Monday, September 29, 2014

Brunelleschi's Dome by Ross King (♦♦♦♦)

How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

On August 19, 1418 a competition was announced calling for designs for vaulting of the dome of Florence's cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, scaffolds, as well as the design of machines that would make possible the erecting of the dome. The cathedral had been under construction for over a century and its foundation had been laid in 1296. The designer and original architect was a master mason named Arnolfo di Cambio, builder of both the Palazzo Vecchio and the city's fortifications.

In 1366 there was a call for models as how the dome of the cathedral would be built. Two models were submitted, one by Giovanni Di Lapo Ghini detailing external buttresses to channel the stress of high walls; Neri di Fioravanti's model did away with the buttresses by vaulting using iron rings embedded in the masonry to absorb the stress on the structure. The latter was the model chosen. Fifty years later, the problem of how to build the dome still confounded architects.

In 1418, Filippo Brunelleschi, who was a goldsmith and clockmaker by trade, submitted a revolutionary model: the vaulting of the dome could be done without centering, the technique that uses wooden scaffolding or sand bags to hold the structure until the mortar sets. Despite the acceptance that his model had by the Opera del Duomo, four capomaestri were chosen: Filippo was one, along with his old rival Lorenzo Ghiberti. An additional capomaestro was named to coordinate the work of all the workers on site.

Brunelleschi and Ghiberti became rivals in 1401 during the competition to sculpt in bronze the doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni. The contenders were asked to sculpt images of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Filippo set to work in isolation, but Ghiberti proved to be a savvy participant and the commission was awarded to both of them, something that made Filippo so angry that he resigned the commission and embarked on a voyage to Rome, where he would remain on and off for next fifteen years. In Rome, Filippo became a student of classic architecture, studying sites such as the Pantheon and other ruins, knowledge that would prove valuable in building the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

The construction of the vault began in the summer of 1420 and would extend until 1436, when the dome was consecrated. Several years more would take the cathedral to be finished, for once the dome was vaulted a lantern was built on top.

For the vaulting of the duomo, Brunelleschi made ingenious contributions. He designed a hoist propelled by an ox, with a system of pulleys and counterweights, and a reversible gear, ahead of his time by at least a century. This ox-hoist would prove valuable to raise the heavy materials from the ground to hundred feet in the air. He also designed a crane called castello, which was able to move weights laterally as well as up and down. In addition, he designed the chains that would reinforce the dome internally, and his pattern of herringbone for the bricks added stability to the vault considering that, at its highest, the bricks would have an angle of thirty degrees to the horizontal.

But Brunelleschi’s career was not without controversy. The river Arno wasn’t navigational; there were no tides like in bigger rivers such as the Thames. At times, the river resembled a stream; thus, the transport of materials via the river was a difficult task to say the least. Brunelleschi designed a kind of ship named Il Badalone, whose purpose was to transport marble from Pisa to Florence. The ship sunk on its maiden voyage, sinking with it 100,000 pounds of valuable marble that the Opera del Duomo made him repay. Another one of his failures came during the battle of Florence against neighboring Lucca. Brunelleschi had the idea to divert the river Serchio and strand Lucca “in the middle of a lake contained by a dam”. But the dam construction was flimsy at best, and the Lucchese figured it out, destroying the dam and flooding the Florentine camp, whose inhabitants were forced to retreat. Workers disputes for higher salaries also managed to taint Brunelleschi’s reputation, and the last straw was when the Masons Guild sent him to jail for not paying its meager dues.

Despite all the controversies and petty rivalries, the dome was vaulted in record time and Brunelleschi managed in the process to change the way architecture is perceived.
He died on April 15, 1446 at sixty-nine years old. He was interred in the cathedral. Only the patron saint of Florence is interred there as well.

I really liked Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. The book provides a fascinating portrayal of the times and the professional and personal life of Brunelleschi. The result is a vivid, absorbing tale of intrigue and genius, of turbulent times and the men who shaped them.

Brunelleschi’s genius is inspiring, and his accomplishments off the charts. Despite writing in a very accessible way about architecture and engineering marvels, I found the reading somewhat challenging because I need pictures to visualize complex concepts, and the book had pictures but not enough in my opinion.

In summary, Brunelleschi’s Dome is an inspiring account of the life and work of Brunelleschi, as well as a very vivid portrayal of the time in which he lived.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham (♦♦♦♦)

On the hills of Tennessee, outside Nashville, lies the Horse Farm, a farm devoted to healing of afflicted people through equine therapy. The farm owner, Marcus Danby, dies of an apparent self-inflicted drug overdose in a ravine near the farm. Olivia “Liv” Gordon, a farm therapist and Marcus’ friend, discovers the body. With sunset quickly approaching, Liv sees the ghost in the sky of General Rufus Cunnigham, a Confederate general during the Civil War, riding his horse Loki, apparently watching over her.

