Monday, August 24, 2015

The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson (♦♦♦♦)

I have spent most of the last seven months immersed in either France's Belle Epoque or the roaring 1920s, with occasional readings on other historical periods. Thus, I thought it was time to shake things a bit because I wasn't making much progress with the last two books I had been reading. From my ever growing TBR list I chose The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson, a fictional account of the Afghan war.

In 2009, the CIA recruited a Jordanian doctor to infiltrate al-Qaeda. Initially the doctor offered some valuable information that led to the execution of mid-level insurgents. Then, in a twist of fate, the doctor strapped explosives to his body and killed, in the process, high functionaries of CIA's Kabul station in a military compound where a meeting was going to take place.

Two years later the Kabul station is still reeling from the loss. They have been left behind in the search for high level al-Qaeda operatives. The director of the CIA believes there's a mole that has infiltrated Kabul station, but no one is talking. Vinny Dutto, the CIA director, sends former CIA agent John Wells to Afghanistan to investigate, and what he uncovers is enough to question friends and foes alike.

Oh boy! I wanted to read something different and I got more than I bargained for. I'm not sure I liked The Shadow Patrol enough, but it was rather due to its subject than any fault of the author. The pacing was steady and the action unpredictable most times, and the characters were fleshed out and credible. As a thriller, this novel was a solid four, but I feel I spent this last week in a war zone, that being the double edge sword that makes me feel torn as I finished The Shadow Patrol.

War is brutal, I know that, but I got a full immersion in the Afghan war, complete with Army acronyms, a homicidal Special Forces sniper, and major drug trafficking between mid-level al-Qaeda members and crooked army officers. I know there are bad apples anywhere, but I hold the US Army and its members in great esteem, and to imagine army personnel in that kind of scenario is simply something I'd rather not do. That being said, if you are willing to overlook that plot detail, it is possible that you gain more insight into the Afghan war than you ever did through the evening news.

The good news is that I'm not done with Alex Berenson yet.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain (♦♦♦♦)

Beryl Markham, born Clutterbuck, grew up in Kenya, then a British colony, in the 1920s. She became the first woman in Britain to obtain a horse trainer license and was the first woman in the world to obtain a commercial aviator license. She led a rather scandalous love life refusing to follow the role then assigned to women in society. She married twice, though the love of her life was Denys Finch Hatton, hunter, aviator and free-spirit, who was having a relationship with Karen Blixen—writer of the memoir Out of Africa.

Circling the Sun is biographical fiction, but it certainly has the feel of a memoir. Paula McLain starts describing Beryl upbringing by her father and without the love of her mother, who abandoned both. We get to know the Beryl who played with kikuyu boys and learned to hunt, jump, and live like a warrior boy since she was a young girl.

Beryl Markham lived a life worth living in spite of her scandalous choices in love: two failed marriages, two lovers and a few unfairly attributed love affairs (two of them with royals) did much to mar the image of a woman who broke barriers in everything she ever attempted.

Paula McLain did a remarkable job drawing out the characters—all the British expatriates who lived in Kenya at the time—as well as the place. The Kenya of the 1920s shone under McLain pen, so much so, that it could be considered one more character in the story: the wild beauty of the place, the small community of expatriates that made Kenya feel more a village than a vast country, the gossip, the endless exchange of couples due to the intricate relationships between the British expats.

In love, as McLain expresses in her notes, Beryl was rather libertine, but her professional life is worth admiring and imitating.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The English Spy by Daniel Silva (♦♦♦♦)

Several days after the events detailed in The Heist, Gabriel Allon is bidding farewell at Rome’s airport to a very pregnant Chiara who is traveling to Israel to give birth there. Gabriel is waiting to restore the Caravaggio painting he just recovered.

Graham Seymour, now head of MI6, travels to Italy to secretly meet with Gabriel to ask him as a personal favor to undertake the hunting and killing of the man who has killed the former spouse of the heir to the British throne, and so the adventure begins.

