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Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Forgotten Room

My husband recommended Lincoln Child's thriller, The Forgotten Room (#545) because he thought I might find the Newport, Rhode Island setting intriguing. 

Dr. Jeremy Logan has been called in to consult on a strange death at a think tank located in one of the "beach cottages" built by an eccentric millionaire.  Lux is usually buzzing with scientific research and projects, but a number of the resident scientists have exhibited bizarre behavior.  Since Dr. Logan was once a Fellow at Lux, he seems to be the logical person to call in to investigate discreetly.  When he discovers a hidden room in the West Wing he figures that unseen human hands are pulling strings  to make sure that no one else uncovers the secret concealed in the room.  One person has already died.  How many more will be sacrificed to protect its contents?

I thought it was a fun read, especially if you like a dash of woo-woo factored in, which of course, is scientifically disproved by the end of the book for all you scoffers out there.  What I found unbelievable was the size of the supposed mansion that housed Lux.  I know the Newport cottages are enormous, but come on, none of them come even close to what's described here!

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Testament of Mary

Colm Toibin's slim volume, The Testament of Mary (#544) is the complete opposite of Christopher Buckley's rollicking send-up of medieval Catholic Europe.  Here we meet Mary, near the end of her life, bitter and disillusioned about what has become of her and her unnamed son.  Yet, somehow, it feels real.  It's a woman who speaks to us here, not a remote icon.

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Toibin's vision of Mary, there is much here to ponder.  There really are remarkably few mentions of Mary in the Bible, and it feels as though he is giving us a plausible reason for why that may be so.

It won't take you long to read this novella, but it will stay with you long after you close the book.

The Relic Master

The timing could not have been better on Christopher Buckley's latest satirical novel, The Relic Master (#543).  I have just reached a point in my EfM studies which makes me appreciate just how absurd the whole business of relics, indulgences and raising revenues for the parties controlling those very things sound on paper, and yet how small a distance Mr. Buckley had to stray from the truth to concoct an over-the-top plot concerning the stealing of the Shroud of Chamberly. 

Dismas, the eponymous Relic Master, works for two patrons: Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, and Frederick, Elector of Saxony.  For ambitious Albrecht, collecting relics is a matter of surpassing the size of Frederick's vast collection (and of course, the cash flow from the faithful's viewing of the same!).  For Frederick, the relics are genuine objects of veneration.  His brief for Dismas is to make sure that each acquisition is authentic.  Dismas does have professional integrity; he has never knowingly sold his his patrons a fraudulent relic.  Things take a nasty turn for Dismas when he refuses to buy a fake for Albrecht which was a potential money-maker.  What does Albrecht do, but build his very own fake. For him, it's business: display a relic, collect a donation, grant an indulgence to the faithful so as to shorten their own or a loved one's time in Purgatory (a very convenient medieval invention!).  It really was the proverbial Sacred (Cash) Cow.  No wonder Luther was raising a ruckus about it in Frederick's Saxony!   From there, it's just a short leap to blackmailing Dismas into stealing a neighboring Duchy's prize Shroud.

With the help of Albrecht Durer and three German mercenaries provided by Archbishop Albrecht to keep an eye on Dismas, the two set off on a wild adventure across Europe, praying to come out of it alive, but not very hopeful.  Mix in some murders, a runaway beauty some Italians and the action never stops.

Probably not for devout Catholics, or those who think religion and satire don't mix well.  I happen to think that they do, and really enjoyed this one!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

In the Land of Invisible Women

I found Dr. Qanta Ahmed's memoir of her time in Saudi Arabia as an ICU physician in Riyadh interesting, horrifying and gushing all at once.  In the Land of Invisible Women (#542) is an aptly chosen title.  Not only is the all-encompassing abbayeh mandated wear for women in Saudi Arabia, but their movements in society are equally constrained, even for those women who have broken through the initial barriers into a professional position outside their homes.  I did not find much of what she relates here new, since I have a friend who travels frequently to Saudi Arabia on business.  Suffice it to say that his wife refuses to accompany him there despite frequent invitations to do so!

