Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Best Books of 2012

This is always my favorite post to write.  I get to go back and look over all of the books I’ve read through the year and pick my favorites.  I seem to read between 80 and 90 books each year mostly fiction but with a healthy dose of history mixed in.  My list this year is as usual somewhat eclectic.  Half of my choices come from authors publishing their first books, guess that could bode well for great books in the coming years. I’ve chosen six books that are fiction, two that are history, a medical case study and one that almost defies categorization (Beautiful Forevers).  I try to keep my choices to books that are published in 2012 but I read two great books that were published earlier and I’ll mention them at the end.  Follow the link for the complete reviews.  So with no further ado and in alphabetical order my favorites from 2012.

The Age of Miracles (speculative fiction) despite a weak ending this coming of age story set in apocalyptic times is fresh, clever and memorable.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers –   the story of the underclass in a slum city in Mumbai blew me away. It is an unforgettable story that is rich and beautifully written, the characters are heartbreaking and the setting haunting. The story read like the best fiction, unfortunately it wasn’t.  A tremendous accomplishment for this author.

Brain on Fire (medical) the story of a young reporter with an undiagnosed brain infection is well written.  The author synthesizes complicated medical issues into readable prose offering yet another reminder not to enter today’s’ medical system without a strong patient advocate.

Broken Harbor (mystery) more tales of the Dublin Murder Squad result in an excellent psychological  mystery from the queen of them, Tana French. 

Casual Vacancy (fiction) the much anticipated JK Rowling adult novel was not everyone’s cup of tea but I enjoyed this English small town story for its immersive experience and well drawn characters.

City of Women (historical fiction) this beautifully told story set in wartime Berlin examines the personal courage it takes to work against a totalitarian government.  Memorable!

Double Cross - (history) the story of British double agents and their deceptions in WWII.  A quirky British tale; great history well told.

Gone Girl – (mystery) this one is on everyones’ best books list and deservedly so.  A complex, suspenseful mystery that keeps you guessing right up until the end.

The Last Lion – (history) the final installment in William Manchester’s massive biography of Churchill is admittedly not for everyone.  But for me the story of this Victorian politician who had only words to fight Hitler in 1940 was superb and inspiring.  I listened to the audio edition and loved it.  Review to come.

In the Shadow of the Banyan (fiction) a fictionalized telling of the genocide in Cambodia in the late 1970s. This story and these characters will be embedded in your consciousness for a long time. 

Art of Racing in the Rain (fiction) 2009 a poignant family story that is funny, sad and uplifting told from the point of view of the family dog Enzo.  Don’t miss this one.   

Child 44 (mystery) 2008 – a taut, chilling serial killer mystery set in Stalinist Russia.  The mystery is first rate and the back-story of the protagonist is excellent.  Best mystery I’ve read in a long time

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

by JK Rawling, Little Brown Publishing, September 2012

JK Rowling continues to tell stories that are interesting, well written,  funny and rewarding to read.

This story opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, “a man of generous spirit”.  He is a family man living in the small insular town of Pagford in rural England.  Barry’s death resulted in a “casual vacancy’ on the town council.  There is a polarization between the forces that want to close a drug clinic and cut loose a poor section of town, the Fields and those citizens who see some obligation to support those who are at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  Seems like a good v. evil plot but not so fast.

The local shopkeeper, Howard Mollison is the chairman of the council and is focused on closing the drug clinic and redrawing the town lines to exclude the lower income residents.  I could not get the Durnsleys’ (Harry Potter’s step parents) out of my mind when reading about Mollison and his wife Shirley.   The forces on the other side of the issue are led by an Indian physician Dr. Jawanda and Colin Wall a local teacher. There are way too many characters in this story to describe here but the ones who most came to life for me were the teenagers.  Maybe because they were not as jaded as most of the adults in this story.  Defamatory posts written by ‘the ghost of Barry Fairbrother’ start to appear on the council website and the election heats up.

The election and the machinations of the locals are essentially the whole plot.  This is not a plot driven novel but more an immersive experience in the characters and setting of the story.  The author, JK Rowling, has a well deserved reputation for writing richly imagined and wonderfully peopled stories.  She delivers here.  Pagford comes to life in this story.  Everyone knows everyone else and the claustrophobic feel of a small town is well described.   There are no heroes in this story, in fact most of the characters are flawed and in some cases downright evil.  There are humorous episodes and the humor is of the dry British variety.  There is some melodrama in the end but it might have been the only way to end this sad story.  I liked this book even though it cast of Muggles was singularly uninspiring and occasionally depressing.  JK Rowling continues to tell stories that are interesting, well written,  funny and rewarding to read.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Boy in the Snow

by MJ McGrath, Viking Adult, November 2012

This is the second Edie Kiglatuk novel by MJ McGrath.  In this mystery Edie, an Inuit from near the Arctic Circle is in Alaska to support her ex husband Sammy in his Iditarod race.  In a walk in the woods prior to the race, Edie finds a frozen corpse of an infant boy. Who he is, how he died and how he came to be placed in the woods serves as one of two major story lines.  The second story line centers on tourism land development and the cut throat politics that is involved in it.  Edie relentlessly follows the clues related to the infant's death wherever they take her.  An Old Russian Orthodox community comes under suspicion for the child’s death because Edie has reported seeing some members of this community near the spot where she found the boy.  Local prejudices against this reclusive community lead the local police to the Old Believers for their murder suspect. 
The look we get into Inuit culture and customs and descriptions of the landscape of the frozen North are the strong suites of this story.  The author knows this culture and is able to weave into this story many aspects of this fascinating native community.  A scene later in the novel where the characters fight for survival is compelling in its realism.  Unfortunately the mystery and its characters do not hold up through this story.  Edie as the heroine is hard to like; she is somewhat self righteous and lacking in emotion (is Derek a love interest a/o partner -impossible to tell from this story).  The two storylines which finally intersect are improbable at best.  The denouement is way too convenient to accept.  
In my opinion the first novel in this series, White Heat was stronger than this one.  I still think this could be a good mystery series.  Its settings and characters are  unique in a genre where many protagonists are indistinguishable from one another. I think a more focused story with a bit better character development could really improve this series.  Read this one if you love stories of the frozen wilderness, but read White Heat first if you haven’t. 