Gabriel requests assistance from Christopher Keller to catch Eamon Quinn, a former IRA bomb maker, now a hitman to terrorist organizations the world over. Gabriel and Keller are certain that Quinn activated the bomb that killed the princess, but as they say, who paid for it? In other words, who would profit from checkmating the princess?

As Gabriel and Keller follow Quinn’s tracks from St. Barthelemy Island to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, they come face to face with Keller’s past as an infiltrated ex-IRA man at the service of British military, who endured torture at the hands of his captors, one of whom was Quinn. They will trace Quinn’s whereabouts to Portugal and ultimately England, where they might just lose their lives if a professional assassin has her way.

Just like the Holocaust had its trilogy in The English Assassin, The Confessor, and A Death in Vienna, Christopher Keller has had his own quartet starting with The English Assassin, followed by The English Girl, The Heist, and now The English Spy.

The story that began in The English Girl--a Russian girl indoctrinated at a KGB camp in her childhood and who later emigrated illegally to England with her adoptive parents and became a sleeper agent a-la Salt--finally comes full circle when the primary resident of the Kremlin puts a target on Gabriel's head, and one of his sleeper agents comes to make good on the threat.

Just as The English Girl broke the mold by focusing on an immensely lucrative deal between Great Britain and Russia for oil extraction rights on the North Sea and the subsequent fallout from the defection to UK of a former KGB agent who also happened to be the UK's prime minister's mistress, The English Spy breaks new ground on several fronts: its first part (Death of a Princess) focuses on the tight relationship of Latin America's left with international terrorism, while the rest of the novel follows a former IRA bomb maker who, after the Good Friday Peace Accord, has sold his expertise in the international underground arena to the highest bidder. Also, the crippling effect that IRA's bombings had, not only in the UK, but also in Northern Ireland. Those subjects have been largely ignored by Daniel Silva until now.

I always rely on Daniel Silva to administer me a summer adrenaline shot, and as usual, he doesn't disappoint. The English Spy is as ambitious and deadly in its plot development as Prince of Fire, The Messenger, The Secret Servant, Portrait of A Spy, and The Fallen Angel were before it. In addition, The English Spy benefits from a year filled with news-making headlines, such as the relatively recent surge in conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and the ensuing ceasefire, the rampant trolling and security hackings of Russia and China to Western firms, the relatively recent and ill-advised nuclear talks between major Western powers (led by the US), Russia, and Iran; and even snow in Jerusalem last winter.

As Gabriel Allon is approaching the beginning of his tenure as chief, it seems that his saga is coming to an end, at least The English Spy seems to hint at it. The exploits that began with The Kill Artist are starting to come full circle as it was the case here when Eamon Quinn, former IRA bomber, wanted to exact revenge on Gabriel for the death of Tariq al Hourani, the man who killed Danny Allon and maimed Leah. Gabriel's exploits on Russian soil have also come to haunt him in The English Spy after he caused havoc in Russia in Moscow Rules, The Defector and The English Girl, so we are left wondering if Daniel Silva is not starting to tie loose ends to end the saga. I'm certainly not ready for that, are you?

Favorite quotes:

‘After that, with the ice having been broken, they fell into an easy conversation of the sort that only two senior spymasters could have. The shared, they divulged, they advised, and on two occasions they actually laughed. Indeed, for a few minutes it seemed their rivalry did not exist. They talked about the situation in Iraq and Syria, they talked about China, they talked about the global economy and its impact on security, and they talked about the American president, whom they blamed for many of the world’s problems. Eventually, they talked about the Russians. These days, they always did.
  “Their cyberwarriors,” said Amanda, “are blasting away at our financial institutions with everything they’ve got in their nasty little toolbox. They’re also targeting our government systems and the computer networks of our biggest defense contractors.”
   “Are they looking for something specific?”
   “Actually,” she replied, “they don’t seem to be looking for much of anything. They’re just trying to inflict as much damage as possible. There’s a recklessness we’ve never seen before.”’   Page 101

