Sunday, July 22, 2012

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon has "retired" to Cornwall to spend leisurely days with his wife Chiara. He awaits his next restoration project and is delighted to learn that Julian Isherwood has an undiscovered Titian needing work. Gabriel and Chiara travel to London to negotiate the work but a terrorist gets in the way. Terrorists have launched attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. The eagle eyes of Allon spot a human bomb in crowded Covent Garden. He has mentally calculated the timing of the next explosion and his instincts are triggered as he steps in to try to stop the detonation. And so the 2011 installment of the Allon series begins.

Silva, once again, brings the art restorer/ Israeli operative out of retirement. To say that this is a coincidental is a given, but Silva gets a pass to set up one of the most intricate books in the series. Gabriel cannot say no to the coalition of terrorist fighters being assembled by the the United States and joins them in Washington. All the players whom we have come to know are there: Eli Lavon, street surveillance expert; Uzi Navot, Israel's chief of secret intelligence; Ari Shamron, esteemed head of Massad and Adrian Carter, director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service. A most ingenious plan is formulated that involves recruiting Nadia al-Bakari, daughter of Zizi al-Bakari who financed mass murder and was killed by Allon in The Secret Servant.  Could the team enlist her aid to bring down the group who has threatened to continue the work of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. (n.b During the writing of this book the death of Bin Laden happened. Silva incorporates it into the plot without skipping a beat.)

The action moves from London to New York, Washington, Paris, the opulent city of Dubai, and the Saudi desert. Setting is a real strength of any Silva book. He has done his research and through his descriptions he plops the reader down into those settings. Portrait of a Spy is no exception. Anyone who has been to London feels right at home walking with Gabriel and Chiara through Covent Garden even if it is on the heels of a human bomb.

Portrait of a Spy is thrilling and a page turner. Silva is a master of that. There is no way the reader can erase the final scenes from the mind's gallery. But Silva is also a political and social commentator. He does not easy hide in this book his disdain for the Saudi treatment of women nor the country's leadership in it's part in the terrorists' world. His mastery of the subject matter almost make for prophetic reading and a real wake-up call to those who have been lulled into complacency.  His books are not to be missed and I dread the day that Gabriel Allon goes into retirement for real.

Monday, July 2, 2012

On the Island by Tracy Garvis-Graves

I can't remember the last time that I read a 300+ page book in 3 days. That is what happened with On the Island. I am not sure if it is because I was reading it on my iPad (at the time it's only available in ebook format), or because I just got new glasses or if it was because it was such a simplistic novel and required no intellectual commitment on the part of the reader. There has been a lot of buzz about this book and it has shot to the top of ebook best seller lists. readers have lavished praise and so I was excited to read it when our book club chose it for our July selection.

Anna Emerson, a high school English teacher, and J.T. Callahan, a student who needs to spend the summer catching up on his studies because he lost classroom time due to chemotherapy for leukemia, are off to the Maldives where his parents intend to spend summer vacation. After a series of delays and airline complications, they finally board a private charter flight. Mid-flight the pilot suffers a heart attack and the plane ditches into the ocean.  Both J.T. and Anna survive and find themselves in survival mode on a deserted island. By chance they are helped when their shoes, a life raft, and her suitcase wash up on the shore. For the next two hundred or so pages the reader follows their ups and downs as they count the years and holidays during the three years they live there. They are careful to maintain the teacher/student relationship until J.T. turns 18 and they succumb to the tensions that have been building between them. They live through shark attacks, jellyfish stings, bat attacks, and dengue hemorrhagic fever.

