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Friday, November 30, 2012

Someone Knows My Name

Someone Knows My Name (#239) by Canadian Lawrence Hill is a multi-award-winning novel which was recommended by my library book club.  It's a well written book that follows the life of Aminata Diall from freedom to slavery and eventually back to freedom again.

As a young girl Aminata, or Meena as she is commonly known, is captured by tribesmen who attack and destroy her native African village, and witnesses the murder of both of her parents.  As she is forced to march to the sea in bondage, she begins a journey which will take her on a horrific voyage across the Atlantic on a slave ship to the slave market in Charles Town, South Carolina.  Her path takes her to a Low Country plantation, a comfortable home in Charles Town, New York City as the British invade during the Revolutionary War, Nova Scotia as a Black Loyalist, a longed-for return to Africa's Sierra Leone and finally to London as an old woman where she works with the Abolitionists to end slavery.

Along the way she acquires new languages, the ability to read and write and drive a hard bargain, and the determination to return to her African home one day.  She endures great losses in her life as her husband and children are all forcibly separated from her, and friends left behind or perished through disease, accidents or murder.

On the one hand, I did find this book both interesting and informative to read.  I was aware of the "Return to Africa" movement, but I had no idea that blacks who had served the British for at least one year behind their lines were removed to Canada along with their white counterpart Loyalists.  Apparently life there was not much better for them than in the Colonies, but they did have some freedom to make their own way.

However, I did feel that the book was very black and white. Literally.  If the character being described was black, he or she could be good, bad or indifferent, but most, at least, had some depth.  But if the character was white, he or she was invariably described as ugly, diseased and duplicitous.  Even the nominally well-intentioned white characters (and there certainly weren't many of those!) like the Abolitionists used Meena for their own agendas which makes it all the more puzzling to me why Aminata would want to spend her final years among them.  Even more puzzling was the fact that a supposedly intelligent protagonist who lived by her wits for years could so blindly pursue a path to her own destruction by paying slavers to take her back to her home village and believing that they were trustworthy.  What on earth did she expect to find there when she knew her parents were dead, and the village might not even exist any more?  Besides, if the slave raiders came there once, what would prevent them from coming back in the future?  How would she even live there without her beloved books?  What was she thinking?    About halfway through the book, I realized my opinion had shifted from a positive response to a negative one.  Not even the reunion at the end (which I felt was contrived) could salvage this one for me.  Sorry, Aminata.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Lace Reader

I'm not sure exactly how to characterize The Lace Reader (#238) by Brunonia Barry.  I suppose psychological thriller might come closest.  Nothing is as it seems in this book.

Set in contemporary Salem, Massachusetts, The Lace Reader is about a family of women who can read the future from the patterns in a piece of lace.  Towner Whitney returns to Salem after an absence of fifteen years when her brother urgently summons her home.  Their Great Aunt Eva, the only family member who has gone public with her lace readings, has gone missing.  Eva raised them in her home in Salem while their own mother remained isolated on her island in Salem Harbor, refusing to come to town.  The web of this dysfunctional family creates some disturbing patterns of its own as the tale unfolds and another young woman with ties to Towner's family vanishes.  Can you predict how this will end?  Probably not...

Although the Salem witches do appear in this novel, I really wouldn't call it a paranormal tale.  The lace reading is more akin to "second sight" than magic.  It's really the mysteries of the mind that haunt the characters. 

Setting this book in modern day Salem is clever, though, because many of the denizens can and do believe that anything can happen here.   Ms. Barry's descriptions of the city brought back many fond memories and made me long to visit it again.  If you ever get there yourself, be sure to visit the Peabody Essex Museum, an amazing place.  I still remember visiting an exhibit on the Treasures of the Forbidden City that included some astounding pieces of Chinese art and craftsmanship that had never before left China.  They also have a collection of restored houses from different periods, where you can admire the work of eminent Salem architect Samuel McIntyre yourself, and imagine what Aunt Eva's house on the Common might have looked like.  I've included a link to the Peabody Essex Architecture Collection, so you can take a look for yourself:  Peabody Essex Museum Architecture Collection .  While you're there, check out what else they have.