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Madonnas of Leningrad

by Debra Dean, narrated by Yelena Shmulenson, Harper Audio, September 2012, 7 hrs 7 mins

...highly recommend the audio for this one

I continue to punch my ticket with WWII novels.  This one is the story of a Russian woman Marina, who worked in the Hermitage in Leningrad during the terrible time when the city was besieged by the German army in 1941-43.  Marina has immigrated to Seattle and in old age is losing her hold on current events but can recall with total clarity the sufferings of her time in Russia during the war.  Marina struggles to identify lifelong friends at her granddaughters wedding.  Her son and daughter come to realize that their mother has Alzheimers and that their father can no longer care for her.  Her mind takes her back to her time as a young girl in Leningrad.  She describes the museum and the art treasures that were housed there.  We hear how the art was removed from the path of the Nazi advance and taken by train to more remote sections of Russia.  The deprivation that the Russian people endured during the siege of the city is told with staggering detail.  More than a quarter of the people of Leningrad succumbed to either bombing, disease, starvation or the cold during the 900 day siege.  Marina lives in the basement of the museum with her aunt and uncle and their children.  She survives this ordeal by concentrating of the beauty of the art that she has worked with at the museum.  The descriptions of the paintings, almost all Madonnas, are quite beautiful.
 I enjoyed the parts of this story that were set in Russia.  What happened to the Russian people in WWII was horrific and not a story that is often told.  The author does a good job with this.  The sections that deal with the Hermitage and the effort to save the art from the Nazi advance were something I did not know and found quite interesting.  Marina’s story told with this backdrop was quite compelling and at times heartbreaking.
Marina’s present day life with her encroaching Alzheimers is very sad, but sadder still is the fact that her children had no idea of the experiences their parents had during the war.  Is this really possible?  Could children be this incurious?  I had some trouble believing that her children could be so self centered, but I guess it is possible.
I liked this book even though I don’t think the two story lines came together well in the end.  There were for me a number of unanswered questions (what happened to her cousins?). I listened to the audio version of this story that was delightfully read by Yelena Shmulenson.  I’d highly recommend the audio for this one as the descriptions of the art when spoken came alive for me in ways that I don’t think would have happened had I read them.

I listened to a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Winter of the World

by Ken Follett, Dutton Adult, September 2012 the first installment of this trilogy and then decide whether to read this one

This is the second installment of Ken Follett’s 20th century trilogy.  It picks up the story in 1933.    There are five interrelated families (how you ask – way too complicated for this review) Welsh, German, English, Russian and American that were introduced in the first book Fall of Giants.  Instead of the narrative being led by the characters from the first book we get the story from the perspective of their children.  All of the major events that occur between the early ‘30s and the end of World War II are seen through the eyes of these characters.  The Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism in Germany, the Stalinist purges in Russia, the fighting in Europe and the South Pacific and much more make this one of the most tumultuous decades in the 20th century lending a great backdrop to this story. 

I found most of the characters to be somewhat clich├ęd and one dimensional but not unlikeable.   I knew this when I bought this book as the first book of the trilogy was much the same.  This book was 962 pages so I guess I am just addicted to historical fiction such as this because I read it in a fairly short period of time and enjoyed it.  I think this whole series would be better with a stronger focus on the character development and perhaps leaving aside some of the historic events.  I am sure this is what the TV miniseries (no doubt in my mind that one will be made) will do and I bet it will much improve it.  I would not read this without having read Fall of Giants first.  After you read the first story you will be able to make up your own mind as to whether to go forward with this one.

I read the Kindle copy of this story which at $20 was way overpriced.  Not sure what to recommend here as the book itself must weigh close to 5 pounds and would be uncomfortable to hold for however long it would take you to read it.  Maybe Amazon will reduce the price for the electronic copy.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Face of the Enemy

by Joanne Dobson and Beverle Graves Myers, Poison Pen Press, September 2012 

...if you like historical fiction you’ll find this a quick read with some interesting detail

I may have to start a separate blog to review all of the WWI and WWII historical fiction that I read!  Face of the Enemy is yet another World War II historical mystery, this one set in New York City right around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.  The story features both Japanese and German emigrants who are immediately classified as enemy aliens as the war begins.  Masako Fumi, a Japanese artist married to an American academic is detained by the FBI and suspected of spying for the Empire of Japan. Masako is at odds from her father who is a minister in Tojo’s government.   Helda Schroeder, a German immigrant running a boarding house for young women in NYC is estranged from her husband who has returned to Germany to support Hitler.  There is not a single protagonist in this story but two young women living in Helda’s boarding house serve the role.  Cabby is an aggressive New York Times reporter and Louise is a private duty nurse. 
The plot thickens when Masako’s art showing is cancelled because of anti Japanese sentiment and her art dealer is murdered.  Events move right along after this. We are treated to a whole host of characters- the grizzled NYPD detective investigating the murder, the FBI agent grilling Masako, America Firsters preaching against the war, the hard bitten news editor, closet homosexuals, the German American Bund, the liberal Jewish lawyer and the NYC upper crust are all represented here.  The murder plot of the art dealer is fairly straightforward and the subplot of the returning Nazi husband bent on involving his American son in sabotage is woven into this mystery.  The two roommates, Cabby and Louise are up to their eyeballs in the story, Louise as the private duty nurse to Masako’s ailing husband and Cabby investigating the murder for the Times.  If this story sounds complicate in my description it really isn’t.  It moves along with short chapters that are undemanding in delivering their message.
This story does a good job of creating the New York City of the 1940s.  The period detail is quite good but I found the characters to be very stereotypical and not have much depth. The plot almost takes a backseat to all of the cultural and historical references that are going on in this story.   I think this book would be a good companion piece for teenagers studying WWII a/o civil liberties.  It gives a fairly accurate portrayal of what it was like for enemy aliens in the US as WWII broke out.  If you like historical fiction you’ll find this a quick read with some interesting detail. 

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

City of Women

by David R. Gillham, Amy Einhorn Books, August 2012        

...not an easy story to read but one that has stayed with me long after I finished it. 

One more WWII story, this one from a German point of view.  Set in Berlin in 1943, the story centers around Sigrid a “good” German woman living with her mother-in-law while her husband Kaspar serves at the Eastern Front.  Sigrid works as a typist in the patent office.  Berlin in 1943 is a city where women make up the majority of the population.  Sigrid retreats to the cinema to escape the despair of her life in Berlin.  She meets Egon a Jewish man in the movie theater and begins an affair with him.  She befriends a young girl living in her building, Ericha.  Ericha has been helping an underground group that has been smuggling Jews and others out of the country.  Sigrid also befriends a woman whose half brother is an SS officer.  The German propaganda machine broadcasts information about great German victories but the facts support just the opposite.  Conditions are difficult; food is in short supply, nightly trips to the bomb shelter the norm.  Sigrid slowly evolves from a fairly passive citizen of the Reich into a courageous woman as she becomes involved with the underground group. Her husband Kaspar returns wounded and adrift after a grueling combat experience and then looms over her complicated life. The suspense in the story builds as Sigrid plans the extraction of a small group of people and the SS becomes aware of her actions.

