04 September 2014

Review: The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding


I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for my review

Genre: Non-fiction History
Page Count: 320 Pages
List Price:  $27.50 Hardback
                $12.99 Digital 
Publication Date: May 29, 2014
Publisher: Gotham

My Rating:  4 out of 5 stars


In his introduction to the book The Map Thief author Michael Blanding writes, "Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers-both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world."  What he forgets to mention is that they can also be snapshots in history.  For me, they are all of the above, so a book centered around historical maps seemed a natural.  Add to that my fascination with true crime accounts, and it is no wonder that I jumped at the chance to read and review this book.  

The Map Thief  is Blandings account of  the E. Forbes Smiley case, Smiley was a respected dealer in antiquarian maps who ended up in over his head and began stealing rare and famous maps from Universities and selling them on the market as new finds until he was caught red-handed cutting a map from a book in the Yale University antique map room.  I found the idea that a trusted, well respected member of the exclusive trade in antiquarian maps could take so much advantage of the other players in the industry fascinating.  After all, for years E. Forbes Smiley was able to pull the wool over the eyes of top-notch dealers in antique maps and savvy collectors, not to mention the major Universities and Museums that he was able to steal from.  I really enjoyed reading about Smiley and his crimes.  

For me, though, the best part of the book was the amount of time that Blanding spent explaining the maps that were stolen and their significance.  As you might expect from an investigative journalist of his caliber, the discussion of each map was well researched and well written.  His ability to highlight the importance of these maps as both historical documents and works of art really drew me in.  I learned so much about maps, their uses, the history of map making, and the historical figures behind the maps.  I would have loved for this part of the book to never end.  Blanding did such a great job with this part of the book that I found myself researching antique maps and the history of map making on my own.  

The only place were the book fell short for me was at the end.  Throughout the book, there was a lot of discussion of the fact that hundreds more maps were missing that Smiley ever admitted to stealing.  I felt it was presented in such a way that a revelation would be forthcoming, but perhaps it was just my reader's wish that there would be a big reveal.  At any rate, not only was there no real new information about these missing maps, I felt that Blanding really glassed over this portion of the story. It was almost like he just threw the information into the book at the end and as a result, I thought it detracted from the rest of the book, which was really great.  In  addition, I found the information that was presented confusing.  For me, it would have been better if Blanding had mentioned that many more maps were missing, and the theories by all parties about what might have happened to them, in a short concluding chapter.  

All in all, though, this book was really worth the read.  The information regarding maps, map making, and map collecting was enough to keep me interested to the very end.  Throw in E. Forbes Smiley, his personality, and what he was able to accomplish, and you have a very engaging read.  I would highly recommend it to any one with a love of history and a love of true crime stories.  Bravo Mr. Blanding!

29 August 2014

Review: DragonFly by Charles A. Cornell

A copy of this book was provided by the author through E-book Miner in exchange for my review



Genre:  Alternate History/diesel-punk
Page Count: 356 pages
List Price (only available in digital format): $3.99 on Kindle
Publication Date:  February 28, 2014
Publisher: Charles Cornell Creative Partners LLC

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I think that the best way to describe this book is "delightful".   Veronica "Ronnie" Somerset is a female RAF pilot during WWII.  The Nazis are about to start the invasion of Britain and Ronnie is trying to get the support and attention that she deserves from the male dominated British Royal Air Force.  The RAF, on the other hand, is trying to minimize her role.  They think they have succeeded by stationing her at a remote base in Cornwall that is shared by the RAF and the Navy.  In actuality, though, they have placed her in the perfect place to play a pivotal role in the fight for the UK.  

