Thursday, December 29, 2016

SWEET BITTER by Stephanie Danler (fic)

Stephanie Danler speaks from experience when she describes, in this excellent book, the life of the staff at a high end restaurant.  Though we don't know the name of the fictional restaurant that is the setting of the novel, we do know that Danler worked at the famous Union Square Cafe in Manhattan. It is a good bet that her novel is a thinly veiled account of behind the scenes shenanigans at many a high end restaurant headed by a famous chef. The pecking order among staff is not a fluid one.  If lucky one works up the ladder from bussing to back waiters, waiters, head waiters, etc.  Presiding over this kingdom are sommeliers, barmen, sou-chefs, chefs and so on.  Some few never advance and there is a fair amount of back biting and undermining especially of the lowly "new girl or guy."

The novel is divided into the four seasons of the year with plenty of food, wine, sex and rock and roll.  It is no surprise that food is associated with sex, you can hark back to the earliest novels such as Fieldings "Moll Flanders" to find them paired up.  Of course the staff is young, and unlike past times, most are college grads or actors waiting for the right job to come along.  They consume drugs, a lot of drugs, and liberally sample the wines, along the way becoming familiar with the best vintages often showing off their knowledge to their customers, trolling for big tips.  Everyone knows his place, rarely stepping over the line, keen to the tiniest detail.  Should a surprise visit from the health department inspector occur, the staff goes into action worthy of a military combat drill.

The plot of the book is thin.  It revolves around three main characters, Tess (new girl), Jake (bartender-gradschool dropout), and Simone (senior server, older veteran and mentor).  We know little about their backgrounds.  Tess is fresh out of college from the midwest and comes to the big city to find herself.  She has no idea of where she is headed, but she wants to be in love with the city.  Her family is never mentioned, and she substitutes her colleagues for family, with Simone the mother figure as mentor.  Jake is scruffiluy handsome, his relationship with Simone a mystery, and Tess is drawn to the danger that he exudes.  Like all coming of age stories, Tess experiences the loss of innocence and struggles to find her place among those more experienced and jaded.

Danler is an accomplished writer and her description of the restaurant and the characters after hours life rings true and real. Her characters are well drawn and the reader, while rooting for Tess, is aware that life doesn't always have neat endings.  I liked this book a lot, there is depth to it and the writing is superior.  I recommend this novel as a good winter's weekend read.

Monday, December 19, 2016

SELECTED STORIES 1968-94 by Alice Munro (fic)

Nothing I can say would do justice to the mastery of Alice Munro's writing.  Her metier is the short story and she has written hundreds of them, each a gem.  For this she received a well-deserved Noble Prize in Literature.  There are 28 stories in this collection.  A Canadian, Munro writes about what she knows.  Her characters could be your neighbors or relatives, they could live in cities, but most often live in the countryside of western Ontario.  Many involve the past memories of the characters as they display universal human strengths and weaknesses.  Human emotions drive these stories, often with a woman as a central character, yet I wouldn't call Munro a woman's writer.  She is a writer for all mankind.  She has been compared to Chekhov and like him, her characters reveal themselves with their internal reactions to what life has dealt them.  They are all spellbinding and after finishing a selection, I find myself thinking, "this is my favorite," that is, until I read the next selection.

This is a wonder anthology to begin with or revisit if you are already a Munro fan.  Many of Munro's stories can now be read on line and the "New Yorker" has archived the many stories she wrote for that magazine.  I highly recommend this collection for all readers.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French (fic)

There are so many things I love about Tana French mysteries, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this, her latest.  If you like mysteries and you haven't tried Tana French, do so immediately.  This is her sixth book about the Dublin Murder Squad.  French's lead characters have usually played a smaller role in a previous story, though in this book, we meet Detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran for the second time.  They were previously in "The Secret Place."  You don't have to read the books in sequence to enjoy them.  I have not, and I have not read all yet, but look forward to doing so.

That said, I didn't enjoy this book as much as I had the others I have read, but it is still a good read, especially the second half of the book when the reader has gotten beyond the red herrings.  French teaches us a lot about the workings in the squad room in a very authentic way.  You see the professional jealousies playing out and often just plain meanness.  Her characters are very human with their flaws and quirks exposed to the reader.  Her mysteries are cerebral, you think you know what is happening and then discover hidden depths to a character.  French's characters all carry secrets, including the detectives.

The characters in this book slowly reveal themselves and their pasts. Conway and Moran were causally handed a case that at first seemed quite straightforward.  A woman, Aisling Murray, was murdered apparently while making dinner for a date. The date, Rory Fallon, a milquetoast sort of fellow, quite naturally became the prime suspect.  His interrogation tells you a lot about police methods and it is easy to feel sympathetic for sad Rory.  In the meanwhile, we learn a lot about Antoinette Conway, and begin to realize that her acerbic personality and defensive manner has a lot to do with the fact that being the only female and non-white in the squad room has made her vulnerable to bullying and ragging from her fellow officers. And then there is the added burden of having to deal with Detective Breslin, a blow-hard egoist who has been assigned to the case as a sort of overseer when things become more complicated. All the while, Conway is nagged by a distant memory of having met the murder victim before.  When she finally realizes when, she discovers a truth about herself, as well.

Like many of French's books, we walk the streets and discover the neighborhoods of Dublin.  We meet people from all walks of life, though more often, the working class Irish. The dialogue is terrific and authentic which adds to the enjoyment, though I would like to be better able to figure out the pronunciation of Irish names.  Enjoy.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

IN THIS STRANGE SOIL by Jillian Hensley (fic)

"In This Strange Soil" is sure to please and interest all readers of history and in particular those fascinated by the relations between the Native Americans and the early settlers of the country.  Jillian Hensley has taken a real event, which she meticulously researched, and has written a work of fiction which brings it to life.  The author tells us in a forward that at the time she was living in Westborough, Massachusetts (known as Chauncy in colonial days) she often walked by a plaque at the entrance of the High School memorializing the abduction of four young boys by the Mohawk Indians.  Haunted by this story, she began to research the early history of the town and the Rice family.  A fifth child, too young to withstand the arduous journey north into Canada, was killed.

The story takes place in 1704, a dangerous time in the early settlement of Massachusetts.  Similar and more familiar raids were also made on Deerfield and Lancaster and these stories have been told in New England history.  Hensley uses as her format a series of letters between French brothers of nobility, one (Etienne) an army officer and the other a Jesuit priest (Fr. Vincent de Surville) who has been sent to New France in Canada to convert the Indians and pastor the settlers. It is the time of the long war between England and France, waged on two continents, and in American known as Queen Anne's War, part of the collective French and Indian Wars.

While this is a short novel, there is a wealth of accurate information about the relations between the captives, Indians, and the French in Canada. Two of the Rice boys Timothy and the younger Silas, become close to their Indian families and elect to stay with the tribe, even after their father Edmond, tries to redeem them in a legal agreement with the French.  It was not unknown at the time for a number of captives, including women who chose to remain with their native families. In general the women had more freedom than they did with their Puritan brethren.  As a group those who chose to stay were known as "Unredeemed Captives."  Timothy eventually becomes a tribal leader and converting to Catholicism.  Father de Serville lives a life that would be hard to imagine for his noble family back in France.

I recommend this book to all readers and reading groups who are interested in early American history.  For those who read "Champlain's Dream" (reviewed in an earlier blog), this is an arresting companion to David Hackett Fischer's in-depth history of New France.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


John Guy has chosen to concentrate his biography of Elizabeth I of England on the latter years of her reign.  It is true as he states, that almost all the biographies of Elizabeth have dwelt heavily on the early  romantic years of her life and reign.  What Guy discovered was a treasure trove of original hand-written state papers that had been largely ignored allowing him to write an important book which gives us a much fuller picture of the real Elizabeth, someone much more complex and deep than the myth of "Good Queen Bess."

Elizabeth was 25 when she ascended the throne and she ruled for 44 years.  Beginning with the famous Spanish Armada (there were actually four failed Armadas by the Spanish), Elizabeth's later years were constantly bedeviled by war and the need to raise the money to conduct these wars.  Elizabeth's difficult childhood and adolescence primed her to be wary of all who surrounded her.  Well it was for her to be so.  She lived in an age where the bureaucracy was "heavily weighted against a woman ruler." Her life was a constant battle against a male dominated society.  Early on she learned how difficult it was to be both feminine and show strength.  Hers was a brilliant, difficult personality. She was vain, spoiled, snobbish and unpredictable. She was also intelligent, independent, and wise to the ways of court intrigues. She lived in an age of social and religious unrest.  There were many plots to murder her and put a Catholic on the throne.  She considered her best time to be after she reached age 50 and had no longer to fend off the many suitors for her hand.  Guiding Elizabeth through this maze of plots and subplots was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, thoroughly loyal and the most important political mentor in her life.  He advised Elizabeth since she was 15 years old and though they manipulated and bullied each other, they had deep and abiding ties.

As she aged, Elizabeth became more desperate to hold on to her youth.  She dressed in what could only be extremely uncomfortable and elaborate costumes with high lacy collars which could hide her wrinkled neck, bedecked with precious stones and pearls.  After the death of Robert Dudley (the love of her life), she strung along a number of hypocritical and fawning young men who hoped to make their fortunes through flattery.  She was surrounded by spies and double agents.  The very fact that she learned to use and survive in such danger is reason enough to regard her with awe.

