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Saturday, June 29, 2013

The King's Deception & The Tudor Plot

Steve Barry's latest novel The King's Deception (#305) and e-book novella prequel The Tudor Plot are about secrets with the power to change lives and the fates of nations forever.  Cotton Malone and his young son Gary are lured to London by an unknown nemesis to deliver a teen-aged runaway to the Metro Police, and are set up as pawns by a crafty British spymaster.  It's a dangerous game with fatal consequences.  Not surprising when considering the game was set in motion by the Tudors.

Steve Berry works with an interesting premise in this book based on some of the oddities surrounding Elizabeth I in The King's Deception.  Also in the mix here is the infamous release by the Scottish government of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in 2008 for "humanitarian reasons".  The US is trying desperately to stop this from happening, but they are meeting only resistance from the British government.  The CIA is willing to allow agent Blake Antrim one last shot at preventing al-Megrahi's transfer to Libya.  But Sir Thomas Matthews, the legendary head of MI6, is equally determined to stop him at any cost.  Destroying Cotton Malone at the same time would be a bonus for him.

Berry has used the public's fascination with all things Tudor to put together a plausible political thriller.  Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are both larger than life figures with more than enough drama and eccentricities to fill any number of volumes.  Berry has deftly used the Tudor family dysfunctions to reflect those of the modern day Malone family.  You're bound to learn something you didn't know before about both families.

It's also fun to see so many famous locales used as the settings in these books: Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Hampton Court.  Even if you've never been to England, you've seen them pictured in movies and on TV.  There's always the thrill of the familiar when you recognize such places in books and can easily picture yourself there.

What's a little jarring here is that in the prequel, The Tudor Plot, Berry uses alternate history through a plot to overthrow the current British monarch, Queen Victoria II, in order to introduce the character of Sir Thomas Matthews and set up the conflict between him and Cotton Malone.  In The King's Deception it's back to fictional reality.  One notable item about The Tudor Plot for Cotton Malone fans: we finally learn his real first (and middle!) name!  Cotton still won't divulge how he came to earn his nickname, though.  We'll just have to look forward to learning that story in some future book.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


It didn't take me long to get around to reading another book by Robert Crais after Suspect (See my post of 4/26/13).  Taken (#304) deals with another hot topic - the business of smuggling people across the border from Mexico and the gang warfare to control this trade both north and south of the border.

Elvis Cole, the World's Greatest Detective according to a recent interview in an LA paper, is contacted by a woman whose daughter has gone missing.  Krista Morales is about to graduate summa cum laude from a local university with a dream job awaiting her in Washington, D.C.   But Nita Morales doesn't like her daughter's boyfriend, Jack Berman, and is convinced the calls she's gotten from Krista are a joke, and that the pair have dreamed up a way to squeeze money from her.  She wants Krista home so she can talk some sense into her.  When Elvis sets out to track Krista down, he soon realizes that the phone calls are no joke and something sinister is behind Krista and Jack's disappearance.  It isn't long before Cole is taken too.

This is everything a thriller should be: a race against the clock and against seemingly unbeatable odds to rescue the victims of a horrendous crime.  The action in the book jumps forward and back on the timeline, and this just heightens the suspense.  Elvis's own rescuers are interesting characters on their own, and it's easy to see where Mr. Crais got the idea for his next book, Suspect.

Not everyone in this book comes out alive, including a number of the innocent victims.  It also highlights just why immigration reform should be a priority in this country.  We contribute to the very real problem highlighted in Taken with our policies.  I think this novel should be required reading for every (Republican) congressman if it would spur them into taking some constructive action.

A warning, though.  If you're reading this one on the beach, make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen.  You won't want to put Taken down.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Towers of Trebizond

I'll be the first to admit that Dame Rose Macaulay's classic The Towers of Trebizond (#303) isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it certainly is mine.  Originally published in 1956 and re-issued last year, I heard about this book from Nancy Pearl on one of her NPR segments last summer, when she said it was one of her perennial favorites.  Who could not love a book whose first sentence is ""Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."?

Laurie, the youngish narrator of the tale, is asked by the same aunt Dot to accompany her on a trip to Trebizond on an Anglican Church Mission to probe the possibility of evangelizing the population of rural Turkey, and writing a book about the role of women (downtrodden!) around the Euxine Sea at the same time.  Laurie can assist with arrangements and provide watercolor illustrations for Dot's book.  Since they are going out under the auspices of the Anglican Church, a priest will be part of their party.  This representative of the ultra high Anglo-Catholic St. Gregory Church in London rejoices in the name of the Rev. the Hon. Hugh Chantry-Pigg, a name sure to raise eyebrows in a Moslem country.  Oh, and of course, the camel will be going.  All does not go as planned, and Laurie is left holding the camel on the shores of the Black Sea...

