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Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Pinecone

British author Jenny Uglow has used a pinecone as the central symbol of the life and beliefs of an upper class British woman in her new non-fiction book The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine - Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary (#410).  It's less of a biography than it is a capsule history of Carlisle and the nearby village of Wreay during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  The lives of the Losh family are chronicled along with their multitude of friends, their changing fortunes and political movements of the period, and their intense interests in the arts, philosophy, religion and natural science. 

I believe Sarah is singled out because of a curious church she built to her exact specifications which still stands in Wreay today.  Although it is used as a Christian church, much of the symbolism in the building itself apparently has nothing to do with Christianity and caused much consternation to those who saw it after it was dedicated in the 1840s.  Sarah was rich, cultured, unmarried and free to travel and indulge her interests in business, the arts and sciences without having to answer to anyone.  A fortunate life, indeed.  She was clearly ahead of her time with her hands-on approach, and shrewd in catching and riding the next wave of burgeoning technology with the advice of her family and its far-flung and influential friends and acquaintances.  The problem with this biography is that Sarah is largely on the periphery of her own story. The only opinion I could form of her was that she was rather spoiled and, wearing velvet riding boots, very content to ride rough shod over any whose opinions clashed with her own.  She invariably won.

I did win this book on Good Reads, and since I'm addicted to historical fiction (especially British!), I did find a lot of the material in this book quite interesting.  The problem for American readers is that Ms. Uglow presupposes an intimate knowledge of English geography, history, politics and social mores during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  I even found much of what I've learned so far in my Education for Ministry course quite useful in understanding the squabbling going on in Anglican circles of the period.  I can see that it would be easy to get lost in the thickets of this book if you don't at least have a mental picture of the forest involved.

On the plus side, there are a number of helpful illustrations and pictures included in The Pinecone.  I only wish the author had included a legible map.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Am Pilgrim

The only thing I don't like about Terry Hayes' debut novel I Am Pilgrim (#409) is the cover art.  So don't judge this thriller by its rather bland cover.  It's one of the best books I've read in a long time.

It begins with what appears to be a perfect murder in a dismal New York City hotel room.  What it leads to is a terrorist attack launched by a single unknown and unidentifiable person capable of destroying Western Civilization in the most brutal fashion.  Based on some recent news stories, the possibilities raised by this intricately plotted book are terrifyingly plausible.  Thank goodness the shadowy protagonist of this blood-pressure raising novel is on our side.

The characters are well developed and interesting, and the multiple threads of the plot are woven together in such a way that the reader never really has a problem keeping track of what's happening in the present, or how the past has influenced the events transpiring.  It all seems to make perfect sense as you read it.  At over 600 pages in length, that's a lot of ground to cover, but trust me, you won't want to put I Am Pilgrim down.  You'll only be sorry when the thrill ride is over.

Terry Hayes is primarily a film writer, so I wouldn't be surprised to see this story on screen someday.  It would make a fabulous action film, but it sure would be a shame to miss the interior life of the novel's narrator.  Like Shogun, I think that's the best part of the story, but one not easily captured on screen.  You'll just have to read it and judge for yourself.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Almond Tree

It's impossible to look at reviews for The Almond Tree (#408) on other web sites without becoming aware of the passions this book raises in its readers (or in some cases, those who have refused to read it on principle). 

Beginning in the 1950s, over a sixty year period it tells the story of one Palestinian man, Ichmad Hamid, son of a once wealthy planter who was dispossessed of his land when Israel becomes a Jewish state.  The family's circumstances are continually reduced until Ichmad's father is arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in a detention camp.  It becomes Ichmad's job to support his entire family.  Ichmad has a singular gift for mathematics, however, and it eventually becomes his leverage to finding a better life for him and his family.

What makes this story so unusual is that its author, Michelle Cohen Corasanti, is an American Jewish woman who lived in Israel for seven years.  She presents the Palestinians in a sympathetic light in The Almond Tree and builds bridges between Ichmad and Jewish students and professors at Hebrew University after he wins a prestigious math scholarship.  This is also the very thing which creates controversy and adamant critics.  People in general aren't willing to look at things from a different and uncomfortable perspective.  I couldn't even have a civil discussion of this book when I mentioned it recently at one of my book clubs with a number of Jewish members.  No wonder prospects for peace are so dim in the Middle East! 

I do have to say, though, that the character development in The Almond Tree is very one dimensional.  Either the character is good, or the character is bad, and there's not much subtlety in the way they are presented.  The book also suffers from literary overload.  I think Ms. Cohen Corasanti wanted to distill so much of what she observed over the seven years she lived in Israel that she made the mistake of piling all the incidents she could think of onto the Hamid family.  Of course, that does make me think of that most famous of Middle Eastern allegories: the story of Job.  Ichmad Hamid is certainly his modern day counterpart.

All that being said, I still think this book is worth reading even if it provides you with the smallest nugget to ponder about how things could be different today in Israel as the rockets rain down on both sides.  Is it possible for one person to make a difference?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dark Aemilia - A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady

Dark Aemilia - A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (#407) is loosely based on a real person; Aemilia Bassano, one of the first published female poets in the English language.  Sally O'Reilly says in her Historical Note at the conclusion of this dark, dark novel that Aemilia has been suggested by some scholars as a possible inspiration for Shakespeare's sonnets. 

