Thursday, May 31, 2018

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

The year is 1945 in wartime London.  Fourteen year old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel, know that this will mean huge changed in their family.  Their parents are going to a posting overseas and they will remain behind, going to school and being supervised by their lodger whom they have nicknamed The Moth. 

The children rebel at living in their schools and soon manage to come home where The Moth's supervision is less than parental. The children discover their mother's luggage in the basement, putting the lie to the fiction of an overseas posting.  The Moth is surrounded by an intriguing cast of characters, most of whom lead shadowy lives.  These become the children's mentors and they accompany them on many tasks, most of which seem to be criminal.  There is no word from their parents and the children start to wonder if there is not something horrible going on that no one wants to tell them.

Years later, Nathaniel looks back on this time as an adult, trying to piece together the facts he knows with what was really happening behind the scenes.  Why did his mother eventually reappear as quickly as she left, still with no explanations and with no mention of his father?  What happened to the Moth?  Why does his mother believe that the children and she are in terrible danger?  As Nathaniel slowly peels back the layers of secrecy that hid the truth from him for years, the events of his life take on a different meaning.

Michael Ondaatje will always be thought of first as the author of The English Patient.  This book has some of the same strengths; a misty remembrance of past events, strong characters, hints of a love that overshadows all else.  It demonstrates without preaching the integral role that parents take in a child's life and the necessity for knowing the truth about the events that make up a life.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is a demigod, daughter of the Sun God Helios and a water nymph.  Unfortunately, her human side is prominent enough that she is considered less than her siblings and ignored by her parents.  As she grows up, she discovers that she does have a power though; the power of witchcraft.  After she uses it to change one of the other nymphs in her father's household into the monster Scylla, she is given a sentence of eviction and isolation on an island with no one else to talk to.

Alone on her island prison, Circe grows into her own personality.  She gardens and gathers herbs and poisons and refines her spells and witchcraft.  She tames the wild animals who become her friends and guardians.  When she is threatened by visitors who would harm her, she uses her magic to turn those who would hurt her into animals.  She is occasionally allowed to leave.  She goes to her sister's household to help her deliver her child but even Circe is shocked when that baby turns out to be the Minotaur.  Circe even has occasional lovers such as Daedalus and Odysseus and the god Hermes.  After Odysseus' death, his wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus, come to the island to live with Circe.  She also has a son, Telegony, who she is determined to protect against all else.

Circe fights her surroundings and imprisonment over the ages to determine who she really is and which part of her, the goddess or the human, should she strive to be.  Finally, love makes that decision for her and she leaves to live the life that will finally satisfy her. 

Madeline Miller has made the classics the central theme of her life.  Both her undergraduate and graduate degrees were in the classics and she spends her time adapting the old stories for a modern audience to great success.  Her first novel, The Song Of Achilles, helped her burst into success and this newest novel continues that path.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The Mars Room begins with a bus ride as Romy Hall is transported to the prison where she will serve two consecutive life sentences.  What her crimes are will be revealed later as will her life story.  She grew up in San Francisco, not the city that tourists love but the seedy parts where a girl with no parents who care about her will roam the streets searching for what she does not know.  Where a ten year old girl on the streets in the rain at midnight will accompany an older man to his hotel room when he offers her help, not knowing the price.  Where she moves through a variety of men one of whom gives her the only joy in her life, her son Jackson.  Where she spends her time working in the arid fields of sex work, her haunt the dance stage of the Mars Room.

Now her former life is stripped away, even her connection to her son.  She must master and find a way to survive in a new universe as it is the only one she will know for the rest of her life.  Some women will manage to leave but that is not Romy's fate.  She forms relationships with some of the women there and shows occasional flashes of kindness but the safest way to live is with no connections that can tear and break what little is left of her heart.

