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Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Columbus Affair & The Admiral's Mark

Since Steve Berry's newest book is about to come out, I figured it was time to read his 2012 novel The Columbus Affair (#295).  Of course, in order to do that, I had to bite the bullet and read the short story prequel The Admiral's Mark on my husband's Kindle.

Since so little is actually known about Christopher Columbus (if indeed, that was even his real name), this was obviously fruitful territory for Steve Berry.  He blends an interesting and plausible theory that Columbus was a Jew seeking a safe haven for his Jewish brethren in a mythical Asian land, with a mission to keep a mysterious treasure entrusted to his care on their behalf safe in the New World.

There are many myths swirling around Columbus and an unfound treasure trove.  Some think it's a lost gold mine, others think the treasure is far more significant.  A modern day search is on when a zealous Austrian Jew determines to find it, no matter the cost.  Only Tom Sagan, a disgraced and discredited Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, stands between Zachariah Simon and his goal.  Tom wouldn't be interested in helping Simon, except for the fact that Simon is holding Tom's estranged daughter hostage.

Berry's usual protagonist, Cotton Malone, only appears in The Admiral's Mark, set a number of years before The Columbus Affair takes place.  The Magellan Billet still plays a role here, but the focus of this story is Tom Sagan.  The danger to his daughter Alle forces him into painful and difficult decisions as secrets are uncovered in Florida, Jamaica and Austria with personal and international implications.  The plot moves along briskly, and Berry has created some interesting characters in this one, especially the Jamaican Bene Rowe and Rabbi Berlinger.

Since The Admiral's Mark was available only as an e-book, I did read that first, but it was just a reminder to me of how much I don't enjoy reading electronically.  I was surprised at how heavy it was.  It took some effort to hold it comfortably for very long.  My husband claims I will eventually be dragged however unwillingly into the e-book world, but I'll continue to put off that day as long as humanly possible!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Other Waters

Can a curse ruin your life?  Otherwise rational Maya Das begins to think so after a vindictive family servant places one on her father's entire family over a property dispute.  Her father has only told Maya about the curse because she's been born and brought up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is modern and competent, according to him.  But suddenly her closely-knit Indian family begins to fall apart; health issues and marital crises pop up and Maya's long time relationship dissolves because she can never find the right moment to tell her family that her boyfriend isn't Indian.  Her career seems to be going down the same path when the hospital where she is a second year psychiatric resident  is sued for malpractice, and she is named as a defendant.  What else could possibly go wrong?  Maya doesn't want to wait to find out in Eleni N. Gage's Other Waters (#294).

A trip to India to celebrate her cousin's wedding becomes a pivotal point in Maya's life.  Her best friend from college comes with her, but Maya is intent on finding the servant Parvati and making her take back the curse.   Heidi (short for Aphrodite) is enthralled with all things Indian, and the seeds are planted for her new fashion business amongst the wedding frenzy while Maya has to decide what values are really important to her and the path she must take to find her own happiness.  How does she kick start karma?

Although there are some interesting descriptions of India in Other Waters, this is principally a novel about the clash of cultures within a family between the expectations of those relatives in India, and those who are brought up in the United States.  When do you honor traditions and when do you follow your own heart?  The answer is never really clear cut at the end of the story, but that's Maya's reality.  She's not a bad person to travel with down that twisty road.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dead Ever After

With the publication of Dead Ever After (#293) the "Bon Temps" with Sookie Stackhouse have finally come to an end.  Much as I enjoyed reading this series, I think Charlaine Harris made a wise decision, although I do appreciate that she did not tie up everything neatly with a bow for Sookie and her friends and family.  We may think we know where she's going, but around Sookie, anything can and does happen, and we can still imagine many possibilities for her...

There was more than enough action in Dead Ever After to keep the plot rolling right through the last pages, since apparently almost everyone Sookie has encountered since first becoming aware of the world of Supernaturals seems to have painted a target on her back, with a few new ones thrown in for good measure - vampires? check; humans? check; a devil? check.   You get the picture.  But just as things are ending, new beginnings are all around Sookie, too, with the promise of better things and times to come.

Some of the reviews I've seen of Dead Ever After express their writer's displeasure with the way Ms. Harris ended the series.  As Ms. Harris says herself in the introduction, she's aware that she will never please everyone, no matter what she writes, but that she always had this ending in mind as she wrote the previous volumes.  Without giving anything away (which is why I never read beyond the first line or two of the reviews - I didn't want to run into any spoilers.), I thought it was fitting and proper where Sookie landed emotionally after all the turmoil of the past couple of years.

Who knows?  Maybe sometime in the future, Charlaine Harris will decide to let us check in with Sookie's future by writing a short story for one of her collaborative anthologies.  That still gives us fans something to look forward to - a reunion with the folks of Bon Temps!

