Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE RIVAL QUEENS by Nancy Goldstone (non-fic)

Nancy Goldstone has written an excellent book, a duel biography, about a most dangerous and dramatic time in French history.  Her chronicle of the end of the Valois rule is a reliable picture of the state of Europe at a time when strong women ruled in England and France.  “The Rival Queens” is both well-written and readable.  With Queen Elizabeth secure in her throne in England, the rival queens of the title are Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589), widow of Henry II, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615).  It is a fascinating and exciting time in history, despite the upheavals and rivalries  all over Europe, the late Renaissance arts are flourishing.  It was a time when Machiavellian principles rendered ruling families manipulative and dysfunctional and alliances changed precipitously

Catherine de’Medici ruled in all but name as regent over her weak sons.  But, her position was vulnerable, and she masterfully and nefariously played off the powerful Catholic League against the Huguenot Party led by the House of Navarre, switching sides as it suited her.

The beautiful Marguerite was also a strong-minded woman, but without the power of her mother, and was often the pawn of intrigue and family jealousies.  Against her will and inclination (she was in love with a cousin) she was married off in great pomp and ceremony in 1572 to Henry of Navarre, who by a quirk of fate, later became Henri IV of France.  The history of the time is filled with Henry's and Henri’s and keeping them straight as they float in and out of importance is a challenge.  Five days after the ill-fated marriage of Marguerite and Henry, the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began.  The royal wedding spectacle, on which massive amounts of money was spent, was part of a plot by Catherine to lure the Huguenots into the narrow streets of Paris to assassinate their leaders.  After this, Marguerite’s life became one of extreme danger, as she never knew whether she would be in favor or out of favor with whatever brother was currently ruling under the thumb of Catherine.

Despite all, the royal brothers fell, one by one, until the last, Henri III, Catherine’s favored son, is assassinated.  Before dying, he names Henry of Navarre his successor. But, by this time, Marguerite and Henry had been separated for many years and Marguerite had been living in exile.  Eventually a deal was brokered between them, and the marriage was dissolved and annulled in 1599.  After this, Marguerite was allowed to return to her beloved Paris, and she reconciled with Henry who was now Henri IV.  She drifted into a position of a favorite family aunt, becoming especially close to the children of Henri and his second wife.

Goldstone is an excellent writer and the history related in the book is as gripping as a novel with twists and turns as different factions move in and out of alliances and power.  There was always a power struggle whether at home or abroad, and adding to the intrigue were the many love affairs carried on by the royals. The author provides an extensive bibliography and reference notes.  There is also a helpful map and family chart. This is an excellent well-written read, especially for anyone interested in French history.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


If you are looking for a 700 page tongue-in-cheek thriller with more twists and turns than a David Lynch noir movie, then this is the book for you.  You definitely will not slog your way through this book. You may, however, find yourself in a labyrinth along with many choice suspects. The chapters are short, fast paced, and with enough action to keep the reader turning pages reluctant to put the book down.
Joel Dicker is a young Swiss writer who has written an international blockbuster, translated into 37 languages.  The book has won three prestigious literary prizes, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award, pretty heady stuff for such a 28 year old.

The story takes place in the small seaside New Hampshire town of Somerset.  Dicker spent his summers in Maine and is comfortable depicting small town Americans. The story is told in the first person, narrated by Marcus Goldman who is a 28 year old novelist who after a highly successful first novel, is suffering from writers’ block.  As his publishing deadline draws near, he goes to visit his old college mentor, Harry Quebert (who is also a famous writer, but a one book sensation) with the hope that he will be able to help him.  The year is 2008 and staying at Harry’s cottage, Marcus one day discovers an old box filled with memorabilia and photos of a summer 33 years before, when Harry was 34 years old and fell madly in love.  This was no ordinary love, however. A la Lolita, the object of Harry’s obsession, is a 15 year old girl named Nola Kellergan.  Now the story moves rapidly as we are taken back to the summer of 1975, a summer when Nola mysteriously disappears.

 Just as mysteriously in 2008, a body is discovered on Harry’s property and not surprisingly, it turns out to be that of Nola.  Found in the grave with her is an original copy of Harry’s famous book, “Origin of Evil.”  As the prime suspect, Harry is jailed.  As Marcus witnesses these events, his writers’ block disappears and he decides to write a novel based of the murder.  In doing so he becomes involved with the investigation of the case and is determined to prove his old mentor’s innocence.

Dicker’s genius lies in his intricate plot development.  Just when you begin to think you know the murderer, another development happens which leads to a completely different suspect.  When I first began reading, I thought the writing style was like reading a graphic novel.  The wording is simple and devoid of deep description.  The characters reveal themselves through their speech.  Soon I realized that author had presented us with a satire.  The characters are comic archetypes of a small town types.  The publishing world is presented as rapacious and money driven.  Marcus’s mother is desperate to find him a wife. There is a rich recluse, with a strange chauffeur, which adds another layer of mystery.  Harry’s involvement with Nola is creepy and he appears a pedophile, yet I kept reading.

