75 Books in 2015: January, Part II

19141914: A Novel by Jean Echenoz (2014)

From Amazon.com: Five Frenchmen go off to war, two of them leaving behind a certain young woman who longs for their return. But the main character in 1914 is the Great War itself. Jean Echenoz, the multi–award–winning French literary magician whose work has been compared to Joseph Conrad and Lawrence Sterne, has brought that deathtrap back to life, leading us gently from a balmy summer day deep into the insatiable—and still unthinkable—carnage of trench warfare. With the delicacy of a miniaturist and with irony both witty and clear–eyed, the author offers us an intimate epic with the atmosphere of a classic movie: in the panorama of a clear blue sky, a biplane spirals suddenly into the ground; a tardy piece of shrapnel shears the top off a man’s head as if it were a soft–boiled egg; we dawdle dreamily in a spring–scented clearing with a lonely shell–shocked soldier strolling innocently to a firing squad ready to shoot him for desertion.

Nope, I just didn’t get this one. The book was short – it only took about an hour to read – and well-written, but the story was just so lacking. There was no time to develop any kind of real interest in the characters. There were a couple of times I sensed the author was attempting to make a dramatic reveal (a connecting between the characters, for example), but, as I was not invested, it fell flat. I think the argument may be that the main characters aren’t really the focus of the book; that the war is the important part. But the war felt like an afterthought when I was reading it. I’m not even sure how that is possible – how can the driving force of the plot seem like an afterthought? No, I just didn’t get this book at all.

I do think it would have been an excellent series of short stories telling the story of World War I through each of the soldiers and the woman left behind in the village. As it stands, I found it completely forgettable.

decodedHistory Decoded: The Ten Greatest Conspiracies of All Time by Brad Meltzer with Keith Ferrell (2013)

I never watched Bard Meltzer’s Decoded (or maybe even heard of it? I’m not sure), so at first glance this might seem like an odd choice of read for me. I am part-historian by trade though and a firm believer in asking questions and seeking out your own answers.

The book was a little fanciful for this historian’s taste, but I can definitely see the appeal. I might even blame some of the “drama” on the audiobook – it may not have been there if I was reading it myself. I also found out after the fact that I missed out when I chose the audiobook. Apparently, the book contains vintage-look envelopes with facsimiles of documents related to each moment in history. I enjoy stuff like that. Really, I enjoy anything that attempts to make history accessible.

Meltzer writes about his ten favorite historical conspiracies:
10. John Wilkes Booth: Was Lincoln’s Assassin Apprehended?
9.Confederate Gold: Stolen Treasure or Hidden Wealth of a New Confederacy?
8. The Georgia Guidestones: America’s Stonehenge
7. DB Cooper: American Outlaw
6. The White House: Where is the Cornerstone of Democracy?
5. The Spear of Destiny: History’s Most Sacred Relic
4. Is there any Gold in Fort Knox?
3. The Real Da Vinci Code: Did Leonardo Predict an Apocalypse?
2. UFOs: Inside Roswell and Area 51
1. The Kennedy Assassination: the Truth is out There

A reader could easily only read the chapters most interesting to them and skip the others. I skipped the chapter D. B. Cooper, because that story just doesn’t interest me, and the chapter on the Kennedy Assassination, because I’ve heard enough about that over the years.

Anne Perry_Cover PhotoAnne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham (2013)

From Amazon.com: On June 22, 1954, teenage friends Juliet Hulme—better known as bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry—and Pauline Parker went for a walk in a New Zealand park with Pauline’s mother, Honora. Half an hour later, the girls returned alone, claiming that Pauline’s mother had had an accident. But when Honora Parker was found in a pool of blood with the brick used to bludgeon her to death close at hand, Juliet and Pauline were quickly arrested, and later confessed to the killing. Their motive? A plan to escape to the United States to become writers, and Honora’s determination to keep them apart. . . . This mesmerizing book offers a brilliant account of the crime and ensuing trial and shares dramatic revelations about the fates of the young women after their release from prison. With penetrating insight, this thorough analysis applies modern psychology to analyze the shocking murder that remains one of the most interesting cases of all time.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a salacious crime show connoisseur, so I recognized this crime easily from the title and had to pick it up. It was a good read. Extremely detailed – sometimes to a fault, it bordered on a good candidate for skimming – and touching on all aspects of the crime and girls’ childhoods. I really enjoyed the psychological aspect to the book, as it went deeper into major motivations behind the murder that can’t be done justice in a television episode.

95141The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander (2003)

From Amazon.com: It was a crime to horrify, fascinate, and mystify the ages. On the night of July 16, 1918, Bolshevik revolutionaries murdered the entire Russian royal family in a hail of gunfire. No one survived who might bear witness to what really happened on that mysterious and bloody night. Or so it was thought. In masterful historical detail and breathtaking suspense, Robert Alexander carries the reader through the entire heartrending story as told through the eyes of a real but forgotten witness, the kitchen boy. Narrated by the sole witness to the basement execution, The Kitchen Boy is historical fiction at its best. But more than that, the accessible style and intricately woven plot-with a stunning revelation at its end-will keep readers guessing throughout.

I pulled this one from my shelf where it has been waiting for a couple of years (at least). It is a used copy, so I probably snatched it up based on looks alone at my local library’s book sale.

I really enjoyed this one. It was an easy, but interesting read. I read a lot of historical fiction, but I’ve been disappointed in the books as often as I’ve enjoyed this. Alexander follows the last weeks of the Romanov family very closely, even reproducing letters from archival sources, and I was a little worried this would be one of those books that tries to throw in an outrageous plot line that just doesn’t fit with the rest. I think we’ve all read something like there – where the author is trying so hard to make their historical story more interesting, they completely lose the feel of their characters. The Kitchen Boy succeeds though; it feels legitimate right up until the end.

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