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|Wednesday, January 6th, 2016|
|The Travelers by Chris Pavone
The protagonist in The Travelers is Will Rhodes who is an acclaimed writer for a prestigious travel magazine. In what appears to be a dream job, he jets around the world and goes to only the best spots; private wine tastings in France, a party on the most luxurious yacht in the world, suites at hotels so discreet that they do not even rate stars. Yet even the most glamourous job can get boring and Will, faithfully married to a former writer at Travelers Magazine, finds himself drawn to a beautiful woman he keeps meeting at these events. Unfortunately for Will, his one night stand was the old badger game with a twist. Instead of money to keep the sex tape secret, Elle blackmails Will into becoming a spy for the CIA. He doesn't have to do much...just observe the people he sees and send back data. Is the aide to a wealthy Russian millionaire unhappy? Are there individuals in unexpected places? Nothing dangerous. All Will has to do is look, report, and collect $10000 a month. As with all spy novels, nothing is as it seems and the naive Will becomes embroiled in much more than he was told.
I found this novel a very slow start with Will not exactly the brightest lightbulb. How would he have been harmed by the release of the tape. He probably wouldn't have lost his job because his editor Malcolm seemed a "nudge,nudge, wink, wink" sort of person. It mgiht have put paid to his marriage to Chloe, but the marriage was already on shakey ground. And who else in the 21st century would give a damn what Will did one time? For me the novel picked up when it dawns on Will that something else has to be going on. From that point it is a wild ride where people are not who they seem and Will cannot even use his newly acquired spycraft to avoid detection. Every angle of his life seems to have a camera focused on it.
This appears to be the first in a continuing series. I would read another novel with the sasme characters.
|Monday, December 28th, 2015|
|The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay
There seem to be a cluster of really good historical novels about Britain in the 7th century and Jill Dalladay's The Abbess of Whitby can be added to the list.
The story of Hild of Northumbria whose story is found in Bede is told in an imaginative way, minus the flights of fancy that sometimes turn period novels into works of 21st century sensibilities with medieval window dressing.
The first two sections of the book are the account of Hild's life before age 33. Since Hild is mentioned in Bede only as the Abbess of Whitby, Dalladay used archeological sources, scholarly research, and some astute deductions to describe Hild's early life. Since Hild was blood kin to the king with no other close male relatives, it could be assumed that she would have contact with the royal court. If nothing else, she would be a valuable asset in the marriage alliance game,
Since the court was pagan when she was growing up, it could be assumed that she followed the rituals of the old religion before she as baptized as a Christian.
And since she became an abbes, she must have had some form of education.
So the novel opens when Hild is a 12 year old chosen to be the Eostre handmaiden of the Goddess of Spring. In this honored position she blesses the crops and the beasts to insure a productive and fertile growing season. As she matures she has further responsibilities: servant to the queen and nursemaid to the royal children. Later, she marries a man she barely knows, has a child, and faces the harrowing local wars, sieges, and betrayals. When she becomes a Christian and is widowed the abbey which she founds, a home for both men and woman in the Celtic tradition, is truly a haven of peace in a chaotic world.
The latter part of the book deals with Bede's story about the Council of Whitby where ther Northumbrian Christians must decide whether to retain their own traditions or to join the much more powerful Roman Church seated in Rome. Although it is, on the surface, a meeting to decide on what date the moveable feast of Easter is to be celebrated, Hild knows that much more is at stake. If the Roman rite is followed, there will be no more mixed monasteries; many simple joys will be replaced by more ritualistic and strict customs. The representative from Rome, Wilfred, is already bedecked in sumptuous robes and a jeweled cross around is neck.
Throughout the novel, the small details make the story. The description of the smells and dirt, in the homes of the lords and of the common folk, take away the romanticism so often imagined in this period. Burning tallow stinks! Even if one is used to it. Food is eaten, even if it is spoiled. Nothing goes to waste.
Clothes are scratchy. Everyone has fleas. Chldren are lost and never found. People are considered old at 35 and ancient at 50. If a woman is lucky, she will come to respect her husband. Love is never a consideration.
The book is a wonderful look at the 7th century. I would like to think that the Abbes of Whitby was very much like Dalladay's Hild.
|Tuesday, March 31st, 2015|
|Angel of Terror by Edgar Wallace
Oh, my. This book is a great example of how mysteries have evolved since 1922. It still is primarily intrepid hero saves innocent heroine from dastardly villains, but there are indications that times may be changing. The hero noble and ethical solicitor Jack Glover has managed to drag too-innocent-to-be-believed heroine Lydia Beale into a fantastic situation where she marries an escaped murderer and inherits 600,000 pounds when he is himself murdered ten minutes after the wedding. The villains of the piece, Jean Biggerland and her father, now have another obstacle in their path before they can inherit the murdered man's estate. Makes no sense but if you check your brains at the door you are in for a fun ride.
Jack knows (and has compelling circumstancial evidence) that the Biggerlands were the real murderers who framed James Meredith and then did him in. He repeatedly warms too-trusting-to-be-let-out-on-her-own Lydia of the danger she might be in from the Biggerlands. Does she believe him? Of course not. She allows herself to be befriended by Jean Biggerland . After three narrow escapes from accidents she goes off to the Riviera with Jean and her entourage! None of Jack's reasonable explanations of why she was almost killed so many times makes any impact.
