Tuesday, May 29, 2018

June Books

As I mentioned to you last month, I am cutting back on my reviews, but will continue each month to give thumbnail blurbs and recommendations for recently read books.  I will divide this into books read and books that may be of interest.

This month’s reading:

A CRACK IN THE WALL by Claudia Pineiro (fiction)
Pineiro is a well known Argentinian writer.  Architect Pablo Simo is trapped in a lackluster job, his home life is a mess.  Much of his day is spent daydreaming about the sexy office secretary.  He is drawn into a heinous crime and cover up that leads to a very interesting ending.
Highly recommend as a different type of mystery with a highly imaginative plot.

THE WANDERERS by Tim Pears (fiction)
This is the second book in Pears’s trilogy of life in rural England leading up to World War I.  The first book, “The Horseman," was reviewed here previously.  It continues the story of Leo Sercombe, a Devon farm boy who has a reverent and mystical relationship to horses.  I didn’t enjoy this second volume as much as I did the first, but I still recommend reading it if you have read and enjoyed the first book.  I am looking forward to the third volume.
Recommended.

A HIGHER LOYALTY by James Comey (non-fiction)
James Comey, the former head of the FBI, has written a timely account of his interaction and subsequent firing by Donald Trump.  He begins the book with an account of his years serving the federal government under George Bush and through the Obama years.  Interestingly it brings back the often tense moments and mistakes of the Bush administration that many of us have forgotten, as well as the constant drama of the present administration.  Comey makes an effort to be bipartisan and goes to great length to expose his own shortcomings.
Recommended.

ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL by Sarah Vaughan (fiction)
This novel is a page turner.  It weaves the past and present of the couple at the center of the story. He is a well-known and respected parliamentary minister who is charged with rape.  His loyal wife grapples with the attendant publicity and her inner battle to remain supportive.  At the same time, the backgrounds of the barrister prosecuting the case as well as that of the victim add to the suspense.  The book is well-written and the characters are interesting and fully drawn.
Highly recommended.

BOOKS OF INTEREST:

CALL ME ZEBRA by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi (F)
SONG OF A CAPTIVE BIRD by Jasmin Darznik (F)
TWO SISTERS by Asne Seierstad (NF)
ALTERNATE SIDES by Anna Quindlen (F)
THE PUNISHMENT SHE DESERVES by Elizabeth George
THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers











Thursday, April 26, 2018

LENIN by Victor Sebestyen (NF)

The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror

Victor Sebestyen has done a massive amount of up to date research on Lenin, and has written a fascinating, readable, and balanced book about the life of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a man who had a monumental impact on Russia and subsequently, the world.

Lenin, whose birth name was Vladimir Ulyanov, was born April 10, 1870.  His family were upper middle class and money was never an issue.   As a child he did not show any special talent toward leadership, indeed, he kept to himself, was quiet and had few friends other than those who were, like him, mad about chess.  Lenin was studious and always earned grades which placed him at the top of his class.  While still a young boy, his older brother, Sasha, became involved in an underground terrorist group dedicated to overthrowing the Tsar.  He was jailed and summarily executed.  This act changed the course of Lenin’s life.  In his young adult years Lenin studied law and practiced for a short while.  Emulating his beloved brother, Lenin soon joined radical underground groups in the St. Petersburg area, and it was here that his talent for organizing and leadership evolved.

Lenin was well-known to the Tsarist Secret Police, and before long was arrested and spent a year in jail and three years in Siberia.  By 1900 when he was released, he was a marked man and fled to Western Europe where he moved about living in Paris, London, Geneva, Munich and Finland, organizing uprisings and strikes again the government of Russia.  He did not return home until 1917 when the revolution he masterminded was at last underway.

The adult Lenin possessed the same attributes as most strong totalitarian leaders. He was unable to compromise, believed in himself, was singularly determined and had a strong will.  He thought of himself as an idealist, but held that the ends justified the means.  That meant lies, manipulation,repression, and condemning large populations to starvation and death were all justifiable in order to establish the communist state.  Lenin only ruled Russia less than seven years, yet he completely changed the government and course of Russian history.  Lenin was a great orator and was able to sway crowds, inspiring in them optimism and hope.  He offered simple solutions to complex problems.

In opposition to his public persona, Lenin led a quiet domestic life.  He adored the outdoors and was happiest when hiking through the mountains, walking and swimming.  He was forever writing and formulating political tomes.   He married Nadya Krupskaya, and they remained a devoted couple even though he carried on a lifetime affair with Inessa Armand.  They all apparently lived in harmony frequently sharing outings and holidays.  Inessa and Nadya were as devoted to each other as they were to Lenin.  Inessa had several children with a former husband and these children remained close to Lenin and Nadya until their deaths. (a little factoid:  Lenin’s cook at one time was a man named Spiridon Putin:  Sound familiar? He was Vladimir Putin’s grandfather.)

The cult of Lenin in Russia began after an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him.  Lenin was eventually brought down by a series of strokes which left him incapacitated and unable to make decisions.  This is where Stalin steps onto the stage, but that is a story for another time. Lenin died in 1924 and his body was preserved, his mausoleum visited by millions from all over the world.  Winston Churchill famously said, “For Russians, their worst misfortune was Lenin”s birth; their next worst, his death."

