Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Dead Hand by Paul Theroux

Jerry Delfont is a travel writer. He finds himself at loose ends in Calcutta, making speeches at various locations for the American Embassy, and trying to fight off "dead hand", another term for writer's block. His is an extremely bad case and he wonders if he will ever find a way to write again. Sitting in his hotel room, he receives a handwritten letter from a Merrill Unger, who asks for his time and help with a delicate situation. Although he doesn't know her or hasn't even ever heard of her he has nothing else to do and he agrees to meet her.

Mrs. Unger comes to the hotel with her son and his friend, Rajat. At first glance, Delfont sees that she is a wealthy woman, who seems to have an air of mystery about her. She seems to fit in with the stereotypes of the colonial ruling class in India. Her problem involves Rajat. He had stayed in a local cheap hotel while the Ungers were out of town. He awoke in the middle of the night to find a dead boy lying in the floor. Stunned, he packed his things and ran from the hotel. Now he is unsure what to do or if the police are looking for him. Mrs. Unger requests that Jerry investigate the matter and see if he can determine what has happened and if the police are investigating the matter. Delfont is unsure why he has been asked; he is a travel writer, not a detective. But as the meeting goes on, he finds himself charmed by Mrs. Unger, or Ma as she is known to all, and agrees to look into the incident.
As he attempts to discover the truth, he finds himself drawn more and more to Ma. She is a woman of means who has chosen Calcutta as her residence. No one seems to know much about her, which is unusual in a former colonial setting, where all British and Americans tend to know each other, or at least of each other. Ma devotes her life to the poor children of Calcutta; the beggars and street urchins. She has turned her palatial home into an orphanage for these children, and there is never a shortage of candidates. She brings them into her home to live and educates them. The children are plucked from pan and misery and given a new lease on life by the Ungers. Much of the mystery about her comes from the fact that she funds this home entirely from her own means, not asking for help from the various social organizations or the local government but using her own wealth and business contacts.
Ma is also a devotee of Indian religion; specifically the goddess Kali. She eats only natural food and that very sparingly. She is a master at Tantric massage and uses this mechanism to introduce Delfont to her beliefs. He is overwhelmed by her personality and the difficulty of finding out anything about her. One minutes he is hopelessly devoted to her and the next he is attempting to break out of her sphere of influence. He is more successful learning about the incident with Rajat. He learns enough at the flophouse to convince himself that the incident of the dead boy did occur, although the police were never involved. The book deals with the way that Delfont is drawn deeper and deeper into the Ungers' world and starts to unravel the mysteries surrounding this powerful, generous woman. As he delves into the mystery, he is unblocked and his writing starts to flow again.
An interesting sidelight is that a chapter has Delfont meeting the author Paul Theroux in Calcutta. He dislikes him on sight and feels that he is pitiless, using others' tragedies to make fodder for his writing. This is a common device of Theroux's books, that he brings himself into the action, and usually in a fairly negative viewpoint. The reader feels a frisson of interest from this sudden introduction, as it makes the reader take a step back from the book's action to try to discover why this is done.
As Delfont becomes more involved in Mrs. Unger's life and businesses, suspense starts to build. Why did she not just go to the police or the Consulate? Why has she chosen Delfont to investigate the matter, and how has she even heard of him or known that he was in Calcutta? Is her selflessness what it seems or does she use her charity as a cover for more sinister activities?
This book is recommended for all readers. It pulls the reader along just as Delfont is pulled along and starts to uncover the intricate, involved life of this mysterious woman. The reader learns much about modern-day Calcutta and how the culture there works, and the part that religion plays in everyday life. Suspense starts as a quizzical wondering and builds to a stunning crescendo as the plot devolves and the life of the Ungers is revealed. Theroux has created a character in Ma Unger that the reader will not soon forget.

Queen Of The Night by J.A. Jance

The Indian people around Tucson have an annual tradition where they get together one night to celebrate the annual flowering of the Queen of the Night flower which only blooms for twelve hours, always at night.  Most go to the local cultural center, where there is a festival celebrating the night and the traditional way of life. 