Olivia contacts Malachi Gordon, her cousin and an agent with the FBI’s Krewe of Hunters, to question Marcus’ official cause of death by telling him that Marcus’ ghost appeared to her and told her he had been murdered. Malachi promises to send an agent undercover to investigate.
Enter agent Dustin Blake, in his first assignment with the Krewe of Hunters. Within days of his arrival there is an attempt on the life of the farm’s director—attempt disguised as an accident. When the director is discharged from the hospital, he dies of another apparent “accident” while supposedly alone at home.

With two deaths, fewer clues, and a cunning killer on the loose, it is obvious to Dustin that Olivia may be the next target. The reputation of the farm is in shambles and the risk of closing forever is imminent. With Olivia in the sight of the killer, Dustin knows he may have to die to protect her if it comes to that, now that they’re involved and falling quickly in love.

I really liked The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham. This is the second book in the trilogy of the night involving the Krewe of Hunters that I read after The Night Is Watching. I would like to read The Night Is Alive as well. I have also read by Heather Graham and reviewed Ghost Shadow, Ghost Walk, and When Darkness Falls (Alliance Vampires series).

As I said, I liked this book. I suspected the identity of the killer from early on but there was enough misdirection to confuse me for a while, so no damage done. The plot was intricate and the history involving the Battle of Nashville and other battles from the Civil War on Tennessee soil were fascinating and absorbing. It was a great touch on Graham’s part to include a ghost hero and the history surrounding him. The other two ghosts were interesting as well, though they didn’t have much to contribute to the investigation and I found that so frustrating.

The romance was, as always in Graham’s books, scorching hot, and nicely described as well, no intricate details, just the chemistry and the basics to get the meaning. All the characters were very well developed, and I cared for their fates, some more than others.

In summary, The Night Is Forever by Heather Graham was a quick read. Historical details make it absorbing and fascinating.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Exiles by Ron Hansen (♦♦♦♦)

       “As early as 1932, the great British literary critic F.R. Leavis could write that Hopkins ‘is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest.’” Page 210

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born on July 28, 1844, the eldest child of Kate and Manley Hopkins. His mother was a dedicated housewife, while his father had a successful marine insurance adjuster business and wrote standard manuals on the topic. His father also delved into a literary career.

Gerard Hopkins won a poetry prize when he was sixteen years-old, and later won a partial scholarship to Oxford thanks to his poetry writing. During his studies at Oxford, Hopkins continued writing poetry, this time of a more religious nature. He graduated with honors from Oxford in classical studies, but his placement as a professor was endangered when he decided to leave the Church of England and join the Catholic Church at the age of twenty-two. At twenty-four he joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and entered a seminary to become a priest.

As a Jesuit, Hopkins gave up his poetry writing, but that was interrupted seven years into his seminary life, in 1875, when he read accounts of the wreckage of the steam sail ship Deutschland, which departed from Bremen with destination New York via a stop in England where the sinking occurred. About sixty lives were lost, among them those of five nuns who were escaping from Germany due to the banning of their religious order by the government of Otto von Bismarck, who had all but outlaw Catholicism in Germany. Hopkins was so moved by the details of the wreckage and the nuns' ordeal that he started writing copiously again, 1876 being considered his "annus mirabilis."

In 1877 he was ordained a priest, but couldn't finish the required four year studies in theology to hold higher office because he didn't pass the oral examination. After being ordained he held posts in Liverpool, Oxford, and Ireland, where he was sent in 1884 and where he would remain until his death in 1889.

It seems that I'm constantly rearranging my TBR list, which is a good indication of what I'm going to read next, but this week I've been busy reading Exiles by Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy--both with religious themes--and watching the miniseries The Bible, which I thought was fantastic, so I figured that a natural progression would be to read next The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.

I really liked Exiles by Ron Hansen. The book starts with a biographical sketch of Gerard Manley Hopkins during his years in Oxford and as a Jesuit in the seminary; next it switches to accounts of the lives of the five nuns and Hopkins and concludes with an eerie parallelism between Hopkins’ final years and the wreckage of the Deutschland.

I found that parallelism a masterful touch on the part of Ron Hansen to convey how life seemed to be draining from Hopkins in his years of service in Ireland, yet no one paid attention. At the same time, I didn’t think that the sinking of the ship had been that shocking until Hansen vividly described hour after long agonizing hour. In the end my eyes were moist, both for the lives lost in the wreckage and for Hopkins’ end, a hundred-and-twenty-five years after the fact!

I have read sad (and inspiring) books in my day, but Exiles by Ron Hansen is in contention to take the cake in both categories. I felt moved by the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins, his convictions, the desertion of friends and family when he abandoned the comfort of his faith for a stranger (and poorly perceived) one, desertion that felt to him like betrayal because in the most important moments of his life the people closest to him weren’t present. That hurts! He remained as the nuns, an exile until the end.

