell, winner of the Walt Whitman Award, is a debut collection with two voices — two sides of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle — that demonstrates not only the pride of Palestinians, but also the pride of Israelis in their home.  The initial poem, “The Dream,” (which could be a preface to the following three sections) establishes the somber tone for the book, but it also cautions that choices must be made in dreams even as they must be made when awake.  A sentiment that is echoed again in “Notes from the Broken Notebook (part one):  “cover your mouth, you’ll still inhale the gas/dance in the shadow of the concrete wall/tell yourself the tiles are not bones/even in a dream you must still make choices.”  Bell is careful in her choice of language, but she does not shy away from the tumultuous moments in the region’s history, including the role of Arafat.

There is a great juxtaposition in the poem “Refugee,” which is about Ramla in 1948, between the new inhabitants of the house and the ones who have left.  The refugees are entering the house with hope, a feeling of belonging and settlement on their minds, but there is this observance of what has come before — the quick ejection of the former residents, leaving the cupboards full and a few cans rolling on the floor.  It is just one illustration of how something can symbolize hope and a new beginning to one person, but be the symbol of loss and an ending for another — much like the foreclosure can be for two different families.

There is a great reverence to the land and its cultivation, but there also is a reverence paid to the building of communities and the brokering of peace between the warring nations of Palestine, Jordan, and Israel.  In many ways, the poems open up an unsaid dialogue about the possibility of not only understanding but even co-existence, maybe even peace.  “You are not a place my love./You come from where/there are no names.  You enter/as breath and drop/onto our sleeping tongues//” from “Charter for the Over-Sung Country” should remind readers that they are more than just their home country or the place where they live.  In more than one poem, the narrator references the smell of dirt or soil after the rain, which could signify not only a cleansing of the past and a fresh future, but also the possibilities that the future holds.

There are a few poems that are letters to certain places in the region, and in “Letter to Jerusalem” the narrator talks of not crushing the bird too quickly, perhaps a reference to how the city grew out of the sand without regard to the consequences.  In “Letter to Hebron,” the narrator wants to illustrate the truth of the city not the dream of the city.  With its foul smells and the flies, but no matter how much or how long something is beat down into submission or sculpted one way, it can only be what it is — “That wooden doorway, hung without a house.”  Does this mean one town is better than another or that one is more beautiful?  No.  It simply shows that there are dreams for these cities, but oftentimes reality falls short of those dreams, leaving the inhabitants looking through a doorway into a rough landscape.

Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell connects the struggles of these two peoples not in the traditional opposing sides, but through their similar perspectives of loss and hope.   The collection also links the Holocaust survivors to the promise of Israel as the new homeland and incorporates biblical story with historical activists.

About the Author:

Elana Bell is a bridge builder, able to walk compassionately through this complex world where many things are true at once. Whether through her soul-stirring poetry, her dynamic performances on the stage, or through her inspiring talks & workshops, she creates a space where all people’s voices and stories are heard and deeply valued.

Elana’s first collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones was selected by Fanny Howe as the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award and was published by Lousiana State University Press in April 2012. Elana is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Jerome Foundation, the Edward Albee Foundation, the AROHO Foundation, and the Drisha Institute. Her work has recently appeared in Harvard Review, Massachusetts Review, CALYX Journal, and elsewhere. Elana has led creative writing workshops for women in prison, for educators, for high school students in Israel, Palestine and throughout the five boroughs of New York City, as well as for the pioneering peace building and leadership organization, Seeds of Peace. She currently serves as the writer-in-residence for the Bronx Academy of Letters and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths


This is my 4th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.


This is my 3rd book for the Dive Into Poetry Challenge 2013.



What the book club thought:

There were mixed reactions to the book with one member not sure they understood many of the poems at all to one member that really loved the book.  Several members thought the narrator did a pretty good job of demonstrating both sides in the Israeli-Palestine conflict through the eyes of those who had lived there and tilled the land for centuries to the Israelis seeking refuge and a new home after WWII.  The poems of “Refugee,” “Visiting Auschwitz,” “Visiting Aide refugee camp,” and “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm” were among some of the poems talked about more in depth during the meeting, as well as the section of poems beginning with “God” and “What Else God Wanted.”  In particular, it was noted in the religious section of poems that the “God” poem demonstrated a bit of bitterness, that was followed by the story of “Ishmael,” which seemed like it was being told to Ishmael as his poem comes first before the story of his conception.  One poem that I found a bit cliche, but that touched something in the other members of the group was “In Another Country It Could Have Been Love.”

In terms of the book’s title, the members were not really thrilled about “Eyes, Stones.”  While we see the references in several poems, we felt that another title might have been better suited to the collection.  Perhaps, stones refers to the takeover of anger and other hard emotions that can shut out empathy, love, and understanding.