The author does a great job describing war time Berlin.  The suspicions that citizens have of one another are well described, the atmosphere of fear is palpable.  One of the themes here is the myriad of relationships that Sigrid has with women – her mother-in-law a supporter of the Nazi regime; Ericha the young rebel; her colleagues at work who are frightened of Sigrid’s developing radicalism, and the women in her building.  Each of these relationships is different and used to advance the plot nicely.

More than a war story though this is an examination of the personal courage that it takes to work against a totalitarian government when one slowly becomes aware of the evil that is taking place.  The awakening of conscience that Sigrid experiences is so well documented in this story I loved it.  I have always wondered why so few German citizens resisted Nazism.  This story lays out how difficult it was for people to take action and how extraordinary were those who did.  You are clearly left wondering how you would behave given the choices that Sigrid had.  Not an easy story to read but one that has stayed with me long after I finished it. 

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Spies, Code Talkers and Deceit in War

I listened to two audiobooks and read an ebook that I thought would group nicely together in a review because all dealt with deception in wartime.  From the straightforward story of the Navajo code talkers in the South Pacific in WWII, the MI 5 operation in Britain that fooled the Nazis in the D-Day landings to the the work of the British code breakers in WWI we have the work of small groups of creative people that changed the course of history.

Code Talker by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila, read by David Colacci, Tanter Audio, 9 hours, 36 mins. December 2011

Nice WWII story about the Navajos who used their unique language to encode military info in the South Pacific. You also get  a look  into Navajo life in the 20th century as the author Chester Nez relates his life story.  It is a straight on story with out much editorial input or reflection on the part of the author.  Well read by David Colacci.

The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman, read by Wanda McCaddum.  Blackstone Audio, 7hrs, 11 mins.

All of the inside scoop on the entry of the US into WWI.  Background on the British code breaking effort (Room 40) and the personalities of the US, British and German players in international diplomacy.  Nobody is better than Tuchman at writing narrative history.  She hooked me years ago when I first read Guns of August.       Witty and irreverent in her writing, she is a pleasure to read.  She is able to take what are often long dead and faceless people and bring them to life.  First published in 1966 this story is as fresh today as it was then.  She is my all time favorite writer of history.  I listened to this one and was well served by the reading style of Wanda McCaddum.  She is a master of accents and easily slips between German, English and American.  At 7 hours a great audio book.

Double Cross by Ben McIntyre Crown Publishers, July 2012

Ben McIntyre is a talented story teller.  He weaves together the story of the British double agents who feed information to the Germans throughout WWII.  This eclectic group of people were as different from each other as was possible.  A Polish patriot, a Argentine society playgirl, a Serbian gambler, a Spanish patriot and a host of others make up the cast.  Their British handlers are the most imaginative group.  Throughout the war these people feed the Germans a combination of true but unimportant facts and patently false data. leading up to their master deception - convincing the Germans that the Allies would land at Calais not Normandy.  This deception froze in place significant numbers of German soldiers defending Calais.  Eisenhower himself credited this group with ensuring the success of D-Day. This is a great story full of fascinating anecdotes, the story of the Royal Pigeon Service had me laughing out loud.  The deception effort itself is a quirky peculiar British activity, almost like a PG Wodehouse novel (he's in the story too!).  Great history, well told!  

Friday, November 2, 2012


by Alan Brennert, narrated by Anne Noelani Miyamoto, Recorded Books, 17hrs, 27 minutes. epic work of historical fiction

The story begins late in the 19th century in Hawaii.  Rachael Kalama is the youngest child in a native Hawaiian family.   At the age of 7 her mother notices a red patch of skin on her leg that is insensitive to pain.  In short order she is diagnosed with leprosy and quarantined in the lepers’ hospital at Kahili on Oahu.  She spends a year there and is then sent to Kalaupapa the leper colony on Moloka’i.  Even though she has an uncle who has the disease and resides there she is forced to live in a girls orphanage staffed by Roman Catholic nuns.  Physically and emotionally separated from her family Rachael builds a new life and new family among the residents of the leper colony. Although her father remains faithful and visits his daughter Rachael never again hears from her mother.  It was quite common for families to abandon children with this diagnosis.

Rachael’s story as it unfolds is also the story of many leprous patients in the 20th century.  The author does not flinch from describing the effects of this disease on the body and the terrible toll that it takes in life expectancy and in handicaps.  Rachael’s story is interspersed with historical events (WWII, the great depression) and changes that occur on Moloka’i.  There are many strong characters in this story.  First off Rachael – she is strong, charismatic and pragmatic in her approach to life.  Her disease advances slowly so we know her story through her teen years, marriage and old age.  She is surely a character who will remain in your mind long after reading this story.  Of all of the sisters who work in the leper colony we get to know Sister Catherine the best.  She is depicted very realistically.  She has doubts about her faith and struggles to understand why children are stricken with this horrible disease.  Again a strong portrayal.   The author sticks with the story through the development of effective treatments for the disease in the 1970s.  This allows for a happier ending (who doesn’t like a happy ending) for Rachael.  

The book has a strong sense of place.  The descriptions of Hawaii are excellent and the dialogue is replete with native Hawaiian words.  This was a topic and a place that I knew little about, so I really enjoyed this story. The author's note at the end of the story was particularly welcome as it noted the sections that were true and the true life figures who provided inspiration for some of the major characters.  

 I listened to the audio book that was read by Anne Noelani Miyamoto.  In the beginning I did not like her narration but as the story went on I came to appreciate her skill in differentiating the racial diversity of the characters.

I listened to a copy of this audio book that I borrowed.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Brain on Fire

