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Monday, December 31, 2012

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Did you see the movie Argo?  So did I, and I think it deserves every one of its maximum stars  ratings.  That's also why I was so interested to see that my library had Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio's non-fiction book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (#251) on order.  I wanted to read more about how this incredible caper was pulled off.

Both my husband and I raced through Mr. Mendez's recounting of the process leading up to the CIA's decision to approve a Hollywood location scout group becoming the cover to exfiltrate the six Americans who made it out of the American Embassy and into hiding in Tehran that fateful November day in 1979.  Although the book and the movie complement each other in telling this amazing story, the book provides the background information that can't possibly be covered in a two hour film.  Although the movie took some dramatic license to make it the nail-biter that it is, the essentials are correct, and without question lives were on the line.  And not just American lives, but those of the Canadian Embassy staff who hid their American houseguests until they were rescued.

Not only did Mendez and his colleagues succeed in their mission to extricate the Embassy staffers in time, but the other astonishing part of the story is how the CIA kept their role secret.  It wasn't until the heads of the CIA decided to make the story of the rescue public in 1997 as part of their 50th year celebration that the story came to light, and Mendez felt free to tell his own story after multiple interviews.  The six American houseguests and their Canadian hosts all kept faith with their promise to keep silence to protect those who might still come to harm at the hands of the Iranians.

This is a case of the truth being even stranger than fiction.  It's an enthralling tale of true American heroes.  Mr. Mendez, thank you for your service, and I'm glad your Intelligence Star can be acknowledged in public.  I wish "Jerome Calloway's" role could be similarly revealed.  If you've seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to read this book.  And if you haven't, you'll want to visit the closest theater where this is playing after you read it!  Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Calling Invisible Women

I just loved Jeanne Ray's novel Calling Invisible Women (#250).  I guess you have to be a woman of a "certain age" to truly appreciate this fantasy, but I'm sure all of us have had experiences which have made us feel like we're invisible, or to sincerely wish we could be!

Clover Hobart is shocked one evening as she is preparing for bed to find that she can't see herself in the mirror.  She soon regains visibility, but the next morning, she's gone again.  The worst of it is that neither her husband, a busy pediatrician, nor her returned-to-the-nest unemployed son never even notice.  How is this possible?  Her friend Gilda confirms her worst fears: Gilda can't see her, either, but it's not because she simply doesn't notice.  The longer this goes on, the more agitated Clover gets until the day she spots a small personal ad in the local paper: Calling Invisible Women.  Maybe she's not alone...

She's definitely not alone, and together the invisible women have figured out who and what is causing their invisibility.  But what can they do to get the giant corporation responsible to correct their situation unless they can get their families, friends and former employers to acknowledge it first?

A delightful read with a far better ending for Clover than for Claude Rains in The Invisible Man!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Royal Pain

For me, the title A Royal Pain (#249) describes the heroine of this book, Bronte Talbot, perfectly, and 338 pages is way too much time to spend with such an unpleasant, self-absorbed, potty-mouthed bitch.  The nineteenth Duke of Northrup is totally wasted on her, but by the end of this book, I was so tired of him putting up with her that I lost all interest in him, too.  The real fairy tale in this book is the unending and (always mind-blowingly incredible!) sex.

Bronte is such an emotional mess it's a wonder that she has any relationships at all, but that's the rather heavy-handed point made at the end of this story.  She's in a relationship with a Texan whom she gives up her fabulous New York City apartment and dream job to follow to Chicago, where she soon discovers she has always been simply the weekend diversion who has to pay to keep up with his spend-or-bust stockbroker's life style.  Everyone has tried to warn her... 