One of my book club members suggested this book for our December read.  Although this book originally came out in 2008, I overlooked it then.  Better late than never!  It's a dark but satisfying read.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Wallflower in Bloom

If you read my blog regularly, you know I'm a Claire Cook fan, so I was more than happy to curl up with her latest, Wallflower in Bloom (#237), after the final dish was put away from Thanksgiving dinner.

Deidre Griffin's brother Tag is a celebrity self-help guru, and the center of a family industry which employs his parents and all three of his three sisters.  Deidre is his Personal Assistant, and a genius at managing and marketing him on social media.  The problem is that Tag is so needy, Deidre has no life of her own.  Even her house is a converted sheep shed on his estate which he will not let her buy.  When her on-again, off-again former boyfriend Mitchell drops by to tell Deidre he's marrying his pregnant girlfriend, that's the last straw for her.  She has to get away from everything, but how?  Maybe it's time to take advantage of the social empire she's built for Tag, and accept a place on Dancing With The Stars...

Okay, maybe the part about actually managing to land a spot on Dancing With The Stars was a bit over the top, but the family issues Ms. Cook deals with in this book are very real, and will strike a chord with most readers.  You may struggle all your life for independence from your family, yet in the end, they're the ones whom you turn to for support and when you find it given unconditionally, it's the ultimate freedom, even if there is some name-calling along the way. 

But her books are never done without a welcome sense of humor!  Having grown up in the Boston area, I got an especial kick out of what Deidre thinks after she moves to Los Angeles to train for DWTS: "I wondered if people from L.A. felt like they were taking a foreign-language class when they came to Massachusetts.  Worcester.  Woburn.  Gloucester.  Scituate."  I think Ms. Cook missed a chance to add a little insider humor here when she neglected to add Haverhill to that list, since it's the birthplace of DWTS's unnamed male co-host, Tom Bergeron.  When a new TV anchor person or radio personality began on any of the Boston stations, it did give some of us hours of entertainment to listen to them mangle the local place names.  Wallflower in Bloom is equally entertaining, but provides a little more food for thought.  A great addition to Chick Lit, especially if you enjoy a story whose main focus isn't on the romance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Third Gate

My husband had gotten out Lincoln Child's latest novel The Third Gate (#236), and he thought I might be interested, because it was a thriller involving Egyptology.  He was right, I was interested in reading this best-seller.  He's a fan of the Preston Child novels, although this was my first book by either author.

It didn't take me long to read it because the action moved along swiftly, and it was entertaining enough, but at the end, I thought "That's it?!"  If I had been to the movies to see The Third Gate (and I can see it lending itself easily to a screenplay) I would have walked out at the end and felt I had overpaid to see it.

Dr. Jeremy Logan is a an enigmalogist, called in by an old academic acquaintance to consult on an archaeological dig sponsored by the highly successful and secretive Porter Stone.  Stone expects to find something incredible in the Sudd, an impenetrable swamp south of the Egyptian borders.  He's assembled a team of the world's top talents for his project, but things have started to go wrong, and not everything has a rational explanation.   That will be Logan's role - to explain the inexplicable;  ghosts, Yetis, the Loch Ness monster - are all in a day's work for him.

Things do, in fact, go bump in the night, but there are way too many ends left that aren't neatly tied up in the end.  Who, for instance, is the expedition's spy, and for what purpose?  After things go boom! (literally!), that's pretty much it.  I presume Mr. Child had other writing deadlines he needed to meet, and couldn't spend any more time on The Third Gate.  It's too bad, because I feel this could have been a much better book than it is. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Woman Who Died A Lot

Thursday Next is back in The Woman Who Died A Lot (#235), the seventh book in Jasper Fforde's entertaining science fiction series.  She's older and battered from her last encounter with the Goliath Corporation, so instead of rejoining Jurisfiction, her boss offers her a position as Chief Librarian of  Wessex.  She isn't sure she wants the job, but budget cuts have rendered her old unit obsolete, and it is a way of keeping busy...

