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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Orphan #8

I read Kim van Alkemade's novel Orphan #8 (#533) on the recommendation of friends.  Obviously, they saw something in this book that I didn't.  I found it dreary and depressing, with no moral payoff at the end.

It's the story of Rachel Rabinowitz, orphaned along with her older brother in the early years of the twentieth century.  She and her brother are placed in separate Jewish orphanages where she becomes the medical guinea pig for an ambitious and unscrupulous medical resident, resulting in permanently damaged health and disfigurement.  Rachel doesn't realize that she was never sick, but the object of experimentation until many years later when she has become a nurse herself.  One night in the  Jewish old folks' home in New York City where she works that same doctor becomes her patient.  What will she do?  Will Rachel seek revenge?  Or can she rise above it?  The answer is neither, really.  Meh.

Ms. van Alkemade has researched the background of her story to make it feel authentic, but I could never warm up to any of the characters.  I really didn't care what happened to Rachel because I found her unpleasant on so many levels.  Of course, that's just me, and the critics seem to have loved this book.  You'll just have to judge for yourself.  I'm sorry I spent the time on this book and not on something more edifying.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

An Infamous Army

Georgette Heyer is the doyenne of Regency romances.  An Infamous Army - A Novel of Love, War, Wellington and Waterloo (#532) is exactly that; a strange amalgam of an unlikely romance carried out in the ballrooms and fashionable riding paths of Brussels as the British and their Allies gather to take a stand against Napoleon and his army at Waterloo.

The reader who picks up this book for the romance will find a difficult and often unlikeable heroine in Lady Barbara Child. Sir Charles Audley, a member of Wellington's staff who falls instantly head-over-heels in love with her, seems much too good for her for most of the book.  But frankly, I felt the romance was an afterthought here. 

Ms. Heyer's real intent was to write a serious novel about the Battle of Waterloo, and in this she succeeded.  The book runs to almost 500 pages, and the majority of her writing covers the build up to the confrontation between Wellington and Bonaparte.  The lists of regiments, brigades, supplies and emplacements around the countryside will daunt all but the most determined romance reader.  I know this is the one Georgette Heyer book that my mother was never able to make it through, although she tried several times.  I picked this up to read this year precisely because of the Waterloo anniversary and I still found it hard going at times.  I often wished that there were maps to accompany the military sections to help me visualize ground I've never seen even in photos.

One thing I did find curious about this book: Napoleon Bonaparte is barely mentioned.  Wellington is the real hero here, but the French Emperor exists only as a shadow figure.  Appalling loss of life on both sides, and it's never really clear to me what was at stake here other than national pride.

The best I can say is that this is the last Georgette Heyer book on my "To Read" list, and I can now cross it off.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jade Dragon Mountain

I thoroughly enjoyed Jade Dragon Mountain (#531), Elsa Hart's debut historical fiction mystery.  Li Du has been exiled by the Emperor of China from his post as a librarian in Beijing.  He has wandered for ten years, and is now in the remote southeastern province of Yunnan.  He is making for Dayan, its capital, to seek permission from his cousin Tulishen, the governor there, to leave China for good when he is caught up in the excitement swirling all around Dayan.  The Emperor is soon to arrive and preside over a total eclipse of the sun.  His cousin is counting on advancing his career by making a strong impression with the planned celebrations, but the sudden death of an elderly Jesuit astronomer during the festivities leading up to the main event creates a complication.  Tulishen wishes it could be swept under the rug, but he finds himself obliged to charge Li Du with investigating the death.  When it turns out to be murder, Li Du must find the killer before the arrival of the Emperor, or suffer the consequences.

An unusual place and time for setting this mystery, China in the late 1700s is still not open to most Westerners.  The politics of economics play a role here, as well as a cast of interesting suspects.  Li Du's methods are not conventional, but that is a large part of the appeal of this story and its exotic setting.  I hope we see further adventures from Li Du in the future!

Vienna Nocturne

I brought Vienna Nocturne (#530) by Vivien Shotwell with me to read since we would be visiting Vienna on our trip.  It came out in 2014, and involves an affair between Wolfgang Mozart and an English-born soprano, Anna Storace at the court of the Emperor Francis in Vienna.  It certainly isn't a weighty tome, but if you're a tourist in Austria, you cannot escape Mozart, so why not wallow a bit in some romantic fluff?

A friend of mine read this book when it first came out, and immediately proceeded to tell me every fact the author got wrong or changed in this story, but told me that I would like it anyway.  I wasn't sure whether or not to be insulted by that, but the book, is after all, fiction, so if it makes a stronger story, I say go for it.  If you want just the facts, ma'am, read non-fiction!