What sets this novel above most tales of strong hero and helpless-to-the-point-of-stupidity heroine, is the character of Jean Biggerland. She has an ethereal beauty and such a sweet, sincere manner that she manages to fool judge, jury, and every other character except Jack that she is what she appears to be. Even when the muder plots become sillier and sillier, the reader can't help but be taken with her. (And the murder plots REALLY are ridiculous....watch out for the small pox one). She is a precursor of the femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy who will appear eight years later in Hammett's Maltese Falcon. Her character is more complex than the other stereotypes. She has no qualms about murder, but says her prayers at night.
i give Angel of Terror three stars because it is a fun read.
|Wednesday, March 25th, 2015|
|The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
Who is "The Dream Lover" in Berg's biographical novel about George Sand? Sand herself? One of her many liasons? The ideal partner she never found? Berg leaves it to the reader to decide in this beautifully written work. Using two timelines , she begins to explore Sand's life in 1831 just as Sand is about to leave her family to join her lover in Paris. George Sand is not yet George Sand. She is Aurore Dupin...... She had made a contract with her husband Casimir to divide her time between Paris and Nohant, the estate she inherited from her grandmother and where her young children would remain with their father. She would switch locations every three months.
Berg then goes back to 1804. Aurore is born to Maurice Dupin, descendant of a Polish king and Sophie Delaborde. famous as the mistress of a French general. Against all convention her parents married and had a passioate relationship until her father was killed in a riding accident shortly after the death of his infant son when Aurore was four. This initiated the first major conflict in Aurora's life between her mother and her aristocratic grandmother. Both were strong-willed women who recognized the extreme intelligence of the little girl. In the end, Sophie left her daughter to be raised as a privileged child while she embarked for the freedom of Paris. Did Aurore see the love between her parents as the perfect love? Was this her quest as she later would go from lover to lover. When she is deserted by her mother, does she see this as the only end to "perfect" love?
Moving ahead to 1831 again, Berg reveals how Aurore became George, why she began to wear masculine clothing, and the success of her early writings. And so it goes. Sand's actions in the years from 1831 to her death in 1876 have their roots in the years 1804-1830. It is a tricky use of time but it worked for me.
The writing is so visual that it is easy to imagine the Paris, Nohant, and Spain of Sand. Likewise, the close community of artists, writers, and composers comes alive. If Berg concentrates on Sand's relationships, she makes it clear that these relationships for the basis of Sand's literary works. If Sand loved Musset and Chopin, she also loved Musset's physician and the attorney who drew up the separation papers for her marriage.
If her most passionate affair was with actress Marie Dorval, Sand also had moments of religious esctasy when her great love was God.
I thoroughly enjoyed this fictionalization of George Sand's life.
|Monday, January 5th, 2015|
|Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is another beautifully written novel of the religious experience by Rumer Godden. The title refers to the images one invokes while praying the rosary: the five are for the five sorrowful mysteries of Christ's passion and the ten for the five joyful mysteries of the Christmas story and the five glorious mysteries of Christ's resurrection and ascension. The rosary is the recurring symbol with its three sets of devotions prayed while fingering the beads.
Three is a symbol as much as five and ten. The main character has three distinct periods in her life which are revealed in a series of flashbacks. As Elizabeth Fanshaw she is a naive English girl of twenty who becomes lost in the celebrating crowds during the liberation of Paris and meets a charming man who seduces her and sets her up in his brothel where she eventually becomes the madame. As Lise Ambard nicknamed La Balafree she is the fallen woman who commits murder and is set to prison . As Soeur Marie Lise of the Rosary she is a cherished nun in the Convent of the Sisters of Bethany, a Dominican order which numbers giving solice to the imprisioned as one of its missions. In addition, there are two other prostitutes who feature prominently in the novel along with Lise, one who is redeemed by Christ's love and one who is apparently lost.
The beauty of the novel is the religious setting. The reader follows Lise from the moment she realizees that she may have a vocation through her novitiate and her profession as a sister to her satisfying life as a fully professed nun. The peace of convent life is lovingly portrayed with the barest touches of humor and hints of sadness for when the sisters must accept they cannot help everyone they encounter. Simple ceremonies like the Adoration of the Host and the laying out of a dead nun are gently described. And as time passes, the sisters are not stagnant; one young aspirant, during her solitary time in the chapel, plays the music from Godspell on her little cassette player. She explains to a bemused Prioress that she felt Jesus would enjoy hearing it.
Where the novel does not quite work for me are the scenes in the brothel. For all of her youth, I couldn't quite accept the fact that Lise would so easily become a prostitute, accept the fact that her pimp/lover would kick her out of his bed for a 14 year old, and then be happy to run his whore house for him. And still be passionately in love with him. Lise seems too intelligent to be used in such a way.
But her gradual awareness of her spirituality and her vocation are completely believable and maybe Godden felt it necessary to send her heroine to the depths to make the heights even more sublime.
|Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden
The opening line of Afternoon of a Good Woman is "Today, Tuesday, the day that Penelope has chosen to leave her husband, is the first really warm day of spring." So Bawden is up front about the fact that her heroine, after twenty years of marriage and two children, is about to make a life change. And for one afternoon the reader is allowed inside Penelope's head to understand why a good woman would leave her family.
