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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cork Boat

Before we left for our trip to Portugal in August, I searched our local library catalog for books about, or set in, Portugal.  The sole book to pop up was Steve Berry's thriller The Third Secret, about Fatima.  I did re-read it before our trip, and I also read David Liss' novel The Day of Atonement, set in eighteenth century Lisbon.  It wasn't until the final day of our Viking Cruise down the Douro River that Patricia, our Portuguese Cruise Director, recommended John Pollack's non-fiction Cork Boat (#689) that I found the book I had been looking for all along.

John Pollack has impressive Washington D. C. speech writing credentials both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, but ever since he was a young boy and started collecting the used corks from wine bottles, he had nurtured a dream to build a boat entirely out of corks sturdy enough to launch in some unspecified body of water.  Cork Boat tells the story of how he and a motley group of volunteers finally made that dream come true, sailing it along the Douro River from the Spanish border all the way across Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean.  It didn't turn out to be quite the leisurely sail through wine country, sampling grapes and girls as he went that he had pictured.  In the end, he was challenged both physically and mentally, and became a media celebrity in Portugal while he was at it.
It's a wonderful story.  I was constantly amazed that somewhere along the line he didn't strangle Garth, his collaborator on the project, or that he cajoled enough people into contributing time, talent, sponsorship and corks to make it all happen. 

At the time Pollack voyaged down the Douro in Portugal, the country had not yet gone through the severe economic downturn in 2008.  It is still suffering from that financial disaster, and tourism is playing a large role in Portugal's economic recovery.  The riverboats plying the waters today along the same route - Porto to Barca de Alva and back again - provide opportunities to showcase the vineyards and orchards lining the Valley along with traditional methods of baking and cooking that Pollack describes in his memoir.  The scenery is every bit as spectacular as he describes. For me, it was a delight to read about places we had just been recently, and to see them again in my mind's eye. (Granted, sometimes with a little help from the many pictures I took on this trip!)  If you've ever been to this part of the world, or are thinking about going, read this book.  If that's not possible, you can still travel there in your mind and imagination with John Pollack.  You'll enjoy the time spent in his company.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Four Legendary Kingdoms

Reading a Matthew Reilly thriller is like playing a video game - non-stop action with minimal plot to string the action sequences together.  It can be the perfect diversion.  That's the case with The Four Legendary Kingdoms (#688), following up on the quest to save humanity begun in the first book of this series Seven Ancient Wonders.

With a nod to the mythologies of the ancient world, especially Hercules, Jack West, Jr. regains consciousness to find himself being attacked by a minotaur armed with a knife.  The pace doesn't slow down much from there as he gradually learns that he has been kidnapped to participate in the  Hydra Games against other challengers.  The object is to retrieve nine Golden Spheres to be used in an ancient ritual to save mankind.  Each round of challenges is an elimination round with deadly consequences not only for the warrior, but for those who are held as hostages on his behalf.  The ultimate prize will be awarded to the sponsor of the successful warrior - the King of one of the Four Legendary Kingdoms, the shadow powers pulling the actual strings of government.

It's a fast read with diagrams to help the reader visualize the set-up of each challenge arena with returning characters and some fiendish new villains.  It was the perfect distraction for the post-hurricane period, but you don't need the excuse of a natural disaster to spend some time in Jack West Jr.'s world.  Since we know there are three more books in this series, no matter how bad things look for Jack, we know he'll find a way to win through against impossible odds. What could be better?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Wangs vs. the World

I heard debut author Jade Chang speak at our local BookMania! earlier this year about The Wangs vs. the World (#687).  From the description of her book, it sounded like something I wanted to read - a modern immigrant's tale.  I won a copy from GoodReads, and only struggled all the way through to end so I could review it on the site.  I should have known that I wouldn't like it after hearing book group members whose opinions I value broadly pan this book.

First, let me be clear; my opinion has nothing to do with the quality of Ms. Chang's writing.  Some of her prose was so exquisite that I felt it belonged in another, more lyrical novel.  II wasn't the classic road trip plot that I objected to.  It was the Wangs themselves.  Every one of them in their own inimitable way was selfish, stupid, grasping, heedless and dysfunctional.  Taken together, they were overpowering in their collective meanness.  The cover blurb from Entertainment Weekly says "Uproarious."  I found myself appalled, not amused by their antics.  I will take Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series any day.  At least he has some affection for his characters.

When Jade Chang's next book comes out, I will be guided by the critics' reviews; if they love it, I'll be happy to skip it and find something else worthwhile to read.

The Wrong Dead Guy

Someone in my book group described The Wrong Dead Guy ((#686) by Richard Kadrey as such a goofy, weird and funny book about mummies, the paranormal and government bureaucracy that I knew I had to read it.  It more than lived up to the hype.