Ruchel Kushner is one of the younger generation of novelists whose work has been singled out for praise.  Her novels have been National Book Award nominees and finalists in many other literary recognitions.  She has the ability to quickly catch the character of individuals whom are strangers to the reader but whose lives will sear their way into the brain, difficult to forget.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sycamore Row by John Grishman

When Seth Hubbard commits suicide, few people in Ford County, Mississippi, knew or even really cared.  Hubbard was a bit of a recluse, an elderly man who made his living in the timber business, buying timber mills, land, and furniture factories.  He lives alone out in the country in a remote house and few outside of his employees even see him from week to week.  Hubbard had cancer and the doctors had given him very little time.

But Hubbard has surprises in store for the area.  The day after his death, local attorney Jack Brignance receives a handwritten will in the mail.  In it, Hubbard renounces all his other wills, specifically disowns his children and family, and leaves all his money to his housekeeper, a black lady named Lettie Lang.  She has worked for him and cared for him when he was sick, but has only worked for him for around three years.  Why would Hubbard leave such a bequest?

Jake is known in the town for his work several years earlier where he took on the local prejudice and got justice for a black man, putting his own life and property at risk.  Jake's house was burned down and he is still renting another, his wife and daughter still uneasy at the danger his practice brings to the family.  This will promises to bring more strife. 

Soon lawyers start to circle around.  Each of the children hires a lawyer to fight the will and claim something was amiss, that Lang exerted undue influence on Hubbard.  Lettie Lang's husband hires his own lawyer to make sure she is represented.  The lawyers who drew up the prior wills are in the mix and even retired lawyers make sure they come around hoping to get the inside story.  Jake works toward the trial date, sending investigators to try to discover Seth's brother and to discover what made Seth write such a will at the end of his life.

John Grishman has written more than thirty novels.  His best known are those set in his native Mississippi and focused on the law and the justice that it is meant to bring to all.  The intricacies of his plotting and his spotlight on his native South are what has made him one of the preeminent novelist in the legal drama field.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Twisted by Jonathan Kellerman

Hollywood detective Petra Connor has caught a bad one.  After a concert, someone drove by and opened fire on the fans, killing several of them.  Petra is put on a task force to find the killers.  Her boyfriend, Eric, is overseas with a special unit fighting terrorists and the only other thing on her agenda is mentoring a city councilman's pet project.  That project is a bright, some call him a genius, Hispanic kid who on the way to becoming a doctor has decided to get a master's in statistics and who thinks the police force would be a great place to write a thesis.  The kid, Issac, is nice enough but clueless about how a police force works.

So when Issac approaches Petra about an anomaly he has noticed, her first instinct is to brush him off.  He has discovered a series of murders, all of which have occurred on the same day in different years.  That day is June 28th and its about to roll around again.  Petra looks at the cases and discovers that all are unsolved and most had not gotten a very good investigation.  After looking at them for a while, she starts to believe that Issac may have indeed discovered a serial killer.  The question is whether she can discover who it is in time to stop the murder about to occur.

Most Jonathan Kellerman fans know him for his series about Dr. Alex Delaware, a former child psychologist who helps the police with investigations.  He wrote a few novels about Petra but then apparently decided to concentrate on the Delaware series.  Petra is an interesting detective, a woman who has made a success of her work and who strictly separates her personal life from her professional one.  This novel nicely hooks the reader into the serial killing while pursuing the drive-by killing and building the relationship between Petra and Issac.  It is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

He has lived for hundreds of years and has created settlements all over the world.  When he goes to check on an African village he set up many years before, he is dismayed but not surprised to see that it has disappeared, its inhabitants either killed or taken for slaves.  As he walks away, he picks up a vibration that there is another individual nearby who it would be worthwhile to check out.  He changes course and soon finds Anyanwu, an African woman who has, like him, lived lifetimes.  He makes himself known to her and soon has taken her for his wife and plans for them to move on to America.

But there is a fundamental difference between the two.  Doro is determined to bend others to his will always.  He has fathered hundreds of children and uses them as social experiments as he tries to duplicate his own powers.  He must constantly kill in order to survive, taking the bodies of those he murders.  Anyanwu is a shape-shifter and while she can be cruel if it means survival, her first instinct is always to help those around her and to build a family.  These two unite in what will be a contest of wills that lasts for centuries.  Who will win?  Strength and cruelty or kindness and love?