For Penelope is a good woman, in the truest sense of the phrase. On the day she leaves, she does not just run off, she spends the hours serving as a magistrate and listening to two insignificent cases, the first of a pitiful little man who exposed himself to a young girls and the second of a genial not-too-bright mechanic who sold an apparently abandoned junk car for 5 pounds only to have the owner turn up to claim it a year later. On this last day, Penelope finds herself remembering aspects of her own past and wondering what a jury would make of her life.
For instance, how would they judge her twelve-year old self going to school and also caring for a mentally ill step mother while her father was in the army? Would they see it as the act of love, which it was, her attempt to keep the household going? Or would they see the obvious facts, a young girl and her step-mother living in squalor with only junk food to eat? And her relationship with her step-mother's children. Would her genuine concern for her battered step-sister be regarded as an act of compassion or as the meddling action of a teenager in love with her handsome brother-in-law? As the hours tick by, Penelope cannot help but examine the highpoints and lowpoints in her life and wonder if she has been a help or a crutch to those she caers for, In the end she makes a startling decision, but such a right one for her.
Bawden has a knack for making ordinary people extraordinarily interesting. She succeeds wonderfully in this book. I really liked Penelope when I got to know her. I liked her honesty and her desire, in a small way, to make society a little better. I liked her empathy with the two defendants and her ability to see them as individuals, not just law-breakers. And, at the end, I liked that she valued herself.
Can you tell I liked this book!
|Thursday, December 18th, 2014|
|The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter
The World Before Us is a beautifully written novel with three distinct plots revolving around a location in Yorkshire. During the Victorian period this location was the site of the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and nearby was Farrington House, the residence of George Farrington a prominent botanist and exotic plant hunter. Frequent visitors to Farrington House were Edmond and Charliotte Chester, a London couple whose wealth came from cloth manufacturing.
Edmond Chester was an astute industrialist who could indulge in the expensive hobby of collecting all manner of specimans, from hummingbirds to whale skeletons to Oriental pottery. As his collection grew he opened it to scholars and eventually to the public by founding the eclectic Chester Museum.
Unfortunately, in the 21st century funding for the museum has dried up and it is closing. The collections are being sold off and it is the sad duty of the curatorial staff to pack up the items and send them off to buyers around the world. Particularly affected by the closing is Jane Standen the archievist. This is her dream job and now that it is vanishing, her future is uncertain. Her work was the one constant in a troubled life. Twenty years earlier, when she was fifteen, she was the child minder for a sweet four year old, Lily Eliot. When Lily's recently-widowed father suggested taking them with him on a day trip to Farrington Botanical Gardens Jane was over the moon since she had a major crush on the botanist/writer. She was determined to prove how indispensible she could be to the family, but then the unthinkable happened. In the few seconds that Jane loses sight of Lily on the twisting trail through the derelick gardens, the child vanishes and is never found. For the past twenty years Jane has been weighed down by sadness and guilt, pondering again and again the incidents of that fateful day and what she could have done differently to prevent the tragedy,
If the location of Lily's disappearance is the pivitol site, Jane is the pivitol character. She works at Chester Museum and knows the personal papers of the Chesters who are friends of the Farringtons. She did her graduate research about treatment of the patients at the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and has recently discovered that a female inhabitant noted only as "N" disappeared in the same location as had Lily over 120 years later. The shock of losing her job and meeting Lily's father at a final museum function makes Jane determined to solve the mystery of "N"'s disappearence and, hopefully discover Lily's fate.
As Jane does her research in Yorkshire after abruptly taking off from London, the plot shifts back and forth from the 19th to the 21st centuries. Jane surmises and the reader gets to see what really happened. The residents of the asylum are fleshed out and their sad stories recounted. The rivalry between George Farrington and Norvill Farrington, his younger brother, a geologist interested in the fissures and caves of Yorkshire, is revealed. Jane sneaks into Farrington House and meets a young landscaper who is helping to reconstruct the historical gardens.
And then there are the ghostly presences who seem to hover around Jane and seem desperate to follow her research because they, too, are tied to the Yorkshire location.
And, after all this description, there is the problem I found with this novel. Too many characters and not enough actual plot. Or too much plot and not enough action. I can't decide. I loved the description of the museum and wanted to know more about the people who worked there, how it was run, where did the collections go. The Farringtons and Chesters had entwined lives, but I wasn't convinced about the relationships. The patients' lives were interesting, yet little was resolved. In fact, nothing was resolved except the disappearance of "N". I wanted closure to at least some of the characters in whom I have invested so much time. Instead, I felt like one of the ghosts haunting Jane, constantly peeking over her shoulder .
Beautifully written, but, for me, ultimately unfulfilling.
|Thursday, November 13th, 2014|
|The Oblate's Confession by William Peak
The Oblate's Confession, set in 7th century Northumbria, is the story of a child given to the monastery at Redestone by his father in grateful thanks for a victory in battle. Winwaed is a happy child in the enclosed community, dispite being separated from his family. In fact, he has no memory of his former life; his first memory is of Prior Dagan welcoming him and easing his fear by building a snowman in the cloister! The four little boys who are oblates know the best place to sit where the sun warms the stones in the church, the place by the wall where they can peek into the outside world, and when to cajole the kitchen for possibe treats. Considering the perils in the outside world, the children do not seem to have a bad existence.