I have to say upfront, I am new to the genre of Steampunk/Dieselpunk, but with each book of this type that I read, I am finding that I really enjoy it.  To me the genre is all about mixing sci-fi (as far as the machines, etc. go) and magic or mysticism, which DragonFly by Charles A. Cornell does in just the right amount.  The book is full of imaginative machines, the best examples of which in my mind, are the DragonFly planes and Blitzkrieger.  These are just two of the really imaginative and inventive items included in the story, though and all of them are fun to read about and consider.   On the magic side, there is a bit of Druidism and some thought telepathy that represent this aspect quite well. 

No story can survive, though without a good plot, and the good vs. evil plot of DragonFly is excellently drawn. Set in WWII, the outcome of the story should be etched in history, but this is "alternate history" and the author is free to take the story where he will.  He does this in admirable fashion, keeping the reader on the edge of his seat trying to decide if "good" will triumph over "evil".  As a self-titled aficionado of history, I really appreciated the way that Cornell wove the just the right amount of the factual history of WWII in with his fantasy story to give it a strong foundation, yet allow it to be unpredictable. 

I think my favorite part of this book, along with the DragonFly plane itself, were the characters.  There were so many characters in this book that I thought were exceptionally well done.  I loved the fact that the RAF pilots were all women and had to fight for the chance to play a part in history.  As for the rest of the British characters, they came across as a unique blend of British stability and optimism.  The Germans, on the other had, were very dark, their plodding steps, ulterior motives, and subterfuge painting the perfect picture of the stories "evil".  If there was one thing that was off in Cornell's characters for me, though, it was the origin of the Blitzkriegers, which was a little hard for me to wrap my head around. 

So, with one minor drawback, I thoroughly enjoyed this story.  At times I found myself wanting to be Ronnie, flying a DragonFly.  At other times I found myself worrying over who would prevail in battles, or who would make it through to the end.  At all times, though, I found myself entertained and wanting to keep reading more.   I am definitely looking forward to other DragonFly Squadron books, and hope that this episode is able to overcome its somewhat limited availability.  

I would definitely like to thank both the author, Charles A. Cornell, and the E-book Miner group on Goodreads for bringing this book to my attention.  If not for them, I don't know that this book would ever have made it onto my radar, but I am very glad that it did! 


TGIF (Thank Goodness It's Fall) !


I can't believe that I am actually saying this, but I am glad to see the summer ending and fall beginning.  With fall comes the return of routine, which I am finding that I need more and more as I get older.  The days of flying by the seat of my pants are over for me, I think.  This summer has been a particularly hectic summer in my family, which definitely had a negative effect on my ability to keep up with the blogging.   Some of the events were scheduled, some not.  Some of them were happy events, some not.  All of them were draining, that is for sure.  All of this explanation is by way of apologizing to those who have been wondering where I have been for the last three months.

Although the summer's events definitely had a negative effect on my blog, it only had a minimally negative effect on my reading.  There is nothing like a good book when you are sitting around waiting for a graduation to start, news from a doctor, phone calls from family members, games to be finished, etc.  Below is a list of the books that I read this summer, complete with star ratings.  Most of them have reviews pending, which I will be working on in the next few weeks.

Hope you all had a happy and successful summer, and here is to getting back on track.

MY SUMMER READS  (R denotes review pending)

Five Star Reads

Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Missing You by Harlan Cobin R
That Night by Chevy Steves R
Little Mercies by Heather Gudenkauf R
Runner by Patrick Lee R

Four Star Reads

The Map Theif by Machael Blanding R
The Here and Now by Anna Brashares R
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey R
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter R
The Quiet Game by Greg Iles
Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whitmore R
Shakespeare's Champion by Charlaine Harris
The Boleyn Deceit by Laura Anderson R
DragonFly by Charles A. Cornell R
Morning Glory by Sarah Jio
The 12th Child by Bette Lee Crosby
Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World by Alison Weir R

Three Star Reads

Three Strikes and Your Dead by Jessica Fletcher
Don't Even Think About It by Sarah Mlynowski  R
The Secret Lives of the Tsars by Michael Farquhar R

As you can see, it has been a good summer of reading and I certainly have my work cut out for me.  My first review will be of DragonFly by  Charles A. Cornell, a steampunk adventure set in WWII that I found really entertaining.  It should be on the blog in the next day or so.

