Monday, July 31, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: THE SMOKE HUNTER

 The Smoke Hunter

THE BLURB: "London, 1898. Archivist Eleanora Mallory discovers a map to a legendary city . But is it the key to unravelling an ancient mystery or a clever hoax?

"Compelled to find out, Ellie journeys to Central America - with a merciless enemy hot on her heels.

"In a race to uncover the map's secret first, Ellie is forced to partner with maverick archaeologist Adam Bates, a man she's not sure she can trust. Together, they venture into an uncharted wilderness alive with smoke and shadows, where an even greater danger awaits them.

"For what lies there whispering to be unearthed has the power to bring the world to its knees."

THE SCOOP: This book is charming and delightful--and it's not even YA! It's like a mash-up of the best parts of Romancing the Stone, Indiana Jones, and the Amelia Peabody books. The adventure is smart and fresh, I love enemies-to-friends romances, and the heroine is feisty, smart, and swashbuckling. I want ten more like this ASAP.

THE VERDICT: Take this on vacation. You're welcome.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Keys

I love keys. These are from two different museum collections--one in the Netherlands and one in France. Aren't they darling? Aren't you DYING to know what they unlocked? I'm pretty sure treasure would have to lie behind any door these keys opened.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: THE HATE U GIVE

 The Hate U Give

THE BLURB: "Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

"Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil's name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

"But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life."

THE SCOOP: Here's the main thing--it's kept me thinking for months. Here's a few other things:
  • The author's voice is out-of-this-world perfect.
  • I felt like I was immersed in a foreign culture in my own country. The vocabulary, the families, the religion, the food, the interactions between friends, the relationships with the police and teachers and parents.
  • She shows the good and the bad of that culture with unflinching honesty.
  • It brings the Black Lives Matter movement to heart-breaking life.
  • Parts of it made me cringe, but I think that was the intent.
THE VERDICT: I wouldn't recommend this book to a really young teen. There's a lot of language and some sexual content. However, there's also a moving confrontation with a social issue at the forefront of many teens' lives, and I'm not sure it could have been done without the language. This book is a wonderful, page-turning, make-me-think-er. Read it and let's chat, please.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Peterhof, GOLD AND SPARKLY

Peter the Great (like every other eighteenth-century monarch with delusions of grandeur) visited Versailles and wanted his own. And in typical Peter the Great fashion, his version was bigger and better. The statues were not gold-leafed during his time, but it is an improvement I can definitely get behind. SPARKLE, STATUES, SPARKLE.

He designed Peterhof to be approached from the sea. This sea channel below leads straight from the gulf to the Grand Palace. They often held boat parades in the sea (Peter's navy was stationed at an island within sight) that ended with boats floating up the sea channel.

This sculpture above of Samson conquering a lion in hand-to-hand combat wasn't added until shortly after Peter's death, but it represents Russia (Samson) conquering Sweden (lion on the Swedish coat of arms) in the Great Northern War (which they won on St. Samson's Day).

I really love the checkerboard floors all over Peterhof.

You can see the Grand Cascade flowing down from the Grand Palace right behind these two grand teenagers.

Those arches mark the entrance(s) to the Grotto . . . one of my favorite parts of Peterhof.

 Grottos! Fountains! Golden buttocks! No sign of the crowds clogging up the gardens!

I wore capris and tennis shoes, to my everlasting chagrin. But I was very comfy, okay? This is another angle of the Grand Cascade in front of the Grand Palace.

And the grounds. Can you believe how GREEN they are? Lush, rich, manicured mazes, wild forests, paths wide enough for carriages to hurtle down . . . 

Even the fountains that weren't gilded enchant me. This one is called the Chessboard Fountain, and it's guarded by dragons:

Monday, July 17, 2017


THE BLURB: "In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory.

"This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives."

THE SCOOP: I spent a semester abroad in St. Petersburg with a babushka who lived through the siege of Leningrad. I remember seeing signs at every bathroom that anyone who survived the siege was exempt from paying to use it (and probably other things, but bathrooms were always on my mind!).

The siege fascinates me.

