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The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

The Kitchen Boy

The novel establishes itself as a memoir being told by a servant of the Romanov family. He says he was their kitchen boy during those fateful last days in Siberia, up until the Tsar and his family were brutally murdered.

I admit, the first half of the book was a little slow for me, but it did pick up as the family attempted to send and receive messages from the outside in an attempt at rescue. Knowing what would happen to those children, made my heart ache as the Romanovs were roused from their beds during the night and taken to the cellar.  Then it hit me. The date.  It was July 17, 1918.  And I was sitting there on July 17, 2017 reading this.  Exactly 99 years to the day.  It gave me goosebumps.  How tragic.  How ugly people can get in the name of politics.  Every other monarchy in Europe had a relatively peaceful transition to democratic rule (except France).  Why not this one?

Alexander presented the story not as a political narrative, but a human one.  It was about people and violence and humanity.  I loved the ending, too!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2004
229 pages

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The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master And Margarita

I admit I broke one of my rules when I chose to read this book:  “Never read any book that is described as Magical Realism.”  But, this book is hailed as a classic – a window into World War II Soviet Union.  And I thought I could handle it.  Well, I couldn’t.

The entire story is nonsensical.  I couldn’t even appreciate the humor because I was too busy cringing as I read about a beheading, a man who claims to have been present at Christ’s crucifixion, a talking cat, and a woman who turns into a witch after applying a magic cream.

The book was completed in 1940.  Bulgakov couched his views of the oppressive Russian regime within the lines of this novel.  That is the reason this book is deemed “clever.”  It ultimately wasn’t able to be published until 1966 – I suppose that was a feat in itself.  But today, we can read about the Soviet Union without the gobbledy gook nonsense.  I definitely prefer it that way.

2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1966
372 pages

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Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen

Jungle Of Stone

In 1839, John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood decided to chase rumors of ancient ruins in Central America.  Their difficult trek across jungle, facing hostile soldiers and deadly Malaria is chronicled in William Carlsen’s Jungle of Stone.

If Carlsen had attempted a narrative non-fiction of this journey, I think I would have enjoyed the book more.  The stone temples of the Maya were truly magnificent, and Catherwood’s illustrations were a wonderful window into what they stumbled across and how it appeared to them nearly two centuries ago.  The biggest problem I had with this book was all the background information on every actor included in the narrative.  It was just too much information about the other parts of their lives – it dwarfed the adventures of finding the ruins.

I also would have liked more information about the Mayans themselves.  I know very little about this civilization and obviously the reason this discovery was important was that it revealed so much about these ancient peoples.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2016
544 pages

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News Of The World by Paulette Giles

News Of The World

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is a civil war veteran, but a reader by trade.  It is 1870, and Captain Kidd travels to the far parts of Texas, bringing public readings of global newspapers for a dime per person.  In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 dollar gold piece to return a young girl to her relatives in San Antonio.  10 year old Johanna has spent the past four years as a hostage with a band of Kiowa, after a war party killed her parents and older sister.  She barely remembers English and has become native in all the ways that count.

The story of Captain Kidd and Johanna is beautiful on so many levels.  First, Paulette Giles is a gifted writer.  Her descriptions of both the beauty and harshness of the dry Texas landscape make this a worthwhile read.  But then she adds a story of a white girl returning to her family after years in captivity, and you have a real winner.  While this particular story is fiction, the stories of children in captivity were very real, and Ms. Giles sought to shine a light on the trauma and difficulty these children endured, while not rendering judgement.  That is a marvelous thing for a reader – to be able to read a story, a piece of 19th century history really, without the author placing her 21st century views on it.  I loved the relationship that developed between the kindly old Captain and this young girl.  As the two slowly came to trust and care for each other, I felt heartbroken along with Captain Kidd, that he must turn her over to her family.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Paulette Giles, and I’ve enjoyed both immensely. News of the World has now been released in paperback. Many thanks to William Morrow for sending me a review copy.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2016
209 pages

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An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris

An Officer And A Spy

Based on the true life “Dreyfus Affair,” An Officer and a Spy is a historical fiction account of a man falsely convicted of treason in 1895 Paris.  In the aftermath of a defeat to the German army, France finds itself outraged at the prospect that there is a spy in their midst.  At first, flimsy evidence points to one Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer, and poor Dreyfus is labeled a traitor before a real investigation has even begun.  As nationalism and anti-Semitism consume France, Dreyfus is sentenced to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island.  One lone officer, Georges Picquart, uncovers evidence that another man is the actual spy, and that Dreyfus was falsely accused. Will Picquart succeed in getting Dreyfus released, or will Picquart become another victim in a vast conspiracy?

After seeing all the 4 and 5 star ratings on Goodreads, I expected to love this novel.  After all, I enjoy historical fiction and especially the retelling of a true story.  But this book was long, and tedious, and Harris’s characters desperately needed some development.  Here is a book that could have tugged on the heartstrings AND been a nail-biter all in one.  But the author unfortunately, left out that when writing this book.  It’s an interesting story and I’m glad I learned about it, but what was the point of presenting it as fiction if you’re going to leave out the drama? Sorry to say I can only give it 3 1/2 stars.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2014
429 pages

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace

The summer of 1961 was a memorable one for 13 year old Frank Drum.  It’s Minnesota, and Twins are playing for the first time. More importantly, that summer, people are turning up dead in Frank Drum’s small town of New Bremen.

When tragedy strikes his own family, Frank is suddenly forced to grow up.  His world becomes enveloped with the reality of grief, anger, betrayal, lust and adultery.

From it’s opening pages, Ordinary Grace is a novel that grabs you and won’t let go.  From Krueger’s rich characters to the haunting events that happen that summer, you’ll find yourself wanting to say awhile in New Bremen.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
307 pages

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