The older Elizabeth had many challenges and failures.  There was unrest among her subjects as it became clear she could not pay the soldiers who fought in the seemingly endless wars.  Many starved or died of disease like typhus.  A number of military leaders ignored her orders because she was a woman; most prominently Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex who was executed when she could no longer abide his drama and disobedience.  Finally, toward the end of her life, she could see the reigns of power slipping away from the monarchy as her loyal courtiers began to age and die.  It was the beginning of the growth of Parliamentary power.  "She did not believe herself accountable to her people.  The problem was that other now did."

This is an important book for all Elizabethan scholars and those interested in the history of the Tutors.  It is well documented and interesting.  If you have read anything of Elizabeth and her earlier years, this is a fascinating companion reading, and should be read to gain a more complete picture of this interesting woman and Queen. I highly recommend John Guy's book.

Friday, November 18, 2016

AMERICAN HEIRESS by Jeffrey Toobin

Everyone living in the United States in 1974 most likely remembers the name of Patty Hearst.  We couldn't help it as the press latched onto this dramatic story of American royalty, kidnapping, terrorists, money, and social injustice.  We were fascinated by Patty Hearst and her captivity.  Was she brainwashed, suffering Stockholm syndrome, or was she a spoiled rebellious young woman looking for some excitement in her ordinary life, playacting at being an urban guerrilla?  Or was she honestly converted to seeing the unjust world of wealth vs. poverty so obvious in the city of Los Angeles?  All this was 40 years ago, and today Patty Hearst is a matronly widow who involves herself with show dogs and all the other facets of upperclass wealth.

Toobin has written a fascinating account of the mystery of Patty Hearst, which he states is very much a story of America in the 1970s, a nation shattered by the recent scandal of Watergate and political shenanigans of the Nixon Whitehouse. The Hearst kidnapping spurred a national debate about victimhood, and Toobin's book brings to light new letters and information to help us form a more complete picture of this time period.

Patty Hearst was taken from the Berkeley apartment which she shared with her fiancé, Steven Weed.  She was a mere 17 when she became engaged to Weed, who comes out very poorly in the book.  The group responsible for the kidnapping called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a small group of only nine members led by an escaped convict, Donald DeFreeze known as Cin. The SLA was able to hoodwink the press and police into thinking them a much larger organization, and they skillfully manipulated the media into keeping them in the spotlight for well over a year.  Patty was kept in a closet blindfolded for 57 days, all the while fed a trope of the evils of parasitic capitalism with her father, Randy, as the chief villain.  Soon after being freed from her cell, Patty became a full fledged member of the SRA, taking part in robberies and becoming adept at making bombs and handling guns. All this was well publicized and watched with fascination by the public.  Eventually, most of the members of the SRA were killed in a spectacular shootout, again on live t.v., which Patty watched from a motel room with her lover, Steve Soliah. They were on the run and were able to successfully evade the FBI until 1975.

Toobin claims that Patty is a survivor.  In order to survive she became Tania with her revolutionary comrades.  When finally captured, after her arrest, she once again put on her pearls and twinset and became the brainwashed college girl.  This was the basis of the defense sketchily prepared by F.Lee Bailey who the family hired to defend her.  It turns out Bailey was more interested in writing a book about the case than in preparing a convincing defense.  Patricia Hearst was sentenced after a sensational trial.  She was eventually pardoned by President Carter after only serving a bit of jail time.  And thus, she retreated into suburban life after marrying her bodyguard, Bernie Shaw.  The author sums up by stating, "Patricia led the life for which she was destined.  She did not turn into a revolutionary.  She turned into her mother."

This is a well-written book about a period of turmoil in America.  In many ways, it was a bizarre time in our history.  It is worth looking back up and taking any lessons it might offer.  I highly recommend the book to all readers.  It would be an excellent choice for a book club discussion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE GERMAN WAR by Nicholas Stargardt (non-fic)

Subtitled: A Nation Under Arms 1939-1945

As the author states in his introduction, this book is about how the German people experienced and sustained the Second World War until the bitter end.  It is a brilliantly written account of how life carries on in war; about the ordinary everyday things that happen in the midst of severe bombing and loss of life.  It shows people going to the store, standing in bread lines, attending school, going to the cinema. And most of all it shows how the German people bought into and fed on the propaganda lies perpetrated by Hitler and Goebbles which became more fantastical as the war years went on.  The reader begins to understand how easy it was, and is, to drift under the power of a demagogue, and how quickly people believe what they want to believe ignoring what they see in front of them, whether it was lines of Jews being deported to concentration camps, or young boys fighting on the front in the waning days of the war.

Beside providing in depth analysis of the key battles of the war, Stargardt tells us of the story of the war years through the letters and diaries of the German people some of whom lived to the tragic ending and many who died either on the front or in the destruction of German cities, and this includes Christians and Jews.  We learn what ordinary soldiers were thinking, how people viewed military deployment.  We read in these letters and diaries how seemingly intelligent people swallow Hitler's grandiose new order to make Germany as great as it was before WWI, how they came to embrace the idea of victory or annihilation.  Letters show us how some believed it necessary to persecute Jews and how some put their lives in danger to to help Jews.  We read of youth, those with hope and those in despair.

A tragedy often overlooked was the blatant murder of psychiatric patients in institutions and the handicapped who did not fit into Hitler's new order.  The number euthanized rose to 216,400 before the war ended.  Along with this was the treatment of the Polish people and the shocking number who were killed or sent to labor camps, along with other Slavic people.  Another deplorable situation we don't hear much about is the large number of young children and teens who were put in detention centers in deplorable conditions under the label "morally depraved" if they showed any resistance or opposition to the government.  Organized religion, notably the Catholic Church, also bears the shame of remaining largely silent despite being fully aware of the atrocities around them.

We all know the tragic outcome of Hitler's refusing to admit defeat and insisting to fight on two fronts to the bitter end.  Because of this policy, millions of Germans died unnecessarily, Central Europe was devastated and in the end Germany was left divided between East and West until the late 1980s.  The German people suffered more casualties than all of western Europe and most died in the last months of the war.  In 1945 within a matter of weeks, 450,000 people died, more than the United States lost in all its wars in the 20th century.

Stargardt has given us a well-written account of the horrible tragedy of WW2 on the German people and the perils of blindly following a drug-addled dictator.  I highly recommend this book as an account of the war from the standpoint of the common German citizens.

Friday, October 21, 2016

THE HOUSE BY THE LAKE by Thomas Harding (non-fic)


Thomas Harding, a British journalist has written an absorbing account of a house on the shores of Gross Glienicke Lake between Potsdam and Berlin.  If you are fascinated by old houses and wonder who lived there and what dramas took place, then you will love this book as much as I did.  Five families occupied this house through its history, each family with their own particular loves, fears, illnesses, and crisis, yet each family took shelter, pleasure and comfort from the house. The house always possessed something magical which drew people to it, especially the children who lived there.  To them it was a paradise of waiting adventures to be had on both the land and the water.  The author's grandmother said it was her "soul place."

The first owner of the large piece of property the Lake House is built on was Otto Wollank, a gentleman farmer who built a large house and built up a model farm as the 19th century drew to a close.  By the end of World War I, the farm was losing money and Wollank began to sell off parcels of land to wealthy Brandenburg professionals during the 1920s.  The economy was stabilizing and Berlin was again a center of learning, society and nightlife.  The author's great-grandfather and his family now enter the story.  Alfred Alexander, a brilliant physician had just been elected to the Berlin Chamber of Physicians, a high honor which brought him many notable patients; Nobel Prize winners like Albert Einstein, actress like Marlene Dietrich, his services were in high demand.  The Alexanders were drawn to the lake as an escape from the pressures of city living.  The Bauhaus Movement was changing people's minds about architecture and drawing them away from opulent ornate homes to simpler functional designs.  This was just the type of home, Alfred wanted for his retreat.  The Lake House brought years of happiness to the Alexanders through the 1930s until the end of the Weimar Republic.  With the rise of the Third Reich and its suppression of Jews, the family realized it was time to leave. They fled to England, never to return.

Alfred leased the house to Willy Meisel a famous composer and musical arranger and his actress wife.  The Meisles stayed until 1944 when events forced them to leave.  Meisel's creative director, Hans Harmann then moved in with his Jewish wife, an opera singer.  The Lake House was a refuge for them, and they peacefully remained until the end of the war and the partition of Germany.  Choosing not to live under communism, they fled to West Germany.  The house was then taken over by Wolfgang Kuhne and his family.

With the takeover of the Soviets and the partition of Berlin, the lake and area, quickly declined.  The house also was a victim of this decline.  The Berlin Wall separated the two banks of the lake, and those on the Eastern side, no longer had access to the lake or its views.  A barbed-wire fence and the wall separated them from any enjoyment of the shore.  Yet the beauty of the lake was unchanging, hidden by the wall but alway there, waiting for liberation.

Harding first saw the house and lake in 1993 when he was a student. His grandmother, Elsie, who grew up there took all her grandchildren to visit the house.  It is a poignant and bittersweet moment for the Alexander family.

There are some wonderful home movies of the Alexanders available on YouTube showing the house throughout its history, not to be missed if you read the book.

I loved this book and highly recommend it to all readers.  It was a prize winner and best seller in Europe.  It is an excellent choice for all book groups.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

MISSING PRESUMED by Susie Steiner (fic)

Edith Hind is the missing person of the title. She is considered high-risk because she comes from a wealthy socially prominent family London family.  Her father is physician to the Royal Family. It is a priority of the powers that be, that this case is solved quickly.  Edith is a post-grad Cambridge University student who has all the attributes for a successful future.  She is gorgeous, bright and seemingly has an equally perfect boyfriend.  On the night she went missing, her flat was left unlocked and open. Two wine glasses and blood were found in the kitchen.  Nothing appeared to be missing, her purse and coat were left behind, and other possessions were left undisturbed.

