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Thursday, April 19, 2018


If you are going to read Dan Brown's latest thriller Origin (#739), be sure to have your smart phone or tablet handy.  The action takes place in Spain, and I found it extremely helpful to pull up photos and videos of the many sites where key scenes are set: The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, El Escorial and the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid, and Gaudi's famous works in Barcelona Casa Mira and Sagrada Familia Basilica.  Although I've already visited El Escorial (Brown's description left out my favorite detail; St. Hyacinth's body enclosed in rock crystal beneath an altar visible from King Philip's bed.  It was a wedding present from the Pope.), I've added the other places to my bucket list.

Young tech genius Edmond Kirsch is assassinated in front of a capacity crowd attending his invitation-only lecture at the Guggenheim.  He has promised that his latest scientific discovery will change the future.  Robert Langdon, symbologist extraordinaire, is in the audience, having developed a relationship with Edmond when he attended Harvard.  Edmond had worked closely with Ambra Vidal, beautiful director of the Guggenheim, to ensure that his presentation goes perfectly.  It seems whoever killed Edmond is also responsible for setting up Langdon and Vidal to take the fall for the crime.  The two scramble to complete Edmond's mission by live-streaming the conclusion of his presentation from a secure location.  You can probably figure out the ending.  I did.

I just wondered why it seemed to take Robert Langdon so long to figure out what was going on, and who was responsible.  The answer seemed so obvious to me.  It also struck me how virulently anti-religion the tone of the book was.  That was another thing I wondered about: did Dan Brown have some traumatic experience with organized religion at some point in his life?  He seemed to soften his tone somewhat towards the end of the book, especially in the character of Father Bena at Sagrada Familia.  I must admit, I did find that off-putting.  Just my opinion, and it sure didn't keep Origin off the Best Seller list!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Breaking Cover - My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me About What Worth Fighting For

I recently heard Michele Rigby Assad, author of Breaking Cover - My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me About What's Worth Fighting For (#738) speak at our local BookMania! event, so I was prepared for her unusual story.

This non-fiction work is a curious amalgam of her experiences in the CIA, most in active war zones in the Middle East, and her strong Christian beliefs which led her to feel that the CIA was the preparation to fulfill her real calling: helping to evacuate Iraqi Christians from Erbil until perilous circumstances.

Who would ever have expected a homecoming queen and cheerleader from rural Florida to pursue a passion for Arab studies and become half of a successful pair of husband and wife covert operatives in the Middle East?  In Breaking Cover, Ms. Assad explains how it all happened.  Full of anecdotes both frightening and funny she lays out (with the CIA's permission) what life under cover involves, and the sacrifices made by those who choose to serve in this arena.  After ten years. both she and her husband knew it was time to move on.  But how do you flesh out a resume when everything you've done in your career still has to be kept under wraps?  That's the second half of Ms. Assad's story.

I did find her story is well worth reading even if it is tad heavy on the "God Speak".  Her commitment is admirable, and so are her accomplishments.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

I Was Anastasia

Ariel Lawhon does a masterful job spinning the tale in I Was Anastasia (#737).  Starting in 1970, she pulls the reader further and further back in time to relate what happened to Anna Anderson and the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov.  Are they, could they possibly be, the same person?  Anna Anderson always claimed so.  This novel will keep the reader guessing until the final pages.

The story switches from the Grand Duchess' experiences told in first person, to what has happened to Anna Anderson over the intervening years in third person.  If you have a hard time keeping track of a book that jumps from character to character, and back and forth in time, this may not be the book for you, but the way the author chooses to tell her story makes perfect sense once you understand what she is doing.  That said, Ms. Lawhon specifically cautions the reader in her Author's Note not to read the ending first; it will spoil the book, and she is absolutely right about this. If you've ever had any interest in the doomed Romanov family, you will definitely want to add this book to your "Must Read" list.  Recommended.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Elizabeth; The Virgin Queen and the Men Who Loved Her

I wasn't sure quite what to expect when my GoodReads  giveaway arrived in the mail.  Like many others, I find the Tudors and their times fascinating.  What a delightful surprise Robert Stephen Parry's Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen and the Men Who Loved Her (#736) turned out to be!

