Venom

Published September 14, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

venom cover

Review of Venom by Fiona Page

Overview from www.goodreads.com: Cassandra Caravello is one of Renaissance Venice’s lucky elite: with elegant gowns, sparkling jewels, her own lady’s maid, and a wealthy fiancé, she has everything a girl could desire. Yet ever since her parents’ death, Cassandra has felt trapped, alone in a city of water, where the dark and labyrinthine canals whisper of escape.

When Cass stumbles upon a murdered woman—practically in her own backyard—she’s drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, killers, and secret societies. Soon, she finds herself falling for Falco, a mysterious artist with a mischievous grin… and a spectacular skill for trouble. Can Cassandra find the murderer, before he finds her? And will she stay true to her fiancé, or succumb to her uncontrollable feelings for Falco?

Beauty, love, romance, and mystery weave together in a stunning novel that’s as seductive and surprising as the city of Venice itself.

My Review:

I was intrigued about the YA novel Venom the moment I read the description on a website that features reviews of Historical Fiction books. It takes place during the Renaissance (or should I say Rinascimento) in Venice. Just knowing that part alone made it sound intriguing but it gets better.

The story centers around a young girl from a high-born family of Venice named Cassandra Caravello. Her troubles begin when she goes to the graveyard at night to visit the body of a recently deceased friend.

When she arrives at the cemetery, she finds someone else’s body in her crypt and what’s more that someone else seems to have been brutally murdered. So where is her friends body? Who is this girl who is currently resting in her grave? These are the questions she must find the answers to with the help of her new friend Falco who has also seen the dead girl.

The stakes are raised however when she receives an anonymous note from the killer saying that she is next. Now she must find the killer before she becomes one of his or her victims while still fulfilling her social responsibilities to her fiancé, her best friend, and her aunt. Furthermore, how many times can she sneak out at night without getting caught before she gets in trouble for her investigation in a city where the authorities cannot always be trusted?

Okay so now for my two cents. The story was intriguing. I liked Venice as the backdrop of the story and felt that the mystery surrounding the city added to the mystery surrounding the story. As we see further into the plot, the dark waters of the canals at night make for the perfect place for the killer to dispose of bodies as they also make for a dangerous place for a young girl who likes to wander off on her own to survive.

Cassandra doesn’t know who she can trust, for no one is what they seem. Even her old Aunt Agnese seems to have a hidden side that she knows nothing about. I liked that aspect of the plot about people not being what they seem. Sometimes we think we know the people who are closest to us—the people that we live with or work with—but do we really? Perhaps there not all as mysterious as the killer in this novel but like Agnese and Cass’s fiancé Luca, they might not be all that we think they are. They could be a cold-blooded killer. Or maybe they just have a secret talent that we never knew about like playing a musical instrument or painting.

On the negative side, there were a few things that I didn’t like. The first was that I didn’t know that this was part of a series and that the ending wouldn’t wrap everything up. I don’t want to spoil anything but there was one big decision that I was hoping that Cassandra would make at the end and when she didn’t I was disappointed. And the mystery wasn’t completely solved at the end. We get an idea of how did it and part of the reasons why but we are not sure of all the motivations involved nor the extent of the involvement of a certain powerful person. Presumably we will have to wait for the next book for that. Too bad.

The other thing was that there was one scene that was a bit uncomfortable for me and that was the scene in the house of the courtesans (I don’t know what it is called) where some of the hanky-panky that was described was a bit more than I was expecting for a YA novel. I’m not saying it will bother everyone but it did make me a bit uncomfortable.

However, overall I liked it. As I said, I loved the backdrop, as well as the characters. The mystery was certainly entertaining. The history seemed to be mostly accurate from what I can tell and I loved how the author brought in the Venetian masked ball as a scene in the story. I think that part was probably my most favorite in the novel and I guess it will probably be enough to make me want to read the next book in the series. If any of these points sounds as fascinating to you as it was to me, I think you will like this book.

