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Lonya "Lonya" (Virginia Beach, Virginia)
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The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth (New York Review Books Classics)
The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel About John Wilkes Booth (New York Review Books Classics)
Price: £8.54

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Where was the judge he had never seen? ", 24 Jun. 2011
Franz Kafka, The Trial

David Stacton's "The Judges of the Secret Court" is one of the finest pieces of historical fiction I've read in a long time. Originally published in 1961 and newly resurrected by NYRB Classics, "Secret Court" takes a look at one of the most traumatic events in American history, the assassination of U.S. President Lincoln at the end of the Civil War with such attention to detail that I sometimes wondered whether this was a work of fiction or not.

The story opens in Edwin Booth's (the assassin's brother) Gramercy Park, New York City apartment in 1892, a year before his death. Recently retired from a stage career in which he was acclaimed as the great Shakespearean actor of his time, he is reading a manuscript sent to him by an aspiring playwright. It is a piece of fluff, "pish-tush" in Edwin's words. But he is struck by the title, "Judges of the Secret Court" and the title sends him on a sort of melancholy reverie, the sort where an old man's life may be said to flash before he eyes. And from there the heart of the story begins.

The reader is immediately taken back to April 14, 1865, the day Lincoln was shot. From there the story takes up very quickly through the assassination to Booth's flight and eventual death while being captured. The last third of the book takes the reader into the military tribunal where the trial of Booth's alleged co-conspirators. The book closes back in Edwin's Gramercy Park apartment.

There are a number of reasons why this book stands out for me as a great find. First, there is Stacton's attention to detail. Although a piece of fiction the picture Stacton paints of Washington D.C. and the areas mentioned in John Wilkes Booth's flight from D.C. seem remarkably detailed and accurate. I am reading, as a companion piece to this book, Margaret Leech's Pulitzer Prize winning history of civil-war era DC Reveille in Washington: 1860-1885 (New York Review Books Classics) and Stacton's fictional description of D.C. and its inhabitants tracks Leech's historical account in every critical way. Stacton's writing is vivid without being florid and I felt as if I could almost see the dust bowls or muddy streets, smell the stench of overflowing drainage canals or be wary of the unsavory types that wandered through the streets.

Similarly, Stacton's characterizations of the players in this drama struck me as dead-solid perfect. Except for the playwright who submitted the manuscript to Edwin that serves as the entry point for the novel, all of the characters in Secret Court are real. Stacton goes for `straight history' here and creates a compelling narrative here not by introducing fictional characters to bounce off the real characters but by vesting these real figures with voices that drive the story. Stacton accomplishes this by speaking in the first person, or revealing the interior thoughts of all the characters in this drama. In the wrong hands this could result in dreadful, self-important prose but Stacton's language is so precise that the use of this overarching perspective works wonderfully. Last, Stacton's ability to sum up a character, be it one of the Booths, Mary Surratt, Dr. Mudd, Secretary of War Stanton, or Vice President Johnson, in a sentence or two as they enter the `drama' really set up everything that flowed from that character in the book.

The last third of the book, the trial of Booth's co-conspirators and everyone else swept up by Stanton in the aftermath of the assassination, had contemporary resonances for me that I don't think Stacton could have foreseen when he wrote the book. The assassination was a tragic event that had an undeniably seismic impact on American life and politics. In the traumatic days that followed Stanton declared martial law, arrested every actor in Ford's Theatre and everyone else he could get his hands on and prepared them for a military trial. Habeas corpus remained suspended and the prisoners were kept isolated in cells, bound and with burlap bags over their heads so they could not talk or otherwise communicate with everyone. The trial was handled in many respects like Stalin's famed show trials of the 1930s. As one of the judges is heard to say, "[t]he way to show innocence in this world, is to prove someone else guilty, and they had their orders and would obey them." I would not argue if any reader sees a parallel to events in the U.S. over the last ten years. As Edwin Booth says in his reverie, we may all be guilty or even innocent, but "who can prove it? For in fact no man is innocent at that bar. He is always accessory, willy-nilly, before or after some fact." As Edwin comes out of his reverie he notes that "there is no guilt in this world, yet somehow life makes us culpable. That is the meaning of the Judges of the Secret Court. No matter what we do, they are always there."

