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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cutting for Stone

I never thought about reading Cutting for Stone (#278) by Abraham Verghese before my book club decided to read it.  Everyone I mentioned it to was uniformly enthusiastic about this book, and after reading it myself, I can understand why.

This hefty novel is told chiefly from the viewpoint of Marion Stone, one of a pair of identical twin boys born to a British doctor and an Indian nun in Ethiopia in the 1950s.  He tells the extraordinary story of his and his brother Shiva's birth in the tiny Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa.  With both parents gone (their mother has not survived the twins' birth, nor their surgeon father the emotional trauma) Marion and Shiva are raised by the rest of the staff at Missing.  Both boys develop an interest in medicine though their approach to it is as different as night from day.  But it is their attraction to their foster sister, Genet, that will cause a rift between Marion and Shiva and disrupt the entire household.   Genet's involvement with the  Eritrean Liberation Movement will force Marion to flee to America.  When he applies for an internship at an underfunded, rundown New York City hospital in a bad neighborhood, he finds his calling.  His interest in trauma surgery leads to a meeting he never expected to have.  The past intrudes on Marion's future when that meeting leads to several others with powerful consequences.

This book does pack a powerful emotional wallop.  I had to reach for the Kleenex several times while reading, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, because it means the characters are real enough to take on a life of their own, and you suffer and rejoice right along with them. 

A caveat: Cutting for Stone was written by a physician.  If you aren't a health care professional yourself, or if you've never taken a class in medical terminology you might want to lay your hands on a medical dictionary, or keep your electronic device nearby as you're reading so you can look up or Google some of the medical terms.  Whoa! Way too much obstetrical detail for me in the first hundred or so pages...

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Holy Smoke; A Jerusalem Mystery

Holy Smoke (#277) by Frederick Ramsay is the second book in his Jerusalem Mystery trilogy.  As you might guess from the title, it is a murder mystery set in the Temple in Jerusalem at a period of time familiar to many readers from the Bible's New Testament books.  But that pesky country rabbi, Yeshua bar Josef, is only a peripheral character in this tale. 

Gamaliel, the rabban, or rabbi of rabbis, in the Sanhedrin is caught up in the excitement and confusion when a cord leading under the veil which conceals the Holy of Holies is discovered by the youngest priest on duty. How did it come to be there?  Caiaphas, the High Priest, is sure that some unknown person has dared to enter the Sanctuary where he has been struck down for his blasphemy.  But the problem remains: how to extract the body without anyone else entering and defiling the sacred space.  Gamaliel sends for his friend Loukas, the physician, who has offered him helpful and practical advice in the past to lend a hand.  What they discover is that it was not the Hand of the Lord who struck down the victim, but an unknown assailant. When Gamaliel tries to investigate, he is warned off by the High Priest and Palace officials.  If he and Loukas are not careful, they could become the next victims...

I really wanted to like this book.  I found the cover blurb appealing, and the author, Frederick Ramsay, an Episcopal priest, certainly knows the time period.  However, I found Gamaliel a little hard to take with his lectures to everyone he meets.  (It is his job, after all, but still!).  Loukas, the physician (yes, of course, that Luke!) comes off alternately as a competent medical man and a simpleton who is there simply as Gamaliel's foil.  I might have been okay with either or both of these quibbles if it hadn't been for the miserable job done of editing this book.  Didn't anyone at Poison Press proof this book before it went into publication?  I found that the numerous typos, wrong and incorrect words and lack of punctuation slowed me down so much that it took as long to read this book (Actually, I stand corrected, it took me longer!) at 247 pages than it took me to read The Solitary House at 340 pages.  There was certainly no surprise or neat twist to end this mystery.  It just kind of petered out after Gamaliel repeats everything once more at the end with nothing new to add.  My reaction to this book was a whole series of "Wait; what??!!!"   Great idea for a plot; wish someone else had written it, and that someone with a lot more discernment had edited and published this.  Well, I can consider Holy Smoke my Lenten penance.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Solitary House

Just a few paragraphs into Lynn Shepherd's The Solitary House (#276) I was immersed in the sights, the sounds, the smells and the evil fog of 1850 London and I knew I was in for an exceptional story. 

Charles Maddox is a young private investigator working on his latest case trying to trace the whereabouts of a young girl missing for sixteen years.  His scant leads have all turned into a series of dead ends, so he is surprised and flattered to receive a summons to the office of Edward Tulkinghorn, one of London's most prominent and feared attorneys.  One of Tulkinghorn's clients, a powerful financier, has received a series of anonymous and threatening letters.  Charles' job will be to find the person responsible and furnish Tulkinghorn with his name, no more.

But Tulkinghorn has chosen the wrong man for the job; Charles manages to locate the author of these threatening letters with the help of his aging uncle, a revered Regency era "thief taker", but it also occurs to him to wonder why Tulkinghorn has bothered with such a mundane matter himself, and what proof of wrong-doing the letter writer has against Sir Julius Cremorne.  Pursuit of the truth is everything to Charles, and the reason he lost his job with the police Detective unit.  His great uncle Maddox during his lucid moments between attacks of dementia is able to help Charles in his search  .  As the layers within layers are revealed and witnesses disappear, Charles realizes that the stakes for finding the truth come with such a high price for all concerned he will have to choose his course wisely.

