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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

The title of this non-fiction book intrigued me: Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (#315), as did the cover photograph of four dancing couples, the women in identical Empire-style gowns, the men in dashing military uniforms.  I realized when I thought about it that I had some idea of what had happened to the French aristocracy after their Revolution, but I had no idea at all about what had happened in twentieth century Russia during my own grandmother's lifetime.  The only image I could bring to mind was Geraldine Chaplin as Dr. Zhivago's long-suffering aristocratic wife being reduced to picturesque poverty in one room of her family's former mansion while Omar Sharif cavorted with Julie Christie in various exotic Russian settings.  According to Douglas Smith, the author of Former People, this is the first attempt in any language to tell the story of what actually happened to those people.

Research into this topic has only been possible for the last twenty years or so, and many survivors of this tumultuous period deemed it safer for their children and grandchildren to forget the past if they remained in Russia.  Things had already started to fall apart for the nobles even before Nicholas II abdicated, but the aftermath was a bitter class war waged by the peasants (the "have nots") with the weight of Bolshevik policies behind them on the aristocracy, military officers, the police, bureaucrats, peasants with their own small holdings, Jews - in other words, the "haves".  The constant threat of arrests, executions, internal exile, forced labor camps, hostage taking and financial extortion hung over these people every day until the end of World War II and beyond.  The sheer numbers of people this affected and who died as a result is simply staggering, and by contrast makes the depredations of the French Revolution a mere drop in the bucket.  But of course, the suppression of all these educated, skilled workers, managers with the burgeoning technological know-how and their replacement by uneducated workers had direct consequences for the Bolsheviks.

Mr. Smith has humanized his history by focusing on the fates of two noble Russian families: the Sheremetevs of St. Petersburg, and one of the sixteen branches of the Golitsyn family of Moscow (the only ones to survive this period.).  Looking through the trove of family pictures of these interconnected clans puts a face on the statistics related here, and makes it real, tragic and immediate.  If you have any interest in the history of Russia, or have read about the fate of the Tsar and his family, you owe it to yourself to fill in the missing gap by reading Former People.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Poisoned Season

Lady Emily Ashton is back in A Poisoned Season (#314), the second in Tasha Alexander's  popular series set in late Victorian England.  Now that Lady Emily is finally out of mourning for her husband Philip, she's staying in the Ashton town house for The Season.  It's an exhausting round of endless parties, teas, balls and fetes whose object ought to be for Lady Emily to find herself an eligible new husband, according to her friends, her mother, and most especially her husband's best friend and now her ardent suitor, Colin Hargreaves.

But Lady Emily is just tasting the pleasures of being able to run her own life, and is happy to study Greek, visit the British Museum and generally enjoy life.  Things seem to be going well until the number of invitations to social gatherings drops dramatically and rumors begin to circulate through society that Lady Emily's behavior is not at all what it should be.  Normally this wouldn't bother Emily, but Colin Hargreaves has been busy on the Queen's business and gossip has her paired with both a pretender to the French Throne, and her childhood friend the Duke of Bainbridge.  Add to the mix a cat burglar who steals only items related to Marie Antoinette and an unknown suitor who leaves her gifts and intimate notes written in Greek in her room while she is asleep, and even Lady Emily is bound to be rattled!  When two murders connected to Marie Antoinette's possessions are discovered and attempts are made on Lady Emily's own life, she knows she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

A more diverting period  mystery would be hard to find than a Lady Emily Ashton tale.  Break out the delicate porcelain tea cups and settle in to enjoy this one!

The Sentry

My husband and I are both reading as many of Robert Crais' books as we can get our hands on, we like his storytelling so much!  (See my posts of 4/26/13 & 6/25/13.)  We just finished The Sentry (#313), a Joe Pike novel.  In Taken, Elvis Costello as the private investigator takes the lead role, with Joe Pike lending his special forces skills.  In The Sentry, their roles are reversed.

Joe Pike just happens to be at the wrong gas station filling up his immaculately kept Jeep when he spots two gang bangers across the street looking for trouble.  They find it when they beat up the owner of a sandwich shop across the way.  All of Joe's military and police training have taught him to serve and protect, so he can't stand idly by while this is going on.  He's holding the one whose arm he's broken waiting for the police to come and arrest him when the shop owner's niece comes in through the back door.  One look, and it's all over for Joe.  He wants to protect Dru Raney from any further gang-related trouble after she confides in Joe that they're trying to make a new start in town.  He just doesn't realize at that point that he's gotten mixed up in something much darker and more dangerous than he could ever have imagined.  What Elvis Cole uncovers about Dru and her uncle puts him and Joe squarely in the sights of a number of others hunting for Dru Raney and Wilson Smith.

Joe Pike is definitely a guy you want protecting your back in a fight, not coming down a dark alley towards you.  Yet in this book, Robert Crais manages to make this ultimate tough guy vulnerable in a way that remains true to his character.  It isn't easy to make someone like Joe so sympathetic.  Things don't always turn out as you hope, but in Robert Crais' world, it's always interesting to see where they go.  I'm glad that there are still more books by him out there waiting to be discovered!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Look Away, Look Away

I received a pre-publication copy of Wilton Barnhardt's new book Look Away, Look Away (#312) in a GoodReads giveaway.  All things Southern are skewered, lambasted and barbecued in this wicked and juicy novel. 