I enjoyed this book immensely and could go on for pages. I highly recommend it to all readers. It is beautifully written and it is a period of history we would all benefit from knowing more about, especially given the state of our world today.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

THE THIRST by Jo Nesbo (fiction/thriller)

I thought I was Jo Nesbo(ed) out after I finished this latest Harry Hole thriller.  But, I read a review of his latest book, “Macbeth,” and I might have to reconsider.  “Macbeth” is part of the reconfigured Shakespeare series, in which authors write a contemporary novel based on Shakespeare’s original.  I reviewed Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” which is part of the same series.  The thought of Nesbo taking on “Macbeth” is too juicy to ignore.

At any rate, “The Thirst” follows the same formula that has made Nesbo famous, lots of gore, angst, murders, and Harry.  In this book Harry is married to Rakel and his step-son, Oleg is a police intern and has shaken off his addictions, Harry though, maybe not.  Harry’s workmates are also here with all their hangups.  Early in the book, we meet the murderous villain, this time a vampire-like killer who wreaks havoc with some specially made steel dentures.  Enough said.

If you are a fan of Nesbo and Harry, this will not disappoint.  I still think “The Snowman” is his best.
Enjoy.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee (fiction)

“Pachinko” was a National Book Award finalist as well as one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2017.  The story spans the years from about 1910 when the Japanese occupied Korea until the end of the 1980s.  The author has given us the story of four generations of a family who lived through the two World Wars, the Cold War and the Korean War and the effects these events had on ordinary people.
The story opens in a small fishing village, Yeongdo, on the southeast coast of Korea. There, in an arranged marriage a young girl named Yangjin weds a good man who has a double disability, both a cleft lip and a club foot.  Despite the difficulty of making a living, the couple had a happy marriage, especially when a daughter, their only child, was born.  It is this girl, Sunja, who is the center of the novel.  The family remained desperately poor, and more so when the father dies early on.

The young Sunja was an innocent and naive girl, and she was attracted to a well dressed Japanese man who came back and forth to her little village, though we are never quite sure what his business there was.  He took notice of Sunja in the marketplace, and then took advantage of her.  As these these tales often go, it wasn’t long before Sunja found she was pregnant.  Hansu was married with a family back in Japan, and what’s more he was a powerful member of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.  In a strange way, Hansu loved Sunja for her purity, and though he could not convince her to leave with him, he continued to secretly follow her whereabouts and support her in ways she was unaware of.  He appears again and again throughout the book, never losing his love for Sunja.

One day a young Korean Christian missionary, Isak, en route to join his brother in Japan, stays at Yangjin’s boarding house.  Sensitive to Sunja’s condition and the shame and rejection she would bring upon the family, he offers to marry her and bring up her child as his own if she will join him in Osaka.  It is the story of this family which is the centerpiece of the novel.  Because the story follows four generations in the Baek family, it is not possible to give a plot summary, of this well-written book, rich with detail.  Poor and forced to live in the Korean ghetto where they were known as Zainichi, the first generation faced discrimination and often brutality.  Feeling shame the women worked hard to make and sell kimchi in the marketplace. Three strong steadfast woman kept the family intact and close. Though they longed to return to Korea, they could not because of occupation and war.

Sonja and Isak had two sons and these men became very successful but by different pathways. Noa, the oldest, longs to be Japanese and eventually changes his name and moves to Nagano where he passes for Japanese, his wife and children unaware of his roots.
Mozasu, the second son, who was never much of a student, becomes wealthy by running and eventually owning Pachinko parlors.  Pachinko is a game similar to vertical pinball. Wildly popular, they are everywhere in Japan, noisy and full of people at all hours.  In the past, it was a path out of poverty for the many Koreans who ran them. Inevitably they were targets for the Yakuza.

Mozasu’s son, Solomon, faces different challenges.  He is a modern child, educated in America, with a degree in business.  Sadly, he discovers that working for a British investment bank does not shield him from discrimination and even sacking, when he is considered redundant after completing a large deal for the company.

Min Jin’s characters are strongly drawn and realistic.  Family ties, the role of women, the shame and struggle of being an immigrant, are all themes which run through the book.  I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it as a great read as well as a bit of history one may not be familiar with.




 





Tuesday, April 3, 2018

THE DEAD HOUR by Denise Mina (fic/mystery)

This is an early Denise Mina thriller, written in 2006, and continues the story of Paddy Meehan who works the graveyard shift for the Scottish Daily News in Glasgow.  Paddy appears in a previous book, “Field of Blood,” which I haven’t read, but this novel stands on its own as an enjoyable read.  Paddy is young, tough and feisty.  She more than holds her own in the rough nightly news room and with the police at the local precinct. She comes from a large and poor Irish family, and she wrestles with her share of guilt about her weight, her snacking, and her relationship with a sleazy detective on a case she is following for a news story.