David Stacton's "Judges of the Secret Court" is a special book. Highly recommended.


Kamchatka
Kamchatka
by Marcelo Figueras
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The past is never dead, it is not even past. ~William Faulkner, 8 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Kamchatka (Paperback)
The past is neither dead nor past in Marcelo Figueras' beautifully crafted Kamchatka.

The Kamchatka Peninsula is the northeastern-most part of Russia and the old Soviet Union. It is surrounded by the Bering Sea, the Arctic, and the Pacific oceans. It was a cold-forbidding place, one that served as the destination point for thousands of Soviet citizens sent to spend time in the Gulag. It is also one of geographic points of interest in the old military board game Risk. The idea of Kamchatka, as set out in the board game, as a place of exile, and ultimately as a place of refuge forms the emotional core of the book around which the story revolves.

Set in Argentina in 1976, Kamchatka is the story of a young boy and his family. Argentina in 1976 was a dangerous place. The regime of Isabel Peron was ousted in a military coup followed by some extraordinarily repressive measures against suspected opponents of the junta. Thousands of people disappeared and most all of them were murdered. Kamchatka is the story of one family. Kamchatka is told in the form of a memoir written by Harry as he is known to us. Harry was 10 when the story begins. His parents are opponents of the regime and in short order Harry and his family flee from Buenos Aires to a secluded `summer cottage' where they can, hopefully, survive until the troubles are over. The family all take new names, the boy chooses to become Harry in honor of his boyhood hero, Harry Houdini.

The act of memory, of remembering, is critical to the story-line. Early on Figueras writes that sometimes, "as I remember, my voice is that of the ten-year-old boy I was then; sometimes the voice of the seventy-year-old man I am yet to be; sometimes it is my voice, at the age I am now . . . or the age I think I am. Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other." In lesser hands this would be nothing more than literary boilerplate, a snippet of philosophy before the writer moves on to the `heart' of the story. Although most of the story is written through the eyes of a ten-year-old, Figueras manages to insert the narrator's other voices at certain points of the book and he manages to do it seamlessly. As I read the book I could hear the different voices but the transition seemed totally natural and unaffected to me.

The structure of the story reinforces the use of those differing voices. The story's first and last chapters tell the same story; an encounter between father and son involving the word "Kamchatka" serves (in a manner reminiscent of Orson Welles' Rosebud) as both the opening note and grace-note of the tale. But as the story ends that grace note carries a far different meaning and sounds to be from a far-different voice from the ten-years olds' first telling - - -even though the words are almost the same.

Aldous Huxley once said that "[e]very man's memory is his private literature." In this instance Marcelo Figueras has taken the private literature of young Harry and turned it into a beautiful public piece of literature. This is a book that really deserves to find a wide audience.


Gourmet Rhapsody
Gourmet Rhapsody
by Muriel Barbery
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Rhapsody en bleu, 1 Jun. 2011
This review is from: Gourmet Rhapsody (Paperback)
Pierre Arthens is a thoroughly loathsome man. His ego and arrogance is commensurate with his reputation as one of the world's great food critics. His writing and his persona has redefined the role of food critic in French society. He is also dying. His physician has told him he has 48 hours to live. In the time he has left to him Arthens is determined to remember that one flavor, that one taste sensation that could be said to have defined his life.

Lying on his death-bed in his elegant Paris apartment, Arthens reaches back in time trying to recall moments in time and a `tastes' in time that may mark that one great flavor. Each brief memory (in the form of a short chapter) is followed by the reflections of those who have for better or worse, usually worse, have had dealings with Arthens. These include his neglected wife, his children, a nephew, cooks, other food critics, restaurateurs, and even his cat and a small piece of artwork. That in summary is the plot and structure of Muriel Barbery's "Gourmet Rhapsody".

