Five Quarters Of The Orange by Joanne Harris

Five Quarters Of The Orange

The author of Chocolat, Joanne Harris, presents a mesmerizing work of historical fiction with Five Quarters of the Orange.  Framboise Simon (nee Dartigen) returns to her home village in France to set up an eatery using her mother’s recipes.  The culinary masterpieces were gifted to her in her mother’s journal, but Framboise receives something else she didn’t bargain for – a disturbing look at her past.

Her childhood was spent during the Nazi occupation of France, and there is a mystery surrounding the death of a German officer and her mother’s relationship to him.  Framboise has spent years trying to hide from the past, and now she must come face to face with it.

Not only was this a tragic and page-turning story, but I loved Joanne Harris’ writing.  There’s so much subtle information here – the relationships between truth and lies, mothers and daughters, survival and defeat.  And there’s always something hidden, waiting to be revealed.  Harris also has the mind of a child captured spot on.  Even though you can’t help but feel Framboise is a horrible nine year old – you must also realize that she had limited culpability because she is a child.  As a mother of a nine year old, I could immediately understand that Framboise truly didn’t understand the consequences of her actions (although she certainly knew right from wrong).  Adult Framboise is forced to look at the truth about her childhood as revealed in her mother’s journal, and she ends up discovering some surprises as well.

This was a beautifully written book.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2002
307 pages
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The Blighted Troth by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer

The Blighted Troth

Set in the early 18th century in Quebec, The Blighted Troth is a work of historical fiction.  At the outset, Emilie, a virtuous young woman, is betrothed to Robert, the town’s goodhearted miller.  In New France, a quasi-feudal system exists, with most people living on land owned by powerful private landholders or the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately, for the Emilie, the local landowner, Richard, is determined to have her for himself, and will do anything to make that happen.  What follows is a gripping tale of two lovers trying desperately to overcome the powerful forces that are working against them.

The story itself was based on an Italian classic, The Betrothed by Alexandro Manzoni.  While I haven’t read the original, it appears that the author kept the basic story line intact, while transferring the location to Quebec circa 1700.  This action enabled her to incorporate some real events, like the Quebec bread riots and a deadly smallpox epidemic.

The great thing about historical fiction is learning about some piece of history that had previously been unknown to you.  The Blighted Troth definitely did that for me.  The story was good, but not great.  However, I did enjoy it and learned a thing or two!

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2011
395 pages

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Flawless by Scott Andrew Selby

Flawless

The fun of participating in reading challenges is discovering  exciting new books.  I was challenged to read a book having to do with diamonds, so I selected a non-fiction work about a jewel heist.

In 2003, a group of Italian thieves broke into a secure vault in Antwerp’s Diamond District, and stole what could be valued at $500 million in jewels, precious metals and cash.  Author Scott Andrew Selby presents a work of narrative non-fiction, outlining the impressive details of the robbery and how law enforcement were able to track down the culprits.  The book is well-written, well-researched, and exciting.  I found myself gripped by the narrative, curious as to what would happen next.  In spite of the fact that the perpetrators were caught, the loot was never recovered.  I highly recommend this one!

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2010
336 pages

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The Education Of A Coach by David Halberstam

The Education Of A Coach

The Education Of A Coach tells the story of my favorite NFL Coach, Bill Belichick. The book also explains how the New England ‘Patriots‘ manage to win so many championships, when the entire NFL is design to break up dynasties. Halbertam spends a lot of time with Bill’s father, Steve Belichick, because that is where Bill’s education started and continued. Steve was an Assistant Coach at Navy. One of Steve’s job was to scout upcoming teams, to break down film to find weaknesses that could be exploited. This a long thankless job. One the Bill, learned from his father, a job that made him invaluable when Bill started looking for entry level coaching positions in the NFL.

Bill Belichick learned from his High School Football coaches and College (Weslayan) coaches. In the NFL Belichick’s skills at picking apart opponents made him invaluable to the Head Coaches of the Detroit ‘Lions’, New England ‘Patriots‘ and Denver ‘Broncos‘. Belichick learned enough, and experienced enough of the pro-level game to become head coach of the Cleveland ‘Browns‘. He was soon fired from Cleveland when he learned, being a good coach isn’t enough. Then came a long partnership with Bill Parcells. One that was productive (NY ‘Giants‘ and NE ‘Patriots‘), but had a lot of friction. Belichick learned more ‘what not to do’ or what he didn’t want to do, when the time came for Patriot owner, Robert Kraft, asked him back as head coach.