“The Arab Spring had turned into the Arab Calamity. Radical Islam now controlled a swath of territory that stretched from Afghanistan to Nigeria, an accomplishment that even Bin Laden would have never dreamed possible. It might have been funny were it not so dangerous—and so utterly predictable. The American president had allowed the old order to topple without a viable alternative in place, a reckless act with no precedent in modern statecraft. And for some reason he had chosen this moment in time to throw Israel to the wolves.”  Page 454

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (♦♦♦)

After Katniss rigged the Hunger Games in Catching Fire, there's no mistaking the airs of revolution. Several districts are in revolt, and Katniss has decided to become the symbol of the insurrection against the Capitol, as the Mockingjay. Peeta and other victors are being held captive in the Capitol as emotional currency against the rebels and Katniss in particular.

Whereas in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire the fastuous Capitol contrasted with the subdued way of life in the remaining districts of Panem, in Mockingjay, Part 1 there is no beauty, no appeal, no excess. Gone are the colorful characters delivering outrageous remarks such as the best way to taste every delicious morsel at a party is by throwing out what you have already eaten.

The Panem of Mockingjay, Part 1 is at war, and it shows in the rubble from aerial bombings, in the uniformity of the gray attire, in the lack of makeup or other color except gray or white. Even Effie is wearing uniform.

Mockingjay has a more somber, gritty feel than its predecessors, leaning heavily towards boring, but it sets the tone for what I expect will be a grand finale.

Never has the lack of chemistry or ambivalence of Katniss towards Gale been more apparent than in Mockingjay, Part 1.

Most of the characters from the franchise reprise their roles yet again. Julianne Moore as President Coin, the leader of the revolution, is a welcomed addition, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman reappears as Plutarch, in one of his last films before his untimely death.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (♦♦♦♦)

Tadashi Omura, Law Professor with Tokyo University, is on a trip to Paris. Over the course of five months he sustains conversations with his neighbor, former police Inspector Auguste Jovert, about the life of Omura’s lifelong friend, Katsuo Ikeda. As months go by and the story turns more intricate and personal, Omura and Jovert begin to realize how deeply connected all of us are.

Mark Henshaw has received many awards over the course of his writing career, that made me want to read his latest novel The Snow Kimono.

The Snow Kimono is not only poetic, it's hypnotizing. It is a plot centric novel and best read without knowing much because the official blurb can be misleading, and it almost ruined my reading experience. You know how there are certain books that if you stop reading for a while the connection is lost? This isn't one of those books. I was a willing captive. Staccato sentences mimic faulty memory, and though I wasn't a fan throughout, it grew on me.

The Snow Kimono has all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy, and a timeless feel, despite the action unfolding circa 1950s or 1960s in Japan. Vintage storytelling gives The Snow Kimono the feel of a modern classic, and in my opinion, it deserves to be one.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Diana (♦♦♦♦)

Diana chronicles the last three years of Princess Diana's life, starting with her separation from Prince Charles, and her subsequent struggle to find love in the arms of Pakistani cardiovascular surgeon Hastan Khan, followed by her outings and untimely death with Dodi Fayed.

I enjoyed this movie very much though it was an emotional watching experience as I, like any other person in the planet, was infatuated with Diana. In fact, I felt her loss as that of a family member. I remember hearing the news as if it were yesterday...I am glad to know that she finally found true love even if it wasn't meant to be.

Naomi Watts, in the title role, is Diana's deadringer in profile, and the movie director made good use of that, though in my view not enough. Watts adeptly mimicked Diana's mannerisms, though she seemed at times fierier than her famous subject. I thought that Dr. Khan (Naveen Andrews) came across as a fascinating, vibrant but also a very conflicted individual.