But the real pleasure in reading The Towers of Trebizond is not solely in the absurdity of the plot, but in all the meandering paths Laurie's mind takes us on from the droll skewering of theological minutiae, to pondering on faith itself and the nature of goodness and morality, to the problems of traveling abroad when everyone else one knows is also doing Turkey and writing books about it.  It is definitely not what one would term "politically correct" today!

I did so enjoy the section of the book that described the war between the High Church Anglicans, Low Church Anglicans and Roman Catholics fighting it out in London's St. Gregory's Church, and the connection the author makes between success as an Anglican and one's fishing skills.  I was delighted to come across a reference to The Monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is the home of the Cowley Fathers in America.  It also happened to be the former home of  Tom Shaw, the current Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, before he was elected.  How do I know this?  I have been present at a few "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" discussions in real life. 

There is also an amusing section that describes Laurie's acquisition of an ape that she brings home to England and trains to play chess and croquet, and to drive a car and ride a bicycle which satirizes some of the primate experiments then going on.

The cover blurb says that The Towers of Trebizond is erudite, which it is, but not in a yawn-inducing way.  I don't read Greek, so I did miss some of the finer points of obscure theological arguments. When I mentioned this to a friend who does read Greek, he laughed and told me "If you don't understand Greek, you have no business reading this book!"  Father Chantry-Pigg would definitely feel this way, but you shouldn't.

I had also assumed that Trebizond was a fictitious location.  I was surprised to find that it was a real place, and at one time, the center of its own Empire on the southern coast of the Black Sea, or Euxine Sea as it was known to the Greeks and Romans.  But I don't feel too badly about that since I asked that same friend if he had ever heard of it, and he had not.  He's a classics professor and dean of his college, so I figured I was in good company in my ignorance.  Apparently you had to have been an upper class Brit to long to travel there.

The upshot is that if you like to mix philosophy, travel, theology, church politics, and the role of women in the Middle East with theater of the absurd that doesn't seem so crazy as you're reading it, The Towers of Trezibond may be a hidden treasure waiting for you to discover it.  I know exactly whom I'm passing this book to next for summer escapism reading!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sweet Glory

It's taken me way too much time to get my hands on and read Sweet Glory (#302), Lisa Potocar's Young Adult Civil War novel about a girl who enlists in a New York cavalry unit disguised as a boy.  Ms. Potocar's aim is to bring history alive for young readers, and she succeeds powerfully by basing her book on a little known facet of Civil War history: the female soldier.

Why does suddenly matter to her parents that Jana Brady should be wearing dresses and meeting young men at proper gatherings?  Quilting bees and ice cream socials are not for Jana.  She's been her father's hunting companion and lookout for his Underground Railroad activities since she was young and wearing boy's clothing was simply practical.  Jana yearns for an active role in defending the Union and freeing the slaves she sees being passed along through Elmira, New York.  A chance encounter with an female acquaintance who has already run away and joined the 10th New York is her key to stepping through that door to her own freedom.  She cuts her hair and becomes Johnnie Brodie.  Through Jana/Johnnie's eyes we witness both the excitement and the reality of war as it grinds on and on.

This book was a very fast read; with well written battle scenes and Jana and her companions' brushes with death, I could hardly put it down.  Many of the scenes pack a real emotional punch, and I have to admit to sniffling into a Kleenex in a few spots.  But what makes this book even more exciting was how accurately Ms. Potocar has translated the fascinating material from the non-fiction work about women soldiers in the Civil War, They Fought Like Demons (See my post of 12/3/12.) into a humanizing and believable fictitious narrative. 

It's an especially relevant read for young people, considering the current attitudes in the military about female soldiers.  Most soldiers then were tolerant, and even protective of those women who lived among them as comrades and did their duty just as they did.  If only that same acceptance pervaded the American military ranks today!  Professional rivalries in medicine were clearly an entirely different matter!

Okay, I do have one quibble about this book.  When Jana meets her "true love" (Come on, you know she's going to; it's a YA novel!) she suddenly yearns to throw off her men's clothing,  and experience  "life as a woman".  That's the antithesis of her attitude before she runs away to join the army.  She's riding around on her cavalry mare mooning about having a parcel of children.  That was unrealistic and would have been highly dangerous in the field.  Did Jana suddenly give up thinking and living her life on her own terms, and suddenly fall into the female stereotype of the day?  Didn't like that at all, and didn't buy it for this character!

