In 1940, the second largest Jewish ghetto in Poland was established in the town of Lodz. Placed in control of this ghetto by the Nazi regime was a figure still controversial and compelling today, Mordechai Rumkowski. A failed businessman, a bullying insurance agent, Rumkowski was by all accounts brash, egomaniacal, and deeply insecure. But he could also be oddly generous and loving, fancying himself a savior to the weak and the innocent. After his wife’s death in 1936, he established a Kinderkolonie, an orphanage for Jewish children. He encouraged the orphans to look on him as a father figure, going so far as to sprinkle candy in their midst on his visits, ensuring they would always run up to and after him.
And, just as he tried to protect the orphans under his care, he attempted to protect the Jewish inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto. He knew, or believed he knew, that if he could only demonstrate to the Nazis the usefulness of the Jews, they would be spared the camps. And so he turned the entire ghetto into a massive industrial complex, forcing the inhabitants to work long hours under brutal conditions, producing furniture and clothing for German citizens and camoflage, foorwear, jackets, and buckles for the Wehrmacht.
And so the central question in Sem-Sandberg’s novel is this: Was Rumkowski a collaborator or a liberator? A sinner, or a saint? A good man who made a difficult choice, or an evil man exploiting his position for personal gain?
The novel opens 2 years into the life of the ghetto, when Rumkowski is forced to annouce that 20,000 inhabitants will be deported from th ghetto, sent to the camps. It goes backwards and forwards in time from there, exploring both Rumkowski’s past and personal life as well as the lives and daily torments of the inhabitants of the ghetto. While Rumkowski is the central figure, the author’s scope is much wider, utilizing an immersive richness of detail and a large, almost Dickensian cast to illuminate this place and this time in a three-dimensional fashion seldom attempted in fiction. Sem-Sandberg’s use of archival materials in reconstructing ghetto life lends his novel historical accuracy and a certain legitimacy, while the fiction format allows the reader to empathize and understand the plight of those within ghetto walls in a way non-fiction seldom does. A challenging, difficult, and ultimately illuminating work.
Before I Go to Sleep is SJ Watson's first novel, a thriller in the mold of Christopher Nolan's film on the impermanence of memory, Memento. The novel's heroine and storyteller, Chrissie, awakes in a strange bed, with a strange man sleeping beside her. A look in the bathroom mirror reveals a woman some 20 years older than she last remembers. Who is she, and how did she get here?
Able to recall only a few fragmented, disconnected memories, Chrissie comes to find that she has a rare form of amnesia, the result of some sort of head trauma suffered many years earlier. She can recall a few memories from before her accident, and can create new ones, but is unable to retain the vast majority: one night of sleep and her mind is wiped clean. A call from her neurologist, Dr. Nash (like everyone else, a stranger to Chrissie), results in the revelation that she has been keeping a detailed journal of events for the past few weeks. It is this journal that we read, following along as Chrissie makes unsettling discoveries about her past and present.
Before I Go to Sleep is a quick, compelling novel that will keep you guessing at every turn. How did Chrissie lose her memory? Why does Dr. Nash ask her to keep her journal a secret from Ben, her husband? Whose truth does she believe? Watson's writing style - simple yet evocative, never trite - elevates this beyond your average thriller.
Two wildly dysfunctional pairs of adult siblings find the paths of their lives colliding with volatile results in this quiet psychological thriller. Anthony Verey, a once-successful and sought-after London antiques dealer whose life is now on the decline, takes refuge in the company of his sister, Veronica. Veronica now lives a happy, quiet life in the Cévennes region of southern France with her lover, Kitty, an amateur watercolorist. Anthony’s trespassing on their lives causes friction between Veronica and Kitty, who cannot understand Veronica’s unswerving loyalty to the unpleasant and arrogant Anthony. When Anthony, seduced by the landscape, determines to sell off the remains of his life in London and buy a house in the area, Kitty is dismayed. Anthony’s rigid perfectionism means that only one house fits his standards…the Mas Lunel, owned now by aging Aramon. Aramon’s sister, Audrun, lives in a ramshackle house on the same property. The two have a long and brutally abusive history and Audrun is simply waiting for Aramon to die so that she can claim the Mas. But Anthony’s interest in purchasing the building and land threatens that goal, and only disaster can result.