Monday, May 20, 2013


I don't know how I managed to miss Deadlocked (#292) which came out in 2012 as the latest in Charlaine Harris's popular Sookie Stackhouse series, but I did.  It wasn't until I picked up Dead Ever After, the final book in the series that I realized I was missing a piece of the story.  As luck would have it, on our regular Friday visit to the library (where I was valiantly resisting the call of all the new books on the shelves so I can finally get around to reading some of the choice items sitting around my house in piles!) I went over to where my husband was perusing the shelves, and there was Deadlocked, just waiting for me to pick it up.  It seemed like fate...

Sookie is still with Eric Northman, her vampire lover, but things haven't been going so well between them lately.  So when Sookie is summoned to his house to meet the King of Las Vegas, Felipe de Castro, she's reluctant to go, since she's afraid that one of the reasons Felipe wants to see her is to figure out her role in the death of his right hand vampire, Victor.  Things go from bad to worse when she discovers Eric drinking from another woman, which was bad enough, but when the woman's body turns up later that evening on the front lawn, the police get involved.  Could Eric have killed her?  Or is something else going on here?  It's hard to tell who's causing Sookie the most problems this time around; the vampires, the werewolves who seem to have played a role in the murder, or her Fae relatives living with her.  Sookie's on an emotional roller coaster as her loyalties are tested and she's betrayed by her nearest and dearest.

I think the thing I like best about Charlaine Harris's series (which I started reading from the publication of Dead After Dark) is the fact that Sookie is spunky, brave, loyal to a fault, and she rarely, if ever, looses her sense of humor despite all the terrible things that have happened to her, her family and her friends over the course of the story arc.  I have no problem reading about Sookie's world and all the supernatural encounters, but I have to admit that after about five minutes of the HBO series based on these books, True Blood I knew I could never watch all the sex and gore on the screen.  It all looks more like the cover art for the book series, kind of brightly colored and unreal, when I imagine it in my head, and I'd prefer to keep it that way!  Needless to say, as soon as I finish writing this post, I'll be picking up Dead Ever After to find out how the story ends.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Bad Miss Bennet

In Jean Burnett's Pride and Prejudice spin off novel, the protagonist of The Bad Miss Bennet (#291) is, of course, Elizabeth Bennet's younger sister, Lydia.  After Lydia runs away with the bounder Wickham and ruins her reputation while she's at it, Mr. Darcy makes it right by paying Wickham ten thousand pounds to marry her, while heaving a simultaneous sigh of relief that his own sister Georgiana has escaped his clutches.  We know that from P & P.  But whatever happened to headstrong, heedless Lydia?

Ms. Burnett weaves a colorful and amusing tale of how Lydia fares after she is widowed at Waterloo, just as it looked as things might finally be going her way in her ambition to move in the highest circles of society, and to make a profit while doing so.   The last thing she wants is to be buried alive at Pemberly with her sister Lizzie and her odious husband Mr. Darcy.  But her plans fall apart as one disaster follows another and she finds herself unwittingly mixed up with criminals and further away from her goal of living independently in Paris than ever.  Lydia's not a bad person, but sometimes a girl has to do what a girl has to do...

I enjoy reading the many Jane Austen-based novels out there, and The Bad Miss Bennet is a delightful addition to the genre.  Frankly, I'm surprised more hasn't already been written about Lydia Bennet Wickham; there's so much potential out there for her character.  I hope Ms. Burnett plans to add to Lydia's future adventures!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

After reading Spook: Science Takes on the Afterlife (#290), I'm now current with every book that science writer Mary Roach has published to date.  Since this book came out after Stiff, which dealt with cadavers, it seems like a logical progression.  (See my posts of 3/21/11, 3/28/11 & 4/25/13.)

Mary Roach makes it clear that she is neutral on the subject of the afterlife.  She neither believes nor disbelieves, but went into the project to see where scientifically conducted experiments on the subject of souls and an afterlife would lead.  Efforts to weigh the soul, mediums and séances, reincarnation, near death experiences - all are examined in Spook.  And what does she conclude?  Her book dedication gives a very good indication: "For my parents, wherever they are or aren't".  Some of it does make pretty dry reading, so Mary's footnotes (always entertaining!) provide some humorous relief.

I think in many respects that Spook is the weakest of Roach's books, but still miles ahead of the competition if you want to read something on any of the above-mentioned subjects to get a more balanced view.  Now, if only I could persuade my husband to perform the curious cow experiment she describes; I'd love to see if it really works...

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Tehran Initiative

If you want to read a glowing review of Joel C. Rosenberg's The Tehran Initiative (#289), I'm sure you can find one posted somewhere amongst the personalities who regularly appear on Fox News.  You won't find one here because I quit reading about a hundred pages in, and I'm sorry I spent that long on it.