This is an early novel of Octavia Butler's work.  It has an interesting premise and there are three other novels that follow this start in the series.  It is a classic battle of good vs evil, yet each of these individuals is forced to work with the other as there is no one else like them in the universe.  The reader will be caught up in their struggle as they each attempt to build a world that will survive.  This book is recommended for readers of science fiction.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

Jack Shandy is sailing to Jamaica where he has discovered an inherited fortune awaits him.  He is bored on the trip and makes the acquaintance of one of the only other young passengers, a lady named Elizabeth Hurwood, sailing with her father and his friend.  As they near their destination, disaster hits.  The ship is attacked by pirates.  Shandy's ship doesn't stand much of a chance as it turns out that Hurwood and his friend have hired the attack and join in the fight. 

Shandy is one of the few passengers to fight back and as such he is given a choice; either die or join the pirates himself.  Thus starts another life, one where he is cook and all around handyman to a group of pirates and their charismatic captain.  He becomes close to the captain when he saves his life and before you know it, Shandy is chosen to accompany the captain and his friend, Blackbeard, on a trip to Florida to find the Fountain of Youth. 

It turns out that Hurwood has an occult scheme in mind and everything that has occurred is in furtherance of his plans.  Shandy, who has developed feelings for Elizabeth, is determined to stop the plan which will end in her demise.  As he fights against time, he is accompanied by zombies, those with age-old magic and betrayal.

Tim Powers is one of the best of the genre.  Each of his books is unique as he plays out his fascination with such diverse topics as Victorian poets, pirates, modern day spies and professional gambling.  On Stranger Tides served as the inspiration for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  Powers has gone The Phillip K. Dick Award twice and the World Fantasy Award three times.  This book is recommended for fantasy readers.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Growing up wasn't easy in the east Texas small town of Liberty if you were African-American.  Mired in poverty and prejudice, the townsfolk banded together to try to make a life, forcing those who didn't conform to the outside.  Ruby Bell's family was on the outside.  The three girls were beautiful and could even pass for white but their beauty didn't bring them joy.  Instead, it brought them the attention of men, both black and white, who took from them what they weren't willing to give.

If there was an admired family, it would be the Jennings family.  The father was the preacher at the local church and railed against the ills of his society.  There were two children.  Celia was the girl who always did what was expected of her and was at the church whenever the doors opened.  Ephram was her younger brother, ready to follow Celia's lead especially after his mother was taken away and hospitalized.  Celia had raised Ephram and the two live together as adults.

Ruby ran from Liberty as soon as she was able and went to New York where the rumor was her mother had fled before her.  She moves through the city searching for her mother but instead finds the seamy clubs and alleyways that operated on the fringe of society.  When a telegram reached her insisting her best friend growing up needed her, she reluctantly returned to Liberty.  There she quickly descended into madness and poverty as the sins of her society came to rest solely on her shoulders.

But perhaps there is hope.  Ephram has loved Ruby from afar even as a child.  Now can he find the courage to demonstrate that love to her and save her, even against the thoughts of the entire town and everyone he knows?  Can he find the courage to protect Ruby against the men who degrade her and the women who shun her?  Can he and Ruby perhaps find happiness?

Cynthia Bond is one of the new novelists who are gaining fame and this is her debut novel.  It was an Indie Pick, an Oprah Book Club selection and a Barnes And Nobles Discover Great New Writers pick.  Her ability to take the reader into a life that is hard to imagine and to create a heroine who refuses to let the world take everything from her is astounding.  Readers will not soon forget this book that draws a picture of what prejudice and evil can do to everyday people and yet where there is life there is hope.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Facts Of Life And Death by Belinda Bauer

Ruby Trick is ten years old and lives in a small town on the Cornish coast with her mother and father.  Her concerns are those of a child; the tension between her mother and the father she loves without reason, the bullying she gets at school for being poor and overweight and the scary woods and deserted house close to hers that provide plenty of fodder for nightmares.  But overall Ruby is a happy child.  With her mother working long hours and her father without a job, she gets to spend lots of time with him.  He is, along with a group of the other village men, fascinated by the American Old West and the group dresses as cowboys and knows everything about Westerns.  Ruby practises her quick draw with branches she finds and longs for the day when she can get a cowgirl outfit of her own.

