The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, and The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Books – With the centennial of WWI upon us and that of the Russian Revolution soon to come, the last imperial family of Russia has been a popular subject recently.  Two important histories were published in 2014.

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport, a book for adult readers, is an intimate and personal family history that accomplishes the difficult task of making its royal subjects individual and relatable.  As the title suggests, its highlight is the degree to which it addresses with the four Romanov grand duchesses–Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia–as unique personalities, avoiding the tendency of onlookers (during their lifetimes and since) to lump them together into one unit.  The treatment of the family, its personalities and their actions, is neither sentimental nor condemnatory, providing a detached authorial perspective that allows readers to make up their own minds.

The Family RomanovThe Family Romanov by Candace Fleming, intended for teen audiences and up, distinguishes itself from The Romanov Sisters by the strength of its narrative thread and breadth of its scope.  Rather than limiting itself to the Romanovs, The Family Romanov features a series of “Beyond the Palace Gates” sections that describe broader events in Russia and the world.  Even for older readers who may have some familiarity with the history of the period, this context is a thoughtful addition that enriches the story.  Fleming is also adept at exploiting the inherent tension of her tragic subject to keep readers on edge and eager to continue.  That said, Fleming has much more of an authorial agenda than Rappaport.  Readers of The Family Romanov will emerge with a very clear sense of her opinions and point of view (not necessarily either a good or bad thing).

Both books are well-written, deeply researched and engaging; I would have no hesitation in recommending either one.  If I were forced to choose between them, however, my verdict would come down in favor of The Family Romanov, whether for adult, tween or teen readers.  It is more readable and memorable, and the added background into the lives of everyday Russians and famous historical figures outside the royal family adds an extra layer of depth.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

sharpBook – Gillian Flynn is becoming a household name, due to the success of the recent film adaptation of her suspense novel, Gone Girl.  But before Gone Girl took over the big screen, Gillian debuted her first novel, Sharp Objects.  

Sharp Objects is a phenomenally demented mystery.  It centers on reporter Camille Preaker, a woman still struggling with her past and a tormented inner self.  When an assignment sends Camille back to her childhood home to cover the murder of two young girls, she is forced to confront everything she tried to leave behind.  Back in her childhood home, things are not as they appear and Camille soon discovers that there is far more at stake than simply uncovering the truth behind the murders.

I strongly believe the power of Gillian Flynn’s writing comes from her leading ladies.  In each of her novels:  Gone Girl, Dark Places, and Sharp Objects, it is the strong female lead that first pulls you into her dark world.  There is something sinister about all of these women and the pasts that burden them.  In Sharp Objects specifically, it is the relationships between the women that I found most compelling, and again, sinister.

Dark and emotional, I couldn’t put this book down.  I discovered Gillian Flynn awhile ago, when I was going through an intense murder-mystery phase.  As a reader who generally favors fantasy and romance–more lighthearted tales–Sharp Objects was a gulp of fresh air into this wonderful genre, and I encourage booklovers of all genres to give it a shot.

Also, as a side note to all the Gillian Flynn fans, get psyched, because both Dark Places and Sharp Objects are scheduled to hit the screen!  The film adaptation of Dark Places recently finished shooting and is set to be release in August of 2015.  The cast looks wonderful, starring Charlize Theron; from first glance, it seems that this film will not disappoint.  Meanwhile, Sharp Objects will be produced as a television series by Entertainment One, though there is still limited information regarding the specifics of the project.  Just knowing that there are TWO more Gillian Flynn projects coming out…there’s a lot to be excited about!

 

 

 

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniBook – In 1686, eighteen-year-old country girl Nella arrives in Amsterdam to begin her life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She doesn’t know him well and finds his household strange and unwelcoming. His sister, Marin, runs the household and seems to lead a pious, austere life. The servants, Otto and Cornelia, are friendly, but cautious. In addition, Johannes is often absent and when he’s home, he’s preoccupied. Then, Johannes presents Nella with an extravagant wedding gift, a miniature version of their house. Nella is confused and overwhelmed by the gift, but with little to occupy her time, decides to begin furnishing it. She hires a miniaturist through the mail, and when the contents start to arrive, she is both fascinated and terrified. The miniaturist seems to be able to not only replicate their household down to the last detail, but also seems to be able to predict the future. As events begin to unfold, Nella struggles to figure out what’s real and what is an illusion. What I found most interesting about this book was the historical detail. Events transpire to illuminate both the lifestyles and attitudes of Amsterdam during this time period. The characters were interesting and complex. This story was full of secrets and intrigues and kept me guessing until the end.

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

girlsBook – Lorrie Ann and Mia have been friends since they were young girls. Lorrie Ann seems perfect, the “good girl” from a bohemian and loving family. In contrast, Mia struggles to deal with her mother, who’s often drunk, haphazardly babysits her younger brothers and describes herself as having a “little black stone for a heart.” Despite their differences, the girls share everything and know everything about each other. Then, tragedy strikes Lorrie Ann’s family and events begin to spiral. As the story unfolds over the next fifteen years, Mia is forced to examine her beliefs about her friend, motherhood, families and about what it really means to be “good.” I found this debut novel to be thought-provoking and the characters were interesting. I reflected on the reliability of our memories and how the years and maturity can alter them. This book was realistic in that situations weren’t always resolved in the nicest or easiest way and different characters offered viewpoints, giving varying angles and “truths.”