Diana is, at heart, a love story, but watching the movie one can't help but feel complicit about her unhappiness and the continuous siege of the starving paparazzi.

Great performances and subject make this movie a must watch.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (♦♦♦♦)

As you may remember, Katniss and Peeta emerged victorious from the 74th Hunger Games, but at what cost? People in the districts surrounding the Capitol have found hope in Katniss and Peeta's defiance and Katniss has become the symbol of the revolution brewing.

Meanwhile, the 75th Hunger Games are about to start. Katniss and Peeta are touring the districts. Wherever they go, violence erupts and is quenched with brutality. President Snow has subdued Katniss into cooperation or her loved ones will be at risk, but will Katniss be able to put out the flames of change? Or more importantly, will the remaining Tributes, chosen among former winners, go along silently to their deaths?

Better late than never to catch up on the gazillion movies I haven't watched since I juggled real-life emergencies and book blogging exclusively. I couldn't have picked a better way to start.

Catching Fire is more emotional than the first installment (The Hunger Games) was, and it has to be because this time around the stakes are higher. Everything in Catching Fire is designed to impress, starting with the costumes--Effie's attire is more colorful and stranger than ever, but I tell you I wouldn't mind wearing the butterfly dress if I were fifty pounds lighter. Cinna goes out of his way to make Katniss look spectacular, particularly wearing that wedding dress that catches fire and turns Katniss into a life-sized mockingjay. Curves and muscles are emphasized with the athletic spandex designed for the Tributes, so even when at risk of getting blown into pieces those guys look stylish.

The setting is more exotic this time around: a tropical jungle, but if you think there is no method to the madness, think again; the Tributes encounter everything from aggressive baboons, to poison fog and an electric field surrounding the island.

The Games are played this time using more brains than brawn, and the technique is very effective because it makes us question what Katniss will do to emerge victorious...Will she betray her newfound friends in order to save Peeta's and her own life?

While in the first installment the shaky camerawork imparted dynamism to the fighting at the risk of losing the audience to vertigo, in Catching Fire is the story and the threats doing the narration, and it works very well.

The acting is as superb as in the first film, making this installment a solid entry in the franchise. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Prim, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Haymich (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and Caesar (Stanley Tucci) reprise their roles, as well as Prim and Katniss' mother. Instead of Seneca Crane, the new Game master's name is Plutarch Heavensbee masterfully played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, an acting heavyweight.

Never did a revolution sound more appealing than in Catching Fire!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Poesía Completa, Jorge Luis Borges- parte 5 (♦♦♦♦♦)

El Oro de los Tigres (1972)

En el prólogo de El Oro de los Tigres, Borges expresa "opté por aceptar [...] los misceláneos temas que se ofrecieron a mi rutina de escribir. La parábola sucede a la confidencia, el verso libre o blanco al soneto." Además añade que "para un verdadero poeta, cada momento de la vida, cada hecho, debería ser poético, ya que profundamente lo es..."

Como el mismo Borges expresa, esta colección de poemas es variada en temas y mayormente escrita en versos libres. La colección inicia con Tamerlán (1336-1405), que describe al guerrero turco-mongol del mismo nombre quien se auto-denominó "espada del Islam"--como muchos de los temas sobre los que escribe Borges, tuve que recurrir a Wikipedia. Una estrofa de Tamerlán (1336-1405) dice así:

[...] Cuando nací, cayó del firmamento
una espada con signos talismánicos;
yo soy, yo seré siempre, aquella espada.
He derrotado al griego y al egipcio,
he devastado las infatigables
leguas de Rusia con mis duros tártaros...

A Tamerlán (1336-1405), le sigue el poema El pasado que puede considerarse una variación del tema anterior pues en éste, entre otras cosas, Borges habla de las espadas y guerreros que han forjado imperios. Borges concluye el poema expresando,

El ilusorio ayer es un recinto,
de figuras inmóviles de cera
o de reminiscencias literarias
que el tiempo irá perdiendo en sus espejos...

