Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Zookeeper's Wife

By Diane Ackerman

The true story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski's role in saving the lives of many Jews and others targeted by the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland.
Before Germany invaded Poland, Jan and Antonina ran the Warsaw Zoo. They made many improvements to the zoo, including building structures for the animals that were more like their natural habitats than just a plain cage. Jan was the official director of the zoo, but Antonina, who had an instinctive understanding of animals, helped in the nurture and care of the animals too.
But when the Germans moved on Poland, the zoo suffered greatly. It was bombed because it was located near strategic targets. Many of the animals were killed during the bombing. Others, such as the bears and big cats, were shot because of fears they would escape. Many were carted off the Germany where it was believed they would be safer. Of course, they weren't as Germany was heavily bombed during the war.
Left with no animals for the zoo, Jan turned it into a pig farm and later it was used to breed fur animals to supply the German military with warm coats.
But that is not all for which it was used. The Zabinskis used their home and several of the remaining structures at the zoo as hiding places for Jews and others fleeing the Nazis. Jan and Antonina gave them food, clothes, refuge and false ID papers to help them travel on to safety. Altogether, they helped to save the lives of many people who would have ended up in the Nazi extermination camps.

This was a pretty good read. It really puts the reader right into the suffering and terror of that time and place.  Books like this are vital to remind us just how vile human beings can be to one another and to never forget that terrible things that have been done in the name of ridiculous ideologies.

For a better review, see

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Templar Legacy

By Steve Berry

Who were the Templars? The Templars were an order of military monks whose original mission was to protect pilgrims visiting the Holy Land in the time of the Crusades. However, they ultimately failed in this mission when the Arabs gained control of the Middle East. Before that, the Templars amassed a lot of wealth and property. After the failure of their mission in the Middle East, they retreated back to Europe where they continued to grow in wealth and property. Perhaps they became too ambitious. For whatever reason, Philip IV, king of France, turned against the Knights Templar and, with the cooperation of the Pope, many of  the Templars were seized, tortured and burned alive. Their properties and assets were divided and distributed in various ways and their order disbanded. (For more about the Templars, see ). Berry postulates a theory based on legend that the Templars hid much of their liquid wealth, including secrets about the Roman Catholic Church that would utterly discredit the Church.
So...Cotton Malone, an American living in Denmark, has retired as an agent of the US Justice Department and is running a bookstore. He sees his former boss and witnesses her purse being stolen. Malone gives chase only to have the thief jump to his death off a tower: "[the thief] made the sign of the cross and, with Stephanie's bag in hand, pivoted out over the railing, screamed one word--'beauseant'--then slashed the knife across his throat as his body plunged to the street." And thus are Malone and Stephanie first introduced to the Knights Templar.
The Templars are on the hunt for their lost treasure and for their "Great Devise" which is the ancient chronicle of their order, lost to them when the order was disbanded by the Pope back in the early 1300s. Stephanie's deceased ex-husband was a scholar and researcher of the Templars and in her handbag was a journal that belonged to her husband, which is why they tried to steal it from her. This event and subsequent events set Malone and Stephanie on the trail of the lost treasure and into direct conflict with an extremist element of the Knights Templar who will do anything to regain the lost power and influence of their order.

This was an OK, if a rather long read. I did learn quite a bit about the Templars which made reading it worthwhile. I guess my main problem with this story and the previous one is that I am not a fan of this genre of literature. I don't generally read thrillers or conspiracy type stories. Perhaps those who are a fan of this genre would enjoy more than I did.

The Romanov Prophecy

By Steve Berry

Set in the time after the fall of the Soviet Union, this story imagines a Russia that is disappointed with democracy, fearful of a return to communism and so has decided to resurrect the aristocracy. The search is on for the man who will be the new tsar of Russia. This person will have to fit several qualifications, the chief of which is that he is the most direct descendant of the last tsar, Nicholas II, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Which might be a bit of a challenge, since Nicholas' whole family was executed at the same time he was. Or were they? There have always been rumors and questions as to whether they all died that day. When the bodies were exhumed in the 1990s, two were missing, which is the basis of this story by Berry, who assumes Nicholas' son and a daughter escaped the firing squad and survived.
A faction of several powerful leaders has come up with a Romanov cousin who they have put forth as the rightful claimant to the tsar's throne. These leaders, representing various factions such as the military, the bureaucracy, the Russian mob, think to control the government of the new tsar by putting their puppet ruler on the throne. The idea that there may be a direct descendant of Nicholas upsets them greatly and they will do anything to put their man on the throne.
Atlanta lawyer Miles Lord's firm has been hired to do the required background check on the power faction's candidate. Miles has had a life long interest in Russia and speaks and reads the language and, during his research in Russian archives, finds some papers that seem to indicate that some of Nicholas' children survived. Displeased with his discovery, his employers turn against him and attempt to eliminate this threat to their candidate by killing Lord. They fail and Lord sets off on the trail of the Romanov heir with the help of a beautiful circus acrobat and a secret Russian society dedicated to protecting the Romanovs.

