Saturday, December 27, 2014

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Although I have always enjoyed Jodi Picoult books, I never feel compelled to buy them as soon as they are published. As a high school librarian, I bought most of the books because my students enjoyed them and I would read them when they were on the shelf and not being held for a patron. When it was announced that she would be speaking for the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture series, I decided to buy her new book. I usually like to read books before I hear the lecture, but didn't have time since her book debuted only a few days before the lecture.

Elephants for one reason or another are fascinating animals. In Leaving Time, the reader will learn a massive amount of information about them, their habitat in Africa, and the process by which they come into this world and what happens to their herd when they die. Picoult has researched meticulously for this book and presents it in a scholarly, but approachable way. 

The novel is narrated by the four main characters and switches location between a New England elephant sanctuary and the savannas of Africa. Jenna Metcalf is the 13 year old daughter who has been left virtually an orphan as a result of her mother, Alice's disappearance. Alice was an elephant researcher in Africa before she became pregnant with Jenna and returned to the United States. As the novel opens, Jenna is searching and determined to find her mother. There had been an accident at the sanctuary during which a handler had been killed and her mother had been seriously hurt. Mysteriously, Alice disappears from the hospital and is never heard from again. All of this was too painful for Jenna's father and he is now in a mental institution with no recollection about all that happened that night nearly 10 years before where the novel picks up. And so Jenna enlists the aid of a down and out psychic, Serenity Jones, and a washed-up, alcoholic cop, Virgil Stanhope. Stanhope was one of the original investigators of the accident and feels compelled to help the teenager because of the lack of a thorough investigation when it happened. 

Jodi Picoult autographing Leaving Time
The story becomes much more of a mystifying journey to find out exactly what has happened to Alice. The narrators relate their views and hypotheses and clues the reader in on what might have happened that night.  The characters are well-developed and unique. Jenna has spunk and is a great protagonist. Virgil and Serenity both have a past that has sorely affected the struggles with which they deal on a day to day basis and that color their lives.  The book moves quite quickly and takes some turns that enable the reader to formulate a solution. And just when that happens, you are hit square in the face with what has to be the most unforeseen, dramatic, and shocking twist in literature. 

Once you start this book, it holds you mesmerized until the end. Great read and a great lecture by Jodi Picoult.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

My first experience with Gabrielle Zevin's books was as a school librarian when her book Elsewhere hit our library shelves. It was an immediate hit and created a group of Zevin fans. When I discovered that she had written an adult book, I was anxious to read it. I was not disappointed. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is charming, enticing, suspenseful, and a delightful read. Our Gables Book Club always tries to read a shorter book for the December meeting. This was our selection.

Set on fictional Alice Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, the novel opens as the reader meets the protagonist who is a curmudgeonly book store owner.  His demeanor as he meets an new publisher's rep. Amelia Loman,  is dreadful; but then we learn the back story of his young wife being killed and the resulting loneliness and reliance on the bottle to get through most days. Adding to this malaise are the pesky seizures that he has during which he can black out for seconds or hours. He has a prized possession in an very valuable edition of Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe that he reads to soothe his sorrow. To his horror, the book is stolen from under his eyes and his life changes. He has lost his source of retirement income, but larger than that his family circumstances change. Mysteriously, a baby is left inside the bookstore. He is taken with Maya and she transforms his life, giving it purpose once again. 

As two mysteries unfold, the whereabouts of the lost Tamerlane, and who is the child, the readers meets others on the island. Officer Lambiase conducts the investigation and eventually forms his own book club that centers on police and detective books. Ismay is A.J.'s sister and is married to Daniel Parish, a bit of a rogue and philanderer. And then there is Marian Wallace, whom we eventually learn is Maya's mother. She walked into the ocean and drowned, an apparent suicide. 

