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Monday, March 20, 2017

The Family Trade

How can a day go so wrong?  Miriam Beckstein covers the bio tech beat for a small Cambridge-based trade journal.  Her research assistant Paulie has just given her evidence of money laundering at two of the biggest firms in the country.  It promises to be the scoop of her lifetime.  So why does her boss on the executive floor hustle her and Paulie out of his office and have them escorted out of the building by Security?  And why does her adopted mother insist on today, of all days, on presenting her with a battered locket and a box of clippings about her birth mother's unsolved murder?  All Miriam was looking for was a little sympathy.  She certainly never expected to end the day with threatening phone calls, or worse yet, being chased through the woods by medieval knights on horseback shooting at her with machine pistols!

Fantasy writer Charles Stross grabs your attention in The Family Trade (#642), Book One of the Merchant Princes.  By the time Miriam figures out that her mother's locket allows her to pass between alternate universes located in roughly the same geographical area, her presence has been detected by forces on the other side.  In that universe, she is heir to a title and a huge fortune as a long-lost member of a powerful merchant family moving goods between the two worlds.  Needless to say, where money is involved, not everyone is happy with Miriam's sudden and unexpected reappearance.  In fact, at least two factions are determined to see her dead...

Action, romance, suspense and humor are all part of this fun read.  As Miriam fits together the pieces of her new world, while maintaining a foothold in the equally perilous world she left behind in Cambridge, the plot keeps twisting until Miriam is no longer sure just who she can trust on either side.  She's safe for the moment, but I know that will only last until I get my hands on Book Two!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Shores of Tripoli

Who would have expected a Texan historian to write an exciting naval trilogy about the America war with Barbary pirates?  In The Shores of Tripoli (#641) James L. Haley has given us Lieutenant Bliven Putnam to put on our shelves along with our Horatio Hornblower novels.  When he is first introduced to us, Lt. Putnam is still a midshipman aboard the USS Enterprise.  At age fourteen, he has met the conditions his father had set to leave the farm in Litchfield, Connecticut to go to sea.  His first assignment takes him to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping from the raiders of the Barbary States, who deem it their right to capture and enslave any Christian infidels, or to hold the wealthy ones to ransom.  Putnam sees action in his first engagement at sea which will set the course for his naval career.

Politics plays a much larger role in the navy than Putnam would like to believe, as President Jefferson and the Congress squabble and make treaties with the individual Barbary States which undo the victories which his commander has won, and makes heroes out of those who have blundered badly. By the end of the first volume Bliven Putnam is giving serious consideration to whether he should remain in the nascent navy, or resign his commission.

This story has a bit of everything to keep the reader glued to the pages: page-turning action sequences, political back-biting, romance, and a hero with a strong moral compass to match his interest in the outside world.  James Haley spoke at the 2017 BookMania!, and he stressed his desire to make the story as  historically accurate as  possible - to thread the fictitious Putnam and his friends through the existing canvas of historical events - with enough leeway to make it a can't-put-down story.  I look forward eagerly to his next adventure!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - An African Childhood

When she was three years old Alexandra Fuller moved with her parents and older sister from England to Rhodesia in 1972.  She remained there until 1981, when her family moved to Malawi and then on to Zambia.  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (#640) is her memoir of those childhood years spent in Rhodesia during its civil war, and after majority rule took effect there, other African nations.

Through Bobo's eyes (She didn't realize her name was actually Alexandra until she first went to school.) we see both the beauty of her adopted continent, and the life threatening  conditions of drought, poverty, and violence in contrast with the tight-knit society of the ex-pat community there. Her memories are in turn lyric, amusing, tense and appalling.  Physical discomforts are offset by the anodyne of constantly flowing alcohol.

Bobo herself seems to be fearless, handling the loading of weapons as a seven year old to protect their isolated farm as a matter of course.  But disease and accidents have a way of taking their toll, especially on her own family.  She and her surviving sister Vanessa had different ways of coping with the constant vigilance and isolation, as did their parents.  Dysfunctional as the faimily may have been, they did stick it out together.

An interesting perspective on a time and place I never thought much about before.  Recommended.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back

 Janice P. Nimura introduces us to the three young Japanese girls dressed in fussy Victorian outfits on the cover of her non-fiction book Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back ((#639).  Their stories are quite remarkable.  In 1871, the Japanese government sent an ambassadorial team an on misstion to the outside world, beginning with the United States, to learn more about the Westerners who were forcing drastic changes on Japanese society by the mere fact of their presence in Japan.  At the last moment, it was decided to send five young girls along with this mission to be educated in the United States and return with a thorough knowledge of the language and culture which would benefit Japan when they were able to pass this along to their future pupils and their own children  That was what was supposed to happen, but in the ten years Shige, Sutematsu and Ume spent living with families in Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, things at home changed.

The two oldest girls of the original five came home less than a year after leaving for the States so the book concentrates on Ume, the youngest at six, Shige and Sutematsu who graduated from Vassar before returning home.  None of the girls spoke English when they left home.  By the time they returned to Japan, it was at first a chore to even speak Japanese, let alone be fluent in reading or writing it.  They had become, in effect, young American women.

Yet as fascinating as their lives were while living in the United States, their paths on their return took them in separate directions, though they always remained close.  They struggled so hard to adjust and to make the most of the education they had received and to accomplish the mission they were originally charged to perform.  Two of them remained in the public spotlight both in Japan and abroad.  One led a quieter life that perhaps came closest to meeting the ideal of their mission.  All three lived lives of courage, grace and strength.

