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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Book Review: The Zookeeper’s Wife

Posted by booksncooks on May 28, 2011

Book Review:

The Zookeeper’s Wife

By Diane Ackerman

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Based on memoirs, interviews, old photos, and other historical documents, Diane Ackerman tells the story of Jan and Antonia Zabinski, a Polish couple who ran the Warsaw Zoo when World War II broke out. When the Nazis occupied Poland, the Polish Jews became persecuted – they hid within a shadow world or moved into ghettos; many were sent to labor camps or killed.  Jan and Antonia opened their house and their destroyed zoo to old friends and unknown Guests who sought to escape to a safer place. Antonia ruled the home, the villa and the zoo, where Jewish Guests were hidden throughout the war, in closets, animal houses, tunnels, and cages. Jan played a lead rule in the Underground, the Polish resistance, where he and a network of Poles helped smuggle Jews out of Warsaw, created false papers for those staying in the city as well as fleeing, and, of course, led acts of sabotage against the Nazis (including everything from spray-paint vandalism to poisoning Nazi officials and bombing Nazi trains).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is rich with descriptions that make both life at a zoo as well as life in the Polish shadow-world come alive. Animal life  thrived, despite the war, as pets were hidden and Guests (code-named by animals) acquired qualities of those animals they were called. At the same time, Ackerman described the daily emotional struggle of the Zabinski’s and their Guests (the story often bouncing from the Zabinski’s to highlighting the story of a Guest) – the fear for themselves and their families, the guilt at endangering others with their activities – all make the Underground resistance come alive.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is an amazing glimpse into the Underground resistance. Although the Zabinski’s were aided by many friends and corrupt Nazi and Polish officials, their story shows how much impact just a couple of people could have. Over 300 Guests stayed at the Zoo, and all but a couple of them survived the war.

Recommendation: Absolutely.

Grade: A (4.5 of 5 stars on Goodreads)

Posted in Fiction, Non-Fiction | 2 Comments »

Book Review: Millennium Trilogy

Posted by booksncooks on March 7, 2011

 

 

Book Review:

Millennium Trilogy

By Stieg Larsson

 

 

Book 1: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I started the first book in the series for book club, with a bit of apprehension. I had heard that most people either loved the book or hated it. I had also heard that it takes most people anywhere from 50-125 pages to get into the book. I will admit that I started off reading fairly slowly, but I honestly think that was more because I wasn’t in the mood to read, rather than a comment about the book.

But about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo… The book starts out with journalist Mikael Blomkvist being convicted for libel, forcing him to take a leave of absence as publisher of his magazine, Millennium. A wealthy industrialist and businessman, Henrik Vanger, offers him a chance to get away – Vanger asks Blomkvist to live near his family for a year, allegedly to write his family biography, but really, to secretly look into the death and/or disappearance of his great-niece. Blomkvist’s motivation is a promise of exacting revenge against the man who sued him for libel and attempted to take down the magazine. Blomkvist, along with researcher Lisabeth Salander, make progress in solving the decades old mystery, thereby threatening the family and its legacy. As they delve deeper into the girl’s disappearance, the pair face hostility from the family and threats from unknown parties. Will they solve the mystery before the year is up? Will Blomkvist be able to exact his own revenge?

Overall, I enjoyed the first book, certainly enough to continue reading the series, which I liked even better than the first. I’m glad I continued reading, as I got more interested in the story (and out of my reading funk), to thoroughly enjoy and appreciate Larsson’s series.

Book 2: The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire caught my interest much quicker than the first, leading me to believe that I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind when I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

In Book 2, Lisabeth Salander gets caught in the middle of a murder investigation, where she is the primary suspect. Police and social service reports, leaked to the media, paint Salander as a violent, psychopathic killer on the run. Mikael Blomkvist and the employees at Millennium return, launching their own investigation, based on suspicion that the murders were motivated by a soon-to-be-released provocative book naming criminals and clients involved in a massive sex trafficking operation, to prove her innocence.

The Girl Who Played With Fire lacks the gruesomeness of the first book of the series, though it stays true to the characters.

Book 3: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

Book 3 picked up right were the previous one left off – part of the mystery surrounding the murder investigation has been solved, but not completely. Some suspects are in custody while others took flight. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest follows the investigations into these suspects, as well as the efforts to discover the history behind the story.