The book is a tribute to reading, bookstores, and the human soul that both touch. Each chapter begins with an excerpt  of a short story or novel that is annotated with Fikry's thoughts. As Maya grows up from the precocious toddler in the beginning to her teenage years, so does A.J. grow to love and accept the changes that he feels in his life toward people and his beloved books. The book begs to be read by those of us who so love to be surrounded by writing and our books. Borrowing a quote from C.S. Lewis and expanding on it on page 249, A.J. comments: "We read to know we're not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone."  That pretty well sums it up. A wonderful book to contemplate and enjoy.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Winter of the World by Ken Follett

The second part of Follett's Century Trilogy, Winter of the World, continues the saga begun in Fall of Giants. It didn't take nearly as long to read this book as the last. The novel begins in 1933 as Germany is struggling with the rise to power of Hitler, fascism, and economical distress. England is dealing with much the same issues and the United States is trying hard to avoid another international conflict.

It would be impossible to summarize this book of over 950 pages. Follett again centers his novel on the families of Fall of Giants with the children of the significant characters becoming the protagonists. They are there at the center of the action, but also give voice to the philosophic ideas of the time leading up to World War II and when they are living out parts of that tortuous time in the history of the world. Paramount among those are Daisy Peshkov who marries into British political royalty, but who loves another, Woody and Chuck Dewer, sons of a powerful American senator, Carla Von Ulrich, a young German girl who dares to challenge Hitler's policies, and Russian spy Volodya Peshkov. It is around their stories and the historical events that the novel turns. 

Although the book continues through to the end of the war, there are a few seminal scenes that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.  One will never forget when the Carla finds evidence of Hitler's killing of the infirm and mentally challenged children. It is painful to read and the reader is as outraged as she is. Would any of us have had the courage to do what she did. The bombing of Pearl Harbor is described in such detail that you can hear and feel the bombs falling and see the planes above. It is tragic for not only for our nation, but also for those characters who were in close proximity. And then there is the crushing London blitz, the plan to invade France and the landing on Normandy Beaches. The Battle of Midway is portrayed as a real turning point in the war and where the code breakers managed to outwit the Japanese. We can detest Stalin as much today as many of his contemporaries did. Follett's roots as an espionage and writer of spy fiction shine through as he focuses on Russians gathering intelligence on the development and production of nuclear bomb.

The book is a compelling read and this reader is anxious to have a block of time to be able to read the next installment in the trilogy, The Edge of Eternity.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Once a year The Gables Book Club reads a piece of classic literature. For this year's offing, Brideshead Revisited was chosen. Originally published in 1945, it has also been the subject of at least two film/tv iterations. I enjoy revisiting the classic literature that I may have missed or that I read as an adolescent and did not appreciate. Evelyn Waugh's novel of the adult life of Charles Ryder as he struggles to find himself and his place in the world. From a beginning prologue to the body of the book and then the epilogue, the reader wrestles with Ryder and Waugh for truths to be told.

The reader first meets Ryder as he is pulling up one camp during WWII and traveling to another outpost in England. Upon arrival, he knows the estate and the sight of Brideshead catapults him into a memoir of his time spent their as a youth. Charles was raised by his father in London after his mother died. His father seems indifferent and almost eccentric, spending very little time with Charles. Charles goes off to Oxford University where he meets Sebastian Flyte, the son of the Lord Marchmain who owns the palatial estate. They become best of friends and more importantly, drinking buddies. During the summer term, Charles spends time at Brideshead and meets the other members of the family: Lord Bridey, Julia, and Cordelia, the siblings of Sebastian and his mother Lady Marchmain.

The story that ensues details his relationships, his beliefs, and his life's journey from Oxford to his revisiting Brideshead in 1944. As with many classic pieces of literature the themes on which the author focuses are well delineated and presented. Brideshead Revisited has no dearth of such themes. With Evelyn Waugh, the reader must remember his roots as a satirist as the exploration of those themes ensues. Noteworthy are his treatments of alcoholism and the acceptance of it by the aristocracy in Post WWI England and a heavy handed examination of the Roman Catholic dogma and church. Each member of the Flyte family exhibits a different commitment to his or her faith and as such embodies Waughs struggle with his own beliefs.

