Review of “Ribbons For Their Hair” by Estelle Chasen

This story goes back and forth in time between 1945 and 2006, and concerns two missing children, both with similar names (Adena in 1945 and Adina in 2006). It begins in 2006 in Israel, when the female police Inspector Yardena Halpert, 26, is given her first major case; she is put in charge (much to the chagrin of her male colleague) of finding out what happened to a missing three-year-old girl. Adina lives in a broken home with her mother, and there is a custody dispute, so the father is the most obvious suspect.

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The 1945 story takes place in Greece, in Salonika (a coastal city in the northern Greece today called Thessaloniki). Before the Holocaust, Salonika had a Jewish community of about 60,000. These were Sephardic (more or less Spanish) Jews who had immigrated to Greece following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. During World War II, the Nazis occupied Greece and exterminated most of the Jews. Survivors who came back after the war were not welcomed. Today, only some 1200 Jews live in the city, yet it is still the second largest Jewish community in Greece.

Much of this story is told as part of the 1945 plot line in which Marco Levi is searching for his daughter Adena, who was taken in by nuns and renamed Maria Sava.

The stories are of course connected, and the book ends with an Epilogue from 2007, in which all the plot strands are tied together.

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Discussion: The prose in this story is a bit awkward, but I do not know if that is because of differences in the way the various cultures express thoughts, or translation issues, or just a result of a writer not evincing as much skill with dialogue as other writers. There was also a case of InstaLove that didn’t seem too persuasive. Nevertheless, the story has a lot of good elements. It was so interesting to see how a female detective would be treated in a country in which the place of women is not as well accepted as it is the U.S., and how the detectives had to be aware of, and careful to cater to, the religious sensibilities of the suspects and witnesses. It was also very informative to read about the situation in Greece both before and after World War II.

Evaluation: This book is not without some faults in terms of quality of prose, but has so much to offer in terms of cultural and historical enlightenment that I feel it is worth reading.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Gefen Publishing House, 2010

Review of “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller

I was not much taken with this coming of age story. It takes place during a short family road trip in which two teenaged girls try to figure out who they should be while transiting through a world full of lies and hypocrisy (expressed most clearly by their parents, and reified further by their family road trip encounters with chain stores, unhealthy fast food products, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and the Bible).

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Jessica (“Jess”) Metcalf is the 15-year-old narrator who is our Beatrice through this tour of Hell – or a “pilgrimage” according to her father – the goal of which is to get to California in time for the allegedly imminent Second Coming of Jesus. As they traverse the physically and spiritually desiccated landscape driving west from Alabama, they hand out religious pamphlets in order to help save more souls (but not too many, or they won’t be special).

The parents are so wrapped up in their own mesh of lies to themselves and others that they basically pay little attention to their daughters, unaware, for example, that Elise, the 17-year-old, is pregnant. Nor do they hardly ever notice when the girls pick up guys at their motel stops, experimenting with drinking and sex throughout the night. (The girls were made to attend a “purity” ceremony four years earlier, and the parents assumed the sex issue was therefore moot.)

This very dysfunctional family never quite makes it to California. The father, who has lost his job and has a gambling problem, stops at a casino/hotel in Phoenix instead. They miss the scheduled End of Days (which in any event, does not arrive), but at least the two daughters have bettered their relationship with one another.

Discussion: In terms of “coming of age,” nothing much happens for Jess except for being introduced to the world of sex with strangers. This actually – it seemed to me, only made matters worse for her, since she confesses she doesn’t know how to define herself if she isn’t “the good daughter” in contrast to Elise.

In spite of spending time in various rings of hell including encounters with boys intent on date rape, clerical sex abuse, and a fatal road accident they witness close up, in the end, no one has learned anything, and no one discusses anything. Issues such as the parents’ emotional problems, or what will happen to the life they have built around their supposed fundamentalist convictions- now shown to be riven with holes – are simply ignored. Jess’s ongoing obsession with her looks (“Boys liked it when you were starving”) goes unaddressed. These and other “weighty” issues are just thrown away like the detritus of the road trip, along with the empty M&M bags and Burger King wrappers.

Evaluation: While I wasn’t bowled over by this book, it has received some critical acclaim.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

Review of “Shift” and “Dust” by Hugh Howey

Note: There will be some spoilers for Wool, Book One of this saga; some spoilers which are marked and have warnings for Shift, Book Two; but none for Dust, the conclusion of The Silo Series. Avoid all spoilers by skipping down to Discussion and Evaluation.

