Saturday, December 29, 2012

THE LEOPARD by Jo Nesbo (fic)

Ever since the Stieg Larsson series, it seems that everyone is reading Scandinavian thrillers and mysteries.  Swedish and Norwegian writers are especially popular.  In my opinion, the best of the lot is Jo Nesbo who writes about a Norwegian detective with the unusual name of Harry Hole.
I may not have enjoyed "The Leopard" as much as Nesbo's "The Snowman" or "The Redbreast," but it is still a cracking good read.  As all of Nesbo's books, it is a page turner that will keep you reading long into the night.  The "hero" of the series is Harry Hole, an alcoholic drug using detective, who is in bad shape as "The Leopard" opens.  Despite his dark and troubled persona, he is wildly attractive to women, perhaps they fancy saving Harry from his self-destructive habits. 
At any rate, in this story which opens in Hong Kong, his attractive colleague Kaja convinces Harry to return to Norway where his father is in hospital dying and to help the crime squad solve a vicious series of murders.  The killer is picking off, one by one, a group of skiers and wilderness lovers who were on holiday in an isolated mountain area, north of Oslo.  Complicating matters are the usual interoffice rivalry and politics, which are interfering with the finding of the killer. 
Harry is every boss's nightmare, as he ignores any and all authority and essentially solves his cases alone or with one or two partners whom he trusts, though never completely. The story moves from Hong Kong to Norway, to Africa and back to Europe.
Jo Nesbo is an intelligent and imaginative writer.  His books are lengthy with many red herrings and twists to keep the reader interested.  When the last page is finished, you will find yourself looking forward to Harry's next dangerous escapade.  If you haven't read any of Nesbo's books, I would recommend you begin with "The Snowman." 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

ALBION'S SEED by David Hackett Fischer (non-fic)

Having read Fischer's book on Champlain, I decided to tackle "Albion's Seed (Four British Folkways in America."  Like "Champlain's Dream," this book is well researched with many illustrations and maps.  At 948 pages, it took me most of the month to read it.  The book was written in 1988, and has received mixed reviews by historians, but generally favorable.  Despite the 24 years since it has been written, I found it fresh and interesting.  It really is a well written text and source book, and I chose to read it that way in chunks.  It is well set up for the reader who is interested in the colonial social history of the United States.
Fischer's premise is that colonial America was settled largely by immigrants from four areas of Great Britain, each area heavily influencing the values, customs and beliefs of the land where they settled, in some cases, even into modern times. 
 New England was heavily settled by Puritans from East Anglia escaping hard economic times and desiring the freedom to practice their religion away from Stewart England.
The land that made up the Southern States was settled by aristocratic cavaliers fleeing from the Cromwell's roundheads.  These aristocrats, from the southern counties of England, were proud of their ancestry and perpetrated a more defined class system than in other areas of early settlement.
A third area in the Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley was largely settled by Quakers also seeking freedom of worship.  Under the leadership of William Penn, they brought advanced ideas of democracy, diversity and equality to their settlements.
Finally the last to arrive were the immigrants from the north of England along the Scottish border lands and Northern Ireland.  The Scots/Irish that came to America were a tough, truculent lot.  They had been involved in fierce fighting in border wars that went on for hundreds of years between the Scots and English.  Most were fleeing a hardscrabble life and settled in the mountainous regions we know as Appalachia.
Fischer is thorough in investigating all aspects of the settlers lives. Whether you agree with his thesis or not, you are sure to find this a fascinating book worth the read, especially if you love history.

Monday, December 17, 2012

GHOST LIGHT by Joseph O'Connor (fic)

John Millington Synge was and is one of Ireland's foremost playwrights.  Along with Yeats, he was a founder of the famous Abbey Theater in Dublin.  His most famous play, "Playboy of the Western World" was performed in 1907 and caused a furor at the time over its content and subject.  Molly Allgood whose stage name was Maire O'Neill, along with her sister Sara Allgood, became famous because of this production and others that followed.  "Ghost Light" is a fictionalized account of the love affair between Synge and Molly in the short time they had together.
Synge, a genius of a writer, fell in love with the much younger Molly who began acting at age 15.  Their romance was complicated by Synge's relationship with his overbearing and manipulative mother. He was brought up in a well-to-do, educated, Protestant family. His mother held the threat of his inheritance over him should he even think of marrying a Catholic actress who grew up in poverty.  Even at age 35, he was unable to emotionally separate from his mother.
Molly was the poor daughter of another strong-minded mother who loved in a crowded flat about the second hand shop that the family ran.  Seeing her older sisters success in the theater, she longed to act at an early age.  During his short life, she became muse to J M Singe and to Yeats as well.  When he received the Nobel Prize for literature, Yeats singled out the beautiful sisters, Molly and Sara, in his acceptance speech, as being an influence in the interpretation of his work.
"Ghost Light" is a love story that begins in 1952.  Having achieved great success on the stage in Ireland, England and America, she was now living out her last years in poverty in war scarred London. By then, not only was she destitute, but also an alcoholic.  The story is told through Molly's eyes as she relives her romance with Synge. After his mother's death, they became engaged, but it was cut short by his untimely death from Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 37.  The story is told in a stream of consciousness style which is not chronological.  O'Connor writes beautifully and lyrically.  Because he makes jumps in time and incidents, some may not find this novel an easy read.  I have to say, that after I became used to the rhythm and fell into the story, I did enjoy the novel.  The title refers to the custom of theaters which leaves one light always burning so past ghosts of the theater can perform.

Monday, December 10, 2012

EMMA BROWN by Clare Boylan/Charlotte Bronte (fic)

At the time of her death, Charlotte Bronte left behind an unfinished novel called "Emma Brown."  Bronte had only completed two chapters, enough to intrigue scholars and fire imaginations.  Clare Boylan took on the task of creating a story out of this fragment. 
Bronte's story began in a small girl's school run by three impoverished sisters around the year, 1853.   Even in its early stages, the story hinted at a mystery surrounding one of the pupils.  As Boylan takes up the tale she employs the mystery of the wealthy young lady to further the plot and keep the reader interested.
The story is really one of three people and how their lives become intertwined.  The young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, soon reveals herself to be not at all as she is first presented.  Suspense is created as we follow Matilda to London and try to unravel her mysterious antecedents.  Two residents of the small village of Deerfield also play major roles in the novel.  First is Mrs. Chalfont who likewise has an interesting back story, and the other is a Mr. Ellin with an equally alluring tale.  Mrs. Chalfont and Mr. Ellin take an interest in Matilda, and each has personal reasons for doing so, both involving unrequited love.
Once the action moves to London, the story moves into the realm of Victorian social evils and the dark business of child trafficking and prostitution.  This is where the suspense ramps up.  The notorious Newgate Prison plays its part in furthering the plot.
If you enjoy Victorian literature, you will enjoy this book.  If you are a Bronte lover, you will also enjoy this well-written and researched tale.  Boylan does an outstanding job of creating an authentic Victorian story, however I did not feel it was the voice of Charlotte Bronte who gives her characters an inner voice that more fully reveals their nature.  Nevertheless "Emma Brown" deserves to be read as a well-written Victorian novel; it just isn't Bronte's voice.  I recommend this book to all who have an interest in social history and Victorian literature.