The Kitchen House

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a 3.5 for me. A notch above average, but not enough to bump it up to 4 stars. The story begins very well. I loved the contrast between the white, indentured servant and the mulatto slave. The audiobook used two narrators for the alternating points of view. Overall, I wish Belle’s story had been fleshed out more. The bulk of the telling belonged to Lavinia, the Irish indentured servant. I cared about the characters, although they bordered on being stereotypical. My book club members liked this book though. By the second half of the book, I began to have problems with Lavinia’s extreme naivete and her life choices. The spirited girl of the first half became so passive that she turned to opium. Really? She didn’t learn anything from caring for the captain’s wife all those years? What could have been a really satisfying coming-of-age and love story just kind of became a tragedy. The historical setting was well researched, although I didn’t have a very good sense of time. It seemed closer to the 1850s than the late 1790s and early 1800s. Quibbles aside, I like this well enough to seek out the sequel.

Book description: Orphaned during her passage from Ireland, young, white Lavinia arrives on the steps of the kitchen house and is placed, as an indentured servant, under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate slave daughter. Lavinia learns to cook, clean, and serve food, while guided by the quiet strength and love of her new family. In time, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, caring for the master’s opium-addicted wife and befriending his dangerous yet protective son. She attempts to straddle the worlds of the kitchen and big house, but her skin color will forever set her apart from Belle and the other slaves. Through the unique eyes of Lavinia and Belle, Grissom’s debut novel unfolds in a heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of class, race, dignity, deep-buried secrets, and familial bonds.

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The Glass Room

The Glass RoomThe Glass Room by Simon Mawer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Fictional main characters, but based on a real house: Villa Tugendhat (http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/). The house serves as the lens through which we view the characters and the action, sort of like a camera. Lots of metaphors about light and space, plays on words (Raum/Traum), and philosophical musings. But on the whole, I didn’t get it. The characters were cold, unemotional, and not very likeable. Lots of sex and sex talk, which left me cold. Perhaps that appeals to men – as a woman it didn’t appeal to me and got old very quickly. On the other hand, I thought the three women of the story, Liesl, Hana, and Katalyn were more real than the men in their lives. The story was all intellectual, scientific, clinical without any emotion. The men all had mistresses without any feelings of conflict or guilt. The women all seemed to have lesbian tendencies. Really? Was this another metaphor for the Zeitgeist of change after WWI? The expansion of old boundaries? When the Nazis took over the house and turned it into a scientific laboratory, I felt like the war was “out there” somewhere. The Landauers had left and made a new life elsewhere. There are some great ideas here and for that I could almost give this book a higher rating. I enjoyed the promise of the new house – and the desire to fill it with art and music and all those things that make life transcendent. But with light comes shadows – the shadows of infidelity, the shadows of war, of keeping secrets – the idealism that first drives Nazism, Communism, modernism (and other -isms) eventually shatters like glass.

Book description: High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass. This radiant 1930s house, with its unique Glass Room, quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WWII gather. The house passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, and bears witness to both the best and the worst history of Eastern Europe.

Dissolution

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very promising start to an interesting series. Loved the characters, good and bad, lots of period detail, more than just a mystery. Matthew is a hunchback which gives us a unique viewpoint as he wrestles with both his infirmity and his conscience. While I loved all the detail, back story, and fully developed side characters, it did make it a bit slow to get into the actual solving of the mystery. Everything happened in the last two discs (of 12). I look forward to more.

Book description: The year is 1537, and the country is divided between those faithful to the Catholic Church and those loyal to the king and the newly established Church of England. When a royal commissioner is brutally murdered in a monastery on the south coast of England, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s feared vicar general, summons fellow reformer Matthew Shardlake to lead the inquiry. Shardlake and his young protege uncover evidence of sexual misconduct, embezzlement, and treason, and when two other murders are revealed, they must move quickly to prevent the killer from striking again.
Narrated by Steven Crossley.

Imperium

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Cicero, #1)Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite being inundated with politics in this presidential election year, I found this to be a fascinating look at politics in ancient Rome. With impeccable historical research, Harris brings the people and places alive. Particularly interesting is the voice of Tiro, writing the biography of Cicero in his great old age. The first half of the book, which begins with the young Cicero becoming quaestor in 75 BC and his involvement with the corrupt Sicilian governor Verres, was riveting. I loved the description of his gathering evidence, his oratorical skills, persuading witnesses to testify, and finally winning the case in a dramatic court battle against the best lawyer in Rome. It got a bit boring after that, as we follow Cicero’s growing political career as he successively becomes aedile, praetor, and finally consul in 63 BC at the still young age of 43. And he accomplishes this without coming from a political or military family, or the wealth his rich wife won’t let him use, but on the strength of his oratory. It’s not a lot of comfort to realize that after 2000 years we still have not learned the dangers of too much money in politics. It is very uncomfortably familiar!

