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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hiddensee - A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker

There were so many unpleasant images in the first twenty pages of Gregory Maguire's Nutcracker Ballet backstory, Hiddensee (#704), that I decided it would be too much of a chore to continue on.  There are so many more intriguing books waiting on my bookshelf, I'd rather get to them.  So, thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Maguire!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Pupcakes = A Christmas Novel

I've pretty much given up on reading straight romances, but I couldn't resist the Santa hat bedecked pug on the cover of Pupcakes -  A Christmas Novel (#703).  The story it contained by Annie England Noblin turned out to be just the Christmas treat the cover promised.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Brydie Benson is in her early thirties, newly divorced and living in her best friend's basement in Memphis, wallowing in her misery.  Elliott does what a genuine friend does; she gets Brydie out of her house and back to her first love: baking.  How Brydie manages to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life, find her true vocation, and find friends and love along the way is the subject of this novel.  It also involves dogs, particularly the older, smelly pug of the cover, Teddy Roosevelt, and a dashing doctor.


I think what I liked best about this book is that addresses the problem of loneliness of many kinds.  Brydie is given a chance to live rent free in a well kept home in a desirable neighborhood of Memphis as a house sitter for a woman who is now in a nursing home.  The only catch is that Brydie must also take care of her beloved pug, Teddy Roosevelt, and bring him to visit her every week.  Everyone in this equation is lonely; Brydie, Teddy Roosevelt, and Pauline, who has been forced out of her home and life when she has a stroke.  What is hopeful here is that it is never too late to form new bonds of friendship and even love.


When Brydie, a professional baker, finds a seasonal job at a big box store bakery for the holidays, she's on the road to recovering the sense of purpose she lost along with her husband and their bakery in the divorce.  It isn't always easy, and I confess that I had to hunt for a hankie towards the end, but there is a happy ending here.  I hope Yule'll love it, too! (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Christmas Most Shocking

Rejoice!  Harry and Emmie Reese now have a holiday tale of their own in A Christmas Most Shocking (#702) by Robert Bruce Stewart.  It is indeed a shocking story on many levels - in the manner in which one of the characters meets his end, and in the goings on in the Washington home of the Countess von Schnurrenberger und Kesselheim.


Emmie Reese has been summoned to Washington to record the Countess' life story while Harry stays behind in New York to finish up an insurance case.  Emmie has promised to return home in time for Christmas, but she is showing no signs of returning when Harry receives a series of mysterious anonymous letters hinting broadly at a scandalous affair in D.C.  When he arrives to find himself an unwanted guest of the Countess in a crowded household, things soon go from bad to worse...


The events of this turn-of-the century December are told by two narrators: Harry Reese and by Sesbania, a precocious child staying with the Countess while her parents are in Europe.  It seems that Emmie may have more than met her match in the eye to the main chance Sesbania, which is truly a terrifying thought.


This bawdy and amusing tale will keep you warm on a cold winter's night.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Indigo Girl

Based on the life of the real Eliza Lucas Pinckney, The Indigo Girl (#701) by Natasha Boyd is an engrossing read.  At sixteen, Eliza is entrusted with the running of three estates in South Carolina when her father's military ambitions call him back to Antigua, leaving his wife and two daughters behind.


Eliza struggles to make the plantations profitable in the early eighteenth century with rice and timber.  Her interest in botany leads her to experiment with other potential cash crops.  She learns that the French are making a fortune selling indigo dye, grown on their Caribbean plantations;  the climate around Charles Town seems similar.  Could the crop succeed here?


How she eventually succeeds in profitably growing indigo, surmounting seemingly impossible obstacles with the support of some influential friends and supporters, make for a page turning read interspersed with excerpts from Eliza's own letters.


I found this book particularly interesting because we onw property in the area where indigo was grown in South Carolina.  It was so important to the colony's economy, that South Carolina's state flag is indigo blue in acknowledgement, an interesting fact that Ms. Boyd notes at the end of the book.  If you are interested in learning about a strong and influential Early American woman who today is little known outside the Charleston, South Carolina area, this book is just the ticket.  Highly recommended.

Skipping Christmas

Who knew John Grisham wrote a comic Christmas novel?  I certainly didn't until  Skipping Christmas (#700)  was suggested for my book club's December read.  It's actually more of a novella that was turned into a movie q couple of years ago - Christmas with the Kranks.


Personally, I found it less comical than mean spirited.  The movie version does its best to add an element of Christmas magic to it by expanding the mysterious character of Martin, who only makes a brief late appearance in the book.


The premise is that a few days after Thanksgiving, Luther and Nora Krank drive their daughter to the airport to see her off (in the pre 911 days, when non-ticket holders could actually go to the gates!) as she leaves for a Peace Corps assignment in Peru.  Her mother moans that Christmas won't be the same this year.  The kernel is planted in Luther's head that they should forget Christmas this year altogether and go on a luxury cruise instead.  He didn't count on his wife's resistance, nor the neighborhood outrage when he refuses to decorate his house or participate in the community charities.  Does he succeed in skipping Christmas?  Of course not!  When he's forced to scramble to put together a last minute celebration, it seems it's payback time. 


Well deserved, if you ask me, for both parents.  I found both of the Kranks thoroughly unlikeable.  In real life, there wouldn't have been any Santa (aka "Martin") to smooth things out.  Although Luther does make one generous gesture in the end, I found it unconvincing and uncharacteristic.  It was a case of "too little, too late" for me.  Luther didn't strike me as having a complete spiritual conversion a la Ebenezer Scrooge.  I'm hoping for happier Christmas reading elsewhere.  Ho! Ho! Ho!

Code Girls - The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

Liza Mundy's remarkable new book finally tells the long hidden story of the pivotal role an unsung group of American women played in helping America win World War II.  Code Girls - The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (#699) tells the story of their contributions to the war effort that most of them were never able to reveal during their own lifetimes under penalty of death according to the oaths they swore.


Ms. Mundy relates how the initial women were recruited by secret invitation to participate in vital war work.  Most signed on without knowing exactly what they were in for, but they proved up to the challenge to break the codes the Nazis and Japanese were using prior to US involvement in the war.  Their job took a mixture of talent, tenacity and toleration for the often tedious tasks.  Yet at the same time, there was the excitement of traveling far from home and working closely with a cadre of other women and male officers in their code breaking work.  Although most started as civilians, the Navy soon was recruiting female officers (although at lower pay grades, benefits and status than their male counterparts) using the lure of a couture uniform to encourage the ladies to enlist.  Those working for the Army remained largely a civilian corps throughout the war.


While Alan Turing justly receives credit for helping to break the Nazi's Enigma Coding machines, America's women worked not only on getting the intercepted information into the right hands as soon as possible, they were also the ones who broke the complicated Japanese codes as well, a daunting task.


Once the war was over, in large part due to these women's efforts, however, most of them were "reminded" by the government that it was their "patriotic" duty to return to their places as wives and mothers, and leave the workplace for the returning GIs.  My own mother lost her teaching job to a returning vet herself.  Most, like her, did not look back and chose to move on with their lives; the difference was that most of their families and friends thought that these women had spent the war years as run of the mill secretaries and clerks, not warriors on the coding front.  As they proved here, winning the war took brains as well as bravery.  Now their story has finally been told, and their roles acknowledged.  Thank you, Ms. Mundy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Collared

It just doesn't get much better than sitting down with a new Andy Carpenter mystery by David Rosenfelt in hand.  I know I'm in for an intricately plotted mystery with a slightly cranky, albeit dog loving, protagonist.  I do so enjoy his snarky wit as he reluctantly pursues a legal case that has gone to the dogs.  Collared (#698) is a perfect example.




Andy Carpenter is seriously thinking of not renewing his license to practice law.  After all, he doesn't need the money.  But when a border collie left at the shelter he co-founded turns out to be the "DNA Dog" missing in a sensational unsolved child abduction case from several years back, Andy is pulled into the case by his wife Laurie.  The mother of Dylan Hickman, the abducted child, is a friend of hers, and a prominent businesswoman.  Can the dog provide some clues to Dylan's whereabouts if the baby is still alive?  What Andy uncovers turns the entire case upside down in a series of twists that I did not see coming.




I really like the way David Rosenfelt has developed his characters over the course of this mystery series.  (By the way, if you haven't already discovered these books on your own, they are most enjoyable read in sequence.  Fantastic Fiction is an excellent website source for checking the order of publication for book series.  See the link below.)  Now that Andy has a son of his own, his viewpoint on the Dylan Hickman case is completely different than it would have been at the start of this series.  One thing never changes for Andy, though: his love of Tara, his golden retriever, and the canine world in general.  I can't wait to hear David Rosenfelt speak at our upcoming BookMania!.  If you've read his non-fiction memoir, Dogtripping: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, and 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure, you'll know that Andy's doggie devotion is strictly autobiographical!  (See my post of 9/12/13.)




Fantastic Fiction



Monday, November 6, 2017

The Alice Network

I'm working my way through the books and authors which will be featured in the upcoming 2018 BookMania!  Kate Quinn will be there to speak about her latest historical fiction novel The Alice Network (#697).


I remember trying to read one of Ms. Quinn's Empress of Rome novels previously, but was put off by the sex and vulgar language.  It's still here in The Alice Network, but it serves its purpose in the plot, so I persevered and was rewarded by a fascinating glimpse of a real World War I heroine, Louise de Bettignies, the "Queen of Spies" and head of The Alice Network.