Salander’s friends – Blomkvist, her former guardian, and her former boss – band together with an unlikely group to defend and support her against the allegations. Salander not only tries to help herself but also attempts to seek revenge against those that have harmed her.

Concluding Impressions of the Trilogy:

I can understand some of the controversy around this series. Larsson does have a particular way of writing and developing a plot that stands out compared to most American mysteries. The plot lines are much more complicated than many American mysteries (at least the ones I read). This was actually a pleasant surprise for me – I definitely could not anticipate the ties between the characters and the twists in the story that Larsson threw at us.

The author also begins each book with descriptions of various, more serious topics, which tend to spread throughout the book. In the first, it was Swedish politics and economics. In the second, it was about a  mathematical equation. In the third, it was a bit of politics and a lot of history of Swedish government institutions. I think this is why some people have a hard time getting into the first book and the series.

That aside, I like the characters in the book. Blomkvist is a bit naive but really wants to do the right thing. Salander and her friends that appear periodically throughout the series (Mimmi and the Evil Fingers) have spunk and attitude. And I really enjoyed the complicated plots, where there always seemed to be a twist and turn.

Recommendation: Yes, if you enjoy mysteries

Grade: B+

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: The Hunger Games Series (Spoilers)

Posted by booksncooks on January 5, 2011

Book Review:

The Hunger Games Series

By Suzanne Collins

I decided to review this series as a whole because much like the Harry Potter books, once you start this series, you won’t want to put it down. In fact, not since Harry Potter has a young adult series grabbed my attention quite like this one.

There are some spoilers below. I tried to keep the descriptions brief so that I don’t give away too much, so forgive me for the short descriptions!

Background: Set in the future, the nation of Panem took the place of what was once known as North America. The Capitol rules Panem, made up of the Capitol and 12 surrounding districts, with an iron fist. Each year, the Capitol reminds the districts of how powerful they are by forcing each district to send a boy and girl (drawn by lottery) to fight – for survival, for a better life for their district, for love – in the annual Hunger Games. Only one participant will survive.

The Hunger Games: In the first book in the series, we follow the representatives from District 12, Katniss and Peeta, in their quest to win the Hunger Games. Trained by the only living Hunger Games victor from their district, Katniss and Peeta enter an uneasy alliance as they fight for survival and for a better life for their district.

Catching Fire: Katniss and Peeta return to District 12 heroes – not only did they win, but both got to return home, a first in the history of the games. However, the Capitol (the creepy President Snow, in particular) is furious with Katniss for ensuring their dual victory. Both are forced to return to the arena, along with former winners from the other districts, to once again fight for their life.

During all of this, it becomes increasingly easy to get immersed in the two subplot lines of the book: a Katniss-Peeta-Gale (Katniss’s best friend) love triangle and a the beginnings of what may become a revolution against the Capitol.

Mockingjay: Mockingjay is the final book in the trilogy and the battle for Panem unity and for the Capitol (yep, gave that away). Anyone who survived the all-stars Hunger Games of Catching Fire is pretty much messed up, despite being considered the face of the revolution. Will the Capitol survive? With the districts and survivors be defeated? Read it and find out! (Hey, I’m trying not to have too many spoilers! So that’s it, that’s all you get for the last book.)

Recommendation:Love the plot line – so creative. I really couldn’t put this series down. My one complaint with the series (and I felt like this with parts of Harry Potter as well) is that some of that characters in this last book got a bit whiny. Maybe it’s something about young adult books, but certain characters really grated on my nerves in the last book. Or maybe it’s just me.

However, that being said, I’m so glad I read this series (and no, there’s no way not to finish it once you get started). I would absolutely recommend this book to teenagers and adults alike. If you’re a Harry Potter fan or don’t mind sci-fi / futuristic books, then this is a must read. If you dislike these genres, then skip it.

Grade: A

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List, Young Adult | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: The True Story of Hansel and Gretel

Posted by booksncooks on December 2, 2010

Book Review:

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel

By Louise Murphy

Remember Grimm’s fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel? The brother and sister end up wandering the woods and follow a bird to a house made of bread, cake, and sugar. As the children begin to eat the roof, the witch who lives there invites them in. The witch keeps Hansel in a cage, fattening him up for stew, while she makes Gretel into her slave. When the witch gets hungry and tries to cook both children, Gretel pushes her into the oven. She frees her brother and the children find their way back home.