In this imagining of her life, Aemilia is the much younger mistress of Henry Carey, the Earl of Hundsden and cousin to Elizabeth I.  She is quite content with her lot as a pampered courtesan with a place at Court until the fateful day when she meets William Shakespeare at a house party.   Their affair is a brief, bright but doomed comet.  When Aemilia finds herself pregnant, the Earl settles a house and its furnishings, a tidy sum of money and a compliant husband on her in time-honored fashion. At first Aemilia is able to live comfortably and dabble in writing her poetry, but after her husband races through her dowry and her affair with Shakespeare sours, Aemilia looks to the dark side of necromancy to improve her lot with consequences she could never have anticipated.

This is a fascinating glimpse of London life during the late Tudor period, but it is not for the faint of heart.  Londoners lived their daily lives surrounded by death both natural and state-mandated on a scale that we cannot even comprehend, and Ms. O'Reilly has certainly done her research to make the brooding atmosphere so palpable in Dark Aemilia.  Falling somewhere between the mysticism of the old Catholic religion and the astringent beliefs of the Protestants was an explosion of spells, charms, experiments and writings which some deemed science and others witchcraft, and it heavily influenced writers like Shakespeare and Aemilia Bassano Lanyer.  That becomes a key plot point in this page turner.

Ms. O'Reilly says she originally intended this novel to be about Lady Macbeth, but her research and her friends urged her to write something historical and dark.  I think she has succeeded admirably with Dark Aemilia.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Chase

The Chase (#406) is Janet Evanovich's second collaboration with Lee Goldberg detailing the exploits of FBI Special Agent Kate O'Hare and her reluctant teaming by the powers that be with her former target on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, Nick Fox.  What a hoot!

In a gesture of international goodwill, the United States government has agreed to return a priceless Qing Dynasty bronze zodiac figure of a rooster to the Chinese.  It's been on display at the Smithsonian for twenty years.  The only problem is that it's a fake; the real one was stolen years ago by an unknown party.  When the forgery is revealed in the ceremonial exchange, it's bound to cause an international incident.  Enter Nick Fox, renowned art thief, and his FBI handler Kate.  Their task is to locate the original rooster, steal it back and make the switch at the Smithsonian before the official handover to a representative of the Chinese government.  A walk in the park for Nick.  That is, until they discover just whose collection the rooster now graces, and the timetable is moved up to return it.

This caper novel is just as much fun as The Heist, the first book by this author duo.  It has summer action movie written all over it, and I'd be the first in line to pay money to see it on screen.  Kate's an uptight, athletic former Navy Seal with a strong moral compass and a penchant for huge quantities of junk food.  Nick Fox, as you might expect, is suave, debonair and has an encyclopedic range of knowledge on many arcane matters.  The attraction between these two  is palpable, but Evanovich and Goldberg know they can't give away the candy store quite yet in the best tradition of building tension and bringing back their readers for more.  If they ever do make these books into a movie, I personally would like to see Kate's Black Ops retired father Jake played by Corbin Benson.  I think he'd be perfect in the role.  Bring this one to the beach with you for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Illusionists

I was told by my library book club facilitator that my pre-publication copy of Rosie Thomas' latest novel The Illusionists (#405) came with some buzz comparing it to The Night Circus (See my post of 5/7/12.) or Water for Elephants.  I don't think that's a fair comparison for either of these books, and promises too much on the part of The Illusionists.

Unlike The Night Circus with its magical and inexplicable happenings, The Illusionists is very much grounded in the real world of Victorian variety shows.  Tricks on stage can be much admired, but the question the audience always has is "How did they do that?!"  The people seated in the theater are aware that the wool has somehow been pulled over their eyes, but if they cannot figure out the mechanics of the illusion, they are content that they have gotten their money's worth from a splendid show.  The cast of characters in The Illusionists is an eccentric troop of performers pulled together by the genius of dwarf Carlo Boldoni and his entrepreneurial partner Devil Wix.  Others with remarkable skills are recruited to give the proper embellishments to the illusions.  But the rivalry between members of the troupe over performance time, credit for the illusions themselves, and especially over Eliza, the first female partner, create a constant tension.  The resulting stalking and attempted murder are not part of the contrived stage business in London's Palmyra Theater...

I thought this book got off to a marvelous start, but towards the middle, the plot began to sag.  Things picked up again in the final third of the novel, but fizzled out again at the very end.  Frankly, I found the last chapter puzzling.  Perhaps Rosie Thomas promised twenty chapters to this book, but it seemed rather beside the point; it didn't resolve any matters, nor did it point the way towards the future for the characters.  I wish The Illusionists had lived up to its initial promise.  I would have enjoyed it much more.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Paisley Mischief

The rich really are different as Lincoln Macveagh proves in his skewering of his own Park Avenue/Hamptons set in Paisley Mischief (#404).  Paisley Mischief does double duty here as both the title of the novel itself, and of the fictional roman a clef which launches a scandal amongst the moneyed set.

Some things are just meant to be kept private.  One can discuss things in the proper setting, like the Avenue Club, an exclusive male haunt, but never outside the confines of one's own set.  Paisley Mischief reveals its embarrassing and salacious secrets to everyone with the money to pay for a copy.  Who could have betrayed them?  It had to have been an insider because many of the Park Avenue crowd know the stories to be true.

In the meantime, the Admissions Committee of the Avenue Club is engaged in deciding on just who to approve for the spring membership list.  Several of the candidates are shoo-ins, but there are also two controversial nominees on the slate.  To admit, or to not admit, that is the question...

This is a slight book, and an amusing one, too, I suppose, if you've never had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of this set's thoughtless (or intended!) snubs.  If you have, you have my sympathy.  Read it and root for the underdogs.