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Friday, April 26, 2013


Robert Crais's latest book, Suspect (#285) is on my library's "Most Wanted" list, and after reading it, I can understand why.  I was irritated when my husband tried to talk to me while I was submerged in this book.  I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next.

LAPD Officer Scott James was gunned down, and his partner killed when they witnessed a violent car-jacking murder on a quiet Los Angeles street.  Scott survived, but no one has been able to break or solve the case.  Despite attempts to make Scott take a Medical retirement from the force, he is determined to stay a cop until he can crack the case himself.  He is unexpectedly paired up with a new partner with an equally traumatic past: her gunshot wounds and lost partner echo his own.  What makes this pairing special and unique is that Maggie, his new partner, is a retired Marine Military Working Dog and veteran of two tours in Iraq who was wounded in Afghanistan trying to protect her handler.  Can these two wounded warriors ever overcome their suspect past and make an effective police team?

You bet they can!  Just how they do it makes for a compelling and frequently touching read.  I've never read any of Mr. Crais's work before, but I know I'll be checking out his backlog of work in the near future.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


My husband and I have a Friday night tradition: we never cook.  After a long week of work, we mostly order take-out, and pizza is a frequent choice.  We used to sit on the couch and eat while we watched a rental video.  That is, until the night many years ago when we rented RoboCop starring Peter Weller.  The movie was so fraught with gore that we had to put down our slices of pizza.  From that moment on, we rated things we watched or read that induced a similar "ick" factor as "not pizza material".  And much as I loved Mary Roach's latest venture into science Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (#284), I would definitely have to give it a "not pizza material" rating.  Some of it is just too gross to read about while eating, but with Mary's typical treatment of the fascinating facts she includes here, you also run a strong risk of experiencing nasal regurgitation.  In other words, you could find yourself laughing so hard that whatever you're eating or drinking spurts out your nose.  (Her footnotes are especially deadly in this regard!)  And thanks for giving me the precise scientific term to describe this particular phenomenon, Mary.

I don't want to sound as though I'm warning you off this book - in fact, just the opposite - I'm highly recommending it.  I learned more about the digestive tract and its functions (and malfunctions!) than I ever did after a year of anatomy & physiology (with lab!), foundations of disease, medical terminology and other assorted courses related to becoming certified as a Registered Health Information Administrator!  Mary Roach literally gives you an appetite to learn more, and makes it fun to boot.

So go out there and grab yourself a copy of Gulp and take your own adventure cruise down the Alimentary Canal.   (Hmm - sounds like this could be located in the Travel Section of your local bookstore!)  Just hold off on the refreshments while reading.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Murder at Mansfield Park

If Jane Austen hadn't been too gentile to include murder in her novels, I'm sure she would have written it in a similar fashion to  Lynn Shepherd's tribute mystery Murder at Mansfield Park (#283).  And Fanny Price is certainly a character JA's fans would rejoice to see in the role of victim.  (At least this one did!)

If you've ever read the original Mansfield Park, or seen any of the film adaptions of it, you know the general story and characters.  Even if you haven't, you can still enjoy Ms. Shepherd's story on its own merits, as my husband did (and he's not a JA fan!).

I recently read Ms. Shepherd's take off of Charles Dickens' Bleak House entitled Solitary House (See my post of  3/17/13.) and was so taken with it and the references to the older Charles Maddox's work in solving the murder at Mansfield Park during the Regency period, that I had to go back and read this first novel.  Much as I enjoyed reading Murder at Mansfield Park, I think Ms. Shepherd has really found her metier in the London of Dickens' time.  She has based her next novel on Charles Maddox the younger, and I think that's a wise choice.  That's not to say that I wouldn't welcome any further ventures into the world of Jane Austen - I'd be right there in line to read the next the one!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Assassin's Mark

Do you have a fear of being trapped on a package tour with a group of difficult fellow tourists?  Then reading David Ebsworth's latest novel, The Assassin's Mark (#282) won't do much to change your mind. 

This murder mystery with a strong political component unfolds as a mostly British group of tourists embark on a tour of the Northern Battlefields sponsored by Generalissimo Franco's Nationalist Government during the Spanish Civil War in 1938 .  If you read my recent review of P.J. O'Rourke's Holidays in Hell (See my post of 2/28/13.) you know he'd be one of the first to sign up for this! 

