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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Under Oath by Margaret McLean

Under Oath is largely a courtroom drama.

"McLean's first novel takes the reader on a terrific journey through the machinations of Boston law. Under Fire is a compelling legal thriller with vivid characters, a realistic feel to the proceedings, and a case that ignites our interest practically on the first page. McLean, a law professor and former criminal prosecutor, knows her stuff and, even better, knows how to translate it to fiction."

 I didn't find the book the courtroom proceedings that believable, but evidently most people did.  

Not a bad way to spend an evening, but perhaps (for me, at least) not the best way, either.  I'll stick to John Lescroart for legal thrillers.

Fiction.  Courtroom Drama/Mystery.  2012.  380 pages.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman

I've always been curious about ancient manuscripts, and some of the most ancient include those connected to religion.  When Algonquin Press sent me a copy of The Aleppo Codex:  A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible, I was intrigued.

Aleppo is located in Syria, and the Great Synagogue of Aleppo served the Jewish population of Aleppo since the 5th century.  The synagogue housed the Aleppo Codex (or The Crown), the oldest extant copy of the Bible, the most authoritative and the most precise, for over five hundred years.  Written circa 930 C.E., the Aleppo Codex remained in tact for a thousand years, despite being moved, stolen once, and ransomed.  The Jews of Aleppo continued to keep the codex safe for another 500 years.

A pogrom in 1947, however, resulted in the burning of the Great Synagogue, and although the codex was rescued, there were pages missing.  How the codex was saved and eventually carried to Jerusalem, how many pages were missing and when, and what happened to those pages is what Matti Friedman pursues over the course of four years.

Originally, Friedman intended to tell the story of rescue of the codex from the fire and the details of how it eventually made its way to Jerusalem and into the hands of the Israeli authorities rather than back in the possession of the Aleppo community.  He got much more than he bargained for.  At almost every turn he met problems:  by 2008 many of those involved in the original tale were dead, some stories had serious flaws, government officials and others refused access to documents.

His research paid off in unexpected ways, revealing a story of intrigue and deception, solving some of the mysteries of the Crown's recent history, but not all.  Friedman raises the questions of ownership in regard to religious and historical documents, the ethics of appropriation of manuscripts belonging to various sects, the location of the missing codex pages, official neglect of ancient manuscripts, and what can be discovered about a manuscript when undergoing expert preservation.

An engrossing read if you like history or mystery--both are in abundance here.

Nonfiction.  History.  2012.  320 pages.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

I know a lot of people participated in the Mistborn trilogy read-along, but I quickly skimmed through those posts because I thought I might want to read the series and didn't want to know too much.  The library didn't have the books, but they did have The Alloy of Law, a Mistborn novel, but one that is not part of the original trilogy.  The Alloy of Law is set in a different time period, centuries in the future of Scadrial, and it is a stand-alone novel that doesn't require one to have read the earlier series.

The cover is very steampunk, and the content follows in this vein as well.  It opens in the Roughs, the equivalent of the Wild West.  Waxillium Ladrian is a law man in this wide-open country, taking care of the bad guys and keeping order in the turbulent and relatively untamed hinterland--until two events cause him to abandon his role and return to the city where he must reluctantly change his role from free-for-all law man to head of the House of Ladrian.

I wasn't much taken with the magic of allomancy and feruchemy which seemed contrived and self-conscious--as if trying to find a new way to present magic was the main intention.  The villains were certainly bad guys, but they were pretty much cardboard figures to promote or explain the action.

Words have great power of connotation (home, hearth, apple pie), and it is always fun to see authors give power to the word itself and not just to the content of the sentence.  Dickens was a master of this, and the example that comes to mind is the use of "brass" in Hard Times.  He used the word in so many ways:  the metal itself (brass door knocker), authority (top brass), counterfeit (as in coin), brazeness (brassy), audacity, arrogance, etc.

All that to explain the unpleasant connotation I felt (for some unknown reason) to the name Waxillium.  When the author referred to him as Wax, I was fine, but each time he used Waxillium, my skin crawled.

The novel felt like it tried too hard, and I think I'd have liked it better without the over-the-top incidents, but there were some things that worked for me.

Wax was a likable character, with potential to gain substance if there is a sequel.  My favorite character, however, was Wayne, the sidekick.  Wayne was funny, charming and pretty much a chameleon, changing his accent and persona with ease.  Marasi, the female protagonist, was good with a rifle, but for some reason  in spite of a large role, she never felt solid.  On the other hand, Steris, the woman whom Wax is to marry (he for money, she for status), played only a very small role, but has inherent possibilities.

If there is a sequel, I would read it just to see if Sanderson does something interesting with Steris.

I'll give Sanderson another try and see how it goes.