by Susannah Cahalan, Free Press, November 2013

Brain on Fire is Susannah Cahalan’s reconstruction of her harrowing year with a brain inflammation.  Calahan was a 24 year old reporter with the New York Post in 2008 when she began to exhibit signs of mental illness.  She was living on her own in NYC and had recently begun a serious relationship with Stephen.  Cahalan’s symptoms were a mixture of the physical (weakness on her left side, difficulty speaking) and the mental (paranoia, violence and psychosis).  Her condition was undiagnosed for an agonizing period of time.  Some of her physicians thought she was suffering from alcohol withdrawal despite the fact that she told them she was only an occasional drinker.  She came very close to being diagnosed as a schizophrenic.  Both of her parents but especially her father insisted that her illness had a physical cause and only with this advocacy was she admitted to NYU.  There she was diagnosed as having an autoimmune inflammation in the one hemisphere of her brain.  In a marvelous nod to medicine as an art not a science she is finally diagnosed by a physician who administers a simple straight forward test – she is asked to fill in numbers on a drawing of a clock.  Because she writes all of the numbers on one side of the drawing the physicians now have proof that the half of her brain is inflamed.   So after over one million dollars worth of laboratory tests, she is diagnosed by a savvy MD with pencil and paper!  Once the diagnosis of autoimmune disease is confirmed by researchers at Penn, Cahalan has a slow but steady recovery.  There are two back stories going on that deserve a mention.  One, her new boyfriend Stephen sticks around even when her strange behavior appears to have a mental origin not a physical one.  Surely a guy worth knowing!  Secondly, Cahalan renews her strained relationship with her father as he is tirelessly at her bedside throughout her illness.  As they say – it is an ill wind that blows no good. 
The strength in this story is Cahalan’s meticulous research.  In reviewing her medical records, reading a journal her parents kept through the illness, interviewing friends and family for their perspectives, and piecing together the little that she remembers she has told a story that reads like a suspense novel.    She is very good at synthesizing complicated medical issues into readable prose.  For me this was a quick read not the medical tour de force that was Henrietta Lacks but good nonetheless.  The one lesson I take from all of these nonfiction stories that deal with our health care system is don’t enter it on your own.  You must get an advocate (and not a timid one) who will fight for you and insist that you get top notch attention.  It is easy to be shunted off to the easiest diagnosis.  Cahalan makes the point that there are more than a few people with her syndrome who have been misdiagnosed and either did not recover or sit in psychiatric institutions today.  Scary for sure! 

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Jewels of Paradise

by Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2012

 a story that is in no way riveting and very slow to develop

In this book Donna Leon leaves behind her highly successful Commisario Brunetti detective series for a standalone novel.  Dotoressa Caterina Pelligrini is a native Venetian who has left Venice to study and work in both Germany and England.  Her field of expertise is baroque opera.  She is lured back to her beloved Venice with a strange temporary job.  Two cousins have inherited two trunks from a long dead 17th century ancestor Steffani.  Steffani was a mysterious figure who composed baroque operas and worked for the Catholic Church in Germany during the Reformation.  Caterina is hired to translate the papers and determine if the inheritance should go preferentially to one of the cousins.  The inheritance itself is somewhat of a mystery that isn’t revealed until the conclusion of the story.

Unfortunately that is the full extent of this story.  There really is little or no suspense in the telling.  There is lots of discussion of a murder that occurred in the long ago past.  There is lots of description of what constitutes research as performed by a classical scholar.  There is discussion of baroque opera and of religion.  The operative word here is discussion, there is not much action.  The best parts of this story are when Caterina interacts with her family – a sister who is a religious and a brother in law who assists her when she is mildly threatened for her work.  As always with Leon the descriptions of Venice are excellent and one of the things that draw me to her books.  The story is liberally sprinkled with Italian phrases that are not translated.  While this gives great color to the story I can imagine it would annoy readers who do not have basic Italian language skills.   I did think the author was remiss in not annotating at the end of the story which parts were based on true historical figures and which were not.  I do read this type of book for the history so it would be nice to know what parts were true and what were fiction. 

So in summary I’d say read this book for the characters and the atmosphere and be prepared for a story that is in no way riveting and slow to develop.  My hope is that Leon returns quickly to the much loved Brunetti series.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Not Dead Yet

by Peter James, Minotaur Books, November 2012

True fans of the series will read and like this offering although far from the best of this series

The latest in the Inspector Roy Grace series from Peter James deals with attempts on the life of international superstar Gaia.    Gaia (read Madonna a/o Lady Gaga) has come to the UK, specifically Brighton, to film a movie.  Her assistant has been brutally murdered in LA before her departure.  Inspector Grace has been tasked with protecting her and her young son while in Brighton.  Grave works with the police team familiar to readers of this series and also present is his wife Cleo who is in the final trimester of pregnancy.
 There are two side by side plots – the threats on Gaia’s life and a mutilated torso that is found on a local chicken farm (no end of bad jokes there).  Eventually these stories are brought together.  Much of the action occurs in and around the iconic Royal Pavilion at Brighton.  The author does a good job of describing this scene.  Grace is challenged with no end of suspects who appear in this story.  There is the disgruntled script writer, the unhappy fan, the recently released criminal with a grudge, and at least a couple of others.  The plot unfolds in short 2-3 page chapters.  There are lots of police procedural facts, UK style, for readers who enjoy that detail.  I was slightly befuddled by the author’s propensity for naming each and every person even slightly involved in the investigation.  I could not begin to count the names in this book but it must be at least a hundred if not more.  The tone of this story is typically British and quirky if not upbeat which I find unusual and entertaining in a crime story.  Grace likes his job and his life and this comes through in the telling.  There is an ongoing subplot in the series about Grace’s missing first wife that is carried through in this book.  I found this subplot strange and not well integrated with the rest of the story. 

This is far from the best book in this series and doesn’t come near the last one I read – Dead Like You.  True fans of the series will read and like this offering.  First time readers I believe would not be enthusiastic to read other books in the series based on this one.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Princess Elizabeth's Spy

by Susan Elia MacNeal, Bantam, October 2012    
 Maggie Hope is a strong, intelligent female character worthy of a series

This is the second book in the Maggie Hope series penned by Susan Elia MacNeal.  It is a stronger more realistic story than the first.  WWII is well underway in 1940 London.   Maggie has been recruited into the British spy services after her stint as a secretary in Churchill’s Downing Street office.  Although one of the brightest agents she is disappointed to be assigned to Windsor Castle.  At the castle she masquerades as a math tutor for the Princess Elizabeth.  There have been reports that an assassination attempt will be made.  Maggie has hardly arrived when one of the ladies in waiting to the princess is murdered during a ride.  Maggie inserts herself into the routines of the castle to try to solve the case and protect the royal princesses.  There are plenty of suspects around including some British pacifists and a disgruntled gamekeeper whose German wife has been detained.  The upstairs/downstairs world of the castle is well described.    In addition to the case Maggie continues to try and find out information about her mother’s death in a mysterious car crash in 1916.  Maggie mourns her lost aviator from the first book, he is missing and no information is forthcoming.  So there is a lot going on in this story.

The real strength of this series is the author’s ability to recreate the Britain of WWII.  Her attention to detail both in the physical aspects of the setting and in the creation of characters is exceptional.  It’s always fun for me to read stories where real characters (here the royal family) are interspersed with fictional ones.  The author gets it right - down to the stutter that George VI was known for.  I am even forgiving of the somewhat sensational end to this story because everything that comes before it is so good. Maggie Hope is a strong, intelligent female character worthy of a series.   I am signed onto this historical fiction series, bring on the next book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Istanbul Passage

by Joseph Kanon, Atria Books, May 2012

This was a good story but with a little more help to the reader it could have been great.