It's 1947, and Charlotte St. Clair has gotten herself into a "spot of trouble".  On route to Switzerland from New York with her mother for an appointment at a discreet clinic, Charlie jumps ship when her vessel docks at Southampton.  Her beloved cousin Rose has gone missing in the chaos of occupied France in 1945, and although no one has heard from her, every pretty blond girl Charlie sees is Cousin Rose.  Although efforts have been made to locate her, the only link uncovered to Rose's disappearance is a name - Evelyn Gardiner -  and an address in London.


Evelyn Gardiner is, indeed, the clue to unraveling the mystery of Rose Fournier's disappearance. Her fictitious role in real World War I spy ring dubbed "The Alice Network" by British Military Intelligence, proves to be pivotal here, as the story switches between the events of World War I and post World War II France.  Charlie St. Clair, Evelyn Gardiner and her handsome Scottish war veteran driver Finn Kilgore make an unlikely set of allies, but each, in the end, come to find their own kind of peace and closure.  A very satisfying read.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Mercury

I would probably never have found this book on my own.  A friend recommended Mercury (#696) by Margot Livesey after hearing about it at a Writers' Workshop at University of the South.  It's a very twisty psychological tale about obsession. 

Without giving too much away, on the surface, Donald and Viv are a typical suburban couple with a couple of kids living outside Boston.  Everything changes when a newcomer to town decides to board her thoroughbred horse Mercury at the stable where Viv works part time. 

I think this novel works because Ms. Livesey sets up the reader from the beginning to expect something dramatic and drastic has happened to this couple by telling the story first from the husband, Donald's point of view, and then switches to Viv, the wife, (although we still don't know quite what has happened at this point), until the narrative finally is picked up again by Donald.. 

Nothing is wrapped up tidily with a bow at the end; we are still left wondering how the various characters will pick up their lives and go on from here.  But that doesn't really seem to matter.  What this novel does is prod the reader to think about the consequences of actions taken, and the role honesty and trust play in commitments not only to family, but to friends as well.

This is really an ideal book for book clubs to discuss.  I'm looking forward to the conversation with mine!

Friday, October 27, 2017

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

I have read and loved Jamie Ford's first novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, so I was pleased to hear that he would be coming to the 2018 BookMania!.  His latest is Love and Other Consolation Prizes (#695) which features the story of a young boy auctioned off as a raffle prize at the first Seattle World's Fair in 1909.  Fast forward to 1962, when Ernest Young's daughter is a journalist pursuing human interest stories to highlight the 1962 World's Fair with its iconic Space Needle.  When she happens upon old stories of the raffled boy, she has no idea that she will be unraveling long-concealed family secrets.

It's unfair to label people, but I think of Jamie Ford as the male Lisa See.  Since she is one of my favorite authors, that's meant to be a compliment, even though their styles are very different.  What they do have in common, however, is their interest in exploring their Asian backgrounds and the discrimination immigrants from the Far East faced. 

I couldn't wait to find out what happened to Ernest next as he moves from China to America where the winning raffle ticket is held by Seattle's most prominent madam.  There in the Tenderloin Ernest will find the first real home he has ever known.  I won't say more than that, because the pleasures in this book come as the layers of character and plot are unpeeled here, but if you love a good story, well told, then this is a book for you.  Highly recommended.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Full Wolf Moon

A lot of books that I read are prepublication copies, so a number of typos, grammatical errors and parsing problems are to be expected.  When I read the published edition of Lincoln Child's latest Dr. Jeremy Logan thriller, Full Wolf Moon (#694), I was surprised that within the first fifty pages I had to stop twice to Google the foods the protagonist was eating.  What on earth are pickled ramps?  And why would a housewife busy home-schooling two children at a remote Adirondack home be feeding a last-minute dinner guest boeuf bourguiignon with scalloped potatoes and raclette?  Do you know what raclette is?  I didn't.  I thought I had a pretty good grasp on culinary terms, but apparently not.  Also, since Jeremy Logan is a professor at Yale, born and brought up supposedly in the United States, why does he root around in the "boot" of his car, looking for a disguise?  When he gets his fifty year old vintage Lotus convertible stuck down a heavily forested driveway why is he forced to lower the top, climb over the "windscreen" and onto the "hood" of the car?  Why weren't these Briticisms edited out?  Either he climbs over the windscreen onto the bonnet of his car, or he goes over the windshield onto the hood.  The mixed metaphors were irritating to this reader.

The plot revolves around savage attacks on hikers in extremely remote areas of Adirondack Park.  Two of the bodies aren't discovered until the bodies are in advanced states of decomposition.  The third victim is found quickly, and the Medical Examiner is able to pinpoint time of death to eighteen hours previously - during a full moon.  Yet the author states unequivocally that all three victims were killed during a full moon,; by a bear or some other animal.  Or were they?  An odd clannish family in the neighborhood with "tainted blood"  points to the possibility of - wait for it! - a werewolf roaming the vast and forbidding woods.  Dr. Jeremy Logan is reluctantly dragged into things by an old college friend, now a Forest Ranger.  He should have stayed at Cloudwater, the artists' colony where he is supposed to be finishing up a paper on medieval history.  If he had, maybe we would all have been spared this unsatisfying potboiler.

On the bright side, I did learn what pickled ramps are ( pickled leeks, in case you were wondering) and raclette as well (cheese often used in Europe as a fondue).  At least I didn't totally waste my time!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Painted Queen

It was a bittersweet experience reading The Painted Queen (#693).  The manuscript for Amelia Peabody Emerson's final adventure in Egypt was published posthumously three years after Barbara Mertz - writing here as Elizabeth Peters - died.  The book was finished by her good friend and fellow mystery writer, Joan Hess.  She did Elizabeth Peters proud.

The very first book in this wonderful series (Crocodile on the Sandbank) was published way back in 1975, and made such an impression on both my mother and me that I still have a copy of that original paperback amongst my boxes (and boxes!) of books.  Amelia Peabody was a feisty, intelligent and intrepid female who ventured to Egypt on her own to pursue her passion for Egyptology in nineteenth century British-controlled territory.  Armed with her practically indestructible parasol and her belt of essential tools she managed to acquire a handsome husband, a precocious son, a formidable reputation amongst the locals and enemies too numerous to count.  The books are a hoot, but the backgrounds for the many mysteries Amelia (or Peabody, as her husband affectionately calls her) unravels are based on rock solid knowledge of the world of Egyptian archeology.  After all, Elizabeth Peters (or Barbara Michaels, or Vicky Bliss, her other pen names) also published non-fiction  books on Egypt professionally under her own name, Dr. Barbara Mertz.  What a fun way to pass along her wealth of knowledge!

This final story, The Painted Queen, is based on some of the real-life scandals which swirled around the discovery of the iconic bust of Nefertiti, now on display in Berlin.  It wasn't always so...  With Amelia walking stubbornly into danger at every opportunity, and her son Ramses and his boon companion David, determined to keep her safe, there are the usual cast of eccentric and amusing characters, a significant find mysteriously vanishing, and cameo appearances by arch enemy Sethos, the result is an entertaining and page-turning read. 

I don't think that Barbara Mertz intended this as her final book in the series.  Otherwise, she wouldn't have left the Nefret/Ramses situation hanging fire; she would have brought things to a happy conclusion, which was hinted at at the very end.  It was sad to close the cover on the final chapter of this adventure in Egypt knowing that there will never be another, just like its author.  Farewell, Elizabeth Peters!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Matchup

I'm not usually a fan of short stories, but the Matchup (#692) anthology, edited by Lee Child, is an exception to that rule.  All of the short stories here are thrillers; the hook is that each story pairs a well-known female writer in the genre with a male counterpart, featuring a "match up" of their iconic characters.  Although I recognized the names of these writers, for many of them, it's the first time I've read any of their work.  I was not disappointed.  (Okay, confession; my least favorite story was a vampire/Radiant match up.  Too easy to picture a Grace Jones/Fabio look-alike couple as the illustration for this one!).

Where else can you meet Jack Reacher and Temperance Brennan teamed up to solve a case? (Kathy Reichs and Lee Child).  Or how about Steve Berry's Cotton Malone encountering Diana Gabaldon's Outlander characters in pursuit of an antiquarian book?  The match ups here are those of familiar fictional characters' strengths and skills in pursuing crimes, not each other.  If you follow any of these writers included in the anthology, it's fun to watch their creations play off each other.

Although the eleven novellas and short stories here come in at over four hundred pages, time seemed to fly by while I was absorbed in these tales.  Darn, I've just added another list of authors I'll have to find time to read!

Hail to the Chins

Bruce Campbell, along with Craig Sanborn, has added to his B Movie memoirs with this second volume, Hail to the Chins (#691).  Since I first became aware of him as the character Sam Axe in the TV series Burn Notice, I was interested to read what he has to say about the various roles he's played.  It was, for the most part, an entertaining read, but I think you have to be somewhat of a Bruce Campbell fan to appreciate it.

Since he lives by choice in the Oregon woods, I was especially intrigued by his opinions of living in Miami while filming Burn Notice.  Definitely not a fan of our hot, humid climate!  I must say, I do enby the time he spent in New Zealand while making Hercules and Xena, Prinicess Warrior.  Since we also enjoyed those shows, we might sample one of his more recent projects on Starz, Ash v. the Evil Dead.,  but from his description in the book, we'll have to do it on an empty stomach!

My take on Hail to the Chins?  Amusing, but not for everybody. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Bedlam Stacks

What an imagination author Natasha Pulley has!  I thought her first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street was an amazing steampunk novel (See my post of 9/25/15.), but in her new book The Bedlam Stacks (#690), she has created a fantastical nineteenth century Peru caught up in the middle of quinine wars in the search for new cinchona trees as its source.  I thought initially that this was an odd place to set such a wondrous novel until I remembered that one of my favorite literary characters came from deepest, darkest Peru - Paddington Bear - so maybe not such a stretch after all.


