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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Blood Gospel

This book is something new for author James Rollins: a collaboration with Rebecca Cantrell to produce The Blood Gospel (#260), the first of The Order of the Sanguines series.  It has the hallmarks of Rollins' books - the diagrams to illustrate the archaeological and historic aspects of the book, the impossible cliff-hanging situations for the trio of protagonists, and a firm grasp on your attention for the time it takes to read the book.  Since I haven't yet read any of Rebecca Cantrell's books, I'm guessing the stronger relational elements and perhaps more of hint of the occult are hers. 

Dr. Erin Granger, an American archaeologist is plucked from her dig in Caesaria by Israeli military forces accompanied by a mysterious priest and transported to Masada.  It has been rocked by earthquakes and a toxic gas leak which have decimated the tourists visiting the site.  There is the possibility that an ancient chamber deep within Masada has been uncovered by the quakes, and the window of opportunity to explore it is closing.  A team of American military specialists has been sent to provide support, headed by Sergeant Jordan Stone, but Father Ruhn Korza makes it clear before they descend that the Church has prior claim to whatever is to be found.  But there are others just as determined to claim what is sought, and they will stop at nothing to get it.

So starts the action that moves swiftly from Israel across Europe before the final showdown, but this first book only foreshadows the battles to come.  Can't wait until the next installment comes out.!  An observation  - in two books  of almost equal length, it seemed that The Blood Gospel took no time at all to read, I was so absorbed in it, plus I knew my husband could hardly wait to get HIS hands on it, yet Cloud Atlas took me forever to plod through.  No question in my mind which I prefer...

In the meantime, I've already put a hold on the Rebecca Cantrell books in my library.  I've got to get to know her writing bette,r and her books set in pre-World War II Berlin are an excellent place to start.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Cloud Atlas

After seeing Cloud Atlas on the screen, I decided I'd better read David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas (#259) on which it was based to see if I could make any better sense out of the book than the movie.  Not really.  I didn't realize until I had the book in my hand that David Mitchell also wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which got rave reviews from the literary critics several years ago, but which I had very mixed feelings about.  (See my post of 11/1/10.)  The same is true of Cloud Atlas.

In case you haven't seen the movie or read the book, it's basically a set of six different novellas, each one moving forward in time.  The sixth story, set far in the future, is told from beginning to end in the middle of the book, but each of the other five narratives has been split in two, and the second half of each of these tales is told in reverse chronological order after the far future story.  Every one of the these tales is told in a completely different writing style and each story in and of itself is interesting. 

However, the break between these sections made me feel that I was reading six books simultaneously, which I don't ever like to do.  Mr. Mitchell has included connections from one story to the next, but they're not all that obvious.  I was fine with that, but I disagree with the cover blurbs which gush about " their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky."  The movie version worked that interpretation to death by recasting the principal actors as the different characters in each timeline.  Connections, yes; same souls, no: I just didn't buy that.  If you've only seen the movie version, it's pretty true to the book about halfway through, but then tends to go off on its own little frolics for each set of characters, so if you leave the theater with a big "Huh?" in your mind, I don't think it's your imagination.   I do think Mr. Mitchell did a better job here in tying up the loose ends in the different sections, which was more satisfying for me as a reader. It would probably be worth your while to spend the time to find out if this is true for you as well.  Even if it's not, you'll enjoy some beautiful prose even if you're frustrated by the novel's construction.  Let it be noted, though, that I did not recommend this Mitchell book for my husband to read, either.  Didn't like it that much for him to spend a considerable amount of time plowing through it.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen

Syrie James has done it again with her latest: The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen (#258)!  I gave this book a rare (for me!) five star rating on the Good Reads website, I enjoyed it so much.  This novel-within-a-novel begins with the accidental discovery of a clue which leads American librarian Samantha McDonough to a remote British country house in pursuit of a previously unknown manuscript by Jane Austen.  How the manuscript is discovered, the emotional complications which ensue and the self-knowledge that Sam gains in the process of influencing what should be done with it by the interested parties provide the modern day wrapping around the text of Austen's first, unpublished novel The Stanhopes.

Although this novel is over four hundred pages in length, I hated to come to the end of it.  That's just the way I felt about Ms. James' previous Jane Austen tribute novel The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen.  It's one of the very few books in this genre that I've lent to friends with a chain attached to it, to make sure I'd get it back.  Including the present day story allows James to comment on Jane Austen's writing style and to speculate on what made her tick as an author in an non-scholarly way, though she's careful to give Samantha some relevant qualifications to present her point of view.  Of course, it doesn't hurt in The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen that Samantha expresses her preference for Persuasion as her favorite Jane Austen novel: it's mine, too. 

I was so disappointed when my book club read Persuasion a few years ago at my suggestion and no one else even liked the book, but found it tedious and boring.  One member of the group had checked out an edition from the library that included the text of the novel on the left side, and a compendium of footnotes on life in early nineteenth century Britain on the other (complete with lavish illustrations!) so as to make reading the book in a thoughtful way impossible.  She kept hijacking the discussion with pictures she found in these notes that had nothing to do with Anne Elliott or Captain Wentworth.  Sigh.  From that point on, I decided I would only discuss Austen with people of like minds.  Unfortunately, I haven't found too many here in Florida, so reading a book like The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen or The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is balm to my soul.