For the outside world is indeed dangerous. The fate of the Northumbrian chuch is balanced on a knife-edge. The recent Council at Whitby rejected Celtic Christianity in favor of Roman Christianity, but not all noblemen and churchmen are pleased with the choice. Battles are fought and the future of the church is still in doubt. The pagans who live in the hills are waiting to see if the Christians will be sufficiently weakened by infighting to allow a return to the Old Religion. The plague periodically sweeps through communities, killing half the population.
But inside the walls, Winwaed is safe and one day he is given the opportunity to expand his life. Years earlier, one of the monks had been given permission to withdraw from the enclosed community and live as a hermit on the mountains. Once a week he is furnished with supplies and when the monk assigned for the task can no longer carry it out, Winwaed is the replacement. So begins the relationship which between the oblate and Gwynned which shapes the boy's life.On the mountain he is allowed to become a wondering child. Gtynned teaches him how to read the signs of nature, how to track animals and study the stars. He also teaches the child how to pray, to empty his mind so that he can become a conduit between the spiritual and the temporal world. As he grows toward adolescence, Winwaed is apprenticed to the "furnace" monk and learns the craft of iron-making. He even speaks to a pretty village girl and experiences a pang of innocent love.
The author narrates a well-rounded picture of monastic life in the 7th century before religious politics bring the walls of Redestone crashing down The innocent Winward is an appealing character and I enjoyed seeing this world through his eyes.
|Saturday, October 11th, 2014|
|Troy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy
Troy Chimneys is an odd and appealing historical novel with a quiet, studious hero who creates a dashing alter-ego as his public persona .Miles Lufton comes from a idyllic home. His father is an Angican priest and a noted classics scholar; his mother is adored by her children who are devastated when she dies, even though they are adults; the siblings support and genuinely like each other. The only flaw in this perfect picture is the fact that Miles is a second son and cannot depend on help from his family to make his way in the world. He is bright and clever, but because he is by nature a person who prefers solitude to society, he creates "Pronto" Lufton, a man who revels in parties, delights crowds with his fine singing, is not afraid to flatter an older woman for political advancement, and can hold his own in a debauche. Miles dislikes the people with whom Pronto curries favor; he considers most intellectually inferior and "gentlemen" only because they were born in the right house to parents with money.
Miles' brains get him scholarships to Wincester and Oxford, but Pronto's personality gets him invited to the best houses where he can set his foot on the political ladder. Miles' plan is to make enough money from Pronto's career to retire to Troy Chimneys, the country house in Wiltshire he purchased and is temporarily leasing to a schoolmaster who has tastefully turned it into a school for a select small number of boys.
Miles' life is revealed in a series of ways. It opens years after Miles' death.when a convalescent is doing some family research into a relative who was Miles' one true friend. He requests some documents and is surprised to discover the Lufton papers, basically an outline of Miles' life. The cache consists of letters between Miles and Ludovic Amersham (the original research subject), a brief biography Miles wrote of his early life and career, Miles' diary written in real time, and an unfinished memoir Miles is writing about his true love. Finally, the reader is brought back to the researcher who discovers the truth behind the rest of Miles' life.
The reader follows the life of the hero and can draw his own conclusions about Miles and Pronto. Which one is the better? Miles certainly is more scholarly but he is also an intellectual snob who is disgusted that brains mean less than social position in life. Pronto appears to be a rake, but he is the one who rushes to save a farmer from the naval press gangs and who takes his position in Parliament seriously. They are, in the end, one complicated person.
I really enjoyed this short novel. I have not read anything quite like it.
|Wednesday, July 30th, 2014|
Prisoner 5999 has escaped from an isolated labor re-education camp in Northern China. His real name is Li Husheng. In 1989 he was a graduate student in rocket engineering and he was arrested in Tiananmen Square for assaulting a soldier. He is also the Night Heron, but only his British handlers know he is a spy. They nicknamed him Peanut. Now 20 years later, Peanut has used all of his spycraft to evade capture and make his way back to Beijing. It is payback time. Peanut kept silent during his imprisonment; he did not betray his handlers or the other four spies in his network. All he wants now is to get out of China with a new identity to start a new life.
But China, and especially Beijing, has changed in 20 years. In 1990 the Internet was in its infancy, smart phones didn't exist, and there weren't surveillance cameras on every lamppost. Anyone could take his picture and put it on the internet in seconds. His only link to his past is a British newspaper office where his handlers had worked. They are long retired and running tea mornings in the Midlands. So he draws liberal journalist Philip Mangan into his escape plan with a sensational, and to Mangan, crazy scheme to prove his identity by passing on top secret Chinese reports about their rocket development program. Even though he has serious doubts about Peanut, Mangan contacts the British Embassy. In London, MI6 Agent Trish Patterson has to decide if Peanut is genuine or an elaborate Chinese plot to expose and humiliate their spy network.
As Patterson tries to persuade her superiors that Peanut is the real deal, Peanut is being watched by an old lady and her family. She is appalled at his antics. Doesn't he realize that ducking into buildings and doubling back on himself to evade a tail only draws attention? Those surveillance cameras are programmed to record behavioral patterns and anyone ducking and hiding, not walking in a straightforward manner, is flagged. But who is employing the old woman to watch Peanut? Why are Patterson's decisions being resisted in her own department? Who has tipped Chinese police to Mangan's visit to a camp of dissidents? Someone wants this mission to fail and it will take a combination of 20th century spycraft and 21st century technology to save Peanut, Mangan, and even Agent Patterson.
