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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 work 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.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Escape Artist

I could hardly put down Brad Meltzer's latest thriller The Escape Artist (#744).  When a small plane crashes just after takeoff at a remote Alaska army base, there's a government VIP on board.  The bodies are flown back to Dover Air Force Base, which deals with preparing the bodies of fallen military.  Jim "Zig" Zigarowski is a skilled mortician working there.  When he recognizes the name Nola Brown as one of those ill-fated passengers, Zig volunteers to prep her body.  For him, it's personal.  The only problem is the body is not Nola Brown's.  In fact, it reveals a clue that Nola may be alive and in danger.  When the body is whisked away before Zig has a chance to ask too many questions, he suddenly finds himself chasing ghosts from the past and in very real danger in the present.

Who would have thought a mortician could be such a compelling hero?  Brad Meltzer has done his homework in researching the meticulous work carried out at Dover's Mortuary every day to honor the dead.  Of course, he did consult another one of my favorite authors, Mary Roach, while working on the background. (See my posts of 3/28/11, 4/25/13, 5/14/13, and 7/8/16.)

And how the heck does Harry Houdini figure into the plot?  You'll just have to read The Escape Artist to find out!

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Hellfire Club

Jake Tapper's political thriller The Hellfire Club (#743) hits all the right notes.  All of his experience reporting on the Washington D.C. scene is put to good use in his fictional newly-appointed Congressman Charlie Marder.  It's 1954 and his power broker father has just had him named to finish out the term for a dead congressman.  But when Charlie tries to block funding for a corporation responsible for the death of one of his men in France during the War, he attracts attention from influential senators pulling the strings behind the scenes - the wrong kind of attention.  It's impossible to tell who is a friend and who an enemy in the political quagmire.  When he wakes up in the mud after a car wreck with an attractive woman's body nearby, Charlie is forced to play by rules that pit him against his own moral compass and strain to breaking point his marriage.

Not only did this novel have a gripping plot, but it's filled with characters and events pulled straight from the history books -  McCarthy, Eisenhower, Jack and Bobby Kennedy - but Mr. Tapper has included all kinds of interesting Washington trivia and factoids.  His notes at the end of the book help the reader sort out what is fact-based with sources for further reading, and what is a product of the author's imagination.  Recommended.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Cave of Bones

Officer Bernadette Manuelito isn't fond of public speaking in front of anyone, especially a group of teen-aged girls with problems, but she's promised a fellow officer in the Navajo Police to do it at Wings and Roots as a favor.  Besides, she's been promised a grilled hamburger at their camp site in the remote Malpais area of New Mexico.  Things soon go south in Anne Hillerman's Cave of Bones (#742), her fourth in the Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series.

Annie Rainsong, daughter of a powerful Navajo Councilwoman, and all-around troublesome teen, has gone missing from her overnight solo camp site.  Now the experienced trail guide and group leader, Domingo Cruz, has gone missing as well while searching for her.  Bernadette is pulled into the search for both missing campers.  When Annie stumbles into camp on her own she confides in Bernadette what she saw in a cave where she took shelter; it's a body, but the remains are ancient.  Officer Manuelito soon finds herself embroiled in stolen native art, accusations of financial irregularities at Wings and Roots, and on the receiving end of Councilwoman Walker's wrath for allowing her daughter to wander off on own.  Since Bernie's husband is away in Santa Fe for training, she bounces some of her ideas off retired cop Joe Leaphorn.  It isn't long before some similarities turn up between the case of the missing group leader and one of Joe's own cold cases.

What I really love about these books is their setting; the isolated desert areas belonging to the Navajo Nation and adjoining reservations, and the peeks into the Navajo culture and way of life hidden to most of us.  It's always a treat to go back and visit this world with some of my favorite characters.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Hush, My Inner Sleuth

There's a lot going on in Hush, My Inner Sleuth (#741), author M.E. Meegs' homage to the pulp fiction dime novels of the 50s.  Maybe too much: swapped identities, exploding pool houses, family issues, a parade of Hollywood types and a plethora of outlandishly improbable statuary ae all wrapped up in a private investigator's murder and plenty of purple prose.

Two Smith grads decide to switch their names and identities to pursue future plans which seem so much brighter than their own prospects.  For Willie Tigue it means a trip to Los Angeles to visit Betty Moran's uncle, whom she hasn't seen since she was a little girl.  He has his own detective agency so Willie is guaranteed a summer job.  Betty, on the other hand, yearns for the graduate school position given to Willie who doesn't want it.  Easy enough to pull it off in post WWII days.  Willie arrives in LA to the news that "her" uncle, Skip Ryker, is dead in an explosion.  There's a long list of possible suspects if, in fact, the bomb was meant for Ryker, and not her!  Secrets, blackmail, femme fatales, corrupt cops and the FBI are all in the mix.

That kept me reading to find out "Who done it?"  What slowed me down was the intrusive narrator who kept interjecting herself into the story.  Between her and Skip Ryker's ghost lodging himself in Willie Tigue's consciousness and trying to take over the investigation, it was often difficult to keep track of just whom was speaking and what was going on. 

M.E. Meegs is in love with the slang from this period, the more prurient, the better.  You could figure it out from the context, but for me, at least, there was some head-scratching involved.  I must admit, I did find that aspect a bit over the top.

On the whole, an enjoyable read for mature audiences, but I'm not sure Smith alums would approve.  I have a feeling my sister-in-law wouldn't!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Fascism - A Warning

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's latest book Fascism - A Warning (#740) is a thoughtful and sobering read.  In it, she chronicles the rise of fascism through a series of essays on twentieth and twenty-first century leaders who have exemplified its principles.

Beyond Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, most of the names in the book are familiar to anyone who reads  print newspapers and news magazines.  Who better to profile them than one who has actually met and worked with a number of them during her long career in diplomacy?

The United States has traditionally been the champion and defender of democracy throughout the world.  Sadly, it no longer is.  The question is whether our own beliefs in a democratic society will be strong enough to maintain us through the assaults on our Founders' core principles by a president who openly admires autocrats, not diplomats. 

As Ms. Albright herself says when questioned about whether she is an optimist or a pessimist, "I am an optimist who worries a lot."  I'm right there with you, Madeleine.

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!