Fiel a su costumbre, Borges dedica dos poemas a escritores, uno titulado Al primer poeta de Hungría, describiendo lo que Borges y éste tienen en común, y el otro dedicado a Keats, titulado A John Keats (1795-1821), donde expresa:

[...] Oh sucesivo
y arrebatado Keats, que el tiempo ciega,
el alto ruiseñor y la urna griega
serán tu eternidad, oh fugitivo...

A John Keats (1795-1821) es uno de los pocos poemas rimados en esta colección, como también lo son El gaucho, On his blindness, y Lo perdido. Estos dos últimos, junto a Susana Bombal, J.M., y El amenazado, abordan el tema del amor, un tema que Borges ha evadido hasta ahora en su poesía.

En La busca, Borges alude a su búsqueda de sus ancestros en las cosas cotidianas; en 1971 escribe sobre los astronautas norteamericanos que pisaron la luna. El gaucho expresa la lucha del hombre de su tierra para abrirse camino. El mar describe al mar que es testigo de gestas y combates.

El advenimiento, uno de los poemas descriptivos en esta colección, narra una escena en la que un hombre de las cavernas ve por primera vez a la luz del alba una estampida de bisontes y luego pinta las imágenes en las paredes de la cueva. Otro poema descriptivo es La tentación que narra la historia de cómo el tirano Rosas mandó a asesinar al general Juan Facundo Quiroga, quien no creyó que hubiera hombre con suficiente coraje para matarlo. Rosas se valió de un cobarde ardid para deshacerse del general Quiroga--esta historia fue inmortalizada en la novela Facundo, escrita por Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, que está en mi lista de libros por leer. Otros dos poemas que pintan una historia son 1891 y 1929.

Igual que lo hizo en El Otro, El Mismo, Borges retoma el tema de la herencia nórdica de Inglaterra en Hengist quiere hombres, y a la Islandia de los Vikings le escribe en A Islandia.

Esta colección concluye con poemas inspirados en animales, tal es el caso de A un gato, Al coyote, y El Oro de los Tigres que le da el título a esta compilación.

La Rosa Profunda (1975)

En la colección La Rosa Profunda, sumados a varios poemas con temas libres, la vejez, la muerte, el destino y su ceguera son los temas recurrentes. Sobre esta última expresa Borges en el prólogo: "Al recorrer las pruebas de este libro, advierto con algún desagrado que la ceguera ocupa un lugar plañidero que no ocupa en mi vida. La ceguera es una clausura, pero también es una liberación, una soledad propicia a las invenciones, una llave y un algebra."

El poemario inicia con Yo, en el que detalla el conjunto de cosas que lo hacen ser quien es: junto con sus huesos, la escritura de sus versos. El ser poeta y la misión que esto implica vuelve a ser la esencia en Browning resuelve ser poeta, donde Borges expresa:

[...] Viviré de olvidarme.
Seré la cara que entreveo y olvido...
Máscaras, agonías, resurrecciones,
destejerán y tejerán mi suerte
y alguna vez seré Robert Browning.

En Cosmogonía y en Soy hay dos temas subyacientes, el olvido y su ceguera. Inventario es un compendio de cosas acumuladas durante toda una vida en el ático de una casa (monumentos del olvido), y la vejez, su ceguera y su exilio voluntario son los temas de Un mañana, donde Borges expresa:

[...] Olvidaré las letras que me dieron
alguna fama,
seré hombre de Austin, de
Edimburgo, de España,
y buscaré la aurora en mi Occidente...

También el exilio es tema en El desterrado (1977). El tema de su ceguera reaparece en El ciego y Un ciego, como también lo hace en 1972, en el cual el otro tema es el patriotismo. Aunque en Al Espejo el tema es el espejo y su otro yo, no es difícil extrapolar el tema de su ceguera pues él intuye su imagen en el espejo porque no puede verse claramente.

