Saturday, 28 February 2015

Read in 2015 - 8: Retreat

„Retreat“ by Liv James is a contemporary fast-paced adventure – almost a thriller – with a business background and a romance as well as family troubles thrown in for good measure.

Clara is engaged to marry a man she thinks she knows well – until one day, completely out of the blue, her ex-lover turns up with information about her future husband that makes her break off the engagement – a step she had no idea would have such wide and dangerous implications. 

Only gradually does Clara find out how and why it is all related to her father’s business, the company her fiancé runs, and her own work before she was fired and kicked out by her ex-lover a few years ago. Much more disturbing is what she learns nearly too late: her own family is involved in all this in a way she would have never thought possible. Clara’s life is in serious danger, but you bet her knight in shining armour turns up just in time to save the day.
When everything finally comes to light, Clara feels ready to start over with the man she never truly stopped loving.

A lot of the action happens during a company retreat in the mountains. Places and people are described well and (mostly) credible. I liked the parts that described work and business aspects, something I find always interesting to know about. 

Seemingly mundane details are mentioned, but they don’t unnecessarily blow up the story nor distract from what’s going on; instead, they add to the atmosphere for me, enabling me better to set the inner cinema in motion. 
While I did not entirely warm to any of the major players, I did care enough about them to want to know what was going to happen next. Had I not been reading this free ebook on my kindle, it would have been a real page-turner. Instead, I found the culminating events so gripping that one morning I almost missed my stop and would have stayed on the train instead of getting off for work. And that, surely, is a sign of a good read.

I’d not heard of the author before, but if I should happen to come across another free ebook by her, I will download and read it.
I could not learn much about the author; this is what Amazon says about her: "Liv James is a Pennsylvania native who enjoys hiking, biking, traveling on an expense account, and, of course, writing fiction." The author's homepage,, seems to be deactivated. So maybe she has given up writing, or is taking a break from it.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Read in 2015 - 7: Im Westen nichts Neues

„Im Westen nichts Neues“ was the next-to-last book from the pile of educational reading put together as my last year’s birthday present from my sister. It is the shortest of the pile – and the most terrible one.

The author, Erich Maria Remarque, gives an account of a simple soldier’s experience in WWI – an account that is sobering as well as sober. Even the most dramatic and horrible scenes are presented in a very down-to-earth, undramatic manner; there is nothing “loud” about the book, which makes the desperate fight for survival appear even more poignant. 
The main character is Paul, a young soldier who heads directly from the class room to the battlefield at age 18, along with his class mates, originally instigated by the patriotic speeches of their teacher.
As soon as the boys (they can hardly be called young men at that stage) arrive at their barracks for military training, it becomes obvious that everything they thought important so far, everything they learned at school and in their respective families, has no value anymore.

The reader follows Paul as he turns into a soldier, fights in the trenches, always desperate for food, clean water and a place to rest, forms friendships and loses his old class mates one by one on the battlefields, escapes death narrowly more than once, and thinks about his life in the context of the whole “lost generation” of young men who have not had time to grow roots in their civil lives before they are destroyed forever by the war, even when they escaped its grenades.

One chapter describes a two-week leave Paul uses to visit his family. He soon realizes that he can’t simply slip back into his former life; he isn’t the same person anymore, and feels unable to talk about what is really going on out there, where the war actually happens. For me, this was maybe the saddest chapter of them all: The life Paul once knew and enjoyed is so close, and yet unreachable.

The first time this book was made into a film was in 1930. “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Lewis Milestone won the Academy Award for “Best Film” that year. In 1983, Elton John wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front”, an anti-war song referring to the film.

Interestingly, the author himself never claimed his book to be political. In the foreword, he says that he wanted to tell of the Lost Generation (a term coined by Hemingway).
The Nazis were not at all happy about the book (first published in 1928) – to them, this was anti-war propaganda, and just like the author deserved to be libeled, the book deserved to be burnt.

It was widely thought for some time that Remarque based the book mainly on his own experience in the war. In fact, though, he fought in the trenches “only” for a few weeks (and not years, like Paul in the book) before he was wounded and ended up in a field hospital, where he wrote down what other soldiers told him. So Paul's experience is very much a collective experience, shared by countelss men during those dreadful years.