When she literally stumbles over Maxwell Heyward in a Chicago second hand bookstore, she thinks she's found her perfect Transitional Man to help her get over the Texas debacle.  Well, of course they fall madly in lust with each other, but he's returning to England in eight weeks, so no commitments, right?  Of course not!  When his father has a heart attack and Max asks her to go back to England with him, she refuses.  Agony, agony, agony on both sides.  And the nerve of him not telling her he was a duke related to the royal family!  She puts so many obstacles in Max's way and is stunned every time when he is impatient with her attitude.  It's all quite ridiculous.  Either commit or cut him loose.  There just doesn't seem to be any way to make Bronte happy until the author ties up her dysfunctional family relationships in one neat little bow at the very end, and we're now supposed to believe  that a wedding will proceed, she'll be an ideal mother and everything will be hunky dory.  I don't buy that for a moment.

I was really looking forward to reading this book, since, like Bronte herself supposedly, I've always been an Anglophile.  (But here's another thing that annoyed me about this book: Megan Mulry makes such a big deal about Bronte's obsession as an adolescent with British society gossip magazines -Hello!, British Vogue, etc. - that it struck me as ludicrous that Bronte wouldn't have known instantly who Maxwell Heyward was - the heir to the Duke of Northrup, and a frequently pictured royal connection in said publications.)  I guess I expected something along the lines of an updated Regency romance, but with Bronte having a job and a contemporary wardrobe.  Far from it.  I thought it was tedious and unsatisfying.  I kept hoping Bronte would grow up emotionally and that it would get better.   In my opinion it didn't.  I should have known when I saw the cover art.  The book jacket says "It's not easy being common", but the photo they used certainly succeeds - ugh!  My recommendation?  Find something more entertaining to read and don't waste your time on this one.  (Unless, of course, you just want to check  it out for the myriad sex scenes...)

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gift

The Gift (#248) made it to the top of my holiday reading pile.  This Christmas fantasy was written by Cecelia Ahern, the daughter of Ireland's former prime minister.

Lou Suffern is a young Irish executive who's made it to the top of the corporate heap - almost.  There's a promotion he wants more than anything; more than his wife, his children or his family.  But things change the day that Lou meets Gabe, the homeless man camped out by his office building's door.  Although he's walked by him many mornings, one day he stops and offers Gabe a coffee and a job to his own surprise.  Soon Gabe is popping up everywhere in Lou's life and causing him to confront his choices uncomfortably.  When things begin to go very wrong for him, Lou wonders if Gabe is out to replace him.  Things don't work out for Lou the way he expected, yet he receives a most precious gift from Gabe.

I must admit, I did need a Kleenex as I sniffed my way through the ending of this one.  A good cry can by cathartic, though!  It's something a little different, and the lesson learned is definitely not sugar-coated!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Christmas Shoppe

The new shop in Parrish Springs is causing a lot of controversy.  Matilda Honeycutt, an aging hippy, has appeared in town out of nowhere and bought the Barton Building on Main Street right from under the nose of the an influential Town Councilman.  But it's the merchandise that's creating the uproar: the store isn't zoned for selling the second hand goods on her shelves.  The new City Manager and the owner of the town's newspaper, The Spout, are determined to support Matilda - if she'll let them - in Melody Carlson's new Christmas novella The Christmas Shoppe (#247).

It's a light read that highlights the meaning of the season as a number of the town's citizens find just the thing they need in Matilda's mysterious shop.  It's worth a night on the town for this one.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Angels At The Table

In Angels at the Table (#246) Debbie Macomber brings back her popular angels Shirley, Goodness and Mercy with the addition of an apprentice angel, Will.  As in her previous book, the angels are full of good will towards men (and women!), but in their desire to help, things always seem to go amiss.  The more they try to fix a problem, the worse it seems to get...