Description: Tiro, slave and secretary of the brilliant orator and senator Marcus Cicero, tells this tale of one man’s rise from obscurity to the most powerful position in the state. As the second-best lawyer in Rome, Cicero cunningly matches wits with the best when he takes on a case that attacks the amoral aristocracy. His victory catapults him into the realm of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. There he develops a consuming passion for this ultimately deadly political theatre. Harris presents a vividly realistic portrait of the quest for the consummate position of power.

Narrated by Simon Jones.

Margaret of Anjou

Margaret of Anjou (Wars of the Roses, #2)Margaret of Anjou by Conn Iggulden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still 4 stars, but I thought this was a tad better than the first book. The action was a little easier to follow, though it still jumps from character to character. Derry Brewer is here, though not as a prominent character. Great battle scenes, a feisty queen doing her best to protect her young son and her vulnerable (and mostly mentally absent) husband, Henry VI. The British title of this book, Trinity, seems more apt to me. Plot and action all revolve around Richard Plantagenet the Duke of York, his brother-in-law Richard Neville the Earl of Salisbury, and Neville’s son Richard the Earl of Warwick, who join forces against the supporters of the king – cousins Edmund Beaufort the Duke of Somerset, and Henry Percy the Earl of Northumberland. The resulting family feud and the struggle for power results in a war that threatens to tear England apart. Time period covered is 1454 through the defeat of Richard of York in 1460.

Book description: It is 1454 and for over a year King Henry VI has remained all but exiled in Windsor Castle, struck down by his illness, his eyes vacant, his mind a blank. His fiercely loyal wife and Queen, Margaret of Anjou, safeguards her husband’s interests, hoping that her son Edward will one day come to know his father. With each month that Henry is all but absent as king, Richard, the Duke of York, Protector of the Realm, extends his influence throughout the kingdom. The Trinity—Richard and the earls of Salisbury and Warwick—are a formidable trio, and together they seek to break the support of those who would raise their colors and their armies in the name of Henry and his Queen. But when the king unexpectedly recovers his senses and returns to London to reclaim his throne, the balance of power is once again plunged into turmoil. The clash of the Houses of Lancaster and York may be the beginning of a war that can tear England apart . . .

The House at Riverton (The Shifting Fog)

The House at RivertonThe House at Riverton by Kate Morton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My difficulties with audiobooks continues. I don’t know if it is the style of this book or my aging brain, because I did enjoy the story and the telling of it, but I had to go back and relisten to the first couple of disks and finally get a print copy to read alongside. The second half seemed to go better, and I may or may not finish reading the print copy. But that is by no means a complaint of either the book or the narrator.

This debut novel by Australian Kate Morton is an homage to Rebecca and other gothic-style romances. It would appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, and I was picturing the actors of the TV series as their counterparts in this novel as I listened. As in Downton Abbey, we see life from both the upstairs and downstairs points of view, the devastating effects of WWI on the family, and the unraveling of the social structures in the 1920s, especially for women. There are family secrets, too, which are readily guessed by an astute reader. The plot is slow-moving and drawn out. Probably the British title The Shifting Fog fits better than The House at Riverton. As a gothic novel, I expect the house to be a character in its own right, and I just didn’t feel it here. So probably 4 stars as a period piece, 3 stars for plot and development. I would like to have learned more about Grace’s life after the events of 1924 and how it affected her. As it is, this is just the confessional of a very old woman who has kept a secret for nearly 75 years.

Book description: Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they — and Grace — know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever.

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The Historian

The HistorianThe Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unabridged audio version narrated by Justine Eyre and Paul Michael. I think it was a mistake to listen to this on audio. Even with two narrators, we are still dealing with 4 different time periods and events covering three generations. The tone and style was reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though I could not differentiate between the father’s letters and his mentors. It all sounded the same. The visual cues of reading might have helped this.

For those leery of vampires and horror novels, this is pretty mild suspense and nothing too graphic. Where the novel excels is in the descriptions of all the places visited and details of culture, food, buildings, folklore, and history. As a travelogue it’s great, as a vampire story – not so much. Too many coincidences drive the plot, and what could have been a great romance just didn’t satisfy.

Book description: Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters. The letters are all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor,” and they plunge her into a world she never dreamed of-a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an inconceivable evil hidden in the depths of history.The letters provide links to one of the darkest powers that humanity has ever known-and to a centuries-long quest to find the source of that darkness and wipe it out. It is a quest for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the legend of Dracula. Generations of historians have risked their reputations, their sanity, and even their lives to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. Now one young woman must decide whether to take up this quest herself-to follow her father in a hunt that nearly brought him to ruin years ago, when he was a vibrant young scholar and her mother was still alive.