If you're a Jane Austen fan yourself, you'll love this book.  If you're not, but are willing to approach this novel with an open mind, you might discover a whole new world you've been missing.  If you really can't stand the idea of Jane Austen as an author of great influence and you've read this far, you have my sincere sympathy.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Busy Body

I thought from the cover when I picked up M.C. Beaton's Busy Body (#257), an Agatha Raisin mystery from 2010, that it would be the last of my Christmas reads .  And while it's true that the book begins with John Sunday's campaign as the local Health and Safety Officer for the Mircester region to single-handedly forbid the Cotswold villages in his purview from putting up any Christmas decorations as being too dangerous, most of the events in this book take place over the course of a year after he's murdered, and don't end until the following Christmas season.

In fact, in this book quite a few people come to untimely ends, in some cases deservedly so, as John Sunday's murder seems to set off a chain reaction of events in the normally quiet village of Odely Cruesis.  No one liked the man, but no one's talking to any outsider about who might be responsible.  Agatha's friends and employees seem to be targets when they won't drop an investigation that the police consider solved.  The death of one her former employees changes the equation in the office as Agatha becomes concerned about the emotional state of her promising young detective, Toni.  And since this is Agatha Raisin, you know that there are going to be complications with her own love life.  Is there a possibility of romance with her handsome new client, Tom Courtnay?  Or is Sir Charles Fraith finally becoming serious?  Ex-husband James Lacey turns up at a critical junction; is he regretting the divorce?

With Agatha Raisin, it's always something; a good mystery, impossible romantic situations and the pesky police (with the exception of her friend on the force Detective Sergeant Bill Wong) always trying to discredit the leads she hands them on silver platters.  Busy Body is holiday fare that can be enjoyed year round.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Crossworder's Holiday

I'm still catching up with the books on my holiday reading pile, and Nero Blanc's A Crossworder's Holiday (#256) was a quick read.  It's actually a collection of short stories, all with holiday themes, featuring the husband and wife team of Belle Graham and Rosco Polycrates.  He's a former cop turned private investigator, she's the well-known editor of crossword puzzles for a local Massachusetts paper.  Together, they solve mysteries that always include crosswords, both as a key to the crime and for the reader to solve  along with Belle to find out the answer to what really happened in each case.

It's a novel approach, and a fast read if you do what I did and read the clues in the finished puzzles included at the back of the book instead of solving them for yourself.  Other readers must have done the same, because I thought it was a Christmas miracle that in the eleven years the book has been in our library system, not one person so much as penciled in a single letter in any of the crossword grids! 

Unlike many mysteries, not all these stories involved a murder; some were about theft or fraud, or in one case, even a long ago missing woman in England.  All the stories did include descriptions of scrumptious holiday food, so best have a plate of Christmas cookies by your side when you sit down to read this collection!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Death of a Kingfisher

Hamish Macbeth is back on the beat in remote Lochdubh, Scotland in Death of a Kingfisher (#255), M.C. Beaton's latest entry in this cozy police constable series.  Hamish can't seem to find the right woman, but he's no longer alone in the police cottage.   He's gained a new constable, Dick Fraser, a widower waiting out his retirement years and happy to be doing it in such a dull backwater where nothing ever seems to happen.

That is, until the neighboring village of Craikie begins to successfully market a local beauty spot, which Mary Leinster, the council's environmental officer, is doing with great aplomb.  Not everyone is happy about "The Fairy Glen" as it's been dubbed in the tourist brochures.  Mrs. Colchester, a rich widow who bought the property that used to include The Fairy Glen, isn't happy that it's been carved out by the previous owner and left to the town.  When Mary Leinster reports the malicious death of the kingfisher at the pool in the Fairy Glen, a nasty crime spree including a spectacular murder ensues.  There are just too many suspects in the Glen, but is Hamish in danger of losing his heart or his patience before he can solve the mystery?

Both of Hamish's former love interests make appearances in this latest mystery, as well as his wild cat Sonsie and faithful dog Lugs.  Beaton also introduces Dick Fraser, who although he is lazy and always hungry, is also a fount of local gossip and useful company for Hamish when he allows himself to enjoy it.  Detective Chief Inspector Blair is up to his old tricks in Death of a Kingfisher, doing his best to sabotage Hamish's efforts.  Things never seem to stay settled in Lochdubh for long, and that's a great thing for fans of this series!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Queene's Christmas

Queen Elizabeth I has the best of intentions when she temporarily revokes two of the laws restricting ancient Yule customs in order to provide the good old fashioned Christmas her aging governess Kat Ashley remembers.  But not everyone is happy with the Queen's decision in The Queene's Christmas (#254) by Karen Harper.

A murder staged to mock the Queen and her favorite, the newly elevated Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, occurs before the Christmas Eve feast, and malevolent pranks escalate into attempts on the lives of those close to the Queen.  She must find out who is responsible before Twelfth Night, even though the clues point to those in her inner circle.