Hope you all had a great summer for reading!

09 June 2014

Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for my review

Genre: Historical Fiction
Page Count:  400 pages
List Price:  $27.00 - Hardcover
                $11.84 - Digital Edition
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
Publisher: Random House

My Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Like many readers, my introduction to author Lisa See's work was with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and like most readers, I instantly fell in love.  The book was beautifully written, the story was wonderful.  Since reading Snow Flower, I have read most of the rest of Lisa See's work, and own copies of them all.  To say that I am a fan of her work just doesn't quite say it all.

I recently read her new offering, China Dolls, and I am glad to say that I was not disappointed.  China Dolls tells the story of the rise of Asian entertainers on the nightclub circuit during the late 1930s through the mid 1940s, through the lives of  Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three separate women who were Asian entertainers during that time.  It is in the way that the lives of these three women alternately intersect and diverge that the story of what it was like to be an entertainer on the "Chop Suey Circuit" was like.

One of the things that I have always loved about Lisa See's books is the way she uses her characters as the main story-telling agent in her books.  In China Dolls, each of the three main characters represent an amalgamation of people that lived in that time in history.  Grace is a Chinese born American whose parents moved to the Midwest to raise their daughter as far from other Chinese as possible.  Helen is also an American born Chinese, but her parents are living the traditional Chinese lifestyle in  a secluded compound in San Francisco's Chinatown.  Ruby, on the other hand, is the girl who wants to be totally American in every way, using American slang and dressing American whenever she can, but who is hiding more of a secret that just her wish to be American and not Asian.  I have to say, I am continually amazed at how Lisa See is able to come up with such vibrant, realistic characters that effectively represent a section of Asian culture and history time and time again.  Her characters are so well crafted that they become very real to me, and stay with me long after I have read the book.

Another strong point of the book, and Lisa See's writing in general, is her excellent knowledge of the history and culture of the subject that she is writing about.  Her research into the subject is always spot on.  In the case of China Dolls, the main nightclub in San Francisco, The Forbidden City, really existed, showcasing first Chinese entertainers, and later Asian entertainers of all kinds well into the 1950s.  Many of the characters in the book were actual owners or entertainers at the nightclub, although in many cases she has changed their names.  Other characters are an amalgamation of several entertainers from that time.  In addition, the lives of the women outside the nightclub are spot on and truly represent what it was like to live at that time.

The only thing that felt a bit off in this book, though, was the intense level of competition between the women.  Over time, I have become used to the deep and  intense friendships between the characters in Lisa See's books.  The kind of friendships that, even during fights or disagreements, never really waver.  In this light, I was not really prepared for the amount of discord between the three main characters of this story.  At times it seemed that Grace, Helen, and Ruby were always trying to one-up each other, or in some cases, actually turn each other against the others.  As characters, they were much more manipulative and shallow than what I am used to in Lisa See's characters, and each one was a diva in her own way.  In retrospect, though, I feel that their behavior is justifiable to the story and culture that they represent.  After all, the entertainment business has always been a bit dog eat dog, and being in a section of it where the jobs were fewer and competition was higher would only highlight that type of behavior.  

Although this was not my favorite Lisa See book (that would be Shanghai Girls), that fact that I am giving a 4.5 rating to a book that is not my favorite speaks volumes.  Lisa See has yet to disappoint me, and China Dolls is no exception to that rule.  In fact, I stayed up one night until 4am to finish it, and then was disappointed because it was over and I read it so fast.  I highly recommend this book for fans of Lisa See and fans of Chinese American culture.  You will not be sorry.

Additional Note:  I was excited to find that The Forbidden City nightclub, which played a central part in this story, was actually the inspiration of the musical Flower Drum Song, which is my favorite musical of all time. 