Another characteristic that stands out in classic literature is the richeness of the language. I don't know if we as readers in 2012 are less intelligent or lazier than those in 1945, but to read a novel that is so infused with beautiful language is so refreshing. Page after page the reader is treated to a feast of words that flow with richness that is a characteristic of the past. 

Brideshead Revisited is worthy of a read or a re-read. It's provocative, probing, and profound.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

It never ceases to amaze me how really little I know about US history despite having had a remarkable course in high school and reading throughout my adult years. The Good Lord Bird is an almost comedic look at a snapshot of the life of John Brown, abolitionist. It is also amazing that I went to college in a town that play a prominent role in his life and the staging of his raid on Harper's Ferry and I never really understood the importance of Chambersburg. I can't tell you how many times I walked past the historical marker there. If only as youth we would have paid attention to our surroundings. 

McBride's novel opens in Kansas where John Brown becomes involved in a skirmish near Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas in 1857. He kidnaps the narrator of the novel, a black youth, Henry, whom Brown mistakes for a girl and thus becomes Henrietta. Brown nicknames him as Onion and the two are off on what is sometimes a rollicking adventure. With some of his sons, Brown's  gang travels east as he develops his plan for eliminating slavery in the country. Along the way they find an ivory-billed woodpecker that is known as the "Good Lord Bird." One of its feathers is sure to bring you a peace that will last your entire life. 

The reader sees Brown as a deeply religious man who firmly believes that with the African-American help, there may be a chance to eradicate slavery in this country. Brown is also comedic and with some of his observations will have the reader chuckle or laugh right out loud. One of the most humorous scenes is when Onion begins to have a bit of pining for a woman when s/he is staying at a whore house. Brown wants to make sure that s/he is still pure and has not "commingled" without benefit of marriage.

There are other noteworthy figures who play a prominent roll in The Good Lord Bird. Frederick Douglass is introduced in Rochester, NY when Brown goes to live with him for a couple of months. McBride does not treat Douglass reverently, but rather portrays him as an alcoholic and womanizer. These character flaws were hinted at in Transatlantic, but not nearly as blatant as in McBride's book. Onion meets Harriet Tubman, who would love to have been more involved in Brown's plot, except for being so ill. In a poignant scene she gives Onion her scarf.

For me the most interesting parts of the book came as the actual raid on Harper's Ferry was being staged. The accumulation of weapons and the working of the details were fascinating and now spur me a trip to the actual place. Although John Brown, his men, and his cause have had treatment in many fiction and nonfiction books, this one was a most memorable one for me. It had history, wonderful writing, and a human interest side. Onion is definitely a character for the ages. 

It was also a privilege to hear James McBride speak on his book, its writing and his view of our world today.

 "John Brown Historical Marker,", <> accessed 11 November 2014.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

One of the most rewarding outcomes of belonging to a book group is the impetus to read outside your comfort zone. One of the members of the Gables Book Club is a hospice nurse and so suggested and led the discussion of Me Before You.  It is probably not a book I would have read without this stimulus.

The book has but a few characters, but their voices are strong and developed. Louisa Clark has been working at a café in the shadow of a castle in a tourist village in England. As a primary breadwinner for her familial unit, the puts an undue amount of pressure on her to find another position quickly. Louisa lives with her parents, her grandfather, and her sister who is a single mother.

Will Traynor has it all - a wonderful job, a gorgeous girlfriend, and penchant for adventure travel. He has climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro, hiked Yosemite, and explored exotic locations like China and Kenya. Then his world changes one morning when he is struck by a motorcycle on his way to work. He is a quadriplegic who has endured mental depression, physical therapy, and a life confined to a wheelchair watching movies. His mother, Camille, looks to hire a companion for him to help ease the depression and perhaps convince him that self-determined death is not the answer. Will's father has basically given up and retreats to a mistress. Nathan is the medical aide, who helps with the daily routine and manages his medicinal life. 

