Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A LONELY DEATH by Charles Todd (fic/mys)

Who doesn't like a good British mystery for a lazy summer's read?  This one takes place in the small English town (of course) in Sussex near Hastings and Battle. This is an area I know quite well having relatives there.  Apparently the Charles Todd, the nom de plume of a mother/son writing team, knows the area also.  Charles and Caroline Todd have written an excellent series of mystery books which take place just after WWI.  I have read one other of their books, also as well-written as this.  The Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge returns from a horrific French battlefield experience, shell-shocked, a former name for what we now call PTS.  He is healing from a depression caused by his war experiences, and is asked to take on a case in the town of Eastfield.  It seems that a number of returned veterans of the Great War have been mysteriously murdered, each garroted.  Pieces of Rutledge's own experiences are revealed as he tries to track the murderer down before another takes place.  If you enjoy a good mystery story, I recommend that your try some of this series.  "A Lonely Death" will make you forget that t.v. program you mean to watch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

LIFE ALONG THE SILK ROAD by Susan Whitfield (non-fic)

In her book Susan Whitfield has pulled back the curtain to allow us to experience everyday life amongst the people of the silk road in the late 10th century.  She has gathered information from original sources and presented a study of ten individuals who lived in the lands intersected by the silk road.  Akin to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," but true, her characters come alive for us in ways that almost seem to belong to our modern world.  We meet Uighurs, Turkic peoples, Tibetans, Arabs and Chinese as they make their way from ancient Samarkand through the mountains and Gobi Desert to Chang'an in China.  We meet people as diverse as royalty, merchants, monks, nuns, merchants, artists and courtesans.  Each character has a fascinating story.  The tales encompass greed, marriage customs, war, riches, survival struggles and the tenacity of the human character.  The book includes a good map to help us place the route.  It can be used to compare the lands to their modern counterparts.  Like today, these ancient kingdoms were always at war, vying for riches, and their people victims of raids and invasions.
Susan Whitfield runs the International Dunhuang Project which provides Internet access to original pre-eleventh century silk road manuscripts and sources.  If you have any interest in this era this book is a fascinating and interesting read.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

THE LONDON TRAIN by Tessa Hadley (fic.)

Tessa Hadley is adept at writing about the inner lives of her characters.  All the time I was reading "The London Train," I felt these people are alive with real feelings.  What they grapple with is real; they could be people we know.  There are two main characters whose inner lives are quite different.  They live in Wales and meet on the London train, and the train continues to provide a connecting thread throughout the novel.  The first character we meet is Paul who dominates the first half to the book.  A writer, he strikes me as one who has not yet (in middle age) been able to shed his free and easy 1970's London mode of life.  Married twice and cavalier in his sexuality, he is a contrast to Cora, who dominates the second half of the novel.  Cora is thoughtful and pensive, and her affair with Paul has been meaningful and life-changing.  Both characters are married, both have recently lost a mother with whom they were close, and both are only children.  Paul has three children. The oldest daughter has fled to London, pregnant, to live with her lover and his sister in a run-down council flat. Paul's interaction with his daughter helps us to understand his character.
 Cora's steady phlegmatic husband who is a civil servant, turns out to have issues of his own which bring the story to a climax. There are a number of realistic minor characters who also flow in and out of the story.  Tessa Hadley who is primarily a short story writer, has structured the novel like two short stories intertwined and acting on each other to move the action forward. She is a rich writer who will catch you in the world of her characters right to the end.  I recommend this book as a thoughtful read and a good choice for a book club discussion.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

IMPERIUM by Robert Harris (fic)

What I enjoy most about a Robert Harris novel is that he has done his homework, and I can be fairly sure that the facts that he presents are correct.  One of his more famous novel is "Enigma" about undercover work in WWII.  "Ghostwriter was set on an island like Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast.  "Pompeii" an excellent read about the fated city and volcano Vesuvius is equally entertaining.  The novel "Imperium" is about the early life of the great Roman orator Cicero.  It takes place in the years 79-70 BC when Cicero was a rising star in Roman politics.  Democracy was at its best during this time in Rome's imperial history.  The story is narrated by Tiro, Cicero's slave scribe who eventually outlived him and was given his freedom.  As an aside, Tiro invented a type of shorthand that proved a precursor of the modern type.  This was the time of the powerful military leaders Pompey and Crassus.  Julius Caesar is a rising star and plays only a small role in the book.  Tiro chronicles Cicero's rise from a man of modest background, to the most popular orator and lawyer in Rome, to finally the supreme achievement of Roman Consul.  The author writes in a straightforward plain manner and is not big on style.  It reads much like a biography and a primer on the history of Rome during this period.  While I became engrossed in the historical aspects of the novel, and it led me to do some further research, it is definitely not a page turner.  It is more of a contemplative read.  Harris followed this book up with "Conspirata" which follows  Cicero's further history and the rise of Marc Antony who eventually has Cicero murdered.