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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Nightingale

Back to fictional France again with Kristin Hannah's World War II novel, The Nightingale (#521).  This woman sure can tell a story.  No wonder my sister-in-law couldn't put this book down while she was visiting this spring!

It's the tale of two sisters, Isabelle and Viane, whose lives are changed forever by the war.  Isabelle, the impulsive one, becomes a member of the Resistance.  Viane's husband is called up to join the French Army and she remains at home in their small country town with her daughter, Sophie.  On the surface, it would appear that Isabelle's choice would be more noble and fraught with danger, but reading about what Viane must endure on a daily basis makes it obvious that life in occupied France was no picnic for anyone - that the possibility of betrayal and death might have been even higher where everyone knows you and your business.

The story is told mostly in the 1930s and 40s, but there are sections from 1995 which make it obvious that someone in the tale has survived and lived in America for many years with her secrets from the war.  It is not apparent until the very end of the story just who this character is, which adds another element to this multi-layered tale.

This book might not have the elegant language and poignant images evoked in Anthony Doerr's wonderful All The Light We Cannot See (See my post of 4/6/15.), but it has such a powerful narrative that the reader is totally immersed in the action.  It's not a pretty tale, but then, neither is war.  This is such a compelling read it well deserves its longtime place on the Best Sellers List.  Don't miss it.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Storm of the Century

I have to tell you that Al Roker's new non-fiction book, The Storm of the Century (#520) about the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, is not the most comforting reading when you are sitting in the cone of probability for a hurricane sweeping towards you across the Caribbean, and watching the news coverage of the ten year anniversary for Hurricane Katrina!  It is a fascinating read, though.

I was not aware of the Galveston hurricane until I actually visited that city a number of years ago for a conference.  We did see some displays about the disaster around town, but sitting across the street from the calm Gulf waters, watching the dolphins frolic just offshore, and our waiter dancing the Macarena on a nearby table, it was as hard for us to imagine deadly peril coming from that direction as it was for the Galvestonians living in their progressive, bustling city in 1900.  The head of the US Weather Bureau, and their local well-respected meteorologist Isaac Cline told the citizens of this Texas town that a hurricane strike on Galveston was impossible.  Professional hubris played a large role in the tragedy that ensued.  No evacuations took place because it couldn't happen there.  As a result, 10,000 or more people died, but no one can actually say for sure what the toll was on lives or property.

Mr. Roker makes the tales of those who witnessed the force of this hurricane personal and anecdotal.  The accounts of the survivors, and of those first on the scene afterwards are so horrific it seems a miracle anyone or anything in Galveston made it through that storm.  Those who did not only survived, but they reclaimed their city in a way that seems almost miraculous today.  Reading this account, it made me wonder if the collective will would exist in America today to achieve what the people of Galveston did in the aftermath with the backing of the entire United States.  I would like to think so, but...

I would highly recommend this account of a natural disaster that is probably unknown to most Americans today.  My only quibble, and it may very well be because I had a pre-publication copy, was the lack of photographs, which I think would have substantially enhanced the narrative.  Once the book is published in September, I will make it my business to find a copy and see if maps and photos are included. In the meantime, kudos, Mr. Roker.

One Way Or Another

Elizabeth Adler's latest, One Way Or Another (#519) is a classic, old-fashioned suspense novel told from several points of view.  It mixes a damsel in distress with a young, handsome hero, an isolated and fearsome house on the marshes, and an unscrupulous villain of unimaginable wealth.  The difference here is that Ms. Adler has tweaked the formula so that events don't fall out the way the reader necessarily expects.

Marco Polo Mahoney, a successful portrait artist, is enjoying the last few hours of a needed break in his schedule drinking at the friendly neighborhood bar at his vacation hideaway on the Turkish coast. He notices a huge sleek yacht motoring out of the harbor. As he watches it, a young woman with a cloud of wavy red hair runs onto the deck.  He can clearly see the wound on the side of her head before she falls overboard.  As the ship continues to sail away, Marco launches his rubber dinghy from the beach in an attempt to find the young woman.  She never surfaces, but Marco becomes obsessed with the incident.  His girlfriend Martha Patron wants to believe him, but no one else saw anything unusual. 

Meanwhile, the young woman has survived, but Angie certainly hasn't been rescued.  In fact, now Marco and Martha too are all pulled into a web of deceit and danger as the master spider pulls the threads.  Can it end well for anyone?

I remember growing up reading suspense novels like this and loving them.  It's always gratifying to come across a writer who can deliver that familiar and satisfying type of escapist reading.  Thank you, Ms. Adler!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Red Sparrow

Friends of mine strongly recommended Red Sparrow (#518), an espionage thriller by Jason Matthews.  This is not a sleek and glamorous portrayal of the world of spies, a la James Bond, but a gritty and gripping read which leaves the reader feeling that Red Sparrow is the real world of today's spy craft.  Since the author retired after more than thirty years in the CIA, it's no wonder it feels authentic. 

Dominika Egorova is a promising young ballerina, destined for spot in the Bolshoi Ballet when her career is sabotaged.  Her uncle Vanya takes advantage of the double blow to Dominika at her father's funeral to recruit her for a clandestine assignment.  Things don't go well, but she does wind up in the elite training academy for Russian spies, an almost exclusively male preserve.  Her uncle once again intervenes in her life, forcing her to attend the infamous sexpionage "Sparrow School".  Determined to overcome this humiliation, Dominika becomes a single-minded Russian agent.  Her assignment will be to seduce the identity of a high-ranking Russian mole from the young American CIA Case Officer, Nate Nash, who is his (or her!) handler.  Once the information is obtained, Vanya Egorov will claim the credit and advance his position with Putin.  Naturally, things do not go as planned for either the Americans or the Russians with twist on twist in the devious game they are playing.

I did stay up late several nights reading Red Sparrow, and I can't wait to read the continuance of Dominika and Nate's story in Palace of Treason, which I'm told is even better than Red Sparrow.  The sense of menace is palpable throughout the book, and I appreciated author Doug Stanton's cover blurb when he says: "Halfway through, I was afraid Vladimir Putin would find out I was reading Red Sparrow and have me arrested."  I also, based on personal experience, agree with Matthews' view of the FBI.  They don't come off very well here.

Once of the quirky but interesting features of this spy novel is the fact that Jason Matthews ends each chapter with a recipe for a dish the characters ate during the preceding pages. You'll have to guess at quantities here, but some of the recipes sound absolutely delicious.  My husband would certainly like to try one or two of them!  Not for the faint of heart, but highly recommended.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Lord of the Wings

Donna Andrews continues to effectively combine humor and mystery in her bird-theme-titled books.  Lord of the Wings (#517) is the latest, and this one features a brand-new Halloween Festival in the small Virginia college town of Caerphilly.  For once, Meg Langslow is not the Volunteer-in-Chief for the Festival, but with the full-time assistant Mayor Shiffley has hired to handle things, Meg finds herself wishing she was in charge, especially when Lydia Van Meter goes missing at the height of the festivities.  Since two bodies have already turned up in Caerphilly with links to the Festival, is Lydia the perpetrator, or perhaps yet another victim?

Donna Andrews really goes to town with this story, with all the characters in costume, and Meg's grandfather pitching in with a special exhibit at his zoo: Creatures of the Night.  Plenty of heavy metal here, and not just Meg's hand-wrought iron pieces.  As head of the volunteer Goblin Patrol, her strength from her blacksmithing business will come in handy dealing with the holiday mayhem.  When Dr. Smoot's Museum in the Haunted House is broken into, what are the thieves really after in a seemingly random collection from people's attics?

All will be revealed by the end of this mystery in a most amusing and satisfying manner.  If you haven't read any of Donna Andrew's books yet, this one is a good place to start and is guaranteed to put you into a holiday mood.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Tournament

The Tournament (#516) is a real departure for thriller author Matthew Reilly.  Here, he's turned his hand to a mystery featuring the young Princess Elizabeth Tudor and her renowned teacher Roger Ascham as the sleuths for murders committed at the Court of Suleiman the Magnificent during an invitation-only Chess Tournament.    Elizabeth learns valuable lessons in both statecraft and life.

I don't know much about chess, but Reilly includes enough background in his chapter introductions to give the ignorant reader a clue about what's happening during the matches.  (I'm not a card player, either, so all those tense shots around the poker table in movies or TV are totally wasted on me!)  The setting in Constantinople at the height of its glory during the Ottoman Empire is an interesting choice for placing Elizabeth Tudor, and although the tournament itself is fiction, the author provides a plausible reason and circumstances for Elizabeth to keep this journey clandestine until she finally reveals the details on her deathbed to her lifelong friend and companion.

This exotic setting also provides Reilly a chance to indulge his harem fantasies.  Who does Elizabeth travel with?  Her esteemed teacher, Roger Ascham, Gilbert Giles, England's chosen chess champion, the Primroses, her proper chaperones who are taken out of the action early on, and Elsie, her slutty friend.  Elsie is the character the reviewers mean when they tag this book with the adjective "lusty".  Personally, I could have done without her, but since his previous best sellers have been relatively chaste, I suppose this was a chance for Reilly to cut loose and write about sex.  Oh, and to give Elsie her due, she does provide one clue to solving the series of murders, and she returns to England a sadder but wiser "English Rose".

Overall, an entertaining read, and a genre I hope Matthew Reilly returns to in the future.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Rival Queens

Back to France for the double biographies of Catherine de' Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois in Nancy Goldstones' eminently readable The Rival Queens (#515).  If you love reading about dysfunctional families, the Valois dynasty has it all: murder, betrayal, flagrant affairs - and just to throw some additional spice into the mix -  religious wars.  Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Catherine de' Medici always shows up as the ultimate villainess in historical fiction with her control of the government, St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and gifts of poisoned gloves.  The poisoned gloves are probably just rumor laid at her feet, but the rest is only too real, but after reading about her early life as a poor relative of the powerful de' Medici family, you'll certainly have a better idea of why she became to the person she did.  And her upbringing was so much easier than her husband's, Henri II of France! 

Their daughter Marguerite, one of the great beauties of her age, had no fond memories of her mother, unlike her affection for her father.  It would be hard to forgive someone who forces you into a marriage that almost no once else in the kingdom of France favors, the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, when you are staunchly Catholic (and to have your wedding marked by a massacre!) only to be told a few months later that you should now divorce said husband to further the political ambitions of your mother and brother.  And that was only the beginning of openly hostile family relations.  Marguerite was loyal and shrewd enough to survive many attempts on her life until her star once again ascended after the rest of her family had died.  She was reconciled to the new sovereign of France at that time, and revered at the end of her life for her generosity to others.

When the two queens died, one was refused burial in the ancient and traditional royal site of St. Denis, the other greatly and publicly mourned by the French people.  I'll leave you to guess which was which.   A fascinating glimpse into the past and highly recommended.