I found this book interesting. The skills and football philosophies that Belichick brought to the ‘Patriots’ remind me of the NDSU ‘Bison‘ – Taking a longer view of the game and trading ‘superstars’ for team approach. When the NFL instituted the salary cap (to keep rich owners from buying championship caliber teams), Belichick’s long range value approach really began to pay off.

Halberstam’s writing was flat, but the subject matter was excellent. We get to see what it takes to be a championship level NFL coach. You have to give you’re entire life 24/7 to the game. From the time you’re a small boy to the time you retire. In addition you need good players, good coaches, and a good owner.. all who buy into your system. And then your system has to be flexible, both on a week to week basis and a year to year basis. And you can never let up.

B-
298 pages

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The Great Leader And The Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden

The Great Leader And The Fighter Pilot

The Great Leader And The Fighter Pilot: A True Story About the Birth of Tyranny in North Korea

Harden paints a bleak picture of Kim Il-Sung. We also get to see the primary role that Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Mao’s China played in starting the Korean War. Neither of these brutal leaders liked Kim, but kept him around as a tool to neutralize the US. Unfortunately, Truman was willing to play along.

We learned Mao was planning to invade Taiwan but the Korean War stopped those plans. Harden covers Kim’s time as a guerrilla fighter, fighting the Japanese before and during WW-II. Fighting with and sometimes against Mao’s guerrilla army in China.

In parallel with the Kim story, we’re introduced to No Kum Sok. A boy who despises Kim, and what he’s done to No’s family and nation. No plays the game, becoming that which he hates in order to stay alive, and in the end wounding the DPRK by defecting and stealing a Soviet MiG-15. There’s not much detail about the MiG-15, but at the time, it was almost on par with the US F-86 ‘Sabre’.
Harden does describe the difference in training and skill levels between: US, USSR, Chinese, and North Korean pilots. Only the Honcho pilots from the USSR were a match for the American pilots. These were the Soviets’ best pilots, who flew in WW-II and had plenty of training. About mid-war Stalin called them home, as too many were getting killed. Stalin replaced them in trainees, and the slaughter was on. The Chinese and Korean pilots would just run away from the Americans.

No Kum Sok flies his MiG-15, just after the war ends, to Seoul, SK. There is a $100,000 reward waiting. (The US plays our own propaganda war with the Soviet Union. ) A reward, No never heard about.  No becomes Kenneth Rowe and learns to play our games to get that reward, which Eisenhower really doesn’t want to give to him. But the games and cheapness doesn’t last long. Mr. Rowe is soon ensconced in the upper middle class of US society.. and probably living a better life than Kim for all his power.

I enjoyed reading the book. It was well written and a nice supplement to “This Kind Of War“.

B+
304 pages

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Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

The Ghost Bride

I didn’t realize when I chose this book that the majority of it would take place in the spirit world.  I know I would have passed it by, and that would have been a shame.  Why?  Because this book was wonderful.  Set in Malaysia in the late 19th century, Li Lan is an 18 year old girl whose family is approached with an offer of marriage – to the eldest son of a wealthy household.  The only catch is – he’s dead.  Meanwhile, Li Lan is in love with Tian Bai, the living relation who will actually head that same household. Her would-be suitor, soon invades Li Lan’s dreams and what follows is a fascinating narrative that leads Li Lan into the spirit world in an effort to solve a mystery and rid herself of the ghost suitor.

I had heard the concept of a ghost wife/husband in other books I’d read, and I really appreciated the author’s effort to explain it and also to illustrate (via her story) the spirit world and it’s connection to humans in Chinese culture.

Not only did I learn more about topic, but the story was quite the page-turner!

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
368 pages

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Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

Originally published in 1986, Arctic Dreams is a collection of essays about the northernmost part of the earth, with an examination of the land, wildlife, peoples and history of the arctic.  It was also a National Book Award winner, so what’s not to love?

Well, I didn’t love it.  I was looking to travel (through the book) to the North Pole, observing the wonders of the natural world there.  I was happy to receive historical background on Arctic exploration, and a scientific look at the environment. But there’s something about Lopez’s writing that represents more arrogance than a true scientist should have.  Rather than being humbled by nature and what he (and the science community) doesn’t know, the book felt like a lecture with a few interesting narratives thrown in.

His writing is beautiful, and I appreciated his research on the varied arctic topics covered, but I couldn’t stomach his condescending attitudes.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2001
496 pages

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