Merrick Tremayne has been badly injured in the service of the East India Company, running a smuggling operation for them in India and China. Now living in  the moldering wreck of the family home in Cornwall under his brother's grudging sufferance, he thinks he has no choice but to take up a post Charles has found for him.  With relations between the brothers strained due to Merrick's insistence that someone is moving around an impossibly heavy statue which their father brought back from Peru, Merrick is looking forward to going elsewhere.  That's when old naval acquaintance Sir Clements Markham shows up at their door to offer him a place on an expedition the East India Company is mounting to Peru.  His skills, despite his handicapped leg, are in demand for the job.  If he refuses, Merrick will never work for the Company again.  Soon Merrick finds himself aboard a ship to Peru, where, of course, nothing is as it seems...


There are elements of religion, botany, archaeology, cut-throat traders and just plain adventure here.  Merrick is continually finding links to his family's past in the outpost community of New Bethlehem, but in ways which seem scarcely believable.  But then, so many things about this community are odd. 


Both my husband and I were reminded of a recurring menace from the Dr. Who series.  If you read this book - and you should, it's lovely and lyrical as well as an exciting adventure - you'll know at once what I'm referencing here.  The joy of reading fiction is that everything doesn't have to be real in order to still ring true. I give The Bedlam Stacks a rare (for me!) five stars.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cork Boat

Before we left for our trip to Portugal in August, I searched our local library catalog for books about, or set in, Portugal.  The sole book to pop up was Steve Berry's thriller The Third Secret, about Fatima.  I did re-read it before our trip, and I also read David Liss' novel The Day of Atonement, set in eighteenth century Lisbon.  It wasn't until the final day of our Viking Cruise down the Douro River that Patricia, our Portuguese Cruise Director, recommended John Pollack's non-fiction Cork Boat (#689) that I found the book I had been looking for all along.


John Pollack has impressive Washington D. C. speech writing credentials both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, but ever since he was a young boy and started collecting the used corks from wine bottles, he had nurtured a dream to build a boat entirely out of corks sturdy enough to launch in some unspecified body of water.  Cork Boat tells the story of how he and a motley group of volunteers finally made that dream come true, sailing it along the Douro River from the Spanish border all the way across Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean.  It didn't turn out to be quite the leisurely sail through wine country, sampling grapes and girls as he went that he had pictured.  In the end, he was challenged both physically and mentally, and became a media celebrity in Portugal while he was at it.
It's a wonderful story.  I was constantly amazed that somewhere along the line he didn't strangle Garth, his collaborator on the project, or that he cajoled enough people into contributing time, talent, sponsorship and corks to make it all happen. 


At the time Pollack voyaged down the Douro in Portugal, the country had not yet gone through the severe economic downturn in 2008.  It is still suffering from that financial disaster, and tourism is playing a large role in Portugal's economic recovery.  The riverboats plying the waters today along the same route - Porto to Barca de Alva and back again - provide opportunities to showcase the vineyards and orchards lining the Valley along with traditional methods of baking and cooking that Pollack describes in his memoir.  The scenery is every bit as spectacular as he describes. For me, it was a delight to read about places we had just been recently, and to see them again in my mind's eye. (Granted, sometimes with a little help from the many pictures I took on this trip!)  If you've ever been to this part of the world, or are thinking about going, read this book.  If that's not possible, you can still travel there in your mind and imagination with John Pollack.  You'll enjoy the time spent in his company.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Four Legendary Kingdoms

Reading a Matthew Reilly thriller is like playing a video game - non-stop action with minimal plot to string the action sequences together.  It can be the perfect diversion.  That's the case with The Four Legendary Kingdoms (#688), following up on the quest to save humanity begun in the first book of this series Seven Ancient Wonders.


With a nod to the mythologies of the ancient world, especially Hercules, Jack West, Jr. regains consciousness to find himself being attacked by a minotaur armed with a knife.  The pace doesn't slow down much from there as he gradually learns that he has been kidnapped to participate in the  Hydra Games against other challengers.  The object is to retrieve nine Golden Spheres to be used in an ancient ritual to save mankind.  Each round of challenges is an elimination round with deadly consequences not only for the warrior, but for those who are held as hostages on his behalf.  The ultimate prize will be awarded to the sponsor of the successful warrior - the King of one of the Four Legendary Kingdoms, the shadow powers pulling the actual strings of government.


It's a fast read with diagrams to help the reader visualize the set-up of each challenge arena with returning characters and some fiendish new villains.  It was the perfect distraction for the post-hurricane period, but you don't need the excuse of a natural disaster to spend some time in Jack West Jr.'s world.  Since we know there are three more books in this series, no matter how bad things look for Jack, we know he'll find a way to win through against impossible odds. What could be better?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Wangs vs. the World

I heard debut author Jade Chang speak at our local BookMania! earlier this year about The Wangs vs. the World (#687).  From the description of her book, it sounded like something I wanted to read - a modern immigrant's tale.  I won a copy from GoodReads, and only struggled all the way through to end so I could review it on the site.  I should have known that I wouldn't like it after hearing book group members whose opinions I value broadly pan this book.


First, let me be clear; my opinion has nothing to do with the quality of Ms. Chang's writing.  Some of her prose was so exquisite that I felt it belonged in another, more lyrical novel.  II wasn't the classic road trip plot that I objected to.  It was the Wangs themselves.  Every one of them in their own inimitable way was selfish, stupid, grasping, heedless and dysfunctional.  Taken together, they were overpowering in their collective meanness.  The cover blurb from Entertainment Weekly says "Uproarious."  I found myself appalled, not amused by their antics.  I will take Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series any day.  At least he has some affection for his characters.


When Jade Chang's next book comes out, I will be guided by the critics' reviews; if they love it, I'll be happy to skip it and find something else worthwhile to read.

The Wrong Dead Guy

Someone in my book group described The Wrong Dead Guy ((#686) by Richard Kadrey as such a goofy, weird and funny book about mummies, the paranormal and government bureaucracy that I knew I had to read it.  It more than lived up to the hype.


Agent Cooper works (reluctantly) for an obscure Federal Bureau.  It's either that or spend an extended period of time in a penitentiary.  Coop, being a smart guy, puts his considerable skills in thievery at the disposal of the US Government.  When a struggling local museum opens an exhibit featuring an ancient Egyptian mummy, Coop is assigned to steal it for The Department of Peculiar Science, or DOPS.  Naturally, nothing goes as planned.  When the mummy is re-animated with plans to find his lost love and conquer the world, Coop finds himself the target of Harkhuf's wrath.  Things don't improve when DOPS auditors set their sights on him as well.


Surrounded by a host of oddball characters, Coop is Everyman, struggling to lead a normal, boring life.  I was continually amused by the wry observations of the author, and the sly cultural references, both pop and classical.  It was like watching The Big Bang Theory and catching one of its witty asides.  Admittedly, this book is probably not for everybody, but if you're willing to suspend belief and jump into something silly for the sake of a good time, The Wrong Dead Guy could be just the ticket!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Death on Nantucket

I am an avid reader of Francine Mathews' Being a Jane Austen Mysteries series, so when I saw Death on Nantucket (#684) by her, I snapped it up.  I was not disappointed.  This is a Merry Folger Mystery, all of which are set on Nantucket.  I loved the atmosphere she caught in the book.  Merry Folger is a police detective, one of the hardy people who live on the island year-round.  When the summer visitors are there, it's a totally different place, with its own unique sets of problems.


This time, as Merry is busy preparing for her impending wedding, and the usual Fourth of July crush, first a disappearance and then a death are reported at the venerable old home belonging to a famous journalist.  Spencer Murphy's long-estranged daughter has returned to the island, but has gone missing.  Since Spencer is experiencing memory problems and his housekeeper is only part-time, it's some time before anyone realizes she's gone, but her belongings are not.  With the rest of the family assembling for the holiday, all with their own secrets to hide tensions mount in the house.  It isn't long before Merry is investigating a murder there as well.


I enjoyed this mystery as much as Ms. Matthews' Jane Austen series.  I can see I've found another great series to catch up on!

The Scribe of Siena

I do enjoy a good time-travel book, and Melodie Winawer's debut novel The Scribe of Siena (#685) certainly qualifies.


Beatrice Trovato is a busy New York neurosurgeon who finally makes time to visit her beloved older brother at his home in Siena.  He is a historian researching how the plague affected the city state of Siena.  Why did it suffer more than its neighbors during this period?  He has written to Beatrice that he has made an important discovery and persuaded her to come visit so he can share his enthusiasm for his adopted home with her at last.  Her plane tickets are booked when news reaches her that her brother Benjamin has died suddenly, leaving his house in Siena to her.


Beatrice finds herself equally captivated by Siena, and when she is pressured to turn over Benjamin's work to rival academics, she digs in her heels and determines to finish his plague project and publish it under his own name.  A journal from that time kept by artist Gabriele Accorsi leads her to his work.  How can she possibly appear in his paintings?  Beatrice is about to find out as she becomes enmeshed in a conspiracy centuries old to destroy the city of Siena...


What I loved most about this book, I think, is the fact that the romance here wasn't the primary driver of the plot.  There's got to be more to a story to hold my interest than "boy meets girl" and this book has it in spades. Why didn't Siena flourish the way Florence or Genoa did during that period?  This book poses an interesting theory of why Siena never prospered after it was hit by the Black Death.  The characters are well-rounded, and the setting so well described, it's possible to imagine yourself in Beatrice's shoes - an older, intelligent and experienced woman coping with what could be a nightmare scenario. It's a gripping read.


