Review – The Seventh Gate

Sophie Riedesel is a teenager in Berlin in 1932. Other than being too smart for her own good with a biting sense of humor and always ready with a sarcastic remark, she’s a fairly normal young woman of the time. When Hitler begins his rise to power, her life takes a drastic turn. Her father, a scientist and a member of the Communist party with strong beliefs, suddenly switches to the Nazi party and espouses views she never thought he had. Sophie wants to believe he did it to save his job and family, but she isn’t entirely sure that’s the case. She has trouble understanding her father now, and it becomes even worse when her boyfriend, who she’s known since they were small children, also joins the party telling her things she doesn’t want to hear.

With all the men in her once-stable life now on the wrong side of her belief system, she takes comfort in her growing friendship with an older Jewish neighbor, Isaac Zarco, and his eclectic and — according to the Nazi party — socially unacceptable group of friends, which includes Jews, social activists, and some former circus performers.

As Germany changes, so does Sophie. Her relationship with her father, once open and loving, becomes halting and difficult. Her already strained and distant relationship with her mother, who outwardly doesn’t seem to care for her, turns nasty. Her younger brother, Hansi, a boy who hasn’t spoken in years, is a silent comfort and burden to her at the same time. She shares things with him she doesn’t tell anyone else, secretly wishes he would go away, and deeply wants to understand what goes on in his head.

Sophie becomes more and more involved with Isaac and the work he and his friends are doing to try and stop the growing power of the Nazi party. Isaac and his friends have formed a group called the Ring, which is working to get the word out and possibly stop the atrocities taking place in Germany. When a member of the group is murdered, Sophie, having grown close to Isaac, begins investigating the murder and asking questions in places she shouldn’t. She eventually becomes so involved in Isaac’s life that he begins making plans to send her away before any harm can come to her.

I don’t read much about World War II because I find it such a sad time in human history, but to me this book is an exception. What drew me to it was the mystery thrown in and mixed with the idea of kabbalist mysticism. Sophie is growing up fast in a city hampered with new rules every day, and it was particularly interesting seeing it all happening through her eyes. She takes risks, false steps, and makes mistakes, but sticks to her beliefs even when she knows what she’s doing could bring harm to those she loves. Her life, which once revolved around her boyfriend and obsession with Hollywood movies, is now made up of a group of people she realizes she can’t live without.

Isaac, who is a scholar of Jewish mysticism, begins teaching Sophie what he knows, and her love for Isaac and understanding of what drives him becomes a force in her life she will fight for in ways she never thought possible. Seeing Sophie change from a young girl fascinated by her own growing sexuality into a woman concerned with the political implications of her country’s governmental policies was an interesting metamorphosis in the way it affected her life in a most singular way — her family and the family she made. It’s Sophie’s ties that make this book so moving.

If you love historical fiction with characters that make no apologies for who they are and what they do, The Seventh Gate is a book you should read.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Seventh Gate

By Richard Zimler

Overlook Press

ISBN: 9781590207130

4 stars

 

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Review – The House I Loved

There are books where the beginning hints at the ending. The House I Loved is one such book but knowing how this one will end is what makes it so special. It builds very slowly and before you know it, you’ve been picked up and carried to the end.

A Parisian widow in mourning for many years, Rose Bazelet still maintains a rather full life on the rue Childebert in the house left to her by her husband. She has her friends and her routines but when the Emperor, Napoleon III, decides to bring Paris into the modern age by destroying what’s considering quaint by her neighborhood’s standards and replacing it with modern and better functioning buildings and facilities, her world comes crashing down. Rose does not want her Paris, the one where memories of her deceased husband and son reside, to be torn down and rebuilt. She takes a stand and makes the decision to fight for her home, her life, and her street. Rose tells everyone she knows that she will not be leaving her family home and nothing, not money or destruction, will make her leave the house she feels she must protect at all costs for the husband she dearly misses.

Hiding in the basement of her home, with frequent visits from Gilbert, a homeless man who has taken to protecting and helping Rose, she writes to her husband. In long letters, and short, she tells him about her fight and how the man at the office treated her as if her home and life meant nothing — and indeed it meant nothing to him all. She reveals long held secrets to him, secrets she has never told another living person. Rose writes about her neighbors that have brought her joy over the years and have kept her company after his death. As the day of destruction nears, her letters become more heart wrenching, sad, and poignant.

I’m the type of person that will read the last page of a book before I start. I love spoilers just that much. The House I Loved was the first book in a very long time where that didn’t happen. I had a feeling I knew how this one was going to end and I don’t say this as a way to ruin this book for anyone. The beauty is really in the letters and memories Rose is telling and reliving for her husband. Some of the memories were lovely — for instance, when she begins her love of reading and how she tells her husband that she now finally understands how he could sit for hours absorbed in a book. A reader would love that! Others are awful, sad memories that only impending change would cause her to reveal.