This was a sad and terrible read, but as strange as this may sound, a very good read, too (and what a contrast to the one I read and reviewed before this one!). I think this book is important to know, and I am glad my sister included it in the pile.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


Last Sunday was mostly sunny and dry, although not as warm as I had hoped after a very mild Saturday. My Mum and I went for a walk which at first I thought was simply going to lead us to familiar places, but ended with me exploring an area I never thought I would be able to see close-up.

Our intention was mainly to have a look at the palace grounds, the beautiful park you've seen featuring on my blog many times before. We wanted to check what - if any - spring flowers were already out. Compare the following pictures with these from April 2014 to get an idea of what it is going to look like soon again:

What we saw were mainly snowdrops and the little yellow flowers called "Winterling" in German (I know I "know" the English name, but it escapes me at the moment), but there also was a small patch of bright pink cyclamen.

My Mum then suggested we go across the road from the palace grounds, where one of six remaining gate houses is situated. Ludwigsburg, although a relatively new town that was founded only in 1704, once used to have a city wall, and there were houses at each gate for the watch posts. Six of these houses are still there; they were renovated in 2004 and now house various exhibitions and institutions. Not that long ago, a fellow blogger from my region posted about the six gate houses. His post is in German, but you can have a look at the pictures he took here.
The one we went to is the one with the green shutters (4th picture from top), the one that sticks out as being of a very different build than the other five.

A civic society has use of the rooms. On the ground floor, they run a little café, and the top floor shows changing exhibitions throughout the year. It is all run by volunteers who are very friendly and enthusiastic about their work. We had a drink there and looked at the current exhibition (soldiers and other toys made of tin, set up in beautiful dioramas, as well as explanations about how tin figures are made, and their history).

I'd not been inside the building before, so that was already something new for me to explore. But the best was yet to come!

When I was a little girl (and also much later when I was not so little anymore), every time we drove along a certain road, I tried to catch as much of a beautiful villa set back from the road in a small park: the "Marienwahl" (literally, "Marie's choice"). Back then, it was a private residence, and since I did not know the people who lived there, there was no way I was ever getting closer to the villa than what I could glimpse from the car.

After nobody lived there anymore from 1988 onwards, the villa fell into a kind of sleep - the way you'd imagine Sleeping Beauty's castle, covered in thorns, hidden behind hedges and trees that would grow higher year after year.
The owners lived elsewhere, and various plans were made for the site, such as erecting flats for senior citizens in the grounds, but nothing really came about. Eventually, a big effort was made and both villa and park were largely restored until 2006.

Somehow, I completely missed the fact that the park now has a public foot path running through it; I was delighted when my Mum showed me the gate and I was able to walk there for the very first - but cetainly not the last! - time in my life!
The building itself is rented out to a company, so I still haven't been inside, but I've had a good look around.

Here is the main building:

Sorry about the ugly covering of the fountain - it is winter...

There are two identical buildings left and right at the park wall to flank the villa. They, too, were beautifully restored:

When the last King of Wuerttemberg's family still lived here, extensive stables were part of the grounds. Especially Pauline, the King's daughter, was a "horse woman". She was born in the villa in 1877 and returned to the place of her childhood when she became a widow.  King Wilhelm II. loved the villa so much that he made sure his funeral procession went through the grounds and past the building.

The stables were left in their ruined state but made secure enough for people to walk there. You know by now how much neglected, ruined places attract me, and these stables are no exception:

The floor here is not paved in cobbles, but in hardwood parquet - no luxury was spared to give the king's horses suitable quarters!

Unfortunately (although it is probably better in the long run), access to this mysterious staircase is blocked by iron bars. You know I would have climbed down there otherwise!

Princess Pauline, the horse woman, died in 1965. She wanted her last resting place to be near her beloved horses and is buried in the grounds.

