Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Queen Of Last Hopes by Susan Higginbotham

In The Queen Of Last Hopes, Susan Higginbotham traces the life and marriage of Margaret Of Anjou.  She leaves her French home at the age of fourteen to marry Henry VI.  The book covers their lives from 1444 to 1482, when Margaret dies.  Her life went from that of an honored queen, welcomed by the London townspeople and loved by all, to one in exile, alone and reviled by the English people.  What caused such a life change?

After eight years of marriage, Henry, never a strong man, went "mad".  Mad is the description that was given to him, and the descriptions seem to describe a catatonic state that lasted for a year and a half.  During that time, Margaret finally gave birth to their only child, a son, Edward.  Those who follow history know that power hates a vacuum, and Henry's illness started the change of events that led to the war between the House of Lancaster (Henry) and the House of York (Edward).  The fight for the crown and the ability to rule England tore the country apart for years, dividing men who had served on the battlefields as brothers, severing families and spreading death and destruction for decades.  Margaret spent years as the power behind the throne, advising Henry and finding men and money to fuel their attempts to regain the throne once it was lost.

One of Higginbotham's strengths is taking the reader into this world and letting them feel what day to day life was like.  The fate of women was not a pretty one.  Used as pawns in political powerplays in their marriages, once married they were to do nothing but produce babies.  Their husbands, sons, brothers, fathers and uncles were also pawns as they fought in wars and political maneuvers.  One day a family might be rich and powerful; the next, having chosen the wrong side in a powerplay, impoverished and subject to long years of imprisonment or even death by beheading or other barbarous methods.  Any woman who dared to step outside this stricture was subject to rumours and disgust.

This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.  It really filled in a gap in my knowledge of this period, and may do so for many other readers.  Margaret's strength and resourcefulness is now being reevaluated as the stigma of being a strong woman is being examined by historians.  The reader will enjoy Higganbotham's research and ability to bring an era and its characters to life.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Way Of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

In The Way Of Kings, Brandon Sanderson has written the first volume of what will be the decade's foremost fantasy trilogy, The Stormlight Archive. The book takes place in Roshar, a bleak world of stone and storms. The people of Roshar have been involved in a war for years to avenge the killing of their king. The war takes place on The Shattered Plains, a bleak area with massive chasms and stony ground. They meet and fight the people of the Plains, both for revenge and to win gemhearts.

The society is based on magic. Centuries ago, the land was ruled by the ten consecrated orders of the Knights Radiant. Those orders and warriors fell, leaving nothing but their almost-invincible armor and swords, called Shardplate and Shardblades. When armored in Shardplate, an ordinary warrior becomes almost invincible and can fight off entire battalions. Shardblades can cut through anything. Both are valued above anything else in Roshar; and those who own them are the rulers of the country.

Roshar now is ruled by a young king, the murdered king's son. He has ten Brightlords who each have armies and who fight for him, but they are not united. There are plots and counterplots, alliances and betrayals. Overall, the land is much weaker than in the past. And the signs are grim. Everything points to the coming of The Desolations again, perhaps to utterly destroy the land.

There are four individuals who seem to be the focus of both the hope and the despair that may come. Dalinar Kholin is one of the king's Brightlords, and his uncle and most trusted advisor. Renowned for his battle expertise, troubling rumors have started to circulate about Dalinar. He has been having visions of the past, and those visions make him question whether the ways of man are the way forward, or if they need to reach back to the ways of old.
Shallan is a young woman, ignorant and untested. She comes to court hoping to become the ward of the king's sister, a renowned scholar. She is accepted and learns to love knowledge and education, but she can't forget that she has come to court to attempt to steal a great treasure to help out her family back home and save it from ruin and poverty.

Then there is the assassin. No one knows who he is or why he kills, but his targets are never safe. He kills with ruthless efficiency, but each killing grates at his soul. His life is not his own, but hostage to the master who owns his oathstone. As long as his oathstone is held by another, he must obey their every command, no matter how foreign it is to his nature.

Finally, there is Kaladin. Raised as a surgeon's son, he joined the army instead when his younger brother was recruited. Far from admiring the Brightlords he joined the army to protect, he has grown to loathe them as they betray him and the codes of honor again and again. Due to these betrayals, Kaladin is now a slave, assigned to the bridge carriers, the most dangerous job in the army. Yet even in this lowly position, he finds a way to affect events around him.