Set in Charlotte, North Carolina from 2003 through 2012, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of the extended Johnston - Jarvis family.  In a family as dysfunctional as this, you can be sure that there are plenty of scandals and secrets and each member of the family in turn parts with them gleefully in some cases, most reluctantly in others.  And all the while the reader is asking "What next?" and nursing paper cuts from flipping the pages so fast in an effort to find out.

Mind you, I almost stopped reading this book in the middle of the first chapter about Jerilyn, the youngest Johnston, when her whole goal in life was to find the very tackiest sorority on the North Carolina campus and rush it in total defiance of her controlling mother Jerene.  The wretched excess of this apparently widely-accepted campus lifestyle was enough for me to call it quits right there.  But I did feel obligated to continue on and as soon as a new character was introduced, I never looked back.  But that, I suppose, was the whole reason for starting off this way with Jerilyn, a total waste of good space.  It's the perfect foundation for what follows in this novel of money and appearances with a Southern high gloss.  Even the structure of Look Away, Look Away is a sly poke at the failed ambitions of the Johnston pater familias with his Civil War study and encyclopedic knowledge of the War of Northern Aggression, and his wildly successful Civil War novelist and alcoholic brother-in-law.

Unless they can take a joke well, I don't think that Look Away, Look Away will ever get a favorable review from Southern Living, but for the rest of us, this  book is bound to be a pleasurable guilty read, especially if you're Southern yourself, or have ever had a mind-boggling encounter with someone Southern!  This book is scheduled to be published August 20, 2013.

How to Murder a Millionaire

Things just haven't gone right lately for Nora Blackbird or her two sisters.  Her wealthy parents have escaped to a safe tax offshore tax haven, leaving her holding a two million dollar tax bill for the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; her husband has been shot dead by his drug dealer, and she's had to start a new job as an assistant society columnist for a Philadelphia newspaper without the proper wardrobe!  When Nora stumbles across the body of the old family friend who gave Nora the job in the middle of a swank party, what's a girl to do?  Why, find the right outfit to wear while solving his murder, of course!

That's the story line in How to Murder a Millionaire (#311) by Nancy Martin, a new series of cozy mysteries.  It seems that Rory Pendergast had a number of secrets himself, including some priceless art that might have gotten him killed.  Did the handsome scion of a Philadelphia crime family who has just opened a muscle car lot on what was formerly Blackbird property have anything to do with it?  And if he gives Nora one more of those smoldering looks will she care either way?

You'll just have to read it yourself to find out, preferably on a comfortable shady hammock with something icy cold to drink close at hand...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

Hearing one of the other members of my library book gossip group talking about Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (#310) prompted me to get hold of it and read it myself.  No wonder it won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!  It was absolutely riveting.

The central character, Pak Jun Do, is the eponymous Orphan Master's son, raised by his father in the North Korean Long Tomorrows orphanage after his beautiful mother, a singer, is stolen away to Pyongyang.  Orphans in North Korea are universally despised and objects of suspicion.  Jun Do soon finds himself parceling out the Revolutionary Martyr's names to the new arrivals, deciding whom to assign the worst jobs to, and who has first shot at eating and sleeping near the warmest part of the room.  If you're thinking of any comparisons to Annie's orphans, and their hard knocks life, think again.  These orphans are the cannon fodder for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  How Jun Do manages to even survive at all is remarkable, but through a series of fortuitous circumstances and remarkable adventures, he ultimately assumes the identity and life of a close confederate of Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.  His biography as the counterfeit Commander Ga is chronicled by an operative of Division 42, an interrogator for the State who is determined to wring every last drop of truth from the former Jun Do.  What is most astonishing about Jun Do/Commander Ga is that he never allows them to take away from him the essence of his humanity.

The insight into everyday life in North Korea is amazing, and I kept wondering as I was reading it how on earth Mr. Johnson ever managed to get close enough to North Koreans to research this book.  It certainly didn't leave me with warm fuzzy feelings towards the power apparatus of this secretive country.  But then again, as the book points out, the North Koreans apparently think we Americans are starving, that the urine-soaked homeless litter our streets and that all of us are left floundering to make our own decisions about every little thing, and that we must pay for everything we need for food, clothing, shelter and medical care.  (So they do get one or two things right!)  It's a nightmare vision of what the world could become if Kim Jong Un has his way, and scarier in its own way than anything Stephen King could ever imagine.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Flight of Raptors: Paws & Claws #2

Meet Levi, Sunny and Yoda.  They're the three dogs who make up the Three Dog Detective Agency in Chula Vista, California, ably aided by several cats who run the office and other assorted neighborhood critters in A Flight of Raptors: Paws & Claws #2 (#309) by Ralph E. Vaughan.  Creates a vision of Beatrix Potter-type characters with pastel illustrations and cutely comedic dialogue, doesn't it?  That's what I thought when I won this book in a Goodreads give-away.