I look forward to more from Melodie Winawer.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Day of Atonement

David Liss' dark novel The Day of Atonement (#683) is set in eighteenth century Lisbon.  Sebastiao Raposa is only thirteen when he is spirited out of Portugal by his father's friend, an English merchant, after his parents are arrested by the Inquisition.  Now Sebastiao is in his twenties and ready to extract vengeance on the Jesuit priest responsible for their deaths.


Posing as Sebastian Foxx, a young English merchant ready to take Lisbon by storm, he returns to Portugal with deadly secrets.  All he wants is to accomplish his vendetta and be done.  Fate has a way of interfering with his grim plans.  His conscience and his inbred integrity keep imposing tasks to protect the interests of those both innocent and not.  Just when it seems Sebastian has his goal within his grasp, nature once again intervenes.


This book paints such a dark picture of Lisbon and its denizens, it might not be the best book to read before visiting the city, but its intimate descriptions of the place and how it was effected by the 1755 earthquake and ensuing tsunami made me see the modern city in an entirely different light. 


Likewise, Sebastian is a multi-layered character, revealed by adversity. Something a little different in the world of historical fiction, and worth the time to read.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Puzzle to Be Named Later

A Puzzle to Be Named Later (#682) is Parnell Hall's latest in his Puzzle Lady mysteries.  It's a fun, easy read, especially if you like to solve crossword puzzles and Sodoku.  In fact, solving the crosswords is actually part of finding the culprit here, as there are clues embedded in the puzzles' solutions.  If you're like me, and borrow any of these books from your local library, your first step will be to photocopy the puzzle grids so you don't spoil the fun for anyone else!


This mystery, set in suburban Connecticut, swirls around a whiz kid pitcher for the Yankees, who just after signing a multimillion dollar contract breaks his arm in car accident.  When he and his attractive young wife move into the local white elephant mansion in Bakerhaven so Matt Greystone can rehab in peace, someone wants to make trouble by leaving scandalous hints via crossword puzzles.  Since Puzzle Lady Cora Felton lives right there in town, she's pulled into the affair for her crosswording skills.  Lucky for her the Sheriff doesn't know she couldn't solve a crossword to save her own life: that's her niece's department!  But once on the trail, Cora is like a dog with a bone - she can't leave it alone.  When first one body shows up, then a second, there are too many people with too many motives to sort out.  It will be up to Cora to make the call on the murderer before the Yankees' season is ruined.


This is perfect fare for a lazy summer afternoon curled up in a hammock with a cold drink by your side.  Cora Felton is quite the character!  I'm going to have to track down more of the Puzzle Lady Mysteries in the future.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Right Side

I love Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie mystery series.  Chet "The Jet" is the narrator for these stories, and although he's entirely professional, he is after all, an easily distracted dog.  Chet never met a cheese doodle he didn't like, even in the middle of a case.  Granted, some of the subject matter covered in these books is pretty grim, so I shouldn't have been surprised that his latest novel The Right Side (#681) is one hundred and eighty degrees from the humorous tone of the Chet and Bernie series.


In this stand-alone novel, Sgt. LeAnne Hogan is recovering at Walter Reed Hospital after surviving an attack on her patrol in Afghanistan.  She lost not only an eye, but a large part of herself.  She's not a particularly likeable character here, but she does manage to bond with her roommate Marci, struggling to adjust to her prosthetic leg.  Marci is motivated to get back to Washington state and her young daughter Mia. 


If only Captain Stallings would stop bugging her to remember her last, failed mission, LeAnne would be much happier.  When she wakes one morning to find that Marci has unexpectedly died, it ;pushes LeAnne beyond her limits.  She sneaks out of the hospital and hops on a bus with no destination in mind.  At some point she acquires a car, driving aimlessly until she arrives in Marci's hometown to find that her daughter Mia has gone missing...


LeAnne Hogan is a stand-in for every veteran who has come back from war damaged, both externally and internally.  Her PTSD has played havoc with her memory and her emotions, but her drive to stand up for herself and do things on her own has survived intact.  It is not until she is adopted by a huge black dog (and she is definitely not a dog person!) that she gradually comes to realize that the dog Goody is protecting her blind side literally and figuratively.  It might be time to start trusting others a little and take the first steps towards healing herself.


The dog is a key character in The Right Side, as unlovely in her own way as LeAnne now feels herself to be.  Both have been damaged, but together they are stronger.  Goody forces LeAnne to think of someone other than herself and to provide vital evidence to solve two injustices. 


Although difficult to read at times, it was equally difficult to put this book down.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Dangerous Minds - A Knight and Moon Novel

What do a Buddhist monk, a disappearing island and the National Park Services have in common?  That's the question Janet Evanovich poses in Dangerous Minds - A Knight and Moon Novel (#680).  How she stitches these elements together makes for a fun to read romp with serious thriller end-of-the-world vibes.  I was glad that I finally got around to reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time last summer since it helped me understand the science here more easily, although that's not a requirement for enjoying Dangerous Minds.  I never thought I'd be saying that about one of Janet Evanovich's books!  Don't get me wrong, I've always been a fan of her writing; Ms. Evanovich also happens to be one of the very few authors who can make literally me laugh out loud.


Eccentric billionaire Emerson Knight needs help figuring out his finances after his father's sudden death.  Financial analyst Riley Moon has been hired to untangle the books, so to speak, but it's not easy dealing with the handsome owner of Mysteriouso Manor.  When one of his former mentors shows up in the middle of the night seeking his help, Riley is dragged willy-nilly into the affair, along with his cousin Vernon whose RV seems to be permanently parked in the back yard of the mansion.  The caper will take them across the country from Washington, D.C. to Yellowstone Park and the Big Island of Hawaii with relentless enemies pursuing them and leaving a trail of bodies behind.  Meanwhile, sparks are flying between Emerson and Riley.  Will they make it out alive?  I sure hope so, because I look forward to reading further adventures of this engaging pair, Emerson Knight and Riley Moon.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Lost Order

A secret society, a treasure hunt, a plot to legally change how our government functions, a few murders, and at the heart of it all, The Smithsonian Institution.  These are the elements of Steve Berry's latest Cotton Malone novel, The Lost Order (#679) and, like most of his novels, many of the people, places and events here are based on historical fact.


Prior to the Civil War, a powerful and influential secret society was formed by Southerners and those sympathetic to their cause - the Knights of the Golden Order.  When the Confederacy was defeated, it went underground, supposedly dying out around the turn of the century.  For many years, rumors have abounded of a secret hoard of gold which vanished along with the Knights.  Cotton Malone and his companion, Cassiopeia Vitt, have been sent to Arkansas by the Chancellor of the Smithsonian to track down clues to the treasure's location.  When Malone is attacked after unearthing some gold coins buried in the woods, they realize that they are not the only ones searching for the gold.


 Meanwhile, Danny Daniels is finding life after being President of the United States boring in Blount County, Tennessee.  He is devastated to learn of  the drowning death of his old friend, Senator Alex Sherwood on his nearby estate.  When Danny attends the funeral, he sees and hears things that make him suspect that Diane Sherwood is not quite the grieving widow she appears to be. Political strings are being pulled, and his gut instinct tells him that the outcome will not be good.  When the head of the Magellan Billet is shot and lies in a coma, Danny Daniels and Cotton Malone begin to pick at the knots tying all these seemingly unrelated events together.


There were some interesting (and potentially frightening!) premises in this thriller about Washington power plays, secret societies and whether or not the treasure of the Knights of the Golden Order still exists somewhere out there as a vast hoard of gold and Confederate Records.  In The Lost Order, the clues were hidden in the Smithsonian, which holds millions of objects of every conceivable type in its many museums, libraries and research centers.  Steve Berry serves on a Citizen's Advisory Board for the Smithsonian Libraries and this novel is his opportunity to highlight this amazing National Treasure.  What better place to set a mystery?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

After reading Douglas Preston's non-fiction account of a modern-day archaeological find deep in a virtually unexplored region of Honduras, I can tell you one UNESCO World Heritage Site that is not high on my "Must Visit" list - The Lost City of the Monkey God (#678)!  Although Douglas Preston was a member of the expedition in 2012, writing for National Geographic, which uncovered more than one major abandoned city deep in the jungles of remote Mosquitia, the journey there was arduous, dangerous and rife with controversy and consequences for its members.


Rumors have abounded since the time of the Spanish conquistadors about treasures to be found in the cities of the Indians of Central America, but the rough terrain and impenetrable jungles have guarded their secrets well.  Previous expeditions have not fared well.  Modern technology played a major role in pinpointing promising sites for these archaeologists.


Despite venomous snakes, insects too numerous to count, jaguars, drug cartels, constant rain and a site too overgrown to venture more than a few feet from each other without losing touch with the group, what they found there was an astonishing cache of items from a culture previously unknown and unstudied.  Because of the inaccessibility of the sites, most of their secrets are still unknown and untouched.  It will be a race between the scholars wishing to study the sites and the drug traffickers and clear-cutters devastating the areas and looting the sites for the black market trade in antiquities.
And then there are the unwanted souvenirs many members of the expedition brought home - a rare jungle parasitic disease.


It all makes for a fascinating story of real life adventure, professional jealousy standing in the way of knowledge, fraud, fer de lances, and strong advocacy for the National Institutes of Health.  If you think Indiana Jones had a difficult time, check out this story; you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Clan Corporate

I just finished the third book in Charles Stross's science fiction series The Merchant Princes (See my posts of 3/20/17 & 4/17/17.) .  In The Clan Corporate (#677) Miriam Beckstein is still futilely struggling against the bounds her powerful relatives in the world of Gruinmarkt are trying to impose on her.  She's been blocked from accessing her start-up company in the world of New Britain, and the prospect of an arranged marriage is being raised with distressing regularity.  What's a modern woman supposed to do?  Suddenly, she's landed in it with both feet and is in serious danger of losing not only her own life, but that of her mother as well if she doesn't cooperate.