This mystery is set in post WWII Istanbul.  Leon Bauer an American is loosely involved in the tobacco trade and sometimes works for US intelligence.  The spotlight is leaving Istanbul, the war is over and where there had been a hotbed of spies for all the warring countries now only a few remain.  Most of the action is in smuggling European Jews into Palestine although the Cold War between the US and Russia is beginning.   Bauer assists the CIA in these post war activities..  An American intelligence officer asks Bauer to participate in the transfer of a Nazi collaborator, Alexei who is escaping through Istanbul from Russian hands to Washington for a debriefing.  The job of picking up this Nazi goes badly wrong and Bauer is placed in the middle of a complex plot unable to determine friend from enemy.

The novel’s title word passage has multiple meanings, not only the passage of the Jews through Istanbul and the problematic passage of the Nazi but also Bauer’s passage as he evaluates his involvement in rescuing persecutors such Alexei.  Additionally Alexei is also a character in transition who is surprising in some of his actions.

I thought that the author’s ability to describe the sights and sounds of post war Istanbul was excellent.  The maps provided in the inside cover of the book were really an assist to the action in the story.  I thought the characters were well developed and in particular Bauer was fully fleshed out as a real person with imperfections as well as principles.  The plot was unique and engaging with a terrific ending.  While I enjoyed this story I found it a difficult read.  The story is told primarily through the conversations of the characters so you are left with only their words to figure out what is going on – no easy task. I found myself often rereading sections.   I spent much of the book wondering if I had missed a key element in the plot.  I read a lot of spy stories and I have some ability to follow a complex plot but I struggled with this one.  This was a good book but with a little more help to the reader it could have been great.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Age of Miracles / The Leftovers

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, Random House June, 2012

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, St. Martin's Press, June 2011

I thought I’d review these two dystopic/apocalyptic novels together because they explore similar themes.  In Miracles a young girl comes of age in a world that is slowly changing and perhaps ending as the earth’s rotation slows.  In Leftovers a young man, previously something of a slacker, matures as a significant portion of the population disappears from the earth. 
Some Spoilers
Leftovers is written almost as a social satire.  The characters are colorful and somewhat exaggerated.  The story starts five years after ‘The Rapture’. On one day over twenty per cent of the earth's population has disappeared.  Every race, religion and age group are represented in the losses.   Kevin Garvey is the mayor now and is trying to bring normalcy to a highly unusual situation.  Everyone has had family and friends disappear.  His wife has joined a new cult that vows silence, smokes constantly and looks to serve as a living reminder of god’s judgment.  His daughter has morphed from a normal high achieving high school student to a troubled rebellious teenager; his son Tom has left college to follow a fraudulent “prophet” Holy Wayne and his new girlfriend has lost all of her family in the disappearance.  Each of these characters provides fodder for the author to explore different responses to events and chart character transformations.  Unfortunately for me many of the characters including Kevin, lacked emotion in their response to events.  When characters are impassive I tend to care a whole lot less about what happens to them.  This story started very well, with an interesting premise and it contained some humorous sections but in the end it fell short I think because the author could not decide whether it was a character based story or a satire.  Not satisfying! 

Miracles is really a coming of age novel that is set during an apocalyptic time.  Julia is an eleven year old suburban girl when the story opens.  The earth’s rotation is slowing and the days are lengthening.  The author does an excellent job of describing through Julia’s eyes the impacts of this slowing. The sense of impending doom is supported with all of the detail provided.  The ocean’s whales die (very movingly), the trees die, crops fail, birds fall from the sky, the electric grid falters and some people develop a strange sickness.  The adults in the story while considerably unnerved try to provide a ‘normal’ life for Julia.  Despite all of this life goes on, Julia’s teenage years are centered on Seth Moreno a neighborhood boy she likes.  Her parents’ marriage totters but in the end stands. Her grandfather disappears.  Seth becomes her boyfriend and she grows up.  This was a well written interesting story.  The lead character Julia's love of life was well contrasted with all of the death around her.  Her voice very believable.  Julia grows and changes as the story progressives.  The ending was abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying although I would not have had a clue as to how to end this fascinating story.  Recommended

Saturday, September 15, 2012

In the Shadow of the Banyan

by Vaddey Ratner, Simon & Shuster, August 2012 
...the characters jump off of the page and into your heart.

This lyrical story is told from the viewpoint of Raami, a seven year old girl when the Khmer Rouge enter the capital of Cambodia and set up a new government in 1975.  Cambodia had been ruled for centuries by a monarchy whose members included Raami’s father a prince.  Raami and her father, who is a poet, have a very close relationship.  He teaches her using myths and stories set in the Buddhist tradition.  Raami recounts the events of this nightmare as they unfold for her family and the Cambodian people.  Initially the revolutionaries are seen as progressive intellectuals but soon become violent and unstable in their actions.  Raami’s family, her parents, younger sister, grandmother, uncle, aunts and two young cousins are made to leave their comfortable home in Phnom Penh.  Carrying very little they retreat to another home outside of the city.  As with all of the people of Cambodia their nightmare has just begun.  Over the next four years of the Khmers’ rule horrific things occur.  Loss of life is commonplace, hunger moving into starvation is the norm, uprooting and moving people occurs frequently and life as was known is almost entirely lost.  Spread throughout these horrors are stories of people who act very humanely in the face of this evil.  All of these events are seen through Raami’s eyes and told in her words.  Her father is separated from the family early in the story and Raami is deeply affected by his absence.  His memory and stories sustain her and her mother through their trials.   

This is my second genocide novel this month.  My last read was The Sand Castle Girls which dealt with the genocide in Armenia in 1915.  This book is very different and much more memorable.  In the Sand Castle Girls the story was well documented with historical events and detail interspersed throughout the story but the characters were fairly one dimensional.  In this story the characters jump off of the page and into your heart.  Seen from a child’s point of view this story lacks the historical detail that I enjoy but the depth of feeling expressed more than makes up for this.  I defy you to forget these people after you have read the section where Raami digs through the mud looking for beetles to eat because she is starving.  

While the book is fiction the story closely parallels the experience of the author, Vaddey Ratner who was five years old when the Khmer Rouge entered the Cambodian capital.  She lost most of her family in the next four years and ended up as a refugee in the US in 1981.   I hung on every word of the author interview at the end of the book.  There are many remarkable things about this story but one of them is that the author was able to tell such a moving, poetic story in English.  By 1995 she had graduated summa cum laude from Cornell – surely there is another book in this refugee success story.  Ratner was quoted as saying she wrote this fictional memoir to “give voice to her father’s memory and the memory of all of the others who were silenced”.  She has done this and much more, highly recommended.