This book is highly recommended for fantasy readers. If you have a fantasy reader in your life, run, don't walk, to the nearest bookstore and purchase The Way Of Kings for them. Sanderson has created a harsh world that challenges the men who attempt to survive in it, but gives glimpses of what can be. Like the best fantasy sagas, there is a moral code underlying the entire story that keeps the reader enthralled. Readers will be thrilled with this first book and anxiously await the next.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ansel Adam In The National Parks, edited by Andrea Stillman

This large volume of Ansel Adam's photographs is a perfect Christmas gift for anyone interested in nature or art.  The book reviews Ansel Adam's life, with excerpts from statements ranging from President Jimmy Carter to Wallace Stegner to Richard Woodward.  At the back of the book are several pages of photographs with notes by Andrea Stillman.  Stillman worked with Adams in the 1970's and is considered the leading expert on his work, having edited several books of his photographs.

Then there are the photos.  Page after page of treasures, these photographs allow the reader to view nature as Adams did and marvel at it's wonders.  The book focuses on his photographs taken in National Parks.  There are 225 images, 50 of which have never before been published.  Many of the photographs have sidebars giving insight into what Adams was doing at the time the photograph was taken.  He visited and shot images in more than forty national parks.  The images are taken in black and white, showing the stark beauty of the world, highlighting the natural wonder as seen through this man's eyes and knowledge.

Adams is recognized world-wide as one of the world's premier photographers and naturalists.  His work on behalf of the national park system of the United States defined his career and make his work instantly recognizable.  This book is recommended for those readers interested in the world around them, or for those interested in art history.  Ansel Adams In The National Parks is a stunning work that will be treasured by those who own it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Etta by Gerald Kolpan

In Etta, author Gerald Kolpan takes the reader on a rollicking ride that explores the life and times of Etta Place. For those for whom this name does not ring a bell, Etta was the mistress/partner of The Sundance Kid and a member of the Hole In The Wall Gang which included Butch Cassidy, Kid Curry, Peg Leg Elliot and a host of others. Although this gang were bank robbers and held up trains, they enjoyed a popularity in the general population for their insistence on stealing only from the rich.
Since little is known of Etta's life, Kolpan is free to make up an interesting tale. What is known is that Etta was a beauty, who dressed fashionably and could ride and shoot like the best cowboy. In Etta, the name is a pseudonym for a rich girl who grew up riding; the daughter of a wealthy man without a son who taught his only child to ride and shoot and be adventuresome. This background makes the character believable in terms of what is known about her.

From that point, various storylines from the era are brought into the story. Koplan gives Etta a famous friendship. He has her meet and become best friends with Eleanor Roosevelt in her pre-marriage days when she spent her time in New York working in a settlement house. Etta is also portrayed as replacing Annie Oakley in the Wild West show of Buffalo Bill Cody. She also has run-ins with various Pinkerton detectives, especially the top operative who spent years looking for her and the rest of the gang.

Readers will enjoy this look at the last of the Wild West. The privations of frontier life are shown. Badmen and lawmen alike are featured, with often only fate separating the two. An underlying theme is the way the poor are mistreated by the wealthy, and the lengths that fair-minded people are driven to as they attempt to remedy this disparity. The characters are engaging, and the tone is breezy. The reader is swept along on a rollicking tale that they will hate to see end. This book is recommended for all fiction readers who enjoy a great tale about a time in our country's history when life was less structured and men made their way by various means to survive.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Active, Creative Child by Stephanic Vlahov

The subtitle of The Active, Creative Child is Parenting in Perpetual Motion, and parents of these children will surely recognize this description.  These are the children who are born very intense.  They tend to talk early, have boundless curiosity that leads them to do things most children would never think of doing, and seem to have little need for sleep.  They are hypersensitive to their environment, and may be picky eaters or have tactile preferences and dislikes for certain materials.

The author, Stephanie Vlahov, relates her experiences parenting such a child, along with research from various child experts to explain why the child does what he/she does, and how best to help the child adjust to the world.  She suggests that such children should be cherished, not dreaded, as they are bright, creative and interesting.   Yet, she also believes that they must be grounded in the real world, and realise that they must follow the rules as well as others. 

The first chapter discusses what children like this tend to be like.  In it, she gives the reader eight observations and ten hints from her own experience.  These observations and hints are useful to the parent struggling to understand why their child is so different from that of their peers, and once they have identified their child as an active, creative child, how to manage their environment to best support their enthusiasm and help them fit into the rest of society.

The second chapter talks about the large part imagination plays in the lives of these children.  They tend to be very focused on what they are interested in.  Imaginary friends may make an appearance and remain in family life for months or even years.  Creative outlets are extremely necessary, and often are the pathway for the child to fit in with other children.

Chapter 3 discusses how to help the child fit in.  These children are often challenged at making friends, as they are too high-energy for other children who can see them as bossy.  Often they are interested in other activities than those of the children surrounding them.  The author helps the parent recognize the importance of helping their child find a peer group of other children who share the same interests.  She also gives strategies for helping the child, from an early age, fit in by recognizing the needs of those around them.