In summary, Exiles by Ron Hansen is deeply moving. It is a difficult reading experience yet shouldn’t be missed!

Favorite quotes:

To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace / my parting, sword and strife.

England, whose honor O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
Y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a third
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word

Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spells thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

                            Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Harbor Island by Carla Neggers (♦♦♦♦)

Emma and Colin have been in Boston for a few days, back from their Irish getaway detailed in Declan's Cross. Emma receives a call from a confidential source to meet in Bristol Island, an island in the Boston harbor. When Emma arrives, she finds the woman dead of a gunshot.

The victim's name was Rachel Bristol, a movie director interested in making a movie about the Declan's Cross art heist. She had been staying at a house property of her ex-husband in an affluent neighborhood in Boston. The morning of her death she was supposed to have a meeting with her ex-husband Travis, and Maisie, his daughter and movie mogul producer.

Travis and Maisie are naturally distressed by the news, though Finian Bracken learns through Maisie that she didn't share Rachel's vision for the movie and wanted to sever their links. Apparently Rachel thought that she had figured out the identity of the serial art thief.

To complicate matters further, Oliver Fairbairn, an English mythologist consulting for the upcoming movie is also staying at the house and raising questions as well...Add into the mix a security expert in love with Maisie, guarding her at her mother's request, and the beautiful and dashing Aoife O'Byrne visiting Boston for the first time, whom more than one think is the thief, and keeping Finian as company, which is raising eyebrows.

I really liked Harbor Island, the latest installment in the Sharpe & Donovan series, which started with Saint’s Gate, and followed with Heron’s Cove and Declan’s Cross (initial review and re-read).

In Harbor Island several things happened: 1) we finally know the identity of the serial art thief as well as his motivations; 2) we get to know Father Bracken better as a man, with temptations and all, which make him utterly human; 3) there’s a lot of lovemaking, which was fun on the side because it distracted from the lack of progress and the excessive questions in the investigation; 4) we got some sense of humor courtesy of the characters we know by now, which is newish and very welcome; 5) Emma shared a memory, and I know that’s not much but memories are part of the things that make us  human, and Emma so far has been a mystery in that regard. I hope Carla Neggers uses that recourse more often in future installments because that’s a glimpse, however brief, of what she was like before joining the FBI.

The atmosphere of suspense is lost in this installment, but the mystery, meaning the identity of the culprits, isn’t, so in that regard Harbor Island is as solid as we’ve come to expect from this series. There aren’t art depictions in this story, but we are regaled with stories of Celtic lore and Nordic mythology, and as always they’re very relevant to the plot.

In summary, Harbor Island is a solid, much improved in many regards, entry in the Sharpe & Donovan series. The folklore, the mystery and the humor don’t disappoint.

DISCLAIMER: I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Rock Point (novella) by Carla Neggers (♦♦♦♦)

Bonus Content

Father Bracken is having a drink with Garda Sean Murphy at the recently opened O'Byrne Hotel, when he meets by chance an American priest on holiday. Father Callahan is so taken with Ireland that he wants to take a sabbatical year to explore it.

Father Bracken needs to escape Ireland because it reminds him of his former self, the family he lost, so what better way to serve God than in a struggling parish across the Atlantic? Father Bracken pulls some strings and gets assigned to St. Patrick's Church of Rock Point, Maine.

As the Father is planning his trip, Garda Murphy is after the name of one of Bracken Distillers’ former employee, a man who appears to be involved in a very dangerous smuggling ring.

Rock Point apparently was written after Heron's Cove, but it seems to me that it's a prequel not only to the latter, but an introduction to the Sharpe & Donovan series because the events detailed in Saint's Gate occurred in September while those in Rock Point happened in March till June.

Rock Point introduces us to the characters in Ireland at the center of Declan's Cross, namely Sean Murphy, Paddy Murphy, and Kitty O'Byrne.

While Rock Point is well written, it isn't long enough to get a feel for the characters if we encountered them for the first time. However, it ties up several loose ends in subsequent entries in the series.

DISCLAIMER: This novella is a bonus content inside Harbor Island, which I received free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Q &A with Carla Neggers author of HARBOR ISLAND

1.            What about HARBOR ISLAND sets it apart from your other books in the Sharpe & Donovan series?

Boston, and FBI agents Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan are engaged but haven’t told anyone. They’re back from a short break in Ireland, at work with their small, Boston-based FBI unit. Emma, an art crimes expert, is on the hot seat. She needs to find out why her boss was sent a replica of an Irish Celtic cross exactly like crosses she and her grandfather have received after unsolved art thefts over the past decade. Colin, a deep-cover agent, was shoe-horned into Emma’s unit, and his role is still unclear…but he finds himself checking up on their boss’s missing wife. Four books into this series, and I’m as excited about Emma and Colin and their families, friends and colleagues as ever!