Stylistically, the book is unusual, but the story is intricate and a page-turning thriller.  If you enjoy dark mysteries, noir movies, and a satirical twist, then you will enjoy this book.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

SUNDAY MORNING COMING DOWN by Nicci French (fiction)

This is the seventh installment in the Frieda Klein series of mysteries.  These books are best read in order, and with this book the week has been completed.  “Blue Monday” was the first in the series and looking back, is perhaps the best of the series.  All of the books have been reviewed in this blog.

As a quick overview, Frieda Klein is a London psychotherapist who off and on, works with the police to hunt down criminals.  This book begins with a dead body found under the floorboards in Frieda’s own flat and she becomes a suspect herself.  Before long her friends are threatened by the killer, and if you have read the other books in the series, you have a good idea who the murderer is, and what the message is that he is sending to Frieda.  The earlier novels in the series were suspenseful and addictive. However, by the 5th in the series, my interest was flagging, the devotion of Frieda’s friends was getting on my nerves, and I was as desperate as Frieda to put away her protagonist.  I was sure this was going to be the grand finale with all the answers.  Finally I would be free!! By the last third of the book, I began to suspect that the end was not nigh, and that perhaps the plot line would be further stretched.  There is a tidying up by the end of the book, but the mysterious Dean Reeve has not been captured.  Sure enough, I recently discovered there is to be another novel called, “Sunday Silence” which promises to wrap up the series.

If you began this series, most likely you will continue.  The plot line and suspense is excellent, even though the characters become tiresome.  And how can one resist knowing how Frieda will eventually outsmart Dean Reeve!

Monday, September 18, 2017

THE CROSSING by Andrew Miller (fiction)

I love Andrew Miller’s writing.  Like Hilary Mantel, he is one of Britain’s most lauded authors. In the past his subjects have been historical.  Considered his best book, “Pure” which takes place on the eve of the French revolution, won a number of literary prizes and was deemed one of the world’s 10 best historical novels by The Guardian.

This book is completely different. It takes place in present day England and opens with a young couple, members of a university sailing club, preparing a dry-docked sailboat for the season, when Maud  Stamp suddenly falls from the boat.  Surprisingly she survives.  The young man working with her, Tim Rathbone, eventually becomes her husband. Tim is from an aristocratic family which has nothing in common with Maud’s middle class parents.  There are some uncomfortable moments for each when the families meet.
 The story then takes a leap forward, and we find they have a daughter.  Maud who was trained as a chemist, is working for a pharmaceutical company while Tim is a stay-at-home Dad.  He spends his time dreamily composing music.  Maud herself has a dreamy quality which is attractive to men. She is something of an enigma.  The reader gets the feeling that these two are not deeply committed to each other, and when an unfortunate accident occurs Maud drifts into her own world.

 In her attempt to heal her deep depression, Maud sets sail on Lodestar, a boat she and Tim had lovingly refurbished.  The main part of the book takes us on this solo thousand mile journey across the Atlantic with Maud. The details of her life aboard with its daily chores and adjusting to the wind and currents is so accurate that the author must have sailing experience.  Every moment and each movement is real.  As someone who had sailed for many years, I appreciate Miller’s attention to life aboard and found it doubly anxiety making when Maud finally runs into a major storm.

As we move into the final third of the novel, the dismasted ship, has drifted off course and Maud is rescued by a young girl who is part of a cult group made up of children and teens left to fend for themselves.  I will give no other detail of what happens next, but the book takes a strange and intriguing twist.

Andrew Miller is a gorgeous writer.  His sentences flow effortlessly and one drifts, buoyed by their beauty.  For example:
“…the boat’s shadow like black silk hauled just beneath the water’s surface.”
or, “..a face that is starting to talk about him….though looked at casually he can still be whoever you want him to be.”
or, “Nights are like the bottom of somewhere, a kind of seabed.  As for the days, they have a cunning of their own.”

I recommend reading any of Miller’s novels for their style and grace.  You don’t have to be a sailor to appreciate this book.  It comes to an odd conclusion, but I loved every minute of the reading.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

COCKROACHES by Jo Nesbo (fiction)

This is the second Harry Hole book Nesbo wrote.  If you are a fan of Nordic noir and Jo Nesbo and you haven’t read this thriller, you will like it.  It is not necessary to read the Harry Hole mysteries in older and this book, while written in the 90s, was not published in the States until 2013.  The story takes place in Thailand, and though not as good or as polished as his later work, you can see how Nesbo developed as a writer.  There is no need to write a review of this book, because you are either a Nesbo fan or not.  If you have never read one of his books, I would not start with this one.  You might try “The Snowman,” or “The Redbreast.”  You may find yourself hooked and move on to others.”The Snowman” is currently being made into a movie, so it might be a good one to begin with.  Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole.  Good choice I would say, and I hope the movie lives up to its namesake.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann (non-fic)

The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann has written a well-researched and deeply disturbing account of the systematic destruction of the great Osage Nation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  The book is mainly the account of the conspiracy against the Osage in Oklahoma where by chance they ended up sitting on the most valuable oil fields in America.