I enjoyed this fast-paced thiller with the somewhat good guys being pursued by an ambiguous enemy. Who really is pulling the strings on the global geopolitical stage?
|Night Heron by Adam Brookes
This is a Hatchett Early Review Copy. Thank you.
Prisoner 5999 has escaped from an isolated desert labor re-education camp in northern China. His real name is Li Huasheng and he was a graduate student in rocket science when he assaulted a soldier in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. After serving 20 years of his sentence, Prisoner 5999 uses the skills he had learned from his British handlers to evade recapture and make his way back home to Beijing. For he was a spy...Code Name Night Heron but nicknamed Peanut. It is payback time. Peanut had said not one word about his espionage activities; he had kept quiet about his British contacts; he had not betrayed his fellow collaborators. And now all he wants is safe passage out of China and papers to begin a new life.
But during his 20 years of isolation, China and especially Beijing has changed. Cameras are on every lamppost. Even the poorest citizen carries a cheap cell phone. The internet is no longer a curiosity. His spycraft is hopelessly out of date. His only link to his former life is a British newspaper office that had once employed his MI6 handlers. And so he draws liberal journalist Philip Mangan into his plans with a sensational, and in Mangan's opinion, crazy scheme to pass on top secret information about China's rocket development program. Is Peanut genuine or an elaborate trap set up by the Chinese government to "play" the western powers? MI6 Agent Trish Patterson, reading Mangan's statements in London, has to persuade her superiors that Peanut is the real thing, a former agent who needs their help and has important data to pass on.
In this fast-paced thriller, nothing is as it seems. Peanut is being watched, not by the usual suspects, but by a old woman who cringes at his evasive actions. Didn't he know that dodging into buildings, doubling back on himself, and taking indirect routes to his destinations only draws attention? Those street cameras are programmed to pick up unusual behavorial activity and anyone without straightforward movements is flagged as suspect. Who does this woman work for.?
Why are Patterson's decisions to rescue Peanut being undermined in her own department ? She knows her obvious enemies, but is there a greater danger? Something is not right, If Peanut, Mangan, and Patterson are going to survive, more rules will have to be broken and no one can be trusted.
I enjoyed the examination of 21st century technology vs. 20th century spycraft, the question of who is really pulling the strings in the global geopolitical community, and the old-fashioned pursuit of the somewhat good guys by their shadowy enemies.
|Saturday, July 26th, 2014|
|Midnight in Europe-Alan Furst
The thing I like about the Furst novels I have read is that they are exciting, but not sensational. His spies seem like real people who have real lives. In Midnight in Europe, expat Spaniard Christian Ferrer is a lawyer with a prominent Paris law firm. He has a regular caseload he has to manage. He is responsible for his parents, sister, and a formidable grandmother. Because he supports the Republican forces fighting Franco's fascist army in Spain he is drawn into the world of espionage and he has to juggle his real life and his shadow life.
The Republican army is fighting a rapidly losing war. The weapons needed come from a dozen different sources and the ammunition is running out. Bullets have to be sorted before each battle so that the right ammunition is given to the soldier carrying the right weapon. Ferrer is asked by a member of the Spanish Embassy in Paris to help facilitate a transfer of funds to a weapons manufacturer in Czechoslovakia for the needed armaments. He will be working with the mysterious de Lyon. As the two men overcome the difficulties to achieve the shipment of arms, they are helped by a diverse and fascinating group of people, some in it strictly for profit and others for their beliefs. There is a landlady in Berlin who gives them a vital bit of information, a group of Russian gangsters who supply a needed document, a man with mistress trouble who is blackmailed. Ferrer and de Lyon crisscross central Europe, bribing and threatening. They steal a train, have a harrowing sea voyage, and some really incredible meals in the process!
. Ferrer knows he is risking his life for a losing cause Furst's hero is a good man who does incredibly dangerous things because it is the right thing to do and I enjoyed accompanying him on his journey.
|Monday, July 14th, 2014|
|Night Flight to Dungavel by Peter Padfield
This is an Early Review book. Thank you.
I knew the bare bones account of the flight of Rudolf Hess to Scotland on May 10, 1941. After reading Padfield's book I feel as thought I have been exposed to every known fact, every possible speculation, every rumor, and every flight of fancy about that fateful journey. I don't feel any nearer to a personal conclusion about what occurred, despite reading the book. I do, however, feel as though I have received a glimpse of the tangle of events which led up to the flight.
How to tell the players? Padfield helpfully includes a 21 page cast of characters. This is necessary because there comes a point in the book, actually Chapter Seven:Clandestine Approaches, where there are so many men passing so many secret messages about a possible peace settlement between Germany and England that I became completely lost and realized I had no idea what I was reading. There were the genuine pacifists who thought any war was immoral: the anti-Churchill party who may or may not have offered a settlement when Churchill was ousted; the anti-Hitler party who offered a settlement when Hitler was deposed; the anti-Soviets who saw the USSR as a greater threat than the Nazis; the high-ups in society who believed....You get the idea. And did Hess fly on his own or did Hitler know? Depends on what source you believe. Was Hess's flight a trick of MI6 with Churchill's knowledge or not? Was there a peace proposal document that ended up scattered around a Scottish field? Did Hess reveal plans for the 'final solution"? Was Hitler really offering to leave occupied Western Europe to concentrate on an invasion of Russia if Britain would maintain a benign neutrality? Lots of questions but no concrete answers, only educated speculation.