What I got, though, was really much, much better.  There are illustrations, all right, but in this case, they're black and white photos of the actual locations in the book, and shots of the intrepid canine trio themselves.  There's also a superb color photograph of a bird of prey on the wing gracing the cover.

The story that is spun is one of obstacles overcome that are as much mental as physical.  Attitude is everything, and Levi is there as alpha dog to remind friends and foes that there are choices to make in life and that it is a wise creature who uses a moral compass to guide him.  Whether it's helping a flock of parrots escape from a gang of vicious raptors, or helping a gravely wounded dog to find a better life, Levi (a daschund mix!) shepherds his charges through difficult times with the help of a retired Golden Retriever and an over sized Pomeranian.  The focus here is totally on the animals, with the human "companions" the merest shadow.  Suffice it to say that Levi is so well educated and centered that he is definitely someone you would invite to dinner, if only you could communicate with him in words!

You've got to appreciate a novella that can include interesting footnotes, references to the Bible, The Mothman Prophecies, the Thin Man movies and Jethro Gibbs from NCIS all in one package and still make you feel that you've learned something new when you put the book down.  A Flight of Raptors is a small gem for animal lovers.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Ashford Affair

I was in the mood to read something suitably summery and I found the perfect book in The Ashford Affair (#308), Lauren Willig's stand-alone family saga.  Scandals and family secrets abound in this story of Clementine, a senior associate struggling to make partner at a prestigious New York law firm in 1999, who must face the fact that her beloved Granny Addie is dying.  When challenged by another family member, Clemmie realizes that she actually knows next to nothing about Granny Addie except that she lived in Kenya at one time in her life. Determined to make up for lost time, Clemmie tries to sort through what she does know, but the discrepancies keep piling up...

The action in the book moves from the first decade of the twentieth century to the last in this multi-generational novel, from glittering London to Kenya to New York City, as the layers of secrets are gradually revealed.  No one in Clemmie's family is who she believed them to be, or who she thought herself to be.  But the truth, in the end, can be liberating.

A thoroughly satisfying shady hammock read, told with Ms. Willig's usual panache.  Highly recommended!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Trains and Lovers

Alexander McCall Smith's latest book Trains and Lovers (#307) appealed to me on many levels.  Firstly, I love both his #1 Ladies' Detective Agency and the Corduroy Mansions series, so I'll check out anything by him even if I don't ultimately stick with a particular series.  Secondly, Trains and Lovers is set on the Edinburgh to London train when four strangers meet and share stories about their lives and loves.  Since I met my husband in Victoria Station in London just a few days after we had both taken that Edinburgh to London train, and my sister-in-law similarly met her husband on a train in Thailand, the impulse to read this book was natural and immediate.  Thirdly, once I began reading, so many synchronicities throughout the tale jumped out at me I couldn't help but relate to the characters.  Yes, we have shared a memorable evening in Dingle and sampled Adelaide and the Outback in Australia, and appreciated the simple and stark beauties of Oban in Scotland.  The literary references to many of my favorite works from  Nevil Shute's A Town Called Alice to Oscar Wilde's romp of a play The Importance of Being Ernest cinched the deal for me.

Although two of the characters reveal stories of their own loves to the others, a third character's story we learn only through his own internal reactions to the others.  The fourth character is journeying to recall the romance of a bygone time and place.  All the stories are touching in their own ways, as are the attitudes of the people experiencing the emotions.  And all of these stories are revealed in the course of a four hour train trip, about the same length of time it will take the reader to journey along with these fictional passengers.  A pleasant and poignant way to do some armchair traveling.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni

It was completely by accident that I wound up picking up The Golem and the Jinni (#306) by Helene Wecker.  It was on display at my library and I had no intention of borrowing any more books that day, but I had seen write ups of it on Goodreads, and I had recently read Steve Berry's The Columbus Affair (See my post of  5/30/13.) which also mentioned a golem.  So I broke down and borrowed it and justified it by telling my husband he might also be interested in reading it.  He browsed through a few sections of The Golem and the Jinni and put it back on the shelf, telling me that he didn't think he could read it.  Well, the next thing you know, he'd read everything he currently had on loan, plus a few books on Kindle, when he decided to pick up The Golem and the Jinni and try it again from the beginning.  He didn't put the book down again until he was done.  That was my experience with this amazing debut novel as well.

I marveled at the writer's imagination as she places a golem and a jinni in the teeming immigrant tenements of New York City in 1899.  The story she weaves about these characters and the lives they touch and are touched by is thoroughly engrossing.  Ms. Wecker creates a fantasy world that seems so natural that you easily suspend disbelief while there, in much the same way that Erin Morgenstern does in The Night Circus. (See my post of 5/7/12.) It's no coincidence that I rated both these books five stars on Goodreads

I don't want to spoil the story by revealing too much here; I'd prefer to let the author spin her own tendrils around your imagination.  If you want a captivating read, all I can do is urge you to get your hands on this book in either paper or electronic format.  Just be prepared to put everything else on hold when you do!