The conclusion of the book takes place following the 2004 tsunami and to relate it would be a definite spoiler.  I honestly do not know what the hype is about with this novel. I imagine it meets the need for a fluff beach book for some. For me, I was very uncomfortable reading about a student-teacher relationship that was about more than studying. I cannot fathom how a teacher falls for a much younger student, no matter what the circumstances might be. The novel is told in alternate chapters by J.T. and Anna. If I had not paid attention to the chapter, I would not have been able to discern who was actually relating the events. There really wasn't much difference in the voice or POV. The writing is a bit sophomoric, but the book fills the bill if you are looking for a nice, summer, light read.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Book of Lies by Brad Meltzer

One could not explain the premise of this book better than the jacket flap:
In chapter four of the Bible, Cain kills Abel. It is the world’s most famous murder. But the Bible is silent about one key detail: the weapon Cain used to kill his brother. That weapon is still lost to history.
In 1932 Mitchell Siegel was killed by two gunshots to the chest. While mourning, his son dreamed of a bulletproof man and created the world’s greatest hero: Superman. And like Cain’s murder weapon, the gun used in this unsolved murder has never been found.
Today in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Cal Harper comes face-to-face with his own family tragedy: His long-missing father has been shot with a gun that traces back to Mitchell Siegel’s 1932 murder. But soon after their surprising reunion, Cal and his father are attacked by a ruthless killer tattooed with the ancient marketings of Cain.
So begins the chase for the world’s first murder weapon. It is a race that will pull Cal back into his own past even as it propels him forward through the true story of Cain and Abel, an eighty-year-old unsolvable puzzle, and the deadly organization known for the past century as the Leadership.
What does Cain, history’s greatest villain, have to do with Superman, the world’s greatest hero? And what to two murders, committed thousands of years apart, have in common?
What an intriguing premise from Brad Meltzer who seems to have his hand in so many different enterprises. His TV show, Decoded, was what has piqued my interest in his books. He may become one of those authors whose books I will not want to miss. But The Book of Lies is the first that I have read and it won't be the last. The book is fast-paced and what you would deem a venerable page turner. Meltzer's cast of characters are a bit eccentric and odd to say the least. The mystery that he weaves from the Bible to the comic books seems far-fetched, but in the end quite plausible. As the reader thinks that s/he has put the puzzle pieces together, the action takes an unforeseen turn. 

In addition, The Book of Lies prompts the reader to dig back in history to the Nazis, the Thules, and Himmler's Ahnenerbe. When a book does this to me, I become distracted and want to research. I guess that's the bane of being a librarian. In some ways the novel is reminiscent of Dan Brown's books, especially The DaVinci Code. There is an equal mix of fiction and historical facts, even to the meeting of the real inspiration for Lois Lane. The reader is very much on a roller coaster ride as the action is fast paced and surprising. From Florida to Cleveland to California, it is a ride you won't want to miss.

Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant is a masterful storyteller. She knows how to immediately hook the reader and then play with the mind. Her Birth of Venus was spellbinding with its description of Renaissance Italy. In Mapping the Edge she returns to Florence to set part of the novel.

Anna Franklin is a freelance journalist based in London who packs her bags and journeys to Italy. When she doesn't return as scheduled her family becomes alarmed. She leaves behind her daughter Lily and housemate Paul along with Paul's boyfriend, Michael. As the novel begins Estella, Anna's confidante and best friend is alerted to Anna's disappearance. Estella immediately travels to London from Amsterdam to be a support to Lily and Paul as well as to garner any clues as to Anna's whereabouts.

While Estella narrates most of the novel, the reader enters into another narrative of parallel stories. There are two possible explanations for Anna's departure: she has been kidnapped or she has run away to meet a lover. Told with heightening suspense, each narrative moves toward a thrilling end as the reader ponders which story is, in fact, the true one. At the same time, Estella's narrative grounds us in how either prospect weighs on those who have been left in London. 

Dunant is superb in her command of setting and character. She allows us to develop such a mind picture because of her descriptions that there is no doubt as to where are characters are and what constitutes their surroundings. While in Florence a few years a go, we stayed a hotel on the Via Guelfa. Anna walks that street and Dunant's description brought me back to the same place that I had stayed. Likewise, she has created her cast with pasts that weigh in on present actions and allows them to react to situations as the individuals that they are. 

Definitely a page turning read from a novelist that you don't want to miss.