School is often a challenge.  These are the kids who question everything, not the kids who come into class, sit down with organized work and homework assignments.  Instead, they are the ones who question constantly in their need to understand.  They have more difficulty with structure, and a teacher that demands compliance with no room for exploration is not the best match.  The author feels that these children are at risk for being wrongly diagnosed with ADHD or ADD, more to make them compliant than because they actually have a disorder.  She also discusses gifted programs and how these gifted children make not fit that mold, as their talents and gifts may be in the arts rather than the traditionally tested fields of math and language.

Finally, Vlahov discusses family dynamics.  When there are multiple children, it is difficult sometimes to give those who are more laid-back the attention they need as the active child demands so much more attention.  But it is critical to help the other children in the family also find their areas to shine.  In addition, if the active child is a star in a creative field, it should not preclude the other children from also enjoying it.

This book will be a godsend for those who have an active, creative child in their lives.  It explains why they do the things they do, and how to help them be the most successful people they can, and they are often the stars of our world if raised appropriately.  Intense, focused, creative, always-on, these children have abilities that many of us can only wish for.  This book is recommended for parents facing this issue and those interested in child development. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Polski Affair by Leon Gildin

Anna Adler is living in Israel as the book opens.  She and her husband Chaim are immigrants and Holocaust survivors.  They have a son, Sholom, and a daughter, Tamar, and are a happy family with successful lives.  But before this life, they had other lives back in Poland.  Anna was Rosa Feurmann and was married to a professor and had two lovely boys.  She left the house one day and when she returned they were gone.  Chaim was Itzik, and he lost his wife and four children.  Drawn together by shared tragedy, they made their way to Israel and started new lives.

But the past cannot be forgotten.  They made their way to Israel after staying in the Hotel Polski.  It was touted among the Jews as a refuge in the madness, somewhere that families could stay and get visas to other lands.  Desperate to escape, it was always crowded with families, although no one really knew if those who left were taken to jail or the camps, or if they did make it to new lives elsewhere.  They are willing to give up their entire fortunes for a chance at survival.

Rosa has no money to try to purchase papers.  She lives in the hotel, passing as a Polish maid.  Then one day she catches the eye of Colonel Peter Hauptmann, the Nazi who is in control of the hotel.  He informs Rosa that she will be his personal assistant and companion.  Over the weeks that follow, she does that; dressing in the designer clothing of women killed in the camps and doing whatever he asks of her, including a sexual relationship.  She is torn and ashamed, but knows she must do whatever is asked of her to have a chance at survival.  When the Colonel is reassigned, he makes arrangements for Rosa and Itzik to be sent overseas.  The papers he arranges for them gives them their new identities and Chaim and Anna Adler.

Now the past has returned in two ways.  Anna is called after the war to testify at the International War Crimes tribunal about Colonel Hauptmann's role at the Hotel Polski.  She testifies that he was involved in the departure of many families; some to be saved; some to be killed.  The Colonel is given a prison sentence, but Rosa's testimony keeps him from execution.  Then years later, a reunion of Hotel Polski survivors is held and she attends.  It is another piece in the puzzle of those years that she constantly works and rewords, trying to make sense of her life.

The Polski Affair is the 2010 International Book Awards winner for historical fiction.  The hotel did exist, and the mystery of what the Nazis were doing there has never been solved.  What is clear and what Gildin portrays so movingly, is what people will do for survival, and how one can move on in later years to a more successful life.  The past will never be forgotten but it can be integrated into the present in a way that doesn't destroy the survivor.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction and for those interested in survival stories.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hollywood Ending by Lucie Simone

Trina Stewart is at a crossroads.  She came to Hollywood ten years ago to make a career.  Unfortunately, she is stuck.  Stuck in a dead-end job, teaching English to foreign students.  Stuck without a relationship.  Stuck emotionally, unable to get over the trauma of her mother's death years before as it made her feel abandoned and unready to trust.

But maybe, maybe things are looking up.  She has a new gorgeous boyfriend, a would-be actor she met when her rich friend took her out to dinner and he was their limo driver.  Even more intriguing, a new man has moved in upstairs, and she felt an instant attraction to him.  Matiu is a New Zealand Maori, in Hollywood to take a course in set design.  He seems attracted to Trina, then they have a misunderstanding and both leave, determined to have nothing more to do with each other.

But that attraction is still there.  Trina has never had two men fighting for her favors.   Which should she concentrate on?  Is there a chance of a permanent relationship with either of them?  And what about that career she should be working on?

Lucie Simone has written an engaging, frothy romance that will entrance readers and leave them determined to discover how Trina's life will turn out.  This book is recommended for readers ready for some light-hearted fun.