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Monday, June 18, 2018

Tangerine

Joyce Carol Oates' cover blurb for Christine Mangan's debut novel, Tangerine (#751) really says it all;  "As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock."

After a Prologue in which a man's body is pulled from the water, the story alternates between Alice Shipley, a young British bride who has accompanied her husband John to Tangier in 1954, and Lucy Mason, who arrives unexpectedly on Alice's doorstep one day.  As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that these former college roommates have an uneasy history between them.  The atmosphere becomes increasingly fraught both inside and outside the household as Moroccans struggle for independence until the day that John goes missing...

I couldn't believe how swiftly the time passed as I was absorbed in this story.  It has so many twists it leaves the reader wondering what is real and what is imagined.  Without giving away too much, all I can say about the ending is "Oh, no!"  You must read it for yourself to find out whether your reaction is the same.


The Woman Left Behind

Linda Howard's thriller The Woman Left Behind (#750) has a great storyline.  Jina Modell is happy working at her office-bound job flying drones to support the activities of  Go Teams, civilian equivalents of Navy SEALS  or Army Rangers.  That is until the day that her computer gaming skills promote her right onto the Go Team led by Levi Butcher, code name Ace.  She'll be embedded with the team on its future missions, but first that means getting into the physical and mental shape to keep up with the team in the field.  What she and the rest of the team don't realize is that they have a deadly enemy in Congress, determined to do anything to destroy the agency.

There's plenty of action and humor here as Jina tries to fit in with the members of her Go Team.  She's not a quitter, so despite herself she tries her best at everything Levi throws at her, even tolerating the nickname she's saddled with - Babe.  The reader is aware of the traps being laid for the team as Jina and the others deploy to Syria on a dangerous mission, where she becomes The Woman Left Behind.

What I didn't care for in this book were the many explicit sex scenes, real and imagined, between Jina and Levi.  Although many readers love steamy romances, I'm not one of them.  They really spoiled the book for me.  In real life, I would have yanked Jina from that Go Team and reassigned her before anyone could be hurt by the constant sexual tension here.  Much as I liked Ms. Howard's basic premise, in future, I'll look elsewhere for political thrillers.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The English Wife

The English Wife (#749) is full of elegant twists right up to the last page of Lauren Willig's latest stand-alone novel.  I've been a fan ever since my librarian introduced me to Ms. Willig's fabulous Pink Carnation spy series.  Shades of the Scarlet Pimpernel!

Here the setting is a murder at an imposing Hudson River mansion during an elaborate costume ball in 1899.  The master of the house is found dying by his sister and cousin.  Janie Van Duyvil thinks she hears Bay murmur "George..." as he is dying. But who is George, and where is Bay's wife Annabelle?  Janie's mother is content to sweep everything but the fact of Bay's death under the rug; it's scandal enough that a scion of a prominent old New York Society family managed to get himself killed in such a flamboyant fashion.

But Janie, a cipher to most of that same society, is not.  She wants to get to the truth of the murder both for Bay's sake and that of his twin children, still in the nursery.  To that end, she recruits the help of a prominent journalist from The World newspaper.  James Burke has a reputation for digging deep and exposing the truth in his stories.  While this unlikely duo work to find who and what are responsible for the untimely death, Bay and Annabelle's story unfolds in alternating chapters.  Nothing is as it seems on the surface.

This book was so entertaining, I really hated to see it end.  But that's the point here, too.  Not everything is tied up neatly in a bow at the end.  There are still some questions out there, allowing the reader to imagine a possibly happier ending for some of the characters than appears here.  It was completely satisfying in its own way.  How many writers can perform that kind of magic?

Thursday, June 7, 2018

I Am Malala

I Am Malala (#748) hardly needs an introduction to most of the world.  Malala Yousafzai tells her story in the engrossing book co written with noted war journalist Christina Lamb.  The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is the subtitle of this volume, although Malala makes it clear in its pages that it is not why she wants to be known.  She prefers her activism in the cause of education, especially for women, to be the reason she is famous.  She has already won several prestigious international prizes, and is showing no signs of stopping, even though she is not yet twenty one!

What is surprising are the circumstances her family had to overcome before her father could begin making an impact on local and national affairs, including celebrating her birth and adding her to the formerly all-male family tree.  Their struggles are outlined here as the world around them changed and danger became a part of everyday living.  How and why Malala and her father became targets of the Taliban are explained in chilling detail.  Malala's story is one of courage; physical, moral and spiritual.

Since I am reading this for my book club, I went to the Little Brown website to print out the Reading Group Guide available on line.  Although the questions for discussions are worthwhile, I was surprised that the role Malala's faith played in her story and her reactions to what happened to her were totally ignored.  It seemed to me that it was a key element to what makes Malala Malala, and why her life story is so admirable.  Just my opinion...

