April | 2012 | Best Books Reviews
Archive from April, 2012
Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception

In the aftermath of the tragic terrorist demolition of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, many survivors of the massacre connected with one another in a way that only fellow sufferers can understand. As those who lived through the historic day forged friendships with and drew strength from one another, one woman and her amazing story emerged as a survival superstar.

“THE WOMAN WHO WASN’T THERE is the fascinating tale of an individual with a sick need to be part of something she never even experienced.”

Tania Head, who recounted the tragic loss of her fiancé, Dave, in the collapse of the North Tower, told of her terrifying fight to emerge alive from the Merrill Lynch offices on the 96th floor of the South Tower and bore the physical scars that touched the hearts of Americans in New York City and across the nation. She also recounted the story of a man who came to her rescue during the ordeal. According to her, Welles Crowthers was the very reason she was alive. She even met his family, congratulating them on the heroism of their son and commiserating with them on his loss.

Not only did Tania join forces with the other survivors, she became their leader when she helped them gain access to Ground Zero for a private visit, a privilege previously granted only to the families of the dead.  After working tirelessly as a member of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network, Tania was elected president of the organization. In that position, she enjoyed the honor of escorting Mayor Bloomberg, Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki on the initial tour of the site at Ground Zero.

Lauded as an inspiration and a dynamo by her peers, Tania fought her own demons and helped others face theirs. So imagine the shock they experienced when they discovered that not only was their fearless leader nowhere near the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, she wasn’t even in the country. Furthermore, family and friends of her supposed fiancé insist that they had never even heard the name Tania Head and that she couldn’t have been his intended. Everything Tania told the press, the public and her friends was a fabrication.

When Tania connected with Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. in the hopes of creating a documentary about the survivors of 9/11, his research signaled the beginning of the end of her charade. As Guglielmo uncovered one deception after another, Tania’s tale of woe and triumph unraveled completely.

THE WOMAN WHO WASN’T THERE is the fascinating tale of an individual with a sick need to be part of something she never even experienced. For reasons no one can fathom, she inserted herself into the midst of a group of people trying to recover from what undoubtedly was the great tragedy of their lives and became their leader.

Readers will shake their heads in wonder at the brazen bravado Tania Head displayed when she created a fictional life that put her first and foremost at the center of the greatest American tragedy to date. Even after the book is finished, they will be left to wonder, as we all are, why she created the enormous falsehood and what, if anything, she hoped to gain from it.

Reviewed by Amie Taylor on April 6, 2012

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc

The legend of Joan of Arc has always been well known: The Maid of Orléans, poor and uneducated, touched with divine guidance, led the armies of France to key victories over the English, and was burned at the stake by her captors at the tender age of 19. Twenty-five years after her death, she was labeled a martyr and canonized in 1920. That’s the story. Simple. Majestic. Powerful. Yet as we recognize the 600th anniversary of her birth this year (the date is unknown as the practice of recording the dates of non-noble births were not in effect in the 15th century), Nancy Goldstone tells us that, up until now, we have only heard half the story. With THE MAID AND THE QUEEN, history is opened to illustrate a connection between Joan and the oft-forgot Queen of Sicily, Yolande of Aragon.

“The intrigues of the history and the miraculous unfolding of the story of Joan make the book seem as gripping as any novel…. Until then, THE MAID AND THE QUEEN stands as a fascinating new take on the legacy and legend of Joan of Arc, and a great introduction to the oft-overlooked Queen of Sicily.”

Who is Yolande of Aragon, and just what part did she play in the story of Joan of Arc? Beautiful, ambitious, and educated in the manner of the men of her time, Yolande was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. France was embroiled in the Hundred Years War with England and Burgundy. The throne of France was in upheaval, with Charles VII unable to claim his right due to the occupation by England and the betrayal of his parents (they declared he could not be King as he was the product of an affair by Queen Isabeau). Fearing for his life, Charles fled to the Queen of the Four Kingdoms: Yolande of Aragon. She would provide him protection and a wife, her daughter Marie, and begin to use her political acumen and impressive network of spies to see that her son-in-law could claim his throne. Some of her ploys backfired, such as the assassination of Charles’s cousin, but she was soon driven more than ever to find the one who would bolster Charles and turn the tide against the English.