But this year, as an anniversary surprise, Jack Tennent has planned a surprise picnic for his wife, Abigail.  He has set up a meal near a towering Queen of the Night plant out in the country, a symbolic celebration to mark their love.  They are disappointed when a local couple calls and says they are planning to drop by.  The next thing is a fusillade of bullets, and all four people are killed.

There are several investigators that work on the case.  Brandon Walker is a retired homicide detective, who now works on cold cases.  His wife, novelist Diana Ladd and he are drawn to the case.  Brain Fellows is the current investigator working the case, and there is also Dan Pardee, a war hero who now works in the Shadow Wolves, a border patrol unit.  All of these men work the case, determining who were the main targets and what in their pasts have led to this event. 

J.A. Jance has written a suspense novel that will have readers on the edge of their chairs.  She skillfully intertwines this case with one from forty years ago that Brandon is also working.  The reader learns of family relationships and much about the traditions of the Tohono O'odham people.  Jance has written 41 other suspense novels and is at the height of her craft.  In addition to this series, the Walker Famly Mysteries, she has series named Joanna Brady Mysteries, J.P. Beaumont Mysteries and Ali Reynolds mysteries.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Next Queen Of Heaven by Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire's new book, The Next Queen Of Heaven, focuses on small town America and the role that religion plays in this setting.  The cast of characters rely on religion in various ways for various purposes, some spiritual, some skeptical while others are going through the paces of their lives looking for ways to connect and finding them in different churches.  The book is set in the small town of Thebes, New York in the late 1990's.

Jeremy Carr is the choir director at the local Catholic parish.  He is hoping to make his big break after Christmas as he has won a place in a musical revue in New York.  Jeremy is gay, and his singing group is made up of his friends who are also gay; one fighting AIDS.  What has kept him in Thebes outside of a sense of obligation is his inability to stop loving Willem, who had a fling with him before Willem got married.  Jeremy knows his love is impractical, but is stuck and can't bring himself to leave.

Another part of the book revolves around the Scales family.  Mrs. Scales is raising three children by herself, and looks to religion to help her get through the days and provide a structure for her children.  She is met by indifferent success, at least by the measures of traditional success.   Tabitha is the oldest and the town scandal as she moves from man to man.  The middle son is Hogan, a dropout who is interested in cars and garages and video games, but not much else.  The youngest is a son named Kirk, who is interested in music and drama and doesn't fit in well in a traditional school setting.  Mrs. Scales, who is a fundamentalist Christian, is transformed when she goes next door to the Catholic church and gets hit over the head with a statue. 

There are other characters that play a part in the patterns.  A group of ancient nuns live in an old convent outside of town, and a friendship develops between them and Jeremy's group.  There are various ministers and priests, some of whom are helpful and some of whom use religion to accomplish their personal goals.  Each person is clawing their way towards finding some meaning in their lives.

Gregory Maguire is best known for his Wicked series, which used The Wizard Of Oz story to reinterpt live and love.  This new book strikes out into fresh territory, which retaining Maguire's offbeat humor and ability to delve into his character's lives.  This book is recommended for all readers.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol, Paper Engineering by Chuck Fischer

If you look up this book on a book seller site, it will say Pop-Up book.  But calling what Chuck Fischer does with paper pop-up is like saying the ocean is a bit wet.  He calls it paper engineering and that is a much more accurate term.

Fischer has retold Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol with magically intricate paper art.  Each page unfolds to amazing figures that leap off the page.  The images are amazingly detailed and take the reader to Victorian England.  Each page also has an insert booklet where the reader can read related chapters from Dicken's novel.