Jack Telford's left-leaning newspaper has sent this ardent pacifist to report on the physical and political conditions in Spain, but he finds himself at odds with most of his fellow travelers and their Irish official tour guide.  Things are supposed to be safe here now (Of course there was that unfortunate accident at the hotel...), but the more Jack observes, and the more questions he asks, the more obvious it becomes to him that everything and everyone is not what they appear to be.  While Jack is fighting his own internal battles about what he believes to be the morally correct path for both Spain and the rest of Europe, he almost misses what is under his very nose.  It's almost like watching one of those horror movies when the audience knows there's a monster lurking behind that door, but the actor just has to open it...

This book made me want to dig a bit more into the history of the Spanish Civil War.  I remember visiting Spain in 1977 just after Franco died, and being struck as an American by the strong military presence everywhere in a way that I had never experienced.  It's hard for me to imagine what it must have been like for the Spaniards after forty years of living this way.  This book, as all good historical fiction does, helps put that in perspective for me.  It also helped that I had recently read Madeline Albright's memoir Prague Winter (See my post of 12/13/12.) for background on the Sudetenland crisis in Czechoslovakia.    The Assassin's Mark is not a fast read but it's a most interesting one.  That was also true of Ebsworth's first book The Jacobite's Apprentice (See my post of 10/27/12.); figuring out the politics takes some time and concentration.

But David Ebsworth paints such an appealing picture of Spain's northern Basque country, and Spanish cooking that it drove my husband to start researching a trip to Spain.  We're definitely not  taking a package tour, though!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

It's difficult to read Nick Turse's Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (#281).  This isn't a textbook description of the war as cleaned up and sanitized by military or political apologists, nor is it a straight historical recounting of the events of the military campaign as chronicled elsewhere.  Kill Anything That Moves instead tells the story of the deliberate war waged against the civilian population by the US military and its allies over a period of years, destroying homes and crops, devastating entire regions, and most tellingly, resulting in the maiming, torture and death of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, but glossed over as "collateral damage".

This is a history where the My Lai massacre was the rule, rather than the exception, and the emphasis was on the "body count".  It didn't really matter whose body - man, woman or child, young or old - as long as the military unit's statistics looked good.  What doesn't match up are the amount of weapons that should have been present if those slaughtered were truly Viet Cong; 600+ dead "VC", but only 9 weapons captured? The stories are truly appalling.

What's not surprising to me is the ease with which the military was able to quash any "atrocity" stories either at their source by threatening soldiers who became whistle blowers, or the amazing way that charges were dropped against soldiers who participated in these everyday outrages despite multiple eye-witness accounts.  Dehumanization of the Vietnamese people themselves, the "kill anything that moves" atmosphere that prevailed from the highest levels of command, the misogyny that resulted in wholesale rape, and the impunity enjoyed by all ranks (except for the scapegoated Lieutenant William Calley who wasn't high enough up the food chain to escape some token punishment) created a war in which to me it is astonishing that any Vietnamese in some regions managed to survive at all. 

And if you think things have changed in the military today, you haven't been reading the papers or watching the news.  If the eye-popping rates of reported military rapes don't demonstrate that misogyny is alive and well today against our own "friendly" forces, can you imagine what that same attitude would be like unleashed against a defenseless population of unarmed women who were automatically labeled "the enemy"? 

Kudos to Nick Turse for finding the proof in the National Archives that what the Vietnamese themselves reported to American Advisors on the scene, or what the whistle-blowers tried to stop by reporting on the actions of their fellow soldiers so far outside the Geneva Convention or Rules of Engagement that even they were disgusted.  It was real, and probably only the tip of the iceberg.  If only the newspapers and magazines (Newsweek deserves its own special badge of infamy for the cowardice it displayed at the time.) had had the courage to report the stories they were being given, perhaps many lives, both Vietnamese and American could have been saved.  As for me, this book made me even more certain that protesting the war in the '60s and '70s was the right thing to do.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Undead and Underwater

If you're thinking that Undead and Underwater (#280) is just another book about zombies having mortgage problems, you'd be wrong.  Zombies are hardly mentioned at all in Mary Janice Davidson's latest collection of three novellas: vampires, mermaids, werewolves and a new superhero character are the subjects here.