The problem, Padfield admits, is that too many documents are still classified. Too many documents have disappeared. Too many lists (flight patterns, Hess's inventory of possessions, duty rosters) have become "detached" from reports. Too many eye-witness reports were rewritten for "clarification." Was this done to protect people in high places or carelessness of the part of records keepers.
And Padfield questions secondary evidence. The Duke of Kent, rather than the Duke of Hamilton, is placed a a particularly spot because the eyewitness remembers that the "Duke" in question had gold braid on his hat which the Duke of Hamilton was not entitled to wear, but the royal Duke was. People got important dates wrong because they were remembering back 30 years.
Then there is Hess himself. Was he nuts or or feigning madness for his own reasons? Was he sane or insane when he made his fight. Had he become disenchanted with Hitler? Was he really an Idealist?
The books presents more questions than answers and gives, for me at least, too many facts and speculations. Hopefully, Padfield will have the opportunity to write a revised edition if the papers he needs to conclude his case are ever released.
|Friday, May 23rd, 2014|
|Edwin High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert
This is the tale of Edwin King of Northumbria in the 7th century: his life, reign, and conversion to Roman Catholicism. Albert bases this wonderful novel on the life and death of Edwin as found in the second part of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And this is the best kind of historical fiction. The author fleshes out and humanizes the figures without turning them into larger-than-life heroes and villains. His people are grounded in their century and display few of the sensibilities of the 21st century. Marriages are alliances, not romances; oaths are not to be broken; pity can be a terrible weakness.
The story opens with Edwin in exile and about to be betrayed by his protector. The counsel of his wife who question the honour of a king who would turn Edwin over to his enemy causes King Raedwald to keep his pledge to Edwin. Together Edwin and Raedwald's army defeats the king of Northumbria and restores Edwin to his throne. Over the next seventeen years Edwin rules wisely and attempts to unite the various kingdoms on the island of Britain into one grand alliance with himself as high king. He does this through marriage to the 14 year old Aethelburh, the daughter of the king of Kent and a Christian and through winning wars against the weaker kings. Edwin foresees the later invasions of the Vikings, just as his ancestors invaded the island. Only a country united would be able to resist the Norsemen.
Along with the consolidation of his lands, Edwin begins to ponder the question of the new religion of Christianity with its head the Roman Pope and weigh it against the religion of his ancestors which is woven into the fabric of Anglo-Saxon life. It is not so much a disbelief in the old gods as an admiration for the new god. When his mentor Raedwald dies in a riding accident, Edwin knows that Raedwald will not be allowed into Valhalla; only men who die in battle can expect an afterlife. All others, including beloved wives, mothers, children, will becomes hopeless shades with fading memories. His queen's confessor Paulinus patienly answers questions about his religion and teaches by example as well as word. He has a powerful talisman, the words in his book and letters from the Pope. Edwin is in awe that people can hear the words of a man thousands of miles away. And surely, it is wonderful that laws would not have to be relearned every generation, that the laws could be captured on a manuscript for those with the training to readl. But Edwin does not make any decisions for his people. A great council is called to debate the virtues of the new god and the old gods. And then men are free to choose whom they would follow.
The best historical fiction does not hit the reader over the head with an over abundance of minute detail. Detail is seamless to the story. Not every item of clothing is described, only those necessary to the scene Battles are accurate, but not drawn out. Torture is accepted, not dwelt upon. The marriage bed and sleeping chamber are not described, but a difficult childbirth is because it is integral to the story. There will always be war because it is the only way to a positive afterlife. Death becomes the life-giver to the fallen.
I could not "relate" to any character, but I did not expect to. Albert has, however, given me an insight into their world. After finishing the novel I pulled down my copy of the Venerable Bede and read the second book. It was all there. Only the antagonism between Edwin and his archenemy Cadfan of Wales was imagined by the author as he explains in his afterward.
|Saturday, May 10th, 2014|
|Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold
Enid Bagnold was in her mid-twenties when she served as a VAD during World War One. Published in 1917 (and getting her fired), Diary Without Dates is her description of life in a hospital for severely wounded soldiers. The diary is loosely written, more like musings or meditations on what she observes. It is beautiful and bitter at the same time.
Bagnold was no dewy-eyed youngster like Vera Brittain when she became a VAD. She had lived an independent life, lost her virginity to Frank Harris, studied art with Sickertt. As an intelligent and clear-thinking woman she was critical of many things she saw in the hospital. "Were the VAd's there to help the patients or to help the Sisters?" is one of the problems she constantly picks at.
Her hospital is not near the front lines. It is located in a suburb of London and most of her patients are long-time sufferers. They will either die or be moved to convalescent homes; they will not recover. Again and again she see how the rigid routine of the hospital makes the existence of the soldiers even more stressful. A young soldier cannot be given a morphine shot because he is scheduled for 8PM and it is too early, even though his gangrene-ridden arm is driving him mad. "He must grin and bear it," the duty Sister says as she drinks her tea and eats a cake.
