Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Madonnas" a Vivid Look at Life and Art

So many books have been written about WWII that it seems impossible for anyone to have a fresh perspective on the subject. Perhaps that's why Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad is so striking. Whatever the reason, this finely-crafted first novel is unforgettable.

The star of the novel is Marina Buriakov, an 82-year-old Russian immigrant, teetering on the brink of full-fledged Alzheimer's. Her story swings between present day --as she attends her granddaughter's wedding -- and her days as a young woman in war-torn Leningrad. Before the war, Marina wored as a tour guide at The Hermitage art museum, a job she loved. When war breaks out, her happy existence is shattered; she is forced to huddle in the cellars with the rest of the museum staff, ekeing out a bleak life that is increasingly endangered by lack of food, heat and other necessities. As she works with the other museum employees to pack treasured artwork for transport out of the besieged city, Marina concentrates on memorizing the pieces. Her memory of richly colored, vivid paintings stands in sharp contrast to the dark, cold world outside the museum. Although Marina and her fiancee (a soldier) survive the war, they bury their painful memories, travel to the U.S. and start new lives. Now, as Marina's mind is ravaged by disease, her daughter, Helen, realizes how little she knows her mother. The reader, like Helen, soon realizes that Marina Buriakov is a woman worth knowing, and admiring.

Dean's literary power lies in her descriptive abilities. She is especially effective at contrasting different elements, such as the priceless museum paintings and the bleak, cold world of Leningrad. The imagery is so strong that it stays in the readers head long after he/she has closed the book. It's not a feel-good book, but it is an amazingly powerful, heart-wrenching one, that should not be missed.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Ruins: DiVINEly Creepy

On Halloween night, my husband took the kids trick-or-treating while I handed out candy at home. Since I didn't want to just sit there, I picked up the library book I had started recently - Scott Smith's The Ruins. Talk about a mistake - I jumped every time the doorbell rang. The book is that engrossing, that creepy. It's a good read; in fact, if it wasn't for the annoying ending, I would call it a great read.

The story begins with 4 friends vacationing in Cancun. After a few days soaking up the rays on the beach, they decide to join a German friend, Mathias, on a day trip to visit some ruins. Mathias' brother had followed his girlfriend archaeologist to the site, encouraging Mathias to join them by following a crude map he had drawn. So, the 5 of them, plus a Greek they just met, head off for a remote Mayan village. Strange happenings occur right off the bat - the group's taxi driver warns them the place is "no good," the locals try to run them off, and the archaeologists are nowhere in sight. Soon, the group finds itself stranded on a hillside, surrounded by armed Mayans. The hillside is eerily silent, devoid of animal, insect or human life - the only thing that's living is the vine that grows thickly all over the hill. As it becomes increasingly clear that they won't be leaving the hillside anytime soon, the group has to figure out how to survive on little food and water, and how to avoid turning on each other. As if they didn't have enough problems, the mysterious vines seem to have a life of their own...

The story is, in a word, creepy. The first half, especially, is taut, and breathtakingly suspenseful. You won't be able to turn the pages fast enough. The only thing I really didn't like about the book was the ending - the characters became wimpy and annoying, and the mystery of the vine was never solved. Should you read it? Definitely. It's an incredibly suspenseful book - just watch out for the vegetation!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Mary Higgins Clark Tame but True

I just finished Mary Higgins Clark's newest mystery, Two Little Girls in Blue. I've been a big Clark fan ever since I was a teenager, but lately I've found her stories very predictable and tame. Still, I like the fact that her books are clean - very little foul language, sex or outright violence. This new one is typical Clark fare - a quick, easy read that will keep you turning pages.

The story revolves around 3-year-old twin girls, Kathy and Kelly Frawley. One night, while their parents are out, the girls are snatched from their beds by a group of greedy thugs. Although the ransom is soon paid, only one of the girls (Kelly) is returned to her family. As the police scramble to find the missing twin, it becomes increasingly obvious to them that Kathy has been killed by her captors. Margaret, the girls' mother, refuses to believe the grim news, especially when Kelly insists that she is communicating with her sister. What follows is a tense race-against-the-clock hunt for the kidnappers, written in the taut, staccato chapters for which Clark is famous.

Like I said, the book is a bit tame and predictable, but worth the read nonetheless.
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