Although this is not a new book this year, it is a satisfying Christmas mystery, especially if you like a bit of history with Tudor Christmas customs thrown in.  It's part of Karen Harper's series featuring Elizabeth I as the principal investigator into the crimes that often threaten her and her crown.  Fortunately, the Queen still has a long reign ahead of her, promising more mysteries to come!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Quick, think of everything you know about James A. Garfield.  Were you able to dredge up the fact that he was the twentieth president of the United States and one of the four who were assassinated?  If so, you know more about him than I did when I started reading Candice Millard's riveting book about his assassination Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (#253).  What emerges from the pages of this book is a portrait of an extraordinary man and a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been had he not been untimely struck down by a madman's bullets. 

The question this book seeks to answer is: who actualy killed Garfield?  Was it Charles Guiteau, the peculiar and delusional man who sought to be appointed Counsel to Paris?  Or was it the team of doctors, headed by the iron-fisted Dr. Doctor Bliss who began treating the president within minutes of the shooting, and thus sealed his fate? 

The whole story from start to finish is amazing.  From Garfield's humble beginnings (like Lincoln, he was born in a log cabin) to his startling rise through his own scholarly efforts and personality to his unexpected occupancy of the White House (which was definitely not a place you would want to live after reading the descriptions in this book!) there is much to admire in his character and principles. 

It's hard for us to imagine today the freedom of access everyday citizens had to their president, yet this very openness made it possible for Guiteau to become a familiar figure at the White House and State Department, as he sought the political patronage that was the norm.  When he didn't receive it and was quietly banned by Garfield's personal secretary, Guiteau decided God had directed him to "remove" the president. 

Yet it wasn't even the two bullets he fired at Garfield in train station that killed Garfield.  Many soldiers during the Civil War had survived far worse wounds.  If the doctors had only left Garfield alone, he would probably have survived.  But this was a period when American doctors who had heard Dr. Lister lecture on his antiseptic measures at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibit only five years earlier not only scorned his proven successes in England and Europe, where his methods were widely adopted, but took pride in the blood and pus on their clothing and persons as signs of their wisdom and experience.  How very ironic that the man who wrenched control of Garfield's care from his personal physician and made the president's existence a misery with his constant probing and resistance to any opinion but his own, was named Bliss.  Guiteau was executed for his crime; Bliss sent a bill for $65,000 to Congress!

Even though Garfield only spent a few months in office, and his name today is largely forgotten, he still bestowed a lasting legacy upon the country.  Garfield's wounding and subsequent death succeeded in uniting North and South, East and West, natives and immigrants as Americans for the first time since the divisive Civil War. For that alone he did not die in vain, but one can not help but wonder what he might have achieved had he lived. 

This book made such an impression on me, I hope I someday have a chance to visit Garfield's  beloved home Lawnfield, in Mentor, Ohio, to learn more about his accomplishments.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


I picked up and put down Cheryl Strayed's best seller Wild (#252) several times before I could actually bring myself to read it, but the deadline for my book club was bearing down, so I finally bit the bullet.  The first night as I was reading it in bed, my husband asked me how the book was, and I described the first twenty five or so pages I'd read so far.  "Wow," he said, "that sure doesn't sound like something you'd normally read."  And that's true, I wouldn't normally have read this book, but I must say one thing: Cheryl Strayed sure can write!  As impatient as I found myself with her, her life choices, her values and her lack of judgment, she is a compelling writer.  I just had to keep going to find out what happened next.

In case you've been living under a literary rock somewhere, Wild is the story of the author's decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT) following the death of her mother and her subsequent divorce from her husband (which I still don't get!) from Mojave, California, hundreds of miles miles north to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, which crosses over the Columbia River to Washington state.  She chooses to do this alone, wearing a backpack that is so heavy and unwieldy, that when she finally packs it with everything she's brought with her in her tiny motel room in Mojave, she can't even stand up properly.  Her total experience with hiking?  Zero.  Along the way she encounters and overcomes numerous obstacles,  many of her own making, but she gains what she was seeking on this trek: the time and solitude to grieve her mother's death, sort out her emotions, and come out at the end having found herself in the wilderness.

Imagine my astonishment when Cheryl's journey ends at a place she'd heard about on the trail grapevine - the East Wind Drive-In in Cascade Locks, Oregon.  Just by chance in September of 2012, my husband and I found ourselves ordering delectable cheeseburgers at the East Wind, and devoured them sitting on the white picnic tables beside the restaurant overlooking the Columbia River, and marveling that an adult, much less a child, could possible finish one of the enormous ice cream cones.  We saw backpackers there, and bought lunch for someone who was in the same financial straits that Cheryl found herself in more than once on her journey.  Another surprising connection for me was the Duluth hospital where Cheryl's mother died   Happily, my experience when I was working on a project there was much more positive, and I have fond memories of the staff barbecue I was invited to attend there.

Although in the end, Wild was not exactly my cup of tea, it was still an engrossing read, with a strong element of redemption.  Worth taking the time to travel with Cheryl Strayed on her journey.