But the village has concerns of its own.  A man is on the prowl, isolating women and forcing them to strip.  Once he does, he makes them call home and tell their parents or husband that they are about to die.  That's enough for him at first but as the weeks go by, its not enough and he starts to follow through on the threats.  The police, understaffed and without enough resources, aren't making much progress and the Cowboy group decides its up to them to patrol.  Ruby's dad starts to drive around at night, determined to catch the person involved.  Ruby gets to go with him but has to sit in the back whenever they pick up a young woman to give her a safe ride home.

As time goes by, it slowly becomes apparent to Ruby that things are not as easy as she has always found them to be and that her perceptions of the world have not accounted for the pure evil that can be suddenly, right next door to you.  She is forced to grow up quickly and desert her childhood dreams and crushes as she is faced with real evil.

Belinda Bauer is a Welsh writer who has found great success with her writing.  She has won both the Crime Writers Golden Dagger For Best Crime Novel for her debut novel, Badlands, and the CWA award for body of work.  Many consider her the heir to authors like Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters and her ability to slowly weave evil into ordinary lives keeps the reader guessing and cheering for those caught up in things they never expected to see.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Jury Returns by Louis Nizer

Louis Nizer was one of the greatest lawyers of the twentieth century.  He started his law firm in 1924 and when he died in 1994, he was still working there, a career spanning seven decades.  He was extremely successful and represented many famous clients such as Mae West, Julius Erving, Johnny Carson and others.  His work was credited with breaking the back of Hollywood and television blacklisting during the witchhunts of the 50's and 60's.  The Jury Returns is Nizer's account of several of his more memorable cases.

The book starts with a murder case.  Paul Crump had been sentenced to die for his part in a murder during a robbery.  Nizer knew he was guilty but believed that his role had not deserved the death penalty and that his rehabilitation during his time in prison was worthy of another chance.  This section details the procedures and strategies that Nizer used to defend his client and get his sentence changed from a death sentence to a more reasonable one of imprisonment with an eventual chance of parole.

In the second case, a divorce case is studied in depth.  This will be the most difficult for readers to follow as the law around divorces has changed significantly from the 1950's and 1960's.  In those times, divorce was a difficult thing to achieve with only a few reasons available that would lead the court to grant one.  There was no such thing as a no-fault divorce and many couples stayed together for decades in a loveless marriage.  Women were often left penniless in divorce actions when no or insufficient alimony and child support were granted and this was in the era when many women did not have a career of their own to fall back on.  This section follows the case of two couples where the husband of one couple fell in love with the wife in the other.  Nizer represented the wronged wife and it took several years to win her justice and the support she was entitled to.

The third case Nizer discusses was more serious.  Roy Fruehauf, owner of the Fruehauf truck shipping line, was accused of making bribes to the Teamsters Union.  This was in the time of James Hoffa and corruption was an everyday affair.  Nizer definitely proved that Fruehauf was not involved in this corruption and that there was no reason for his firm to be disciplined.

The last case in this book is the longest.  It discusses the blacklisting common in the movie and television industries in the era of McCarthyism.  John Henry Faulk was an up and coming star on television.  He had a successful radio career and was in the process of transitioning to television when he ran afoul of some right-wing organization.  They retaliated by naming Faulk as a Communist and then his career stalled.  Within a year, his work dried up and he could find nothing anywhere.  Networks that had been clamouring for his services mysteriously decided they no longer needed him as they cut him in fear of being associated with Communism.  It took several years, but Nizer managed to vindicate Faulk and in the process, end the rampant blacklisting that crippled the lives of many actors in this time period.