In the meantime, this book swerves towards a chink the US Government has opened into Gruinmarkt.  Miriam's ex-boyfriend with the DEA is dragged unwittingly into things when a defector from that world informs him that Gruinmarkt possesses nuclear weapons, and is in a position to deploy them in the United States.  Mike Fleming is groomed to go under cover in Gruinmarkt and quietly make contact with Miriam.  Of course things do not go well at their next meeting and Miriam is forced to jump from the frying pan into the fire...


What's next? I can't wait to read the next book to find out!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

I read Amor Towles' novel A Gentleman in Moscow (#676) on a friend's recommendation.  Like him, I found it captivated me from the opening pages, although I knew that what I was reading was only possible in the hands of a gifted storyteller.


The gentleman of the title is thirty year old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who is sentenced in 1922 to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in the heart of Moscow, under pain of death should he ever attempt to leave.  How does one cope in these circumstances, let alone find one's eventual purpose in life?  The answer unfolds in a series of flashbacks, anecdotes and real time narratives which are alternately tragic, humorous, and  philosophical.  But above all, these serve to illuminate the integrity of Sasha's character.  What a privilege it would be to dine with him in the fabled Boyarsky Restaurant at the Metropol!  Not that the Count is without enemies; he is merely fortunate that his friends have more pull.  I couldn't wait to find out what happened next as the decades pass...


The one cloud that hung over this story when I began reading it was the fate of the real Russian aristocrats, the intelligentsia and the skilled workmen of that time after reading Douglas Smith's recent horrifying non-fiction book  Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. (See my post of 7/30/13.)  Amor Towles does refer to Count Rostov in his novel as a Former Person, but unless you understand the stigma and danger attached to that label, it's difficult to appreciate how perilous his position was from day-to-day and the burden that knowledge placed on his shoulders.  That's where Mr. Towles skill comes to the fore; anyone could make this a depressing and gloomy book; it takes a master to infuse it with light and the joy of living.


An thoroughly entrancing read.  Highly recommended.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

My curiosity got the better of me when I began to see all the ads for the streaming televised version of  Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (#675), so I borrowed a copy from the library to read.  Although the series was critically acclaimed, I must admit much of what I glimpsed in the ads for the series  bore no resemblance to what I read.


I might as well say right up front that I did not care for this book.  It was disturbing on one level because of the resemblance of the theocracy which governs The Republic of Gilead to the current political climate in Washington.  Many of those in power would rejoice to see similar reforms, I fear.  But I can see why this book was so popular when it was first published: the mockery of established religions, the parodying of nuns' traditional habits in service of the fertility goals of the government, and the hinted-at cause of the crisis -the thoughtless destruction of the environment and women's control over their own bodies - would win over a large audience.  Not that I disagree with the last two points, but I do find the turn it takes in Ms. Atwood's narrative ludicrous.  It also bothers me that Offred's (We never do learn her name from "before".) location is eventually revealed to be Cambridge, Mass yet the details don't add up here.  Why bother with a real place in a story like this if you can't bother to get the small things right?  Spoiler alert: Offred doesn't know at the end if she is doomed or delivered, but her own narration of events ends there, which would have been troubling, but understandable in its own way.  But here, Ms. Atwood suddenly swerves to a pseudo-scientific analysis of Offred's narration at an academic conference far in the future where every aspect of it is picked apart as dry history.  I found it very jarring, and another reason why I did not like this book.  Oh, well.  To each his own.  I just wonder why they bothered to film The Handmaid's Tale  now.  A rather curious lapse of time since it first came out, I think.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Rich People Problems

Rich People Problems (#674) is the concluding volume in Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asian trilogy (Soon to be a major motion picture according to the cover flap!).  I have mixed emotions about this.  On the one hand, I've enjoyed this dishy glimpse into the private lives of the Asian point-oh-one per centers so much, but on the other, I am sorry to see it come to the end.


Kwan does do a good job of tying up the loose ends here, and most of the parties involved in all three books do seem to get what they deserve, good or bad.  What more could you ask for?  Top designers, beautiful clothing, incredible meals, elegant homes, private planes - it is fun to dream about what that kind of life must be like, but reading Mr. Kwan's novels do make you wonder if it really is all that's cracked up to be.  Alamak! as the ladies here would say!


Spoiler alert:  Tyersall Park is included in the happy endings after suitable anguishing over its fate!


Can't wait to see the movie.  They can't possibly make it as glamorous as the books, but it will be fun to see the producers try!  Now if only they served appropriate food along with the movie...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dragon Teeth

Michael Crichton is the author who keeps on giving.  I just finished his posthumously published novel Dragon Teeth (#673) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It's a rip-roaring Western adventure based loosely on the exploits of two real nineteenth century paleontologists and bitter rivals, Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale, and Edward Drinker Cope, a wealthy scholar.  Fortunately for the reader, William Johnson, the rich young student who winds up reluctantly accompanying Professor Marsh on a summer dig in the West, is entirely fictional.


Johnson's fear that his trip will be a long, boring, dusty summer penance couldn't be further from the truth!  Professional skullduggery, Indians on the warpath and gunslingers with a grudge all contribute to making Johnson's trip to the West more deadly than he could possibly have imagined.  In fact, his family back home in Philadelphia have been notified that he is dead, which only complicates matters...


I devoured this one.  I'm so glad this novel found its way into print1

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (#672) caught my eye on a display in my local library as a "Staff Pick".  I've learned quite a bit of interesting history from reading Erik Larson's previous books, but somehow, I've never gotten around to reading this one.


The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a tremendous undertaking, and so clean and visually stunning that Chicagoans dubbed it "The White City" in contrast to the dirty, polluted and crime-ridden streets of the metropolis itself.  With the throngs of construction workers, laborers and fair employees attracted to the Exposition, as well as the visitors come from all over the world to experience its marvels, it is no wonder that no one noticed for a long time that many of those who went to the Columbian Exposition never returned home - most of them attractive young ladies.  Juxtaposing the story of how the Exposition came to be with the career of a serial killer known best by his favorite alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes who used the crowded conditions of Chicago to his advantage makes for an interesting and macabre parallel tale.


In every chapter, facts, figures and famous people appear.  I had no idea that so many things that we take for granted in modern life had their debuts in Chicago, nor that so many engineering problems were solved in ironing out construction issues at the fair.  However, it was somewhat lowering to find that one of America's most lethal serial killers hailed originally from New Hampshire, but comforting to discover that he was finally unmasked by good old-fashioned, dogged detective work with nary a computer in sight!


My only regret is that I did not read this book before my recent visit to Chicago.  I would have looked at the city differently, but that's certainly a good motivation to pay the Windy City a return visit.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Saints for All Occasions

Saints for All Occasions (#672) by J. Courtney Sullivan is one of the best novels I've read in a long time.  This story of a pair of Irish sisters who emigrate to Boston in the 1950s reminded me at the outset of one of my other favorite authors, Colm Toibin, but Ms. Sullivan puts her own uniquely American stamp on this tale.


Nora and Theresa Flynn come to America following Nora's fiancĂ©.  When the book opens, she is the matriarch of a family of four.  She calls her younger sister, now living in a cloistered Abbey in Vermont, to inform her of a death in the family.  With Theresa's decision to come to Boston to attend the funeral  the unraveling of family secrets begins.  Moving between past and present, each character's back story is revealed in this absorbing narrative.


It is so easy to relate to how complicated things become in any family, given circumstances that are hardly uncommon.  What makes this book so special is that Ms. Sullivan got the details exactly right, from Brigham's Ice Cream to The Home for Little Wanderers to Cardinal Cushing's weekly radio rosary.  When Theresa's life in the cloister is described, I felt I knew this place, I had seen these things myself.  When I read Ms. Sullivan's Acknowledgements, I found I was right.  But even if you didn't grow up in New England, you'll recognize the family dynamics and alternately find yourself rooting for first one, then another member of the Flynn and Rafferty tribes.


I can only hope that the rest of my summer is filled with such quality reading!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Stalking the Angel

I only discovered author Robert Crais a few years ago, and I'm still catching up on some of his oeuvre, which is why my husband gave me a copy of an older Elvis Cole/Joe Pike mystery, Stalking the Angel (#671), originally published in 1989.  I had to look up the publication date when Elvis gets ready to go clubbing for a case he's working on, and thinks in his outfit he might be mistaken for Donald Trump!  Yes, that was a while back and a few of the other details in the book make you realize just how much everyday life in America has changed since then.  Pay phones!  In the rest room!!!  One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the quality of the narrative.


A rare and culturally significant antique Japanese manuscript has been stolen from a wealthy investment broker's home safe while on loan from an influential Japanese financial partner.  The police aren't acting fast enough to suit Bradley Warren, so his attorney persuades him to hire Elvis Cole to locate and return the book as swiftly as possible.  It's loathe at first sight, but Elvis could use the work.  When the trail leads him to yakuza hangouts, a particularly nasty murder and threats to Bradley's wife and teen aged daughter, Elvis figures he's on the right track.  Things take a very dark turn when Mimi is kidnapped and Elvis vows to return her to her family at all costs.