The Steel Wave

Published September 7, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

the steel wave cover

Review of The Steel Wave by Jeff Shaara

Overview from www.goodreads.com: General Dwight Eisenhower once again commands a diverse army that must find its single purpose in the destruction of Hitler’s European fortress. His primary subordinates, Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery, must prove that this unique blend of Allied armies can successfully confront the might of Adolf Hitler’s forces, who have already conquered Western Europe. On the coast of France, German commander Erwin Rommel fortifies and prepares for the coming invasion, acutely aware that he must bring all his skills to bear on a fight his side must win. But Rommel’s greatest challenge is to strike the Allies on his front, while struggling behind the lines with the growing insanity of Adolf Hitler, who thwarts the strategies Rommel knows will succeed.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Jesse Adams, a no-nonsense veteran of the 82nd Airborne, parachutes with his men behind German lines into a chaotic and desperate struggle. And as the invasion force surges toward the beaches of Normandy, Private Tom Thorne of the 29th Infantry Division faces the horrifying prospects of fighting his way ashore on a stretch of coast more heavily defended than the Allied commanders anticipate–Omaha Beach.

My Review:

The Steel Wave is the second book in Jeff Shaara’s World War II trilogy. I read and reviewed the first one, The Rising Tide a couple of months ago and like it in spite of the fact that it was different from the stuff that I normally read. War novels are not normally my thing but I found these first two books compelling so far.

This one picks up not long after we left off the first one. Herr Rommel has been sent to France in spite of the fact that he is drawing more ire from Hitler every day. Adams has been put back in action just in time for D Day along with all the troops under him, including Unger. Eisenhower is going nuts trying to make the British and American sides happy, all the while planning D Day and fielding complaints about Monty. And Monty and Patton are, well, busy being Monty and Patton.

The Rommel story line on this one gets really interesting here I think. I always thought he was a fascinating character since the first novel, especially when I would be reading the story and finding myself secretly rooting for him despite the fact that he was working for the other side. Shush, don’t tell anyone. Even as I was reading this one, I kept thinking to myself: What’s going to happen to Rommel? He just seems to have some very likeable qualities such as his affection for his wife and later, his son.

Anyway, in this one Rommel is presented with a plot to assassinate Hitler. It’s incredible really. I mean he is a high-ranking German officer and people are asking him if he wants to help assassinate Hitler. A couple of different people keep trying to convince him throughout the course of the novel, citing some really excellent reasons too. It will be good for the country Field Marshal. Hitler is dragging Germany down. If Hitler is dead we can make peace with the Allies and end this unwinnable war.

However Rommel just can’t do it. At first he is only worried about getting caught. But in the end he says killing Hitler wouldn’t make a difference. He would just be replaced by some other nutcase and the war would go one. But will his indecisiveness help him? Or will he go down anyway?

Of course, there is also the whole story of the D Day invasion. And there is a lot of fighting and drama there. Everybody hates Monty it seems. Maybe that could have been a TV show to go up against “Everybody Love Raymond.”  Ha, ha. Sorry I couldn’t resist but seriously Ike seems to spend the bulk of his time defending the guy who doesn’t seem to deliver half the time. Everyone, even Churchill himself, is just begging him to complain about the guy so that Churchill will have a reason to fire but Ike doesn’t take the bait.

All in all, this was a great read, even though I didn’t understand what was happening half the time nor could I keep track of which weapons were which.

The only downside was the swearing. I don’t know why but it seemed like there was a lot more of it in this one. Maybe it is just me though. Still I liked it. Have you read it? What did you think?

Contains: war violence, foul language

Inheritance

Published August 31, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

inheritance cover

Review of Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Overview from www.goodreads.com: Not so very long ago, Eragon—Shadeslayer, Dragon Rider—was nothing more than a poor farm boy, and his dragon, Saphira, only a blue stone in the forest. Now the fate of an entire civilization rests on their shoulders.

Long months of training and battle have brought victories and hope, but they have also brought heartbreaking loss. And still, the real battle lies ahead: they must confront Galbatorix. When they do, they will have to be strong enough to defeat him. And if they cannot, no one can. There will be no second chances.

The Rider and his dragon have come further than anyone dared to hope. But can they topple the evil king and restore justice to Alagaësia? And if so, at what cost?

This is the much-anticipated, astonishing conclusion to the worldwide bestselling Inheritance cycle.

My Review:

I finally, finally finished the Eragon trilogy and it was everything that I hoped it would be and more. It was also the longest by far which was great because I could really make my enjoyment last. I would have felt let down if it had been over too soon.

The reader is dropped into a battle that Eragon is in the midst of fighting though I am ashamed to admit that I don’t remember which one it was. Soon after however Eragon must prepare first for the invasion of Dras-Leona and then finally Uru’bean, the stronghold of Galbatorix.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers so I will try to be brief and thus avoid giving away too much of the plot.