2.            The book takes readers on a ride from Boston to Ireland to the coast of Maine. What drew you to these locations?

I love Boston, Ireland and Maine and know them well, but it didn’t occur to me they would be at the heart of my Sharpe & Donovan series until I “saw” a woman approaching the gate of an isolated Maine convent and knew she was about to find a murdered nun. That led to SAINT’S GATE, the first book in the series. Everything fell into place with that one image. The woman became Emma Sharpe, a former novice at the convent and now an FBI agent who specializes in art crimes with a handpicked Boston-based unit. She is also the granddaughter of Wendell Sharpe, an octogenarian art detective in Ireland. As Emma came into focus, so did Colin Donovan. I “saw” him smashing his lobster boat into the rocky coastline so he can sneak into the convent and keep an eye on Emma. He’s from a rough-and-tumble Maine fishing village, an FBI deep-cover agent coming off a harrowing, months-long mission. Maine, Ireland and Boston and Emma and Colin came together, with endless possibilities.

3.            How is Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan’s relationship impacted differently by this particular case compared to ones in the past?

Well, without giving too much away, they’re engaged, and they haven’t told anyone—so there’s still time to back out and pretend they had too much Guinness and need more time before they make such a commitment. They’ve been on the same team for a couple months, but now they’re actually working on the same team. Is that even possible? Can a highly independent, restless guy like Colin fit in? And Emma—her family of high-profile art detectives is causing trouble for her again. Is being a Sharpe too much for her role as an FBI agent, and for Colin?

4.            What’s next for the Sharpe & Donovan series?

I’m writing KEEPER’S REACH, the fifth book in the series. It takes place in the middle of the cold New England winter that Irish priest Finian Bracken, serving a small church in Colin’s hometown on the Maine coast, has both dreaded and yearned to experience. I don’t like to talk too much about a book as I’m writing it, but let’s just say that readers who’ve been wanting more of Mike Donovan, the eldest of the four Donovan brothers, get their wish, and Emma and Colin are tested as never before.

5.            You have published more than 60 novels, which have been printed in 24 languages. How do you manage to stay creative and come up with such unique plots every time?

I’m not sure I know the answer except that I love to write and I always have ideas. Once a story is percolating, the characters direct what happens, and the writing always goes best when I trust that process. I also believe that creativity needs to be nurtured, and the fastest way to burnout is to get into “always on” mode and stay there. For me, the time away from my desk is as important as the time at my desk, whether it’s to pull weeds for an hour or head to Ireland for a few weeks.

6.            Do you know how the story will unfold before you begin writing or does it come to you as it goes?

I know some of the story ahead of time—the kernel, bits and pieces—but for the most part, it unfolds as I go. For me, characters reveal themselves as they walk, talk, breathe, act and react more than if I tried to do dossiers (and I have tried!). New plot points arise that I’d never have thought of if I tried to write a step-by-step outline (and I have tried!). Having no clue at all about what I’m writing doesn’t work for me, either. Writing a short synopsis—two or three pages at most—helps anchor the story for me. I’ve played with different approaches, but I keep coming back to this one. Funnily, it’s not that different from the approach I used as a kid when I climbed a tree with pad and pen and spun tales!

7.            In your blog on your website, you talk about being “in the zone” as a writer. What are some tips you can give aspiring writers to help them reach this point?

When I’m in the zone, time falls away, and I’m lost in the story and the writing. One very simple thing I’ve learned to do when I’m writing on the computer is to go into full screen mode without page numbers or word counts. Writing by hand, I don’t stop to number the pages. Another trick is to turn off the internet. Most of us know to do this. We do. C’mon. We know. Turn. It. Off. Finally…I try to stop writing for the day before I’ve run out of steam. It’s easier to dive back into the zone the next day.

8.            HARBOR ISLAND is filled with breathtaking suspense. How do you write a scene that puts readers on the edge of their seats?

Thank you! I hope every scene moves the story forward and builds tension, and that the characters come to life. As an avid reader myself, I like to feel as if I’m in the middle of the action and get absorbed by what’s going on. I don’t tell myself that’s what I need to do when I’m writing, though. That would take me out of the story and no doubt intimidate me. Instead, I focus on what’s going on and how best to write that particular scene. Sometimes it doesn’t happen the first go. Okay, a lot of times it doesn’t happen the first go, but when it’s “there,” I can feel it. It’s a great feeling.