Just when you think you know who did it, the kaleidoscope turns and changes the whole picture.. Crais keeps you guessing up to the end.  Joe Pike doesn't play as big a role here as he does in later books in this series, so it's interesting to see how the characters have evolved.  I'm glad Elvis Cole never stops being a wiseacre!  A great mystery series.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ripper's Shadow - A Victorian Mystery

I've enjoyed Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro novels set in samurai-era Japan very much, so I decided to give The Ripper's Shadow (#670) a try.  Sarah Bain has inherited a photography studio from her father, but it's difficult to make ends meet.  When one of her subjects suggests that Sarah take some "boudoir" photos of her and split the profits, Sarah goes along with her idea.


The problem is that when prostitutes' bodies show up in Whitechapel, brutally murdered and mutilated, Sarah recognizes them as the models for her "boudoir" photographs.  She can't go to the police because what she has done could land her in jail.  How can she keep herself and the other women in her photographs safe, and out of the shadow of the Ripper?


Although this is a very dark novel, Ms. Rowland manages to keep the reader guessing in this well known cold case.  Where a less skilled author might wind up the book with a suspect identified, she just ramps up the tension and postulates an even more shocking revelation.  I wasn't sure Sarah Bain and her small circle of unlikely associates were going to make it out of this one alive, so I had to keep reading to find out. 


I think Sarah Bain and company could form a nucleus for an interesting Victorian London series of mysteries.  I hope Ms. Rowland has plans for her future.

China Rich Girlfriend

Kevin Kwan continues the behind-the-scenes story of ultra-rich Asians in Chine Rich Girlfriend (#669) that he began in Crazy Rich Asians.  Rachel Chu and Nick Young, those star-crossed lovers, are back with many of their friends, enemies and confidantes, and of course, their feuding families!  If you enjoyed his feast of food and fashionistas the first time around, Kwan doesn't disappoint here.


There's even more romance and scandals ahead with old enemies and new friends when Rachel and Nick head off to China in search of Rachel's birth father.  When his identity is revealed, he's even richer than imaginable.  But not everyone is happy when their true relationship becomes public knowledge...


It's so much fun to live in a world where Paris couturiers will shut their ateliers for your sole shopping pleasure, flitting from place to place is all done via luxurious private jets, and no one eats in a public restaurant that doesn't maintain private dining rooms for high-end clientele!


Since this is the middle book in this trilogy, a word of advice; don't try to read China Rich Girlfriend without reading Crazy Rich Asians first.  You'll be lost in the tangle of relationships established in the first novel, and you won't appreciate some of the delicious twists and turns served up in this volume.  Can't wait to get my hands on the third book!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Song of the Lion

Anne Hillerman is a worthy successor to her father's legacy of  writing intriguing Navajo-based mysteries.  Tony Hillerman first introduced us to Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, all members of the Navajo Police whose beat includes the vast Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.  Anne Hillerman continues that tradition with her latest mystery, Song of the Lion (#658).


Bernadette Manuelito, now married to Jim Chee, is attending a big basketball game at the Shiprock High School.  It's the alums who won a State Championship years ago versus the high school varsity squad, and a very big deal for local fans, who are legion.  During the game, a car bomb goes off in the parking lot, killing an unidentified man.  When the owner of the car is identified as Aza Palmer, a big-shot Phoenix lawyer, and also one of the alums playing in the big game, the search for a motive begins.  In the meantime, Aza Palmer is due to mediate a conference in Tuba City debating the merits of, and a plan of action for a highly controversial resort project proposed to be built on Indian lands in the Grand Canyon. The stakes are enormous.  Could that be why he is being targeted? 


Bernadette's case dovetails with her husband's when Jim Chee is assigned to bodyguard duty for Palmer until the conference is over, but her digging has turned up a possible connection for Lieutenant Leaphorn to a long-ago cold case.  The threads are woven skillfully in this one as we learn more about the main characters and their world.  Recommended.

Hillbilly Elegy

According to my dictionary, an elegy is "A mournful poem; especially a poem composed to lament one who is dead."  J.D. Vance's bestselling Hillbilly Elegy - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (#657) doesn't quite fit that definition, but the poor white, mostly rural, way of life Mr. Vance describes appears to be disappearing from the American landscape.  Although Mr. Vance's roots are firmly planted there, the choices he has made to shape his own future have made him an anomaly in that culture.  His story documents that it is not always feasible or easy to straddle such a wide divide.


I found the book interesting, depressing and maddening in turns.  What Vance describes in his memoir I have seen for myself working in different parts of our country.  Poverty, violence, unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction all play their roles here.  Even though he never actually uses the term "white privilege", it is strongly implied.  I found myself asking the question: if Vance could lift himself out of a life with no prospects by his own efforts, why can't or why don't more follow his example?  When did it become okay to take a job and either not show up for it, or spend the time at work hiding out in the bathroom on multiple thirty minute breaks during the day?  Being fired under those circumstances seems to be just an excuse to "blame the man" for self-inflicted economic woes.


Do I feel sorry that such a way of life seems doomed?  Not really.  Despite Mr. Vance's defense of it, hillbilly culture didn't have much to recommend it as far as I am concerned.  He does do a good job of explaining how our current political climate has emerged, however.  For that reason alone, it's worth reading Hillbilly Elegy to visit an America that many of us didn't even realize existed.

Monday, June 5, 2017

In the Name of the Family

Sarah Dunant's latest novel In the Name of the Family (#656) is a companion book to her previous novel Blood & Beauty.  It's set in the years 1502 and 1503 and chronicles the Borgias at the peak of their power followed by the swift decline of the family fortunes.


The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Rogdrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, his two illegitimate children, ruthless and ambitious Cesare, Duke Valentine, and his beloved daughter Lucrezia, now on her way to her third politically advantageous marriage in Ferrara, and finally, the envoy from the Republic of Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Murder and mayhem, conspiracies and corruption, ambitions and emotions all play a role here.


We're all so conditioned to think of Lucrezia in some ways as the worst of the bunch but here she's treated sympathetically, as more sinned against than sinning, and I wonder if Ms. Dunant's portrayal of her isn't more accurate.  Cesare, on the other hand...


Machiavelli is the perfect foil to the Borgias; he admires their strategic thinking, but not the means by which Pope Alexander and Cesare set about making things happen.  He's an observer who finds himself observed in return.  It makes for a fascinating read

Monday, May 29, 2017

Secret Service Dogs - The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States

Secret Service Dogs - The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States (#655) by Maria Goodavage is a fascinating read.  While tip-toeing around information which might breach security protocols, Ms. Goodavage has still managed to provide a peek behind the human and canine wall charged with the protection of the President, Vice President, their families and heads of state visiting the United States.


For instance, did you know that Secret Service dogs are specialists?  Some provide security from intruders, some are trained to sniff for explosives any place the President will be visiting, here and abroad, and some dogs' beat is mingling with the tourist crowds outside the White House sniffing for particular target odors.  It's not an easy road to be chosen for the Secret Service for either the dogs or their human handlers, nor is on-the-job training and maintenance neglected.


But I think the most interesting part of this book is the bond between the dogs and their partners.  Once a dog is assigned to his human, living and working together 24 hours a day with the handler and his family creates a lifelong bond.  Their successful partnership depends on their keenly honed ability to read and respond to each other, no matter the circumstances.  Ms. Goodavage spent much time interviewing the human halves of these relationships, and the anecdotes detail the stress, tedium, and physical demands of the job, leavened with the sometimes wacky things that can happen.  Each of the stories is unique, but one theme runs through each: the utter devotion to duty, and the constant drive to perform even better.  It's inspiring.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Third Secret

I decided to re-read Steve Berry's early suspense novel, The Third Secret (#654) because it was one of the few books at my local library that turned up in a search for fiction set in Portugal.  The Third Secret referred to in the title is the final secret from Fatima which was revealed by John Paul II to the public in 2002.  It's been so long since I'd read it, that it was a totally new book to me, and even more interesting in light of the EfM coursework I've just completed.  I know I read it this time with a completely different mindset. 


This is a stand alone novel set primarily in the Vatican, not one of Berry's popular Cotton Malone series.  The protagonist here is Father Colin Michener, papal secretary to Pope Clement XV.  His mentor has been increasingly agitated recently, and is spending much time in the Riserva of the Vatican Library, an area open only to the Pontiff himself.  His visits are focused on the box containing the documents recording the Third Secret revealed by the Virgin Mary to Lucia, a Portuguese peasant girl of ten in 1917.  What could possibly be in the box which impels Clement to send Colin to interview an elderly retired priest in Romania?


As Clement's health declines, the jostling for power increases amongst the ambitious cardinals in the Vatican, some of whom will stop at nothing, even blackmail and murder, to gain the Papal Throne and suppress the secrets the Church holds.


An oldie, but a goodie.  The subject matter here seems just as relevant today as when it first came out in 2005.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon - The Osage Murders nad the Birth of the FBI

What a grim tale David Grann tells in Killers of the Flower Moon - The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (#653).  Prior to the publicity surrounding this book, I had never heard of the systematic exploitation, theft and murder carried out during the Twenties and Thirties against the oil-rich Osage Indians.  Apparently until a pair of blatant murders, no one else seemed to take any notice either, unless it was to try to cash in on the crime spree themselves.  Although J. Edgar Hoover used this case to maneuver his Bureau of Investigation into a more powerful force under his control, after his agents under the leadership of Tom White solved and prosecuted several of the murders, the books were closed on an investigation that had only scratched the surface of what was really going on out in Oklahoma.  The injustices that occurred then have never been righted.