Fiction.  SF/Fantasy.  2011.  336 pages.  library book.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

Elegy for Eddie is the 9th book in the Maisie Dobbs series, which I usually enjoy.

When a group of costermongers approach Maisie about investigating the death of Eddie Pettit, a gentle and simple man, Maisie feels that her background with the men and their families deserve her time and effort.

Maisie undertakes the investigation and gradually comes to the conclusion that there was a deliberateness in the "accident."  I never felt the evidence for a deliberate accident was clear, but Maisie made enough connections to convince herself, and of course, we have a handy villain on the scene.  Whether Eddie's death was a result of an intentional murder or a warning gone wrong, Maisie is determined to discover the culprit or culprits.  While she may suspect the individual who actually caused Eddie's death, she wants to know if that person acted on his own or was given orders.

The investigation into Eddie's death leads Maisie to question the death of a young reporter who was acquainted with Eddie, and who supposedly committed suicide a short time prior to Eddie's death.

I'm afraid that I did not find this as satisfying a read as most of the Maisie novels have been.  The dialogue seemed stilted, Maisie's character seemed to be regressing (as did James' character), and there were a number of ethical dilemmas whose resolutions were tacitly approved.

After reading the novel, I looked for other reviews and found that most felt this was one of best in the series.  So there you go...I'm certainly in the minority.

One character that I did like was Eve.  She had color and verve despite her grief and was much more vibrant (even in her very minor role) than Maisie, who seemed like lukewarm milk toast in this novel.

Fiction.  Mystery.  2012.  331 pages.  library book.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Midnight in Peking by Paul French

Midnight in Peking is a true-crime novel set in Peking in 1937 in the midst of China's civil war and shortly before the invasion of Japan.  In fact, the Japanese have already begun preparations and are encamped right outside the city.

When the body of a foreigner, a young woman, is discovered brutally murdered, the situation is fraught with political ramifications.  Not only is the victim a young white woman, nineteen-year-old Pamela Werner, daughter of a former British consul,  but the murder is so savage that even experienced policemen are appalled.

French researched the events thoroughly and presents the evidence discovered, the obstacles  presented by the British Legation, the cover-ups, the attempts to save face, and the corruption.

When both the British and Chinese detectives were stymied by circumstances and the investigation closed, Pamela's father, the seventy-five-year-old E.T.C. Werner, began his own investigation, spending the last years of his life pursuing the evidence and the leads that might bring his daughter's murderer to justice.

 What the official detectives failed to discover, Pamela's father doggedly seeks, using his own money to follow the trail and to hire private detectives to aid in the search.  The characters he encounters are often seedy, sinister, and in the case of the White Russian hermaphrodite, bizarre.

The story French reveals is based largely on Werner's notes and letters to the authorities as he relentlessly tracks down anyone with information about what really happened that January night in 1937.

The book reads like something between a case history and a novel.  The story, the villains, the collusions and deceptions, even the characters are almost more fantastic than fiction.

I think I first read about this novel at Mary's Library, and I'm glad I added it to my TBR list and found it at the library.

Nonfiction.  Crime.  2012.  272 pages.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Internet Absence and Three Reviews

I took a bit of a blogging break, for various reasons, but I had several reviews scheduled to occupy about a little more than a week.

Which was a good thing, as I've since had both computer problems and internet problems.  When SuddenLink did an upgrade, their instructions about getting connected again didn't work.

Of course, as a technodunce of the first order, my efforts were fruitless.  However, even my husband had difficulty and several phone calls were required.   I may go days without wanting to use the computer, but as soon as it is unavailable...I'm frantic.

Finally, Fee got us connected again, and I'm sighing with relief.

Three short reviews:

 Safe Harbor  by Rosemary McCracken is another debut novel.  Here is the book description:

Financial advisor Pat Tierney’s world is shattered when a visitor to her office tells her that Pat's late husband is the father of a seven-year-old boy. Stunned by the revelation of her husband's affair, Pat is even more shocked when the woman bolts from the office, leaving young Tommy behind. 

When Tommy's mother is murdered, police tell Pat that the boy may be the killer's next target. In a desperate race to protect Tommy, Pat's searches for the truth.... (I omitted spoilers)

 Set in Toronto, the novel deals with legal and illegal immigration as well as the personal crisis Pat faces when she learns about her husband's affair and must deal with the sense of betrayal she feels.  The novel also deals with parent-child relationships.

Overall--a moderately entertaining mystery and a fast read.

Fiction.  Mystery.  2012.  220 pages.  library book.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty is the story of Cora Carlisle, a housewife from Wichita, Kansas who accompanies the fifteen-year-old Louise Brooks to New York City in 1922.

I really liked that Cora was one of the orphans on an Orphan Train from New York.  I wrote about this fascinating and neglected part of American history here after seeing the documentary.