I read an advanced readers copy of the novel provided by the publisher.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Sand Castle Girls

by Chris Bohjelian, Doubleday, July 2012

...a satisfactory story, the history told is excellent but in the end not the great novel it could have been.

This novel is set in Aleppo Syria in 1915.  It tells the story of the Turkish slaughter of the Armenian population.  At the end of the Ottoman Empire the Turks took the opportunity to “cleanse” their country of Christian Armenians.  The genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians in the middle of the desert between Turkey and Syria is as the author calls it ‘the slaughter you know nothing about’.  This story is narrated in the present time by Laura, granddaughter of the main characters.  Laura, a novelist starts on a journey to know the experiences of her grandparents in Syria in 1915
SPOILERS  Elizabeth Endicott, a wealthy independent young Bostonian girl accompanies her father to Aleppo in 1915 to do relief work in the Armenian refugee camps. She lives in the relative safety of the American compound but works with the refugees using her basic nursing skills.  Through the refugees' stories we learn of the horrors of this genocide.  While doing this work she meets Armen, a young engineer who has suffered the loss of his wife and young daughter in the slaughter.  They fall in love.  He leaves Aleppo and joins the British army.  He is involved in the disastrous British defeat in Gallipoli.  There are a number of characters that surround Armen and Elizabeth in this story.  Elizabeth’s father is an arch type New England do gooder, out to help the Armenians but not really know them.  The American consul in Aleppo is a strong character working to help the refugees at risk of life and limb.  Through the characters Navurt a young Armenian women whose husband was killed and Hatoun a small child who watched her family as they were beheaded the author personalizes the slaughter.

This novel did not quite do it for me.  I am usually predisposed to love historical fiction like this.  It is a big story relating historical events that were gripping.   The story did fell short for two reasons.  First there was not tension as to how it would end.  The presence of the main characters granddaughter Laura let you know early that these people survived and ended up in America.  So no suspense there no matter how dangerous things got.  The second shortfall was far more serious.  These characters did not live up to the story.  They were one dimensional and worse still uninteresting.  Elizabeth starts as a strong girl with a mind of her own and never grows from that presentation.  Armen also is hard to know and see growth in.  From his earlier work the author is a master of character development and growth so it is really surprising to me that this weakness exists in this story. Bohjalian has created characters that jump from the pages and grab your heart – see Midwives, Double Blind.  This is certainly a satisfactory story, the history told is excellent but in the end not the great novel it could have been.

I read a copy of this novel that I borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Pimp's Notes

by Giorgio Faletti, translated by Antony Shugaar,  Farrar Straus and Giroux July 2012

If you like mysteries and want something different read this.

The protagonist in this Italian thriller is Bravo, a shadowy underworld figure who makes his living as a procurer of women for the rich and powerful.  The story is set in the corrupt society that was Italy in the 1970s.  The prime minister, Aldo Muro has been captured by Red Brigades and will soon be murdered. Politicians, police and the Mafia work hand in hand for their own gain.   Right in the middle of this mess you have our most unusual antihero Bravo.  He has been castrated by an unknown assailant (not a spoiler as this fact is announced in the first sentence of the book).  He is wounded not only physically but also spiritually.  We do not learn his back-story until almost the end of the novel and it is a shocker.

The narrative moves slowly until some murders at a high society weekend where a millionaire and a state senator are killed.  Bravo unwittingly finds himself right in the middle of this action.  Then things take off and the twists and turns that the story makes rank it right up there with the best crime noirs.  I surely could not figure out where the story was going.  It is a fairly violent story with plenty of murders throughout.  I found myself rooting for Bravo to prevail in this tale, I think because everyone else in the story was so corrupt and had such self serving motives.  I loved the ending of the story, I know it might be described as contrived but I enjoyed it.

This novel was translated from the Italian and does read well.  After a slow start the story flies along and the characters are well developed.  The author, Giorgio Faletti, has written several mystery thrillers which are very popular in Europe including the number one best seller I Kill.  I enjoyed this story well enough to ensure that I will read more of his work.  If you like mysteries and want something different read this.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Broken Harbor

by Tana French, Viking Adult July 2012

... an excellent psychological mystery!

Tana French, queen of the psychological thriller is back with more from the Dublin Murder Squad.  This time we meet Scorcher Kennedy, a minor character in one of French’s earlier novels (The Likeness) is a 40 something veteran homicide detective who takes his profession very seriously.  Scorcher follows all of the rules and exercises supreme control of himself and his emotions as he solves cases.  Like all of French’s characters Kennedy has a back-story that will influence this story.  He has a sister Dina, who drifts in and out of psychotic episodes and depends on Scorcher for support. 
The setting for this tale is Ireland in the middle of the cruel economic recession.  The Spain family, Pat and Jenny and two young children Emma and Jack are the victims.  The children have been smothered in their beds, Pat has been stabbed to death and Jenny clings to life in a coma.  Their lives had been in a downward spiral after Pat lost his job.  The author painfully recounts the stresses both financial and emotional that affect families where unemployment has struck.  The list of potential killers includes Connor Brennan a childhood friend of Jenny and Pat who is obsessed with the happiness of the Spain family.  Fiona, Jenny’s sister has something to gain from these murders and becomes a suspect. Throw into the mix the neighbors, the Gogans and you have a rich group of characters. 
Scorcher is assigned the case and given a talented rookie partner Richie Curran who is learning the trade from him.  Scorcher takes his mentoring role very seriously and works to make Richie a good detective.  The investigation proceeds and a number of potential killers are identified and the pair carefully works through the evidence in their effort to solve the crime.  This author is particularly good with explaining the ins and outs of police work.  The writing has a real authenticity to it. 
While in the end I was reasonably sure of who committed these murders, the elegance of French’s novels is not the complexity of the mystery but the journey that her characters make themselves.  What fine fully developed characters these are!  The challenges that Kennedy faces in keeping his balance as disappointment and disillusion abound are very genuine.    This is a harrowing tale that really does not leave anyone including the reader untouched by the end.
 This author would be successful in any genre she chooses; we are lucky to have her writing mysteries!  No disappointment for fans in this offering, it is excellent!

