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Monday, April 27, 2015

Crazy Rich Asians

Every once in a while, there's nothing more satisfying than indulging yourself in a really dishy novel.  My sister-in-law's recommendation of Crazy Rich Asians (#488) by Kevin Kwan fit the bill perfectly.

When Rachel Chu's boyfriend Nick Young invites her to spend their summer break from their professorial duties at NYU on a visit to Singapore where he's the best man at his friend's wedding, it takes some persuasion on his part to get Rachel to agree.  But after two years, things are pretty serious between them, so maybe it's time to meet his family and see where he grew up.  She's been raised in the US, but her mother, a successful California real estate broker, has talked about China and taught her Mandarin since she was little .

Nick's friends and cousins tried to warn him to prepare Rachel for what was coming, but Nick can't honestly see why he might need to fill her in for the world of the super-rich she's about to encounter during the festivities of the wedding of the year in Singapore.  Rachel finds herself in the middle of a world of wealth she couldn't even have imagined with a huge target painted on her back.  No ABC* girlfriend is going to snatch Nick from under the very noses of every single, unattached heiress in the Far East!  Besides, she's not good enough.  Although his family is polite to her, who is her family, anyway?

While Nick is doing his best man duties steering Colin Khoo away from the assorted vices his connection Bernard Tai has planned for his bachelor party weekend, he assumes Rachel is having a wonderful time at the bride's bachelorette party on a private South Sea island.  Nothing could be further from the truth! 

With his mother busily trying to scotch his romance with Rachel, Nick's cousin Astrid, a famous society beauty, is living through a crisis in her own marriage.  With more than forty million dollars spent on the wedding extravaganza for Colin Khoo and his supermodel bride Araminta Lee, will anyone come out of this novel happy?  Or will the money be enough to compensate for everything else? 

How could this not be a fun, juicy read with marvelous descriptions of food every few pages?  I've added Singapore to my list of "must visit" places!

*American Born Chinese.  Author Kevin Kwan, an insider from this world, provides plenty of footnotes on the people, places, food and slang in his book.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Tapestry

I found myself dissatisfied after finishing Nancy Bilyeau's novel of Tudor England, The Tapestry (#487).  I think that was for two reasons.  The Tapestry is the third of three novels featuring Joanna Stafford, former Dominican novice, turned out of Dartford Priory under Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, and distant cousin to the king himself.  Her story began with The Crown, which I admired very much, and continued with The Chalice, which my library did not purchase. 

I think, similar to Stieg Larsson's trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, that Nancy Bilyeau has written one story, divided into three separate volumes, and that if you don't read all of them in sequence, you miss critical elements of the plot.  So right from the beginning of The Tapestry, I felt I was missing information that would have been pertinent.  So the lesson to be learned from that is to be sure to read all three books in order.

The second reason I was left feeling dissatisfied was that the tension of the story seemed to peter out about a third of the way through the book, when the plot to bring down Cromwell proved to be linked to necromancers in Germany, the very place Joanna's fiancĂ© had disappeared after their aborted wedding.  I admired The Crown for not going with the obvious romantic ending, but here The Tapestry devolved into just another complicated romance with a plot to kill Joanna thrown into the mix.  Paracelsus, Nostradamus, Dr. Faust - just not my thing.  And perhaps it's just me, but I wound up feeling that Joanna herself deserved a trip to Tower Hill far more than most of the people who wound up being executed in this story.  Although she relented at the last minute (apparently in The Chalice), she did wind up inadvertently destroying the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves.  Joanna spent much of The Tapestry feeling like a hypocrite.  Well, if the shoe fits...

I suppose I am judging this book so harshly because I expected so much from it, and, in my opinion, it didn't deliver.  Also, I wish Ms. Bilyeau had included Julia Fox's excellent biography of Jane Boleyn (the evil Lady Rochford here), or Hilary Mantel's sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in her two Booker Prize winning novels in her bibliography.  It might have led to far more accurate and nuanced depictions of real persons, but of course, that would eliminated such black and ruthless villains from the plot. I realize The Tapestry is fiction, but I prefer it when assimilating the historical record into the story is done seamlessly.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Patriot Threat

Cotton Malone is back in Steve Berry's latest, The Patriot Threat (#486).  This time he's been asked by his former boss at the Magellan Billet, Stephanie Nelle, to observe the transfer of $20 million from a vault in Venice to a courier due to deliver the money to North Korea.  Hanging from the struts of a helicopter as it tries to ditch him over the waters of Venice isn't exactly what Cotton had in mind when he signed on for the assignment.  It also turns out that the North Koreans are after documents copied and stolen from the U.S. Treasury Department and one original document stolen from their files that could ultimately bring down the U.S. Government.  The stakes are impossibly high in a game set in motion by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his nemesis, Andrew Mellon back in 1936 which could destroy the world economy.