Daughters of the Samurai was on the New York Times 100 Notable Books List of 2015.  You'll understand why when you read this amazing story.

Dying to Wake Up

It's amazing how your perspective changes when an out-of-the-ordinary event happens to you.  That's the gist of Rajiv Parti, M.D.'s new book Dying to Wake Up (#638) about his Near Death Experience.  At the top of his profession as Chief Anesthesiologist at a prestigious California cardiac hospital he had money, a mansion, a healthy family and lots and lots of "toys".  But it was never enough.  After seemingly routine surgery on his wrist, he finds himself cascading into a series of complications, further surgical corrections and addiction to pain medications until at last, he has an out-of-body experience on the operating table during a desperate attempt to save his life.  Dr. Parti recounts his story of what eventually leads to a profound change in his own life, and those of many around him.

When he was the first doctor a patient waking from anesthesia encountered, many of them tried to tell him of experiences that they had while being operated on; of seeing deceased friends and relatives, a bright light, a tunnel, or even watching their own bodies lying on the table while they hovered above. Prior to his own Near Death Experience, Dr. Parti's reaction had always been to get away from that patient as soon as possible, and never go near them again.  He thought it was simply the affect of the anesthesia, and had no interest in listening to wild tales when there was the next patient to see.  It's different when it happens to you, though.  Many of his colleagues had that same reaction when he tried to tell them about what happened to him.  Not surprisingly, the nurses he talked to in the Recovery Room and ICUs were much more receptive, and shared with him their encounters with patients who described similar events.

What makes Dr. Parti's story more interesting to me is how itt effected his life after he recovered.  He is no longer practicing anesthesiology, but is doing his best to learn a different approach to healing and maintaining health through a mind/body connection, to change abusive practises in his own family and to pay back those who paved the way for him.  Whether or not you believe in this sort of thing yourself, it obviously can have a strong affect on those who do.  Worth a thoughtful perusal.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Best. State. Ever. - A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

To paraphrase one of Dave Barry's favorite sayings about his latest opus Best. State. Ever. - A Florida Man Defends His Homeland (#637); he is not making this up.  If you live in Florida you basically have two choices: you can be indignant about all the news stories, or you can laugh along with the rest of the country. Frankly, I'm disappointed when a weird Florida story doesn't make it into The Week or onto NPR's news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

Dave Barry actually made some field trips to check out some of the unique places, people and events which abound here from Key West to Cassadaga.  Some of the stuff he came across even I have never heard of, like the Skunk Ape.  Yes, I have been to Ochopee, but somehow I missed the Skunk Ape Research Center.  Apparently it falls into the same class as the Yeti, Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster. I'll have to keep an eye out next time I drive through the Everglades.  (There is however a lovely church which features the Loch Ness Monster in its stained glass windows - next time you're in the Keys, check out St. Columba's in Marathon, or better yet, attend the Celtic Festival it puts on every January!)

And now that Lebron James has left the state, the high point in South Florida is officially Hobe Mountain.  We pass by it frequently, always checking to see if any intrepid climbers have actually made the arduous trek to the top with the aid of their Sherpa guides.  It's tough to climb in flip flops! Of course Hobe Mountain is a sand dune with an observation platform built on top, and not nearly the same challenge as a hike up one of the towering landfills which dot the landscape here would present.  In its favor, the smells are much more pleasant!

I just hope that my husband never has the urge to check out Lock and Load Miami. In a scary sort of way it does seem like a logical business for Florida...

This is a fun, fast read.  I'm just not sure if it's good or bad for our tourist economy!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Posing in Paradise

Somehow I never pictured Northampton, Massachusetts as Paradise, but apparently back in the day Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale did.  Harry Reese also seems to be immune to its charms in Posing in Paradise (#636), Robert Bruce Stewart's latest addition to an amusing turn-of-the-century Harry Reese Mystery series.  Of course, it is his wife Emmie's home town, but even she is resisting the frantic barrage of letters from her mother, begging Emmie to come home and help her!

It isn't until Emmie catches wind of author Henry James' pending speaking engagement in Northampton that Emmie abruptly changes her mind and determines to rush to her mother's aid. Harry is suspicious of the sudden change of heart, but since he has been promised a visit from a "gentleman" with a cauliflower ear to collect on a rather large debt Harry owes, he gallantly escorts his wife on her errand of mercy.

Emmie's orphaned cousins are proving to be more than Mrs. McGinness can handle.  Teen-aged twins Hal and Gloria's romantic entanglements keep her in a turmoil, and as for twelve year old Pluribus, well, he's a child right out of a teacher's worst nightmare...  Unfortunately for her mother's hopes, Emmie is too busy planning how best to get her unpublished manuscript into Henry James's hands to spend much time dealing with domestic angst.

Harry does his best to try to stay out of the way, as well, but then there's that body he discovered shortly after arriving in town that keeps appearing and disappearing, an escaped patient from the local asylum and the unexpected presence in town of one of the Reese's bĂȘte noirs with just a touch of blackmail thrown in to liven things up. Visiting the in-laws is just a little too exciting for Harry's taste!

I can always feel a smile on my face as I read these Street Car Mysteries.  There are many references to both Harry and Emmie's previous adventures in Posing in Paradise, so I would definitely recommend reading both the Harry Reese and Emmie Reese books from the beginning for maximum enjoyment.  I don't think there's anything else out there quite like this couple; the closest comparison I can come up with is Nick and Nora Charles.  If you like the rather absurd situations that silver screen couple finds themselves in, you're likely to become a fan of  the adventures in - as Harry puts it - Emmie Land.