Later we had a discussion of how many of us read some or all of the poems aloud and whether that was helpful in understanding the poems, and I recommended that if we did do another poetry collection that it should be read aloud, at least the poems that do not generate an immediate impression.  Secondly, we discussed how to read poems, particularly poems in free verse and how much pause should be given to the end of the line and to punctuation.  Overall the discussion was all over the place, and some of us agreed that the collection was probably not the best selection for a beginning poetry reader or a group with little background knowledge on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and its beginnings, though Bell does offer some notations in the back to provide an anchor point for most of the poems.

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha is not the gory thriller that many readers may expect, and rightly so, given that it is a young adult, historical fiction novel with a young main protagonist.  Carver Young is an orphan in New York City in the late 1800s, who is thrust into the care of an older Albert Hawking, a former Allan Pinkerton detective.  Carver is dragged into a fantastical world of secret agencies and cloak-and-dagger moments, all while the police are investigating some very real and grisly murders.  He’s joined by some rather eccentric characters, from his adoptive father, Hawking, and his home in the asylum, to Septimus Tudd, the current leader of the secret detective agency.

“Surrounded by unsettling sounds, Carver Young struggled to keep his hands still.  He had to focus.  Had to.  He could do this.  He wasn’t some infant, afraid of the dark.  If anything, he loved the dark.  But the cracks in the attic let the wind run wild.  Old papers fluttered like hesitant birds.  Musty clothes rustled as if touched by spirits.  And then the cleaver, wedged in the ceiling right above him, wobbled.”  (page 6)

Carver is a young man on the cusp of adulthood who has had little, if any, mild guidance in his life given his years at Ellis Orphanage.  When Hawking adopts him, he’s given the chance of a lifetime, to uncover the truth about his parents and to become a detective, with the help of some expert tutelage.  Petrucha’s prose and short chapters are built for mystery novels and suspense, but in some cases, the suspense build-up gets to be too much as it drags on a bit long with the “big reveal.”  Even younger readers could see the reveal coming a mile away in this one.  However, the real crux of the novel is not the reveal, so much as the journey Carver takes from childhood to adulthood and from inexperienced boy to amateur detective.

With help from his former orphanage friends and school crush Delia, Carver is able to overcome his fears and uncover the mysteries surrounding recent murders in New York City.  Petrucha does well to stick close to the true and well-known attributes of Teddy Roosevelt, who was once a police commissioner in the city, and the relatively well-known attributes of his eldest daughter, Alice.  There is intrigue, corruption, and a Hardy Boys-feel to this novel, with additional historical tidbits and extraordinary gadgets to provide a steam-punk atmosphere.

Ripper by Stefan Petrucha is a fast-paced, entertaining coming-of-age story with a detective story as a backdrop of sorts.  It’s about what it means to be a father, and how family can sometimes be a little less than ideal, and even disappointing.  However, it also about the inner perseverance one needs to overcome “the abyss” and still know what is right and true.

photo by Sarah Kinney

About the Author:

Born in the Bronx, Stefan Petrucha spent his formative years moving between the big city and the suburbs, both of which made him prefer escapism.

A fan of comic books, science fiction and horror since learning to read, in high school and college he added a love for all sorts of literary work, eventually learning that the very best fiction always brings you back to reality, so, really, there’s no way out.

An obsessive compulsion to create his own stories began at age ten and has since taken many forms, including novels, comics and video productions. At times, the need to pay the bills made him a tech writer, an educational writer, a public relations writer and an editor for trade journals, but fiction, in all its forms, has always been his passion. Every year he’s made a living at that, he counts a lucky one. Fortunately, there’ve been many.

This is my 86th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.


What the Book Club Thought:

Most of the book club enjoyed Ripper for what it was, though two members would like to have seem more of the gross and grisly murders than were shown in the novel.  There is one moment in which Carver nearly vomits upon seeing a dead body, but there are not a lot of details revealed to the reader about the scene.  The big reveal didn’t seem to be much of a surprise to anyone in the book club, though one member expressed that he would have preferred if there had been two killers instead of one.

Some members were glad that the book didn’t delve too much into the gadgets of the underground detective agency, while one member likened the team of three kids (Carver, Delia, and Finn) to Harry Potter and his friends.  The shift from killing prostitutes in England to socialites in New York was something that the group thought had to do with the target audience of young adults.  However, our youngest member says that she’s read more gory books than this one.  One member also indicated that they noticed about 1/3 of the psychology of the Ripper was examined in this book, and could signal sequels to come.  Some suspect there could be two other books after this one, which is why the ending was so open-ended.

Overall, this was a good read for most of the group, though some indicated about 75 pages or so could have been edited out to make it shorter than 400+ pages.