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Shift and Dust continue the excellent story that begins with Wool (see my review, here). Wool is a [non-YA] post-apocalyptic dystopia about a world in the future in which the population lives in underground silos following nuclear detonations that destroyed the outside world. Originally there were fifty silos, including one “administrative” silo, Number One. Only the residents of Number One and two designated IT Department workers in each other silo know that there are silos in existence beyond their own.

Most of Wool takes place in Silo 18. At the end of Wool, Juliette (“Jules”) Nichols, age 34, had been “banished” from the silo, and managed, improbably, not only to survive the outside, but to make her way to a neighboring silo, #17. There, she gets to know the very small group of inhabitants, and is eager to help them share the resources of Silo 18, to whence she returns. Her boyfriend, Lukas, is now the head of IT at 18, and convinces Jules to become the new mayor. She begins her tenure determined to pull the “wool” from over everyone’s eyes and tell them about the other silos. She also wants to bring her new friends over to Silo 18, if she can figure out a safe way to do so.

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In Shift, we go back in time to 2049 to learn what happened before the silos were built, and how and why they were constructed. We also learn the way in which the silos were run following the devastation of the planet. Much of the story is told from the point of view of Donald Keene, a young Congressman from Georgia who, under the thumb of the elder Senator from Georgia, Paul Thurman, gets pulled into the silo project without fully understanding what it is. But Keene has known Thurman all his life and trusts him; he even used to date Thurman’s daughter Anna. Maybe soon, Donald and his wife Helen keep saying, things will improve. But as Anna, now working with Donald, presciently observes:

Everyone thinks they’ve got all the time left in the world. … But they never stop to ask just how much time that is.”

Centuries later, in the control silo – Silo 1, Donald is among those who work in six-month “shifts” helping to run the other silos, alternating these periods with long intervals of cryogenic preservation.

Specific Spoilers for Shift:

None of the females who are frozen are supposed to serve on shifts, but Thurman secretly brings his daughter Anna out to use her computer skills to help with a problem. She serves on two consecutive shifts, joined on the second one by Donald. When it is time for them to be put under once again, Donald tries to kill himself by going to the outside, but Thurman brings him back.

In the last part of Shift, it is now 2345, and Donald gets awakened for another shift. But this time, his identity has apparently been switched, and he is taken for Mr. Thurman, the ultimate authority. Donald has no idea how or why this happened, but he takes the opportunity to find out the rest of the secrets about the Silo project. His discoveries all go back to one underlying premise:

…evil men arose from evil systems, and… any man had the potential to be perverted. Which was why some systems needed to come to an end.”

As Shift concludes, Donald confronts Anna over what he has found out; wakens his sister Charlotte and hides her where Anna had been hiding on the previous shift; and makes contact with Juliette and Lukas in Silo 18.

End of Specific Spoilers for Shift

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In Dust, we return to the world of Silo 18. Jules is still serving as mayor, but spends most of her time trying to reach her friends in Silo 17. There is a lot of grumbling about her iconoclastic activities, and a conservative and cult-like religious movement is gaining adherents.

The action alternates with what is taking place in Silo 1, from whence control of the other silos emanates. Donald is still masquerading as Thurman, and is also now in regular surreptitious contact with Juliette and Lukas over at Silo 18.

The situation at both silos is deteriorating. Donald is apparently dying, but he doesn’t understand why. Thurman is awakened and is very, very angry. There have been three mysterious murders in Silo 1. The denizens of Silo 18 finally dig through to Silo 17 just before Silo 18 gets terminated by Thurman. Chaos, anarchy, and violence ensue. Donald surmises that

Heroes didn’t win. The heroes were whoever happened to win. History told their story – the dead didn’t say a word.”

Discussion: The story told in these books is all the more frightening and depressing for seeming so realistic. The ending is not as bleak as my review might imply, but rather, it is probably better than one might have hoped. But it’s not irrationally better; it respects the history of human nature, with both its good and bad points.

Evaluation: In many ways this is very intelligent writing. The stories have a solid premise, stick to realism, and focus on character building and both the limitations and promise of humanity rather than on any “futuristic” gadgetry. I loved it (even while walking hunched over at times from despair). I know it is not a story I will soon forget.