In contrast to Edith is Manon Bradshaw, the Cambridgeshire detective assigned to the case. Manon at 39 is single, morose and angry. (Why are all detectives in crime books flawed?)  Luckily for the reader, Manon is more interesting than any other character in the book.  I became as much engrossed in her story as in that of the spoiled missing Edith.  Manon meets men online, has one-night stands and trouble sleeping.  Lonely, she is unable to make meaningful connections with colleagues or any of the men she dates.  Then in what appears to be an unrelated case, the body of a young man, a murder victim, is washed up along the river, Cam.  During the investigation Manon meets the appealing, but prickly, young brother of the dead man.  This young boy tugs at her dormant heart strings, and he eventually leads Manon to reconnect with her estranged sister.

As the two cases converge, Edith's secrets are gradually revealed. First the reader must work his/her way through a number of red herrings and blind alleys.  Steiner is an excellent writer.  Her characters are real and sympathetic. I found the book more satisfying than some of the current crop of best sellers with "Girl" in their title.  While I found Manon's story interesting,  the final resolution and ending of the book disappointed. It was a tad too tidy.  Nevertheless I recommend it as another satisfying British mystery novel.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

SPQR by Mary Beard (non-fic)

This is the perfect book to read after Robert Harris's Cicero series.  Reading Beard's non-fiction account of the founding and early years of Roman democracy through the demise of the Empire adds another layer to the fine research Harris did for his novel of the end of Rome's democratic period.  Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge, has written a readable and interesting account of what propelled a small city on the Tiber to become a world power running the largest Empire in the ancient world.  No surprise, perhaps, we find the Roman rulers grappling with the same problems as democracies in today's world: citizenship, political intrigue, class disparity, trade balance, and foreign wars and diplomacy. SPQR (Senatus Populus Que Romanus) answers the question what was the role of the Senate and citizens of Rome in the city and in the Empire.

It is debatable when Rome was actually founded; it was sometime around the 8th century, bce.  What we think of as the glory days of Rome, began in the 4th and 3rd centuries, bce. This was the time of the great men who entered the world stage, statesmen and generals. By the 2nd century bce, 80,000 new slaves a year were being bought and sold on the streets of the city. The figures seem horrifying, but it was not unusual to free slaves after a period of service, and they in turn were granted citizenship and many became successful entrepreneurs and founders of dynasties.  Gradually Rome became a mixed society, and by 212, the Emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all conquered nations.  This solved the problem of a ready supply of soldiers, and the taxation required to rule the Roman world.  Greek became the common tongue, much as English is today.  The Empire was diverse but not tolerant.  Almost everybody came from somewhere else, but each was expected to fit in to the culture of Rome. This model eventually was the undoing of the Roman Empire.  The role of women was flexible as society evolved. They had more rights after the time of Caesar, but were not liberated in the modern sense.  The Roman model assured that the Empire should be administered rather than conquered.

Between 146 bce and the death of Caesar in 44 ce, was the high point of Roman literature, art and culture.  Rome as a democracy did not last long.  The assassination of Cicero marked the end of the Roman Republic and the once respected Senate became little more than a debating society.  After Caesar, his great-nephew, Octavian (Caesar Augustus) defeated all rivals and ruled for 50 years.  His was the most long-lived term. There were 14 Emperors until the fall of Rome and their qualities didn't much matter, the Empire survived despite their decadence and profligate life style. Most were murdered, yet the Empire survived.

Not many writings survived to enlighten us about the life of the average Roman citizen.  Cicero's prolific letters, Livy's writing and that Pliny the Younger give us some idea, but they were from the aristocracy.  Rather, the life of the common man is told in monuments and gravestones found all over Italy.  They survive to enlighten us about families and tell us what people took pride in.  Mary Beard did a wonderful series of programs called, "Meet the Romans" which can be found on UTube.  These are informative companions to this book, and give an excellent picture of life in Imperial Rome.

I highly recommend this book to all who wish to know more about life and politics in the ancient world and what has survived as a model for the world we live in today.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

FIRESTARTER by Stephen King (fic)

Early Stephen King novels are having a bit of a revival these days.  The Guardian is currently doing a series reading the novels, and the current New York Review has a fine article on appreciating his work.  All this happened just in time, as I am recovering from a mishap that resulted in a fractured kneecap.  With plenty of time on my hands, I thought it would be good to try something different than my usual taste.  My son sent me "Firestarter," assuring me I would enjoy it.  Enjoy it I did.  It was a good choice for a housebound reader.  This is one of King's early books published in 1980, and it has had a resurgence in popularity, rated as one of the top 10 favorites among King fans.  An old movie was also made of it.  Pretty awful by all accounts.  It starred Drew Barrymore when she was a youngster.

The book is typical of the early King writing, involving a chase with threatening pursuers and characters with otherworldly powers. It begins with a couple of young college students agreeing to take part in a drug experiment conducted by an organization known as "the Shop." (read CIA) Volunteers, Andy McGee and his girlfriend Vickey, whom he later married, were left with permanent damage including unwelcome psychic powers that they gradually learned to control. Andy was sometimes able to get into people's minds and direct them to do his bidding.  Being a moral person, he rarely used his power and only in extreme circumstances.  It always left Andy ill and depleted, suffering from intense migraines. Other victims of the experiment mysteriously came to bad ends.  Somehow Andy and Vickey were able to escape detection for a number of years.  Then they had a child, Charlie McGee, who is the main character at the center of the book.  Charlie, it turns out, was born with a frightening ability known as pyrokinesis.  As she grows, her gift becomes more destructive and dangerous.  Because she is aware of the terrible consequences which are difficult for her to control, she refuses to use this ability.

Becoming aware of Charlie's power, the Shop, sends a hit-man named John Rainbird to kidnap her so they can study her and make use of her strange "gift."  Railbird becomes obsessed with Charlie in a creepy way adding to the suspense.   Once on the road, Charlie and her father manage to elude their pursuers as the action builds in suspense.  They are saved early on by an New York farmer named Manders.  He and his wife put them up for awhile, until the agents track them down.  They manage to escape once again and hole up for the winter at Charlie's grandfather's cabin on a lake in Vermont.
The story takes off from here with suspense building and horrifying consequences.

I am not a fan of paranormal literature, but this is the second Stephen King book I have read, and despite my misgivings, I have to admit to enjoying them.  King has a way of bringing the recent past to life by using product names and realistic settings.  In this case the reader is transported back to the late sixties and seventies when the government was conducting experiments with various drugs and LSD on unwitting volunteers.  Besides he is an excellent writer.  His characters may be strange but they are believable.  You might enjoy this book for a change of pace or even as a blast from the past.

Friday, September 23, 2016

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tina French (fic)

No one does Irish mysteries like Tina French.  I keep thinking she will run out of ideas, but she keeps turning them out.  If you like her work, you will like this book.  If you have been on a diet
 of non-fiction or deep meaningful books, there is nothing like a good mystery or thriller to keep you turning pages.  This book brings Frank Mackey back, and this time a body found in his old neighborhood of the Liberties, a downtrodden area of Dublin, causes him to rethink his past.  Frank is an undercover detective with the Dublin crimes unit.

French's characters speak in idiomatic Dublin slang; their voices come through clear and lilting with all the rough edges intact.  It has been 20 years since Mackey had been back to the old neighborhood, specifically Faithful Place, the cut-de-sac where he grew up with his four scrappy siblings and tough locals.  He was 19 in 1985 when he fell deeply in love with Rosie Daly, a beautiful feisty neighbor.  They made plans together to escape to England, leaving poverty and feuding families behind. Only that night, Rosie never showed up at their meeting place and Frank never saw her again. Agitated and distressed, Frank leaves his past behind, and the neighborhood where everyone lived   too close and too long together. He never did get to England; instead he bounced around Dublin a bit, joined the force, and worked his way up to being a tough but respected detective.  Along the way, he married and divorced and had a beloved daughter whom he wishes to protect from his manipulative mother and alcoholic and abusive father.

When Rosie's suitcase is found in an abandoned tenement house, Frank returns to work on the case.  I will leave it there as the mystery deepens and we meet neighbors, family, and suspects, along with old feuds which have never died.  I recommend this book to all lovers of well-written and well-plotted mystery novels.

Friday, September 16, 2016

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline (fic)

Emma Cline's first novel, is a loosely veiled fictional account of the Manson Family as seen through the eyes of a naive needy 14 year old.  I have previously reviewed Jeff Guinn's excellent biography of Manson and I recommend that as reading for the real story of San Francisco in the Summer of Love.

The novel opens with the narrator, Evie Boyd, now an adult, living in a friend's isolated cabin.  When a young relative and his very young girlfriend show up and stay for several days, it forces Evie to confront not only her own past, but the naiveté of the young girl, so reflective of herself in that long ago summer. She seems to carry the burden of her past much as  Jacob Marley in the "Christmas Carol." Yet, Evie seems strangely passive and unable to help the young girl.

The reader is then taken back to the summer of 1969, leading up to the Tate/LaBianca murders in August of that year. In this novel, the Manson character is Russell Hadrick who preys on adrift young women. His fierce eyes render them helpless and he picks over them like choosing chocolates .  Evie becomes involved with the family when they rescue her one day when her bicycle has broken down.  The Girls of the title had been out on a dumpster dipping run and stopped their psychedelic bus to "help."  There was no turning back for Evie, and she began making daily trips to the ranch.  But, Evie's attraction to the ranch and it's grungy squalor had more to do with Suzanne Parker (the stand-in for Susan Atkins), who gave Evie the attention she so desperately craved.  Evie's sad clueless mother and absent father hardly figure in her life.  There is one horrifying scene when Russell pimps out Evie to an aging rock star (read /Denis Wilson of the Beach Boys) whom he is trying to get a record contract from.  We sense Evie's fear even as she needs to belong. There is another scene when the girls break into the home of a neighbor of Evie's mother.  It is a practice run for the final horrific event of the summer.  Evie is shocked at the casualness of their destruction and Suzanne senses that Evie is not able to completely buy into the depth of their evil.