That “one” would turn out to be Joan. Growing up in Domrémy on the farm of her father, situated in the duchy of Bar, Joan had a connection to Yolande. Yolande of Bar, mother of Yolande of Aragon, held the duchy as her ancestral home, and throughout history it was loyal to the king of France. At the time of Joan’s youth, Domrémy was on the front lines of conflict, with the loyalists of Burgundy just across the river. Yolande of Aragon had even manipulated to have her uncle, the duke of Bar, select her son, René, as a successor, who would steadfastly hold Bar and Lorraine for Charles. Goldstone thus acknowledges that by the simple nature of the size of the region and by Joan’s later requests for men from the duke, there is no way she would not have known who René was, or his connections. And since Yolande was seeking a heroine, one who was touched and who could kindle the fires of valiant combat for her king, the fact that Joan began to hear voices at around age 13 only drew the attention of the Queen and her people — in particular, René, who set in motion the acts by which she would gain audience to Charles.

THE MAID AND THE QUEEN is divided into three sections: the life of Yolande, the life of Joan, and the wrap-up of the events following the life of Joan, the impact on France, and the final years of Yolande’s life. This template serves the story very well. So much of the groundwork for Joan was in place before she was born, and showing the life of Yolande goes a long way to making the case for her involvement in the events to come. Citing medieval sources only written in French as well as Joan’s trial documentation, the notion that Yolande pulled the strings that led to the success of France are quite plausible.

Goldstone weaves a remarkable dual biography. The intrigues of the history and the miraculous unfolding of the story of Joan make the book seem as gripping as any novel. Among the great positives is that it moves at an incredibly readable pace. One of the drawbacks to this is that so much more could have been laid out and explained, doubling the book’s size. Perhaps others will follow in her footsteps and take up this line of inquiry. Until then, THE MAID AND THE QUEEN stands as a fascinating new take on the legacy and legend of Joan of Arc, and a great introduction to the oft-overlooked Queen of Sicily.

Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on March 29, 2012

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Lifeboat

Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she’d found. Will she pay any price to keep it?

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Gods of Gotham

27-year-old Timothy Wilde works as a bartender at an oyster bar while saving money to work up the courage to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him. Orphaned as a child after his parents perished in a fire, he has been raised by his older and much wilder brother, Valentine. While Timothy is deathly afraid of fire, Val rushes headlong into burning buildings without regard for his safety. To many, Val is a hero. To Timothy, he is a depraved addict spiraling out of control.

“THE GODS OF GOTHAM is a vibrant tale that weaves historical facts along with a suspenseful storyline… a compelling story with vivid details, memorable characters and lots of surprises.”

To Democratic politicians like real-life historical figure George Washington Matsell, Valentine Wilde is a rising star. The first Chief of Police for the City of New York, Matsell has created a police department with an army of copper stars. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic hatred has divided the city, and many of the new coppers are themselves Irish immigrants. Because of his heroic reputation as a fearless firefighter, Val becomes a captain on Matsell’s newly formed police force.

When fire destroys Timothy’s place of employment, burns up his life savings, and disfigures part of his face, Val convinces him to join the police force. Becoming a policeman in New York’s Sixth Ward is “an unwelcome surprise” to Timothy, but with nowhere to live and no money, he relents. Timothy eventually finds a place to rent in the Sixth Ward and begins his new job, using what he learned as a bartender about being observant and listening to people.

While Timothy is vigilant on the job, he is unconcerned about becoming a hero; he only has eyes for Mercy. The attractive daughter of a widowed minister, Mercy is a zealous missionary who travels to the city’s most squalid neighborhoods to treat and give comfort to society’s outcasts.