Lou(isa) is hired to become that companion for a six month tour of duty. Will maintains a tough exterior, but soon succumbs to the wit, humor, and care of Lou. She plans excursions and even a major travel adventure for him. Unfortunately, he gets ill and cannot go, but that won't stop her planning. As she pours so much energy into cultivating a good life for Will, Lou begins to distance herself from her inattentive boyfriend. Her life really is a series of unfortunate consequences. And then she overhears a conversation that Will is determined to go to Dignitas to end his life. As she attempts to deal with this, the reader shares in her struggles and ponders the dilemmas that she feels.

The theme of this book that touches so many lives. Is it right to end a life that will never be fulfilling to the person living it? It was well written and thought provoking and as would be expected, fueled a lively discussion. Moyes writes with a pen skilled in the journalistic way. She presents facts, but gives them a face and voice. It was a very good read and one that will come back with resonance as the reader revisits the problems exposed in this novel. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki

In her debut novel, Allison Pataki (daughter of former NY Governor George Pataki) chooses the intriguing story of Benedict Arnold and his second wife, Peggy Shippen, The Traitor's Wife. History is so interesting when written within the confines of a novel. It is a shame that when it is taught students don't get that personal and exciting view.

Clara Bell, (Oh, that Pataki had chosen a different name for her narrator) comes to live in the Shippen household as a maid for the daughters of Judge Shippen of Philadelphia and his wife. Clara is to help both Peggy Shippen and her sister, Betsy, However, Peggy is the bold sister and does not relinquish Clara for any duties other than to wait on her. Peggy Shippen is a flirty, attractive member of Philadelphia society even at the age of 16 and it is all that Clara can do to keep up with her since she has also been charged as Peggy's chaperone. Peggy has her eyes set on a British soldier, John André. The two have amorous feelings toward each other that are kept in check by Clara's watchful eyes. Judge Shippen does not approve and thwarts the budding romance by forbidding Peggy to attend the Meschianza Ball that André had planned. Shortly after, the Redcoat left the city and a grieving Miss. Shippen.

Enter Benedict Arnold, a military hero of the Battle of Saratoga and northern outposts. He moves into the elegant Penn Mansion and Peggy sets her eyes on him. They eventually marry and after a series of tribunals for selling Black Market goods move to Fort West Point. Arnold has been wounded and not received pay for his service, a circumstance that does not sit well with his young, aristocratic wife. As events unfold, she convinces him to begin to trade secrets with the British via her former paramour, John André (aka John Anderson). The rest, they say, is history.

Pataki builds The Traitor's Wife through the eyes of very observant fictional servants in the Shippen and Arnold households. Clara, Mr. & Mrs. Quigley, and Hannah, and Caleb understand their masters and mistresses and do a fine job of painting their characters. The historical part has been well researched and a list of works consulted included. Of particular interest was in the epilogue where Pataki goes on to detail what became of the Arnolds and Shippens. It is a part of history that doesn't get covered in the text books. 

The novel is an easy and interesting read. It is very reminiscent of Finishing Becca by Ann Rinaldi, which I had read close to 20 years ago. In this novel, Becca is sent to be Peggy Shippen's maid and also performs the role of narrator. I wonder if Allison Pataki read this, too.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes

There are some books that intrigue, resonate,  and stay with you beyond a few years. Such is the mystery novel, Dinner at Antoine's.  In my youth, my parents belonged to the Book of the Month Club and/or The Literary Guild. The books that were bought were given a home on bookshelves that were in my bedroom. As a voracious reader, I would "borrow" them from the shelves and read adult books at an early age. I am not certain when I read Dinner, but it must have been in my early very early double digit years. From that point, I knew that at some time I had to go to New Orleans and eat at Antoine's, the restaurant that has been serving customers since 1840. In August, that opportunity afforded itself. And before I went, I needed to revisit the book.

