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review 2018-06-10 16:52
Night Soldiers by Alan Furst
Night Soldiers - Alan Furst

How did I miss this series? Beginning in a small Bulgarian town in 1934, Furst follows Khristo Stoinev for the next 12 years or so, through the Spanish Civil War, Paris, and Bessarabia, an area of what is now Moldova. Along the way, Khristo is a trained spy for the NKVD. He is sent to Spain as part of his spy work, and becomes the subject of one of Stalin's irrational purges, flees and spends the rest of WWII trying to stay alive.

 

The book begins with a scene in Khristo's hometown, where his brother is beaten to death for laughing at a petty autocrat with delusions of importance, who is being recruited by a German. Close in time, a Russian comes to town to engage in some recruitment for the motherland. This is during the lead up to WWII, when Germany and the USSR are jockeying for importance and supremacy in the Balkans.

 

Most of the book occurs from the POV of Khristo and his fellow NKVD officers, which makes it significantly different from most WWII spy fiction. My favorite part of the book was the second section, set in 1937 Paris, just prior to the occupation.

 

Furst has a genius for placing individuals on a huge stage. The book reminded me a bit of Doctor Zhivago in that way - we know from the dates that enormously consequential events are playing out in a global arena, but his narrow focus on the characters and their day-to-day business of survival and spycraft has the effect of humanizing those historical events. He is not interested in the Prime Ministers and Presidents, rather his focus is on the small individuals and how their actions fit into the large story.

 

His ability to evoke a historical scene is also truly remarkable. He has an eye for the detail that makes history come alive. Night Soldiers is the perfect name for the book, because so much of the action happens during the dark hours, and the pictures in my mind are all black and white and barely lit.

 

There are a total of 14 books in this series at this point. Each book appears to be a standalone, and I'm pretty sure that Furst is done with Khristo. While nominally categorized as espionage, my sense of the series feels bigger than that, as though perhaps I have discovered a modern version of Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart, focused on a hyper-realistic exploration of what it was like to live and work as a spy during WWII.

 

So far, the summer of spies has been epically successful, generating, at this point, two separate ongoing reading projects: Graham Greene and the Night Soldiers series. Can't ask for more than that!

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review 2018-04-22 19:53
Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers
Island of Sweet Pie and Soldiers - Sara Ackerman
What a wonderful novel to read. I fell in love with the cover and after reading the synopsis, I knew this was something I needed to read. I didn’t expect the novel to be such a calm and enjoyable read. The novel takes place on Hawaii during WWII. A group of soldiers have arrived for training on the island, where they meet a group of women who are making the best of the situation. It’s a novel filled with racial tension, romance, friendships, war and family life.
 
Violet’s husband went missing one day and even with her monthly visits to the police station, to keep the case active, there is no news on Herman’s whereabouts. Ella wants to attend the Japanese School so Violet asks Setsuko if it would be possible for her daughter to attend her school. Ella will be the first white student in the school but this is short-lived as soldiers soon embark upon the island and close it down. It’s sad that Ella’s is again brokenhearted but when she takes to the soldier’s mascot, she finds happiness once again. Their mascot is a lion named Roscoe.
 
Violet has noticed this change in Ella and she feels it is because Herman is missing. Violet misses Herman too and she tries to bring Emma’s spirit up as much as she can. Ella takes to Roscoe yet Violet is scared of this beast being with her daughter. The soldiers try to calm her fears but Violet needs time to adjust.
 
Violet and her friends enjoy having the soldiers on the island, they feel a sense of security with them there as the war rages on elsewhere. Inviting the soldier over, the women get to know them and friendships and relationships evolve. The soldiers know their time there is brief for the battlefield is calling them. They make promises to return in one piece when their duty is over. Violet battles her own war of waiting for news about Herman and her feeling for a soldier named Parker. Ella is hiding something from everyone, a secret that is so private she leaks nothing out until the very end of the novel. As the soldiers prepare and head out, I have to wonder if their promises are real or if this island is just a stopping ground full of their false promises.
 
It was a wonderful and entertaining novel that captures another side of WWII. I liked how the author showed the tension between the individuals living on the island and the war. Where once the Japanese residents resided with their neighbors peacefully, the war is now causing conflicts among them. I enjoyed the novel’s relationships and how they progressed in the novel. I really enjoyed the authors writing. There was a relaxing feel to the novel as I read. I really enjoyed this novel and I look forward to reading other novels this author writes.