This was an OK story. How an American would be able to figure out what has eluded the Russians for decades was a bit improbable as was the ultimate destination of the hunt for the heir. Also, how long it took a supposedly smart guy like Lord to understand who was betraying his movements to his enemies was kind of improbable too. Anyway, it made for an OK read if only for the story of the last tsar and his family and what was done to them. That part was pretty interesting even if the rest was just ordinary.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Shadow Singer

By Marcia J. Bennett

Book 2 of the Ni-Lach
Poco and Dhalvad have a secret that they must keep hidden in order to survive. Poco is a half-blood Ni-lach and Dhalvad is a full-blood Ni-lach. Hated and feared by the humans who have settled on their world, the Ni-lach have been driven into exile by the relentless persecution of humans. Besides being Ni-lach, both Poco and Dhalvad know the location of buried Ni-lach treasure, treasure that greedy people would love to get their hands on. What those greedy ones don't know is that Dhalvad also has the healing touch, with the ability to mend wounds, knit broken bones and cure sickness which makes him more valuable than any treasure.
Finding themselves hunted by ruthless thieves, Poco and Dhalvad flee into the wilderness, trying to track down the location of the Ni-lach people who have gone into hiding. They are accompanied by two companions, Poco's friend Ssaal-Ir, an imposing and dangerous catman, and Dhalvad's childhood friend, a small, furry, intelligent being, Gi-arobi. Together they will stand against hostile humans, angry bands of cat people, and the dangerous predators of a largely unsettled world.

This book was the second in  the Ni-lach series, the first of which is Where the Ni-Lach. I did not read the first book in the series, but this one stands alone quite well. It probably would have been helpful to know the back story but not necessary, as the author does a good job at filling in the gaps without having to go into a lot of detail.
Basically a science fiction fantasy, the book has the some pretty standard elements: special people with special powers struggling against the establishment, exotic alien allies, setting out on a quest to find themselves and a place in their world, battling hostile elements and facing down vicious predators. It's all there, including a little romance. And yet somehow I found it a bit boring. Maybe it was just a little too predictable. It's an okay story but I am not interested enough in it to continue on with the series.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


By Joan Bauer

Ivy Breedlove's family history goes back generations. And in those generations have been many, many lawyers. It's a family tradition that Breedloves grow up to be lawyers. But Ivy doesn't want to be a lawyer, much to her father's consternation. She wants to be an historian. And she also wants to write a Breedlove family history.
Ivy's father continues to push his daughter into a career in the law, despite her resistance. He can be stern and unyielding, just like his father was with him. But there used to be another side to her father and there is one Breedlove who may be able to shed some light the matter and that is her father's sister, the reclusive Josephine.
Josphine lives in a cabin on a mountain in the Adirondacks. No road goes to her cabin, the only way to get there is to hike. Josephine hasn't been seen by anyone in the Breedlove family for many years. But Ivy is determined to discover Josephine's story and, with her father's okay, she hires a mountain guide to lead her into the back country and to her aunt's door. The trip, in late December, is cold and dangerous but the guide knows what she is doing and delivers Ivy safely to her aunt's door. What remains to be seen is whether or not her aunt will welcome an emissary from the Breedloves or will send Ivy packing back down the mountain.

This was an a fairly enjoyable read, although intended for a younger audience than myself. I found the family interactions rather simplistic and, predictably, the teenage Ivy gets every body straightened out, in the process learning a few life lessons herself. Still, it was a pretty good story, the best part being the beginning where Ivy is coping with her various family members. The part where she is up at the cabin with her aunt was less interesting and, I felt, more contrived. Teen or preteen girls would probably enjoy this story quite a lot.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Past Is Another Country

By Lois Battle

Megan Hanlon is the daughter of a Australian woman and an American soldier. Her parents met when he was in Australia in the 1940s. Theirs was a turbulent marriage and he seemed unable to settle down and support his wife and children. So Megan was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Australia. Megan's mom was Irish Catholic and so Megan attended a Catholic girls' school.  She was a bit of a rebel, which didn't sit well with some of the nuns.
Her parents divorced and her mother remarried and Megan went back to the USA to live with her mother. Her father made sporadic appearances in their lives but more often than not he was nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, she loved him even as she hated the way he treated her and her brother and mother.
Fast forward about thirty years and Megan is now a movie director. She has come back to Australia for a film festival featuring a film she directed. She has also been nominated for an Academy Award for a documentary she made about runaway teens living on the streets in New York City. It's an important time in her life, a point at which she can achieve her dreams or crash and burn. But going back home to Australia causes a lot of buried issues to be dredged up and dealt with if she is to have some peace and understanding of herself, of her relationships with her ex-husband and an ex-lover and, of course, with her mother and absent father.

Pretty typical entry in the chick-lit genre, featuring three women in their early middle age,  coming to grips with their lives. Megan, the movie director, dealing with her unhappy childhood; Greta, the wife of a successful surgeon, having to face the truth about her marriage, and Joan, a nun, falling in love with a man for the first time in her life. Hearts are broken, relationships are ended, realities are faced and all three make hard choices. But even though typical in its subject matter, it is an engrossing and absorbing story, all the characters quite sympathetic despite their flaws and mistakes and well worth reading. I enjoyed it a lot.

Guess Whose Hair I'm Wearing

By Hildegarde Dolson

A collection of humorous short stories about the author's life in New York City, for the most part.

Most of these stories date from the 1950s and the book was published in the early 1960s, some fifty years ago. Some of the stories are quite amusing and enjoyable and some I just didn't get the joke. That's my fault, not the author's. But the ones that I did understand were pretty funny and I'm glad I finally got around to reading this book, which I have had for ten years or more. In fact, after finishing it, I decided to see if I could find another collection of her short stories, I Shook the Family Tree,  which is about her childhood and her early years in NYC in the 1930s.
Dolson was born in 1908 and always knew she wanted to be a writer.  She decided early on that she never wanted to get married or raise a family, preferring to concentrate on her career. One of her short stories in this collection is, "Why I'd Make an Awful Wife." Her view of herself was as a spinster but she later married a fellow writer when she was in her 50s. She had a very successful writing career, writing short stories and books of nonficition, fiction and mysteries. Many of her stories were published in The New Yorker magazine.