Antoine's provides the backdrop for the novel as it is there that Orson Foxworth hosts a party to introduce his niece, Ruth, to his friends. Keyes begins to set the stage for the novel introducing a host of characters at the dinner party and the hours after: Odilie St. Amant; her husband Léonce; her sister Caresse who is about to begin an affair with Léonce; her mother, Amélie; Sabin Duplessis. an old friend of Odilie with whom she was once in love and who was presumed lost in World War II; Dr. Perrault, who has been the family doctor and who delivers the news to Odilie that she is suffering from a terminal nervous disorder that sounds very much like Parkinson's disease; and the maid who has taken care of Odilie since she was an infant. At the height of the dinner, Odilie spills wine on a beautiful satin dress. She refuses to admit to having a shaking hand and does not leave the party until they all leave to go dancing. In less than 30 hours she will be found dead in her bedroom with a gun, given to her by Sabin, by her side. Was it murder or suicide? Police detective "Toes" Murphy asserts that he knows what happened, but does not divulge his theory until all the characters have had a chance to either prove or disprove alibis and motives. The solution will more than likely surprise all readers.

The novel is more than a murder mystery. It is a commentary on the mores of the time, the standing of women in Southern society, and the ways of life of the upper crust society. There is conveyed a sense of entitlement, but also of elegance. The description of Metairie Cemetery revealed what it was like to have a final resting place on "millionaire's row." Although Dinner at Antoine's is not considered one of Keyes' finest novels, it was of the ilk of an Agatha Christie murder tome - a large cast of characters and a detective who was smarter than any of the suspects. A satisfying read, even on the second go-round.

Antoine's was the elegant place to dine whether seated in the main dining room
or one of the private ones.
We had Sunday brunch there and despite the dress guidelines of no shorts, jacket preferred, diners were seated with shorts. It seems that in the aftermath of Katrina, restaurants are happy to have any customers. The ambiance was undermined a bit but the food was well prepared and I got to tick another item off my bucket list.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Everything Under the Sky by Matilde Asensi

One of the good aspects of book groups is that it forces the members to read outside of their comfort zones. This is especially true of me when reading of the Far East or Asian countries. I think it is because I don't have a real grasp of the history - there's just too much of it. Everything Under the Sky started as a novel that seemed it would be the memoir of a middle-aged woman dealing with the consequences of the death of her estranged husband. Was I ever wrong.

Told in the first person by Elvira DePoulain, we find a very seasick narrator making her way from Paris to China to settle the estate of her late husband, Remy´. Although they had lived apart for nearly 20 years, they were on good terms and as such she was responsible for his estate when he died suddenly in Shanghai. Accompanied by her niece Fernanda, she makes the journey only to find out upon arrival that he was very much in debt due to his opium habit and the predilection for many women and that his death was really a murder by the Green Gang who were looking for a decorative box that contained clues to a wealth of hidden treasure. Clued in by Lao Jiang, the antiquarian, and Paddy Tichborne, an Irish journalist, Elvira finds the box that poses more puzzles than provides wealth. 

Lao Jiang explains that the clues are to the the whereabouts of the tomb and wealth of the first emperor of China. In order to find the tomb before the Green Gang, it would be necessary to commence on the journey as quickly as possible. Knowing that she had no money to pay of her late husband's death, Elvira agrees to the strenuous and dangerous quest with Fernanda, Biao (an orphaned servant boy), the group sets off on the trek. What ensues is a series of adventures, dangers, and puzzles that seem so crafted for an Indian Jones or Laura Croft movie. Mysteries and conundrums present themselves at every stage of the journey and the solving of them is critical, not only to the discovery of the treasures, but also for the preservation of their lives. 

The adventure and mystery are only one side of the novel. Throughout the course of its telling, Asensi weaves the history and culture of China. The dropping of names of emperors and dynasties was enough to confuse the novice reader. I wish there had been a timeline or chart. What was more interesting, at least to me, was the elucidation of the concepts of Feng Shui and the Tao. Fascinating explanations of how the world is designed and how our environment should follow that were quite interesting. 