I also liked the parts about Louise Brooks, that icon of silent movies from the twenties and thirties.  I really want to read her autobiography LuLu in Hollywood.  Brooks was intelligent, beautiful, arrogant, and unconventional.

An entirely readable novel that involves a kind of coming of age for  the thirty-six-year-old Cora who has never questioned much about convention or how to manage certain difficulties in her own life. I enjoyed this one.

An ARC from the Penguin Group.

Historical Fiction.  2012.  423 pages (with extensive bibliography).

The Last Good Man by A.J. Kazinski.  I'm only mentioning this one because of the Lamed- Vav Tzadikim (or Tzadikim Nistarim), who in Jewish tradition are the "thirty six righteous ones" in each generation that are responsible for saving the world.

The book was pretty awful, but the coincidence of reading the book at the same time I was watching the last episode of Touched  with Kiefer Southerland on Hulu was interesting.  I was not familiar with this idea and to have it show up at the same time in a book and a television series was one of those synchronicitous occasions that catch your attention.

When doing a little research on Wikipedia, I discovered that Jodie Picoult, Sam Bourne, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Chabon have all made use of the Talmudic statement about the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim.

I wouldn't even have mentioned this book if it had not been for the fact that the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim was such an intriguing concept.

Mystery. 2012.  480 pages.  library book.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding  is one of my favorite books this year.  Not because of the plot, but because of the baseball.  My favorite parts were the descriptions of Henry Skrimshander's fielding ability, the practices, and the games.  Harbach can romance the action on the field with remarkable clarity, and I love these sections.

Another favorite part--the excerpts from the fictitious book The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez:

"The glove is not an object in the usual sense," said Aparicio in The Art of Fielding.  "For the infielder to divide it from himself, even in thought, is one of the roots of error."

"The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense.  He projects this stillness and his teammates respond."
"To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension....
Aparicio's book is the only book that Henry takes with him to Westish College, but for him, the book is a mentor and a philosophy.

The first half of the book was excellent, and I enjoyed all of the Melville connections, even the name Skrimshander evokes scrimshaw and images of whaling.  As the complications involving the relationships began taking more precedence, however, I felt much less attached.

Nominated for a Pulitzer (although it did not win), the book has garnered great praise and severe criticism.  I loved the book, but did feel that some of the relationships off the field were a bit forced, nor did the last few chapters work that well for me.

It isn't a book that I'll forget; it will linger much longer than many of the books I read.

Fiction.  Contemporary Lit.  2011.  512 pages.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus has been on my list for quite a while, and recently, the library had an available copy.  This one has been read and reviewed so many times that you may not want to bother with reading another review.

I can say that it didn't disappoint in the realm of imagery.  The Night Circus is a visual feast that makes black and white magical and chimerical.  The descriptions are beautiful, enticing, seductive, and you want to experience the magic for yourself, to wander among the tents, have your fortune told, and to marvel at the illusions.

My relationship with magical realism is ambivalent, and while  I've loved some books in this category, others have left me cold.  The Night Circus falls on the more positive side of this division, but as lovely as the package, the content was not completely satisfying.

The language, the descriptions, the originality, and the creative imagination of the book are tremendously appealing, but the pacing, the chronological shifts, and the thin characters are a drawback.

I really enjoyed the book, but I did want it to be more, to be fuller in some way.  Morgenstern is a conjurer herself, creating a beautiful and enticing atmosphere that the reader gladly enters with all of the curiosity and amazement of the reveurs who follow the circus from place to place.  If only I could have connected more with the characters....

This is, however, Morgenstern's first novel, and she has created a work of remarkable art and beauty.  I definitely look forward to more from this author.

Fiction.  Fantasy/Magical Realism.  2011.  387 pages.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

The Girl in the Garden  begins with a long letter that Rakhee Singh leaves her fiance before leaving on a flight to India.  On top of the letter sits her engagement ring.

In the letter, Rakhee explains that she cannot marry him until she has  confronted the problems she has wrestled with for years and resolved some issues from her past.

She begins by telling about her childhood, the relationship of her parents in their small Minnesota town, her sense of being different from the blonde and blue-eyed children at school, her mother's unhappiness, and the sudden trip to India when she was ten.

The writing is effortless, and it was easy to fall headlong into this story of a child who visits the ancestral home in India one fateful summer.  Nair's descriptions of the family she meets in India--her grandmother, her aunt and uncle, and her cousins--and the differences between life in India and life in Minnesota are vivid enough to make you feel the scorching heat, the incipient friendships of the cousins, and the feeling of something unsaid and mysterious behind the family relationships.