This is an interesting historical look back at law in prior decades.  It is difficult for modern readers to sometimes relate to the attitudes and laws that were in play fifty to seventy years ago.  But that is one of the benefits of reading this book; the realization of how attitudes on various things have changed and the role that the law has played in changing society.  Nizer was one of the giants of the legal field and a study of his cases is interesting to those willing to case their minds back.  This book is recommended for nonfiction readers interested in legal theory and decisions.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Creatures Of Will And Temper by Molly Tanzer

Although they are sisters, Evadne and Dorina Gray couldn't be more dissimilar.  Dorina is the perfect Victorian lady; petite, fashionable, beautiful in all the accepted ways except for her dalliances with other women.  Evadne is a very different matter.  She is short, stocky and could care less for fashion and beauty.  Her passion is fencing and she devotes her time and energy to make herself a master at it.

When Dorina wants to visit their uncle in London and write a biography of his work as a painter, it isn't something she would normally be allowed to do.  Young ladies who haven't even come out don't go gallivanting off by themselves.  However, their parents decide it is permissible as long as Evadne goes along as her chaperone.

Their differences are magnified in London.  Evadne cares nothing about the museums and the art circles that have Dorina in ecstasy.  However, Evadne finds a fencing academy which has the promise of taking her skills to a new level.  Each of the girls also finds a mentor.  Dorina is entranced with Lady Henrietta 'Henry' Wooten, a rich, fashionable lady who cares nothing for what society thinks.  Evadne finds her teacher, George Cantrell, a firm yet gentle instructor who soon has her fencing moved up several levels in skill.  Although the sisters are at odds with each other, each has found a new joy in living.

Yet all is not well.  Evadne discovers that George has dedicated his life to a mission, one that he wants her to join.  He is sure that demons are around and that they take up residence in those who are willing to barter their souls in exchange for gifts like beauty, riches or some other skill.  He is determined to find and kill all of them and he wants Evadne to join his group of demon-hunters.  Evadne is especially sensitive to traces of demons.  Her greatest fear is that Henry is one of those who have made a bargain with a demon and that Dorina will do the same under her guidance.  Will Evadne commit to eradicating demons no matter the cost, even if it is her sister's life?

Molly Tanzer has written a fascinating look at a Victorian England that most never consider.  Her depiction of the slow seduction of Dorina by the demons and of Evadne by her faith in her fencing skills is masterful.  The pace is brisk enough to be a page turner while the descriptions of the people and the surroundings recreate England in another time period.  Her work has been nominated for several literary prizes and she moves between genres effortlessly.  This book is recommended for readers of fantasy.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch is nearing retirement.  As such, he has been transferred to the Open-Unsolved Unit, what many call the Cold Case Unit.  He has a new partner, Soto, who made detective after being involved in a shoot-out where she killed two gunmen in the midst of a robbery.  The case they catch is definitely a cold case and one that most detectives would have no chance of solving.

Ten years ago on a weekend afternoon, shots rang out in a crowded downtown plaza.  The man who was shot, a mariachi player, survived but with a bullet lodged in his spine that paralyzed him.  The current mayor used this crime and his determination to make sure that the Hispanic community received justice as a lynch pin of his successful campaign for mayor.  Now that man has died after ten years, the bullet he took that day finally killing him. 

There is pressure from the mayor's office to solve the crime, although it is an almost impossible one.  As Bosch and Soto work the case, they start to see that it may be tied to another, older, even bigger crime.  A fire was started in a low-rent building that ended up killing six children in a daycare located there.  Soto had been one of the children there that day but survived; the crime providing the impetus for her choice of a profession.  Are the two cases related and can either be solved after all this time?

This is the seventeenth Harry Bosch novel.  Harry is winding down his career but that doesn't mean his passion for solving crimes has diminished even a little.  He is cynical about the city and its government and never quick to warm up to anyone but as he and Soto work he realizes that she is a detective he can respect.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.