One of the chief reasons I was interested in reading In the Land of Invisible Women, though, was the fact that Qanta Ahmed is Muslim.  Although of Pakistani heritage, she was raised in London and educated there and in the United States.  What brought her to her position in Saudi Arabia was the fact that her visa to remain in the States was turned down after she completed her residencies in New York City.  The National Guard Hospital in Riyadh had been actively headhunting her, so she figured why not give it a try.  Being thoroughly Westernized, and having never worn a veil, she experienced such culture shock it was in some ways surprising even to her.  She thought her Muslim upbringing would ease the way for her.  It didn't.  She documents the many ways she butted heads with the Saudis around her, both male and female.  She developed a crush on one of co-workers, although a romance was out of the question in the claustrophobic social atmosphere, but it did give her many insights into male/female relationships there.

One great gift that she came away from after two years of living there was a rekindling of her Muslim faith.  One of her co-workers took her aside to suggest that since she was already there she should make her pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the seven pillars of Islam.  On impulse, she decided to do it, and her travel there changed her life.  She describes the experience in detail, and it was a fascinating and moving glimpse into a closed world.

I did think her writing was a bit over the top for my taste; nonetheless, her time there opens a window on a world that I was curious to learn more about.    Even there, the times, they are a-changing.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Murder Most Malicious

I haven't written about cover art in awhile, but I almost overlooked Alyssa Maxwell's new murder series debut, Murder Most Malicious - A Lady and Lady's Maid Mystery (#541) because of the insipid cover art.  The only reason I picked it up off the table was because I thought it was a Christmas novel, and I am a sucker for those stories.  As it turned out, it would have been a shame to let this cover deter me, because I quite enjoyed this Downton Abbey-esque mystery.

It's the first Christmas at Foxwood Hall since the end of World War I.  The residents both upstairs and down are hoping to return to a more normal life, but it's difficult with so many gone or injured in the war. Besides, Lady Penelope Renshaw has enjoyed a measure of freedom not possible with the pre-war social strictures.  Does she really want everything to go back to the way it used to be?

Her grandparents, The Earl of Wroxley and his wife, though, are hoping that her eldest sister, Lady Julia, will be announcing her engagement on Boxing Day to Lord Allerton, owner of a neighboring estate.  But Lady Penelope almost walks in on the couple on Christmas night, and it's clear from the conversation she overhears that her grandparents' hopes will be dashed.  When Lord Allerton doesn't appear the next day for breakfast or lunch, Penelope isn't surprised.  It isn't until Eva Huntford, the girls' ladies maid, opens her Boxing Day gift from the family that she finds a gruesome item tucked in amongst her other gifts.  When she rushes back to Foxwood Hall to report what she found, she discovers that several of the other servants and village merchants also received unwelcome presents in their boxes.

Why can't anyone find Lord Allerton, and what links those who received the ghastly gifts in their Boxes?  The clues point to someone with intimate knowledge of Foxwood Hall, and there are plenty of suspects to choose from.  The local Inspector has never had to deal with a crime of this magnitude, and is too ready to pin it on one of the staff.  Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her maid, Eva Huntford are going to find out on their own who is really responsible if the Inspector won't, if it's the last thing they do.  They way things turn out, it just might be!

I'll look forward to more entries in this series in the future, especially since this is the final season of Downton Abbey!

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Rent Collector

What better way to start off a brand new year of reading than with Camron Wright's The Rent Collector (#540)!  I am indebted to the ladies of my Literary Circle for suggesting this novel for our January meeting. 

The subject matter of an impoverished couple eking out a living by picking trash in the huge municipal dump outside of Cambodia's capital of Phnom Pen, and the unprepossessing cover photo of the slum perched atop the dump made me put off reading it until after Christmas was over.  I was sure it was going to be a depressing story.  Nothing is ever as dreary as a worthy tale designed to evoke guilt in the reader. 

Nothing could be further from the truth in this book.  Instead, I felt uplifted by this story and more grateful than ever for all the things with which I've been blessed, the material things being the least of these.  Booklist got it exactly right in its cover blurb: "A beautifully told story about the perseverance of the human spirit."

It's about courage, love and learning in the face of adversity and the hope that lives even in the most seemingly impossible places.  It has a special meaning for those who are most likely to embrace this story - the readers of the world, wherever they may be.  Don't miss this one.