"Gourmet Rhapsody" was Barbery's first novel, published in France in 2000. It set in the same building as a later work, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". Hedgehog was published in English by Europa Editions in 2008 to great critical and popular acclaim. Subsequently, Europa decided to translate and publish "Gourmet Rhapsody". I think the fact that Gourmet Rhapsody was her first book is apparent. It is not nearly as polished and does not flow nearly as smoothly as Hedgehog. However, the book is still very much worth reading and if I had read it before Hedgehog I would have believed it showed a great deal of promise.

On the plus side: Barbery's writing is very fluid and insightful. There are passages that are just dazzling. She manages to take a thoroughly unlikable main character and wrap a story around him that is well written and absorbing. At the same time, Arthens' memories, even though they center on his lifetime fascination with food, do manage to tell the story of a life and even if one never comes to admire Arthens the man I did get a feel for the life he led.

On the minus side: the splicing in of other characters' memories, while an interesting artifice just didn't hold up as I think it was intended. It may be that as arrogant and pompous as Athens was, he certainly seemed aware of it and seemed to have a sense of self-reflection that was one redeeming feature. However, because the vignettes of the long suffering wife, the children, and others were so fleeting their stories conveyed little more than their sense of suffering at the hands of Arthens. That lack of investment in these drive-by characters really makes fully half of the book simply nothing more than an echo chamber to bring us back to Arthens.

Ultimately, I think the plusses, specifically Barbery's writing outweighs the minuses and I have no problems recommending "Gourmet Rhapsody" to others. I would suggest, however, that it would be best to read "Gourmet Rhapsody" before turning to "Elegance of the Hedgehog". That way, the reader would be introduced to a good author's good first book followed by a more eloquent and sophisticated follow-up. L. Fleisig


Hygiene and the Assassin
Hygiene and the Assassin
by Amelie Nothomb
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "And by his side rode loathsome gluttony, 1 Jun. 2011
Deform'd creature, on a filthy swine;
His belly was up-blown with luxury,
And eke with fatness swollen were his eyne."
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book 1, Canto 4

I picked up Amelie Nothbomb's "Hygiene and the Assassin" on the assumption that it probably be a quirky book similar to Gourmet Rhapsody. I had what I thought were good reasons for the assumption: both were published by Europa Editions; both were first novels by young women writing in French; and both involved a famous and curmudgeonly protagonist on his death bed searching for some final memory (or closure if you will) as they exited this earthly veil. I was wrong. Where Gourmet Rhapsody had its dark moments, Hygiene and the Assassin starts dark and gets darker. Yet Nothomb has managed to write a book that kept me turning page after page until I was done.

The `hero' of this tale is one Pretextat Tach. Tach is a world-famous author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lives in self-imposed isolation in a small cottage in a village somewhere in France. As the story opens word has just gotten out that Tach has been diagnosed with a rare form of cartilage cancer and has just a few weeks to live. As happened in Tolstoy's final days, the `death-event' takes on the form of a media circus. Journalists from all over descend upon the village seeking a last interview with the dying legend. Each morning one journalist is assigned to enter the cottage for an interview.

As the first journalist enters for the first interview Tach is revealed to be a loathsome glutton. He is not just overweight, he is obese. He is squat, balding and, in his own words, singularly unattractive. It becomes apparent quickly to the first journalist that looks in this case are not deceiving. Tach's personality is as disturbing as his appearance. In very short order Tach reduces the journalist, whose own pretensions are no match for Tach's, to a quivering, emasculated plate of aspic simply by describing in detail the type of food he indulges in. Two more journalists meet the same fate. During these failed conversations it becomes quite clear that Tach does not believe anyone has ever read, really read, his books. He is quite certain and says so with no small amount of derision.

