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Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Ruins of Lace

I think historical fiction is my favorite genre because a good writer can take you to a different time and place in his or her writing.  Ideally, you'll learn something interesting enough to send you off on a different exploration of non-fiction sources to learn more about a particular person, place, period or culture.  Iris Anthony is such a writer with her novel The Ruins of Lace (#440).

The threads that tie this plot together are lace smuggling in seventeenth century France.  King Louis XIII had passed strict sumptuary laws, forbidding the wearing or importing of lace, principally from Flanders.  The object was to keep the money in France, and the people in their God-ordained roles.  Since almost everyone flouted the law, smuggling of lace became a thriving business.  This novel tells the story of one piece of lace from seven different vantage points, including one of the thousands of dogs employed to carry the contraband undetected across the border.   As beautiful as the finished product was, the corruption that ruined peoples' lives was ugly and evil.  The characters in this book are so different, and so unique in their relationship to one particular length of lace that they view it either as their salvation or their ruin.  The plot ran faster and faster towards its climax so that I literally could not put it down towards the end.

I could not help but think after reading this book that it would make perfect grand opera with its dramatic ending.  (Of course, there is no fat lady to sing at the end.)  It does make you ponder, though; do we make the right choices in our own lives?  Several of the characters were left with distressing consequences and that moral ambiguity.  A fast and interesting read, but one that can also make you stop and think.  Can you ask for anything more?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Bishop's Wife

Visions of Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant went dancing through my head when I picked up The Bishop's Wife (#439) by Mette Ivie Harrison.  Be warned!  The only angel you'll find in this novel is the picture of the Mormon Temple angel on the cover.

Instead, what you'll find is the story of Linda Wallheim, ordinary housemaker and mother, and wife to the bishop of her ward in Draper, Utah.  When her husband was elected to the position, Linda inherited all the unwritten and unpaid duties and responsibilities that come along with being the bishop's wife.  Most of the time she's content to do her duty until the day one of their neighbors comes to their house with his five year old daughter, claiming that his wife has disappeared overnight without a trace. Something about the situation doesn't sit right with Linda as she tries to push her husband into looking into things further.  What she eventually turns up puts herself, her faith and her marriage in peril.

Ms. Harrison's book deals with domestic abuse in what appears to be a wholesome neighborhood on the surface.  Things aren't always what they seem, and in the Mormon culture depicted here, it's difficult to push the limits if there are problems.  The resulting ripples may turn up something that everyone else would prefer not to know about. 

Ms. Harrison does include a lot of information about the Mormon way of life, which may be of interest to those curious about what makes the Mormons so different.  If you're not one of those, do yourself a favor and find something else to read.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life

I so wanted to love Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (#438), and I did, as I read his opening Word of Explanation.  From there on in, it was a steep and wretched decline into tedious political blather and twaddle with gratuitous detours into rock and roll, all told in such a peculiarly insular British fashion to be almost utterly incomprehensible to an American reader.  I asked one of the most erudite and well-read academics I know at dinner last night if he had ever even heard of the book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.  He hadn't, which made me feel marginally better, but according to Andy Miller's book-reading memoir, it's on the "Classics" list of every Briton as a book one must have read, or at least claimed to have read.  For thinking Americans, that's just Dude, the Obscure, as you would probably term it, Mr. Miller.

Nor does he bother to give you his opinion on all fifty one of the books he actually did read in a year (SPOILER ALERT!!!) He does not actually read two bad books; only Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which he gobbled down along with the rest of us lowbrow folks while pointing out its myriad deficiencies.  I personally think it's just jealousy on his part, because he can't successfully write about every book he reads (His book blog failed because he got bored with it - too, too tedious for words!  Literally!), he can't sustain a membership in a book club discussion group (they hate his picks to read {Frankly, I would have, too!} plus the discussions make him dislike the others' choices, so he'll never read one of their recommendations again, so there!) and he's not tripping over piles of money on the way to the bank to deposit the profits from his own books!  The books I was most interested in finding out what Mr. Miller thought of them were not included anywhere in his oeuvre, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, which predictably enough, he hated, along with anything else by Jane Austen, (not that he would ever bother trying to crack any of her other books).  But Vanity Fair? Jane Eyre?  Crime and Punishment?  The Odyssey?  None of those made it into his book as worthy of discussion.  From the books he did include, I can only paraphrase that famous saying about the Americans and the British being two cultures divided by a common language, as I certainly didn't recognize many of the books included in his canon.  I did find his juxtaposition of Herman Melville's Moby Dick and The DaVinci Code amusing, though.