The book is well written and the characters, setting and time frame are all realistic.  The sociopathic egomaniac Hadrick is especially horrifying.  The characters are all well drawn and complete.  I recommend the book for its fine writing, though the subject matter is difficult, it is presented as a study of the neediness of young girls who have been left behind and how quickly they can succumb to the crumbs of the attention they crave.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

ENCHANTMENTS by Kathryn Harrison (fic)

Katherine Harrison has written a number of books, all with interesting characters and settings.  This time she turned to the last days of the Russian Empire.  The story of the last Tsar and the end of the Romanov dynasty is familiar to us.  We know the Tsarina Alexandra became infatuated with the mad monk, Rasputin with his healing powers.  But, what I didn't know was that Rasputin was married and had three children. This is the fictional story of one of his children, loosely based on her fascinating life.

The story opens at Tsarskoe Selo, Catherine the Great's opulent winter palace (now a museum).  The royal family await their fate there. The heir to the throne, Prince Aloysha, is one of a number of decendents of Queen Victoria of England, who is afflicted with Hemophilia.  In a vain attempt to cure him, Tsarina Alexandra turns to Grigori Rasputin, a reputed healer and poor peasant from the steppes of Siberia.  Rasputin is slovenly, alcoholic, dirty, and magnetic. People of all classes are drawn to him by his intense eyes and reported sexual prowess.  Rumors abound about his influence over the Royal Family and strange relationship with the Tsarina.  As the situation becomes intolerable, a group of aristocrats get together and murder Rasputin.  This proves a difficult task; the drunken monk is poisoned with no result; they then stab him and still he struggles on; finally, in desperation they bundle him into a sack and toss him into the icy Neva.

Mourning and unconsolable, Alexandria summons Rasputin's daughters to the Palace, hoping one of them, Masha, has inherited her father's powers of healing.  Instead Masha becomes a friend and confidant to the lonely Prince.  As the restrictions intensify around the Romanovs, Masha in an effort to entertain Aloysha, begins to tell him fascinating stories which are the enchantments of the title.
The novel veers back and forth between Masha's life with her family and father, and that as witness to the final days of the Romanov family.

Harrison is an entertaining writer and her descriptions of the palaces and other prisons of the family ring authentic.  Her descriptive writing is at its best when describing the preparations and purification of the body of her father.  Masha and her father's Housekeeper/Mistress work together, wordlessly preparing the body for burial.

I wish Harrison had dwelt more on Masha's life after the murder of the Romanov's.  We know she escaped to Paris with an abusive husband, had two children, became a circus performer, eventually an American citizen, wrote a memoir and married a second time.  She had quite a life.

 The weakest part of the book for me was her relationship with Prince Aloysha and the non-development of any of the Romanov sisters.  Still, it is an entertaining read and a different take on the tragedy of the Russian Royal Family.

Monday, September 12, 2016

DICTATOR by Robert Harris (fic)

This is the final book in Harris's Ciceronian Trilogy, the others being: "Imperium" and "Lustrous." The books follow the great orator, philosopher, and Roman Consul, Marcus Tulles Cicero as he threads his way through the politics of the waning Roman Republic.  The story is narrated by his secretary, Tiro, a slave whom Cicero eventually frees.  Tiro is a natural guide to Cicero's daily life in perilous times without inserting himself into the action, except in a very minor way.

The novel opens in 58bce during one of the most contested times in the Republic.  If you have read any history of this time, it soon becomes clear that Harris has done a prodigious amount of research.  He remarkably has inserted Cicero's real words into the dialog allowing the reader to hear Cicero's voice in a easy and natural manner.  Cicero left behind thousands of letters and documents and  speeches which the real Tiro copied assiduously, along the way inventing an early form of shorthand.  It is largely thanks to the labor of medieval monks who faithfully copied and saved these precious documents that we so well know the demise of the Republic.  So it is that Cicero's words come down to us while so many others have been destroyed.

The reader cannot help but draw parallels between the politicking in the Roman Senate and what is going on in our world today.  The Romans were involved in nagging wars on several fronts, the wealth was held by a small group of aristocratic families, the poor were confined in a warren of apartments owned by slum landlords. The aging Cicero was fairly adept at the game but more than once he became enmeshed in risky moves and was banished accordingly.  The book opens on one of these exiles where he is jockeying to return to Rome as Julius Caesar is off-stage conquering Gaul and later the British Isles.  The first Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus is becoming unraveled and plots and counterplots are taking place daily making speaking out in the Senate a dangerous game.  Cicero very bravely speaks his mind over and over on the floor of the Senate when he returns from exile, only to be sent away again to govern a Provence in the eastern Mediterranean.  In order to return a second time, he promises not to involve himself in politics, but soon he is back on his game speaking out against Mark Antony after Caesar's assassination.

Cicero believed in the validity of the constitution and the Republic, nevertheless he was a catalyst in helping to bring it down.  He believed in Octavian, Caesar's nephew, when he said he would defend the Republic.  Realizing his mistake, and unable to keep his own counsel, Cicero fled again, already poor in health and close to death.  He asks: "Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based upon a citizens' militia, possibly hope to run and empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed of by its framers?  Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth destroy our democratic system?"

I highly recommend this book to lovers of ancient history and to all interested in a good story.  It helps to have read the first two books, but not necessary.  This book can stand alone, as well.  It is also a good book club choice because of the comparison with modern times.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

DREAM HOUSE by Catherine Armsden (F)

I wonder how many of us pass by houses like the one in this story and wonder who lives there and what secrets the house holds.  Occasionally we might see a shadow pass inside or light go on in an upstairs bedroom as we hurry by in the dark.  Catherine Armsden has let us in on the secrets of one such house, the family who lived there, and the girls who grew up there.  Like the characters in this book, the place we call home has meaning in our lives.  Whether happy or unhappy, our childhood home is more vivid in our memory than any other place we lived.

This is the story of a successful architect named Gina Gilbert who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.  Gina is reasonably happy until her parents die in an automobile accident and returning to the old home she grew up in causes her to reevaluate her life and her past.  More than just a story of Gina and her sister Cassie, the novel is the story of two old homes on the Maine coast, each hiding a secret.  The house Gina and Cassie grew up in is about to be sold and while Cassie takes it in her stride, it is profoundly unsettling to Gina.  The other house in the same coastal town is the historic Banton House, the old family homestead which has been turned into a museum of the colonial period.  Their Banton ancestor was an aide to George Washington.  Sometime in the history of the family, an historically important cache of letters written by Washington have gone missing.  It would seem reasonable to suspect that one of these houses contains the letters.

The author is an architect herself and her best writing is in the descriptions of these lovely old homes.  She also grew up in a similar home on the Maine coast, and the descriptions of the seaside  and townspeople are realistic and will be familiar to most New Englanders.

Gina's attachment to her home is real, but her relationship to her husband, children and family doesn't substantiate the anxiety she suffers and some of the choices she makes.  There are a number of interesting characters who play a part in Gina's life and I would like to have known more about them.

I especially like that the author begins each chapter with a quote by an architect or about a house.  Gina muses, "Perhaps in this world there were no owners or enters, only borrowers choosing a bit of ground to call home during their short stay on earth."  It is a nice sentiment as she struggles with saying good-by to the the most important place in her past.  Armsden has chosen to write a lovely tribute to past memories.

Monday, August 15, 2016

HHhH by Laurent Binet (sic)

This is an interesting and unusual book.  Stylistically it may not be to everyone's taste.  It tells the story of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's henchmen known as the Butcher of Prague.  The tale is told by a nameless narrator who has decided to research and write about Heydrich including his early life, in an attempt to understand the man and what caused him to become such a feared and detested person.  However, as the novel progresses, the presumed fictional writer becomes part of the story, and it becomes unclear whether the one is reading fiction or fact.  Is Binet writing about himself and his research or is he writing about a fictional character?  Who is the main character here?  Is it Heydrich or is it Binet or is it the unnamed author?  At times the author's obsessive anxiety about his research becomes tedious.  Nevertheless the book is fascinating and highly original, as well as suspenseful.

HHhH are the initials which stand for the German, "Himmlers flirt heist Heydrich" (Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.  By all accounts and standards, Heydrich was a thoroughly distasteful and evil character, who was one of the masterminds of eradicating the Jews in Germany and German occupied Europe during World War II.  The book becomes a nail biter when two Czechoslovak patriots volunteer to assassinate Heydrich.  The plot was called Operation Anthropoid.  The two men were given fake identities and parachuted into the countryside.

Heydrich was given to riding in an open car and the two men lay in wait.  Plans went somewhat awry when the first shooter's gun didn't hit him.  The second man quickly hurled a grenade at Heydrich, fatally wounding him, and he died days later.  The men were helped by others in the underground and the suspense builds as they attempt an escape.  In anger, Hitler retaliates by destroying the town of Lidice and deporting its inhabitants.