The beds in the ward are strictly arranged so that the patients cannot see the nurse's station (lest they keep trying to catch the eye of the staff). This means that some patients are constantly looking at a brick wall when a slight shift could place a window in their view.
And then there is the discrepancy in treatment between the Officer's Ward and the Boys Ward (the Tommies or enlisted men). Flowers decorate the officer's room. Bagnold absolutely hates the 17 fern plants in their brass and china pots and suspended from the ceiling near the door. They had to be carted out every morning to be watered and, she deduces, the plants were placed there so that the wealthy woman who volunteered to visit the men would have a suitable background for their tea tables. And so it goes....
Bagnold holds onto her humanity by identifying with the pain the men are suffering. She won't be falsely cheerful and lets the men speak of their suffering rather than tell them that it will soon be better. It won't. She escapes into nature and marvels at the beauty of the moon and patterns of shadow on her night walks back to her room. Even the cabbage patch because beautiful with the white butterflies fluttering above the leaves.
This is a very short book worth reading for yet another view of the disaster that was World War One.
|Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014|
|The Devil's Workshop by Alex Grecian
The third entry in the Scotland Yard Murder Squad series begins with an incredibly bungled prison break-out. Four murderers do manage to escape with the help of a mysterious fifth person who has just been incarcerated. The entire Murder Squad is called in because the escapees are among the most despicable criminals in Victorian crime annals. They include a murderer who ate his victims, a young man who wiped out families and tended to their corpses as though they were still alive, the Napper who so loved his cousin that he murdered her fiance, blinded his cousin, and attempted to impersonate her dead love, and the child murderer Cinderhouse. The gang from the previous books are all here. Detective Walter Day is waiting for his wife to give birth (indeed, she is in labor for most of the book.} Sgt Hammersmith with his penchant for bodily harm, Dr Kingsley and Fiona, Sir Edward and newer members of the Squad are joined by Day's mentor, retired Detective Inspector Marsh.
But this book differs from the two previous books in that there is no mystery to solve. All the action is the chase to round up the criminals. As Hammersmith traces down the fugitives he discovers what the reader has known from chapter one. There is a shadow organization that instigated the breakout for it's own purpose. The murderers, in the eyes of the secret brotherhood, have not been punished sufficiently unto their crimes. An eye for an eye justice is called for. One criminal is already in their secret prison......Jack the Ripper.
It is an intriguing idea and Grecian is graphic in his detailing of the crimes and the punishments that fit the crimes. And that is my problem with this novel. The violence and gore are way over the top for my taste. I found myself doing something I never do......skimming pages to avoid scene after scene of torture. When I came to the nonending I felt a sense of closure with this series. Why put myself through this again because, obviously, with so many loose threads, there will be a sequel that, mostly likely, will open the week after this novel ends.
I can't give this a rating. It wouldn't be fair. It is a five star idea and deservedly so for readers who want the crimes descrbed in minute detail. Jack the Ripper is totally believable and true crime readers will recognize the reality of the other criminals. That is the intended audience.
|Wednesday, April 16th, 2014|
|The Amateur by Robert Littell
The Amateur is a 1980 cold war spy novel that starts out with a very interesting premise. An innocent American tourist is murdered by a terrorist and the entire incident is captured on Munich television. Ironically, her fiance works for the CIA, but he is an early computer nerd who works as a cryptographer and has no experience in field work or tradecraft. As he becomes more and more depressed he realizes that the only thing that will alleviate his suicidal spiral is the death of the three terrorists and by his hand. Although the CIA is reluctant to send an untrained agent into the field, he manages to "persuade" them. This first part of the novel is really quite good. It was interesting to read about the primitive precautions (take the ribbon out of the printer and put it in the safe!) and the visual analysis of crates, bundles and containers.
However, once Charles Heller goes undercover the novel abandons any hope of realism and descends into a comic book adventure. Heller has the most incredible luck from the moment he steps across the border into Czechoslovakia. There are convenient wardrobe swaps, a handy tour bus, a pet shop owner who speaks English, a silly Shakespeare authorship seminar in Prague (!!!),a convenient elevator operator, not to forget some really fabulous deaths. Yet buried in this mishmash are a few gems like the character of Uncles Ludovic. He is, unfortunately, one of the few genuine characters in a list of fat men, unnecessary English tourists, uninteresting villains, and a heroine who is a direct descendant of Mrs. Malaprop. The first five or six times she get the cliche wrong is amusing; the next twenty times is tedious.
I actually enjoyed the novel, even with the improbable second half. I checked my brain at the door of the bus and hopped on for the ride.
|Thursday, April 10th, 2014|
|The first of July by Elizabeth Speller
The First of July is a novel about four men whose lives touch very briefly until July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme when their survival depends on each other's actions. They come from disparate backgrounds. Jean-Baptiate is a young Frenchman just out of school who lives with his mother in a tiny village on the River Somme. He knows the river the way most men know the streets where they live; the marshes, the currents, the birds and trees. When he leaves his beloved home it is not so much to seek his fortune as it is that he feels betrayed by those he loves. Frank is a savvy young man from Devon, the son of a coffin-maker. He is mad about cycling and dreams of becoming a professional racer. He is a conscientious worker who weights each opportunity carefully to see how it can help him reach his specified goals. Benedict is a classical music scholar who is talented enough to aspire to be organ master at a great cathedral. He is not, however, as gifted as his best chum Theo, who is a musical genius. Finally, older than these men by nearly a decade, there is Harry who is of a privileged background and has spent the last ten years in American making a fortune in textiles.