02 June 2014

Review: Trouble in Mind: The Collected Stories, Volume 3 by Jeffery Deaver

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley

Genre: Short Story Collection
Page Count: 496 pages
List Price:  $26.00 - Hardback Edition ($16.95 at Barnes & Noble)
                $12.99 - Digital Edition  ($9.09 at Amazon)
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: March 4, 2014

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Many of you may be familiar with Jeffery Deaver through his Lincoln Rhyme or Kate Daniels books.  Although he has been on my To Read list as an author, I have yet to read any of his books, mainly because I have so many series going currently that I have been reluctant to start another one.  I found that reading this book of short stories was the perfect way for me to acquaint myself with his writing. 

As it turns out, Deaver has been writing short stories for years.  As it states in the sub-title, Trouble in Mind,  is his third published volume of short stories.  The author himself says in the Author's Note to Trouble in Mind that he began writing at age 11 with a short story (two chapters in length).  His latest effort is comprised of 12 stories, most of them in the mystery/crime genre that established readers of Deaver's books would expect.  For those of you who love his series, there are two Lincoln Rhyme stories, one Katherine Dance and one John Pellam.  Don't worry, though, if you are not familiar with the series.  I read and enjoyed all four of the stories and did not feel lost at all.  In fact, I thought they were a great way to introduce me to his series and characters.  A way to "try them on for size" you might say. The volume includes six other stories in the crime genre, all of which are excellent.

 In addition to the mystery stories there were two stories with a more sci-fi or fantasy bent.  Deaver himself calls these "genre benders" and tells us that one thing he likes about writing short stories is that they "allow an author to step out of genre more easily than novels do."  I would say he did a good job stepping out of genre, as one of these stories, "Forever" was my favorite from the whole book.

To be honest, though, I loved every one of the stories in this compilation, and cannot wait to read more by this author.  In addition, I am anxious to start at least one of his series, as the stories included here peaked my interest in them.  Since I live in Northern California, I may start with the Katherine Dance books as they take place in the local area where I live.  Whether you are a tried and true Jeffery Deaver fan, or just someone who wants to explore his work, I would recommend Trouble in Mind.   For me it was a great place to start with Jeffery Deaver's work.


21 May 2014

Review: Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Edelweiss

Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Page Count: 352 pages
List Price: $26.00 Hardback
                $10.99 - $12.99 Digital Edition
Publication Date: April 22, 2014
Publisher: Ballantine Books

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I enjoyed Jenny Milchman's first novel, Cover of Snow, so much that it was hard to imagine how she could do any better on her second outing.  With Ruin Falls, I certainly got the answer, and it was "very well, thank you".  In fact, I thought Ruin Falls was even better than Cover of Snow.  I have to say, I really love it when I find a new author and their books get better and better, so I hope this is a trend that will continue. 

Ruin Falls is the story of Liz Daniels, who leaves her secluded home in the Adirondack Mountains to go on a family vacation for the first time in years.  When her husband, Paul, changes their plans and decides to stop at a hotel for the night, everything seems fine.  It is when Liz wakes in the morning to find her children are missing that we get a glimpse of the way Liz's life is headed.   Then when she finds out that the person who took them is someone that she thought she could trust, we really understand how badly her life is going to fall apart.  Undeterred, Liz hits the road on a journey that will hopefully allow her to find her children and bring them home safely.

As a story, Ruin Falls is all about layers.  Layers that at times make the story seem ambiguous, but in a good way.  Early in the first few chapters their are two events that clue the reader in on the fact that all is not what it seems for the Daniels family.  The first is the sheer panic that comes over Liz when the family stops for snacks at a fast food restaurant and six-year-old Reid wanders away.  As Liz and Paul search the place for him, I got the feeling that her panic was more than the norm for a mother with a missing child. Then as they get back on the road, they are accosted by a crazy pick up truck driver who seems to be having a road rage event.  I loved the sense of innuendo in these and other scenes that appeared throughout the book.  It really set the tone for me and got me thinking about just where the story was going and what was really going on, a feeling that stayed with me until the end.  In this same vein, I really enjoyed the interspersed chapters that introduced other characters that appeared to have no connection to the Daniels family.  Rather than confuse or distract me, I found myself wondering what the connection was (I was sure there was one), which in turn kept me anxiously turning the pages.  As the story progressed, and the layers were peeled away, I enjoyed watching it all come together.  