There's lots of action in The Patriot Threat, but I found the "What ifs?" posed by Steve Berry in this book even more interesting.  What if the Sixteenth Amendment (which imposes the federal income tax) wasn't legal?  What if a debt the United States owed for so long the interest would cripple and bankrupt the country was proved to be legitimate and repayment was demanded by the heirs?  What if our enemies could bring about either situation, or better, could prove both?  Instant re-balancing of power on a global scale... 

Lots of the most fascinating tidbits of American history in this one about unsung American heroes, the Constitution and our currency.  I guarantee it will have you raiding your wallet for $1 and $20 bills to check on details you've probably never noticed on the money you carry around with you every day.  It's always a good day when what you read entertains and educates you!

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Marriage Game: A Novel of Elizabeth I

I tend to think of Alison Weir, author of The Marriage Game: A Novel of Elizabeth I (#485) principally as a non-fiction writer of Tudor biographies, and in this novel she doesn't stray far from the facts surrounding Elizabeth's refusal to marry or name a successor to her throne during her lifetime.

Ms.Weir does indulge in some speculation as to whether Elizabeth did remain a Virgin Queen, as she herself always claimed, or whether things might have proceeded further than that with Elizabeth's stepfather, Thomas Seymour, or with her longtime favorite, Robert Dudley, but ultimately the author comes to the conclusion that this was unlikely.  Lest you think that the entire book consists of salacious imaginings of what could have happened behind closed doors, rest assured that the politics of the times took precedence, especially her councilors' and Parliament's eagerness to see her safely wed and the succession assured. Weir takes us through the entire reign of Elizabeth, year by year on this score, beginning with her accession to the throne until her death.  Though her closest advisors were devoted to her, reading about Elizabeth's behavior, tantrums and indecisiveness and inability to take action upon matters that touched her and her kingdom closely, I, at least, wondered why they stuck around.  Power, preferment and money, I suppose...

If you're interested in the Tudor period, and want to read something that has a ring of truth to it, The Marriage Game would be a good bet.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Condemned to Death: A Sixteenth-century Burren Mystery

Cora Harrison has created an intriguing character in Mara, the Brehon of the Burren.  Sounds like she should be in a science fiction novel, doesn't it?  But in reality, Mara lives and works in the Kingdom of the Burren, on the western coast of Ireland during the early 1500s.  Her post of Brehon requires her to investigate the unexplained death or murder of anyone within the kingdom, pronounce judgment and levy punishment and fines as laid out in the ancient Gaelic laws among her duties.  She also runs a law school for aspiring scholars of the law, which is open to all qualified candidates, be they male or female.  In fact, in Mara's world, women are equally respected in the professions, since they have to meet the same rigorous standards and exams as their male counterparts.  That life is only gradually changing around them as the English wrest control of the Irish kingdoms from the kings and clans, and women are increasingly restricted to solely domestic roles.

In Condemned to Death (#484), a body of a stranger is found in a boat lacking sails and oars on a beach in a small fishing village south of Galway.  The manner of death is that of one who has been judged guilty of fingal, the murder of a member of his or her immediate family.  At first, no one in the village will admit to recognizing the man, but the closer Mara looks at the situation, the more her suspicions are aroused that the villagers know more than they are telling.  With the help of her scholars, she slowly but surely tracks down his identity and the truth of the manner of death of the man in the boat.  In the sad and shocking aftermath, Mara must deal with bearing the burden of uncovering the truth at all costs.

A series well worth discovering.  Cora Harrison introduces each chapter with Gaelic laws of the period pertinent to the on-going investigations.  I wish a few of those laws (regarded as barbaric by the English) were still in effect today.  I'd be bringing complaints against a few of my neighbors who don't clean up after their dogs - I'd never have to buy butter again!  You don't have to read this series from the beginning, but it's helpful if you have a choice to understand the various relationships.

Friday, April 10, 2015

7 Deadly Wonders

Having recently read Matthew Reilly's Great Zoo of China, it didn't take my husband long to track down one of his older books, 7 Deadly Wonders (#483).  For me, it was equally entertaining, with its premise of tracking down the missing Golden Capstone which once adorned the Great Pyramid of Egypt.  It had been split into seven sections and concealed in the ruins of the remaining Wonders of the Ancient World. 