Fischer has done images for the title page (a Victorian London street scene), You Will Be Haunted by Three Spirits (a ghost trailing chains and weights, The Ghost Of Christmas Past (a spirit rising from a candle), The Ghost of Christmas Present (a harvest king with a magnificent feast is portrayed), The Last Of The Spirits (a towering black figure which fills the viewer with awe), and God Bless Us Every One (showing Scrooge and Tiny Tim in a glorious conclusion)

Chuck Fischer is an artist whose designs have been replicated world-wide in paintings, holiday ornaments and home furnishings.  His designs include wallpaper and fabrics in the permanent collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.  He has done six previous paper engineering books.  I was lucky enough to get a copy of his glorious Angels last year.  These books are destined to become family heirlooms for the joy they bring to the viewer and are highly recommended for all readers, whether young or young at heart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Up From The Blue by Susan Henderson

Tillie is seven months pregnant, newly moved into an apartment she is supposed to be getting ready while her husband goes on one last business trip, and frantic.  She feels contractions, and doesn't even have a phone connection to call a hospital or doctor to see what is wrong.  Desparate, she reaches out to her father from whom she has been estranged for years.  He comes to her rescue and gets her to the hospital where it is confirmed that her baby is to born today, early or not.

As she waits for the birth, Tillie is torn between the uncertain future and her memories of growing up, especially the year she was eight.  That was the year her family moved from a military base to Washington DC, so that her father, the colonel, could work at the Pentagon on a new missile system.  That was also the year her beloved mother disappeared from her life, first mentally, then physically.  Her mother is caught up in a deep, bone-numbing depression, and can not function in a normal family setting.  Tillie relives those years and how her mother's absence affected all her relationships.  It affected not only her maternal relationship, but her paternal one at all.  Having normal friendships were beyond her, and even her brother and she were remote figures passing each other without connecting.  Only one teacher could see behind her moods and distractedness to the real little girl hiding inside.

This book  is dangerous.  Readers should make sure that they have carved out a sufficient amount of time, as once they start reading, all else fades into insignificance.  Jobs will be neglected, children left to fend for themselves, spouses ignored.  Susan Henderson has written a book that grabs the reader by the throat, and brings them into a world where the love between a mother and child when the mother is damaged is explored.  The topic is grim, but the book is anything but.  Tillie is a little girl the reader will fall madly in love with.   One hopes she can make her way in the world to a successful future.  This book is highly recommended for all readers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Regression by Kathy Bell

When fourteen-year old Adya Jordan wakes from a coma, she awakes with detailed memories of her life as a forty year old married woman.  She remembers in detail her house, her love affair and marriage to her husband and the six children they had, and can picture them in her mind.  Of course, her parents and the doctors are skeptical and feel that her memories indicate the need for further brain scans and tests.  She learns to hide her memories from those around her.

Yet, she is sure that her memories are correct, and interacting with others does nothing to diminish the detailed memories she holds.  Then, after several months, she starts to understand.  In school, the only place computers are allowed, she answered a question and is given a number to call.  It is the number of the powerful Three Eleven Corporation, and they offer her an internship.

The Three Eleven Corporation controls most of the world's economy.  They control all technology, and thus the financial, manufacturing and government realms.  As Adya begins her stay with them, she learns the secret behind their power.  The Corporation is composed of other individuals like her who have been regressed from the future.  In particular, they all have specific memories of their last date in their former lives; November 11, 2011, or 11/11/11, Three Eleven.  Adya is the first woman to be regressed and the others are not sure what that means.

The men in Three Eleven believe that there is a worldwide catastrophe coming on 11/11/11, which is currently twenty-seven years in the future.  They have joined together to try to stop this, and to do so, have taken power over all facets in government.  They see themselves as benevolent, but Adya questions their authority and whether their decisions are correct.  Is it right to be incredibly wealthy because you can control the stock market with knowledge from a former life, or "discover" technological advances made by others in the future?  This is the path they have chosen, and it is now time for Adya to decide if she will fight with them or against them as the world moves closer to 11/11/11.

Kathy Bell has written Regression in a manner that will fascinate those who believe in past lives and regression, and intrigue those who are willing to consider the possibility.  This book is recommended for science fiction readers and those interested in New Age philosophies.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

When Life Throws You Lemons, Make Cranberry Juice by Shari Bookstaff

In 2006, Shari Bookstaff went into a hospital to have surgery to remove a large benign brain tumor.  Although this was a serious operation, all signs were that it would be a successful surgery, followed by a week's stay and then several months of recuperation at home.  Instead, something went wrong in the surgery and she spent nine months in various hospitals and has been left with serious complications that are life-altering.