Finally, one more journalist shows up and much to the chagrin of the established press the journalist is little-known and, even-worse, a woman. Given Tach's famed misogyny her colleagues have no doubt that she will meet a fate similar to their own. And this is where the book takes off. This last interview turns Tach's world around and the world of the journalist. It is clear that Tach has met his match and it is also clear that she is up to the task in part because she has actually read, really read, Tach's work and knows exactly how to speak to him. The gluttonous bully becomes the bullied for a while and the turnabout is quite abrupt and satisfying.

As the book continues through to its conclusion the reader sees the power balance shift back and forth between Tach and the journalist. Although the ultimate revelation and the ending seemed predictable once you get about two-thirds of the way into the book the conversation, the jousting between the two is compelling. There is a certain mystery at play here but Nothomb also manages to incorporate conversations about literature and the meaning of what we read and how we read into the book in an almost seamless fashion. The journey to the conclusion made for a very satisfying and enjoyable ride.

This was Nothomb's first book and there were some elements to it that highlighted that fact. A couple of sentences or passages struck me as though they were written more to impress than to inform or entertain. However, given the personality of the character's those passages probably reflected more of the characters' heightened sense of self than a young author's need to dazzle so this is a minor quibble at best.

As far as recommendations go I think I need only say that I immediately purchased another work by Nothomb. All-in-all this really was a book worth reading.

L. Fleisig


To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain
To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain
by Adam Hochschild
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "When this century collapses, dead at last, 16 May 2011
And its sleep within the dark tomb has begun,
Come, look down upon us, world, file past
And be ashamed of what our age has done.

Inscribe our stone, that everyone may see
What this dead era valued most and best:
Science, progress, work, technology
And death - but death we prized above the rest."

These verses, written by early 20th-century Czech playwright and author Karel Capek, sounded a fitting leitmotif as I read Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain."
The 20th century was one ravaged by two world wars, genocide, and countless `smaller' wars. But for sheer brutality, for the slaughter that turned hundreds of miles of trenches into a charnel house of unprecedented proportions it is hard to imagine a place or time when death was prized more than it was during the war to end all wars.

Histories of World War I abound, from Barbara Tuchman (The Guns of August) to Winston Churchill (The World Crisis, 1911-1918) to John Keegan (The First World War). There are no shortage of books about the bravery of the soldiers who rose from their trenches and marched into certain death. Similarly there are no shortage of books about the almost criminally incompetent British and French Generals whose strategic planning (if you could call it that) was horrifically simple: send hundreds of thousands of men forward against entrenched positions and hope the Germans ran out of machine gun bullets before the British and French forces ran out of men. Not so readily available are books that take a look at the relatively few people who stood up and spoke out against the indiscriminate slaughter. Hochschild balances the scales a bit by taking a look at the stories and motivations behind those few souls who opposed it.

The book is set up as a straightforward chronological narrative beginning with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 celebrating the 60 years of her monarchy, through the Boer War and the introduction of concentration camps and the use of machine guns as one of the original weapons of mass destruction, the lead up to war, and then a chronological narrative of the war itself. This is all well-plowed ground and if this were simply a narrative of the war it would be a well-written popular history that would serve as a good introduction to the period. However, Hochschild intersperses the traditional narrative with a parallel narrative that was not nearly so familiar to me. While focusing on Britain's role in the war, Hochschild tells us the stories of people like Keir Hardie, Sylvia Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard (the brother of General John French, who was to become Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Forces), Emily Hobhouse, Bertrand Russell and others. These were people from all walks of life who for various reasons, political, social, or religious, opposed the war. Hochschild also looks at some of those who stridently supported the war from the sidelines, including Rudyard Kipling and the author John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps (Dover Thrift Editions)) who lashed out at those who did not adopt the motto For King and Country.