Like I said before, this was a "first" for me - and I am already looking forward to going back and see the changes throughout the seasons. Thank you, Mum, for showing me this!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Mid Month

It was the middle of February yesterday, and a beautiful day: nearly 10 Celsius (that's 50 F), plenty of sun, bird song and snowdrops in the gardens. Much colder today, and overcast, so I have decided against the long walk I actually wanted to go on today.

Here is what we had only 2 weeks ago, on my Dad's birthday:

Spring is definitely on its way. Already, daylight starts considerably earlier and finishes much later than only a few weeks ago. I do hope there won't be another cold and snowy period until November or so.

I have realized I've not yet told you of the very interesting guided tour my parents and I took in January: we went to the Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg, which is much more than just an archive for my hometown's documents.

This description from their website sums it up nicely:

In 1995 the Department Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg moved into the former arsenal barracks in the town centre. Today about 680 State agencies from the governmental district Stuttgart transfer their files to the Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg. Ludwigsburg also stores 500 000 files from the time of the Third Reich and the time after World War II, which have been created by the Heimatspruchkammer in the course of denazification. These files are a unique source for researchers.
Records specifically worth mentioning are those of the police headquarters, of the administration and artistic performances of the State Theatre of Stuttgart, and all the birth registers of the women's hospital (Landesfrauenklinik). Ludwigsburg also holds records of Ulm, Esslingen, Heilbronn and other former free imperial towns, of the Teutonic Order and of the domain of the Prince-Provost of Ellwangen. Of special interest are the records of the courts of justice, of the district government and Oberämter.

Our group of visitors were lead by a most enthusiastic guide. Even for someone not that interested in local history, the buildings alone were worth seeing. The main building used to be barracks, which makes for some unusual architectonical features that were kept. Another important building, interconnected with the first one, used to be the arsenal, i.e. a place of military storage.

Because of the group, I did not take my camera with me (I knew it would have been impossible to get pictures without people, since there were so many of us and space very limited), but when I saw the original staircase and columns in the arsenal, I hung back a moment and took at least a few pictures with my mobile phone:

We were shown some fascinating documents, the oldest one being a hand-written deed from the 1200s (of course it was hand-written; Gutenberg's invention of the press was still two centuries away). There were also some more recent pieces to look at, such as the diary of an aristocratic lady from the 1800s, who meticulously listed every day the meals that were served in her household, the price for all the groceries and all the social engagments she had.

Our guide showed us emigration documents of a handful of the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who left Württmberg in search of a better life during the 1800s. Back then, if you were to emigrate legally, you had to resign your citizen's rights formally, and the king had to "release" you from being his subject. A governmental department set up for that purpose checked your background - did you have a criminal record, was a punishment still pending, or were you in debt with someone? If all was clear, you were free to go. If you knew not all was well, you left the country in a clandestine manner. That way, if things would go wrong in your new place (the US or Russia, mainly), you could sneak back in after a few years, and the authorities would be none the wiser.

We saw and learned so much more - it was a two-hour tour, and not a second of boredom. This visit offered a rare glimpse into a past world.
But these archives are by no means only for the past: The department is responsible for the agencies, law courts and other state institutions that have their seat in our  governmental district as well as the regional agencies of the Federal Republic in the governmental district. Ludwigsburg is the Archives for all the documents in the Land classified as strictly confidential and also holds all the IT-based documents of the whole Land in its digital Archives. [Description taken from their website.]

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Read in 2015 - 6: The Teashop on the Corner

When Mary, my mother-in-law up in Yorkshire, told me she was going to include a book with my Christmas parcel, she said I was going to love it. And she was not wrong: I did love "The Teashop on the Corner" by Milly Johnson.

Don't be put off by the "Chick Lit" cover design. Yes, it is "light reading" and nothing high-brow, but it is well written - much, much better than a lot of the "light reading" I have been doing lately. In fact, there are times when this book has strongly reminded me of Frances Garrood's "Dead Ernest" and "Basic Theology for Fallen Women", both of which I truly enjoyed. (You can find my reviews for these books by clicking on the titles here in the post.)