Despite the carping from critics that this book did not live up to David Grann's previous blockbuster best seller, The Lost City of Z, I find it a fascinating and shaming read.  Perhaps I benefited by not reading "Z", since I had no comparison.  The numerous photos integrated into the text of the persons involved in this story made them concrete.  According to Grann as he began to dig deeper, the extent of the fraud, abuse and betrayal involving millions upon millions of dollars has never been exposed.  There are a few "white hats" in this story, but sadly they are few and far between.  I couldn't help but wonder if Artic oil fields are opened, if the Inuits might face similar problems in the future; it would hardly be surprising.


This book should be on your "Must Read" list.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First Blush - A Meegs Miscellany

First Blush - A Meegs Miscellany (#652) is a diverting read, to be sure!  Robert Bruce Stewart has taken an element from his Harry Reese turn-of-the-century mystery series and fleshed it out here in a collection of jottings from the pen (and typewriter!) of his wife Emmie McGinniss Reese, co-authoring this volume under the name M.E. Meegs.


Many of the plots of the Harry Reese novels hinge on events Emmie has been inspired to write about and submit to various yellow journals under the pen name M.E. Meegs, hence the subtitle, A Meegs Miscellany,  She gleefully embroiders the actual people, places and problems to suit her own highly-overheated imagination and to serve her own purposes.  The reader is never actually given the opportunity to read any of Emmie's output; rather, they are referred to by either Harry or Emmie herself, or sometimes both in conflicting versions.  It's like watching the weekly dramas at the White House unfold...


In First Blush (which you probably will, as the materials here are rather risque!) the reader is at last given access to the source material, accompanied by marvelous period illustrations.  What a treasure trove!  Some of it is eye-popping, some comical, some ingenious; all of it a window on the character of Emily McGinniss Reese, sole occupant of the unique Emmie-Land.  It's a wonderful place to live for a few hours, but be glad that your residence there is temporary.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Jane Austen Project

What a diverting read!  The Jane Austen Project (#651) by Kathleen Flynn combines several of my favorite genres into an entertaining novel.  Jane Austen tribute?  Check.  The author, Kathleen Flynn is an editor at the Ne York Times, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society.  Time travel?  That's the whole point of the plot; in a future that has undergone drastic changes from our world, a secret team is assembled and trained to be able to successfully blend in when sent back to England in 1815.  Their mission?  To retrieve letters written to and by Jane Austen destroyed by her sister Cassandra after Jane's untimely death.  But paramount to their mission is retrieving the entire manuscript of Jane Austen's unpublished novel, The Watsons.  Key to their assignment, Dr. Rachel Katzman, an emergency medicine physician, and Liam Finucane, an expert on Beau Brummel, is that they do nothing to change history during their year-long stay..


Needless to say, things do not go as planned!  Rachel and Liam, posing as the Ravenswood siblings, do manage to meet and be taken up by Henry Austen, Jane's favorite brother, but becoming intimate with the Austen family generates unexpected consequences and dangers.  As they say, "Be careful what you wish for!"


If you are a Jane Austen fan, don't miss The Jane Austen Project.  What if she could be cured...?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Children Act

Although The Children Act (#650) is ostensibly about a family court judge deciding on whether a boy just short of his majority should be allowed to refuse a life-saving transfusion in keeping with his Jehovah's Witness beliefs, it's really Fiona's story.


Ian McEwan introduces us to Fiona on a Sunday evening when she's reviewing briefs for her next day's hearings in London's Family Court.  Her husband approaches her to tell her that he's going to have an affair.  Although she is preoccupied with cases, his announcement comes from out of the blue.  Before they can really get into it, a phone call interrupts.  Fiona will need to determine if a hospital can go ahead with a transfusion to save an adolescent's life.  A decision must be made within hours.  By the time things are settled for court, her husband is gone with his luggage and their car.


The middle third of this book deals with the issues both for and against the transfusion, moral, ethical and legal.  Under terms of the British The Children Act, Fiona must decide in the best interest of the child.  She feels the only way she can do this properly is meet Adam, the boy at the center.  It's a meeting that will profoundly affect everyone assigned to the case.  Without giving away the ending, I can say that things did not entirely work out the way I expected.


Mr. McEwan's writing is beautiful.  He manages to perfectly capture Fiona's devotion to her responsibilities, even when it come at the cost of her personal wishes.  She and her husband's roles in contemporary society are switched here, and thus even more clearly illuminated. A brief investment of your time will yield positive results in reading The Children Act.

Monday, May 1, 2017

American Gods

I saw that Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods (#649) was going to be on Starz, so I decided to finally read something by him.  It took me an awfully long time to get through American Gods.  I should have known; my husband kept commenting as he read it first, "This is a really odd book."


The premise, according to the Starz trailers, is that the old gods are fading, new gods are rising, and that a war between them is coming.  Odin is certainly trying to gin up his troops against the digital and media gods, using his hired lackey, Shadow to drive him around the country and run his errands, telling him that a war, is indeed, on its way.  As Shadow learns in the end, not so much.  We have all apparently been played by reading this book.


I know that Mr. Gaiman has a legion of avid fans.  He has a vivid imagination and a curious bent of mind (where does he come up with some of his ideas?), but I will never be one of them.  I regret the time I could have spent reading something else.  At least now I know.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Rain in Portugal

First of all, you have to understand that I am not normally a reader of poetry.  However, I have heard Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, interviewed several times on NPR (including one memorable episode of Wait! Wait!), so when I saw of copy of The Rain in Portugal (#648) displayed on a shelf in my local library, I picked it up on a whim.  How was I to know that it was a portent?


Suffice it to say that most of the poems did not go where I expected, and therein lays their charm and delight for this reader.  I cannot say more in praise than I have determined to possess a copy of my own The Rain in Portugal to peruse whenever it takes my fancy.  Thus a fan is born.


Oh, I did mention that this slim volume was a portent, didn't I?  Before the week was out, I had booked my own trip there.  I promise not to write poetry about it!

Burning Blue

After hearing Paul Griffin speak at BookMania! recently, I had to read the book he spoke about, Burning Blue (#647).  Although it is classified as a Young Adult novel (which might put some adults off), this is an engrossing read.  It's all too easy to put yourself in the place of the young protagonists.


The plot revolves around a real-life incident which Paul Griffin responded to as a New York EMT, adapted to a high school setting.  In a matter of seconds, the life of Brandywine Hollows' most popular, brainy and beautiful girl is changed forever when someone throws acid in her face.  She is unable to identify her assailant, and thereby hangs the tale.  When a chance encounter in the school psychologist's office brings loner Jay in contact with her, he resolves to use his hacker skills to uncover the perpetrator.  There are many suspects, and many possible motives, but I have to admit, I never saw the end of this one coming!


It's easy to see why his young adult target audience relates so well to Griffin.  He and Jay Asher, the other Young Adult panelist, held workshops at a local high school before BookMania!, and arranged to have lunch with a group of them the day of the event.  His book touched on trigger points for this group: alienation from the group because you are somehow different, questions of identity and self worth; loss of a parent through death or divorce, love and friendship, trust.  Nothing could make this book more real or compelling.  Read it and find out for yourself.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Hidden Family

The Hidden Family (#646), by Charles Stross is the second book in his fantasy series, The Merchant Princes.  It picks up right where the first book left off (See my post of 3/20/17.), and ends with an event that the reader knows will be continued in the next volume.




We now have not two, but three alternate universes; the geographies of all three coincide, but their history, technological advances and politics do not.  Miriam Beckstein is determined to not become a victim in any of these worlds, and in a bid to keep her independence in the second world, she sees a way to create her own fortune in the third universe.  If she can stay alive, that is.  One of the unfortunate features of all three universes is that there are assassins who can reach her there.  She knows who she can trust in her own world, and gradually she is coming to trust others in her alternate universes.  Those are a lot of balls to keep in the air while walking between worlds, but that's the nature of the high stakes game she found herself in.




Can't wait to read the next installment!

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I've missed Lisa See, and her newest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (#645) does not disappoint. 


As in her previous novels, family is paramount.  Li-yan is Akha, a member of an ethnic Chinese hill tribe in the province of Yunnan.  Her remote village revolves around the collection of tea leaves from their ancient trees.  But Li-yan's mother introduces her to a special, hidden grove of ancient trees high on the mountain.  It's her inheritance, but her a-ma is insistent that no man may visit the grove, nor learn of its location.  In most ways, Li-yan is obedient to the centuries-old traditions that govern the lives of Spring Well Village, but the day she attends the birth of twins with her mother, the village midwife, her thinking begins to change, especially when she falls in love with an unsuitable boy.


When she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock, she is forced from the village.  She takes the child to an orphanage in Menghai, where she leaves her.  Many years later, when her fortunes change, she and her husband return to Menghai to reclaim the child, only to find she has been sent to America to be adopted.  When Li-yan is forced once again to create a new future for herself, it is in the tea trade.  She becomes an expert on Pu'er tea, the rare tea that comes from Nannuo Mountain, her home.  Her life is set on a different course that will lead to profound discoveries.


I found this book very interesting, although a bit disjointed.  I thought the information about how the hill tribes in China lived until fairly recently was fascinating.  Also, as a tea drinker, I was intrigued to learn about a variety that I will make it a point to try in the future.  I hope Lisa See is correct in her prediction that a tea boom is coming the United States.  I never order tea when out because nobody here seems to know how to make it properly.  Warm water with a tea bag on the saucer beside the cup just don't make it.  No wonder Americans don't appreciate tea!  However, when Li-yan's daughter grows up, the switches back and forth between the mother and daughter aren't always smoothly handled, with several techniques being used: letters, medical records, school assignments, narratives, etc.  But still overall, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Portal of a Thousand Worlds

Dave Duncan is a new author for me, but I can guarantee that I'll be looking to read more of his books after finishing Portal of a Thousand Worlds (#644).  Although this is classified as SciFi/Fantasy, it's set in a Victorian Age thinly-disguised China.  Like Guy Gavriel Kay's outstanding Chinese fantasy novel River of Stars, it's grounded in a recognizable setting and culture.