Agent Cooper works (reluctantly) for an obscure Federal Bureau.  It's either that or spend an extended period of time in a penitentiary.  Coop, being a smart guy, puts his considerable skills in thievery at the disposal of the US Government.  When a struggling local museum opens an exhibit featuring an ancient Egyptian mummy, Coop is assigned to steal it for The Department of Peculiar Science, or DOPS.  Naturally, nothing goes as planned.  When the mummy is re-animated with plans to find his lost love and conquer the world, Coop finds himself the target of Harkhuf's wrath.  Things don't improve when DOPS auditors set their sights on him as well.

Surrounded by a host of oddball characters, Coop is Everyman, struggling to lead a normal, boring life.  I was continually amused by the wry observations of the author, and the sly cultural references, both pop and classical.  It was like watching The Big Bang Theory and catching one of its witty asides.  Admittedly, this book is probably not for everybody, but if you're willing to suspend belief and jump into something silly for the sake of a good time, The Wrong Dead Guy could be just the ticket!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Death on Nantucket

I am an avid reader of Francine Mathews' Being a Jane Austen Mysteries series, so when I saw Death on Nantucket (#684) by her, I snapped it up.  I was not disappointed.  This is a Merry Folger Mystery, all of which are set on Nantucket.  I loved the atmosphere she caught in the book.  Merry Folger is a police detective, one of the hardy people who live on the island year-round.  When the summer visitors are there, it's a totally different place, with its own unique sets of problems.

This time, as Merry is busy preparing for her impending wedding, and the usual Fourth of July crush, first a disappearance and then a death are reported at the venerable old home belonging to a famous journalist.  Spencer Murphy's long-estranged daughter has returned to the island, but has gone missing.  Since Spencer is experiencing memory problems and his housekeeper is only part-time, it's some time before anyone realizes she's gone, but her belongings are not.  With the rest of the family assembling for the holiday, all with their own secrets to hide tensions mount in the house.  It isn't long before Merry is investigating a murder there as well.

I enjoyed this mystery as much as Ms. Matthews' Jane Austen series.  I can see I've found another great series to catch up on!

The Scribe of Siena

I do enjoy a good time-travel book, and Melodie Winawer's debut novel The Scribe of Siena (#685) certainly qualifies.

Beatrice Trovato is a busy New York neurosurgeon who finally makes time to visit her beloved older brother at his home in Siena.  He is a historian researching how the plague affected the city state of Siena.  Why did it suffer more than its neighbors during this period?  He has written to Beatrice that he has made an important discovery and persuaded her to come visit so he can share his enthusiasm for his adopted home with her at last.  Her plane tickets are booked when news reaches her that her brother Benjamin has died suddenly, leaving his house in Siena to her.

Beatrice finds herself equally captivated by Siena, and when she is pressured to turn over Benjamin's work to rival academics, she digs in her heels and determines to finish his plague project and publish it under his own name.  A journal from that time kept by artist Gabriele Accorsi leads her to his work.  How can she possibly appear in his paintings?  Beatrice is about to find out as she becomes enmeshed in a conspiracy centuries old to destroy the city of Siena...

What I loved most about this book, I think, is the fact that the romance here wasn't the primary driver of the plot.  There's got to be more to a story to hold my interest than "boy meets girl" and this book has it in spades. Why didn't Siena flourish the way Florence or Genoa did during that period?  This book poses an interesting theory of why Siena never prospered after it was hit by the Black Death.  The characters are well-rounded, and the setting so well described, it's possible to imagine yourself in Beatrice's shoes - an older, intelligent and experienced woman coping with what could be a nightmare scenario. It's a gripping read.

I look forward to more from Melodie Winawer.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Day of Atonement

David Liss' dark novel The Day of Atonement (#683) is set in eighteenth century Lisbon.  Sebastiao Raposa is only thirteen when he is spirited out of Portugal by his father's friend, an English merchant, after his parents are arrested by the Inquisition.  Now Sebastiao is in his twenties and ready to extract vengeance on the Jesuit priest responsible for their deaths.

Posing as Sebastian Foxx, a young English merchant ready to take Lisbon by storm, he returns to Portugal with deadly secrets.  All he wants is to accomplish his vendetta and be done.  Fate has a way of interfering with his grim plans.  His conscience and his inbred integrity keep imposing tasks to protect the interests of those both innocent and not.  Just when it seems Sebastian has his goal within his grasp, nature once again intervenes.

This book paints such a dark picture of Lisbon and its denizens, it might not be the best book to read before visiting the city, but its intimate descriptions of the place and how it was effected by the 1755 earthquake and ensuing tsunami made me see the modern city in an entirely different light. 

Likewise, Sebastian is a multi-layered character, revealed by adversity. Something a little different in the world of historical fiction, and worth the time to read.