Deeply flawed characters and a vivid, though untamed and arid setting perfectly complement Tremain’s tale of dark secrets and years-long grudges come to a head.
Until the 1830s, the word “scientist” didn’t exist and biology, botany, and related sciences were not professional fields of study for which practitioners studied at universities, but were the purview of dedicated amateurs. The late 1700s and the 1800s saw the rise of the naturalist, beginning with Carolus Linnaeus’s creation of a methodical and organized classification system for species. Naturalists traveled the world, braving the most adverse and sometimes fatal of weather and geography, all for the pure joy of discovery and the lesser joy of monetary remuneration from museums and collectors back home. Coniff profiles these pioneers and their discoveries, while simultaneously discussing the importance of the naturalists’ findings on our understanding of our own place in nature.
Compelling, meticulously researched, and yet accessible to scientific amateurs, The Species Seekers is fascinating reading.
Jack is five years old. He’s spent his entire life living in Room, an 11’x11’ space he shares with his mother, Ma. Jack is happy with his life. Ma teaches him reading and tells him stories and lets him watch just a little bit of TV and breastfeeds him when he wants it and at night, he sleeps in Wardrobe just in case Old Nick comes in the night. Old Nick is the keeper of Room, and he brings their food and occasional treats, and at night he sometimes visits Ma and makes the bed squeak. Though Jack doesn’t know it, the whole world he sees on TV is actually real and his Ma came from there originally. Old Nick took her seven years ago and put her into Room and now, with Jack getting so big and old, Ma knows they can’t live in such a small space together much longer. Ma tells Jack the truth and Jack doesn’t want to believe it at first. But then, he has to be very brave and help save his Ma from Old Nick. The outside world is very scary and other people are very strange, but Jack is smart and strong and he thinks he can handle it. But can Ma, after seven years locked away from her own Ma and father and brother?
Donoghue’s latest novel is intense, frightening, and, at times, surprisingly funny. Told entirely from the perspective of Jack, whose voice is simultaneously naïve and amazingly mature, the reader is distanced slightly from the misery of his mother. In some ways, this makes the story easier to bear. And in others, it is far more creepy. Jack’s complete acceptance of his strange world is at times chilling. An important book in many ways.
Diana Bishop is the last in a long line of witches who can trace their ancestry back to the Salem Witch Trials and beyond. She has rejected her magical heritage, however, in the wake of her parents’ terrible deaths when she was a child. A historian, she is studying her chosen subject—the history of alchemy—in Oxford when she discovers a strange manuscript that has been bewitched and lost for centuries. Suddenly, she finds herself the focus of the interest and hostility of every witch, vampire, and daemon in England. Only her new-found relationship with Matthew Clairmont, a vampire scientist, may save her. But that relationship might be the downfall of both, as well, as such cross-species are strictly forbidden—and the penalty is death.
“A Discovery of Witches” is just the first in a series about Diana and Matthew, and the ending is left very open, with nothing resolved. Despite some slightly uneven pacing, readers are sure to be hooked by both the centuries-old mystery of the lost manuscript and the forbidden love affair between the protagonists.