In Dras-Leona, Eragon and Saphira manage to chase Thorn and Murtagh out of the city only to be told that the city is not important to Galbatorix. Still Eragon is able to get revenge on the priests of the city even as he discovers the true nature of their bizarre religion.

Meanwhile Roran proves himself just as remarkable as his cousin when he takes the city of Aroughs when the previous commander has failed. His willingness to try something crazy nearly gets him killed. It is also the very thing that wins him the battle though at great cost.

Even after the siege of Dras-Leona is successful, Eragon finds he is still unprepared to fight Galbatorix. He couldn’t even defeat Murtagh last time they fought and Galbatorix is even more powerful. How can he even hope to get close to the king, let alone defeat him? He is determined to find the answer.

The werecat Solembaum provides a clue to answer but it will cost him the one thing he doesn’t have—time. Still he knows that he can’t let the Varden down so he makes a side trip to discover the answer. Even that proves difficult however since he must discover his true name to get the answers he needs.

As Eragon tries to discover who he really is, warts and all, the Varden are pushed to the breaking point. Can they defeat Galbatorix or will he enslave and kill them instead?

The story here is wrapped up completely in this volume though not in a neat little package the way it seems to be in so many novels. Nearly all of the characters are forced to make big sacrifices for the right to live as free people. The maintaining of peace requires a delicate balance.

The conclusion is long but well worth the reader’s time. I think most of us who have gotten this far will find it satisfying, especially when we have invested so much time in this series and these characters.

In fact, I can only think of one thing that I didn’t like about it. In spite of Elva’s role in this book she continues to be referred to as “the witch child.” Even at the very end. This seemed totally unfair as she has also sacrificed much to help the Varden. It doesn’t seem fair to call her a witch, even in jest. Fortunately, this is just a small part of the story.

Contains: fantasy violence

C. S. Lewis: A Life

Published August 24, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

c.s. lewis cover

Review of C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath

Overview from www.goodreads.com: Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to inspire and fascinate millions. His legacy remains varied and vast. He was a towering intellectual figure, a popular fiction author who inspired a global movie franchise around the world of Narnia, and an atheist-turned-Christian thinker.

In C.S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath, prolific author and respected professor at King’s College of London, paints a definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis. After thoroughly examining recently published Lewis correspondence, Alister challenges some of the previously held beliefs about the exact timing of Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. He paints a portrait of an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times.

My Review:

I had wanted to get this book since I’d first heard of it. I am a fan of C.S. Lewis and especially his Narnia series and the book Mere Christianity. But when I read the first reviews of this book online I thought maybe I’d better hold off on buying it until I had actually read it. Most of the reviews from regular folks were saying that the book was too dry and academic. I wanted to see if my library would have it as an e-book to borrow and happily, they did.

My verdict is that the book was a little dry at points and academic (though the academic part didn’t bother me) but not nearly so much as the reviews I read implied. At least not for me.

For me the biggest (and only) negative was that the author seems to repeat himself at certain points. I started to wonder if he got paid by the word. He would make a point at the beginning of the paragraph and then it seemed like he just reworded the same sentence at the end. It seemed totally unnecessary. I know that some English classes will teach their students to write that way but it is not a good way to write an engaging biography.

Overall, I liked it a lot. Yes, it was academic but as I said that didn’t really bother me and I expected it to a certain extent since the author is also a professor. And yes, the book was very thorough but I think that is what most readers of biographies expect. Unlike memoirs, biographies are supposed to cover the subject’s entire life, not just certain parts of it. If you don’t want to know “all that information” then a biography of the person in question is not for you. I don’t know why some people don’t get that.

The best part for me was that I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about Lewis before. I didn’t know how much he admired and encouraged J.R.R. Tolkien in his publication of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which I also love. I really wish I could have been just a fly on the wall at one of the meetings of their writer’s/discussion group which was appropriately called Inklings. I am sure it would have been entertaining as well as informative.

McGrath is great at highlighting all of these little known facts about Lewis and does so as objectively as possible. Lewis was no saint and McGrath doesn’t gloss over the flaws in his personality or personal relationships but at the same time he does not ignore the possible reasons why Lewis may have had a weak spot for certain individuals and vices.

The chapters focusing on Narnia were especially well thought out and timely for the many fans of the movies and books. Here I found the answers to my many questions about how Lewis developed these story ideas.

Overall, I think it is a worthwhile book even if it does take a while to get through it. I would definitely recommend it to all who enjoy Lewis’ books. I hope you agree.