In the event, I was mostly annoyed by Anna Storace, who apparently threw away a promising career by lusting after the wrong guy until saintly Mozart appeared on the scene and showed Anna just what true love really was.  (Too late for it to do any good for anyone!)

A Mozart bon-bon of a book, so have some of those marzipan delights on hand when you settle down for a romantic read.

The Secret Chord

I haven't had access to the internet, nor the time recently to rack up those pages read while sailing through the heart of Europe.  I did, however, have some good company along for the ride!

Geraldine Brooks' latest novel, The Secret Chord (#529), is the story of King David, told through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, his close companion.  The picture that emerges is not necessarily pretty, but it is compelling, warts and all.  Brooks has laid flesh on the bare bones tale taken from the Bible, but she hasn't hesitated to put a different spin on the events recorded there.  Bathsheba's story, for instance, takes on an entirely new perspective here. 

It's often violent and bloody.  There's much to admire in David, but his faults and flaws make him believably human.  I must admit that I was glad that I had recently read the David story in Kings and Chronicles, and you might find that useful as well.  It helped me put events in the proper context.  Ms. Brooks also used alternatives spellings for people and places than we are used to from the Bible, so sometimes it was a challenge pinning down just who or where she was talking about.

If you're already a fan of Geraldine Brooks, you know the magic she is capable of weaving in her books.  I don't think you'll be disappointed here, especially if she makes you think about things differently than you've always accepted.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Free Fall

Free Fall (#528) is one of Robert Crais' earlier Elvis Cole mysteries.  Even though the language is a bit dated, the story most definitely is not.  I have to admit, though, that my image of mostly silent Joe Pike as Elvis' man of action partner has morphed into John Reese on Person of Interest (without Joe's distinctive shoulder tattoos, of course).  The plot is just as twisted, the threats are real, and the humor is just as tantalizing.

Elvis thinks he has an easy case for a change when an innocent young thing comes into to his office and announces that her policeman boyfriend is in some kind of trouble.  He won't tell her what's wrong, so she asks Elvis to investigate.  Not ten minutes later, Mark Dunham and his partner show up on Elvis' door, telling him it's a personal matter, and to drop the investigation.  Could anything be more likely to absolutely guarantee Elvis' interest, if not this?  What Cole and Pike uncover is a rats' nest of dirty cops, gangs and drugs.  And somehow everyone involved in the case has a target painted on their back...

Since there are later entries in this entertaining mystery series, you know Elvis Cole and Joe Pike will find a way to survive, and even in assure that justice is done.  It's a fun trip.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

East of the Mountains

David Guterson's novel East of the Mountains (#527) is just not my kind of book.  Others in my book club have raved about it, and I do have to admire Mr. Guterson's talent as a writer.  He just doesn't tell a tale I'm interested in reading.  Why this should be so, I don't know.

Ben Givens is a retired cardiac surgeon, a widower, who has been diagnosed with colon cancer.  Rather than sit around and endure the months of suffering he knows it will bring, he arranges to go on a hunting trip.  What his family does not know is that he intends to die on this trip in a "hunting accident".  If his body is never found, so much the better; his daughter and her family will never know about the cancer.  Things happen to Ben on his journey, and his life's story is told through flashbacks.  The Washington state landscape plays a major role in this picaresque tale.

The problem was, I never liked Ben, nor felt any particular sympathy towards his attitudes about life and relationships.  He brought his two hunting dogs with him without any apparent thought as to what would happen to them out in the wild uninhabited countryside after he died .  They seemed to be just a prop for him, until he was directly responsible for death of his old, devoted dog, and the severe injury to his young hound.  Nor did he seem to care what effect his sudden death would have on his daughter and grandson.  They would just have to deal with the neatly tied-up situation after he was gone.  Gone where?  He doesn't know, nor seem to be particularly exercised about that.  The only thing that seems to matter to Ben at this stage is his deceased wife Rachel.   And even there, he is planning a betrayal in what they promised each other after death.  He's been given a death sentence by the doctor, and Ben's response is to go on a killing spree of small birds.  I just couldn't relate to that, nor the lack of a spiritual dimension.  Why hasten the end if that's all there is?

Anyway, some of the descriptions of the Washington landscape are quite beautiful and lyrical, but on the whole, this story left me flat and unsatisfied.  I didn't really care at the end that he decides to go home.  At least Rex will get to sleep in the house from here on.  Just my opinion.