In this sweet holiday romance, it's a lonely chef trying to get her long-dreamed of restaurant off the ground.  Since her widowed mother has invested in life savings in the project, it's not just Lucie's financial future hanging in the balance.  Will accidentally on purpose manages to nudge Aren, new to town and on the rebound from a painful divorce into her path in crowded Times Square on New Year's Eve.  I'm sure you can figure out the ending on your own, but it's just the kind of short read to cozy up with after you've finished wrapping all those presents.  Ms. Macomber has included a gift for the reader as well, with a recipe and a set of gift tags, too! 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Incense Game

Edo, Japan has just been rocked by a devastating earthquake and tsunami which has killed thousands and destroyed most of the cities in the region.  Sano Ichiro is responsible for heading up the recovery efforts and finding housing, food and building materials in the few remaining unburned city ruins.  It seems an impossible task, and Sano is exhausted from the constant efforts to keep up with the demands of the shogun, but he and his bodyguards feel compelled to help a group of townspeople they come across searching for bodies of their neighbors.  They find three women, but it is soon evident that these three are not victims of the earthquake, but of foul play in Laura Joh Rowland's latest Sano Ichiro mystery The Incense Game (#245).  Did I mention that this all takes place in 1703?

This grim discovery draws Chamberlain Sano deeper and deeper into a nightmare as he struggles to conduct an investigation in which failure could mean death for him and his family from one of the feudal lords he had always thought an ally, while displeasing the shogun could bring the same results.

This is a crackerjack mystery, and number 19 in this atmospheric series set in the feudal Japan of shoguns and samurais featuring Sano Ichiro and his indomitable and resourceful wife Reiko.  Twist after twist will keep you guessing until the very last page.  This murder mystery is solved, but there are political consequences for the future that you know will have to be dealt with.  Sano is grateful he and his family have survived this crisis, but with a shift in alliances, the future is looking very uncertain...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Stockholm Octavo

Karen Engelmann's historical fiction novel The Stockholm Octavo (#244) is something a bit different.  It's 1791 in Stockholm, which has had its own bloodless revolution, but the situation in France is watched with interest by King Gustav.  Many of the nobles are plotting against him to regain their power, but much of it is done by unconventional means in this intriguing novel.

Emil Larsson has escaped from an abusive situation in the Swedish countryside to make his way to "The Town".  He's done well for himself, and bought a nice position in the Customs and Excise Civil Service, with just enough money to be introduced to Mrs. Sparrow, proprietress of an exclusive gambling house.  She also happens to be a Seer.  After Emil renders her a small favor, she reads his Octavo - a set of cards dealt from a Tarot-like deck.  Whichever direction the Octavo points to in his future, Emil must swear an oath to carry his destiny through to the end.  The cards will also reveal the roles eight people will play in this destiny, but he must figure out who they are, and how they intersect his life.  Who is a benefactor, who an enemy, who his promised love?  Are they known to him now, or will they appear in the future?  Drawn into a world of wealth and intrigue, he finds himself an unwilling player in a plot against the king.  Can he prevent the assassination, or are other forces at work here?

Ms. Engelmann delves into cartomancy - the foretelling of the future through cards, Divine Geometry and mathematics, revolutionary politics and French connections,  and the graceful language of the fan in this book, with a whiff of inexplicable power.  I've never read anything quite like it before, but who knew that the Stockholm of 1791 - 1792 could be quite so full of secrets?  You'll just have to see for yourself!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Snow White Christmas Cookie

The Snow White Christmas Cookie (#243) is David Handler's holiday entry in his Berger and Mitry Mystery series.

Normally, I'm a sucker for Christmas books: I just gorge on a diet of holiday fare both before and after Christmas (after all, there are 12 days to enjoy it all!).  This one had such a promising title!
However, as I read the Prologue, I began to get an inkling that this was a very distasteful holiday treat.  By the time I reached page 14, I knew this one was not for me - anyone who can refer to one of his characters by the name Pizza Man because of the acne on his back that has turned off all his former lovers - well, you get the picture. 

This may only appeal to tried and true Berger and Mitry fans (I did give them a chance for a few pages in Chapter 1, but they had all the charisma of Pizza Man for me!).  I knew I won't be in any danger of becoming one.  Ugh!

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 - 1948

It's a common plot in fiction: the protagonist grows up believing his or her upbringing and parentage are one thing, only to find out that the real story is different, concealing an enormous secret.  What if the protagonist doesn't find out until she is 59?  That's the true story behind former Secretary of State Madeline Albright's memoir Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 - 1948 (#242).