I expected a taut, relevant political thriller.  What I got instead was some heavy-handed proselytizing.  When Mr. Rosenberg was writing action scenes, it was pretty compelling reading, even though I felt as though I had walked into a movie theater halfway through a movie where everything hinged on the action in the first five minutes.  I guess you had to have read his previous book The Twelfth Imam in order to make any sense of this one.  I certainly have no desire to go back and read that if it is half as preachy and evangelical as this one turned out to be, with characters drawn starkly in either black or white.  Thanks very much, but I'm perfectly capable of forming my own opinions, and I'm definitely of the opinion that I won't be reading any more of Mr. Rosenberg's books.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder,Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

Who knew a book about how one of the most staid and respected reference books in the English language could be a tale of such intrigue and mystery?  I certainly didn't before my book club decided to read Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (#288).

I assumed when I started reading this book (and for about three quarters of the way through!) that the scholarly-looking gentleman in the cover photograph was James Murray, the eccentric Scottish polymath and eventual Oxford don who spearheaded the assembly and editing of the entries of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary over the course of more than twenty years.  I was wrong, however.  The man pictured is William Chester Minor, an American surgeon, veteran of the Civil War, murderer, major contributor to the nascent dictionary, and the true subject of this intriguing tale.

I also never realized until I read this volume how much we take the availability of a plethora of dictionaries and other word-related reference books for granted, and what a comparatively recent development they are.  What went into the creation of this standard work (which I am ashamed to admit I have never personally consulted, my bookshelves only being able to accommodate a single volume dictionary) is quite an eye-opener.  Since you yourself are a reader, too, I think you would find this book a little gem.

Not that it is without its faults: William Minor's main contribution to the OED (as we crossword puzzle fans know it!) was the myriad (Think thousands upon thousands!!!) of attribution quotes he mined from his own private library of early English language works included in every entry.  Yet at the beginning of each chapter, there is a related entry word from the OED itself which includes the etymology and the definitions, but omits the quotations which Minor was credited with contributing.  A rather curious omission, I thought.  I invite you to see what you think of it yourself.  I don't think you'll find your time wasted.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

I thoroughly enjoyed William Kuhn's novel Mrs. Queen Takes the Train (#287).  In fact, I gave it five stars on my Goodreads list, which I don't attribute to too many books.

It's a simple enough premise: The Queen has been feeling out of sorts lately.  On a cold, rainy afternoon, she leaves her office in Buckingham Palace to go visit her horses in the Royal Mews, leaving her beloved corgis behind.  When her young equerry comes to see her before he leaves for the day, he cannot find her.  He recruits her senior dresser, her butler and a lady-in-waiting to help him find her before the Press can raise any alarms.  A young groom from the Mews, and a young man on his Gap year working in an exclusive cheese shop prove to be the last ones to have seen Her Majesty, and the hunt is on.

What makes this book so special are the back stories of all these characters.  What binds them to the Palace and keeps them there?  As it turns out, The Queen  is not the only one suffering silently, yet carrying on.  Unlikely alliances are formed as the Members of the Staff (and the young Supplier to the Queen!) join together to spare The Queen any embarrassment in her present state of mind.  All are strengthened by these bonds and given new hope to carry on.  If awards were given to the characters in this cast, it would have to be an ensemble award, as no one character dominates here.

But of course, I have to get in my two cents' worth about the final cover art of Mrs. Queen Takes the Train.  I read a pre-publication copy which I think had much better cover art - a white oval featuring a sleek passenger train with discretely crossed Union Jacks surmounted by a small gold crown set into a subdued paisley print.  It made me want to pick up the book.  I got that Mrs. Queen was going to be THE Queen.  I can't say the same of the published cover.  It has way too much British kitsch.  It's way too cutesy to ever attract me in a bookstore.  And that's a shame, because I would have missed a fabulous read.   So keep in mind that old adage - You can't judge a book by its cover - and know that it holds true in this case!

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Racketeer

Somewhere back in the ancient mists of time, I vaguely remember reading one of John Grisham's early best sellers.  I couldn't tell you which one it was at this point.  Suffice it to say that it couldn't have made that much of an impression on me if it's taken me this long to get around to reading another one, The Racketeer (#286).  It's probably safe to say that it will take me an equally long period of time to get around to reading another one.

The eponymous racketeer of the title is small town attorney Malcolm Baldwin, who has wound up in a federal prison for innocently taking on the wrong anonymous client for a simple real estate transaction at exactly the wrong time, just as the government was closing in on that client with a host of RICOH charges, busily sweeping up anyone who had done business with him in its net.  Malcolm has done five years of his sentence, losing home, family and his career, when a federal judge is murdered in Virginia.  Malcolm finally has his literal "get out of prison" card since he knows who killed the judge and why.

I know several of my friends raved about this book, but although it was entertaining enough to keep me occupied on a plane, I will admit to feeling manipulated by the author as pertinent facts were deliberately concealed from the reader in such an obvious way that it was not possible to reasonably guess the outcome.  Of course then the book could have been a hundred pages shorter and nobody would have noticed.  But that's probably just me.  Grisham's a perennial best seller.  The mystery here for me is "Why?"