City of Thieves by David Benioff

Lev Beniov is a grandfather who recounts for his grandson his memories of enduring World War II in Russia, but within the culmination of Beniov’s experiences, there was one week in 1942 that stands above all others.  Leningrad is under siege, and like the rest of the city’s residents, seventeen year old Beniov is starving due to the German blockade.  One evening he violates the curfew, is arrested and taken to the Crosses where he awaits execution with a young soldier named Kolya, who has been charged with desertion.  Rather than a death sentence, they receive an interesting assignment from a powerful colonel in the Russian army.  His daughter is getting married and his wife wants to make a real wedding cake, which means she needs eggs, a nonexistent commodity in the war ravaged city.  If Beniov and Kolya can find a dozen eggs for the colonel, they will be set free and their crimes forgotten.  Thus begins the real adventures of the two young men as they travel through a city and countryside replete with cannibalistic city dwellers, guerrilla partisans, and Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads).

While the story belongs to the timid and retiring Beniov, it is Kolya who steals the show with his bravura that alternately terrifies and exhilarates young Beniov.  Kolya is frightened of nothing and has never encountered a foe that did not bend either to his charm, his cunning or his terms of endearment.  He fearlessly sweeps Beniov along from one adventure to the next with barely a pause until both Beniov and the reader have no choice but to fall in love with him and his feral ways.  A friendship is formed and forged through the horror of war as they go behind German lines where they eventually comprehend the ultimate price of freedom. 

Benioff’s characters are so endearing and their trials so real I alternatively laughed out loud and wept for their tribulations.  I can’t recall the last time I read a book where I was so moved.  Their pain was so real I actually caught myself touching the pages in an effort to console the characters.  Beautifully written and wonderfully told, City of Thieves was well worth my time.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

“Coraline discovered the door a little after they moved into the house.”  Thus begins the creepy adventures of a little girl who discovers an alternate world in her own house.  The world beyond the door is similar to her own world.  There is even an identical set of parents…but wait!  Are those big black buttons in place of eyes?  Soon Coraline realizes that her “other mother” wants to keep her permanently in her world.  She even has a lovely set of black buttons for Coraline. 

This is the graphical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s hugely popular children’s book, Coraline.  Not having read the original book, I can’t really compare them, but it seems the ideal story to receive the graphical treatment.  The illustrations by P. Craig Russell are detailed and realistic, evoking the kindness of Coraline’s real mother and the evilness of her sinister “other mother” equally well. 

This book will be released as a major motion picture in stereoscopic 3D in February of 2009.  See the trailer here

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The Killing Room by Peter May

During a major groundbreaking for the New York-Shanghai Bank in Shanghai, the struts on a projecting platform give way to plunge an American CEO into a pit full of corpses. This is a great opening not only because it is a well written, tense beginning, but also because it gives the reader the same warm visceral feeling that we got when the dinosaur ate the lawyer in Jurassic Park. For China, however, it’s a PR nightmare, and for Deputy Section Chief Li Yan, it’s the proverbial redball that he catches in Beijing. Sent to work with his Shanghai counter-part, Deputy Section Chief Nien Mei-Ling, Li is instructed to establish whether the Shanghai killings were in relation to similar murder in Beijing. With the bodies in such a state of decomposition, Li wants the American pathologist, Margaret Campbell, to work with the Chinese pathologists in determining the time and cause of death.  Based on the pathology reports, it appears that the corpses were subjected to live autopsies.  It would be easy enough to leave the dead women anonymous and have his detectives stalk the killer, but May does a beautiful job of humanizing the victims through Li and Mei-Ling’s investigation.

I can’t tell more without giving away a rather intriguing ending, but I will say that as a thriller, this book works beautifully; the pacing is good and the story moves along at an interesting clip. I loved the modern depictions of China; May’s writing style brings the cities of Shanghai and Beijing to life with all their beauty and grit. Li and Mei-Ling are believable characters, and the sexual tension between these two vibrates all the way through the novel, but I wasn’t as enamored with love triangle sub-plot between Li, Mei-Ling, and Margaret. Margaret comes across as a petty, childish, alcoholic, who disdains everything Chinese (except Li, of course). Where Li and Mei-Ling are multidimensional characters, Margaret is the quintessential arrogant American, and I never quite felt the same tension or even affection between Li and Margaret that I felt between Li and Mei-Ling. May ties everything together neatly in the end, and while I can’t call it the most captivating thriller I’ve ever read, The Killing Room was still a good read.

The Woman’s Field Guide to Exceptional Living by Corrie Woods

So you have the blahs, your life is moving nowhere, or worse still you’re in a holding pattern where your daily routines are so meticulously planned there is no room for spontaneity or change. Well, North Carolina author Corrie Woods has produced a refreshing little tome for women that extols them to move beyond ordinary living into extraordinary living, simply by changing ingrained habits and repetitive thinking patterns. Her guidelines for becoming a BOLD (Brilliant, Outrageous, Luminary Diva) woman are simple yet provide a subtle wake up call for women who are either disillusioned or simply bored with their lives.

Generally, I eschew self-help books because I feel like my life is just fine, thank you very much; however, I enjoyed the section on how to step out of the familiar and into new territories. This book is written for any woman, whether you have a PhD or a GED, you will get something out of The Woman’s Field Guide that will give you a little ah-ha moment (as I like to call them). Divided into three sections with succinct chapters, Ms. Woods presents a straightforward outline for living that can be revisited time and again.

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