Saturday, January 28, 2017

SATURDAY REQUIEM by Nicci French (fic)

The husband and wife writing team who write under the name de plume of Nicci French have written this sixth book in the continuing Frieda Klein series.  Unlike the previous books in this series, this novel could be read as a stand alone.  Though the principal characters reoccur in this book, the protagonist Dean Reeve remains hidden.  If you have read French's previous books, you know that Frieda Klein is a London psychotherapist who works (reluctantly on both sides) with police investigators in murder cases.  Old friends from previous cases are here to help, especially Josef who seems to have made Frieda his mission in life.  He can assist at any time of day or night at a moments notice.  It is a mystery, all in itself, to me how the man can keep a job.  I guess because he is a carpenter, he is more or less his own boss.  Another mystery is how grumpy Frieda can keep so many devoted friends.

I became disenchanted after the first two books in the series and bored with Frieda's dark side.  Yet, the first book was so good, that I became hooked, needing to know what would be the final destiny of Dean Reeve.  So, here we are many books later and the "week" has not ended.  Dean is as elusive as ever, necessitating a seventh book, no doubt with Sunday in the title.  I can only hope that one will put me out of my misery.

This book is better than the last three and except for a rushed ending that seemed tacked on,  I found it more interesting.  Again I caution readers not to confuse Nicci French mysteries with Tana French mystery/thrillers who is a superior writer and a better story teller.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett (fic)

If you are an Ann Patchett fan, this book will not disappoint.  If you haven't read any of her previous 6 books, you might want to give this one a try.  Patchett writes superbly of America as it is today, often revealing the hidden tensions within families.  She has a way of slowly exposing the dysfunctions and societal pressures that underlie seemingly happy suburban families.

"Commonwealth" opens in the early 60s, a time when barbecues and ranch houses were the suburban norm for middle class families.  The serene and beautiful Beverly and her policeman husband are giving a christening party for newly born Franny, their second daughter.  An uninvited guest arrives, Bert Cousins, a local lawyer, (the fly in the ointment) and so the story takes off. Bert is escaping on a Sunday afternoon from his own family responsibilities, his three unruly children and pregnant wife, Theresa.  Like a John Cheever story, everyone ends up drinking too much and somehow, Bert finds himself kissing Beverly. It isn't long before they are involved in an affair which leads to the breakup of two families.  They move across the country to Virginia, as far from California as they can get. This leaves the six children awkwardly shuffling from coast to coast with step siblings they had no choice in joining.

The story then follows the families through five decades into the new century.  The catalyst and center of the novel is Franny Keating the baby of the opening chapters.  She has literary aspirations and drops out of college to pursue her own path.  Along the way she begins an affair with a much older famous author, Leon Posen, whose star is dimming.  He lives the lifestyle of the rich and famous and Franny becomes an appendage and sort of muse.  Posen fashions a comeback novel out of Franny's childhood experiences, thinly disguising the characters involved.  He calls his novel "Commonwealth." It is subsequently made into a movie.  Once again he is wildly popular, but the result on Franny's blended families is devastating.  It is then that the reader begins to find out the secret the children have kept for all their lives and the tragic events leading up to it.  In a strange way it brings the family closer together than they have ever been and reveals a depth of feeling they have for each other.  The strength of the children's relationships with each other has allowed them to weather the parents' indiscretions.  As they enter middle-age, each has a story that has brought them to adulthood.

The novel is 322 pages long and when I read that it was covering five decades, I doubted the author could do more than superficially delve into the lives of the characters, but Patchett manages to find a depth of feeling that makes each real and worthy of compassion.

This may not be Patchett's best book, but it is peopled by fully developed characters who are interesting with their messy lives and tragic choices.  It is recommended reading.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

EXPOSURE by Helen Dunmore (fic)

"Exposure" is one of the best books I read in the past year.  It has mystery, intrigue, interesting relationships, and the setting and time frame are intensely realistic.  Dunmore is a great storyteller.

When we first meet the Callington family, they seem to be living an ideal life. They have a comfortable, if not a cozy, home, children with a bright future, and they have seemingly secure jobs.  Simon works for the secret service and Lily is a teacher. It is 1960 and London's war years are being erased by new buildings and a rising economy. Dunmore conjures up this era perfectly with little details that a less gifted writer might miss.  But all is not as it should be.  Simon and Lily Callington have secrets of their own, secrets that are about to cause their lives to fall apart. These secrets are tangled up with the paranoia of the cold war years and as their story evolves, the known becomes unknown and terrifyingly sinister. As Simon says, " 'You tell yourself you've forgotten things, but you haven't.'  It's all there, under the lid he's crammed down on it since he met Lily."