Monsoon Summer

Published August 17, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

monsoon summer cover

Review of Monsoon Summer by Mitali Perkins

Overview from www.bn.com: Jasmine “Jazz” Gardner heads off to India during the monsoon season. The family trip is her mother’s doing: Mrs. Gardner wants to volunteer at the orphanage that cared for her when she was young. But going to India isn’t Jazz’s idea of a great summer vacation. She wants no part of her mother’s do-gooder endeavors.

What’s more, Jazz is heartsick. She’s leaving the business she and her best friend, Steve Morales, started—as well as Steve himself. Jazz is crazy in love with the guy. If only he knew!

Only when Jazz reluctantly befriends Danita, a girl who cooks for her family, and who faces a tough dilemma, does Jazz begin to see how she can make a difference—to her own family, to Danita, to the children at the orphanage, even to Steve. As India claims Jazz, the monsoon works its madness and its magic.

My Review:

I finally got a book for free that wasn’t a Barnes & Noble Free Friday book. This one came from a coworker and friend who got it for free at a library event of some kind. (Sorry, I didn’t really pay attention.)

My friend said that she saw this book on a table of free books and thought I would like it. She proved once again that she really understands my tastes because I loved it.

Monsoon Summer is the story of girl, Jazz (Jasmine) Gardner who is half Indian and half American but never feels totally at home in either culture. Though she does well at school, sports and even has her own business on the side, she doesn’t quite feel like she fits in with most of the other girls from her school.

The only person she does feel comfortable with is her best friend since grade school, Steve Morales. At least she used to. Now that she has fallen for him but is afraid to tell him, she’s not quite so comfortable with him either.

Then the bomb drops. She and her family are going to India for the summer. This is the last thing she wants since it will mean leaving Steve and the business they have set up.

But Jazz is not selfish. She knows it has always been her mother’s dream to go back to the land of her birth and Jazz would never let on that she would rather stay home in Berkeley and keep the other girls from her school from trying to take Steve away from her.

Like many others who travel to India, she discovers a whole new world of people and situations, many of them that break her heart. She wants to make a difference in the lives of those who are less fortunate and give them the same opportunities she has had but is afraid of making another big mistake. Along the way she must learn to let go and realize that she has a lot more to offer than she thought possible.

I liked this story for a lot of reasons but I am sure that one of the things that I liked about the story was that Jazz goes to the same city that I went to when I visited India. I recognized a lot of my own trip in hers. Of course I was older but I don’t see how anyone with a heart could not feel for people who welcome foreigners into their homes and their hearts with such a generous spirit as I felt when I was there. Their lives were mostly worse than mine yet rarely was I greeted by any of my hosts without a big smile.

The poverty is heart-breaking. That was the worst part. So what better place for Jazz to initiate one of her own “giving opportunities” that her mom is always encouraging her to do than in India?

I also liked how the story showed how much girls and even grown women undervalue is ourselves. Never is this more evident than in a place like India. We can learn, like Jazz does, that the most important thing we can give to another human being is to give of ourselves. We can make a difference.

The Crime of Julian Wells

Published August 10, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

The Crime of Julian Wells

Review of The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

Overview from www.bn.com:

With THE CRIME OF JULIAN WELLS, Thomas H. Cook, one of America’s most acclaimed suspense writers, has written a novel in the grand tradition of the twisty, cerebral thriller. Like Eric Ambler’s A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS and Graham Greene’s THE THIRD MAN, it is a mystery of identity, or assumed identity, a journey into the maze of a mysterious life.

When famed true-crime writer Julian Wells’ body if found in a boat drifting on a Montauk pond, the question is not how he died, but why?

The death is obviously a suicide. But why would Julian Wells have taken his own life? And was this his only crime? These are the questions that first intrigue and then obsess Philip Anders, Wells’ best friend and the chief defender of both his moral and his literary legacies.

My Review:

This week’s book was a little different from others that I have reviewed but not so different that I would find to be “strange.” I am not sure if that makes sense but I hope it does.

It is a mystery of sorts but not the kind I usually read. There is neither murder nor a real crime committed unless suicide counts as a crime. Yet the title proclaims that a crime has been committed, not by our narrator but his best friend, Julian Wells.

The main character, Phillip, is besieged with guilt over his friend’s death in a boat, wondering if there was something he could have done to prevent it. Here I quote from the book as the best way of explaining the exact mystery that Phillip is investigating.