 

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review 2018-04-19 20:51
Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu
Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve - Lenora Chu

This is a really interesting book that offers a firsthand view of the Chinese school system from a mostly-American perspective. Lenora Chu is a daughter of Chinese immigrants who was raised in the U.S., her husband a white American who volunteered in China with the Peace Corps. After moving to Shanghai for work, they enroll their son in a prestigious Chinese preschool. Concerning incidents at the school spark the author’s journey to learn more about the Chinese school system: she observes classrooms in China and the U.S., talks to experts, and gets to know Chinese high schoolers and parents.

So the book is part memoir, part nonfiction. From an American perspective it’s a fascinating comparison; so much of what I tend to view as going wrong in current American ideas of education and child-rearing seems to be heightened in China, from overscheduled kids (in China it’s usually tutoring or extracurricular classes rather than swimming, gymnastics etc.), to an unwillingness to let kids play freely and explore because they might hurt themselves (other parents judge Chu for letting her son run around the living room jumping off chairs, etc., and the school states that kids aren’t allowed to talk during lunch because they might choke), to a heavy emphasis on testing. Regarding that last one, pressure for the high school and college entrance exams in China is so intense that in one town a crackdown on cheating resulted in parents and students rioting.

Which actually leads to one of the positive features of the Chinese system: Chinese families tend to treat academics the way American families treat sports, to the point of huge crowds of people gathering outside exam sites to see their kids off and shout well-wishes. While Americans face a social penalty for being “nerds” and tend to view academic success as a matter of inborn talent (so if you don’t have it, why bother to try), the Chinese have valued brains – and judged people by their test scores – for centuries, and believe that success is largely a matter of effort. They aren’t afraid to demand work from kids or to ask them to memorize. This is especially noticeable in math: while American schools tend to wrap up simple math in verbally complicated “word problems” in an attempt to make the work “relevant” to kids who won’t have a professional job for a decade or more anyway, Chinese schools forge ahead and have young kids doing more advanced problems. This is helped by the fact that Chinese teachers specialize in their subject matter from the first grade, while American elementary school teachers are generalists (who by and large don’t like math and weren’t good at it themselves). Of course it’s also helped by Chinese schools’ making no attempt to integrate kids with special needs into regular classrooms, which American schools must do.

It’s evident from Chu’s writing that all of these issues are complicated: each school system has its advantages and disadvantages, but many of the advantages come with their own negatives or are bound up with the culture and therefore hard to replicate, while the disadvantages can also have silver linings. And of course no huge country has a uniform school system: just as the U.S. has both great and failing schools, China too has huge disparities, with many rural schools being shafted.

There's a lot in the book that I haven't even discussed here: politics in the classroom, the social position of teachers, the encouragement of creativity or lack thereof, and how all this affects students in the long run. But the book isn’t a treatise. Chu keeps it lively and interesting with accounts of her own family’s experiences, and with a clear, journalistic writing style. I imagine some readers might criticize her parenting decisions – at times it felt as if she were trying to claim a high-minded rationale for a choice of school that ultimately came down to cost, while she and her husband seemed willing to accept (if unhappily) a certain amount of what many Americans would consider abusive treatment of preschool kids (such as forcefeeding, or threatening to call the police on them when they misbehave) in the interests of having a disciplined and well-behaved child. But for the American reader it’s a fascinating window into a very different school system, and into Chinese culture as a whole. It is balanced and thoughtful, and the author comes across as open-minded, curious and willing to adapt rather than pushing an agenda. I do wish it had endnotes rather than a chapter-by-chapter bibliography, for readers to follow up and learn more. But I learned a lot from this book, enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it.

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review 2018-03-06 13:18
Charming and compelling
A Night to Surrender - Tessa Dare

 

"In recent years, Spindle Cove had become the seaside destination of choice for a certain type of well-bred young lady: the sort no one knew what to do with. They included the sickly, the scandalous, and the painfully shy; young wives disenchanted with matrimony, and young girls too enchanted with the wrong men . . . All of them delivered here by the guardians to whom they presented problems, in hopes that the sea air would cure them of their ills.
As the only daughter of the only local gentleman, Susanna was the village hostess by default. These awkward young ladies no one knew what to do with . . . she knew what to do with them. Or rather, she knew what not to do with them. No “cures” were necessary. They didn’t need doctors pressing lancets to their veins, or finishing school matrons harping on their diction. They just needed a place to be themselves.
Spindle Cove was that place."