On his way home from work after a long night, Timothy rescues Bird Daly, a 10-year-girl covered in blood. Bird is fleeing after being forced to work as a kinchin mab, a child prostitute in a house of pleasure operated by a notorious madam. Bird weaves unbelievable tales about murdered Irish children buried in the woods. Skeptical at first, Timothy starts to believe Bird after the discovery of the body of Liam, a 12-year-old boy with a crude cross cut into his chest. And that’s just the beginning, as the remains of 19 additional Irish immigrant children are unearthed. When Timothy receives a letter from a man claiming responsibility for the grisly murders, public outcry and panic engulf the city. Chief Matsell quietly assigns Timothy to the case.

THE GODS OF GOTHAM is a vibrant tale that weaves historical facts along with a suspenseful storyline. Told in the compassionate voice of Timothy Wilde, this is a story of poverty, discrimination, debauchery, arson, addiction and murder. The listing of Selected Flash Terminology at the beginning of the book aids in understanding the unfamiliar historical jargon, while the maps on the inside covers also help bring the old city to life. Lyndsay Faye’s debut is a compelling story with vivid details, memorable characters and lots of surprises.

Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt on April 6, 2012

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Coldest Night

This is a very memorable and stark tale of love, war, and what comes after. Olmstead’s spare style is reminiscent of Hemingway as he charts the coming of age of a seventeen year old who falls in love with the daughter of a Judge. They run away together, are married, then are separated as the Judge’s family attacks him and abducts his wife. For lack of a better alternative, he signs up for the Korean War, and soon experiences the horrors of the retreat from Chosin reservoir.

There is a timelessness to this story which pierces your mind and keeps bringing images back to you. It’s appropriate fare as we deal with the issues of the Iraq and Afghan veterans to think on Olmstead’s portrait of “Henry”- scarred and tormented by his war experience, but really facing an even greater challenge in returning home, and conflicted by a desire to go back to the battlefield.

This novel has a more obvious appeal for male readers but I recommend it highly to any reader. It is award-level writing.

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

The Book of Madness and Cures

Gabriella Mondini is a rarity in 16thcentury Venice: a woman who practices medicine. Her father, a renowned physician, has provided her entrée to this all-male profession, and inspired in her a shared mission to understand the secrets of the human body.

Then her father disappears and Gabriella faces a crisis: she is no longer permitted to treat her patients, women who need her desperately, without her father’s patronage. She sets out across Europe to find where-and why-he has gone. Following clues from his occasional enigmatic letters, Gabriella crosses Switzerland, Germany and France, entering strange and forbidding cities. She travels to Scotland, the Netherlands, and finally to Morocco. In each new land she probes the mystery of her father’s flight, and open new mysteries of her own. Not just mysteries of ailments and treatments, but ultimate mysteries of mortality, love, and the timeless human spirit.

Filled with medical lore and sensuous, vivid details of Renaissance life, THE BOOK OF MADNESS AND CURES is an intoxicating and unforgettable debut.

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Grace

It doesn’t hurt to occasionally make forays into fiction that is outside of one’s genre comfort zone, so to speak. Today I am treading into general fiction, perhaps into that sub-genre that does not always dare speak its name — women’s fiction — and reading T. Greenwood’s latest novel. A half-century ago, I would have been the subject of taunting for trying such a thing, or at worst (like young Trevor in the book) subjected to bullying. At this stage in my life, the former does not bother me, and as for the latter, I have acquired a skill set that handles that type of behavior quite quickly and effectively. Accordingly, I am here to report that GRACE, for all its domestic backdrop, is suspenseful, addicting, and one of those rare books that you will sacrifice sleep to finish and be glad for it, regardless of your genre of choice.

“I am here to report that GRACE, for all its domestic backdrop, is suspenseful, addicting, and one of those rare books that you will sacrifice sleep to finish and be glad for it, regardless of your genre of choice.”