Just as I was finishing the book, I read a positive review of a movie about to come out based on Operation Anthropoid, with the same name.  I look forward to seeing it; I don't know if it was based on this book or on other accounts.  This is not an easy book to read as the author attempts to take the reader into the mind of such a fiendish character, but it is a brilliantly written account of a terrible time in history.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (fic)

The noteable Colombian writer, Juan Gabriel Vasquez has written another brilliant book which goes to the heart of Columbia and her people.  The story veers between the present and a mystery of the violent past that spills over to the present and affects the life of the narrator of the story, Antonio Yamarra.  Antonio lives with his family in Bogota and is a law professor in the University. It was his habit to relax after classes by playing billiards in a nearby bar.  There he meets and has a casual friendship with an older man, Ricardo Laverde. One day the meloncoly and somewhat mysterious Laverde confides in Antonio that he had been recently released from serving a 20 year sentence in the States for drug smuggling. He had been a talented and daring pilot.  He requests that Antonio accompany him on a walk through the city.  As they walk out together, Laverde was violently accosted and killed, and Antonio was injured. This incident sets off a chain of actions that leads the reader deep into the atmosphere of Colombia in the 1970s.

After the attack, Antonio suffered from PTSD and was unable to concentrate on anything but solving the mystery of why Laverde was slain in gangland style.  Laverde had confided in Antonio that his wife had been killed in a plane accident when she was on her way to join him in Bogota after his release from jail, and he possessed a copy of the cockpit recording taken from the plane's black box.

The main part of the novel is about Ricardo and Elaine Laverde and how this man became involved in the drug trade, headed in those days by the dangerous drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar.  Ricardo and Elaine had one child, a daughter who is anxious to know more about her father.  Antonio is able to contact her and visits her ranch in the Magdalena Valley which at one time was the center of Escobar's drug empire. Antonio and the daughter, Maya, are able to piece together the story of her parents, whose love story becomes entangled with that of the Peace Corp that Elaine is a member of.
As they entangle the web of her parents' lives, Maya and Antonio are drawn closer together. Vasquez shows how fate places us in situations from the past even as we live in the present.

Part of the mystery of the novel concerns a sound from the cockpit of the downed plane that cannot be identified by Antonio, thus the title:  "It's the sound of things falling from on high, an interrupted and somehow also eternal sound, a sound that didn't ever end, that kept ringing in my head from that very afternoon....."

Antonio strays from his life and his family as he becomes involved in the lives of the Liverdes and rediscovering the sadness and violence of Columbia's past history.   Toward the end of the novel he says, "The saddest thing that can happen to a person is to find out their memories are lies."

I highly recommend this novel to all readers.  The translator has done a beautiful job of conveying the depth of Vasquez's writing.  What a wonderful writer Vasquez is.  

Monday, August 8, 2016

CLEMENTINE by Sonia Purnell (non-fic)

We seem to know a lot about Winston Churchill, but not so much about his wife Clementine.  Sonia Purnell has written a comprehensive and fascinating biography of Clementine, born Clementine Hozier.  Her mother, Lady Blanche, a daughter of Scottish aristocracy, was free spirited and certainly  promiscuous for the age she lived in.  There remains a question of who was Clementine's father because of her mother's numerous affairs.  Some feel it was her uncle the grandfather of the famous Mitford sisters.  

Clementine was highly intelligent and beautiful and could have had a career in academics, but she was pushed into society by her mother, keen to find rich husbands for her daughters.  Clementine was of an anxious disposition and backed out of two engagements before she met and fell in love with Winston Churchill, third son of the Duke of Marlborough and Jennie Jerome, the lovely American heiress.  

Both Winston and Clementine were wildly ambitious. They shared goals and were partners in every aspect of their lives.  It is a fact that without Clementine's help and advice, Winston would never have had the rich political career he did.  These were the days when a woman's influence was hidden or at best minimized.  Churchill barely mentions Clementine in his biographical account of his early years. Yet during WWII, he allowed her access to secret intelligence and discussed all important decisions with her. 

Marriage to the brilliant Winston Churchill was no picnic.  He was a difficult man under the best of circumstances and both he and Clementine suffered from bouts of depression and exhaustion.  While they achieved great feats in the terrible war years, they were neglectful and absent parents.  Their children were turned over to a succession of incompetent nannies. Their three daughters Sarah, Diana and Mary, and son, Randolph ran wild and had unhappy lives.  Another daughter died tragically at age two of septicemia that with better care could have been avoided.  The strain of the life she led caused Clementine to have more than one breakdown, and she was prone when things became overwhelming to take to her bed or go on long holidays with friends.  As her children grew into adults, their relationships with Winston and Clementine remained stormy.  Randolph was uncontrollable and the Churchills shamelessly used his wife, the popular and vivacious Pamela Digby to lure Anerican politicians into supporting America's entry into WWII.

Purnell has written an absorbing and engrossing account of Clementine's life and times.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.  It would be an excellent choice for book groups. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

EUPHORIA by Lily King (fic)

This is a lightly veiled fictionalized account of a period in the life of the social anthropologist, Margaret Mead who achieved early fame for her "Coming of Age in Samoa." Mead wrote the book in 1928 and was wildly acclaimed until the latter 20th century when her popularity flamed out.  Lily King, a superb writer, has chosen to base her novel on a 1933 study trip Mead took with her husband Riu Fortune up the Sepik River in New Guinia.  "Euphoria" was chosen one of the Times 10 best books of 2014 and also won the Kirkus Prize that year.

King's stand in for Mead is Nell Stone, who like Mead, is coming off great fame for a book called, "The Children of Kirakira."  Her husband Fen, a Hemingway type of macho guy, is jealous of her popularity and hungry for a find of his own.  They meet up with an old acquaintance, Andrew Bankson, at a Christmas party after a failed field study with another tribe the two were living among. Bankson is the narrator of the story, who falls in love with Nell.  He is conducting his own study of the Kirakira tribe. Bankson is an interesting character himself, having lost two brothers, one in WWI and the other, unlucky in love, committed a well-publicized suicide in Piccadilly Square in London.

Bankson finds Nell and Fen a tribe seven hours  up the river from his station where they take up residence with the Tam people.  It proves a convenient spot for the three anthropologists to occasionally meet and exchange observations.  Before long, Bankson who lived such an isolated life, falls for Nell, and the love triangle steams up just as the King's descriptions of the steamy hot jungle feel realistically dangerous.

Bankson's memories of this trip are combined with musings in a diary of Nell's he possesses.  Things seem to be going well for the three as they combine their findings.  They believe they are making a breakthrough in the understanding of all humans by the study of the Sepik River tribes, thus the euphoria of the title, (or perhaps, equally, the euphoria, of love and sex).  Before long, however, things go horribly wrong as Fen's need for recognition leads him to a disaster that affects them all.

While King pulls from an incident in Mead's life, the book ends very differently than Mead's own life.  There is a lovely last paragraph in the novel, that I won't quote as it might be a spoiler. King has a way of writing that creates a sense of being in the moment for the reader and its moody spell keeps one in thrall even after the last page is read.  I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to all readers; it would make for a lively book group discussion.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

CITY ON FIRE by Garth Hallberg (fic)

"City on Fire" was met with great critical acclaim, and I raced to read it soon after it was published.  It is a massive book and was compared to a Dickens novel in several reviews.  I plunged into it with interest but about half way through I lost the fervor and only recently picked it up again to finish.  Hallberg is certainly a great talent and excellent writer.  At times the book seemed over-crafted, and there was so much going on with many characters and plot lines that I had to thumb back to refresh my memory.

Hallberg's city is the Manhattan of 1976 and "77 when all hell seems to have let loose.  He takes us to  the South Bronx, Hell's Kitchen, Alphbet City, and into the rich homes of the Upper East and West sides.  A murder in Central Park plays an important part in the plot.  Like the book, there was so very much going on in America's Bicentennial year that looking back one wonders how we ever got beyond it, and finally the great New York City blackout of '77 brings all the plot elements to a head, amidst rioting and an out of control fire.

Hallberg takes us back to a time without Internet or cell phones where life was fast moving, but unlike today, the characters could not be instantly connected, and the lack of communication reminds us how difficult it was for any one character or group to control events or plan outcomes.  The story centers around two generations, the older rich gentry of the city, personified by the patrician Hamilton-Sweeney family and the new wave punks, the "lost kids" followers of Nicky Chaos who ran an anarchist terrorist cell.  Bridging these two groups was William Stuart Althorp III, also known as Billy Three Sticks, who was a 33 year old heroin addict, heir of the Hamilton-Sweeney family; and, Samantha Cicciaro and Charlie Weisbarger, Long Island teens who are seduced by the city lights and disco night life.  These characters move back and forth throughout the story, as an aging detective and a journalist obsessed with the case, attempt to solve the murder. It comes as a surprise when the murderer is finally revealed.

The author who was not alive for these events does a good job of recreating the period and frantic chaos of the times.  While I respect his talent and writing, I did not enjoy the book as much as Rachel Kushner's "Flamethrowers" which covers the same period. I do recommend the the book, however, if you wish to be taken back to a confusing time before the city became what it is today, where wealthy foreigners are buying up property, and ordinary people have become tourists.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


This is a nice and easy summer read, bound to mainly appeal to sailors and wharf rats.  Lynch nails it with his knowledge of racing in Puget Sound with its quirky winds. He knows the lure of the beauty of older wooden boats and also the drawbacks of racing with larger fiberglass boats meant for cruising. He knows the thrill of being a kid in a Laser or graduating to a Star. Embedded in the sailboat vocabulary, is the story of Johannssens, a family obsessed with sailing and racing, three generations living under the same roof, with a heritage of naval architecture.