In Swindon, a librarian's job is far from dull.  Thursday is now in charge of the SLS, or Special Library Services, an elite commando force charged with enforcing overdue fines, fraudulent borrowing habits and other significant threats to book security.  Plus, she has to deal with an upcoming budget meeting, and God's Wrath in the form of a Smiting scheduled for the coming Friday that will wipe out a circular area of downtown Swindon.  And someone keeps replacing Thursday with a replicant complete with her own memories.  What has Goliath Corporation got up its evil sleeve besides making an obscene profit from Swindon by promising to divert the upcoming Smiting?  Can it have anything to do with the way her son Friday's future has been altered?

If you appreciate books (and you must, or you wouldn't be reading this review or this particular book!) Thursday Next's ongoing work in Jurisfiction and as Chief Librarian with her role in keeping the world of fiction pure and unsullied will surely appeal to you.  There's always been literary humor in Mr. Fforde's Thursday Next plots, but now he's expanded it to include library humor as well.  I showed one of the librarians at my local library the illustration on page 98, and she was still laughing when I left a few minutes later.  The Woman Who Died A Lot is on my holiday list for several of my librarian friends.  And the best part is that next book in the series, Dark Reading Matter, is already on its way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Second Empress; A Novel of Napoleon's Court

Michelle Moran chooses Marie-Louise Hapsburg as the subject of her latest book The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court (#234).  In his single-minded quest to found his own dynasty, Napoleon sets out to find a suitable princess who comes from an established royal family to replace the barren Josephine.  Maria Lucia, daughter of the conquered Emperor Francis I of Austria, fits the bill, especially as she understands statecraft.  She's been groomed by her father to rule as Regent for her brother in the future.  But when Napoleon commands, Maria Lucia must obey, lest Austria suffer the consequences.  It's hardly a romantic story.

Told from three viewpoints of those closely involved in this dynastic marriage: Maria Lucia of Austria (whom Napoleon promptly re-names Marie-Louise), Princess Pauline Borghese, Napoleon's possessive sister and Paul Moreau, Pauline's mulatto chamberlain who came with her from Haiti after the death of her first husband, the novel covers the period from Napoleon's search for the proper bride to his death on St. Helena in exile.

Maria Lucia is horrified when she learns that she is the candidate chosen for this marriage.  Napoleon has not yet even divorced Josephine, to whom he is reportedly still devoted.  The Pope will not recognize his new marriage, so where does that put her, a devout Catholic?  With a speed that makes her head spin, she is whisked off to France on a journey that bears eerie echoes of her great aunt Marie Antoinette's not so very long ago.

Pauline Borghese is also upset by the marriage.  After Napoleon's conquest of Egypt, the brother and sister share a dream of ruling an empire as the Pharaohs did.  Pauline wants to emulate the Ptolemies in all ways...

Paul has always been devoted to Pauline, but even he can see that the changes in the Bonaparte family as they rise meteorically to power with a reach that outstrips their grasp.  He is a keen observer of the scenes around him, but has it all become too much to bear?

For me, Marie-Louise has always been a shadowy figure; you're aware that Napoleon married twice, scandalously, but she rarely appears in books as a solid character with thoughts, feelings, pressures and perils of her own.  One cannot help but sympathize with her marrying into such a family as the Bonapartes, and be glad for her sake that she survived!  I found this book so engrossing that I was done with it before I knew it.  If you're interested in how much of a historical novel is factual, and how much fiction, you'll appreciate Ms. Moran's notes at the end on her sources, and what happens to the people in the book.

Before I leave the subject, though, I do have to say how very much I disliked the cover art on The Second Empress.  It was originally featured on GoodReads with a different, and to my mind, far more attractive cover, and I think the publishers would have done much better to stick with it.  This is the second book of Ms. Moran's that has used a photograph of a model in an ill-fitting theatrical costume on the cover.  Frankly, if Ms. Moran was not already a favorite of mine, I would have picked this up in a bookstore, looked at the cover and thought "Tawdry second or third rate romantic novel." and put it right back down.  I wouldn't even have bothered to read the cover copy.  Cover art does make a difference and can easily sabotage sales.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mission To Paris

Alan Furst's latest World War II spy novel Mission To Paris (#233) has been extremely popular at my local library and justly so.  As I read it, I could practically see the black and white movie version of this book unreeling before my eyes.