Young Marya Morevna has watched her sisters married off, each to a man from a different strata of Russian life. Awaiting her own husband, she is surprised when Koschei the Deathless, the mythical Tsar of Life, shows up at her door to take her away to his lands as his bride, asserting his power over her at every step. At first repelled by the land of Koschei, in which everything is alive and fountains spout blood rather than water, she soon finds herself at home as its mistress. But in her need to prove herself to Koschei’s frightening sister, Baba Yaga, Marya inadvertantly overturns the balance between Koschei and his brother the Tsar of Death and must spend many years leading Koschei’s troops in the never-ending war between the two. When, finally sick of spirit, she allows herself to be seduced away from Koschei by a seemingly uncomplicated human man, Ivan, and returns to the human world, her problems are far from over. For she has returned to the city of her birth, now renamed Leningrad, in the midst of the worst of the famine and horror of Siege of Leningrad. She must struggle for her own life, the life of Ivan, and the lives of her friends. And when Koschei comes for her once more, the power balance between the two shifts alarmingly as Marya asserts her own control over her immortal lover and husband.
Author Valente seamlessly and fascinatingly blends 20th century Russian history with Russian folklore in her most recent novel. The details of the Siege of Leningrad are painstakingly researched and painfully depicted, as is the history of political turmoil which turned St. Petersburg into Stalingrad into Leningrad, dragging its citizens unwillingly along. Those unfamiliar with the rich tradition of Russian folklore will find much of interest here as well.
After her father stakes (and loses) her tuition money on a dotcom startup, our heroine sheds her family name and takes to the blogosphere as Cassandra Devine. An aggressive, uber-caffeinated voice in the night, she unwittingly mobilizes her brethren into a battle with the “Ungreatest Generation” – their parents. The baby boomers are retiring en masse, buckling the social security system as they reach for their nine irons. Cassandra Devine is not prepared to foot the bill.
Her big idea to right the ship – offer huge tax breaks to seniors who agree to kill themselves by age 65. She enlists Senator Randolph Jepperson to get the “voluntary transitioning” bill on the floor. He wants a shot at the presidency. She wants a serious national discussion about social security reform. They both may be in over their heads as the issue goes viral.
Christopher Buckley brings his trademark wit to this irreverent comedy. The characters are eerily recognizable and the dialog lights up the pages. The author of “Thank You For Smoking” hits another national nerve. Debt and social security issues have only become more ominous since this book’s publication, making it funnier still. Or does that make it less funny?
Robin Hobb is one of my favorite authors, and though I knew she also wrote under the name Megan Lindholm, I had never read Lindholm previously. This anthology is a wonderful introduction to both of the author's signature styles. Standouts in the Lindholm section include the delightfully odd tale of “The Fifth Squashed Cat,” and the first story, "A Touch of Lavender." The real standout in the Hobb section was, again, the first story, “Homecoming.” Sure to appeal to any fans of Hobb’s Liveship Traders series, “Homecoming” provides a fascinating glimpse at the early years of Rain Wilds settlements.
Over all, this is a most satisfying collection. Whether you're a Lindholm fan, a Hobb fan, or a fan of both, you will find much to enjoy here!
In a loose sequel to Bear’s alternate history-cum-mystery “New Amsterdam,” we are taken from the New World into the depths of the old. Immortal vampire detective Don Sebastien de Ulloa seeks rest and healing, both for himself and for the human members of his court, the inimitable forensic sorceress Lady Abigail Irene and the lady author, Phoebe Smith. The trio travel to the depths of Russia, to the White City of Moscow…a place Don Sebastien has not visited in many years. While he seeks respite, what he finds is only more death. Visiting an old friend, he finds instead a cooling corpse and no trace of the lady he seeks. A mystery he thought was done and gone has re-emerged from hiding, embroiling Don Sebastien and his court in the dangerous jealousies and ancient rivalries of Moscow’s vampire community.
The mystery here is hardly the point. While the motivations are realistic and the crimes dramatic, what readers will find most fascinating are Bear’s characters: the ascerbic Abigail Irene, the unprepossessing Phoebe Smith hiding unexpected depths behind her smile, and, most of all, the ancient, conflicted, and decidedly post-human Don Sebastien. Bear’s vampires definitely do not sparkle, but they captivate nonetheless.