I've never been a fan of Charles Dickens, except for his A Tale of Two Cities, but after reading The Solitary House I'm going to have to read Bleak House, on which this book is based.  If you're already a Dickens fan, you'll enjoy this book even more with its familiar characters and allusions.

The elder Maddox was featured in Ms. Shepherd's first novel, Murder at Mansfield Park, which I understand is written in the style of Jane Austen (Yes, I've already requested that from the library!).  Charles Maddox will return in another book due out in 2013 called  A Treacherous Likeness, also based on Dickens' work.  I've found another "must read" author with Lynn Shepherd.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Before I Go To Sleep

What if every morning you woke up beside a stranger?  And every morning he explains who he is, and who you are, and reminds you to look at the pictures around the mirror in the bathroom.  But you don't even recognize the middle-aged person in the mirror looking back at you; you somehow expect to see a twenty-something woman.  That stranger also tells you that each night the memories you make during that day will be erased as you sleep...

That's the premise behind S.J. Watson's psychological thriller Before I Go To Sleep (#275).  Gradually we learn that Christine has been seeing a doctor who thinks he can help her with her memory problems.  He has suggested that she writes what she learns each day in her journal as a way of capturing those elusive snippets of remembrance.  But can she trust the doctor or the man who says he's her husband?  Christine isn't sure as she rereads her previous journal entries.  It's clear that someone is lying to her, but who?  And for what purpose?

The story unfolds to the reader in small, tantalizing bites, just as it does to Christine.  The question is, will Christine be able to put enough of the pieces together while she can still remember in order to protect herself from harm?  I did some serious nail-biting as I read the conclusion of this story, with its neat twists at the end.  Looking for something to keep you up at night?  Before I Go To Sleep may be your answer.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


I read Rachel Maddow's book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (#274) with a great deal of interest.  Just what is going on with the outrageous amounts of money in our national Defense Budget?  Why hasn't Congress been more involved in making the decisions about when and where and with whom we go to war?  Will it ever stop?

Rachel Maddow explains in this easy to read and often funny (but hard to stomach!) book how the power to declare war was deliberately given to Congress in our Constitution, but has shifted since World War II from Congress to the Executive Branch.  How did we wind up in Vietnam, or Nicaragua or Bosnia?  What about Iraq and Afghanistan?  I felt for the first time on reading Drift that I had some glimmers of understanding about what was going on in these places.

Rachel Maddow feels that we can change course to come closer to the "deliberately peaceful" ideal the Founding Fathers wished for our country, and outlines a few steps we could take in that direction.  A lot depends on Congress becoming proactive in protecting their Constitutional rights.  (And I wish all of us Americans good luck with that!  I'm sure we'll be seeing pigs (or possibly drones!) flying past our windows before that happens!)  It's eye-opening, to say the least.  I think this book should be on every thinking American's "To Read" list.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Habits of the House

Experiencing somewhat of a let down after my recent Downton Abbey marathon, I was delighted to receive a notice that Fay Weldon's Habits of the House (#273) was being held for me at the library.  The cover blurb for the first book in this new trilogy promised "an entertaining romp for Downton Abbey fans."  Well, no wonder.  Ms. Weldon won a Writers' Guild Award for her pilot of another favorite, Upstairs, Downstairs.  She obviously knows her turn-of-the-century British upper class households!

In this entertaining and scandalous entry, the action takes place in the Earl of Dilberne's household in a period of just over two months.  It begins when the Earl's man of business rushes to Berkley Place to inform Robert Hedleigh that he is facing economic ruin after his gold mine is taken over during the Boer War in South Africa.  Not only will the Earl suffer financially, but so will Eric Baum himself, who has lent the Earl the money to invest in the first place.  The problem is, no one takes Mr. Baum seriously.  He has disrupted the house by coming so early in the morning, and the servants won't even be bothered to open the door to him.  From there, it's downhill for Mr. Baum's day.  When the Earl, his Countess, their daughter Rosina, who fancies herself a "New Woman" and their son and heir, Viscount Arthur, are finally told the news over breakfast, it seems to have no effect on them.  Life goes on, and the most important thing in their future is the December dinner party for the Prince of Wales.  But underneath the placid surface, things are changing for the Hedleigh family: secrets will out, social barriers will be thrust aside, and the staff will play an important role in the fate of the family, and thus, themselves.  The newspaper account of the Countess's successful dinner party honoring the Prince of Wales sums up the events of this novel nicely. 

It's all very juicy and it does live up to the promise of The Guardian's cover blurb.  But what happens next?  Now I'm hooked.  The only problem is that it's a longer wait between books than it is between episodes!  Long Live the King is due out later this year, but I'll have to wait until early 2014 for the final installment, The New Countess.  Trust me, these are both on my "To Read" shelf already!