There are a lot of great quotes about the love of books and the love of reading scattered throughout The Year of Reading Dangerously if you have the patience to winnow them out.  As for me, though, I won't be passing on a recommendation to read this to any of my book-loving friends; in fact, it could be quite enough to push them in the opposite direction!  My advice?  Look at Appendix I - The List of Betterment, see what Andy Miller read, and make your own decisions about whether or not any of them are of sufficient interest to you to pursue on your own.  As for his publishers - poor choice for the American market - it doesn't translate well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Traitor's Wife

There was quite a to-do in my neighborhood about the publication of The Traitor's Wife (#437) by Alison Pataki.  She did a book signing at our local library and spoke with several book clubs in our area.  Her mother-in-law, who lives here, really beat the drums for her.  Naturally, I added the book to my "To Read" list, and it took quite awhile to get it because of the number of holds on it at the library.  Frankly, I'm surprised I'm bothered to finish reading it.  It isn't that Ms. Parataki lacks writing skills; it's probably that after the big build-up, I expected so much more from this book.

This is a fictional imagining of the courtship of Peggy Shippen, belle of Philadelphia society during both the British and the American occupations during the Revolutionary War.  The handsome and desirable Major John Andre left Peggy behind when the British retreated to New York City, breaking her heart as well as those of many other Philadelphia misses, and dashing her hopes of a marriage into the British upper class.  Major General Benedict Arnold succeeded Major Andre as Peggy's suitor, even though he was twice her age and unable to dance at balls because of the war wounds he had sustained.  We know who was successful in his pursuit of  the lovely Miss Shippen.

Ms. Pataki choose to tell the story from the perspective of a young, orphaned colonial girl with strong Patriot leanings (of course!) hired to be a servant and ladies' maid to two of the Shippen daughters.  While Clara Bell recounts the goings-on in the household (of which she does not approve) she herself is being wooed by the Shippen's groom.  This soppy romance brackets the main, much more interesting and powerful narrative.  Peggy Shippen Arnold was deemed to be one of the most attractive girls of her age, but her personality in this telling is as ugly as her face and figure were beautiful.  She is just unremittingly bad, and that one-sidedness threw off the balance of the story as far as I was concerned.  The entire idea for Benedict Arnold to betray his country for money and position was Peggy Shippen's.  She successfully manipulates all the men around her like so many puppets in a way that beggars belief.  She undoubtedly had a hand in the matter based on available historic sources, but those same sources portray her as a loving mother and devoted wife.  Who knows where the reality lies?  I know I, for one, will be consulting other, non-fiction sources for more information.

I have to admit that an unintended bit of humor hit me every time I read the dialogue between Clara Bell and her sweetheart Caleb (who naturally feels he is not doing his patriotic duty at the Shippens, a family that refuses to take sides in the war, and goes off to enlist with Washington's army.).  Caleb always calls her by her full name: "Clara Bell".  If you're of a certain age, that name conjures up images of the horn-tooting clown sidekick on the Hawdy Doody Show, which does tend to ruin the romantic mood Ms. Pataki is trying to set.  That name, though, added a certain je ne sais quoi to my reading, as did the anachronisms that occasionally popped up.  Who knew cocktail parties were so popular in colonial Philadelphia?  Peggy Shippen was about thirty years ahead of her time by throwing one.

Some people will undoubtedly love this novel, but the cynic in me can't help but wonder: would it ever have been published by a major house if not for her maiden name?  Hmm...  Consider yourself warned.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fangs Out

Fangs Out (#436) - sounds like the perfect title for a Halloween read, doesn't it?  But in this case, you'd be wrong.  It's actually a fighter pilot term, and describes precisely the state of mind that Cordell Logan is in after someone sabotages his plane in the second of David Freed's mystery series.

Logan has been retained by Medal of Honor recipient Hub Walker and his former Playboy Centerfold wife Crissy in appreciation for rescuing their small plane in foggy conditions.  Hub Walker, one of Cordell's personal heroes, wants him to prove that a family friend was not involved in the murder of Walker's daughter ten years previously.  Dorian Munz, the killer, has been tried and executed for the crime, so it sounds like easy money to Cordell who is currently suffering from a financial dry spell.  When he's muscled by the very folks who ought to be glad to talk to Logan, one witness is murdered, and his plane crashes after taking off from the local San Diego airfield with a couple of police detectives aboard, it's time to get serious about finding who is really responsible for the mayhem.  Was the wrong person executed, as Munz claimed all along?