 

 

This series is about Spindle Cove and its interesting residents. Why do I think they are interesting? Because they don't fit in the Society and I definitely recognize myself in them so I can understand the characters.

 

This is the first book in the series. The story revolves around Susanna and Bramwell who find love under very unusual circumstances. I will not spend a lot of time writing about the storyline because I am sure that giving a general description of the place, the regency era and the basic undertone of this book is sufficient for any historical romance reader.

 

Susana is a 25-year-old unwed only child of a genius father who creates weapons for the army. She is a resident of Spindle Cove and in charge of all of the ladies who come there because they are in some way cast away from the society. She is intelligent, clever, capable, pretty and determined to keep men away from the women in Spindle Cove so women can feel more at ease and be themselves during their stay there. Bramwell is an officer who hurt his knee in the war and barely managed to keep his leg and he is on a mission to regain his post as a commanding officer and returning to the front lines in Spain to fight Napoleon's army. He thinks that his honor and his father's honor depend on his ability to return to war and defending their country.

The last thing on both of their minds is love but because of some stubborn sheep and bombarding them with black powder the fate for both of them will reveal its true plans.

 

I will also keep my thoughts about the book rather short because I said a lot about my feelings in the previous review I did which was about the fourth book in the series that I happened to read first (http://demonesstenebrae.booklikes.com/post/1646670/tantalizing-and-humorous-read).

 

This book is not as humourous as the fourth book in the series, Any Duchess Will Do, instead I would say it is more charming and heartwarming. Well, except for the first chapter with those stubborn sheep, that was amazing. Since this is the first book in the series, I imagine that the author took her time to set the tone for this series and that her writing gradually improved in some aspects as she got closer to her characters and to this world she created. Nonetheless, this doesn't take that much away from this book. It all depends on a reader, what he/she finds more endearing in this genre. For me, I appreciate both, and so I gave this book the same rating as I did for fourth book.

 

One thing that I also appreciate is the research the author does before setting the book in a certain historical time period and I believe that Tessa Dare did a great job concerning that. She even explained some of the things mentioned in this book at the end of the book under author's note. That is what every great author should do if they want their readers to get completely immersed in the story. If you understand the time then it is easier for you to understand the people and their actions better.

 

All in all, I find this a compelling story and a good regency world that I can easily enter and become a part of and feel for the characters. What more can a reader ask for? I also feel that I should add that I do not understand lots of comments in reviews who gave this book a one star rating based on the fact that the main heroine is a modern woman of her time that is fighting for women's rights in her own way but ends up in love with a man and gets married. Why is that a bad thing? Do all women who want equal rights for both sexes need to be without men and love in their life just to prove to some non-existent entity that they are feminists? I think that women can fight for their rights and have families and love just the same. Even more so maybe. Plus, in the regency era, especially in a high society, women who were openly voicing out such ideas were ostracised. Before you give this book such a low rating you need to understand the world setting which then commands the characters' actions and motives.

 

Thank you, Tessa Dare, for entertaining me and making me laugh. As a voracious reader that is a real blessing to me.

 

 

You’re human. We’re all scared, every last one of us. Afraid of life, of love, of dying. Maybe marching in neat rows all day distracts you from the truth of it. But when the sun goes down? We’re all just stumbling through the darkness, trying to outlast another night.” Colin downed another swig of wine, then stared at the bottle. “Excellent vintage. Makes me sound almost intelligent.”

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text 2018-01-31 14:59
Reading progress update: I've read 188 out of 281 pages.
Soldiers of Paradise - Paul Park

pretty far along now--I'll finish it up tonight. it's turned into an extended battlefield scenario, and it looks like we've had our first major casualty. the book doesn't seem designed to make me feel much for the characters, though--maybe Thanakar--so I'm not having emotional reactions to characters in danger. still, a fairly entertaining SF story that is running about 3 stars, as far as I'm concerned.

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