Josh, the narrator (named after Slocum, of course), loves old wooden boats and works in a boatyard, with no ambition beyond being around sailboats and water.  Father and Grandfather, known as the two Bobos, despite their constant bickering, see the expediency of building fast and lighter fiberglass boats.  The mother of the family lives in her own mathematical world, dreamy and somewhat spacey. The sister Ruby is an old soul, gifted in reading the wind and finding a breeze on the calmest of days.
Bernard, the older brother, is a hippie at heart and becomes involved in some shady pastimes.

The novel joins the family as they prepare in their individual ways, to do one last big, tough race. Here is where all their stories collide and bring the reader to the climax and bittersweet ending.

This is a novel sure to appeal to those who know boats, but it is not that technical so anyone can enjoy it on a breezy summer day.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

THE INCARNATIONS by Susan Barker (fic)

Like her previous books, Barker sets her latest novel in Asia, this time China. "The Incarnations" was chosen as a 2015 Times notable book. Barker is a talented creative writer and unique story teller. Here she presents the reader with a series of loosely connected stories, each of which could stand on its own. The stories range over 15 centuries, and cover much of China's history.

The unifying factor of these stories is a Beijing taxi driver named Wang Jun; that is to say, in his life in contemporary China he is a taxi driver. He has a lovely wife and daughter whom he loves. Wang Jun was born into a life of promise, but circumstances were unkind to him. He suffered many adversities including a stint in an asylum.  Wang is being followed by an unseen person, the Watcher, who has shared Wang's many adventures through history and seems inseparable from him. Wang doesn't see the Watcher, but receives missives from him reminding him of previous lives. The identity of the Watcher is a mystery revealed at the end of the book.  These two characters live through Empires sometimes as men, sometimes as women; sometimes as lovers and others as enemies. They saw the Mongol invasion, the rise of Mao and communism. The witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre and survived the massive Tangshan earthquake.

The Watcher tells Wang that in order to understand himself, he must understand who he was.  The past plays on the present that we all carry within ourselves. The author seems to be drawing a parallel between Wang's violent and sometimes cruel past with that of China's long history of strife.

There is much to reflect on in this unusual novel. It is not an easy read, nor a happy one. It is, however, a brilliant one. While I did not enjoy this insightful novel, I have reflected on it many times.   It explores the soul of a man and his country.

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE FIFTH QUEEN by Ford Maddox Ford (fic)

No need to review a book by Ford Maddox Ford as he is a master who never gets stale.  Having read his other work, most notably "The Good Soldier," I was curious when I came upon this reissued novel in the book store.  I had never heard of it.  There is a knowledgable introduction by A.S. Byatt and the more I read, the more I felt this was a good book to read in today's dramatic political climate.  Written between 1906 and 1908, it was originally published in three parts.  Ford fiddles with history.  The fifth queen is, of course, Katherine Howard, Henry V's fifth wife.  And we all know what that means--not long for this world!  It is pretty well accepted in today's world that Katherine Howard was a flirty, flighty, though well-educated young girl.  She had little supervision as a child and as a teen, her escapades could not stand close scrutiny.

Ford changes the character of Katherine and presents her as a devout Catholic who truly believed she could bring Henry and England back to the church and strengthen ties with Spain.  What this does is pit her against Cromwell, a master schemer and architect of Henry's England. Even a highly sophisticated and astute woman  (her cousin Anne Boleyn) would have little chance of survival in the  midst of court intrigues and jockeying for power in the Tudor court.  Poor Katherine, naive and the most beautiful of all Henry's wives, was somewhere between the ages of 15 and 18 when she was pushed forward by her Howard relatives to catch Henry's eye. (Though Ford doesn't bring this into the book). Mainly we see Katherine caught between the different court factions and men who were in love with her themselves.

There is an interesting meeting between the spy, Throckmorton, and Katherine where he advises Katherine to be mindful of the intriguing around her,  "It is folly to be too proud to fight the world with the world's weapons." Katherine's world was already in the past when she arrived at court.  Romanticism and chivalry were taken over by the pragmatism of Machiavellian Cromwell, ushering Henry and the country into a differ political paradigm.  In the end, both Cromwell and Katherine lose their heads, as alliances form and reform.

Ford presents Katherine as pure and unfailingly honest, a maker of her own destiny. She was open about her choices to those who betrayed her.  She insisted on taking responsibility for her beliefs and actions.  There is little mention of her Norfolk and Howard relatives using her as a pawn to destroy Cromwell.

Ford has given us a powerful study of the politics of the changing world of the late Middle Ages.  The book is written in colloquial language, much like reading Shakespeare.  As one reads, the rhythm of the language becomes natural.  Not everyone will want to read this lengthily novel which uses the language of the period.  It also requires a suspension of what we know of the historical Katherine Howard.  However, it is such a worthwhile read.  I highly recommend it to those who care to take the time and attention to give to this amazing feat of writing.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald (non-fic)

Helen Macdonald is a poet, historian, and falconer.  Her award winning memoir, including being on the "10 Best Books" list of the New York Times for 2015, is a psychological study of the deep emotional healing of the anguish the author felt in the year after her father died.  The book reads like an introspective diary of the road to recovery and the discovery of truths about herself and Mabel, her beloved goshawk. Interestingly, Macdonald's relationship with Mable is not so different than that of the two main characters in Szebo's book, "The Door,"which I also reviewed this month.

Macdonald entwines her story with that of T. H. White, the 20th century author of "The Once and Future King," the story of Camelot. White also tried to find salvation in the training of a goshawk.  Bullied at school and mentally abused by his parents, White grew up timid, scarred, and unsure of his sexual identity.  He ended up teaching in a British Public School for boys where disliking his job,he became cynical and most likely unpleasant to his students. Unlike Macdonald, he failed to fully understand either himself or the wildness of the hawk he attempted to train.

In the aftermath of her father's untimely death, Macdonald became intensely self-reflective. She lived in psychological isolation without close female friends even keeping her mother and sister at arm's length.  Since the time she was a child, Helen was interested in falconry and goshawks, the largest and most powerful of the Falcons.  She aspired to become an austringer and trainer of goshawks.  It seemed she and Mabel we're fated to be together.

While there were many many difficult moments with Mabel, who lived in the house with Macdonald, in the end Mabel, though a prisoner of sort, was Macdonald's liberator.  Macdonald wanted to identify and become Mabel, but in her journey she discovered that she was......"not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields.  I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return."

And also: "In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animate it."

Unlike, White's failed experience, Helen's and Mabel's is a success story.  Like Macdonald, the reader comes away with a respect for a wild creature and also a respect for Macdonald's understanding of her own limitations and those of her goshawk, Mabel.

If you love the wild side of nature, you are sure to enjoy this book.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

NOONDAY by Pat Barker (fic)

Pat Barker is one of my favorite authors.  She writes of characters affected by war and its aftermath.  Her Regeneration Trilogy deals with WW1, shell shock and psychological scars in the wake of the war.  The first two books of her second trilogy were "Life Class" and the brilliant "Toby's Room," which I reviewed earlier.  "Noonday" is the final installment.

The action in this book largely takes place in London during the 1940 blitz, though it opens in the Brooke family's country home.  The main characters have all been met in the earlier books.  Elinor's and Toby's mother lies dying, with her family and a young war evacuee waiting for the end.  The family dynamics and stress are entwined with past memories.  As in the previous books, war is a catalyst for the art of Elinor, her now husband, Paul Tarrant, and the third member of the love triangle, Kit Neville who had been horribly maimed in the First World War.  Having met 30 years before at the Slade School for art, these three are now middle aged and facing another devastating and traumatizing war.

After the mother's death, the action moves to London where Elinor is a night ambulance driver and Paul and Kit are working on rescue squads, extricating people from burning and bombed buildings.  The description of war time London is the best part of the book.  Inevitably with daily air-raids the dropping of V-1 and V-2 bombs, Elinor's and Paul's home is hit.  Paul muses that it was: "...nothing like the fear he'd experienced in the trenches; though in one way it was worse: he was experiencing this fear in the safety of his own home, and that meant nowhere was safe."

This book is not as well-presented as the first two volumes of the trilogy.  However I became fond of these characters and wanted to know how their lives unfolded. There are places in the book that are disjointed, and an interesting character named Bertha Mason, a medium, who may or may not be a charlatan makes an appearance. But, it seems she was just thrown into the story and never takes hold. There is also some little mystery involving the boy evacuee who ran away from the country home, but his story is not well developed.  At any rate, I still enjoyed Barker's fine writing and descriptions. The book really should be read as a third installment; I don't feel it would stand alone well.  Barker's main characters deserve the reader to know their background history.  I highly recommend, "Life Class" and especially, "Toby's Room."

Saturday, May 21, 2016


I found this novel both unique and interesting.  It is different, and I enjoyed reading it.  There is quite a bit of dialogue, the characters reveal themselves through their words. Those words are blunt and plain.  The setting is a small town in Nova Scotia.  I am not familiar with the regional dialect of the outlying areas of Halifax, but these characters sound a lot like the plain speaking folk of Maine.  They do not waste words, and are thrifty and hard working.

The narrator is Wyatt Hillyer who is writing a letter to his 21 year old daughter, Marlais, who lives in Denmark where she moved with her mother when she was two years old.  Wyatt, a lonely man, has had no contact with her, and it is important to him that she know the story of his life and what her mother meant to him.

There are many deaths in this novel, yet it is not a sad book.  The author is adept at finding the humor in otherwise tragic circumstances. The book opens with the deaths of Wyatt's parents who both jump to their deaths on separate bridges on the same night.  There is a tongue in cheek humor in their story.  They were both in love with the same woman, a neighbor who strangely shows up later on in the book.