What Hochschild does very well in his book is to explore the family and social connections between the groups leading Britain into war and those few who opposed it. Causalities in World War I, as Hochschild points out hit the upper classes particularly hard. The officer class in the British military was almost exclusively drawn from the upper echelons of British society and their losses in the war were very high. One cliché about the American Civil War describes it as one in which brother fought against brother. Here we had upper class families rent asunder between those who fought (and often died) and those within their ranks who opposed it and sometimes went to prison for those beliefs.

The Russian poet Nadezhda Mandelstam once wrote of the great deeds that can be accomplished by people who with great courage stand up and speak out on behalf of their conscience: that "a person with inner freedom, memory, and fear is that reed, that twig that changes the direction of a rushing river." Hochschild does an excellent job writing about the twigs that desperately wanted to change the rushing river of blood that carried millions of people off to die. Their failure to achieve this goal, however, in no way diminishes their value and the value of this book. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 22, 2012 10:59 AM BST


Sag Harbor
Sag Harbor
by Colson Whitehead
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars "Adolescence hits boys harder than it does girls . . ., 6 May 2011
This review is from: Sag Harbor (Paperback)
. . .Your body is engulfed by chemicals of rage and despair, you pound, you shriek, you batter your head against the trees. You come away wounded, feeling that life is unknowable, can never be understood, only endured and sometimes cheated." Garrison Keilor

Like Benji, the protagonist of Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor", I grew up in New York City. The city was my playground. My friends and I wandered the streets, went from playground to playground to play basketball, stickball, or roller hockey. We'd take the subway to Coney Island and spend days on the beach, on the boardwalk and on the amusement park rides. When we were feeling particularly frisky we'd head over to Riis Park at Far Rockaway and try to get a gander at the nude sunbathers. We'd rarely see our parents between sunrise and sunset. I felt in my element. This was my world. Then, when I hit 13 I was sent away to a boarding school. Right when I hit adolescence I was lifted up out of one world and placed by my parents in a new, ostensibly better world. The people I met were alien to me and the disaffection I felt at not quite fitting in was palpable. I spent 9 months longing to return to my universe but when I did I found that being in my old, more comfortable world, did not relive me of the unfettered angst of being a teenager or make me comfortable in a new world where girls, music, Colt 45 Malt liquor and the improbable dream of `becoming a man' still made each day one filled with a mixture of unease and anticipation.

In a very real way this is the same world Benji inhabits. Benji spends 9 months of the year at a Manhattan prep school, a world unlike the middle class world he grew up in. Benji's disaffection may have played out along racial lines while mine was a divide of socio-economic class but the feelings Whitehead evinces in Benji seem to share a lot of the same DNA as my own. "Sag Harbor" is set in that 3-month summer gap after his return from prep school. Set in 1985 Sag Harbor is a local resort community created by and for middle class African-American families. Benji, 15, and his younger brother Reggie have the house to themselves during the week while their parents stay in the city to work. Their buddies lead similar partially adult-free lives. It is a gentle commingling of Lord of the Flies and Summer of 42.

Sag Harbor is well-written and enjoyable. It evokes a time and place in the lives of teen boys. As some reviewers have noted there isn't what you would call a plot-driven narrative. There isn't a series of events leading to a dramatic climax. Like Seinfeld the book is about nothing but in the hands of Whitehead it is a charming read. The life I lived in my summer time was typically about nothing. What are we going to do today? What are we going to get up to? Can we find an older brother to get us some beer? Doesn't so-and-so look hot? Laughing at jokes we didn't quite understand and trying our best, but not successfully, to stay out of trouble, were the order of the day. The book may be about nothing but the writing makes it pleasurable. Benji's observations about himself and the world around him seem spot-on to me. As the summer progresses we see the best-laid plans sometimes work and sometimes fail. Whitehead is a fine writer and managed to keep me laughing, chuckling or sighing at Benji's `summer of `85'.

Sag Harbor was a very enjoyable book to read. It brought back semi-sweet memories of days gone bye. If you are looking for a book with a roller coaster ride of highs and lows Sag Harbor is not for you. However, if you are looking for a very well-written piece that evokes memories of a time in your life when the fog of adolescence weighed heavily on each day's activities, then I think you will enjoy Sag Harbor.


Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, The
Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, The
by Alina Bronsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To the gates of Tartar, thou most excellent devil of wit!, 28 April 2011
Shakespeare, Twelfth-Night.

I picked up Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine with anticipation and a little bit of trepidation. I very much enjoyed Bronsky's first novel, Broken Glass Park and thought it could mark the start of a very promising career. But second novels are challenging, both for the author and for the reader. The author is challenged to live up to the promise of her first work. The reader is challenged by virtue of his or her own heightened expectation and anticipation that the second work will outstrip the qualities of the first novel. Bronsky has met his challenge with ease. Hottest Dishes was a delight to read.

The `heroine' and narrator of Hottest Dishes is one Rosa Achmetowna. She is one of those forces of nature who, if you met them in real life you'd shake your head after she'd left and sit down while you figured out exactly what hit you. An ethnic Tartar living in the Soviet Union (it appears she may be in Sverdlovsk, Ukraine) in the 1970s, Rosa is single-minded, abrupt and blunt to the point of rudeness and quite singe-minded when it comes to getting what she wants. She is at once hyper-critical and blithely unaware of the impact of her words and actions on the people around her. Told through Rosa's eyes you get a glimpse of the world as she (and only she) sees it while wincing at her inability to see even for a moment just how toxic she is being.

The book opens with Rosa berating her 17-year old daughter Sulfia. She is hopeless, she is stupid, she's not nearly as attractive as her mother and she'll never get a man if she doesn't change her ways. So Rosa is both astonished and mortified when Sulfia tells her that she's pregnant and has no idea how it happened. Despite Rosa's herculean efforts to end the pregnancy using everything from Tartar herbal remedies to a gruesome attempt at an in-house `procedure' that almost kills her, Sulfia delivers a baby girl, Aminat. Much to her own surprise Rosa notes that Aminat has her Tartar looks and immediately falls in love with the girl. The rest of the book pretty much tracks the adventures and misadventures of three generations of Achmetowna women. Although the book is driven as much or more by strength of narrative than by its plot I think it best to leave it to the reader to discover how their lives progress.

Two things stand out for me. First, I think Bronsky did a terrific job finding Rosa's voice. Bronsky was born in Russia and moved to Germany with her family as a young girl. Broken Glass Park was narrated in the voice of a young girl, Sascha, who was born in Siberia and moved to Germany as a young girl. Although Bronsky's life was not at all close to that of Sascha's I did wonder whether Bronsky could find a different voice that seemed as `true-to-live' as that of Sascha's. I had no need to be concerned. Despite her rather unique personality I really felt that I was hearing the thoughts of a real, if very problematic, personality. So, as I became absorbed in the book I could not help but begin to see the world as seen by Rosa with some sense of empathy. By the time I was half-way through the book I was finding Rosa to be almost endearing.

However, and this is second element that stands out for me, first impressions aren't necessarily correct. I laughed my way through the first half of the book. It was funny and the characters were charmingly toxic. But like a Coen Brothers movie the initial laughter lulled me into a false sense of where the book was heading. What Bronsky has done so well here in terms of both plot and narration is to gradually let things slip out until you reach a point where I just thought "really?" followed shortly thereafter by an "oh my." What Bronsky does so well here, is to change the tone from comedy to drama in a manner that unfolds almost accidentally.

All in all The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine more than exceeded my expectations. If you prefer your Tartars saucy you will enjoy this book.


Broken Glass Park
Broken Glass Park
by Alina Bronsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.50

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For my soul is full of troubles, 14 April 2011
This review is from: Broken Glass Park (Paperback)
It is a hard-knock life for 17-year old Sascha Naiman. Born in Russia she moved with her mother, step-father and two younger siblings from Russia to what is effectively a low-income apartment block in Berlin mostly populated with other Russian immigrants. She is also an orphan after witnessing the brutal murder of her mother by her step-father Vadim. The theme of the book is set in the opening paragraph: "Sometimes I think I'm the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there's no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother. I already have a title: The Story of an Idiotic Redheaded Woman Who Would Still be Alive If Only She Had Listened to Her Smart Oldest Daughter. Or maybe that's more of a subtitle. But I have plenty of time to figure it out because I haven't started writing yet." After reading that opening paragraph I was hooked.