9.            You’ve often shared your love for cooking with your fans. What’s the go-to dish in your home?

With late-summer vegetables arriving at our local farmstands, I’m making ratatouille. These days, I’m into Mediterranean cooking, but I’ve loved ratatouille since I tackled my first batch right after my husband and I were married and I found a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, a wedding present. I’d never even heard of it growing up. We love having batches in the freezer for the long Vermont winter. It’s like a taste of summer.

10.         You love to travel and gain inspiration for your next book. Is there somewhere you haven’t been that you’re dying to visit and use as a setting for a future book?

Newfoundland! No question. We almost got there last summer, but my father-in-law died just as we were about to leave. We are grateful for his long, good, healthy life, but it’s never easy to say goodbye. I still have my Newfoundland folder on my desk, with articles, photos and ideas for where to stay and what to do. I want to hike in Gros Morne National Park. Everyone I know who’s been there (it’s not that many!) says it’s absolutely gorgeous. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Declan’s Cross (re-read) by Carla Neggers (♦♦♦♦)

I initially reviewed Declan’s Cross last September as part of Carla Neggers’ blog tour to promote its release. I have spent the last few weeks catching on the Sharpe & Donovan series, which started with Saint’s Gate, followed by Heron’s Cove, and Declan’s Cross.

Last year I had a family emergency that didn’t allow me to concentrate as well as I should have, and I think I did a disservice to the author by stating that the mystery was less important than the love interactions. I re-read this book again for several reasons: 1) to read the series in order to understand the characters better; 2) to be sure I hadn’t missed anything the first time around.

I think that in the Sharpe & Donovan series the mystery is a strong component, almost breathing element in the plots, and they have to be, considering Emma and Colin make their living as FBI agents. I still think that Emma and Colin should be flesh-out more because they are the protagonists. I like Father Bracken better, though I have learned to appreciate the interactions among the Donovan brothers, and all the characters that are fillers in a way—or important to a novel but don’t reappear in another.

Leave it to Carla Neggers to describe the setting of her novels in such detail that always make me want to plan for a trip there. In Declan's Cross the setting is Ireland, which kept reminding me of the novel The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherford that I started reading years ago and put aside for shorter readings. Despite being a very long novel, The about the history of Ireland from pre-Christianity to modern days. I guess I needed to be in the mood to tackle it and Carla Neggers has set the stage perfectly.

Even though the novels can be read as stand-alone, I think it’s crucial to read them in order to understand the characters and their development in the series. I feel they have grown on me after these few weeks.

In summary, since folklore and background mysteries are very well developed, Carla Neggers should focus on strengthening the characters further to make it a superb series. As it is, the Sharpe & Donovan series is already very good.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Heron’s Cove by Carla Neggers (♦♦♦♦)

Colin Donovan has been missing for weeks from Rock Point. Allegedly he is working hard at his FBI desk in Washington; his family knows better. Colin's siblings have been grilling Emma for his whereabouts. Emma doesn't know where Colin is except that he is on an undercover mission to flush out the members of an illegal arms trafficking network formerly run by a Russian magnate who is now in federal custody.

A phone call in the middle of the night tips Emma that Colin’s been held in a house in Fort Lauderdale and his life is in danger. Immediately Emma warns her boss about Colin's situation. Meanwhile, Colin has barely managed to escape from a certain death at the hands of three wannabe arms traffickers.

Back in Heron's Cove, the Maine coastal village that's home to the Sharpes, Emma receives a tip from an unknown Russian jewelry designer named Tatiana Pavlova, that the Russian Art Nouveau jewelry collection formerly a property of Russian billionaire Dmitri Rusakov is heading to Heron's Cove and is going to be stolen. To complicate matters further, Rusakov, a former client of the Sharpes, arrives on Heron’s Cove in his luxury yacht. Natalie Warren, daughter of Rusakov’s ex-wife, has brought the collection on board.

Little do these people know that their lives will collide in unexpected ways, while the men intent on taking Colin’s life in Florida will be back to claim revenge.

This is the third book I read in the Sharpe & Donovan series, which started with Saint’s Gate; Heron’s Cove is the second book, which I just completed, and Declan’s Cross is next. On September 17 I will publish my review of the latest installment in this series, Harbor Island.

I really liked Heron’s Cove by Carla Neggers. I thought this would be another story about the now cliché Russian thugs, but I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover why I got hooked on this series in first place... The writing is atmospheric, the suspense envelopes you, the descriptions of the objects of art are sumptuous and so are the folk tales that inspires them.

Rock Point and Heron’s Cove are two more characters in the series and they are the quintessential New England towns.

It doesn't hurt that there's a reasonable dose of romance and tension among the characters in the book.

While I like the chemistry that Colin and Emma share, I don’t think their characters are that well developed yet; in other words, I just can’t picture them aside from knowing that Emma is an ex-nun, now with FBI art crimes division, and her family makes a living as renowned art detectives, reason why Colin is at times suspicious of her. Colin is a rugged, sexy man, who does undercover work for the FBI, and has a close-knit family, but that’s about it. I think Neggers has to expand on that if she wants the series to grow because the cases, while very good background, aren’t enough to fill in the blanks.