Possessing regional stoicism, the teenaged Wyatt is bundled off to the home of his Aunt Constance and Uncle Donald in the aptly named town of Middle Economy. The dialogue is priceless and so are the foibles of its citizens. It so happens that their adopted daughter, Tilda, is the love of Wyatt's life.  Unfortunately for Wyatt, Tilda becomes enamored of a young German student who is attending university in Halifax.  Hans Mohring is studying Philology and he is equally smitten with Tilda.  This would have been no problem, but the time is right in the middle of World War 2, and Middle Economy is a hotbed of small town prejudice and paranoid suspicion. Never mind that Hans is from a Jewish family that has fled to Denmark.  In the eyes of the townies, he is the enemy, perhaps a spy!

People make choices in war that might not be made otherwise.  For lack of other opportunities, Wyatt becomes apprenticed to his Uncle who is a master designer and builder of toboggans with clients form all over the world.  Tilda becomes a professional mourner, a strange profession I have never heard of.  Somehow it fits in with the other droll oddities in the book.  Music also plays a part in moving the plot along.

Wyatt, whose life takes a very odd and tragic turn, tells his daughter as he sets down his life on paper: " I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven't told you."  Thus we learn his story.

I enjoyed this book, it was different from any other book I have recently read.  The author nails it with his authentic picture of plain spoken rural people and Canadian life during World War 2.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

THE DOOR by Magda Szabo (fic )

Magda Szabo who was one of Hungary's most well-known and important writers died in 2007.  "The Door" her best known novel, was published in 1987 and established her reputation world wide.  Szabo was carefully watched during the communist era, and it was only after the fall of the communist government that she was given the recognition she was due. Newly translated into English, the novel was chosen as one of the New York Times best books of 2015.

"The Door" is a masterful psychological study of the relationship between two mutually dependent women.  This magnificent novel had me in thrall from the moment I began to read to the very last page.  It is the story of Magda, a successful author and Emerence, the proud servant, who "chose" to work for Magda and her husband.  Szabo allowed as how this was a thinly veiled account of a relationship in her own life.  There is also a dog, Viola, who is essentially a third character of importance in the book.

Emerence and Magda came from the same region of Hungry, and as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Emerence is the stronger character of the two, and the relationship begins to take on a mother/daughter role.  Emerence is tall and strong in mind and body, and though stern and forbidding the entire neighborhood was dependent on her, especially in the winter when walks needed shoveling and  sweeping. Emerence stands for old bureaucratic Hungary, and Magda the new order that arrived after perestroika.  The women constantly argue and make-up.  While Magda's ill husband, takes almost no part in their dance for dominance, the dog Viola seems to have uncanny insight into their characters. We often see them through his eyes.

The action takes place in a single street where both women reside.  Emerence mysteriously keeps her door locked against all visitors except Viola.  No one goes further than the porch. The door perhaps stands for the barrier to understanding between these two women of differing backgrounds and makeup.  Like Magda, everyone in the neighborhood is deferential to Emerence, despite her violent manic rages.  We are told "....affection can't always be expressed in calm, orderly, articulate ways...."

The moral complexity and tension between the two women gets to the very essence of relationships of love and dependency and makes this book a modern masterpiece.

In the end, as in life, Magda betrays Emerence by her lack of understanding of who Emerence is and what she is about.  Magda realizes this too late and tell us that Emerence was, ".....a woman for whom no one has made a place in her life.  If we all lacked the courage to admit this to ourselves, she at least had done so, and politely taken her leave."

I highly recommend this book as a true and life-like study of the misunderstanding endemic in human relationships.  It is a beautifully written and brutality honest story of one woman's failure to see beyond her own needs.  Whether read for a book group or privately, it is sure to make an impression on the reader.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

HOW TO BE BOTH by Ali Smith (fic)

This book received much attention when it came out last year (now in paperback); it was a finalist for the Booker Prize and also chosen as one of the Times 10 best books of 2015.  Ali Smith is an accomplished and creatively original writer, this is her sixth novel.  The book is essentially divided into two parts and was published with some copies beginning with one part and others starting with the other.  Depending on which book you bought, you would have a different character starting the novel.

My copy began with the story of a troubled teen whose mother had just passed away of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic.  She was only 50 years old, and it was an unexpected and shocking death to her family. She was a politically leftist blogger with a degree in art history. The young girl called "George" was left with a father drowning his sorrow in alcohol, and a younger brother who still needed attention and nurturing.   George was close to her mother and they had recently travelled to Italy, drawn there by her mother's fascination with a medieval fresco in the Palazzo Scifanoia in Ferrrara.  The fresco and painter are real, you can Google it and see the premise this story is built on.

The second half of the book is about the 15th century painter, Francescho del Cossa who died of the plague in his forties.  For centuries his work disappeared, and was rediscovered when some white wash fell off his painted-over masterpiece.  This, and an old letter asking for more pay from the d'Este family who were his patrons, led his rediscovery. George and her mother made their pilgrimage to his medieval fortress town of Ferrara in northern Italy, often called the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Sexual ambiguity is a theme running throughout both sections of the novel.  There is the question of the sexual identity of Francescho, and what is the relationship between George's mother and a mysterious woman named Lisa Goliard, who could also be spying on the mother's political activism.

In her effort to heal, George becomes immersed in the painter's life and times, with daily visits to a gallery in Cambridge where a piece of his work is displayed.  The author presents us with the power of art and history and how they can affect us.  What hold does the past have on us?  George, somewhat of a loner, makes friends with Helen, a girl in her class. The girls are drawn together by their intelligence and creativity.  Again, there is ambiguity about their relationship. They begin working together on a class assignment on the topic of empathy. They choose Francescho for their project.

George's story ends and Francescho's begins, or vice-a-versa depending on which copy of the book you have. I am glad I had a copy with George's story first because I found the section on Francescho, with its stylistic change, more difficult to read.  The reader is left to make what he/she will of this.  As I read I could see these two main characters were trying to understand each other across the historical void, and this was part of the healing process for George.  Then I came to believe that the section on the painter was the project that George and her friend Helen had completed for their school assignment. Other readers may have different interpretations.

I found this novel interesting and creative and unique.  It is also challenging to the reader. I would recommend that should you read it, you look for a copy with George's story first.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

REMARKABLE CREATURES by Tracy Chevalier (fic)

Tracy Chevalier who wrote the popular novel, "Girl With a Pearl Earing'" has chosen another fascinating topic to fashion a novel around.  The novel takes place in Lyme Regis on the coast of England, renowned for its chalky cliffs and plethora of fossils.  England is in the midst of war (the war of 1812 with America and the Napoleonic Wars).  But war is hardly mentioned in this book, and one has the feeling that it doesn't much affect this little scientific outpost.

The story is narrated by two women who form an unlikely friendship based on their love of fossils and science, a field not open to women at the time.  The first narrator is Elizabeth Philpot an older spinster who has moved to Lyme Regis with her two sisters to live more economically after her father's death. Elizabeth was a real person who in her day became known and respected for her knowledge of fish fossils. The other voice belongs to MaryAnning, again a real person, who is still known as the greatest fossil finder ever.  We meet Mary as a poverty stricken young girl.  In real life, as in the book, her father was a cabinet maker who dies early on, leaving the family to make a living through selling fossils to tourists and rich hobbiests.  There is a true story related in the book about the ubiquitous Jane Austin approaching Mr. Anning to purchase a cabinet.  She never did business with him because she thought his prices were too high (as she wrote to a sister).

Chevalier does a terrific job of weaving her real characters into a story that is entirely believable. Several well-known scientists of the day also make an appearance in Mary's story.  In fact these several male scientists made their names in scientific circles by buying Mary's finds without much recognition given to her either for her discoveries or for her talent for cleaning and restoring the fossils which were prominently displayed in London museums.  Scientists who mattered respected Mary including the most famous of his day, the French scientist, Cuvier.  Another aside, though it doesn't appear in the book, is that the tongue-twister, "she sells sea shells by the sea shore," was penned when Mary became well known.

Mary called her finds, "curies" and one day in 1811, she made one of the biggest finds of her life, an intact fossil of an ichthyosaurs which she first assumed was a crocodile.  This find cause great consternation and controversy not only in the field of science, but also in theological circles. The great debate centered on how one of God's creatures could have become extinct.  Neither science nor theology allowed for the idea that unknown creatures could have inhabited the earth in the past.  Mary made further discoveries, a plesiosaurus in 1823 and a pterodactyl in 1828. By this time she had made a name for herself and was foremost in her field.

Chevalier weaves a very nice story around the discoveries, a story of friendship, loss, love, poverty and grudging respect.  She makes fossil hunting exciting and real though human relationships. Her characters are real, interesting and altogether human in their triumphs and follies.  I highly recommend this book for all who are interested not just in fossils but in relationships and two women who fought against the custom of the day.  In the end, we might never have known about Mary Anning if it weren't for Elizabeth Philpot who was determined to bring the truth to light.

Monday, April 4, 2016

IN THESE TIMES by Jenny Uglow (non-fic)

Subtitle:  Living in Britain through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815

What struck me the most when reading Jenny Uglow's latest book is that war in all its guises somehow is the same no matter when it is fought.  It is always the poor who suffer the most, no matter if it is the Napoleonic Wars, fought over 200 years ago or any conflict in today's world.  In the 22 years of the Napoleonic Wars, which was nearly a world war since most of Europe and the United States and Caribbean islands were involved, the suffering and depredation afflicted all the principals.
In England, the subject of this book, there were riots, food shortages, speculation, crop failures, stock crashes, profiteering, new taxes, new money, and disease.  All this despite the fact that there were never any battles in England.