Rating: Shift (middle book): 3.5/5
Dust (conclusion): 4/5

Both books published by Century Publishing Co Ltd, 2013

Review of “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert L. O’Connell

This tribute to Sherman is so much more than a biography. O’Connell provides a truncated history of the Civil War, an excellent analysis of the army and its strategy and tactics, and a fascinating look at the role Sherman played in the development of the American West following the hostilities. Finally, he shows the way religion tore apart Sherman’s family creating a generational ripple that was undoubtedly the country’s loss as well as Sherman’s.

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O’Connell makes a compelling argument not only for Sherman’s criticality to Union victory in the Civil War, but also that Sherman needed to be second in command to feel the comfort and freedom to express his strategic brilliance. (One thinks of George Washington as General of the American Patriot Army, in horror of the possible repercussions of being in command, and constantly writing to Congress that it wouldn’t be his fault if they didn’t win.) O’Connell avers that it was the team of Sherman and Grant, whose strengths complemented each other, that was the key to Union victory.

1864 Portrait of General Ulysses Grant by Matthew Brady

1864 Portrait of General Ulysses Grant by Matthew Brady

Among the personal characteristics of Sherman that O’Connell points to as contributing to his success, he includes his West Point training, his personal charisma, his intellectual energy, and his past work experience which gave him intimate knowledge of the American terrain, an excellent command of logistics, an appreciation for the strategic importance of both the Mississippi and railroads, and an understanding of when it was best to quit and cut his losses.

1864 Portrait of William Sherman by Matthew Brady

1864 Portrait of William Sherman by Matthew Brady

Beyond the team of Sherman and Grant for the success of the Civil War, O’Connell credits Lincoln’s political brilliance and his insight into his generals (even if he didn’t always have the political capital to change them around); the importance of defected slaves who not only performed hard labor for the Union Army, but served as a network of intelligence about Confederate movements, Southern topography, potential ambushes, arms caches, and so on; the transition to rifled instead of smoothbore weapons; and to the significant role played by psychological warfare.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War by Matthew Brady

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War by Matthew Brady

For those of us who always wondered about the sanity of generals who ordered open-field, close-range infantry attacks, O’Connell points to the revolution in firearms that took place in the middle of the Civil War. Just prior to that time, weapons consisted of smoothbore guns with inferior slugs that used flint for ignition. By 1862, however, many soldiers on both sides obtained rifles with Minié balls and percussion cap ignitions, even if they had to buy them with their own money. The accuracy range of these rifles exceeded that of cannon. The dynamics of the battlefield had suddenly shifted from what made sense when most of the officers had been trained at West Point or fought in the recent war in Mexico. Then, frontal assaults worked brilliantly. Now, they heralded slaughters. But it took the officers a while to adapt.

Rifled minie balls

Rifled minie balls

After the Civil War, Congress created the rank of General of the Army for Grant and promoted Sherman to Lieutenant General. When Grant became president in 1869, Sherman was appointed Commanding General of the United States Army and promoted to General of the Army.

The Central Pacific's engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific's engine No. 119 meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

The Central Pacific’s engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s engine No. 119 meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.

One of Sherman’s main assignments was to protect the construction and operation of the transcontinental railroads from attack by hostile Indians. Sherman employed many of his veterans as railroad workers, since they had years of experience with the speedy breaking up and bending of track. In addition, Sherman orchestrated the killing of some five million buffalo between 1867 and 1874, reasoning that if all the buffalo were extinct near the railroads, the Indians would have no reason to approach. O’Connell does not deny that Sherman, like almost everyone else at the time, had Indian exclusion as a goal. He wrote to Grant, after a battle in 1866 between the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians and soldiers of the United States Army in which all 81 army men were killed by the Indians, that “we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children.”

He did occasionally express some sympathy for Native Americans. He wrote his wife:

I don’t care about interesting myself too far in the fate of the poor devils of Indians who are doomed from the causes inherent in their nature or from the natural & persistent hostility of the white race.”

But as O’Connell observes, the Indians were doomed whether Sherman were involved or not; “Sherman’s masterful planning only made it more sudden.”

Buffalo Skulls 1870

Buffalo Skulls 1870

O’Connell doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the relationship of Grant and Sherman, but documents the closeness they had during the Civil War (Sherman recalling, “He stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk; now sir, we stand by each other always”), as well as the fact that it was not maintained afterwards, much to Sherman’s sorrow. But in Grant’s last year, Sherman went to his side repeatedly, helping to restructure Grant’s debts. He served as one of Grant’s pallbearers.

Sherman died in New York in 1891 at age 71. This book is a fitting tribute to a man who, as O’Connell documents, contributed so much to America’s survival in war and to its profile in peace.