Everything Under the Sky was an ok read. The adventure and problem solving were most exciting, but I was weighed down by the Chinese history and pronunciations. The ending was predictable except for one or two twists and was tied up neatly. Not at the top of my favorites, but not a bad read, either.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

In her debut novel, Tara Conklin weaves the story of a slave, Josephine,  in pre-Civil War times with that of an aspiring young lawyer, (Caro)Lina Sparrow, in 2004. The House Girl alternates chapters between each of the protagonists. The reader first meets Josephine as she is plotting to run away from her life as the house girl for a mistress who has been a painter and is now very ill and her abusive husband. Lina has just been given an assignment for which she must find a plaintiff who is the descendant of a slave in order to further a reparation case that is being staged. 

The story of Josephine and her mistress, Lu Anne Bell is an interesting one. Lu Anne. Lu Anne was an artist whose works have been acclaimed into the 21st century. She was at times a lenient mistress who even taught Josephine how to read. She and her tobacco grower husband had no children as Lu Anne suffered numerous miscarriages. But freedom was important to Josephine and she was determined to make her way through the underground railroad north.

Lina is a bright young woman who lives with Oscar Sparrow, her father and renowned artist. Her mother is dead and she feels somewhat compelled to remain in the family home as a help and support for her father. When the opportunity presents itself at work to contribute to the law suit that will bring millions to the firm, she jumps at the chance and digs into the research. Her path leads her to the story of Lu Anne and Josephine and the possibility of a descendant who would fit the profile for which she is looking. Her treatment by her boss and colleague at the firm is abhorrent and misogynistic.

The novel was an easy read, but it was not without some issues. First, the idea of a law firm taking on a case for reparations is a bit far-fetched. I am not sure that is could ever happen or be successful. Second, Lina must do some genealogical research to prover her point. For anyone who has dealt with this type of research, you know that it just doesn't fall into your lap, isn't always readily available on the Internet, or can be done over a weekend. The people that Lina meets to help her also seem a bit contrived and put into the novel to make a story "come out well." Although I wanted to like her, Lina's character  just wasn't that endearing. I found Josephine's story much more engaging and appealing although it was painful to read. 

It does seem like Conklin is another lawyer hoping to make it in the publishing world. For me, the jury is still out with my reaction to the book being very lukewarm. The Gables Book Club was divided on this one.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Russka by Edward Rutherfurd

WHEW, I finished it. In anticipation of our trip to Russia, I began reading Russka back in January. I have absolutely loved all of Rutherfurd's books and it was with great anticipation that I started this 900+ page tome. I would have loved to have read this in a much more compressed time period, but my commitment to my ProGen class, The Gables Book Club, and some traveling all got in the way of that goal. But I stuck with it and it certainly was worthwhile for the background history it provided.

Rutherfurd covers nearly 1800 years of Russian history through the stories of 5 families whose stories are told from different perspectives. They are the Bobrovs, Romanovs, Karpenkos, Suvorins and Popovs. The novel weaves the characters from the families into the actual history of the country. Representing serfs, Tartars, Ukrainians, Cossacks, and eventually the Bolsheviks, Marxists, and Socialists. The chapters cover just a snippet of the time period in question and give the reader a sense of the history in the context of the main characters. It is, for sure, an ambitious undertaking. But, that is the style of Rutherfurd. The reader sees the transformation of the country from the rural villages to the world power of the Soviet Union and its consequent break-up. 

This was a very difficult book for me, unlike other Rutherfurd's other novels. It just didn't seem to flow as cleanly from one era to another and I did get bogged down a bit. It did, however, give an impression of the Russian people and the conflicts that they have endured in their history. It was especially telling about the relations with the Crimean people and the Ukrainians and emphasized that the conflicts there today are so deeply rooted in the past that resolution is improbable.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

The title of Moriarty's book provides a powerful hook. It lures the reader to venture inside to see what that secret might be. The usual thoughts run through the book peruser's mind - an affair, a child somewhere, or the absconding of a large amount of money. They could all be ones to entice the purchase. Set in Australia, the novel takes place the week before Easter and intertwines the lives of three women and their families.