Bookstaff had faced adversity before.  While she trained as a marie biologist, she was so seasick that she had to find ways to use her degree to work as a marine biologist on land.  She became a college professor to overcome this.  She faced pregnancy difficulties, and after years of disappointments, had two children.  Her marriage fell apart.  But none of these life experiences could prepare her for the new life she was given after her surgery.

Shari talks in the book about how she has adjusted to her new life; being realistic about what has been taken away and finding ways to bring positive features into her life to counteract what has been lost.  She talks in detail about the medical procedures, the long months and years of physical therapy and the ways her daily life is different and harder than that experienced by most people.  But she also highlights the joyful events that center around her children and her determination to bring happiness into her life.  She talks about what she has lost, but she also describes what is left and what is new with vim and vigor.

No one gets out of life alive.  Everyone faces adversity, although some people's lives are much harder and more difficult than others.  This book can help those struggling with a life event.  Yes, things have changed and there are negative impacts that won't disappear, but there is also life after a tragedy, and it can be a wonderful life.  This book is recommended for those who are facing a struggle or those who have others in their lives who are doing so whom they want to help. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mr. Darcy's Obsession by Abigail Reynolds

In Mr. Darcy's Obsession, Abigail Reynolds explores the period between Darcy's first wooing of Elizabeth Bennett and their marriage; a time that they were estranged for a while due to Elizabeth's misunderstanding of his intentions. 

Hard times have fallen on the Bennett family after the death of Mr. Bennett.  Jane has married a tradesman to provide some relief for the family; she doesn't love him but honors him and is grateful for his help.  She now works in trade herself; a shop that sells ribbons and other lady's accessories.  Elizabeth has been sent to her aunt and uncle to serve as a nanny.  It is there that Mr. Darcy once again encounters her, and realizes that no matter the difference in social status, she is the only woman he has ever wanted. 

Although determined to win her for his own, life intervenes.  Another Bennett sister, Lydia, has become pregnant out of wedlock, a situation much worse than genteel poverty as it meant the whole family would be socially ostracized, as would anyone who acknowledged them.  Mr. Darcy cannot help but contrast this situation with similar ones in his own family and comes to realise that the only difference is the money and power that allowed his relatives to hide their shame.

Meanwhile, he becomes more and more disenchanted with the social structure he has always taken for granted, with its huge discrepencies between those with money and the vast majority without.  His eyes are opened by the disgraceful actions of his cousin and uncle and their treatment of women, despoiling where they wished, never caring for the aftereffects they condemned the women they picked to. 

Regardless of the various situations, Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth manage to break through the strictures of society and come to a happy ending.  The reader is taken along on their journey, while gaining insight into the day to day life of this period.

I was prepared to dislike this book.  I'm far too much of a feminist to accept a society where a woman's every move is dictated in advance, and there is little room for advancement or ability to follow interests.  But Abigail Reynolds has charmed me with her portrayal.  While portraying the romance and the passion that simmered beneath, she hasn't made her characters into ones consumed with passion and sexual desire every minute of the day.  Reynold's writing is gentle as the subject but she does not veer away from the inequalities that marred this social setup.  I enjoyed a further glance at the backstory of these characters and of daily life in this period.  This book is recommended highly for lovers of the Elizabeth Bennett/Fitzwilliam Darcy love story, and for those interested in an insight into this era.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Angel Of Death Row by Andrea Lyons

Nineteen times, Andrea Lyon was appointed as the defense attorney in a death penalty case.  Nineteen times she was successful in avoiding the death penalty for her clients.  In Angel Of Death Row, a name given to her by the Chicago Tribune, Andrea Lyon takes the reader through twelve of these death penalty cases.  Along the way, the reader learns of Lyon's legal philosphies, the intense and engrossing work that defending a capital case involves, and the scary misperceptions and misjustices that make being charged with a capital offense such an overwhelming perception.

There was the case of the mother on trial for killing her daughter.  The truth was, however, that the police coerced a confession from her by telling her that confessing was the only way she could go to her baby's funeral.  When the case was reinvestigated, it turned out that someone else entirely was responsible.  Another case involved a woman on death row for killing her husband.  Her issue?  Her original defense attorney decided that the case against her was so flimsy that no one would believe she did it, and did no investigation of his own, and put up very little defense.  Since the prosecution came to court prepared with his version, the woman was convicted and served behind bars for years before Ms. Lyon was able to help her gain her freedom.