Paddy’s job entails chasing down police calls with her driver in case there is a lead she can make into a story.  The usual night news room stories are fairly dull, and when she stumbles upon a call in an upscale neighborhood, Paddy is sure there is more to the case than a simple domestic dispute. She becomes part of the case when she glimpses a battered woman behind the well-dressed handsome man who answers the door.  The woman quickly disappears from sight as the man smoothly puts off  the police, slipping them and Paddy hush money.  The exchange happens so quickly that it doesn’t register with her until she is warned to keep her mouth shut by the police.

Mina weaves dark nourish tales, and most of the action in this story takes place in the wet, gritty streets of nighttime Glasgow.  It involves murder, police corruption, suicide and drugs.  Mina’s characters are real and Paddy is unusual and likable.  The reader feels her pain and her struggle to do the right thing while trying to help support her family and especially her mother.

Finding an older Denise Mina book at a library book sale is a treat indeed.  If you haven’t read anything by her and you like mysteries, I recommend you give her work a try.  She writes well and realistically and her characters are always psychologically interesting and deeper than the usual crime novel sleuth.


Friday, March 23, 2018

THE HORSEMAN by Tim Pears (fiction

This beautiful story by Tim Pears completely mesmerized me.  I was back in Somerset and Devon, Thomas Hardy country.  The measured pace of each day in one year in the life of a country manor farm, and the mood that the author creates with his lyrical writing reminds me very much of the pleasure of reading Hardy.  “The Horseman” is the first of a trilogy of the West Country of England.

It is the story of Leo Sercombe, a 14 year old boy in the years 1911-12.  These years are the last before the Great War broke out, and Leo’s life parallels the calm before the storm.  We are reminded that though nature is calming and beautiful, it can also bring destruction, and the reader knows that despite the slow cadence of everyday life, something big is coming.

Leo is a silent observer, serious, honest and true.  He rarely speaks, yet takes in all around him, and in turn we see all through Leo’s eyes. School and book learning are something to be gotten through until real life begins.  He is the youngest of a taciturn family where everyone has a job and that job fills every minute of every day.  Everyone contributes his or her work which like a well-oiled gear keeps the large estate running smoothly.  The chapters are named by the months of the year and each is centered around a seasonal chore, whether it is preparing the ground for planting until it is time for reaping, or birthing animals, or the brutality of their slaying for food when they mature.  The quiet dignity of the farm workers and the cadence of their speech has a calming effect.

Leo is like a horse whisperer.  He has a gift that all recognize, even Lord Prideaux who sees a future for Leo that will eventually put him in charge of all the manor stables.  Only things don’t always go as one plans or wishes.  Leo’s passionate love of horses is equally felt by Miss Charlotte, daughter of Lord Prideaux. She also instinctively understands the animals and is a talented horsewoman.  She shares an unspoken bond with Leo, as if they are two sides of the same person, bound by their deep love and understanding of horses.  Their innocent relationship is misunderstood by others. The difference in their social classes dictates that they cannot overstep the boundaries they seem to ignore. The climax and ending of the book is very powerful, especially since events leading up to it are so peaceful.

This elegiac novel touched me deeply and I look forward to reading the others in the series.  I highly recommend it to all who feel a kinship with nature, love horses, and to those who love Thomas Hardy’s West Country novels.

Monday, March 19, 2018

& SONS by David Gilbert (fiction)

I enjoyed this book; I like the writing, and I especially liked the recognizable setting in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  Explaining the plot is not easy without giving away the climax of the novel, and there a number of characters with their own stories.  The novel largely focuses on one family, the Dyers, and opens with the funeral of Charlie Topping, the childhood friend of Andrew Dyer, a celebrated author.  Andrew Dyer has a cult following, a la J. D.Salinger, even to his sobriquet, A. D. Dyer.  His reputation rests mainly on his novel “Ampersand,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize and 50 years later is still being published. Chapters are introduced with letters from Dyer to Charlie from day camp and beyond.  They remained best friends through childhood, summer camp, their days at Exeter Academy and into old age.  Dyer’s novel has a lot to do with their days at Exeter, and this crops up throughout the book.  Philip Topping, Charlie’s son, newly divorced and a lost soul, narrates the story and is privy to all events even into the minds of the characters.  It works perfectly from a reader’s point of view.

Dyer, not surprisingly, is absent to his children, spending most of his time barricaded in his office writing.  His two older sons, Richard a former addict who has turned counsellor, and Jamie a free spirited documentary film maker who has drifted through life, are immersed in their own stories and arrive on the scene only when summoned by Dyer who is convinced he is dying.  Dyer and their mother divorced after 31 years of marriage when he had an affair which resulted in the birth of a third son, Andy who is now a teenager.  It is important to Dyer, for reasons the reader will discover, that he exacts a promise from his elder sons to look after Andy when Dyer passes on.  This family reunion orchestrated by Dyer is awkward to say the least.  His first wife, settled in a second marriage and living in Connecticut, is also asked to attend to the narcissistic “dying” man.

Readers familiar with Central Park and the museums of the East Side, will find much that is recognizable.  The setting adds to the enjoyment of the novel.  Gilbert is an accomplished writer who spins a good tale.  I recommend this novel to all readers.