If you have Young Adult readers in your life, buy them a copy of this book;  it's a a great and painless way to learn more about the Civil War.  And I even loved the cover art!  It's an almost perfect package.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


I'm probably the last person in America to read Tina Fey's autobiography Bossypants (#301), so right off the bat you can tell I'm neither young nor hip.  I'm not really a Tina Fey fan, either, except that I did love her as Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (only the skits on YouTube; who can stay up that late to watch SNL live?!), and I've liked a couple of her movies.  My friend had told me a couple of years ago when she read it that she thought it was pretty good, so what the heck?

I did read Bossypants all the way through to the end, and there were some funny sections, but on the whole I was rather surprised.  Maybe the limited roles I have seen Tina Fey play led me to expect a more ladylike tone.  I was taken aback by how crude much of the humor was in this book.  She certainly can take her place with the boys in show biz in that department!  I know that's why I'm not a fan of comedy clubs and stand up comedians in general; I don't find the vulgarity that passes as humor funny.  Maybe that's what raised the bar in my expectations of Ms. Fey's book; I expected something better from her.

A thoroughly disappointing read.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Lincoln Conspiracy

My husband thought I might enjoy The Lincoln Conspiracy (#300) by Timothy L. O'Brien, and I did, up to a point.  Who doesn't love a conspiracy theory book?  In this case, the question is, was it only John Wilkes Booth and his little group of Southern sympathizers meeting at Mrs. Surrat's boardinghouse who were responsible for Abraham Lincoln's assassination, or were there others pulling the strings?

It's only a month after Lincoln's death in the District when Metropolitan Detective Temple McFadden spots some suspicious activity at the B&O train station while waiting to meet up with two of his friends.  He witnesses a murder, and is trapped between two groups of adversaries fighting over the corpse.  His police instincts kick in, and he extracts a wrapped package from the body.  Suddenly McFadden is the target of both deadly sides.  What's in the package that is so valuable that others are willing (and eager!) to kill for?  Has he made the worst mistake of his life by involving his beloved wife and friends in solving the mystery of the two diaries the package contains?  It's clear they hold a secret connected to the death of Abraham Lincoln...

Without giving anything away, I have to say I found the denouement of The Lincoln Conspiracy a real let down.  After narrowly escaping death in a number of harrowing situations, knowing that his wife Fiona was molested and nearly killed, and that several of his friends die along the way protecting the package, it seems unbelievable to me that the pursuers in the last couple of chapters are suddenly giving Temple material aid to uncover and reveal those mysterious forces behind everything.  It's just a little too glib for me.

The period was very easy to picture for me, since my husband and I are both fans of the BBC import Copper.  The antihero of the series is an Irish born Police Detective in New York City in 1865, as the Civil War is winding down.  He even walks with a cane, as does Temple McFadden, who began his career with the police in New York City.  Both detectives have educated free black friends who play pivotal roles.  The only character in The Lincoln Conspiracy who doesn't have a counterpart in Copper is Fiona McFadden, trained as a physician but unable to practice as a woman.  There really isn't a single admirable female character in the entire cast of Copper I'm sorry to say.  If you know and like this series, you might want to give The Lincoln Conspiracy a try.  Chances are you'll feel right at home.

Friday, June 14, 2013

How to Wash a Cat

Like cozy mysteries?  Cats?  How about San Francisco as a setting?  And an important fact that is never revealed?  Have I hooked you yet?  If so, you'll like How to Wash a Cat (#299), first in a new series by Rebecca M. Hale.

It all started when our protagonist graduated from an East Coast college and took an accounting job with a major San Francisco firm.  Although she doesn't have close ties to most of her family, she was given her Uncle Oscar's information to contact when she arrived.  It took her a while, but now she and her two apricot-tipped fluffy white kitties, Rupert and Isabella, have a standing date on Saturday nights for her Uncle's incredible fried chicken.  Oscar even cooks for the cats in the flat above his disheveled Gold Rush era antique store, The Green Vase.  That is until the day she receives a phone call informing her that her Uncle Oscar has suffered a stroke and died.  She arranges for his funeral and is summoned to his attorney's office afterwards to be told that her uncle has left The Green Vase to her.  Her disreputable shop sits in the midst of upscale antique stores and art galleries, and the pressure is on immediately to renovate her storefront.  It soon becomes clear to her that her neighbors have ulterior motives in urging her to remodel.  What could possibly be concealed in The Green Vase that makes it the target of so many unexpected and unwanted visitors? 