As a mom of two boys, I found myself really identifying with Liz.  Although I hope it never will, if something like this ever happened to me, I would hope that I would be just as focused and driven to find answers as she is.  Liz is by far the character that the book focuses on the most, and therefore she is the one that I felt I learned the most about.  Most of the other characters were definitely secondary, and while I would like to ave learned a bit more of some of their stories, I don't think more detail on them would have improved the story at all.  In fact, with all the layers of the story, keeping the character development rather simple really worked for me as it allowed me to stay focused on why the children were taken and how Liz was going to get them back.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars, mostly because it was a delight to read and kept me engaged from beginning to end.  I will be the first one to complain when authors muddy a story with too many devices, but for me, the layers of this story and the outlying characters only enhanced my enjoyment.  I highly recommend this book to everyone who likes a story that keeps you guessing where it is ultimately going to end up.  

14 May 2014

Review: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my review



Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia
Page Count: 384
List Price:  $26.95 - Hardcover
                $11.99 - 13.99 Digital Edition
Publication Date:  April 8, 2014
Publisher: Doubleday

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Word Exchange, the debut novel from author Alena Graedon, has been called "the dystopian novel for the digital age" and "inventive" and on some levels I agree with those descriptions.   I loved the idea of The Word Exchange, which is set in the near future and deals with the constantly forewarned death of print media.  Anana Johnson and her father Doug are working on the multi-volume third edition of the North American Dictionary of the English Language when Doug goes missing one night.  As Anana searches for her father, entries in the dictionary start disappearing, and people begin to succumb to a disease that is dubbed "the word flu" and makes them talk in gibberish.  Where is Doug Johnson?  Who is behind "the word flu"?  

There were so many things that I enjoyed about The Word Exchange.  As I mentioned above, I loved the idea of the book.   More than just a book about the death of print as a medium, this book actually goes farther to imagine the death of the English language as it is today.  The allure of that premise drew me in immediately, and I felt that the basic story line held up to my expectations.  All of the elements of a good dystopian story were there.  Megacorporation Synchronic was plausible as the Big Brother figure, as was The Diachronic Society as the rebels fighting to preserve the current way of life, Anana as the plucky heroine, and Bart as her sidekick.  Even the smallest of characters, like Vera and Victoria Marks were given interesting backgrounds that drew me to them. I think my favorites, though, were Phineas with all of his quirks and idiosyncrasies, and Max.  My only detraction here was that I felt that the story went on a little bit too long. On story alone, though, I would give this book a 4 out of 5 stars. 

Where I felt the book lost it was in the execution.  The author uses a number of devices to illustrate the underlying philosophy of the story; that society is becoming immune to the finer points of the English language, but I felt that she tried to be too clever and that, on a whole, these devices ended up detracting from the story rather than enhancing it. The one that I felt worked the best was the way the chapters were organized by the letters of the alphabet.  The inclusion of a word and definition at the beginning of each which gave an overview of the main points of that chapter was really good.  In fact, that is  the only device that I felt really worked.  On the other hand, the author's use of obscure words unfamiliar to the average reader, while clever, was a huge detraction from the flow of the story.  I consider myself to have a good vocabulary and I ended up having to look up upwards of 50 words, so many that I actually lost count.  Eventually I began to think how lucky I was to be reading this on an e-Reader, with a dictionary definition just a touch away.  While this may have been the author's attempt to point out how easily technology can suck you in, to me it just seemed like the author was actually touting that which she was supposed to be warning against.  Another device that totally did not work for me was the actual printing the gibberish that people began to speak as "the word flu" spread.  In the beginning it was interesting, illustrating how intrusive electronic devices have become in our society.  As long as these gibberish words were kept to a minimum and it was easy to still figure out what the character actually meant to say, it was okay.  After a while, though, it got old, and was so pervasive I ended up skipping whole pages, and toward the end, one whole chapter.   While I understood that these devices were part of the plot of the book, I felt that the average reader would find them cumbersome and could find them enough of a distraction to actually give up on the book altogether. 