You probably remember the headlines a few years ago when it was revealed that Madeline Albright, who was brought up Catholic and became Episcopalian upon her marriage, actually came from a Jewish Czechoslovakian background, and that many members of her family - grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins - died in the Holocaust of World War II.  It came as a shock to Ms. Albright, and Prague Winter tells the story of how she found out, and the search for the truth.  Somehow, her parents never found the right time to tell her or her two siblings about their family before they died, so she started where so many of us do: with the boxes of papers stored in her garage. 

Prague Winter chronicles the story of Czechoslovakia before, during, and after World War II, and her father's role in the Czeckoslovak government.  Although she was a child during the period covered by this book, some of her memories are quite vivid, and she has told the story in personal terms that make the convoluted politics of the time easy for the reader to grasp.  She also has included many photos throughout the text to help put a human face on what was happening and what led her family to eventually settle in the United States.

It's an extraordinary story, and a compelling read.  I've always been an admirer of Madeline Albright.  This book only confirms my opinion.  Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas Garland

Anne Perry's annual Christmas novella has a most unusual setting.  A Christmas Garland (#241) takes place on the British outpost of Cawnpore, India in 1857 during the Mutiny. 

Victor Narraway (a familiar name to Perry's fans) has arrived several months after the lifting of the hideous siege of Cawnpore.  He is summoned to his commanding officer's rooms and given a most unwelcome assignment: to defend a skilled and well-liked medical orderly on a charge of murder in the case of a Sikh prisoner who murdered his Sikh guard in a ghastly way making his escape.  Information he took with him led to the ambush and massacre of a British patrol.  The only person who could not account for his whereabouts at the time in question was Tallis, the medical orderly.   The only possible outcome of this trial is the hanging of John Tallis, but justice must appear to be done, and done quickly so the encampment can celebrate Christmas by putting the incident behind them.  If Narraway can find a reason to explain why Tallis acted as he did, the commander wants to know so everyone can at least make sense of his actions.  Narraway is nothing, if not stubborn, but even he can see no hope in saving Tallis, whom he has come to like.  That is, until a chance meeting and the gift of a paper garland provide him with the key to this mystery.

Ms. Perry's Christmas stories provide an engaging (though dark) mystery with a moral dilemma predicated on faith to ponder long after the reader has closed the cover.  Much as I enjoy the light, frothy holiday tales, it's good to read something with more depth related to the season.  Highly recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2012

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

I was recently corresponding with Lisa Potocar about her new book Sweet Glory, about a young girl who disguises herself as a man and enlists in a Union regiment with another like-minded female friend.  The subject matter of the novel reminded me of an interesting non-fiction book I had read about female soldiers in the Civil War.  Lisa was kind enough to remind of its name: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War  (#240) by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.  I felt impelled to go back and re-read this slim volume.

This work deals with why women on both the Confederate and Union sides were motivated to fight, what jobs they performed in their units, how they managed to keep their gender concealed and how some of them were discovered.  These women served with great personal courage and conviction, sustaining wounds and imprisonment and even death.  The authors also document how some of the women fared after the war. 

Since the book is based on records kept by the War Department and Confederacy, as well as regimental histories and personal papers, I wondered why it was that I had never heard of these female soldiers before.  Blanton and Cook help to explain this in what I found in many ways to be the most fascinating part of the book.  Although the vast majority of these women were highly regarded by their fellow soldiers, whether the women's sex was known to them or not at the time, and a great deal was written about them in the press up until the time of World War I, these female soldiers disappear from the histories of the Civil War written post World War I, or are dismissed as aberrations.  It is only very recently that the stories of these women have emerged from the shadows to take their place in the ranks of their fellow veterans.

It certainly does make you pause to think what else might be missing when you read what are considered the definitive Civil War volumes of  the twentieth century.  Now I have to go and give my friend, a well-known Gettysburg expert and miniaturist, heck for never creating a figure of one of the female soldiers who served or fell there....