Ms. Hale has concluded How to Wash a Cat satisfactorily without ever once giving away the answer to two mysteries, quite an achievement.  You'll just have to read the book yourself if you're curious - it's a great beach read.  But the biggest mystery of all I don't think Ms. Hale will ever answer to my satisfaction:  how on earth does our heroine get Rupert and Isabella to cooperate in getting in and out of their cat carriers, or walk a literal catwalk in a hotel ballroom crowded with people?  Even our best behaved cat would be telling us where to go if those thoughts merely floated across our mind's eye one day...  Anyway, fun series.  I already have the next two books lined up on my bedside table.

The Boleyn King

I don't read a lot of alternative history, but I found the premise of Laura Andersen's The Boleyn King (#298) intriguing.  What if Anne Boleyn had successfully given birth to the desired male heir?

Much of the religious and political turmoil churned up in the wake of Henry VIII's quest for the desired heir is still in evidence in this re-imagining of English history, but the roles of many of the key players has changed.  The hook to hang much of the action on is the character of Minuette Wyatt, daughter of Queen Anne's beloved lady-in-waiting.  Her tie to Henry IX, known to all his family and friends as William, is her premature birth on the same day as William seventeen years previously.  She has mostly been raised at court in the company of William and his sister Elizabeth as their trusted companion. Now Queen Anne has formally assigned her to the household of Princess Elizabeth as a lady-in-waiting.  But a fall down some stairs resulting in the death of another lady-in-waiting at the palace eventually uncovers a plot to remove William from the succession.  Some are determined to never tolerate a Boleyn King ruling England.  The question is, can Minuette and the king's close friend Dominic Courtnay find out who is behind the attempt before it is too late?  So many suspects, so little time...

Ms. Andersen has thrown in romantic complications to keep the plot bubbling along and create some tension amongst the quartet of friends and royals.  Some things apparently will never change in a Tudor Court!  Ms. Andersen must have something else up her sleeve for our heroine Minuette as the king's uncle and former Lord Protector of England , Lord Rochford, says to a young Robert Dudley at the end of the book: "I think the young lady bears watching."  I'm all for that!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Requiem for Athens

I signed up on Goodreads for a giveaway copy of Requiem for Athens (#297) which I did not win, but the author, David Alkek, approached me and asked me to read it and give an honest review of his historical fiction novel.  I have posted those reviews on Goodreads and Amazon if you are interested.

This novel is about an Athens whose glory is fading as she is rent by internecine warfare, political bickering and moral decay.  When I was a kid growing up, I loved reading the myths and legends of ancient Greece and stories about her heroes.  I haunted the library's children's section devouring books like A Day in the Life of Ancient Greece.  The problem with Requiem for Athens is that I felt that I had stumbled across a young reader's text book on Greek life as I read the opening section of this novel.  The author has done his research on this book and it shows.  The meticulous maps and lists of historical characters are appreciated.  However, it is not necessary nor desirable to include every fact gleaned from that research in the novel itself. 

There wasn't a whole lot of convincing fictional narrative in this book, and the protagonist, Phidias, was almost a no-show in his own book, he took so little part in the actual action, nor was he placed as a recorder or observer of events as they unfolded.  It was almost as if he was included as an after thought.  You couldn't really work up enough energy about Phidias to either love him or loathe him, or even just like him.  It's a shame, really, because the part that featured Alexander conquering Greece, Egypt, Persia and India, was the best part of this book.  If the whole novel had been written with that same conviction, this would be an exceptional book.  As it is, I can't really recommend it except for people who read absolutely everything ever written about ancient Greece.

On a positive note, though, you know that cover art is my personal hobby horse, and I would like to give kudos to whomever designed the cover for Requiem for Athens.  It really made me want to dive right into this book, so it did its job admirably.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Straw Men

Brother Athelstan is back in The Straw Men (#296), the latest in Paul Doherty's atmospheric medieval mystery series. 

The London weather is brutal in January of 1381, and so are the political clashes between the Regent, John of Gaunt, and his common man adversaries, the Upright Men.  It's obvious there are traitors involved on both sides, and Lord John commands Brother Athelstan and his good friend Sir John Cranston, the Coroner of the City of London, to investigate.  They are witnesses to two murders carried out during a reception following a performance of a miracle play by The Straw Men, a group of traveling mummers.  How could this have happened in the Tower of London with Lord John himself present?  Could someone in Athelstan's own parish be involved?  As the bodies pile up, it becomes clear that no place and no one is safe, including Athelstan.

The crimes seem impossible to solve in this convoluted story as there are victims amongst both Lord John's faction and the Upright Men.  Are they all the work of one person?  And if so, what links these deaths?  Which reeks more: the evil at work in London, or the streets and stews?  If you love a good mystery which pulls you into another time and place convincingly, you'll enjoy visiting Brother Athelstan's London, but you might want to have a warm blanket and a nicely spiced hot drink at the ready.  Highly recommended.