Cecelia Fitzpatrick seems to have the perfect life. Her husband, Jean-Paul, is a successful business man, her three daughters are charming and smart, and she is the epitome of organization and time management, and a successful purveyor of Tupperware. Her daughter, Esther, has a fascination with history and dives into diverse subjects fully. Last month it was the Titanic disaster and this month it is the Berlin Wall. Cecelia has been to the Wall and goes to the attic to find the piece that she brought home as a souvenir. It is there she discovers the letter that is only to be opened on the death of her husband Jean-Paul. The dilemma that presents itself is obvious. Should she open it, ignore it, confront her husband, or destroy it. Nearly a third of the way through the book, the resolve to open it is manifested and her life becomes all the more complicated and thrown into turmoil.

Then there is Tess O'Leary who with her husband Will and cousin Felicity operate an advertising agency. Imagine the hurt and anger she feels when Will and Felicity meet with her to announce their love for each other, tho until this point it has been unconsummated. How will this affect their son Liam. It's a situation that is just incomprehensible and given that her mother has just broken her ankle, she takes Liam and travels from Melbourne to Sydney to be with her.

Finally, there is Rachel Crowley whose daughter Janie was murdered when she was a teenager and whose assailant has never been apprehended. Rachel has led a sad life since that time and her predicament of loss is about to increase when her son Rob and his wife Lauren reveal their plans to move to New York City to help further Lauren's career. She will lose her son and her beloved grandson, nearly like losing Janie 27 years ago. 

Moriarty weaves the stories together masterfully. Her use of flashback and point of view enhance the plot and the readers' involvement in it. The character development is well crafted and the insight into each person is crystal clear. Each has a dilemma of some sort and to peer into their hearts and souls gives so much meaning to the complexity of their characterization. The resolutions to the problems are not easily or one dimensional and they are revealed in a deliberately slowed unveiling. The afterword is a welcomed addition and adds further insight into the characters' lives.

The Husband's Secret is a perfect book for book club discussion. As each character wrestles with their life situation and the decisions that must be made, the opportunity for dialogue whether concurring or differing presents itself. Perhaps it should have been titled The Husbands' Secret.  Put this on the "Must Read" shelf.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

Novels like Transatlantic intrigue me. They commence as one kind of book and then metamorphose into something totally different. Written in the style of his National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, the novel spans years and places but is tied to one familiar place for McCann - Ireland. 

It begins on the coast of Newfoundland in 1919 as John Alcock and Arthur Brown make preparations for their transatlantic flight. They have spent hours outfitting an old bomber for the flight. Before they take off they are handed a letter by Emily Ehrlich, a reporter for the local paper who lives with her daughter Lottie.  As quickly as they land in a bog in Ireland, the action turns to another time and place, Frederick Douglass' trip to Ireland in 1845.

Douglass is on a speaking tour in Ireland just a few years after his escape from slavery. His message is powerful and the reader gets a glimpse of a bit of history that is often forgotten. He stays with a family by the name of Webb and is tended to by their maid, Lily. Years later the reader is reacquainted with Lily Duggan as she tends to wounded soldiers in the Civil War. 

And then a leap to the 20th where George Mitchell, U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, is hastily leaving his wife and baby for one of the many treks across the Atlantic in efforts to broker peace with the Northern Irish factions. This was an interesting part of the book, but seemed weak in comparison to the other segments. The year is 1998 and the historic Good Friday agreement is signed.

Throughout the entire book there is a thread that keeps it all tied together - the daughters of Lily Duggan and their tie to Ireland. As the time passes from one generation to the next, they are connected and nurtured by one another and their heritage. In each section McCann gives them a strong voice and identifiable character. The Atlantic is that wide body that allows them to go away, but yet come home. It is the constant as their lives change. A wonderful book and interwoven story that shouldn't be passed over. Very much looking forward to the lecture on this book on 10 March 2014.

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Alternating between 1943 and 1955, Bohjalian crafts a mystery, historical fiction and psychological thriller in his book, The Light in the Ruins. Interspersed with those chapters is a narrator's viewpoint on the murders he has committed and is about to commit. 

Outside of Florence, there is, what once was a bucolic Tuscan villa - Villa Chimera. Owned by the Marchese and Marchesa Rosati, it is a sanctuary for their family from the horrific brutality of the war. Living with Antonio and Beatrice is their daughter, Christina, and daughter-in-law Francesca and her two children Their son, Vittore works in Florence at the Uffizi and their other son, Marco, Francesca's husband is serving in the Italian army. Life in the villa changes drastically one day when Nazi soldiers arrive wanting to see the caves of earlier Etruscan burial grounds. The soldiers subsequently occupy the villa for an outpost and Christina becomes romantically involved with one

In 1955 Serafina Bettini is working as a homicide detective in Florence when she is called to investigate the chilling murder of Francesca Rosati. The body is discovered in her apartment with her heart cut out. As the investigation continues, the reader begins to learn more about Serafina and her involvement in the war. She has suffered brutal wounds that have left her scarred and without a portion of her ear. 

As the narrative moves back and forth between the time periods and through flashbacks in the minds of the main characters, the connections between the characters begin to be elucidated. The serial killer's narration reveals that his/her revenge will be taken on the Rosatis, one by one.

The Light in the Ruins is another example of the masterful and powerful storytelling of Chris Bohjalian. It is gruesome, to be sure, but is also a gripping chronicle of the war in Italy. The struggle between citizens, the Partisans, and the Nazis shows the multi-faceted effects of a conflict. How does one balance doing what is right when it comes to saving one's family? Its strength lies in historical and political analysis. The revelation of the serial killer is a bit of a shock with so many possibilities - a man, woman, Italian, Nazi, an acquaintance or one who needs to exact revenge on the rich landholders?  The meaning behind the title of the book is illuminated at the end, much as the dock light in Gatsby does for that novel.  Bohjalian needs to be on the list of "must read" authors.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Panther by Nelson DeMille

I have been a fan of Nelson DeMille's books featuring John Corey since I read the first one in the series. Corey's acerbic wit and humor sit well with the reader and DeMille usually delivers an action-packed adventure filled with intrigue, twists and turns, and red herrings.

Fresh off the biggest coup and exciting adventure of The Lion in which Corey and his wife, Kate Mayfield, have put away the terrorist leader, Asad Khalil, the duo are off to Yemen to avenge the sinking of the U.S.S. Cole by sniffing out another big cat, Bulus ibn al-Darwish, known as al-Numair, The Panther. Yemen is a cradle of terrorism and as DeMille colorfully remarks, "if the earth had an anus, it would be located in Yemen." With the PSO (Political Security Organization), the NSB (National Security Bureau) and Al-Qaida, chaos reigns and one who would intend to break through those agencies needs keen observation powers and survival instincts.

What ensues is a very long novel that builds unceasingly to a climax some 630 pages later. Unlike most of DeMille's previous novels, The Panther, is short on action and movement. It is packed with planning and groundwork. Corey and Mayfield are central characters to be sure, joined by Colonel Paul Brenner, another recurring DeMille persona. With some trepidation the two accept the assignment, but Corey has it in the back of his mind that he and Kate are really bait because of their involvement in killing a CIA operative. They travel in Yemen with a cadre of other high level officers and some native Yemenis who are willing to track down the Panther and his Al-Qaida band. The planning is intense, lightened only by the sarcastic remarks of Corey. Lack of alcohol has taken its toll on Corey. 

Substituting for the action to which the reader has become accustomed is a treatise on mid-eastern geography and politics and even some biblical history. Once the mission is fully engaged, the action picks up and comes to crashing end. There are some questions as to who is actually on the side of Corey and whether the CIA agents are aligned with him or against him as Corey prophesied. The conspiracy theory is never far from Corey's mind and his fast thinking and actions are well conceived. 

Although, this was not one of my favorite books, the last third of the book was exciting and fulfilling. It leaves the door open to a new Corey/Mayfield book that, hopefully, will be back in the mold and tradition of the first five DeMille books.