As the novel opens, Simon's oldest friend, Giles Holloway who works with him, falls down and breaks a leg.  He subsequently receives incompetent care in hospital.  As his condition worsens, he asks a favor of Simon that has to do with top secret papers that Giles should not have had at his home.  Simon complies out of loyalty and past friendship.  Thus begins a downward spiral for Simon that is soon out of control and lands him in jail.  The reader discovers that the Secret Service department is still run like it was in the 19th century with martinets and petty jealousies and moles in every office. It brings to mind the era of Guy Burgess and the Cambridge spy ring.  There is one particular slimy character, Julian Clowde who makes it his mission to destroy the Callingtons.  The plot becomes much like a film noir of the 1940s. Like many of those movies, trains play a sinister role in the setting. Dangerous assumptions abound. The old boy network does not come off well here.

Simon is vulnerable because of his past.  Lily is the hero of the book.  She is left to salvage what she can of the family.  Her vulnerability lies in the fact that she is an immigrant from Germany, never mind that she is Jewish, she is still suspect as a spy by the pompous Julian Clowde.  Her world that she thought safe because she was married to a British aristocrat, folds as quickly as Simon's.  How and if Lily saves her family and home is not answered until the last chapter and pages of the book.

I highly recommend this engrossing book to all readers.  It is a thriller with a tight plot and characters who are multi-faceted and complex.  Along with all of this, it is a story of enduring love.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


There probably have been hundreds of books written about the Kennedy family, especially those in Bobby's generation.  Despite these many biographies, the family has remained largely protective of their privacy and have managed to manipulate what information has become public.  This is especially true of President John Kennedy and his wife, Jackie.  Now we have a book, that given the past failed attempts to present a well-rounded portrait of a Kennedy, that is startling in its honesty. Larry Tye did a massive amount of research on this biography and was given access to material in the Kennedy library that had previously been sealed. I believe he has presented an accurate rendering of the man and his impact on the government policies of his short lifetime.

This is the first biography I have read of Bobby Kennedy though I have always been curious about him.  Somehow he seemed more human and interesting than the other members of his family, with the possible exception of Teddy Kennedy.  Having lived through the Kennedy years when the country was more naive and Washington, DC was a glamorous world apart, it is difficult to believe the Kennedy brothers were as young as they were when they were assassinated. Bobby was not yet 43;  he was 35 when he was made Attorney General, and 38 when elected Senator from New York.  He only served three and a half years.  Yet, for all that, he had an outsized impact on the country during that time.

During his time in office, Kennedy had the reputation of being cold, calculating and capable of fierce hatred and fierce loyalty.  He did not waver.  He had many enemies and he took no quarter. It is said that of all the children he was the most like his father, Joe.  He was ruthless when on a mission, and the picture of his being a liberal thinker that has stuck to him only came late in his life.  For many more years he was a conservative and close friend of Joseph McCarthy.  He relentlessly worked for McCarthy, going after organized crime, labor unions, and communism.  Contrary to what he posited in his book "Thirteen Days," he was an instigator in the failed invasion of Cuba and assassination attempts on Fidel Castro's life.  He was a chauvinist, hated homosexuals, embodied all the macho posturing of the age, and had no interest in bettering the plight of the Blacks until the end of his life.  He was mean spirited to Lyndon Johnson whom he considered a yahoo and resented his assuming the presidency.

So what happened to him to make an about-face.  The tragedy of his family had a large effect on him, and he went into a depression after Jack died. When he came out of his black period, he began a journey across the country that changed him forever.  For the first time, he saw real poverty close up, real injustice to the migrant workers and the Blacks.  He was humbly moved by live on the Mississippi Delta. He began to work with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King to try to better conditions in these communities.

It would be easy to just feel distaste for Bobby Kennedy, and though he remains a difficult man to understand, the latter years of his life and his martyrdom make him a more sympathetic character.  He had a genuine feeling for the poor and children.  He was a natural speaker and was sensitive to the mood of the country which was in a state of flux over war, race relations, and unrest on college campuses.  He ran on a platform of ending the hated war in Vietnam.  Kennedy was an intense man, there was no half way in play or work. He worked like an old time politician with back room deals, a style he learned from his father.  Yet he was aware of the impact of t.v. and was a brilliant campaigner.

If you would like a different more complete look at Bobby Kennedy, one that is not whitewashed, then I recommend that you read this book.  It is well written and contains a reliable history of the Kennedy era.  I highly recommend it for all readers.