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big littleBook – Big Little Lies, by the author of the bestseller The Husband’s Secret, tells the story of the events leading up to a shocking death at an elementary school fundraiser. The tale revolves around a trio of women whose children are starting kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School in Australia. On orientation day we are introduced to Madeline, who is bold, humorous, and maternal. “Oh Calamity!” The husband who walked out on her and their newborn daughter years ago has moved to Pirriwee Penisula with a new wife, and their daughter will be attending kindergarten with Madeline’s youngest child. Then we meet Jane, a young single mother whose vulnerability stimulates Madeline’s protective instincts. Lastly Celeste is introduced. She is beautiful and wealthy but somehow disengaged from life.

The friendship of these three women is galvanized when a kindergarten incident fractures the school community. The story is infused with delightful humor about all the little absurdities of parental life and school society. In addition, the author is artful in her presentation of serious social issues such as domestic abuse. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Caroline Lee. Her lively Australian accent boosted the humor and helped me to visualize the characters and their life in an ocean-side locale. Big Little Lies is likely to be a movie as well, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon have picked up the screen rights.

The Matchmaker by Elin Hilderbrand

matchmakerBook – Dabney Kimball Beech is the enthusiastic Director of Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce. Married to a famous economist  and professor, she has built a full life promoting the island and making a home for her husband and daughter, Agnes. She also has a gift for matchmaking, as over forty couples can attest. She sees a mysterious pink haze for a loving match and a bilious green haze when trouble will follow. When Agnes falls for the rich and controlling CJ, she ignores her mother’s warnings against the match. Then, Dabney’s first love, Clendenin Hughes, arrives back on Nantucket after being gone for more than twenty years. Dabney is forced to confront feelings she thought were behind her, even as events around her begin to spiral out of control. This novel explores love, friendship and second chances. I enjoyed spending time with these characters. It’s a great book to bring to the beach. Hilderbrand has written several novels, including Beautiful Day and Silver Girl.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

orphan traBook – Orphan trains ran from the East Coast to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929. They carried orphan children who needed homes and were available for adoption. The children aboard the trains had few options and could easily be exploited in their new homes. Orphan Train tells two parallel stories: the current plight of foster child Molly Ayer and the life story of Vivian Daly, an elderly woman who once rode the Orphan Train. Their lives intersect when teenage Molly is assigned a community service project to help Vivian sort through the boxes stored in her attic. Molly has not known much unconditional love in her years in foster care, and as a friendship begins to blossom between the two woman, Molly is able to confront her current demons. In turn, Vivian is able to come to peace with her past and her secrets. This book illustrates and contrasts the situations and emotions that children without loving caretakers face, both in the past and the present. However, it also depicts the positive impact of people in the community who reach out with love and care in a troubled situation and, in doing so, can provide a bright and hopeful future.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Still Life with Bread CrumbsBook – Sixty-year-old Rebecca Winter is a well-known photographer whose life has become stale. She hasn’t had any new ideas for her art, her income has dried up and her adult son has moved out of their plush New York apartment. Rebecca impulsively decides to rent a more affordable cottage, sight unseen, out in the country. She discovers the cottage and village are much more primitive and isolated than she anticipated. However, as she adjusts to the new, slower pace of her days, she begins to discover who she is as an artist and as a woman. She reminisces about her marriage and divorce, past lovers, motherhood, friendship and art. I enjoyed Rebecca’s journey, discoveries and insights as she embarked on a new stage in her life. Author Anna Quindlen illuminates the subtleties of everyday life. If you enjoy Elizabeth Berg and Anne Tyler, you may enjoy one of Quindlen’s novels.

Half the Sky (2012)

halfMovieHalf the Sky: turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide is the two-disc, four hour PBS documentary based on the bestselling book Half the Sky written by Pulitzer Prize-winning  journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Kristof and WuDunn risk their lives interviewing women in these countries about education for girls seen as second class citizens, maternal mortality and female genital mutilation, forced prostitution and sex trafficking, gender-based violence, and microfinance. Half the Sky is a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, and a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to these enormous humanitarian issues. You will be touched by the brave, resourceful and resilient women it features, and their personal journeys from utter despair to a sense of hope and direction. This video shows how despite the unimaginable atrocities endured by women across the planet and particularly in developing countries, with some practical help, they absolutely have the potential to move beyond the enslavement, disempowerment and suffering to become positive role models, movers and leaders in their communities and to break the cycle of abuse in future generations.

Provence 1970 by Luke Barr

provenceBook – This book, which is drawn from the letters and diaries of twentieth century gourmet personalities, may have you raiding your fridge as you read, due to the mouth-watering descriptions of tasty meals throughout. These personalities include writers as well as chefs such as Julia Child, Richard Olney, and James Beard. However, the focal point of this text is the food writer M.F.K. Fisher, whose revealing journals inspired her great-nephew, an editor of Travel & Leisure, to author this book. His narrative focuses on a wintry period in 1970 when his great-aunt, a columnist for the New Yorker, was traveling in France, meeting up with her fellow food connoisseurs for communal dinners in Provence, and searching for nostalgic French cuisine on her own. Intimate and not always charitable thoughts of how these characters truly viewed each other are revealed, based upon a wealth of their correspondence. The author points to this time as a turning-point, when the titans of American tastes began to question the romanticized ideal of the superiority of French cuisine.