Betsey Taylor, Queen of the Undead, appears in two of the stories.  (Always good to know what's on Betsey's A List of shoes!)  In one she teams up with Dr. Fredericka Bimm ("I don't WANT to be Queen of the Undersea Folk!!") to foil a dastardly plot to rid the world of mermaids.  Some of the action takes place in one of my favorite spots, the New England Aquarium (NEA).  Doing my student teaching there back in the '70s was one of the best jobs of my life and all the kudos Ms. Davidson gives the NEA are richly deserved.  By all means go there if you're ever in Boston.  Just don't expect to see any naked beauties swimming in the main Ocean tank.  That's actually frowned upon.  The crankiest mermaid on earth makes a great sparring partner with Queen Betsey, and you'll enjoy their repartee. ( It's not recommended that you consume food or drink while reading these stories lest you choke on crumbs from laughing, or expel liquid from your nose.)

In the other novella, she plays a minor role as Lara assumes the leadership of the Wyndham Werewolves on Cape Cod from her retiring Pack father, Michael.  Someone's bound to challenge Lara, but that's not all that happens in this tale set in the not-so-distant future.  Gotta love her brother Sean!

The third story introduces reluctant superhero Hailey Derry, the It Girl.  Of course, I couldn't help but read Halle Berry every time I read Hailey's name, so that's exactly how I pictured her, although she does have a unique physical characteristic which I will leave you to discover on your own.  The other problem I had with her alter ego was picturing her as Clara Bow, the silent screen star and original "It Girl".  And no, I'm not actually THAT old!  Hailey could be a lot of fun.  I hope she makes another appearance in the future.

Paranormal equals pleasure in Ms. Davidson's amusing books.  A great way to spend a couple of hours!

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Chaperone

A friend lent me her copy of Laura Moriarty's The Chaperone (#279), so I read it.  If you like historical fiction set in the Roaring 20s, you might enjoy it.  It's not a time period that appeals to me particularly, and I can't say that The Chaperone does much to change my mind about the era.

Cora Carlisle is the eponymous chaperone to soon-to-be silent film star, Louise Brooks, when she accompanies the wild child Louise from their home in Wichita, Kansas to a fateful summer dance school in New York City with the famed Denishawn modern dance company.

Frankly, I expected there to be more about Louise Brooks in the story, but if you merely skim the Wikipedia entry on her, you'll learn everything this book reveals about her and much more besides.  Enough so that you know exactly what the hidden emotions are in many of the conversations between Cora and Louise, neither of whom like each other.  (Spoiler alert: if you prefer to be surprised by the revelations unfolding in the novel, don't look at the Wikipedia site until after you've read the book.)  In fact, the most surprising thing I learned about Louise Brooks, whose iconic bob hair cut defined the look of the 20s, was that the photo on the cover of The Chaperone is actually an image of Louise, minus the famous bangs and the recognizable bob.

Cora herself didn't capture my imagination or my sympathy when she uses the opportunity to act as Louise's chaperone as a chance to explore the secrets from her past.  Of course Cora has secrets.   Otherwise there wouldn't be much point in writing a fictional story about her, would there?  I absolutely did not buy Cora's contrived romance, nor the neatly tied up resolution to how she gets to bring home her lover permanently.  Not for a moment.  And after I stopped caring, I didn't need the remainder of the novel to recount the rest of  her life right up until her deathbed many years later. (After she plays a significant role in Wichita's Civil Rights Movement, of course!)

But I think the thing that really bugged me the most about this book were the linguistic anachronisms that jumped out of the text and made me lose the thread of the narrative.  Ms. Moriarty includes a bibliography of reference materials she used in preparing this book.  Perhaps it would have been useful to consult some books about Catholicism and religious orders, or even to have spoken to someone who could remember the pre-Vatican II days to correct her errors, and perhaps paint a more balanced picture of the nuns depicted in this book.  Yes, I knew scary nuns growing up, but Moriarity's Sister Delores is so far over the top as to be an offensive caricature. 

But perhaps the low light of the entire book for me was the scene where Mary O'Dell corrects Cora on her pronunciation of the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts.  Cora is angry and offended when Mrs. O'Dell blithely tells her what's wrong with her pronunciation, and spells out the "proper" way to say it.  Oh, if only Mrs. O'Dell had done that, and not compounded the problem by attributing a three syllable pronunciation to the city's name.  Tut, tut, Ms. Moriarty.  Get your facts straight!

The Chaperone isn't a terrible book, but not one that I would recommend, either.  As I said, if you're a fan of The Paris Wife or Z, this book may be of interest to you, otherwise, you might want to find something else in your pile of books to read.