GRACE takes place in rural New England; its subjects are the working class, those who make do with a few extras and a helping of downsized expectations, and for whom a few unexpected setbacks can spell chilling disaster. So it is with the Kennedys (no, not thoseKennedys), whose situation is unraveling in slow motion with all-but-certain bad results. We know this from the first pages of the book, which begins on a winter night with a chilling, horrifying tableau, and then goes back in time to show how things came to reach the state of affairs so prematurely revealed.

Kurt, husband and father, manages an almost successful junkyard that he inherited from his dad but that is slowly falling into failure due to a number of factors, including online retail sites. The family bills are divided into past due — 30, 60 and 90 days — and the adjustable rate mortgage that looked so attractive a few years ago on their now upside-down house is about to become a monster twice the monthly size of what it was.

Elsbeth, wife and mother, has been a beautician at the local salon ever since she was 17, and shortly after she found Kurt discovered that she was heavy with child. She is troubled by the fact that she struggles to love Trevor, her firstborn son, but has no difficulty feeling a wholehearted and genuine affection for her much younger daughter, Gracy. Elsbeth has other problems, however, including an impulsive kleptomania that she limits to small items from the local Walgreens, and a near constant and not wholly unreasonable desire for a bit more than the family can afford at any given point.

Trevor, whose conception occasioned the marriage of Kurt and Elsbeth, is on the cusp of adolescence. He is uncomfortable in his 13-year-old body, which is always hungry and a target for a couple of school bullies, who put him in situations where he is constantly blamed for the outcome by school authorities. His one solace is a camera given to him by his art teacher, a 16-millimeter that requires film to be developed. It is his pictures that bring Crystal inadvertently into the lives of the Kennedys. Crystal, a clerk at the Walgreens where Elsbeth trades and shoplifts, slowly begins to realize what is happening in the family’s world when Elsbeth brings Trevor’s film to the store for developing. Shel is aware of Elsbeth’s love of the five-fingered discount, but turns a blind eye to it while she is caught up in her own tragic and heartbreaking situation.

All of these elements are inter-related, and slowly, painfully and explosively converge. Some elements can be seen coming down the road as clearly as an old Chevrolet with a cracked head gasket, headed for Kurt’s junkyard. Others, like Elsbeth’s shoplifting, impact indirectly but just as surely. By the end of the novel, much has changed, and yet there is a lot that cannot be.

What is striking about GRACE is the manner in which Greenwood quietly but effectively constructs and addresses common situations that affect all of us at one point or another to varying degrees throughout our lives. Everyone can empathize with Kurt, who consistently finds that too often he has too much month left at the end of the money. Elsbeth’s penchant for shoplifting, and the manner in which she justifies it in her own mind, is a trait shared by far more people than one might expect. And Trevor? Does anyone reading this really want to go back to adolescence? Don’t raise your hands all at once! Greenwood takes these commonalities, and with a twist here and a realistic turn of events there, turns them into a recipe for tragedy, one that can only be avoided by an unexpected element.

Part suspense, part romance, and all real-world, GRACE is a thoughtful and intriguing slice-of-life work that you will not soon forget.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 6, 2012

Apr 11, 2012 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected: A Memoir

Brett and Kelle Hampton were euphoric with the birth of their second daughter Nella. However, their initial euphoria turns to shock and dismay that their newborn was born with Down syndrome as their first child two years old Lainey was a healthy baby. Once Ms. Hampton moved pass the denial phase to acceptance, she, her spouse and Lainey realized how wonderful Nella is and that they were fortunate that God chose them to raise her. The author of the Enjoying the Small Things blog is her daughter’s champion as she has become an advocate for Downs’ syndrome people. Her optimism is addicting though some of the difficulties of raising a special needs child is glossed over by the upbeat philosophy (try getting a baby-sitter for a night out when your family lives a thousand miles away). With great photos and expanding on entries from her blog and adding much more, Kelle Hampton provides a wonderful from the heart memoir that encourages families to mentally hug the upbeat moments as “Beauty in the Unexpected” can be our inspirational norm.