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Other Alcott

Elise Hooper's novel The Other Alcott (#747) is the fictionalized story of May Alcott, the real life sister of Louisa May Alcott, and the basis for the character of Amy in Little Women.  May turns out to be just as independent and successful in her own way as her more famous older sister, and the bones of her story as told here are mostly true.

Like Amy in Little Women, May did pursue a career in art at a time when it was not generally accepted to do so, traveling to Europe to study several times.  Her work appeared in the famous Paris Salons not once, but twice, and like her sister, she also authored a popular guide book for aspiring women artists abroad based on her own experiences.  Throughout her life, May and her more famous sister Louisa, struggled personally and professionally, often at odds with each other.  It makes for an interesting story.

Like Ms. Hooper, I grew up near Orchard House in Concord, where the Alcott family lived, and was fascinated by all things Alcott.  Growing up, I read and re-read all the Louisa May Alcott books I could get my hands on, although I have to admit Little Women was never my favorite; I preferred Rose in Bloom or Eight Cousins myself.  My father was equally taken by Bronson Alcott, Louisa and May's father, a Transcendentalist and experimental thinker/philosopher, so my family spent a good deal of time in Concord.  When a trove of Louisa May Alcott's sensational stories were discovered and published in Behind the Mask, I read those with relish as well.  It presented an entirely different picture of her, albeit one alluded to through her character of Jo March.  May's story illuminates yet another aspect of an American family we thought we knew well.

The Pope of Palm Beach

Tim Dorsey has finally taken his character Serge A. Storms back to his roots in Riviera Beach, Florida, and set most of the action in his latest novel, The Pope of Palm Beach (#746), in and around Palm Beach County.  It's always fun to read about places with which you are familiar, so I particularly enjoyed Serge and Coleman's latest adventure.

The Pope in this case is a legendary surfer, Darby Pope, who knows everyone in the Riviera Beach/ Palm Beach area in the 60s, high and low, good and bad, supporting his surfing habit by welding on the docks of the Port of Palm Beach.  The day he invites gawky young Kenny Reese to catch a wave with him will change both of their lives.  He introduces Kenny to reading, which in turn leads Kenny to become a successful author.  But one day when the pair are out gathering material for Kenny's newest book, things go badly awry, and the Pope winds up dead.

Fast forward to the present where Serge and Coleman are following a literary trail through Florida, visiting sites where Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston once lived and wrote.  But this time around, Serge wants to see if he can find the hangout of one of his favorite contemporary authors, Kenny Reese, who has disappeared from the publishing world without a trace.  Not that his search is without problems.  In typical Serge fashion, he does deal with several folks who richly deserve their ends.

I thought the justice he rendered to a thinly-disguised Martin Shekreli Big Pharma tycoon named Sterling Hanover was fitting, as was the punishment meted out to drunken frat boys molesting nesting sea turtles along the beach.  Is it wrong to applaud such satisfying payback?  If so, I'm guilty!  But it is good to read a novel that can defeat the bad guys and let the nice guys win for a change.  You go, Serge!

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Map of Salt and Stars

I hope Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar's novel The Map of Salt and Stars (#745) gains a wide readership.  She intertwines the stories of a Syrian refugee family with a parallel tale of wanderings through the Arabic world during the twelfth century.  Both are compelling stories couched in exquisite language.  Nour, born and raised n Manhattan, and Rawiya, raised in Africa in sight of the Rock of Gibraltar, are linked by maps and a love for the stars.

After Nour's Baba dies, her mother decides to take her and her two older sisters back home to Homs, Syria, to continue her map-making business.  But Nour, at twelve, has never been there and speaks only a word or two of Arabic.  What's home to the rest of her family is alien to her.  Although her mother tries to ignore the political unrest surrounding them, a stray shell destroys their home and their belongings.  With her older sister Huda injured in the blast, the family tries desperately to find a safe refuge.  Their story is harrowing.  Nour comforts herself by retelling herself a story her father used to share with her as they roamed New York.  It's the story of Rawiya, who longed to apprentice herself to a famous map maker, al-Idrisi, and see the world.

Readers will recognize some elements of the Arabian Nights in Rawiya's story, but al-Idrisi is a real figure who created the most accurate map of the Arabic world at the time of the Second Crusades.  Both the maps and the stars guide these girls through their dangerous  journeys.  Although Nour and her family are fictional, the plight of Syrian refugees most assuredly is not.  This is a glimpse into a world and culture unexamined by most of us.  Highly recommended.