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fallen Angel

by Daniel Silva, narrator George Guidall, Harper Audio, 10 hrs, 25 minutes, July 2012

 No one writes international spy thrillers better than Silva, this one doesn't disappoint

This international spy thriller opens with the death of a Vatican art curator Claudia Andreotti.  While her death is officially classified as a suicide the pope’s private secretary Luigi Donati knows that it is not.  Conveniently working at the Vatican restoring a painting is Gabriel Allon, retired Mossad operative.  Donati cajoles Allon out of retirement (surprise, surprise) and Allon and his wife Chiara investigate her death.
Allon’s investigation leads him into the intrigues of Vatican politics, the underground world of antiquity theft, organized crime and money laundering and the methods of funding international terrorist networks. Silva provides enlightening detail about all of these subjects throughout the story.   The thriller moves rapidly from St. Moritz, to Scandinavia, to Berlin, to Rome, and to the Mideast.   As you’d expect in a Gabriel Allon story there is no shortage of threats.  Whenever Allon shows up the body count starts to rise although the violence is not graphically described.  All of the favorite characters from earlier novels make an appearance – Allon’s mentor Avi Sharom, the head of Mossad Eli Lavon and Uzi Navot.  The denouement of this story is particularly good.  It is set in Jerusalem at the Temple Mount and has a page turning intensity to it.

I’ve always enjoyed Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books.  I think they have a ripped from the headlines intensity and while the premises of these stories might seem farfetched I think the hatreds in the Mideast make these stories all too possible.  Silva is a good writer and doesn’t pander to the reading public; you need to come with some level of understanding of current affairs to keep up.  No one writes international spy thrillers better than Silva, this one doesn't disappoint.  Allon is a likeable familiar character; tormented and unable to find peace in his life but reassuring in his devotion to justice.

I’ve read the previous 15 Gabriel Allon novels but I listened to this one.  I had a problem believing the soft spoken George Guidall as the narrator.  I guess that I had a vision of this character in my head that his voice just did not support. If you are new to the series I suspect this might not bother you.   So for me I’d give five stars for the story but a lot less for the audio rendition.

I listened to a copy of this story that was provided by Harper Audio

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping that Haunted a Nation

by Tal McTenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright, Free Press, August 2012.

 ... a fascinating story that could have been edited a little better. 

This book tells the story of a sensational kidnapping of a four year old boy in Louisiana in 1912. The coauthors have produced an extremely well researched book. The story in a nutshell - Bobby Dunbar son of Lessie and Percy Dunbar disappears from a family campsite right around dinner time. Despite extensive search efforts no trace of Bobby is found. Initially it is believed he has drowned or perhaps been eaten by an alligator (remember we are in Louisiana) but as time goes on with no sign of him his parents become convinced that he has been kidnapped. Bobby has a distinguishing mark - a burn scar on his big toe. The public's fascination with the boy's disappearance leads to many reported sightings throughout the Gulf Coast. Bobby's father faithfully follows up on each sighting. Finally William Walters a travelling piano tuner accompanied by a young boy with a strong resemblance to Bobby becomes the focus of the search. Despite the fact that this boy does not have a scar on his foot and despite the fact that Bobby's parents do not immediately identify him as their son and despite the fact that after 8 months the child does not recognize the Dunbars nor a younger brother Alonzo the child is taken from Walters and taken in by the Dunbars as their son Bobby. When a destitute single mother from North Carolina Julia Anderson steps forward to claim the boy as her son Bruce Anderson she is consistently shunted aside.
SPOILERS AHEAD The story takes some twists and turns after this. Walters is tried and found guilty of kidnapping despite all kinds of evidence that should have helped acquit him. Various neighbors and friends are fairly sure that this child is not Bobby Dunbar. Through some strange legal maneuverings Walters is released from jail (again remember we are in Louisiana). The story follows the Dunbars through their post kidnapping life. Not a happy story - the Dunbar parents divorce and the boys grow to adulthood with the kidnapping as a defining family story.
The authors have managed to capture the state of the nation in this story. Lynching is a possibility as the public sentiment is inflamed against the accused kidnapper. The role that newspapers play in influencing public opinion is paramount in this story and well told by the authors. The legal system in Louisiana is not well evolved and is also a major culprit.
The real strength of this story though is that after years of uncertainty as to whether this child is truly Bobby Dunbar we finally get the answer through DNA testing. The child that was taken in by the Dunbar's as their son Bobby was not - he actually was Bruce Anderson.
One of the authors was the grandchild of the boy who was raised as Bobby Dunbar so we get a real inside family view. The one really amazing statement that Bobby Dunbar, this man of dubious identity made was - it doesn't matter where you've come from, it matters what you do with the life you are given. So true!
This is a good period piece of history. Don't use the ereader for this one, the accompanying pictures make the book purchase well worth it. The story went on a little long with perhaps too much detail; a better editing would have served it well. Despite that it is a fascinating read.

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson, Random House January 2012

...a super first novel but might not be for everyone

I had considered not writing a review of this book because I found it to be so strange that I could not imagine recounting the implausible plot but I just could not get the story out of my head.

So here goes.  The story is set in modern day North Korea, a weird society if ever there was one.  Pak Jun Do (emphasis on the John Do pronunciation) is the son of a man who runs a school for orphans.  In order to not show preference Pak’s father essentially ignores him.  His mother had been taken to Pyongyang to serve the government.  The government recognizes that Pak is a loyal citizen of the state and singles him out for training as a professional kidnapper.  Evidently it is not unusual for North Korea to capture people if the state needs their services – need a plumber capture one from a coastal Japanese town.  Pak is trained as an English translator and  loyally serves as  a radio operator on a fishing boat listening to transmissions from long distance rowers and the space shuttle.  After some strange interactions with the US Navy Pak is chosen for a North Korean mission to the US (told you it was a strange story).  The mission does not go well for North Korea and Pak is sentenced to prison.  Even stranger events unfold from there.   Pak is reinvented with an entirely new identity and falls in love with the wife of the man who he replaces as one of North Korea’s heroes.

What for me was so enchanting about this story was the goodness of the lead character in contrast to the soul deadening state of North Korea.  Pak was a selfless person who completely believed in the North Korean state and until he found love was willing to sacrifice himself for that state.  The transformation he goes through is thoroughly enchanting if not heartbreaking in the end.  The story is told with Pak’s narration but also interspersed are propaganda broadcasts from the state.  The author’s ability to recreate the North Korean state – the story includes casual horrific violence, incredible hunger and starvation, torture and interrogation – is memorable.  Truly has to be the worst country in the world ruled by a mad man (hope the mad man’s son is an improvement for these poor people).  The author who is a creative writing prof in California describes this genre as trauma narrative which is an apt description of a story that not only tells of traumatic events but traumatizes the reader as well.  This story is a little too unusual to be a great novel but it leaves me excited to see what Adam Johnson writes next, this is a super first novel (but not for everyone) and he is a writer to watch.

I read a copy of this novel borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne, Random House, 19 hours, 11 minutes, June 2012
...a psychological thriller worth the label

This is a psychological thriller worth the label.  It starts with the disappearance of Amy, wife of Nick, on their fifth wedding anniversary.  There are signs of a struggle and Nick is quickly the prime suspect in her disappearance.  Nick repeatedly proclaims his innocence but lies to the police about a number of key things.  The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Nick and Amy.  Amy gives the back story to their relationship before the disappearance and Nick picks up the story on the day of the disappearance.  The enjoyment in this story is because of the suspense so I won’t give anything resembling a spoiler here.