Red herrings abound as Cordell struggles to keep his personal and professional lives from imploding.  His planned reunion with ex-wife Savannah is riddled with emotional traps, and both members of his "family" have disappeared: Mrs. Schmulowitz, his eighty-five year old yenta landlady, has gone missing after her tummy tuck plastic surgery and Kiddiot, the most indifferent cat in the world, has failed to return home even for the brisket Mrs. Schmulowitz has made him.  Will anything ever go right for Cordell Logan?  You'll just have to keep reading after the bomb Mr. Freed drops at the end.  I'd tell you more, but I have to go check on my brisket...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Twelfth Enchantment

Many years ago, Regency romances used to be my preferred reading, a taste I shared with my mother, so there was always a plentiful supply of them around the house.  More recently, I have preferred reading books with more emphasis on an interesting plot, not the formulaic "girl meets boy" romances in which the impediments the couple face on their way to the altar are the whole point of the story.  I am happy to report that I just finished a book that meets both of these requirements:  The Twelfth Enchantment (#435) by David Liss. 

It's a Regency romance (complete with Lord Byron and the mystical poet William Blake) where a battle is being fought for the heart and soul of England and her people through the Industrial Revolution.  If the mill owners succeed, humanity will be stamped out of every worker and magic will be banished from the Sceptered Isle.  Only a penniless young woman, Lucy Derrick, has the power to prevent this bleak future from becoming reality, but she has no idea why these forces are rallying around her or what she is supposed to do about it, until a mysterious young woman and the man from Lucy's past who ruined her reputation and blighted her prospects arrive in Nottingham to assist her.

I could not put this book down.  The supernatural creatures that surround Lucy and her married sister are frightening.  Perhaps the pre-Halloween period is the best possible time to read such a tale, but it certainly fills the bill for an interesting story in which the romance is secondary, but still satisfying.  I can't wait to read David Liss' newest book The Day of Atonement.  I hope it matches the standard set by The Twelfth Enchantment.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul

I was really excited when a won a copy of Jenny Nordberg's book The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan (#434) from Good Reads.  However, the book turned out to be such a disappointment I gave up on it about half way through, a rare occurrence for me.  Maybe the early positive buzz about it was from critics who wished to appear politically correct - a new view of feminism from one of the most restrictive societies in the world.  It just seemed rather pointless to me.

Jenny Nordberg is a Swedish journalist who happened to chance upon what she hoped would turn out to be a scandalous story while she was interviewing a female Afghani politician; one of her four daughters was presented to the world as a boy.  She was given a boy's name, dressed like a boy and given all the privileges of a boy.  Why?  Were there more like her out there in Afghan society?  That's the story Nordberg set out to discover.  As it turns out, it's actually a fairly common phenomenon in Afghanistan where choosing to pass off a daughter as a son can provide the family with many benefits, as long as that child is returned to her true gender before puberty.  After all, the girl's virginity is still her sole worth and the family's only bargaining chip in this patriarchal society.

Let's be clear about one thing.  Ms. Nordberg is a journalist, not a social scientist.  She does report on a previously unacknowledged facet of Afghan domestic life, but her analysis and  broad, sweeping generalizations about those facts are what I question.  She similarly makes negative generalizations about Americans and aspects of American social life, some of which are warranted, but others are equally off target.  That made me wonder just how accurate and unbiased her reporting of Afghan's women's lives is, based on a limited number of interviews.  Since a foundation of the Afghani culture is hospitality to strangers, did her interview subjects tell Ms. Nordberg what they thought she wanted to hear about such an intimate and private topic they can't even bring themselves to discuss amongst themselves or were they telling her the truth as they experienced it?

Did Ms. Nordberg pursue this topic with any motive in mind other than money?  Does she expect to make these women's lives better, or stop the practice altogether?  I don't think from reading this and other books about the region that this is possible or even realistic anytime in the foreseeable future.