Jenny Uglow, one of my favorite historians, does a masterful job with the gargantuan task of presenting this social history which stretched over many years with the players outside of England and France, changing sides fueled by whatever economic or military crisis they found themselves in.  What Uglow does is to use a framework of diaries and letters of over 30 families who wrote their thoughts and recorded events between 1793 and 1815. She fleshes this out with precise research and presents it all as a fascinating and realistic record of the lives of the commoners and the gentry.  Over and over the reader will discover the validity of that old saw, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

The book is richly illustrated, though I did have to take a magnifying glass to some of the small prints. Besides consorting with farmers, bankers, soldiers, sailors, and mill workers, the reader will discover the war activities of such luminaries as:  Jane Austin, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Thomas Paine, Leigh Hunt (who along with his brother was jailed more than once for their anti-war propaganda), Edmund Burke, James Fox, and a wealth of others.  The loss of British lives was horrendous and not only to battle.  Diseases such as yellow fever took their toll as well.  40,000 men were lost to fever in the Caribbean and in the swamps of the Netherlands. Because of the length of the war, it was not unusual for a father to have fought in the beginning conflicts and sons in the latter battles with women losing husbands and sons.

Like all wars, art and literature seemed to grow and flourish as new ideas and ways of thinking came into vogue.  People even managed to travel between the battles and relations with other European nations waxed and waned.

Having recently read a biography of Napoleon, it was interesting to compare and contrast conditions in England and read of reactions to Napoleon whose star fell as Wellington's and Nelson's rose.  I recommend this social history to all who have an interest in the European history of the era, and English history in particular.  Uglow covers a lot of material with great perspective.  She is an able guide to an interesting period of time and its people.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

FINALE by Thomas Mallon (fic)

Subtitle: A Novel of the Reagan Years.
Finale was chosen as one of the best books of 2015 by the New York Times.  Mallon, who often writes for the New Yorker, has this time chosen to write about the last two years of Ronald Reagan's Presidency.  Set in 1986 and 87, his popularity waning, his energy flagging, and his mind wandering, we can see hints of the Alzheimer's disease which eventually felled him.  It is tragic that Margaret Thatcher, Reagan's great and loyal friend, was also at the end of her years beset with the same malady.

Mallon writes in much the same style as his previous political novel, "Watergate."  Like "Watergate" Mallon mixes many real and familiar names with a few fictional characters who move the story along.  He writes in a plain style with the setting secondary to the characters whose minds he skillfully inhabits.  The main characters will be familiar to those who followed the politics of the Reagan era.  Those too young to remember will find the large number of characters and their importance difficult to get around.  Certain names will bring back memories to many readers: William Buckley, Jr., Jeane Kirkpatrick, Jackie Kennedy, Bette Davis (with her acerbic asides), Jimmy Carter, John Hinckley, Christopher Hitchens, Pamela Harriman, Oliver North, and above all Richard Nixon, resurrected and rehabilitated from his Watergate days.  Our guide through the period is a fictional Anders Little who connects all these characters allowing the plot to progress.

This is a good book to read in our current political climate to remind us of a more civilized and polite though bland time in our history.  A time welcome to many after the turbulent Nixon years followed by the Iranian kidnappings in the term of Jimmy Carter.  It is also a reminder that current politicians who claim to be heirs of Reagan are nothing like him at all, and that many of us found him incompetent  and elusive rather than enchanting.

The plot centers around two big news stories of the time, the Iran/Contra scandal along with its attendant money laundering, and the nuclear arms meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev (who seemed thoroughly confused by Reagan's detachment) in Reykjavik. Both incidents turned out to be disastrous to Reagan's popularity.  Most interestingly, Richard Nixon who was such a villain in the Watergate book, was living contentedly in California and very actively involved behind the scenes giving advice to Reagan's advisors.  He has some of the best lines in the book and certainly seems to be thinking more clearly than Reagan's handlers.  Nancy Reagan, lovingly hovers around her husband, filled with anxiety that he will blunder in his diplomacy, no doubt aware on some level that his mind is failing.  By the end of the book, even Nancy wonders who  Reagan really is and whatever can he be thinking behind his vague dismissals of the shape the history of his Presidency is taking.

I enjoyed revisiting the Reagan years, and Mallon is a good guide and spot on in so many of his characterizations.  The book perhaps would not be as enjoyable to those who are not familiar with the many names which inhabit the pages of this novel.

Monday, March 21, 2016

ONE OF US by Asne Seierstad (non-fic)

"One of Us" was chosen as one of the Times 10 best books of 2015.  It is written by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist whose previous best seller was "The Bookseller of Kabul."  This time she has written about Anders Breivik, the notorious terrorist who killed 77 people in one day, July 22, 2011,  following his life from birth to his conviction.  This is such a horrendous story, one wonders why bother reading of it.  I approached this book with two minds and would never have been able to get through it if Seierstad was not such a brilliant writer.  I imagine it was a devastating book to write and perhaps the author's motive for writing is that which many readers, including myself, have for reading it; that is, an attempt to make sense of such senseless violence and to try to understand how Breivik became a killer.  To this end, the title Seierstad chose was brilliant.  Is he indeed one of us?  How is it that Breivik grew so differently from the ideals of a country known for its tolerance and fairness; a country which is admired for its social programs and progress.

Anders Breivik was born in 1979.  His childhood was not a happy one, he was abused at home, his mother was needy and depressed, and unable to provide a stable home for her children.  His father abandoned the family.  His half sister left home as soon as she could.  Anders was never accepted at school.  He attempted to be cool, and as a teen he tried to join a group of taggers who were graffiti artists.  But, he always wanted to be the best, in his mind he was the best.  He left school early and was unsuccessful at business.  The older he got, the more he was prone to violent outbursts and moodiness.  He used steroids and tried body building.  He was dissatisfied with his looks and had his nose done.  He wore makeup.  Things just didn't work out for Anders, and at 27 he moved back to his mother's home.  For the next five years he became a recluse, locking himself in his bedroom and spending as much as 17 hours a day playing violent video games.  He became obsessed with a game called World of Warcraft, where he could fulfill his dreams of dominance.  He logged into white supremacist websites and called himself a Knight Templar.  He began a delusional crusade against women, Muslums, immigrants.  He particularly took against the Labour Party which was Norway's governing party and its teenage counterpart, AVS.

An so we come to that infamous day where all Breivik's planning led to, the day he began by detonating a bomb outside the Prim Minister's office, killing eight.  From there he drove and took a ferry to the island of Utoya where the young members of AVS were enjoying a camping holiday.  Many of these students were the best and brightest of their generation.  There Breivik coldly slaughtered 69 young teens.  In the lead up to this horror, Seiestad tells the story of some of these youths, choosing a good cross section of backgrounds, their potential never to be realized..

One of the sadder aspects of all this was the incompetence of the police.  Seierstad lays out all the lost opportunities the authorities had of following leads and ignoring evidence and information and the sightings called in.  In one horrible instance, a group of police hid onshore right across from the island hearing gunshots and not even taking available boats to investigate while Breivik was calmly shooting one victim after another.

When Breivik turned himself in, the authorities gave him the fairest hearing and trial possible.  He was treated with dignity despite his posturing and demands to preach his twisted philosophy. And finally he was convicted according to the laws of Norway.  Interestingly Breivik recently surfaced again demanding a hearing claiming to being treated inhumanly in his isolation. Photos of the cell show it to be much like a college dorm room with separate bathroom facilities.  The government maintains that his isolation is in a large part to keep his safe from other prisoners who have threatened to kill him.

I recommend this well written book for its fair and complete picture of a complex person who was either a political terrorist or a madman.  Readers can decide whether they agree with the court or not. It is not an easy book to read because of its subject matter, but it is handled with care and fairness.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

THE LAKE HOUSE by Kate Morton (fic)

If you are having withdrawal pains from Downton Abbey, you could do worse than read this novel.  Kate Morton, an Australian writer from Queensland, writes beautifully dreamily descriptive passages that you can lose yourself in.  Morton likes mysteries, and this is a good one.  It is set in three different decades: 2003, 1933, and 1911.

The story opens in 1933 when we meet the Edevane family about to give an annual Midsummer's Eve party.  They live in a marvelous old family manor house in Cornwall.  It is surrounded by enchanting woodlands and sweeping lawns leading to a pond, the ocean close by.  The house and gardens and the  people who live on the manor, upstairs and downstairs, seem caught in a time bubble.  Anthony and Eleanor (née deShiel) with three daughters, Deborah, Alice and Clemmie and one son, baby Theo, all seem blessed with looks, creativity and the time to enjoy this beautiful setting.

Just as we are getting interested in the family and house called Loeanneth, we are brought up short, and find ourselves in modern times, where we meet Sadie Sparrow, a police detective on leave for becoming too involved in a case. Sadie's story also involves a mystery, and she becomes the link between the two eras and stories.  Both plot lines involve a missing person, both involve a child and both have obsessed Sadie.

Sadie's interest is piqued on a visit to her grandfather in Cornwall while she is waiting out her suspension.  While out running one day, she chances upon the old house which is now abandoned and overgrown.  On making inquiries, Sadie learns of the tragic disappearance of a beloved child that has been a cold case for 70 years.  Antsy to get back to work, Sadie sets out to discover all she can about the family and Loeanneth.

As the story pivots back and forth between the two eras, the reader is also propelled back to 1911, to learn more about the deShiel and Edevane families.  At first the plot appears complicated weaving through two different historical times, but Morton is such a skilled writer that the reader soon finds her rhythm and the book becomes difficult to put down.

I really enjoyed this book with one caveat, the ending is too neatly tied up and one discovery that appears contrived.  It left me feeling some secrets would best have been kept. I still recommend it as a well-written mystery by an accomplished writer.