I don’t want you to think this book is only sad, it is in a way, but it’s also very heartwarming and the picture that de Rosnay paints of this little street in Paris in the 1860s is very vibrant. The parks, the buildings, and the people are alive in Rose’s letters. And while Rose’s world is very small, it feels much grander thanks to the words she writes to her beloved husband. Her description of a neighbor and friend, Alexandrine, a local florist, is wonderful and you can see how close the women are and how much they admire, and need, one another. It’s in these letters about Alexandrine that you catch glimpses of Rose’s relationship with the daughter she never felt close to and you see why she feels so loving toward Alexandrine.

At first I thought of Rose as a stubborn old woman but soon found myself admiring the character for her strength and convictions. To her, the house was more than just simple bricks and mortar. It was her life and the memories that kept her going. She refused to part with it for reasons that only she understood but also out of love for a husband she wanted desperately to feel close to after his death. It’s a love story on more than one level.

The House I Loved

Tatiana de Rosnay

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 9780312593308

4 stars

 

Review – The Technologists

Boston, 1868, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to graduate its first class. Founded four years before, the school has endured the mocking of its neighboring and well-known school, Harvard University, but is coming into its own.

On a foggy night at the harbor, a terrible accident takes place resulting in the wreckage of several ships. The accident is blamed on faulty compasses, which were reported to spin wildly at the time several of the ships were pulling into port causing the catastrophe. Some individuals believe it might be the work of some strange phenomenon and others a madman. The police aren’t sure who to turn to for answers — Harvard with its gravitas or the new upstart school with the means for experimentation. When a second odd event, glass melting spontaneously in an area in downtown Boston, causes the death of a popular actress, the police turn to an esteemed Harvard professor to find the answer. However, students from the Institute of Technology also decide to investigate knowing their means of experimentation will result in a faster answer and hopefully bring calm to the city.

Marcus Mansfield, and several of his colleagues including the first female student of the Institute, re-form The Technologists, a defunct club at the school, and begin their investigation in a secret basement laboratory experimenting with every known compound to find the answers they need. Racing to put an end to the madness now griping the city, they search for a madman using technology to prey on the fears of everyone.

Rivaling investigations take place between the two schools — old Harvard with an eminent scholar at the helm ready to explain how man has brought about the accidents and the Institute of Technology ready with chemicals and formulas to counter the out of date arguments of the old university. The police aren’t sure who to turn to and finally decide on the tried and true Harvard University but find the arguments put forth aren’t stopping the bizarre occurrences. When Marcus and his friends are able to find explanations for the events, the police aren’t willing to listen. When they finally begin to understand, it may be too late to save everyone and the city from total destruction.

The geek in me loved the science in this book. The Technologists is true to its name in that regard. Marcus Mansfield, a former soldier and factory man, is an example of the old world meeting the new. He understands technology and the fears of the men who work in the shops. The idea that man has brought down the wrath of God on himself with his experimentation adds some nice tension but unfortunately, isn’t explored in much detail as the real culprit starts to come into focus.

One of the more interesting characters in the book, Ellen Swallow the first female student at the school, adds to the outdated thoughts that man with his new experiments is testing the limits of his creator by allowing a woman to study, not only among men, but science. Her steadfast mind proves she can more than hold her own among her peers though. She might take a minute to grow on you as a character but she’s definitely one of the more notable ones.

I became a fan of Pearl’s with The Dante Club. I enjoyed the way he married technology and fear in this book and think fans of his earlier works will find The Technologists an enjoyable read as well.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Technologists

By Matthew Pearl

Random House

ISBN: 978140006657-5

3.5 stars

Review – A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches

By Deborah Harkness

Viking

ISBN: 9780670002241-0

5 stars

Diana Bishop is from one of the most powerful witch families known to exist and she may be one of the family’s most powerful witches ever, but she goes out of her way not to practice magic. She’s become a well-known scholar in the fields of history and science, in particular the intersection of science and witchcraft, and while she might not practice magic intentionally, she’s aware of it all around her. While doing research in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, Diana recalls a manuscript — Ashmole 782 — which has been considered lost for the last 150 years. Finding it bound by a spell, she breaks it unknowingly, and once the book is open, she can’t say why but something about it is all wrong. Slightly shaken by her discovery and the magic, Diana sends the book back to the stacks bothered by its contents and the influx of witches, daemons, and vampires that have suddenly gathered in her vicinity. Unsettled by what she’s seen, Diana leaves the library and plans to forget the book and hopes that the attention from the other creatures will fade too.

Matthew Clairmont is a pioneering researcher known for his work in the genetics field. He’s also a vampire looking for a way to get his hands on the Ashmole 782 manuscript and he thinks he may have found that way through Diana. What Matthew doesn’t expect is to fall in love with her in the process of looking for the book. Diana is an enigma to him — not only does she appeal to him both intellectually and physically but he stuns even himself when he can’t walk away from her even when he should.