The story can be said to begin in 1804 when leaders of the Osage Nation met in Washington with Thomas Jefferson who had just completed the deal for the Louisiana Territory.  Jefferson was impressed with the strong handsome and well-spoken representatives who met with him, and at that time assurances were given by Jefferson that no one would take tribal lands from the Osage. At that time the Osage possessed 100 million acres of rich land within the territory.  In less than 20 years, all that sweet talk was for nought, and the nation was not only decimated by small pox, but forced back into Kansas, their territory reduced to 4 million acres.  Soon the white settlers came pouring in with promises from the American government of cheap land.  Once again the Osage were relegated into a smaller area, this time in Oklahoma. Homesteaders had claimed all the good land in Kansas and Oklahoma territories.  Unknown to those in power at the time, the dry useless land the natives were forced onto was atop of a mega oil field.

The main part of the book takes place in the 1920s, and Grann, an excellent writer, examines the fate of one Osage family, and how the FBI became involved in what was to be its most publicized case, the foundation on which J. Edgar Hoover built his powerful organization.  At this time the Osage were the wealthiest people in the world, per capita.  The newspapers played up lurid stories of exaggerated profligacy of tribal members spending money on orgies of bling and waste.  This sparked jealously and outrage among the white settlers and was further fanned by newsmen throughout the country.  The national government decided the Osage were incapable of handling their own money and each family was assigned an guardian, white of course, who lined their own pockets and bilked the natives.  Because by law, the mineral rights to the oil could not be sold and could only pass by inheritance, there was a preponderance of white men who married into the Indian families.

By 1925, an overwhelming number of Osage died under violent or mysterious circumstances. No great effort was made to solve these murders.  It was only when Mollie Burkhart, (whose husband was white) fearing for her own life after 3 of her sibling suffered unnatural deaths, enlisted the help of a white oil man to petition the national government to step in.  Mollie had been victimized by two doctors in the pay of her husband who were poisoning her with shots they claimed were for diabetes.

Once Hoover and an investigator named Tom White became involved, things began to change.  The killers of Mollie’s family were eventually brought to justice and the FBI garnered national publicity and praise.  By the end of the decade the Great Depression had wiped out what was left of the fortunes of the Osage.  While official documents show 24 people had died in mysterious circumstances, modern research had shown the number to be closer to 100.

Unfortunately the greed for oil and territory grabbing is still going on. Witness the recent standoff at Standing Rock and the oil pipelines which are scheduled to go through land belonging to the Lakota Nation. Grann has written an important book furthering our understanding of the injustice done to Native Americans which sadly continues today wherever greed finds a foothold.  I recommend this book to all readers and book reading groups.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

SIX FOUR: A NOVEL by Yokohama, Hideo (fiction)

This hefty book is an international best seller and the first book this author which has been translated into English.  It is a crime thriller, but unique in its style and tone. In Japan, it sold six million copies in six days! It was translated into English by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies.  The translator should be noted, as this was surely a daunting task. Meanings can be lost in translation, especially as Japanese is one of the most difficult languages to translate into English.  Complicating it all are the social conventions and nuances which don’t translate well. Inflections in voice can be important in Japanese, and complex thought must be handled with particular care or the meaning is lost. So kudos to Mr. Lloyd-Davies.

The narrative centers around a crime that occurred years before the story opens.  Shoko, a seven year old girl, was kidnapped in 1987;  later, compounded by police errors, she was found murdered.  For 14 years, the crime has remained unsolved.  The title of the novel comes from the way the crime is referred to in the police department.  The murder took place just before the death of Emperor Hirohito, which ended the Showa era which lasted for sixty-four years.

Yoshinobu Mikami, a detective who had worked on the case, becomes interested in it again when he hears the Police Commissioner wishes to pay a visit to Shoko's father to pay homage to the long dead child.  Mikami is particularly drawn to this case as his own daughter, Ayumi, has been missing for three months, and he and his wife live in dread of hearing of her death, especially as they have received several mysteriously silent phone calls.  Mikami, who once worked in criminal investigations, in the years since had been relegated to the position of press director. This keeps him out of the loop of crime investigations.  Any information he receives is highly controlled by his superior officers. Relations between reporters and police have a formal method to them, as do the interactions between police and victim’s families, which will seem unusual to readers used to western crime novels.

As Mikami delves deeper into the cold case file of the old murder, he begins to find discrepancies and possible cover-ups of the detectives’ handling of evidence.  Now the story becomes one of relationships and games of cat and mouse in the crime department.  Getting to the bottom of departmental corruption is compounded by the social dynamics of the characters and cultural tropes and politenesses that are not part of western crime departments. At one point Mikami muses, “The kind of people who made it to the top, the survivors, were those who kept their secrets close.  The moment you let go of them…….was the moment you lost.”

This is a rich and complex novel. The cast of characters is large and I often returned to the helpful listing of characters at the beginning of the book.  It is an intricate and unusual crime novel that cannot be placed in any ordinary category.  If the reader sticks with it, he or she will be rewarded with a brilliant work of fiction and an interesting look into the workings and everyday relationships of a Japanese police department where motives in the end are not so very different than those of the west.