This novel is very well plotted.  In part one, information about the couple and their relationship is meted out in small doses by each of the characters.  The couple was married in NYC, and after both losing their jobs they relocate to Nick’s boyhood home in Missouri.  Amy though not happy in Missouri supports Nick through his father’s illness and the death of his mother.  Throughout the first part of the story the plot is fairly straightforward and maybe even predictable.  When part two launches things really get kicked up a notch and the suspense intensifies.  Whenever anybody makes a list of unreliable narrators be sure to put these two characters at the top.  One of the things I often enjoy in reading is liking and rooting for one of the characters, these two are hard to like so it has to be the story that entertained for me; this one surely did!
I listened to this story as an audio book.  The narration by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne was excellent.  They were able to bring just the right amount of uncertainty and immorality to these characters.  Despite this fine performance I’d recommend reading this book as I could not get through the story fast enough as an audio production.  The audio was 18 hours long, I am sure I would have read this thriller in 4-5 hours.  Enjoy!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The House on Paradise Street

by Sofka Zinovieff, Short Books (UK) March 2012

...a marvelous family story with the epic events of modern Greek history as its backdrop
Did you ever read just the right book at just the right time! For me The House on Paradise Street could not be timelier.  I am planning a trip to Greece in October and I had set out to improve my woeful understanding of Greek history, traditions and way of life.  I had read some nonfiction by Sofka Zinovieff and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to see a first novel that spanned Greek history through the twentieth century up to present day.  It is a marvelous family story with the epic events of modern Greek history as its backdrop.
The tale is told by two narrators, Maud an expat Brit, who is married to Nikitas Perifanis a Greek intellectual and Antigione his mother.  Events shift from the distant past to the present day.  The story opens with Maud dealing with the sudden death of Nikitas in a car accident.  Nikitas has maintained a fairly independent life and Maud is haunted by the fact that Nikitas had secrets unknown to her.  Antigione left Greece after the Greek civil war when the right wing faction took control of the Greek government.  Antigione had been a resistance fighter in WWII and a committed communist during the civil war. When she chose exile in Russia, she left Nikitas behind to be raised by her sister Alexandra.  The story revolves around the divisions in the family.  On the right Alexandra who had married Spiros, a policeman and fascist; on the left Antigione and her brother Markos both of whom chose the communist/socialist faction.  Markos is killed during the fighting and this keeps the sisters estranged as Alexandra holds Antigione responsible for involving Markos in the civil war.  They have not meet for 50 years until Antigione returns to Athens for Nikitas’ funeral.  The British intervention in Greek affairs is told through the character Johnny Fell, a family friend who spent time in Greece before the war when he tutored the Perifanis children. Fell then reappears as an undercover British agent during WWII and remains to support the rightist cause as the communists are beaten.     
This is a significant story that really doesn’t lend itself to a short plot summary.  Let me just say a few things about the plot.  It doesn’t feel contrived to me at all.  The author has believability in her writing that make events flow nicely.  The displacement of the Greeks from Smyrna in the 1920s is touched on by telling the story of Antigione’s mother and uncle who came to Athens after that sad event.   The author relates the events of the Greek civil war in a very even handed manner, leaving us with the clear understanding that everyone loses in a civil war – there is no winning side.  Families are ruined, bitterness takes hold and passing years do not really improve things.  The events in the present day (2008) where Nikitas’ children Tig and Orestes participate in the city wide riots bring home again the deep divisions in Greek society. The denouement is well done, a number of loose ends are tied up but the real problems and divisions in Greek society remain realistically unresolved.
The characters in this story are drawn with great depth and realism. The contrast between Maud a non political immigrant to Greece looking for the warmth of family connections and Antigione a willing exile from Greece who sacrificed all family  because of her beliefs could not be more compelling.   The passion of the Greek people for all things political comes through loud and clear.  There are few uninformed bystanders in the Greek democracy, for good or for bad everyone seems to have a deeply held opinion and is willing to take to the streets to display it.   This book gives some insight into Greece’s problems today and from my perspective gives some warning to the US and other countries where political parties can’t seem to find ground on which to compromise. 
So in summary (I know I’ve been a little long-winded here) read this book!  Even if you don’t love historical fiction, you’ll like this story.  If the Australian story is told in The Thorn Birds, the American civil war in Gone with the Wind, then Greece is well represented in this genre with The House on Paradise Street.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Travels to Greece - a reading list fiction, part I

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, Ecco March 2012  4.5 out of 5.0 quills ...definitely read if you are going to Greece
The Mask of Atreus by A.J. Hartley, Berkley, 2006 4.0 out of 5.0 quills.  ...did not add to my Greek knowledge base

I’ve two more novels with Greek settings to review.  They were quite different but each was enjoyable.  If you were choosing one of the two to prep for a Greek trip I’d definitely go with Song of Achilles.   In it the author has created a very readable and surprisingly suspenseful retelling of the Iliad.  Patroclus, friend of Achilles is the narrator.  We meet him and Achilles when they are young boys.  They are quite the contrast in personalities, Achilles is already the stunning Greek warrior and Patroclus is the uncertain, shy exiled prince.  They train for war together with Cereus, the centaur.  Patroclus grows to love Achilles and becomes his live long follower and friend.   I won’t relate the story of the Trojan War here, you’ll probably remember it as you read (either from studying Greek mythology in HS/college or from the really bad Brad Pitt movie of a few years ago).  The author has made these characters three dimensional and given them personalities that overcome the Greek statuary that comes to mind when you hear the names Achilles, Paris, Hector, et al.  Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks” is more likeable that expected; Odysseus is portrayed as a man who truly loves his wife; Hector is a noble warrior who fights for family not fame; Thetis the god-nymph mother of Achilles personifies the evil interference of the gods in the affairs of men.  A worthy retelling of an ancient tale!
The Mask of Atreus is set in modern day Greece and the US.  Deborah Miller a curator in a small museum in Atlanta finds the museum director dead in his home surround by ancient Greek artifacts.  So the stage is set for a mystery that unfolds in the US and in Athens.  Characters include a 19th century archeologist of dubious background, various Nazi officials from WWII, a British collector of art, Greek government officials and neo Nazis in the US.  No plot summary from me on this one.  It is a fairly quick read with plot twists and turns that encouraged me to finish the book.  But all in all nothing special and for me did not add anything to my knowledge base about Greece.
I read copies of these books borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia