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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Spy Thriller Review – Call for the Dead

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Call for the Dead by John LeCarre

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the first thriller written by LeCarre, who later became a best-selling spy novelist in the middle 1970s. Published in 1962, this mystery features the first appearance of his series hero spymaster George Smiley, who appears in A Murder of Quality and the Karla trilogy: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Tightly written, the novel spins out a plausible story with believable characters, especially Elsa Fennan, wife of a murdered diplomat. It gives the backstory on Smiley’s unhappy marriage to Ann and his early spying days in Germany in the late 1930s, a time and place not high on our list of historical eras we’d like to visit.

Smiley’s trusted associate Peter Guillam, who plays a big part in the Karla trilogy, also appears as a character who teases Smiley like a school chum from the same generation would. Peter is younger in the Karla trilogy. Yard Inspector Mendel is fiercely protective of Smiley in this one, as he is in later books.

There are mere hints that LeCarre would let himself stretch out, with only short digressions on the importance of individualism and on the sprawl that started around UK cities in the car crazy Sixties. All in all, well worth reading.

 

 

 

Historical Suspense Review – Kingdom of Shadows

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Published in 2000, Furst’s sixth historical espionage novel won the 2001 Hammett Prize, given for literary excellence in the field of crime-writing. The novel begins in 1938 and goes to the brink of war in September, 1939. Nicholas Morath, Hungarian bon-vivant, is living a life of ease in Paris, working a silly job in advertising, and sleeping with a beautiful heiress half his age from Buenos Aries. I totally believe this is possible since my Hungarian grandmother said Hungarian men are handsome and charming.

Despite his shallowness, Morath is loyal to his country and aristocratic family. So he always says yes when his uncle Janos Polanyi, diplomat in the Hungarian legation, has him perform little tasks in the secret world. Morath deals with refugees, killers, gangsters, fascist thugs and scamps of various stripes in efforts to fight Hitler’s aggression in Europe.

One could complain that it’s episodic and its paper-thin characters are overly familiar from other outings. But Furst pleases discerning readers, assuming they have travelled and read enough Joseph Roth, Victor Serge and Rebecca West to savor asides on the order of:

… Ruthenia. Or affectionately, Little Russia. Or, technically, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine. A Slavic nibble taken by the medieval kings of Hungary, and ever since a lost land in the Northeast corner of the nation. Then, after the world war, on a rare day when American idealism went hand in hand with French diplomacy … they stuck it onto Slovakia and handed it to the Czechs. Somewhere, Morath speculated, in a little room in a ministry of culture, a Moravian bureaucrat was hard at work on a little song, ‘Merry Old Ruthenia / Land we love so well.’

Furst has been an expatriate too so he knows how to evoke place by appealing to the senses. His Hungarian hero returns to Budapest, his sense of smell confirms that he is home: “Burnt coffee and coal dust, Turkish tobacco and rotten fruit, lilac water from the barbershops, drains and damp stone, grilled chicken.” Don’t visit other countries to widen your horizons; go to see what they smell like.

The novel’s atmosphere of world on the edge of flame and blood is palpable. The reader can tell Furst has read the history and the novels of the 1930s, because the air, the very ether of the novel seems so real. And the familiar Furstian theme of “Every helpful act, even the smallest, affirms the bond that unites decent human beings” comes out as does the themes of forgiveness and redemption. Uncle Janos says, “Forgive me, Nicholas. Forgive, forgive. Forgive the world for being what it is. Maybe next week Hitler drops dead and we all go out to dinner.”

 

 

 

Historical Fiction – The Good Thief

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

 

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

There is nothing I enjoy more than a good book that pulls me into another time and place, and makes me forget to take anything out of the freezer for dinner! I love rich stories full of interesting characters, and so I thoroughly enjoyed “The Good Thief,” a first novel by Hannah Tinti.

We meet young Ren, a boy without a left hand, living in the orphanage run by the monks of St. Anthony’s. It’s bleak, cold, and comfortless. Ren doesn’t remember why or how he lost his hand; all he knows is that he is always passed over for adoption because of this handicap. People coming to the orphanage to find a boy need one who can work, and not bring bad luck to their family. Ren’s future looks frightening, as the army will be his only option when he comes of age.

But miracle of miracles, a stranger arrives one day, and chooses Ren. In fact, he claims to be Ren’s brother. And so begins Ren’s new life, with a family of sorts; Benjamin Nab, the alleged older brother, and his friend Tom, a former schoolteacher. It doesn’t take Ren long to realize that things are not quite what they seem; but he still hopes for answers as to his handicap, and his origins, and is content to be a part of a family, even one like this. The three are bound together by a strange combination of con artistry and companionship, and Ren knows he can hardly expect more.

As time goes on, Ren despairs of ever learning of his past. The men try con after con to earn money, selling snake oil, the teeth from corpses, and finally, entire corpses to a doctor who wants to dissect them, which turns out to be both dangerous and quite profitable. In the midst of this, Ren and his fellow grave robbers meet up with a chimney-dwelling dwarf, girls who work for a miserly rich man, making mousetraps in his factory, and one night, while digging up bodies, an assassin who has been buried alive, who becomes part of their ‘family’ once he has been unearthed and cleaned up a bit.

Ren grows accustomed to this life. When told by the doctor who buys corpses from them that Ren is smart and should go to school and study science, Ren briefly considers this. “These possibilities fanned out before Ren like cards on a table, then closed back together until there was only one option left. He was never going to study science; he was never going to be respectable. And he was tired of trying to be good. The best he could do was follow the path that Benjamin had showed him. He belonged to it now.” But, the question remains, for how long?

The narrative flows along as we follow the three on their journeys. The characters are finely drawn, and while not always likable, they are always fascinating. The author was obviously inspired by Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson: orphan boys, colorful characters, dramatic situations, and a pace that keeps you reading to find out what happens next. The Good Thief was the winner of the John Sargent Senior First Novel Prize, and named a New York Times Notable book, and given an Alex Award (Best Adult novel for young adults) by the American Library Association.

 

 

 

 

Literature and Fiction Review – Still Alice

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

The fact that I recommend books to people inspires some folks to recommend books right back at me. I love this, actually, because as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t possibly live long enough to read everything that I would like to…so recommendations are always helpful.

Not too long ago, I had a friend come into the library and return the book “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova. My friend said, “You have GOT to read this one.” “Oh, thanks…I will!” I promised…and then I took a closer look at the book. This is a novel about Alice Howland, a highly respected professor of psychology at Harvard who, just before her 50th birthday, is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Ugh. How depressing is that? First of all, I’m just over 60. I forget things all the time. I really don’t need to read this. So I very unobtrusively slipped it back on the shelf.

Of course, a few weeks later, this same friend asked me if I’d read “Still Alice” yet. I really can’t lie well at all, and so I confessed that, no, I hadn’t. “It sounds too depressing.” “It’s NOT,” she insisted. “Try it.” So okay, I took the book home. It might not be that bad. And maybe I’ll pick up some tips on Early Onset Alzheimer’s for my own personal use, you know?

Well, you guessed it: I loved this book. The author is actually a neuroscientist at Harvard, so she not only knows what she’s talking about, but she explains the progression of this disease very clearly and concisely. At the same time, she doesn’t turn the novel into a lecture. Rather, she examines the causes and effects of EOAD, how it impacts not only the patients, but their families as well. She does a remarkable job of showing us Alzheimer’s from the inside…from the patient’s point of view.

Alice begins forgetting things; she searches for words, for her Blackberry, for her car keys. But when she becomes totally disoriented while out jogging one day, she knows this is more than being too busy, or just distracted, or the onset of menopause. Her doctor confirms the seriousness of her forgetfulness. The book spans three years, from September 2002 to September 2005. During this time, this disease robs Alice of so many things. She tries to hide it, but eventually she announces that she has Alzheimer’s and resigns her job. She must stop teaching, stop mentoring students; she cannot jog alone anymore, let alone travel to conferences all over the world the way she used to. She watches her husband grieve for her, even though she’s still right there. She sees the fear in her grown children as they wonder about the genetics of EOAD, and if they too will be afflicted. She creates a test for herself to take every so often. She composes five questions, such as “What is your address?” and “When is your daughter’s birthday?” At the end of the test, she instructs her future self, “If you can’t answer these questions, go to the bedside table. There is a bottle of pills there. Take all of them.” Alice can’t imagine having her family deal with her as the disease progresses, and so she decides suicide might be the best way to handle her illness, and spare her family. But, due to the nature of this heartbreaking disease, even this little safeguard won’t work. Alice eventually forgets to take the test.

If you have a loved one that has Alzheimer’s, I strongly recommend you read this book. I watched my grandmother go through this about 20 years ago, and I wish I could have read it back then. It’s not depressing, which surprised me, but it does have incredibly touching moments. I’m so glad I took a chance on “Still Alice.” And it also made me feel a bit better about not remembering where I put my car keys; the author explains ordinary forgetfulness as opposed to Alzheimer’s, and I’m happy to say, I’m doing okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Fiction Review – Blind Descent

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

 

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth

by James M. Tabor

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

Space—the Final Frontier. All you Star Trek fans will remember that spine-tingling phrase. But guess what: Turns out, space is NOT the final frontier. In reality, the final frontier is the Center of the Earth.

Long after every other ultimate goal had been achieved—both North and South Poles reached by 1911, Mount Everest scaled in 1953, the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, reached in 1960, the moon in 1969—the deepest cave on Earth was still undiscovered. In fact, as late as 2000, the “supercave” had not yet been found, despite numerous attempts. “Blind Descent” by James M. Tabor tells the story of two men, both driven to find and map the deepest cave on Earth, the teams they lead, and the triumphs and tragedies that befall them both.

The author begins the first section of the book by introducing us to Bill Stone, an American caver and entrepreneur who has been searching for The Supercave since the 1970’s. Tabor tells us about Bill Stone’s early years, how he became interested in caves, and the various teams he has pulled together over the years in an attempt to discover the deepest cave, the elusive Supercave. Stone, a type A personality that others either love or hate, is in his mid-50’s by the year 2004. He is convinced that a cave in Mexico called CHAY-vay will turn out to be the Supercave he’s been searching for.

Then we meet Bill Stone’s biggest rival in the caving world: Ukrainian caver Alexander Klimchouk. Oddly enough, Klimchouk seems to be Stone’s polar opposite. Stone is bold, brash, and commanding while Klimchouk is quiet, self-effacing and modest. Stone is tall and muscular while Klimchouk is short and slight. Klimchouk has been married to his wife for decades, while Stone is divorced and has had a series of relationships. But, Tabor points out “They are alike in two key ways: both are scientists and explorers…willing to risk everything, including their lives and those of others, for the ultimate discovery.” Alexander Klimchouk is also in his mid-50’s by 2004, and he believes the Supercave is in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union, a cave called Krubera.

Blind Descent details the race between these two men, half a world apart, but united by a common passion. Caving on a good day can be a dangerous sport; exploring supercaves can be incredibly deadly. Not only are you basically climbing mountains in reverse, but the hardest part, the ascent, comes last. Cavers spend weeks underground, camping in the dark under less than ideal conditions. Diving is also a common requirement, compounding the dangers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I can honestly say that I have found yet another sport that I will never attempt. And I won’t tell you which caver wins this competition; you’ll have to read the book to find out.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Angry Mourner

Monday, September 24th, 2018

The Case of the Angry Mourner

by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

One of the upsides of reading Perry Mason novels is that they can be read in only about three or four hours. So even if the plot is far-fetched, any reader who likes Perry, Della, and Paul stories can put up with unlikely happenings for a couple of hours.

Another plus is despite the fact that Gardner doesn’t develop characters beyond a bare minimum, even minor figures are easy to keep track of because, like in mystery plays or Pilgrim’s Progress, a character is associated with a memorable trait. Distinctive passé names aid memory too: independent Carlotta, callow Harvey, haughty Dexter, and preening Darwin.

Another standby in the Mason novels is that clients handle the truth economically with Perry. When a rich wolf, Arthur Cushing, is murdered, Belle Adrian fears her daughter Carlotta, a pretty baa-lamb, resisted the wolf’s advances with a little too much force. Carlotta, in turn, suspects her dear old mam as the defender of her daughter’s honor, interfering and yet endearing as a mom-murderess. Belle fails to help her own cause when she not only tries to destroy all evidence of her daughter’s potential involvement in the crime but she also lies to Perry about doing so.

All in all, this mystery is worth reading, with the caution to hard-core fans of Perry, Della, and Paul that Perry and Pals don’t show up until the fourth chapter. One thing about Gardner too is that he wasn’t afraid of dealing with hard issues – like date-rape – in 1951.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Review – The Book Thief

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

 

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

I read a lot of book reviews, and talk with a lot of people about books. I love recommendations, because it’s a wonderful way to find new authors or wonderful stories. However, I have had the experience (more than once, I might add) of hearing such amazing reviews of a book, that by the time I read it, this allegedly wonderful book isn’t quite so wonderful, and it becomes a letdown for me. I allow myself to have such high expectations that I am seriously disappointed. And I hate it when that happens.

Back in 2005, I began hearing some buzz over a book called “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. I read glowing reviews; a couple of friends read the book and couldn’t say enough about it. And then, it was named a Printz Honor Book. The Printz Award is given every year for the best books written for young adults. There is a winner, and anywhere from one to three honor books named every January.

I finally decided to try the Book Thief, but I had serious reservations. Too much good stuff was circulating about this novel! I went in prepared to be letdown…but I was pleasantly surprised.

The Book Thief begins with an introduction to our narrator…Death. He says, “Here is a small fact. You are going to die…does this worry you? I urge you—don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.” Death meets nine-year-old Liesel when he comes for her younger brother on a cold, snowy day. He made what he called an “elementary mistake. I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me…” especially when he saw Liesel steal her first book, a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook.

Liesel’s mother leaves her with a foster family in Munich, Germany; Hans who plays the accordion and teaches Liesel to read using her only book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and his wife Rosa, whom Death describes as having a face decorated with constant fury. Liesel adapts to her new life, making friends with other children in the neighborhood. But it is the man Max, the Jew that Hans and Rosa hide in their basement, who has such a profound effect on Liesel. At a time when people must be cautious, must watch what they do, what they say, and to whom they speak, Liesel grows into a young woman who learns survival skills she never dreamed she would need.

And stealing books is the theme in this novel. Liesel steals again; she picks a scorched book out of a pile the Nazis are burning, and hides it until she can get home and safely examine it. She meets the mayor’s wife, a sad woman with a mystery of her own. Liesel’s first visit to the mayor’s home results in finding the mayor’s personal library. Liesel steals another book, and with the mayor’s wife giving her unspoken permission, she continues to visit and steal books. For reading has become a distraction for Liesel, an escape from the world of Nazi Germany, which grows more frightening and uncertain with every passing day. Death becomes a presence in Liesel’s life; he observes her with an interest that both puzzles and fascinates him. Death confesses to us, the readers, “I am haunted by humans.”

As I was reading The Book Thief, I kept thinking, “Well, this is okay. It’s not a BAD book, it’s just not one to gush over, either.” But by the time I finished all 550 pages, I was hooked. This novel had worked its way into my heart and my mind to such an extent that I was sorry to see it end. It’s an incredible story, and one I would recommend to older teens and adults.