Speller spends more than half the book on the backgrounds of these men so that the reader understands them and cares what happens to them. She is more successful with the back stories of Jean-Baptiste and Frank, the lower class lads. Benedict is duped by his friend Theo so often and keeps returning to be further humiliated that I became frustrated with his hero-worship. And Harry seemed to have wandered in from a gothic romance with his back story of mistresses, unnecessary aliases, passionate loves, and murky family relationships. I got bored with him very quickly because he did such inexplicably stupid things to complicate his life when it was not necessary at all.
When the war begins, none of the characters rushes to join the service, yet their reasons for eventually doing so are so true to their natures. Pragmatic Frank sees conscription coming and when the opportunity arises to join the cyclist messenger corps, he grabs the opportunity. Benedict joins because Theo is joining, and is let down once again by his friend. Jean-Baptist is swept up in the defence of his homeland and Harry, stiff upper lip all the way, becomes an officer in his county regiment.
The strongest part of the book, the latter half, is a graphic depiction of the tragedy of this war and how four men are swept into the bloodiest day in British military history through the senseless decisions of men who are nowhere near the front lines. Nothing they can do, short of mutiny, can stop the inevitable slaughter. They will become heroes despite themselves. The final question is "For what?"
|Wednesday, March 26th, 2014|
|The Quick by Lauren Owen
There are two classes of vampires who live in 1892 London. The elite class of aristocrats, politicians, millionaires and intellectuals who are members of the Aegolius Club and maintain "high" standards. They feed only on criminals and those who endanger the "quick" (anyone not a vampire) and they never kill without permission unless something goes radically wrong. Or so they claim. The other class live in Shoreditch and are headed by a Fagin-like character who gathers child vampires to her and keeps some semblance of order in her territory. These vampires have no qualms about killing and are careful only to not attract attention. Most Londoners are unaware of their undead fellow citizens.
Lauren Owen is writing a book more closer to Bram Stoker than to Stephanie Meyer. Her vampires are not sexy or particularly souful. They are dangerous and not to be trifled with. She even creates a character "Doctor Knife" who is hired by the Aegolius Club to examine and debunk the popular myths about vampires: a wooden stake is really harmless, but silver can render a vampire powerless; vampires can be out in the sun but their sensitive vision makes them almost blind; vampires can read the minds of the quick; vampire cannot turn into wolves, fog or bats. And, most important, no one can become undead without his specific permission and going though a ceremony called "The Exchange."
Or so it has always been believed. James Norburg is attacked by a member of the Aegolius Club, one of the younger and more freckless members. He is killed and, becomes a vampire with his consent, an unheard of occurrence. When the Aegolius Club holds him prisoner so that Dr Knife can try to discover why this happened, his sister leaves Yorkshire to begin a hunt for her missing brother. Charlotte Norburg is determined to rescue and cure James when she discovers his fate and this brings her in dangerous contact with the undead of the Club and the "undid" of Shoreditch.
I enjoyed the novel as an interesting addition to vampire fiction which restores the literary vampire to his status as a dangerous, creature no sane person would want to be.
|Thursday, March 13th, 2014|
|What Not by Rose Macaulay
What Not, a Prophetic Comedy
is sort of a cross between Wodehouse and Huxley. After the Great War, a solution was proposed to avoid any future conflicts. Since war is the ultimate example of human stupidity, make the population smarter and, therefore it follows that reason will trump militarism. A new department is established in the UK, the Ministry of Brains, which runs the programs to insure a bright and informed populace. "Smart brain" classes are offered which really seem to increase the participants ability to think through problems. Marriage laws are passed which encourage bright people to marry just below their intellectual level...their offspring will be very intelligent. Marriage between a bright person and an inferior person is discouraged and individuals who are severely deficient or who have "idiots and imbecils in their families" are not issued marriage licenses at all.
The tone is much less serious than Brave New World. (I wonder if Huxley had read this little book.) There are really laugh-out-loud moments. An official speaker for the Ministry holds up two babies, one the product of bright parents and the other of parents with inferior brains. She praises the bright baby and criticizes the poor dumb baby. Problem is she got them mixed up to the delight of her audiernce. Then there are testimonials to the value of the classes. "Testimonial from a Cabinet Minister. 'Owing to the Mind training Course I have now remained in office for over six weeks. I hope to remain for at least three more' ."
Of course, nothing goes as planned. The Minister of Brains himself is not allowed to marry because he has an idiot twin sister. He breaks his own rules when he elopes with a fellow employee. After only a few months people rebel against being told whom to marry. Ordinary folks who were happy in their ignorance begin to think about problems they cannot control and are thrown into despair. Parents are taxed for having inferior children and begin to abandon them at government doorsteps. The number of exemptions to the rules keeps growing. Country women ignore the laws because they have too much work to do raising a family and running a farm to be smart. And so the great experiment to make the citizens of the United Kingdom smarter and keep the country at peace begins to falter.
The book was supposed to be released earlier in 1918 but was held back until after the Armistice because it may have been deemed seditious by DORA (Defense of the Realm Act).