Viennese born Frederic Stahl has been successful in Hollywood for the past eight years, and packs star power.  Jack Warner decides to trade Frederic's services to Paramount Pictures in Paris for movie rights to a film starring Gary Cooper.  Frederic loves Paris, having lived there for several years after World War I.  But the Paris of 1938 is a far cry from what he was expecting, as he's approached by Germans working for Hitler to lend his star power to their cause.  After Le Matin, controlled by German influence, manipulates a publicity interview he's given to make it appear that he supports Germany's position, he finds that he may be in way over his head.

But Paris is still Paris, and Frederic is determined to fight back in his own way.  He will finish the movie he's starring in and enjoy as much of the city as he can while it's still possible.  Mixing in society and sampling the restaurants and cafes may provide him the perfect means...

I've never read any of Alan Furst's books before, but I know this won't be the last.  I liked this book for the same reasons I'm addicted to Turner Classic Movies; it was a smooth and exciting read.

Belshazzar's Daughter; A Novel of Istanbul

Cetin Ikmen, an Istanbul police inspector who cannot function without his perennial bottle of brandy, much to the dismay of devout Muslim wife and straight-laced  officer Mehmet Suleyman, his assistant, makes his debut in Barbara Nadel's dark mystery Belshazzar's Daughter: A Novel of Istanbul (#232). 

An elderly Jewish man has been brutally murdered in the Balat district, and a large swastika drawn on the wall of the room.  Inspector Ikmen hasn't been having a particularly easy time getting his rest with eight children already at home and a ninth about to arrive any day.  Who can sleep well on a couch?  But his boss makes it clear to him that the Israeli Consulate is anxious that this seemingly anti-Semitic case be cleared up and an arrest made promptly.  The most likely suspects are both ex-patriots; the blond Englishman Robert Cornelius, seen close to the apartment building where the murder took place at about the right time, or Reinhold Smits, a wealthy elderly German businessman who has been in Istanbul prior to WWII and is known to have been a Nazi supporter.  During the course of Ikmen and Suleyman's investigation, both men have connections to a mysterious Russian family and its domineering matriarch.   But why the murder now? What has the victim done to provoke the violent attack?  Or will Ikmen have to unravel the secrets of the past to learn the truth?

I began to get glimmerings of where this story might be going about half way through the novel, but the threads didn't unravel the way I expected them to, and there were surprises right up through to the last page.  Both my husband and I found this an absorbing read, where the city of Istanbul creates the setting for a modern day story that could only take place here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hello Goodbye Hello

The concept behind Hello Goodbye Hello (#231) by Craig Brown is simple, but brilliant.  Each of the 101 meetings between two twentieth century persons is connected in daisy chain fashion.  James Dean meets Alec Guiness; in the next anecdote Alec Guiness meets Evelyn Waugh, who goes on to meet Igor Stravinsky who in turn meets Walt Disney and so on.  Rock and royalty, artists and actors, famous politicians and other infamous characters are all here. And for the American version, Mr. Brown has included a brief "Who's Who" of the British notables appearing in his book.

Many of these meetings are totally unexpected between people whom you never would have guessed had any reason to meet, but all are entertaining in their own way.  Craig Brown seems to have chosen the encounters to include in this book based on some juicy bit of gossip or salacious detail.  By treating them as fodder for his gossip grist mill, he certainly seems to aim at knocking the patina off his subjects' reputations.  His admiration is reserved for only a select few. 

If your favorite TV shows include celebrity life styles, and you can't resist reading the tabloid headlines when you are standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, you'll enjoy this upscale version, and learn a number of interesting facts along the way, to boot.  One notable fact about Hello Goodbye Hello itself is that each of the 101 stories consists of exactly 1, 001 words (excluding the footnotes!).  Can you spell OCD?!  A book that's easy to pick up and put down, it's perfect for on-the-go reading.