This slim volume is based on a series of lectures which Mr. Parry attended in the past at an aging Elizabethan manor hosting a history retreat.  He took notes in shorthand, and thus this entertaining weekend event lives on for readers to enjoy.  There are brief biographical sketches of the significant men in Elizabeth's life with a helpful timeline, and several essays on court life in general.  These sketches are each followed by a "Vignette", an imaginative dramatization of events alluded to therein, thus blending fact and fiction.  Like GoodReads each man, from her father Henry VIII on down the line, are given a tongue-in-cheek  "Tudor Roses" rating for their usefulness, importance and commitment to the Queen.

This book can easily be read in a single sitting, and will be a useful "Who's Who".  It's a welcome addition to my library.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Kremlin's Candidate

The Kremlin's Candidate (#735) is the concluding book in Jason Matthews' Red Sparrow trilogy.  Moscow has been developing an asset in the United States for many years, and now that mole is poised to be appointed to a high-level Government position.  Can CIA case officer Nate Nash and his Russian asset, the beautiful Dominika Egorova discover the identity of this American traitor before their own covers are blown?

You just know that things aren't gong to end well for Nate and Dominika, especially now that she's caught the eye of Vladimir Putin himself.  As the action moves between Athens, Vienna, New York, Washington, Hong Kong and the presidential compound on the Black Sea, there are traps and traitors around every corner.  As Dominika's star rises in the Kremlin, her rivals are plotting against her.  If only they knew the real secret she's keeping...

This series is not for the faint of heart, and in this final chapter, not everyone does make it out alive, but it's still a satisfying conclusion to this espionage saga.  From his time served in the CIA, Jason Matthews puts the reader in the center of the action, and makes you wonder what's really going on out there?  What more can ask from a book?  Be sure to read this series from the beginning.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Preparing for Easter - Fifty Devotional Readings from C.S. Lewis

I've been waiting to use Preparing for Easter - Fifty Devotional Readings from C.S. Lewis (#734) since it came out in 2017.  I found it to be easy to use and fit into my schedule, a perfect Lenten discipline.

Beginning with Ash Wednesday, and concluding with Easter Sunday itself, each day has a Scripture reading from either the Old or the New Testament, plus Psalm verses appointed for the day.  These readings are tied into a short excerpt of C.S, Lewis' writings from a variety of sources, including both  books and letters.

This slim volume provides the materials; all the reader needs to do is find a few moments of quiet time to read and reflect.

Hero of the Empire - The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill

According to Candice Millard's non-fiction work Hero of the Empire (#733), Winston Churchill always knew he was destined for great things.  The question in his early life was how to make the rest of the world (or the British Empire, which amounted to the same thing for him) take notice. 

When daring military escapades in India and the Sudan didn't do the trick, he helped whip up enthusiasm in England for war against the Boers in South Africa.  He found his own way to the theater of war via journalism.  He would be in today's terms "embedded" (and highly paid!) with British troops near the front lines.  When a military train he was on was attacked, he was taken prisoner by the Boers.  He considered this time in his life the very worst, and so he was determined to escape.  His trek alone across more than three hundred miles of enemy territory are the stuff of legend.

Since the British had suffered a series of humiliating defeats (which will put the American reader in mind of how the Patriots won the Revolutionary War in terms of their tactics) morale was at a very low point in the Empire at that time.  Churchill's escape came at the perfect moment for boosting morale and providing a turning point for the war.  He did, in fact, become a "Hero of the Empire".

Millard's narrative is as compelling as any thriller, even though the reader already knows the outcome of Winston's story.  Who knew that the British defined the modern day concept of the concentration camp during the Boer War when they rounded up women and children (with separate camps for black and colored Africans)? Or that Gandhi, like Churchill, participated in the Boer War as a non-combatant?  This book is a fascinating look at a brief period of Winston Churchill's life that helped define him.