In summary, Heron’s Cove is a very good follow up to Saint’s Gate. While the Sharpe & Donovan series still has room to grow, certain things should remain the same such as the sumptuous descriptions of objects of art and the atmosphere of the stories.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley (♦♦♦♦)

1665 Is a year of plague in London. Young Mariana Farr has lost her mother to the plague, and has left the city in a hurry to escape the disease. She goes to live with her uncle and his family at Greywethers, in the village of Exbury. In the months that follow, Mariana settles into her daily life and falls in love with the lord of the manor next door.

Present day…Books illustrator Julia Beckett has been in love with Greywethers cottage since she was a child, so when the opportunity presents itself, Julia buys it, exchanging her city life for a peaceful country living in the village of Exbury.

It seems Mariana and Julia have something in common, but what?

Mariana is the third book I’ve read by Susanna Kearsley after The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. Kearsley is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine, though I didn’t like The Rose Garden as much as the other two. Mariana was first published in 1994 and won the UK’s Catherine Cookson Fiction prize.

I really liked Mariana by Susanna Kearsley. The book is utterly absorbing: I was a captive by page 20. The plot is atmospheric, otherworldly, with lavish narrative and fascinating characters. I enjoyed both the modern day story as well as the 17th century one, but I liked Mariana’s subplot the best; there was more drama, romance, and more chemistry in Mariana’s life than in Julia’s.

I don’t want to explain what the book is about because it would spoil it for potential readers. I enjoyed the discovery journey very much and would like to preserve it for others as well. The underlying theme in the book is destiny but it’s also partly a ghost story.

I found the transitions between past and present very smooth, unlike the time travel in The Rose Garden, which I thought needed some polishing.

In summary, Mariana by Susanna Kearley is spellbinding, atmospheric and a winner overall. Strongly recommended!

Coming in September...Carla Neggers Blog Tour for Harbor Island




“Well-plotted, intriguing…the novel is smart and satisfying.”
--Kirkus Review on Declan’s Cross

When FBI agent’s clandestine meeting with an anonymous informant turns into a cold-blooded murder scene, the only clue seems to involve the most legendary and elusive art thief in the world. From the New York Times bestselling author of more than sixty books, Carla Neggers, comes HARBOR ISLAND (Harlequin MIRA, September 2014, $24.95 U.S./$27.95 CAN.), her latest novel featuring former nun and art crime expert turned FBI agent, Emma Sharpe.

Emma Sharpe is still getting used to life with her new fiancé and fellow FBI agent, Colin Donovan, when she receives an anonymous phone call asking her to come to a remote island off the Boston Harbor. Emma arrives, to find a dead woman lying in a pool of blood. Gripped in the victim’s cold palm is a stone bearing the signature Celtic inscription of an international art thief whom Emma’s family of art detectives has been chasing for the past decade.

Emma discovers that the victim, Rachel Bristol, was a filmmaker working on a movie based on the exploits of the legendary art thief, but her research may have led her too close to the truth and gotten her killed. Or perhaps she is the victim of her former husband and stepdaughter, Travis and Maisie Bristol, two of Hollywood’s most powerful movie producers. The Bristols are working on their own film version of the art thefts and clearly didn’t appreciate the competition.

And what of Oliver Fairbairn, a Hollywood consultant on matters of Celtic mythology exactly like the type inscribed on the stone in the dead woman’s hand? Suspicion even falls on Emma’s friend Finian Bracken, a tortured Irish priest now living in Maine. Ten years ago, however, Father Bracken was Mr. Bracken, a happily married businessman who has ties to the same Irish village where the now infamous art thief struck for the first time.

Emma knows this is no movie, but real life with real lives in danger, including those of her own FBI team and everyone they care about. To protect them, Emma must solve a case that has, for over a decade, stymied the smartest detectives in the world, including her own grandfather…and she must solve it now.

HARBOR ISLAND is available wherever books are sold, and at

$24.95 U.S./$27.95 CAN.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-1953-4


New York Times bestselling author Carla Neggers is always plotting her next adventure—whether in life or for one of her novels. She wrote her first stories when she climbed her favorite sugar maple with pad and pen at age eleven. Now she is the author of more than sixty novels of romantic suspense and contemporary romance, including her acclaimed Sharpe and Donovan and Swift River Valley series. Her books have sold in over thirty countries, with translation in two-dozen languages, and have earned awards, rave reviews and the loyalty of readers.