The recipe - tested and proven, but nearly always interesting - for the story is quickly told: A group of people who normally would not come across each other, let alone form friendships, are thrown together by chance. In this case. "chance" is visiting a newly opened teashop.
Soon, circumstances make the customers who first come in on their own start talking - to the lady who runs the teashop as well as to each other. With their relationships developing, things come to light about each of the main characters, and with one exception, they all turn out to have something in their past (and even present) that nobody guessed at.
The old adage "Nothing is at it seems" is true for the people in this story, and I am sure we all know similar people (or maybe even are one of them ourselves). Nearly everything that happens, and the decisions the characters take, are credible. The teashop is well described, as are other locations, without overdoing the details.

One can read such books merely to be entertained after a long day at the office, but one can also read the message the characters have for us. I like to do both.

You can find out about the author and her other books here.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Read in 2015 - 5: Design on a Crime

For a change, I read a contemporary so-called "Cozy Mystery" that was (of course) a free download from the Kindle shop.

Ginny Aiken wrote "Design on a Crime" as the first of (so far) three books in the "Deadly Décor Mystery" series. It is about a young interior designer who keeps getting involved in murder, without any doing of her own.

In this book, Haley Farrell soon turns out to be the main suspect, and the story revolves around her trying to find out who really did it so that she can present the solution to the detective who seems to be so keen to pin it all on her.

As a character, Haley is not the most likeable of young women (at least not to me). She is prickly and blunt to the point of rudeness, and her troubles with something that happened to her four years ago and the consequent loss of her faith take up a little too much room.

Speaking of faith - if you manage to skip the religious bits, you're in for a light read; light, but at the same time keeping you wanting to find out who did it, not so much for Haley's sake but because you want to know how the author is going to explain everything. The solution is not obvious, there are several red herrings, and the constant cropping up of another character wherever Haley goes seems to be too much of a coincidence.

Anyway, the religious aspect in this story is so big that it should have been classified as "Christian Fiction" or something like that; then, I am sure, a lot of those who gave the book bad reviews would never have read it in the first place.

I am not going to give it that bad of a review, because it was entertaining enough for my train rides to and from work, and although the writing itself was far from brilliant, it was better than some I've read in the past. I do wonder, though, whether Ginny Aiken is on a contract with Starbucks coffee - the brand is mentioned every time someone has coffee, or even just thinks about having coffee, as are other unnecessary mentions of brand names for dog food, sweets and other things.

Not a waste of time, but I'm afraid I would have considered it a waste of money, had I paid for it.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Read in 2015 - 4: Radetzkymarsch

The third book of the small pile my sister gave me last year for my birthday as educational reading, "Radetzkymarsch" by Joseph Roth is so far the one I enjoyed the most (not that I did not enjoy the other two, but somehow I was able to get closer to this one).

In short, this novel mirrors large-scale historical events on a small scale: the decline of a family going hand in hand with that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was written in 1932, some time after the end of said empire in 1918.
Since last year marked the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI, the year the novel ends, it would have been a very fitting read in 2014. But it still had the same fascination and I still learned a lot from it about those times just before the beginning of the Great War by reading it now.

The novel accompanies Carl Joseph von Trotta through his relatively short life, from the time he starts his military education at the age of seven (as was the custom in families who had the financial possibility and standing in society to send their male offspring to military schools) until he dies - in military action, yes, but, strangely enough, with two buckets of water in his hands, and almost a hero.

By referring to Carl Joseph's father and grandfather - and occasionally going back even further - the book actually spans the von Trottas' family history for three generations. We get to know Carl Joseph's fater quite well; in some ways, nearly better than his son, especially towards the end of the story. The day of the old servant's death was, for me, one of the most touching parts of the novel.

I am not going to tell you too much about the story, but really want to recommend reading it to everyone, hoping that the English translation you may be able to come across will live up to the German original. The author is one of the best, language-wise, I have ever read. His style is special and ranges from reporting the facts to painting a complete picture of a situation, a person or a place with just a few precise and elegant pen strokes. I wish more authors would have the talent to write like he did!

Saldy, there are some parallels between Carl Joseph and his author. Joseph Roth died way too young, too; like his novel character, he was an alcoholic, and from what I have read about his life, he was lonely and unhappy for much of it.

You can read more about the novel here, and more about the author here (both links lead to wikipedia articles).