Broken Glass Park is Alina Bronsky's first novel. Bronsky was born in Yekaterinburg in the Urals and moved with her family to Germany as a teenager. Translated from German, this debut novel really impressed me.

There's a lot to like about Sascha: she's smart, tough, and resilient. She's got moxie and knows it. On the surface she is mature beyond her years. Necessity has dictated that, even when her mother was alive, she was the `adult' in the family. An older cousin has flown in from Russia to supervise the family and keep the children from `protective services', but Sascha remains the glue that keeps her family together. But, all appearances to the contrary, she is still a vulnerable and at times naÔve teenager. She may be book smart and street smart but she still cannot help at times looking at the world through some pretty naÔve eyes. Additionally, she's is incredibly closed. As one might expect after being a witness to family brutality, her emotions are well-hidden, or so it seems.

Broken Glass Park was written in Sascha's voice and because Bronsky has done such a good job in articulating that voice the story had a great deal of appeal for me. What Bronsky has done very well is create a voice that only gradually reveals Sascha. We start off by seeing the gruff, smart exterior and what has happened to her and what she thinks of things seems to reveal itself in small accidental bursts that puncture the shell Sascha has created for herself. It feels as if we are finding out about Sascha at the same time she is finding out about herself. In essence, I believed the voice that Bronsky has created for Sascha.

This is Bronsky's first novel and it shows at times. Sometimes the pacing of the story seemed a bit uneven and I didn't always have a feel for the time that had passed in between events in the story. But that said, after reading Broken Glass Park I was ready to read more of Bronsky's work because this book contained a promise of things to come. I do hope that her next book, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, lives up to that promise.


The Madman of Bergerac
The Madman of Bergerac
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is only one difference between a madman and me, 4 April 2011
This review is from: The Madman of Bergerac (Paperback)
I am not mad. Salvador Dali.

That premise, so aptly stated by Salvador Dali, forms the philosophy that guides Inspector Maigret in his search for the person the inhabitants of the quaint French town of Dordogne consider to be a maniacal killer. The fact that this premise deeply offends the bourgeoisie sensibilities of the townsfolk of Dordogne seems not to matter overly much to Maigret although it certainly added to the enjoyment of reading Georges Simenon's "The Madman of Bergerac".

Georges Simenon was the author of over 100 Inspector Maigret mystery stories. They were immensely popular in the 1930s through the 1960s. Inspector Maigret stories also appeared in film and TV versions. Simenon also authored dozens of books that he described as "romans durs", roughly translated as`hard stories' that had a darker tone than his Maigret novels. Simenon seems to have fallen under the radar in recent decades but in recent years he seems to have been rediscovered by a new generation of mystery/detective story fans. Penguin Books has begun to reissue some of those Maigret mysteries and the New York Review of Books Press has reissued some of his `hard stories'. Penguin's latest Inspector Maigret Mystery reissue, "The Madman of Bergerac" is a fine example of the Simenon's craft and a fine example of Simenon's craftsmanship.

In the absence of a book description I think it appropriate to set out the basic plot of the book. Set in 1932, it is a warm, sunny March in Paris and since Inspector Maigret is not particularly busy and his wife is out of town he decides to take up the open invitation to visit is his retired former colleague Inspector Leduc. Leduc has a cottage near Dordogne in south-west France. Unable to sleep on the overnight train ride because of the disturbing noises made by the fellow in the upper berth, Maigret follows his berth-mate into the corridor to get some air. He is so astonished to see the man jump off the train as it slows down around a curve in the tracks on its approach to a station that he jumps off the train in pursuit. The man immediately shoots Maigret. Maigret is found and taken to hospital where he is accused by the police of being "the madman of Bergerac", a killer who has already killed two local girls. Once he is identified as a police inspector from Paris, Maigret sets out to solve the crimes. However, due to his wounds Simenon is confined to his bed. He sends for his wife to assist him and quickly begins and completes the investigation while confined to bed-rest.