Growing up in rural western Massachusetts with three brothers and three sisters, Carla developed an eye for detail and an enduring love for a good story. “My parents moved to New England just before I was born,” says the author. “My father was a Dutch sailor and my mother is from the South. We kids learned about Holland and the Florida Panhandle—faraway places to us—through stories our parents told us on walks in the woods or sitting by the fire.”

Carla’s curiosity and vivid imagination are keys to creating the complex relationships and deep sense of place in her books. At the core of every novel she writes is what Publishers Weekly has called her “flair for creating likable, believable characters and her keen recognition of the obstacles that can muddle relationships.”

Carla sold her first book not long after graduating magna cum laude from Boston University with a degree in journalism. An accomplished musician, she studied with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and freelanced as an arts-and-entertainment reporter—always with a novel in the works. After the birth of her first child, Carla finally worked up the courage to submit a manuscript to an agent. “I would type with my daughter on the blotter next to me,” says Carla. “Then she learned to roll over, and I put her on a blanket on the floor!”

When she isn’t writing, Carla loves to read, travel, hike, garden, and spend time with her large family. Get-togethers at her family’s tree farm on the western edge of the Quabbin Reservoir are a favorite. She and her husband, Joe, a native of Tennessee, have two grown children and two adorable grandchildren. They are frequent travelers to Ireland and divide their time between Boston and their hilltop home in Vermont, not far from picturesque Quechee Gorge.

For more information please visit her at

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Heist by Daniel Silva (♦♦♦♦)

Gabriel Allon is once again in Venice living a quiet life with Chiara, who is expecting twins. He is a year away from taking control of the Office as director. Gabriel fills his days by restoring a Veronese altarpiece in the Church of San Sebastiano, but once again trouble comes calling when Julian Isherwood is sent by a friend with all expenses paid to Lake Como to the house of a British expatriate turned art smuggler, only to find the man tortured and dead. In exchange for not implicating Julian in a scandal, General Ferrari of the Italian Carabinieri Art Squad (introduced in The Fallen Angel) blackmails Gabriel into searching for a missing Caravaggio stolen in 1969.

And so starts the adventure of a lifetime when Gabriel, following the trail of the deceased, discovers several important things: 1) the man was a former British spy gone rogue, 2) there was a cache of famous paintings in his house at the time of his death, 3) the man was brokering a deal with an anonymous, powerful client who wanted the Caravaggio masterpiece.

Gabriel enlists the help of hitman Christopher Keller (who first appeared in The English Assassin and we got to know better in The English Girl), who once spared Gabriel’s life, resides in Corsica and works for Don Orsati’s business of oil export and revenge for money, to “steal” another masterpiece and sell it in the black market to the same prospective buyer of the Caravaggio. What they discover is that a certain dictator in the Levant has been acquiring stolen, otherwise unattainable, art and hiding his massive, plundered assets in banks the world over for a rainy day.

Naturally, Gabriel goes back to the Office to plan the heist of a lifetime and hopefully recover the Caravaggio as well.

I really liked The Heist. Though it is a somewhat convoluted story and perhaps overly complicated—by the end I hardly remembered the connection between the Syrian ruler and the quest for the Caravaggio--, it is well concocted and very satisfying. It took me almost two weeks to read it in spite of being a page turner.

One gets a history lesson involving Syria and the Assad ruling family, who have made headlines not only for the ongoing civil war tearing the country apart, but for the use of poison gas against its population and getting away with it.

There were passages describing Caravaggio’s life that brought to mind The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr; apparently Silva consulted the book while doing research for The Heist. I regretted having read Jonathan Harr long ago when I first started writing reviews because I don’t remember the story that well, or Caravaggio’s bio for that matter. It was a nice touch on Silva’s part to expand a little about his life and works and why it’s so important to preserve his legacy as well as any other masterpiece, otherwise they may disappear never to be found again.

Silva remarks that stolen art serves as underground currency for all sorts of criminal transactions and that the more famous the art piece, the better the odds are of finding it.

In summary, though convoluted, The Heist is another great entry in the Gabriel Allon saga, a satisfying ride with lots of learning on the side.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb (♦♦♦♦♦)

How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi

On May 11, 1960, a core of eight agents of the combined Israeli security agencies Shin Bet and Mossad, kidnapped Adolf Eichmann on his way home from work on Garibaldi Street, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ten days later, the prisoner was smuggled out of the country as a crew member of the first El Al flight to ever visit Argentina. The ultimate goal was to prosecute Eichmann in an Israeli court for his war crimes against the Jewish people.

But Eichmann's evasion of justice was fifteen years in the making. In 1945, when it became clear that Germany had lost the war, Eichmann first went to Austria, later returning to Germany where he was taken prisoner twice by the Allies. He managed to escape both times from POW camps because up to that point his role in the extermination of millions of Jews wasn't well known. His role in the Holocaust became public during the Nuremberg trials.