Portrait of Sherman after 1865 from the Brady-Handy Collection

Portrait of Sherman after 1865 from the Brady-Handy Collection

Evaluation: This highly favorable, though not hagiographic biography of William Tecumseh Sherman is eminently readable and consistently interesting.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Brother Hugo and the Bear” by Katy Beebe

This beautifully illustrated book about monks in the Twelfth Century echoes the look of manuscripts they produced.

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According to a Historical Note at the end of the book, this story was inspired by correspondence between Peter the Venerable of the Benedictine monastery of Cluny, and Prior Guigo of the Cistercian priory of La Grande Chartreuse. Peter wanted a loan to replace a book:

… send to us, if it pleases you, the great volume of letters by the holy father Augustine, which contains his letters to Saint Jerome, and Saint Jerome’s to him. For it happens that the greater part of our volume was eaten by a bear.”

In this adaptation, Brother Hugo confesses to the Abbot that he cannot return the letters of St. Augustine to the library:

‘Father Abbot,’ said Brother Hugo, ‘truly, the words of St. Augustine are as sweet as honeycomb to me. But I am afraid they were much the sweeter to the bear.”

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Brother Hugo is sent to fetch another copy of St. Augustine from the brothers at the Grande Chartreuse, and assigned with copying the hand-written, illuminated, and bound volume. When he is done, he must return the one he borrowed. The story recounts his painstaking work, simultaneously teaching readers how these books were made.

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The story continues with Brother Hugo setting out for the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse to return the original. But the bear, finding the words of St. Augustine irresistible, is following him also, adding both drama and humor to the story.

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The only part that gave me pause was a picture of sheep next to Brother Caedmon providing a “fluffy sheepskin” to Brother Hugo. One would think this might bother some of the aged 5-9 recommended audience who might ask about or figure out the fate of those sweet-looking fluffy sheep.

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The illustrations by S.D. Schindler are delightful, and quite apt. The capital letters of each paragraph, for example, are illuminated in gold-colored ink and wash and adorned with embellishments in the style reminiscent of actual medieval illuminators. The capital letters as well as the bright white background set off the muted tones of the pictures.

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In addition to the Historical Note at the book’s end, there is also a glossary, an Author’s Note, and an Illustrator’s Note.

Evaluation: Overall a fun story and great way for children to learn about some aspects of medieval life.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2014

Review of “Fool Me Twice: A Robert B. Parker Book” by Michael Brandman

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This novel is a quick and easy read. The story concerns three subplots: the murder of a movie starlet, a water utility fraud, and spoiled rich girl who causes a deadly traffic accident.

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The main protagonist is Jesse Stone, Chief of Police in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. In addition to solving crimes, Stone struggles with alcohol and has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife Jenn.

Michael Brandman, who took over the Jesse Stone franchise after Robert Parker’s death, has replicated the Jesse Stone character pretty accurately, but the story lacks a certain edginess and noir feel of a genuine Parker book. All three subplots are resolved fairly predictably. Moreover, none of the subplots has any connection to either of the others, giving the book the feel of an anthology rather than an integrated novel.

Brandman’s conclusion is more movie-like than Parker would have rendered it–all the bad guys get caught and punished, and the spoiled rich girl sees the error of her ways and develops a social conscience. Parker usually lets some of the villains live to see another day (and maybe appear in a later novel). In addition, Brandman added a preachy sub-theme of environmental awareness to the resolution of the water utility fraud, a sort of political correctness I did not detect in Parker’s novels.

Evaluation: This is a good airplane book (I read it in its entirety on a flight from Chicago to Aspen), but not much more.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012

Review of “The Three: A Novel” by Sarah Lotz

This is one of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, mostly because I tend to avoid Stephen-King-like novels. And this definitely fits into that category.

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The Three tells the story of four airplane crashes on the same day, which came to be known as Black Thursday, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people. There were, however, inexplicably, three survivors – all young children, one from each of three planes. But something is “off” about these children, and the global reaction intensifies with each new piece of information about them.

This very clever book is told in the form of a book within a book called “Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy: Inside the Phenomenon of The Three” by Elspeth Martins. The book consists of testimony from a variety of people affected by the crashes – some of it in the form of interviews conducted by Martins, and some in the form of internet messages and other documents collected by Martins.

Evaluation: This book gave me nightmares for days. It is realistic enough to be very, very frightening on several different levels!

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: Not recommended for airplane reading!

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014

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