So yeah, remember that tale? The True Story of Hansel and Gretel is a play on that tale. Set during the Nazi’s occupation of Poland, the True Story of Hansel and Gretel is a play on that fairy tale. Its the story of a Jewish family’s quest for survival. The children are separated from the father and stepmother and find their way into a nearby village where they are taken in by the village “witch.” They stay there for the duration of Nazi occupation, forming a little family with the witch, her niece, and another villager. Meanwhile, the children’s father and stepmother join up with a paramilitary group that sabotage and fight the Nazi troops. Will they survive the war? Will the family be united?

Despite some of the graphic descriptions of Nazi cruelty, Murphy’s retelling of the fairy tale was a fairly happy tale. The characters never lost hope that the Nazis would be defeated and their lives returned back to normal. They constantly made the best our of bad situations by sticking together and helping out each other and those in need.

Recommendation: Absolutely!

Grade: A-

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: The Help

Posted by booksncooks on November 14, 2010

Thanks to A for choosing such a great book club book! The Help has been on my to-read list for quite a while, but other books kept getting moved to the top of the stack. So glad I finally got to read this one!

Book Review:

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel set in the 1960s, about the race relations. The Help follows the lives and stories of three women over the course of a year or two – two “colored” maids and one recent white college graduate, all living in Jackson, Mississippi.

Skeeter comes home from college – the sole woman in her group of friends unmarried and looking for a job, as a journalist. She sets off to anonymously write a book about the colored help – their experiences and feelings about their jobs and their lives. There are happy stories and sad stories. Stories of racism and stories of a kind of friendship. Skeeter’s liberal leanings end up isolating her, putting both herself and the women who are interviewed all put themselves and their families at risk in hope of truth and change.

The Help was enjoyable, the characters likable. The stories told by both Skeeter and the maids evoked a wide range of feelings – a bit of laughter, some sadness and joy.

Rating: A

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: Simply from Scratch

Posted by booksncooks on August 28, 2010

Book Review:

Simply from Scratch

By Alicia Bessette

Simply from Scratch is Alicia Bessette’s debut novel. The main characters is Zell, a widow whose husband died in an accident while on a volunteer trip to help Hurricane Katrina survivors. As Zell struggles to come to terms with her husband’s death, she befriends her 9-year old neighbor, Ingrid. Together, the two enter a Desserts that Warm the Soul baking contest – Zell to win the $20,000 prize to donate to Hurricane Katrina efforts and Ingrid to meet cooking sensation Polly Pinch.

Simply from Scratch was well-written and witty. I enjoyed the creativity (i.e. Zell had “memory smacks” instead of flashbacks; the moments of pirate-speak when she talked to her dog, Captain Ahab) that was mixed into both happy and sad scenes. Bessette created a relatively light read, which was particularly impressive considering the emotional struggles of the main character.

This book was incredibly moving and had a bit of everything – a little romance, some sorrow, funny cooking adventures, lots of friendship and kindness… I laughed and I cried.

Congrats to Alicia Bessette for her first novel! While I’m looking forward to your next novel, friends and family are already fighting for my copy of your first!

Grade: B+

Posted in Fiction, Food-Related: Books, Movies & Product Reviews, My Reading List | 1 Comment »

Book Review: Sarah’s Key

Posted by booksncooks on April 9, 2010

Book Review:

Sarah’s Key

By Tatiana de Rosnay

 

In July 1942, French police gathered thousands of Jews living in Paris and the French countryside at the orders of the occupying Germans, to be deported to the Nazi concentration camps. Sarah’s Key is the story of a young girl who survived Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup – the challenges to her survival and dealing with the awful aftermath of that summer. Sarah’s story is intertwined with that of Julia, an American journalist living in France, researching Vel’ d’Hiv.’ Julia learns of a personal connection to France’s dark spot in history, and becomes increasingly invested in researching the roundups.

Life in France during WWII was something I was unfamiliar with, and therefore enjoyed learning a bit about the country at the time. I found Sarah’s Key well written and easy to read despite the difficult subject. De Rosnay also did a great job depicting the range and the conflicting human emotions, that the 1942 events stirred up, as well as the often conflicting emotions of everyday life (Julia is also going though through some personal crises as she’s researching Vel’ d’Hiv’).