In this case, the cover art work is the perfect metaphor for the contents of The Underground Girls of Kabul.  You can color the girl's face to indicate she's passing as a boy.  You can also color me disappointed.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Colleen McCullough is back in rare form with her latest novel, Bittersweet (#433).  In it, she tells the story of four Australian sisters just after the end of World War I.  What makes the Latimer sisters unusual is that they are twins, only twenty months apart.  Living under the thumb of Maude, the Reverend Thomas Latimer's second wife, the girls are anxious to escape the household slavery of living at home by embarking on careers of their own.  In 1920's Australia, a new path is opening for women - becoming a registered nurse.  Their father's influence on the local hospital board is sufficient to win Edda, Grace, Kitty and Tufts places in the pioneering nursing program.  Not all of the girls make it through the rigorous program of study, and their ultimate fates could not be more different.

Ms. McCullough takes the reader to some unexpected places and situations in this engrossing book.  It could so easily have become yet another beautiful girl meets rich man who marries her and takes her away from it all -  times four.  The miracle is that at doesn't, and what happens in this novel is so much more interesting.  Not all the twins' stories are happy, but they do all call upon their inner strengths to survive and thrive where they land. 

I found it a thoroughly satisfying read, and an interesting window on a period in Australian history I had never thought about before - the struggle to throw off the taint of the English class system (which they still seem to be dealing with to some extent when I visited a couple of years ago!) and the enormous economic and political upheaval caused by the Great Depression which affected Australia almost more severely than any other country.

In fact, the one thing I did not like about this book was the cover art.  I know I haven't mentioned this in any of my posts for awhile, but I found the photo of generic flapper used on the cover so very off-putting, I actually considered covering the book with a temporary brown paper cover while I was reading it.  As I got into the book, I found it even more disturbing that the photo bore absolutely no relationship to the contents of the book.  It's not a story about one sister; it's most definitely an ensemble cast of characters here, and the concentration is on their personal and professional achievements, not their clothing.  Don't make the mistake of judging this book by its cover.  Consider its author and you'll be rewarded by a "romance" with more substance than most.  Recommended.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Corsican Caper

Why, oh, why don't I have friends who will invite me to spend three long, leisurely weeks visiting them at their seaside mansion near Marseille for the sole purpose of eating fabulous meals (and never, ever gaining a single ounce!) with the added bonus of side trips to Paris for shopping with a bottomless wallet??!!  The fact that Sam Levitt and his girlfriend Elena can save that same friend from the dangerous overtures of a Russian oligarch determined to buy said mansion at any cost is just the icing on the cake in Peter Mayle's latest diverting bit of fluff The Corsican Caper (#432).

It's a perfect hammock read.  If you fall asleep while reading this, you'll wake refreshed from your nap and still able to finish this book before dinner.  Try not to be too disappointed if the meal doesn't measure up to Provencal cooking...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The 6th Extinction

Can't sleep at night?  Then reading James Rollins' latest Sigma Force novel The 6th Extinction (#431) won't cause you lose any additional slumber.  I wish I could say the same for the rest of us!  Rollins doesn't have to rely on the paranormal to scare us; he manages quite well simply by reading the current scientific journals.  There's plenty going on out there to scare the pants off most of us.

I have somehow managed to miss the warnings from experts that we are currently in the midst of the 6th Extinction here on earth.  Life as we know it will soon (in scientific terms) be gone, to be replaced by who knows exactly what.  Scientists are taking courses of action to deal with this, either conservation/preservation or by synthesizing replacement life in the lab.  Apparently with the tools currently available, almost anyone can design their own genes. That's the launching point for the action in The 6th Extinction.  There is a third option, and that's what the villain in this piece is determined to bring about, survival of the fittest, if man is on an equal footing with every other life form on earth, including those found only in the most extreme environments like Antarctica.  When a containment lab is breached in a remote California wilderness, the Sigma Force members are called in to deal with a horrifying environmental disaster.  They're aided this time on their quest by a plucky California State Park Ranger and her dog, Nikko.  The fate of the world hangs by a slender thread...

The action here is non-stop and oh, so plausible.  That's what makes a Rollins thriller so exciting.  The settings may be exotic, but the elements he brings in to play are the scientific discoveries reporters are writing about every day.  I especially like the fact that Rollins is finally adding more canine characters to his stories.  Who better to write about them than a qualified veterinarian?  Hard to believe that this is the 10th book in this series.  It just keeps getting better.