No pressure in this novel, except there are three competing teams searching for the pieces, and they must be assembled on the top of the Great Pyramid before noon on the day the Tartarus Sunspot aligns perfectly with earth (once every 4,500 years), or the world will end.  Of course, there is a bonus for anyone who does succeed in this task: political power for a thousand years, or a time of unprecedented peace - owner's choice.  For Jack West, Jr., it's a matter of stopping the evil Americans or the equally nasty European Union faction headed up by a sinister cardinal.  Jack West's alliance represents smaller nations which stand to be wiped out if either of the other two teams beat them to the prize.  And of course, each one of the pieces of the Golden Capstone have been extravagantly booby-trapped by the Egyptian architects who designed their resting places.  Can any team possibly survive?  To up the ante, there are children involved in the hunt.

It's high octane, non-stop entertainment with an ever-mounting body count interspersed with all kinds of arcane trivia regarding the real Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.  As Reilly points out through his characters, only one of these survives today: the Great Pyramid of Egypt.  Since obelisks are important to this story, it's incumbent on me to refute one of these fascinating bits of trivia.  In the novel, he says that the top of the Great Pyramid with the Capstone surmounting it is exactly the same height above sea level as the Washington Monument.  While that may have been true previously, after the earthquake which damaged it and repairs were completed, it was recently revealed that the Washington Monument is now 9 inches shorter than originally measured.  Sorry if that throws any mystic interpretations out of whack, Mr. Reilly!  Still a fun read, though.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding; The Future of Interfaith Dialogue

Globalization, Gender, and Peacebuilding; The Future of Interfaith Dialogue (#482) by Kwok Pui-Lan is required Interlude reading for my EfM course.  When I read the cover blurbs to my husband after he asked what I was reading, it was enough to make him comatose.  And that's a shame, because the text of Kwok's 2011 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality was actually quite interesting and much easier to read and comprehend than those cover blurbs would lead you to believe.

How do you talk to others whose beliefs are not the same as yours when you are not even allowed to sit at the table where the discussions are taking place?  That's one of the points Kwok addresses in the Gender portion of her lecture.  And how do you set aside your own personal and cultural biases to approach others' beliefs with tolerance and an open mind?  The world is a far different place today than it was even a hundred years ago.  Yet if we don't make the effort to do so, what future can there be for a peaceful future with so much violence precipitated by religion?

I certainly don't have the answers, and I'm not sure that Dr. Kwok does either, but at least she's thinking, talking and writing about it.  Anything that stretches your mind and opens your eyes is always worth reading.  So it is with Globalization, Gender and Peacebuilding.

Monday, April 6, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

Usually, I find that the books that linger on the Best Sellers lists are not to my taste;  I read them and wonder what on earth all the fuss is about.  But every once in a while, the notable exception comes along, and for me it's Anthony Doerr's novel All the Light We Cannot See (#481).

If you read the blurbs on this book, they say it's about a blind French girl and a German boy who is fond of gadgets set before, during and after World War II.  So how does Mr. Doerr take something that sounds so inconsequential and weave the strands of these two characters' stories into such a profound and mesmerizing tale?  It's literary magic, these intersections of dark and light, nail-biting tension and sublime beauty.

None of my friends who have read it before me ever talked much about what happens in the book itself.   They related only the impact reading it had on them, and I think that's precisely how it should be.  It's best left to discover this remarkable book on your own terms.  Just don't make the mistake of missing it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Death of a Liar

Hamish Macbeth wishes that everything would stay calm and tranquil in the remote patch of the Scottish Highlands that is his to patrol, but somehow, it never is. 

In Death of a Liar (#480), the latest entry in M.C. Beaton's entertaining cozy mystery series, Hamish responds to a call from a woman who claims she's been assaulted.  When the local doctor proves the assault couldn't have happened, Hamish isn't so quick to believe Liz Bentley when he receives another phone call from her, saying someone is breaking into her house.  When Hamish's conscience prods him to drive clear up to Cromish to check her story the next morning, he finds that she was, indeed, telling the truth.  And what about those nasty neighbors who have bought the old Lochdubh schoolhouse?  They made no friends in town, but no one wanted either of them dead, either.  If only  Blair and Daviot, his superior officers in Strathbane would leave him alone to solve the three murders, he could get on with things.  But Daviot would like nothing better than to close down the Lochdubh police station and Blair will actively sabotage his work and take credit for any progress on the cases..  Nothing is going right in his personal life, either.  He wants to get rid of Dick Fraser, his partner, who has settled comfortably into Hamish's police station as his roommate.  Sure, he can cook and clean, but Hamish would rather have a wife to do that, and Dick is definitely cramping his style!

How Hamish Macbeth still manages to come out of the whole messy affair smelling like a rose, and with his own world back to a peaceful equilibrium makes for a highly entertaining tale.  And yes, you can pick up Death of a Liar and read it as a stand alone mystery, but I think if you do, you'll probably want to go back and find out just how things came to be at such a pass with Hamish and Elspeth, and Priscilla, and Dick Fraser, and Blair and Daviot...