As implied at the beginning of the review, Maigret insists that the killer is very likely a local who appears to one and all to be perfectly sane - apart from the fact that he every now and again commits a brutal murder. This theory is considered insulting by the townsfolk but Maigret is not deterred and the investigation continues.

Simenon's Inspector Maigret mysteries are often compared to Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries. There are many resemblances to be sure. There are some major differences however worth noting. The chief differences seem to me to be Simenon's darker touch and his rather cynical feelings toward the more `respectable' members of French society. This is very evident in the "Madman of Bergerac" but it is not so intrusive that it gets in the way of the story and telling the story always seems to be Simenon's main focus. Simenon treats words with respect and doesn't use more than seems necessary to advance the story.

Finally, for me, the centerpiece of any detective story of this type is the character of the detective. In the case of Maigret, the more I read of him the more I enjoy his character. This was a fast-paced well written story that can be read in one or two sittings.


The Bar on the Seine (Pocket Penguin Classics)
The Bar on the Seine (Pocket Penguin Classics)
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "There shall be read the woe, 4 April 2011
That he doth work with his adulterate money on the Seine." Dante. The Divine Comedy

"The Bar of the Seine" begins with a curious conversation between Inspector Maigret and a prisoner, Lenoir, sitting in a cell on death-row in a Parisian jail. Lenoir's execution has been set for dawn on the next day and for Maigret, the person responsible for the capture and conviction of the prisoner, this visit is something of a courtesy call. During their conversation Lenoir tells Maigret about an unsolved murder. The only real information he provides is that some unidentified bar on the River Seine would lead Maigret in the right direction. As Maigret takes his leave of Lenoir he does not take the train to meet his wife at their summer vacation spot. Instead, he defers his vacation and sets out to investigate.

Maigret finds the bar in short order and walks into a world where a slice of the Parisian middle-class comes for its rather tawdry summer weekends. Drinking, cards, boating on the Seine and indiscriminate bed-hopping are the order of the day. There has also been a murder and, as befits a story planted so firmly in the detective genre, Maigret brushes aside all distractions to solve the mystery handed to him by a condemned man.

Georges Simenon was the author of over 100 Inspector Maigret mystery stories. They were immensely popular in the 1930s through the 1960s. Inspector Maigret stories also appeared in film and TV version. Penguin Books has begun to reissue a set of Maigret mysteries. "The Bar on the Seine", one of Simenon's earlier Maigret stories, is a good place to start.

Simenon's writing is sparse and to the point. This is a short book, 154 rather small pages, and can be read in one or two sittings. But despite its brevity this reader felt engaged not only by the characters (Maigret in particular) but the settings. Simenon doesn't tell you what to think of any particular character nor does he engage in lengthy discussions on his protagonists' morality or character. He simply paints a very evocative picture and leaves the analysis for the reader.

Simenon's Maigret stories, although faithful to the detective story formula of his time, manages to hold up better over time for me than others. I think that what sets Simenon's Maigret stories apart from those of his contemporaries is the character of Maigret and down to earth settings of the stories. Maigret is not a character that is revealed to the reader immediately. Simenon doesn't set about to provide you with a character map to Maigret's personality in any one book. Rather, he grows on you over time. He has an innate disdain for higher authority that is appealing. Simenon's settings and other characters also add a dash to his Maigret mysteries. These are not parlor room mysteries where the reader has to determine which upper-class member of the gentry (or the butler) committed murder most foul in the library.

Anyone interested in a good story, simply told should enjoy Bar on the Seine. L. Fleisig


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