Taking everything into consideration, I did enjoy this story on many levels.  I can see a certain market for this book with just the right readers.  I can't see a mass appeal for it, though, and for that reason I don't feel that I can recommend it to everyone.  I will, however, recommend the book to certain  of my reading friends, but that pool is unfortunately pretty small.  I would like to see what this author could do with something a bit more mainstream.  


05 May 2014

Review: Beach Plum Island by Holly Robinson

A copy of this book was provided by the author in exchange for my review


Genre: Contemporary/Women's Fiction
Page Count: 400 Pages
List Price: $15.00 Paperback
               $ 7.99 Digital Edition
Publication Date:  April 1, 2014
Publisher: NAL Trade

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


One of the things I like about reviewing books is finding new authors that are up to the "repeat performance" test.  Nothing is more disappointing than reading a book that you thought was great, and then the next book is a let down.  On the flip side, nothing is more enjoyable than having that second book live up to, and sometimes even surpass the first one.  Such is the case with Beach Plum Island the new book by author Holly Robinson.  For those of you who read my recent review of her first book, The Wishing Hill, you will know how excited I was to find an author in the women's fiction category that writes with compelling story lines and wonderful, complex female characters.  

Like Holly Robinson's first book, Beach Plum Island is mostly a story about family, in this case siblings.  Ava Barret is the oldest of the sisters, a potter by trade, and the divorced mother of two teenage boys.  All her life she has been the one to "take care of things".  When her father passes away from cancer, he tells he to "tell her brother the truth."  The only problem is, as far as Ava knows, she only has two sisters, Elaine, the sister she grew up with, and Gigi, her half-sister from her father's second marriage. 

Beach Plum Island is one is part mystery and one part family drama, with romance thrown in for good measure. I like the way the clues for the mystery part of the story are revealed slowly, as the story progresses, allowing the mystery to be engaging without taking over the entire plot. Unfortunately, although I enjoyed the mystery surrounding the brother, and the ensuing search for him, this part of the story had it's flaws for me.  In the beginning, it seemed like it was going to be just as complex as the rest of the story, but the conclusion of this story line seemed a bit to easy and didn't quite ring true.  To say anymore would be to include spoilers, but I would have liked this part of the story to be a bit more real. 

 It is the family drama part that Iiked the most,  and where I think Holly's writing really shines.  The relationships between the characters are both complex and flawed, as are the characters themselves.  I love that all of the characters, from the major protagonists all the way down to the character with the smallest part in the story, have demons in their lives that they are dealing with.  Not a single one of them is totally positive or negative.  At times I loved them and applauded their actions, at other times I wanted to yell at them and tell them to grow up, or think things through before acting.  Exactly the way I am with my real life siblings, which makes the story all the more enjoyable to read. 

As I read the book, I found myself turning pages, not wanting to stop reading until I found out how Ava was going to pull the family together, or how Gigi was going to fit into the family without her father around as a buffer, or even whether Elaine was going to decide that a one night stand didn't equal a relationship. This feeling lasted all of the way to the end of the book and beyond.  Although the end of the book was perfectly satisfying, I still found myself wondering what was next for the members of the family. This type of feeling is what I have come to expect from Holly's writing and I am looking forward to her next project.  It is also what makes me recommend this book to all my reading friends.