“’I keep imagining myself in the boat with him,’ I said. ‘I’m completely silent, but I’m searching for what I could say to him that would change his mind.’

“’Do you find the words?’ Loretta asked.

“I shook my head. ‘No.’” p. 17

To find out what he might have said to change his friend’s mind, Phillip must first find out what caused his friend to commit suicide. There seem to be very few clues to lead him. There is no suicide note and according to Julian’s sister Loretta, there was no change in his demeanor until the very end. Julian was even plotting the next book he was to write as an author so why would he decide to kill himself instead?

This is made all the more difficult by Julian’s unusual personality that our narrator has a hard time understanding but Phillip somehow manages to realize that it must have something to do with a trip that they took to Argentina as young adults during a troubled time in Argentina’s history. Someone that he cared about disappeared but did Julian blame himself enough to kill himself all those years later? It doesn’t make sense.

As our narrator interviews more of Julian’s acquaintances, the story becomes bigger than he or Loretta ever thought possible yet something compels him to see it through until he knows the reason why his friend took his own life. He gets his answer of course but it isn’t what he expects.

The story is by no means fast-paced. There are no car chases or gun fights, only a few crazed killers and terrorists.

It is also very sad, downright depressing at times. Yet for me, I too was compelled, like Phillip, to continue on and find the answer. And the ending was realistic without being too depressing either. It was worth the read.

Contains: gruesome violence, foul language

The Grave Gourmet

Published August 3, 2013 by myliteraryleanings

the grave gourmet cover

Review of The Grave Gourmet by Alexander Campion

Overview from www.bn.com:

From the Champs-Élysées to the twinkling banks of la Seine, chic Parisian policewoman Capucine LeTellier plunges into a uniquely Parisian affair of gastronomic delights and bureaucratic intrigue to close a case that could make her career—or kill it. . .

After dining on such delicacies as oyster sorbet and avocado soufflé, Jean-Louis Delage, président of automotive giant Renault, has been found dead in the freezer of Le Diapason, a three-star restaurant owned by Chef Jean-Basille Labrousse, a renowned restaurateur extraordinaire.

Capucine is uniquely suited to the case, as her husband Alexandre is a food critic well-connected to the culinary world. In between sharing sumptuous meals and fine wine with Alexandre at Paris’ finest eateries, Capucine struggles to win the respect of her new squad of detectives and crack both the case and the guarded secrets of the restaurant staff.

My Review:

The Grave Gourmet is the first of a series (aren’t they all?- the Free Friday books that is) called the Capucine Culinary Series. I was excited by this one because it is a Mystery series but in a slightly different setting than I am used to seeing.

This detective is a French female “flic” or police officer. Her name is Capucine which immediately made me think of cappuccino and thus conjured up positive feelings in me. I know, she is French, not Italian, but still, she sounded promising.

I did like her character for the most part. She is funny, witty and determined to become a detective even though she is two years too young to apply. This first case is her godsend chance to prove that she has what it takes but it starts off looking like a clear-cut case of food poisoning.

The victim is found dead in the refrigerator of a three-star restaurant called the Diapason in Paris. When his body is found high levels of a certain type of oyster poison are found in his system and it is know that he had dined at the restaurant the night he was killed (as well as on many other occasions).

However, the plot thickens when it is discovered that the levels of the poison are far too high for the amount of the oysters that he consumed, ergo, someone must have added the poison to his food to make it look like food poisoning. The question of course is who?

“Who” is a big question though because it turns out that there are more than a few people who might have either opportunity or motive to bump off the head of Renault.

For a while the case seems to be a dead-end until Capucine’s flic sense kicks into overdrive. She has a hunch and then acts on it. Through endless hours of surveillance she finally gets her suspect and meanwhile a few other criminals who are not murders but were involved nevertheless.

But wait! There is still the surprising twist at the end that really gets to Capucine. She gets her wings though and is made detective. Thus she will presumably have several more cases to solve over the course of the series.

I mentioned that the main character was a plus but I also enjoyed learning the strange ins and outs of the French government even though I am not sure how accurately they are portrayed here. The mystery was definitely different from anything Agatha Christie ever wrote and that kept me interested.

The downside was only the swearing. It was a little too heavy for my taste. If you don’t mind that, yet you like mysteries set in Paris, you just might enjoy this one. I liked it but it wasn’t one of my favorites. I don’t think I will continue with this series.

Contains: sexuality, foul language