Diana and Matthew find themselves in an unorthodox relationship, and because of it, are being hunted by the Congregation, a group of witches, daemons, and vampires that rule the world of creatures. Diana and Matthew find themselves in danger from not just from the discovery of Ashmole 782 but also their growing relationship. Knowing Diana will never be able to defend herself without knowledge of and control over her powers, Matthew convinces her they must go to her family for help.  Safe with Diana’s family of witches they try to understand what her connection is to the manuscript and why every vampire, witch, and daemon is after it.

I love books about books and throw in witches, daemons, and vampires and it appears I become very easy to please. Harkness throws a lot into the story — witchcraft, love, vampires, daemons, secret covens, lost spell-bounds books — but she makes it all work and very smoothly at that. It works thanks to the characters. Diana and Matthew are more than just witch and vampire and it’s about more than spells and bloodlust. While I’m not always a huge fan of love stories mixed with fantasy stories, it works very well here and manages to become the story without overwhelming it.

Matthew’s history combined with Diana’s research, lend the story a fantastic scope that spans generations but the science Harkness infuses into the story grounds it so it never feels as if it goes off on a strange tangent. There are explanations for the witchcraft as well as background for the hidden lives of the creatures (witches, vampires, daemons, and humans) that make the story feel less fantastic and more realistic. Well, as close as one can get to real in a story about creatures that don’t exist.

A Discovery of Witches is the first book in the All Souls Trilogy.  I for one will be waiting anxiously for the next two books in the series.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Chasing the Night

Chasing the Night

By Iris Johansen

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 978031265119-0

4 stars

I read Johansen’s Storm Cycle several months ago and when the opportunity to read this one popped up, I took it. While thrillers and crime fiction are not part of my regular reading, I do enjoy a good one once in a while and Johansen is a writer I feel I can turn too.

Forensic sculptor, Eve Duncan, is preparing for her latest reconstruction — a murdered young girl. With memories of her dead daughter, Bonnie, swirling in her head, she knows it will be a rough case emotionally but believes she can help the girl and her family find peace. At the start of the case, she gets a call from a CIA operative she’s worked with in the past, Venable, who wants her to do him a favor. She declines but soon after finds herself playing host to Catherine Ling.

Catherine is an agent of Venable’s and a woman tormented by the loss of her son. She asked Venable to convince Eve to help her, and when Eve refused, Catherine decides the only way to persuade Eve to help her is by telling her about Luke, her missing son. Catherine’s story breaks Eve’s heart and before she knows what she’s agreed to, Eve tells Catherine that she will do the age progression for her. Eve will never be able to bring back her daughter Bonnie but wants to help Catherine in any way she can. Even if the only help she can reasonably provide is giving her a picture of her son at his current age. Catherine believes her son is alive but knows that the madman who kidnapped Luke when he was only two may have killed him. Her unwavering belief that her son is still alive is what convinces Eve to help her.

What looks like a few days of trying and emotional work turns out to be much more complicated when the man who kidnapped Catherine’s son gets Eve involved. Without knowing what horrors await them, Catherine and Eve leave for Russia, and with a little help from Eve’s friend and lover, Joe Quinn, and some CIA assistance, they set out to find Luke.

There is one thing I always remind myself when reading a book like this one — suspension of disbelief. So much happens in such a short period and most of the time particulars are left out of the picture. And when I start to think about how people manage to cross international borders without the aid of things like passports, I get bothered. Johansen makes you forget all of these things with her story. In fact, she doesn’t give you much time to even think because you’ll be reminding yourself to breathe because her characters and the story move so fast with a million twists and turns.

This is the newest book in the Eve Duncan series and I can see why people are such fans of this character. Eve is a flawed woman with so much emotional baggage you wonder how she makes it through the day but that’s also what makes her interesting. Besides her work, there is nothing clinical about her and you like her for those reasons. The story in this book is heartbreaking — although I can’t imagine how stories about missing children couldn’t be — and that’s what keeps you riveted. Catherine is a high-strung character and very intense. She’s not likable but Eve makes her quest for her son very human, and when she drops the facade she put in place to help her deal with finding her son, she becomes much more relatable. She’s a woman with one thing on her mind and that’s finding her son. Eve knows that feeling only too well and wraps herself up in Catherine’s search.

Not wanting to ruin the ending, I won’t say much more than this — fans of the Eve Duncan series will be left with eager anticipation for the next book as this one leaves off with a bit of a cliff hanger. This was only my second Johansen book and the first foray into the Eve Duncan series, but even I want to know how this story will continue.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.  The idea is to give everyone a look inside the book you’re reading.

Play along: Grab your current read; Open to a random page; Share two teaser sentences from that page; Share the title and author so that other participants know what you’re reading.

This week, my teaser comes from Chasing the Night by Iris Johansen.

“But Eve had her own life, her own priorities.  She didn’t even know if she could help Catherine.  Should she become involved in trying to—” (47)

What are you teasing us with this week?