Meanwhile, he lived in hiding in a forest community where he fell trees and raised chickens. In 1950, with the help of former Nazis, Eichmann made his way across the Alps to Austria and then Italy, where with the help of a Catholic bishop with Nazi sympathies he was able to obtain a false identity, apply for a Red Cross passport and gain legal entry in Argentina under the protection of Juan Perón's regime.

The first few years after the war, there was some interest in finding and judging Eichmann by the Allies, but with the impending threat of communism, the recently formed spy agencies in America and West Germany recruited former Nazi officers and went back to business as usual. Only Nazi hunters Simon Wiesenthal and Tuviah Friedman kept hoping Eichmann would be caught.

In the mid fifties, German prosecutor Fritz Bauer, who was trying a former Nazi for war crimes, first got news of Eichmann possibly having been living in Argentina. Further correspondence revealed his home address. But it wasn't until 1960 that things got heated enough, that David Ben-Gurion, Israel's Prime Minister, authorized the capture.

During the first few years of the war, the relocation and deportation of Jews was the standard Nazi policy. During those years Eichmann became an expert in Jewish affairs. In 1941 the total extermination of the Jewish population of Europe became standard policy. The Wannsee Conference in 1942 attracted the top fifteen experts in Jewish affairs in the SS; Eichmann was one of the attendees.

At Wannsee he proposed and explained how best to execute what was known as The Final Solution to the Jewish Question (deportation and mass extermination). He was sent all across Europe to deal with Jewish communities and personally supervised the transportation of millions of Jews (6 million by his own admission) to hard labor and concentration camps and thus to their deaths. He refined and adjusted his methods accordingly each country at a time. By war's end, his brutality knew no limits.

I first learned more than the run-of-the-mill history lesson when I started reading Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series. The second, third, and fourth installment in the series (i.e. The English Assassin, The Confessor, and A Death in Vienna) form a trilogy about the Holocaust; while these novels are fiction, the historical backgrounds are all too real. That’s how I first encountered Eichmann in my reading. Later learned of Hunting Eichmann through one of Google’s targeted ads (who knew they could be useful?!). I didn’t buy it until very recently when I decided that $10 for this book wasn’t that bad. Thank goodness I bought it!

Hunting Eichmann reads like something urgent, a message that can neither be ignored nor forgotten. It reads like a gripping spy novel, and it's unclear to me whether that is a blessing or a curse, because the danger of missing the lesson entirely, however unlikely that may be, could prove costly. Furthermore, Hunting Eichmann is a stirring account of the main players’ paths to that time in history—Eichmann’s, the capture team’s, as well as the witnesses’.

Hunting Eichmann is enlightening in many ways, one being the road a man takes from basic decency to becoming a monster, from normalcy to fanatic nationalism that ends in collective psychosis.

Hunting Eichmann is not a light reading at all, though it’s very fast-paced. I took nearly two weeks reading it because I read every paragraph two or three times since the book is jam-packed with historical information of which I’m a junkie. It depicts the graphic Nazi brutality that is often sugar-coated in fiction books and period films. While it’s not recommended for the faint of heart, it is strongly recommended to as many readers as possible. Ignore the message at your own peril. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

La Ciudad de las Bestias (City of the Beasts) by Isabel Allende (♦♦♦♦)

The Cold family is having problems due to the grave illness affecting the mother/wife. Alexander, the fifteen-year-old son, must travel to New York City to live with his paternal grandmother while his mother endures chemotherapy treatments. Kate, Alexander’s grandmother, and Alexander embark on a trip to the Amazon jungle courtesy of International Geographic, to discover and document the existence of a giant creature known as The Beast.

During the trip Alexander finds a friend in Nadia, the guide’s daughter, and together they unleash the power of magic and their own to help an endangered tribe; also they are forced to grow up by overcoming the trials they encounter along the way.

La Ciudad de las Bestias (City of the Beasts) by Isabel Allende is a passionate narrative for young adults in which reality and fiction, myth and fantasy coexist. The intricate and little known Amazonian jungle and the legendary city of El Dorado are the lush scenarios in which this magnificent and mysterious story unfolds.

The reader immerses in the story and is able to feel it intensely despite a few flaws. In the passages in which Allende lets her imagination fly, the result is breathtaking, not so in the passages in which the children encounter and visit the tribe, for Allende emphasizes anthropology and natural history as if it were a lecture; in other words, the flow and freshness of the plot up to that point are interrupted.

In my opinion, the narrative would have benefited more if conservationist messages had been avoided, but the story is very good regardless.

La Ciudad de las Bestias (City of the Beasts) is the first novel written by Isabel Allende that I read, though I’m sure it won’t be the last. I had hesitated in tackling one of her books because her fame precedes her and I thought I could be disappointed; fortunately that wasn’t the case at all. She deserves all the accolades.