Lyon doesn't pretend that everyone she defends is blameless.  She is willing to have a guilty client serve a reasonable term, but one of her core beliefs is that it is imperative that the whole story comes out so that the jury can determine if there are mitigating factors that would lead toward a long jail term rather than a death sentence.  Several of the cases illustrate this tenet.  Others show defendants that she saved from a death sentence in spite of themselves, when they were to mentally ill to provide much help.

This book is fascinating for those who follow crime and legal tactics.  They are taken behind the closed doors of a defense attorney at the top of her game, and given an illustrative look at what really decides many court cases.  If one is charged with a crime, that doesn't necessarily mean that they won't be convicted if innocent.  It takes an attorney willing to investigate and determine the truth and also one competent enough to get enough points raised that an effective appeal is possible.  This book is recommended for readers interested in legal matters or those who enjoy hearing about someone at the top of their game relate their experiences.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Take A Chance On Me by Jill Mansell

Love doesn't run smoothly in Channing Hill, and there's no more entertaining narrator than Jill Mansell to document it's rocky course.  There is Cleo, local limo driver, who has finally settled down into a job she likes and a man she adores, Will.  Unfortunately, she runs into Will and his wife, Fia one day while out on a trip and realises that once again she has fallen for someone totally unsuitable.

Fia, who didn't know about Cleo but did know about Will's propensity to lie and cheat, ends their marriage and ends up as the new chef at the pub in Channing Hill.  Cleo's neighbor and best friend, Ash, falls in love with Fia the moment he sees her, but doesn't stand a chance.  Fia has fallen in love with the local gentry, Johnny LaVenture, a world-class sculptor.  Cleo who grew up with Johnny isn't thrilled to have him back in town as he made her adolescent days a nightmare with his constant teasing.

Does no one have it right when it comes to love?  Cleo's sister Abbie and her husband Tom, seem to have the right recipe.  But their world comes tumbling down when two things occur.  Abbie's boss falls in love with her and Tom discovers he has a teenage daughter he knew nothing about.  She turns up on their doorstep and has soon moved in, while Abbie has moved out and in with Cleo.

Mansell has written another hilarious, engaging romance with characters the reader would love to meet and a plot that twists and turns and somehow manages to resolve all these romantic entanglements neatly and successfully by the end of the book.  The reader is treated to a cozy yarn that never fails to entertain.  This book is recommended for readers looking for a lighter book that will make them realise that love exists for us all, no matter how long and difficult the journey.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Magician's Book by Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a cofounder of and writes frequently in The New York Times Book Review.  She is also the editor of The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors.   In The Magician's Book, she takes readers back to her discovery of C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles Of Narnia, and how they changed her life as a child.

Miller was entranced by the books as soon as she read them.  This absorption lasted for many years, but then was marred when she read some criticism and realised what had been obvious to most adult readers; that the Chronicles were an allegory that replayed the Christian tenets of a savior who self-sacrifices to save the world.  She felt manipulated and used, and it took many years before she could come back and enjoy the series again as an adult.

The book gives the reader background about Lewis' life, his friends and his influences.  He was a great friend of Tolkien, who was writing his epic Lord Of The Rings series.  But while Tolkien was very serious, creating an entire universe and worried about its consistency, Lewis saw his series as fairy tales and borrowed bits and pieces that didn't make logical sense but somehow combined into a magical world.

There is also much discussion of how language is used; how older, oral literature is mirrored in more modern works, and how authors construct their works.  This is a fascinating look behind the scenes that only someone as connected to this world as Miller can give the average reader.  She also brings in several other modern authors like Neil Gaiman and Susannah Clark for their childhood and adult reactions to the Chronicles.

This book is recommended for those readers who enjoyed the Chronicles as a child and who are interested to see how they were constructed and the meanings behind various scenes.  I've been listening to the books this past year with my daughter and so found this book fascinating.