The story moves from the shadowy world of the Gray Helpers, where we meet the orphan boy Tug, so desperate to survive he offers to kill for the Gray Helpers if only they will feed him.  Far away, we meet another boy locked away in a fortress and tortured by his imperial captor.  In this life, he is known as Sunlight, but he has lived many, many lives.  The distant court seeks his knowledge of the opening of the Portal of a Thousand Worlds, predicted to be coming soon.  In the capital itself , Heart of the World, the Empress Mother controls the court with an iron fist and her personal assassin.  No one is allowed to see the Emperor Absolute Purity, and rumors abound that there is something wrong with him, or that he is actually dead.  Meanwhile a rebel army has arisen in the south under the Bamboo Banner determined to drive the Empress Mother from the throne.

Mr. Duncan has taken these threads and woven them together into an enthralling tale of power, lust, betrayal, adventure and illusion across a sweeping landscape, building to the climax of the Portal's opening.  I found it hard to put this book down,but alas, as with all good things the ending came much too soon.

Clownfish Blues

My favorite Florida serial killer, Serge A. Storm, is back in Tim Dorsey's Clownfish Blues (#643), and this time he's skewering the Florida Lottery, worm grunting and the town of Cassadaga.  Okay, Cassadaga is a target for a lot of people who enjoy poking fun at Florida, but nobody does it like Serge and his faithful sidekick.

This time Serge is paying tribute to one of his favorite TV shows - Route 66.  I must admit, that's not a series I know a lot about, so I didn't realize that in its last season, a number of episodes were shot at Florida locations.  Apparently the series stars found a job at each location, so Serge sets out to emulate them, meeting the usual cast of crazies along the way.

Of course when one of the families he meets tells him about a problem with an elderly aunt, Serge does deal out a well deserved end for the caretaker who has cut off all contact with his client's concerned family, and put his name on all her bank accounts.  Unfortunately, that's all too common here.  It's nice for once to imagine that someone so callous actually gets what they deserve!  Of course, that's what keeps me rooting for Serge.  That, and the lists in each book of interesting places to visit here in Florida.  I think I'll give Cassadaga and its mediums and New Age mumbo jumbo a miss, though.  Always a fun read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Family Trade

How can a day go so wrong?  Miriam Beckstein covers the bio tech beat for a small Cambridge-based trade journal.  Her research assistant Paulie has just given her evidence of money laundering at two of the biggest firms in the country.  It promises to be the scoop of her lifetime.  So why does her boss on the executive floor hustle her and Paulie out of his office and have them escorted out of the building by Security?  And why does her adopted mother insist on today, of all days, on presenting her with a battered locket and a box of clippings about her birth mother's unsolved murder?  All Miriam was looking for was a little sympathy.  She certainly never expected to end the day with threatening phone calls, or worse yet, being chased through the woods by medieval knights on horseback shooting at her with machine pistols!

Fantasy writer Charles Stross grabs your attention in The Family Trade (#642), Book One of the Merchant Princes.  By the time Miriam figures out that her mother's locket allows her to pass between alternate universes located in roughly the same geographical area, her presence has been detected by forces on the other side.  In that universe, she is heir to a title and a huge fortune as a long-lost member of a powerful merchant family moving goods between the two worlds.  Needless to say, where money is involved, not everyone is happy with Miriam's sudden and unexpected reappearance.  In fact, at least two factions are determined to see her dead...

Action, romance, suspense and humor are all part of this fun read.  As Miriam fits together the pieces of her new world, while maintaining a foothold in the equally perilous world she left behind in Cambridge, the plot keeps twisting until Miriam is no longer sure just who she can trust on either side.  She's safe for the moment, but I know that will only last until I get my hands on Book Two!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Shores of Tripoli

Who would have expected a Texan historian to write an exciting naval trilogy about the America war with Barbary pirates?  In The Shores of Tripoli (#641) James L. Haley has given us Lieutenant Bliven Putnam to put on our shelves along with our Horatio Hornblower novels.  When he is first introduced to us, Lt. Putnam is still a midshipman aboard the USS Enterprise.  At age fourteen, he has met the conditions his father had set to leave the farm in Litchfield, Connecticut to go to sea.  His first assignment takes him to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping from the raiders of the Barbary States, who deem it their right to capture and enslave any Christian infidels, or to hold the wealthy ones to ransom.  Putnam sees action in his first engagement at sea which will set the course for his naval career.

Politics plays a much larger role in the navy than Putnam would like to believe, as President Jefferson and the Congress squabble and make treaties with the individual Barbary States which undo the victories which his commander has won, and makes heroes out of those who have blundered badly. By the end of the first volume Bliven Putnam is giving serious consideration to whether he should remain in the nascent navy, or resign his commission.

This story has a bit of everything to keep the reader glued to the pages: page-turning action sequences, political back-biting, romance, and a hero with a strong moral compass to match his interest in the outside world.  James Haley spoke at the 2017 BookMania!, and he stressed his desire to make the story as  historically accurate as  possible - to thread the fictitious Putnam and his friends through the existing canvas of historical events - with enough leeway to make it a can't-put-down story.  I look forward eagerly to his next adventure!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - An African Childhood

When she was three years old Alexandra Fuller moved with her parents and older sister from England to Rhodesia in 1972.  She remained there until 1981, when her family moved to Malawi and then on to Zambia.  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (#640) is her memoir of those childhood years spent in Rhodesia during its civil war, and after majority rule took effect there, other African nations.

Through Bobo's eyes (She didn't realize her name was actually Alexandra until she first went to school.) we see both the beauty of her adopted continent, and the life threatening  conditions of drought, poverty, and violence in contrast with the tight-knit society of the ex-pat community there. Her memories are in turn lyric, amusing, tense and appalling.  Physical discomforts are offset by the anodyne of constantly flowing alcohol.

Bobo herself seems to be fearless, handling the loading of weapons as a seven year old to protect their isolated farm as a matter of course.  But disease and accidents have a way of taking their toll, especially on her own family.  She and her surviving sister Vanessa had different ways of coping with the constant vigilance and isolation, as did their parents.  Dysfunctional as the faimily may have been, they did stick it out together.

An interesting perspective on a time and place I never thought much about before.  Recommended.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back

 Janice P. Nimura introduces us to the three young Japanese girls dressed in fussy Victorian outfits on the cover of her non-fiction book Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back ((#639).  Their stories are quite remarkable.  In 1871, the Japanese government sent an ambassadorial team an on misstion to the outside world, beginning with the United States, to learn more about the Westerners who were forcing drastic changes on Japanese society by the mere fact of their presence in Japan.  At the last moment, it was decided to send five young girls along with this mission to be educated in the United States and return with a thorough knowledge of the language and culture which would benefit Japan when they were able to pass this along to their future pupils and their own children  That was what was supposed to happen, but in the ten years Shige, Sutematsu and Ume spent living with families in Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, things at home changed.

The two oldest girls of the original five came home less than a year after leaving for the States so the book concentrates on Ume, the youngest at six, Shige and Sutematsu who graduated from Vassar before returning home.  None of the girls spoke English when they left home.  By the time they returned to Japan, it was at first a chore to even speak Japanese, let alone be fluent in reading or writing it.  They had become, in effect, young American women.

Yet as fascinating as their lives were while living in the United States, their paths on their return took them in separate directions, though they always remained close.  They struggled so hard to adjust and to make the most of the education they had received and to accomplish the mission they were originally charged to perform.  Two of them remained in the public spotlight both in Japan and abroad.  One led a quieter life that perhaps came closest to meeting the ideal of their mission.  All three lived lives of courage, grace and strength.

Daughters of the Samurai was on the New York Times 100 Notable Books List of 2015.  You'll understand why when you read this amazing story.

Dying to Wake Up

It's amazing how your perspective changes when an out-of-the-ordinary event happens to you.  That's the gist of Rajiv Parti, M.D.'s new book Dying to Wake Up (#638) about his Near Death Experience.  At the top of his profession as Chief Anesthesiologist at a prestigious California cardiac hospital he had money, a mansion, a healthy family and lots and lots of "toys".  But it was never enough.  After seemingly routine surgery on his wrist, he finds himself cascading into a series of complications, further surgical corrections and addiction to pain medications until at last, he has an out-of-body experience on the operating table during a desperate attempt to save his life.  Dr. Parti recounts his story of what eventually leads to a profound change in his own life, and those of many around him.

When he was the first doctor a patient waking from anesthesia encountered, many of them tried to tell him of experiences that they had while being operated on; of seeing deceased friends and relatives, a bright light, a tunnel, or even watching their own bodies lying on the table while they hovered above. Prior to his own Near Death Experience, Dr. Parti's reaction had always been to get away from that patient as soon as possible, and never go near them again.  He thought it was simply the affect of the anesthesia, and had no interest in listening to wild tales when there was the next patient to see.  It's different when it happens to you, though.  Many of his colleagues had that same reaction when he tried to tell them about what happened to him.  Not surprisingly, the nurses he talked to in the Recovery Room and ICUs were much more receptive, and shared with him their encounters with patients who described similar events.

What makes Dr. Parti's story more interesting to me is how itt effected his life after he recovered.  He is no longer practicing anesthesiology, but is doing his best to learn a different approach to healing and maintaining health through a mind/body connection, to change abusive practises in his own family and to pay back those who paved the way for him.  Whether or not you believe in this sort of thing yourself, it obviously can have a strong affect on those who do.  Worth a thoughtful perusal.