And this was the best book I've ever read on it.
It discusses Shostakovich's career ebbing and flowing with the rise of Communism, Stalin, the war, and beyond. I read so many interesting details I'd never heard before. His pictures are amazing. I've heard of Stalin blotting people out of pictures but never seen it before. 

This isn't from the book, but here's an example:

Image result for stalin editing photos

I loved how MT Anderson ties in the symphony with the human spirit and the will to rise above our circumstances. My favorite bit is his retelling of the meeting between the German assigned to starve the Leningraders out and the Russian who fed them. Both agreed the whole city should have been dead based on calories--but not once their spirit was factored in.

THE VERDICT: I loved this book. It's thick and meaty, and perhaps best read a chapter at a time instead of in one gulp. The story is about a city that *almost* starved to death, so don't expect light and fluffy. But you can be awed at human endurance and the power of music and determination.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: Achors Away!

I can read ten descriptions of, well, anything without appreciating its true size until I lay eyes on it. I read quite a bit about ships while researching my poisoner-in-Peter-the-Great's-court manuscript, but I never appreciated how MASSIVE they were until I saw some of their bits and pieces. This is the anchor from one of the ships in Peter's navy. Take a glance at those doorways in the background for scale.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Mondays Need a Good Book: BORN TO TREASON

THE BLURB: "Joan Pryce is not only a Catholic during the English Reformation but also Welsh, and comes from a family of proud revolutionaries. But when a small act of defiance entangles her in a deadly conspiracy, a single misstep may lead her straight to the gallows. Now, Joan must navigate a twisting path that could cost her life, her freedom, and her chance of finding love."

THE SCOOP: I loved, loved, loved this book set in Wales under Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth. The main character is a practicing Catholic who hides her faith and helps others escape persecution and death--and she's betrothed to a man who turns Catholics in. 

The history in this book is pitch-perfect (I heard that the author did her master's thesis on this time period), and the details are woven into the story perfectly. I was completely immersed in this world.

This book's language was like poetry. In fact, I bought an ebook with funky formatting, and after one page, I thought I'd purchased a book in verse, and I was ready to stop reading (I know, I know, it's embarrassing, but sometimes I just can't handle poetry). But I couldn't stop reading despite the funky formatting. The language is just too lovely, and, combined with a story tackling faith and love and belief--WOW. It's a jewel of a book. 

THE VERDICT: Pick it up when you have time to savor lovely language and immerse yourself in philosophical dilemmas. You won't be sorry. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Caught My Fancy Friday: The Grotto at Peterhof

The grotto at Peter the Great's summer estate, Peterhof, is delightful. For one thing, it's cool and damp, and summer days even at that latitude are too hot for me. For another thing, LOOK at the texture of this ceiling:

                                  Tell me you don't want to run your hands over those rocks . . .

or stare at the nooks with golden statues and running fountains:

The grotto is full of twists, turns, and staircases. STAIRCASES underneath the ground, leading to the pipes and waterworks that power the estate's fountains.

This sadly dark picture shows some of the pipes they've used at Peterhof over the years. They started out with hollowed out logs for wooden pipes but found they decayed alarmingly fast.

Now they use regular old metal pipes to pump water throughout the gardens' fountains.

Down in the bowels of the grotto. Isn't it delightfully creepy? Do you wish they hadn't built quite so many staircases and pathways to keep visitors safe? I mean, I'd never go down there without them, but it would be much more atmospheric.

And yet. AND YET. Despite the gloom, the damp, and the creepy factor, the grotto was a popular spot for ballroom dancing for centuries.See the remains of sculptural decorations on the left here? Can't you just hear the string quartet striking up a minuet?

Outside the grotto, when the fountains were turned off, ballets were performed, dances were held, and fireworks were fired off. These paintings from the nineteenth century show some of those treats.

                                  This checkerboard floor is where ballets were danced:

 Peter stuffed his grotto (and his estate) with trick fountains. Here's a fun one: every now and then, an absolute deluge of water dumps down right outside this door. It reminds me of modern pool jungle gyms with their dump buckets, but exciting, because you might have been wearing a ball gown and a towering wig!