When Rakhee ventures alone into the jungle and discovers a house with a walled garden, events begin to slowly unravel the intricate secrets the family has been keeping.  Rakhee's courage and persistence bring to light truths that are painful to confront and with which the adult Rakhee is still  struggling and must resolve before she can marry the young man she left behind.

I loved Nair's writing and watching the story unfold from Rakhee's childhood viewpoint.  Of the family secrets that are eventually revealed, there was one that I wished the author had avoided, but it diminished my pleasure in the novel only slightly.

Fiction.  Contemporary Lit./India.  2011.  305 pages.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce

Cambridge Blue, first published in the UK in 2008, was a debut novel for Alison Bruce.  She has written two more in this series featuring Gary Goodhew, the young DC whose eagerness to solve crimes sometimes leads him to unauthorized behavior.

DC Goodhew is well-liked by most of the department, but remains something of a loner.  His unorthodox actions have him in hot water with his superior DI Marks, and I can't disagree with Marks' irritation.  In fact, although Goodhew shows promise as a developing character,  DI Marks has a distinctive personality that I hope is developed in the next two novels.  He certainly deserves more time.

Not a novel in which you can easily determine the murderer, as Bruce keeps the information she releases under tight control to keep you guessing.  A cast of unpleasant characters and a truly dysfunctional family provide many possibilities for a guilty party.

In addition to her fictional series featuring DC Goodhew, Bruce has written two nonfiction books:  Cambridgeshire Murders and Billington: Victorian Executioner.

Fiction.  Mystery/Police Procedural.  2009.  256 pages.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Bone Reapers by Jeanne Matthews

I was doing a fair job keeping up with and scheduling my reviews for a while, then fell down on the job and have 4 or 5 reviews to write and schedule.  Hate it when that happens.

Bone Reapers initially caught my interest because the blurb mentions a seed repository to preserve seeds in case of a catastrophic event or gradual climate change that could potentially destroy our current agricultural systems and eliminate countless species of plants.  There are various gene banks around the world, but the one in Svalbard, Norway is the last-ditch hope, built to preserve the seeds in all foreseeable disasters.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault does exist, and the author uses both the vault and the town of Longyearbyen--located not terribly far from the Arctic Circle--as part of  setting and plot.  Dinah Pelerin is a minor part of a U.S. delegation delivering seeds to the plant.   Her superior at the University of Hawaii is a bit suspicious about the safeguarding of the seeds (think genetically modified crops) and sends Dinah to discover more about the procedures, contracts, etc.

Matthews descriptions of the town, the formidable cold (in January, the average low in Longyearbyen is -20 and the average high is -13), and the effects of Polar Night are very well done.  Also interesting are the possibilities for corruption and mismanagement concerning gene banks and seed repositories that Matthews employs in her mystery.

While some of the corruption possibilities seem far-fetched at first glance, it is interesting that a large part of the funding for the Svalbard Vault comes from Monsanto.  Gives one pause.

I liked this book mostly because of the information about the seed vault and the location, but the mystery was just OK.

Poisoned Pen Press.  Net Galley.

Fiction.  Mystery.  June 2012.  250 pages (print version)

Friday, June 01, 2012

Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason

Operation Napoleon failed to overcome my disbelief...or I was simply not able to suspend it.

In 1945, a German bomber with American camouflage crashes into a glacier in Iceland.  An immediate, extensive search for the plane results, but the blizzard that caused the crash lasts for days, and the plane is effectively buried in the glacier.  Another huge search is mounted in 1967.  In 1999, satellites again see a possibility of the missing plane, and the evil Americans set about another retrieval effort.  Headed on the scene by Ratoff--not very subtle.

Two young men working with an Icelandic Rescue Team, leave their group to test their new snowmobiles, and happen on the evil Americans recovering the plane.  One young man, unsuspecting,  has used his cell phone to call his sister.  Kristin hears the broken message of her excited younger brother as the evil Americans capture the boys and end the phone call.

But they trace the phone call.  Of course.  And get information from the brother about Kristin.  Now Kristin is in danger.  And so on.  And on.

Except this 30 year-old lawyer manages to outwit and out run professional killers, not once, but over and over.  She WILL NOT BE STOPPED.  She WILL find out what happened to her brother, overcome all odds, and discover the secret the evil Americans do not want revealed.

 Without giving spoilers, it isn't that  plans such as the one the novel depicts might not have been floated by either British or Americans near the close of WWII or that there aren't some pretty unpleasant characters in the military, it is more that the actions of the American Embassy and  the decisions and behavior of the Icelandic president (as presented in the novel) not only fail to ring true, but cast a bad light on both countries.  An exaggerated and sinister view of both governments-- pretty much black and grey.  No white.

I'm pretty snarky on this one because I expected much more from this author.  The conclusion, such as it is, boggles the mind.

Fiction.  Mystery/Thriller (?)   May 2012.  352 pages.