Would highly recommend Sarah’s Key.

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List | 1 Comment »

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea

Posted by booksncooks on March 13, 2010

Book Review:

Ella Minnow Pea

By Mark Dunn

Set on the fictional island-country of Nollop (off the South Carolina coast), Ella Minnow Pea is the story of a country that worshiped Nollop, the creator of the pangram, “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” This sentence uses every letter of the alphabet with the fewest letters repeated, and is affixed to a statue of Nollop. However, when letters begin to fall from the statue, the island’s Council doesn’t know what to do. They eventually conclude that Nollop is speaking to them from beyond – that any letter that falls must be prohibited from speech and written form. Ella Minnow Pea is a comical story, a collection of letters, describing the change in life as letters constantly are stricken from usage, and the quest of a young girl to overturn the Council’s decision.

This book is cute, funny, and well-written. It’s a quick read that I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys and appreciates words and language.

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: Saffron Skies

Posted by booksncooks on February 23, 2010

Book Review:  Saffron Skies

By Lesley Lokko

This book follows the story of three women, from adolescence into adulthood, across several countries and continents. They are best friends but take vastly different paths in life.

Saffron Skies is a book about love, friendship, and family. But even more than that, it is about a journey – about finding yourself and your path in life. I’ve included a brief synopsis of the three women and the paths they take, but I promise, it won’t ruin the book if you read it – I would recommend reading it!

Amber: Her family is completely messed up. Her father, Max, is a powerful business man that splits his time between her family and his mistress and her daughter. Between the two families, Amber is the only normal one – her mother is a drunk, her brother is a drug addict, her father’s mistress and other daughter are flighty… Family drama abound, Amber is the only one in the family that is grounded. She becomes a journalist, falls in love, and ends up living a happy life far away from her family.

Madeline: From a poor family of Hungarian immigrants, Madeline was never really happy living at home. Her parents were strict and seemed to live in their own little world. Madeline ends up going to med school and bounces around between men, jobs, and countries. Life takes her from med school, to working in an ER, to a war zone, and to the United Nations. Madeline ultimately ends up back at a hospital, returning to her parents that she had spent so much time trying to avoid.

Becky: Becky grew up in a middle-class, supportive family. She pursued her interest in art, and over the years, was always able to look to her parents for support. Becky was a bit lost in life – she made mistakes, hid from them, and took a while to come back to her own after each time. However, her friends and family helped her through hard times and because of that, she seemed to always end up standing on her feet.

Recommended? Yes! It was a wonderful story of a journey and of friendship.

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List | Leave a Comment »

Book Review: In The Woods

Posted by booksncooks on January 17, 2010

Book Review: In The Woods

Tana French

WARNING: This review contains spoilers!!

I read In the Woods because it was chosen as a book club book. I had high hopes for it, as it was an Edgar Award finalist. Indeed, the book had a lot of potential, but I very disappointed in it.

The Story: In The Woods consists of two parallel mysteries, both centered around Detective Rob Ryan. The first was when he was a young boy – Ryan was found with bloody shoes, clutching a tree. He had no recollection of what happened to the two friends he was with; they simply disappeared.

Now fast-forward 20 years. Ryan is assigned as the detective of a present-day murder, back in his home town. Working the case brings back memories for the detective, enough memories to leave him unsettled, but he never remembers what happened the day his friends disappeared.

Praise: The first thing I was struck with when reading In The Woods was that it is really beautifully written. The descriptions are outstanding. It’s rare that I find a mystery that uses such imagery.

As the book progressed, I also grew very attached to the two plot-lines, very curious to find out what happened to Ryan as a child and whether (and how) the two mysteries would come together.

However… this never happened. The mystery of Ryan’s childhood was never solved. While I realize that not every book can / should wrap up everything, I felt like I put up with Ryan’s annoying personality (he’s whiny and naïve) to find out what happened. Instead, one of the two mysteries is left unsolved, and Ryan ends up going backwards in life – alone, no friends, and actually went backward in his career. Clearly Ryan was having a hard time, given the circumstances, but he was just not likable. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t feel sympathetic for him.

To Sum Up: What could have been a great book ended up being just so-so. It had a lot of potential but I was just disappointed and irritated at the end of it.

But what did you think?

Posted in Fiction, My Reading List, Mysteries | Leave a Comment »