Borges dedica a animales homónimos los poemas La Pantera, El bisonte, La cierva blanca y El ruiseñor. Este último es un homenaje a los ruiseñores inmortalizados en la literatura. Simón Carbajal está dedicado a un cazador de tigres.

Entre otros versos libres cuyos temas escapan a los hilos centrales del poemario se encuentran El suicida, Espadas, Quince monedas, Sueña Alonso Quijano, Habla un busto de Jano, Brunanburh, 937 A.D., Mis libros, Efialtes y A un César, en el que Borges describe los augurios que presagiaron la muerte de Julio César y cuán vanos fueron los pretorianos ante el magnicidio. El tema de la muerte reaparece en Elegía. Al dios Proteo dedica Borges los poemas Proteo y Otra versión de Proteo.

El destino es el tema en De que nada se sabe, mientras que el pasado lo es en All our yesterdays, donde Borges se cuestiona de quién es su pasado, "de cuál de los que fuí?"

The Unending rose es el último poema de esta colección y que le da título a este compendio.

Mi poema favorito en esta colección es
De que nada se sabe

La luna ignora que es tranquila y clara
Y ni siquiera sabe que es la luna;
La arena, que es la arena. No habrá una
Cosa que sepa que su forma es rara.

Las piezas del marfil son tan ajenas
Al abstracto ajedrez como la mano
Que las rige. Quizá el destino humano
De breves dichas y de largas penas

Es instrumento de otro. Lo ignoramos;
Darle nombre de Dios no nos ayuda.
Vanos también son el temor, la duda

Y la trunca plegaria que iniciamos.
¿Qué arco habrá arrojado esta saeta
que soy? ¿Qué cumbre puede ser la meta?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen (♦♦♦½)

Maddie Hyde is married to Ellis, though her husband's best friend's presence in their marriage is so constant that it seems it has always been the three of them. Both Hank and Ellis have been turned down from war service for having medical issues.

In January of 1945, Ellis, Hank and Maddie travel to Scotland, ignoring the horror of the ongoing war, to pursue Ellis and his father's dream: to successfully film the elusive Loch Ness monster, basking in the fame and the glory of it all.

War will forever change Maddie making her more aware of the challenges surrounding the members of the small village at the water's edge, but will Hank and Ellis succumb under their pettiness and their twisted sense of reality?

At the Water's Edge doesn't have the humor and understated appeal of Water for Elephants, and it isn't the successful hodgepodge of Ape House but it does have its redeeming qualities.

Despite being a literary page-turner in which not much appears to be happening on the surface, it is the eye opening account of an outsider's perception of the Second World War through the snippets of news coming from the Front as listened to every evening's radio broadcasting. It is about how some members of prominent families, far removed from the horrors of war, dodged the call to serve, choosing instead to pursue idle pastimes while ignoring the chaos brought on by the fighting. It is also the dissection of a disintegrating marriage through every seemingly forgivable transgression, and the dangerous turn a relationship can take. It is in the end a story of hope and the redeeming power of true love.

While I didn't love At the Water's Edge, I stayed awake until the early hours of the morning while I was reading it and it managed to hold my interest throughout making me wonder what makes a good novel a great story. The ingredients were certainly there, but in my view it didn't pan out.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.                                                                                                  

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (♦♦♦)

Originally published in German, Translation by Simon Pare

Jean Perdu, owner of the renowned Literary Apothecary on the margins of the Seine, sets sail aboard his cargo book barge searching for the remainder of the life the woman he loved twenty one years ago has left behind. Accompanying him is Max Jordan, France's most famous author under 30, who is suffering with writer's block and under his newfound fame. Soon other characters join the pilgrimage along France's waterways.

Paris and books, need I say more? Yes, indeed I do. I thought The Little Paris Bookshop would be reminiscent of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, which I loved; instead, I was somewhat disappointed. The Little Paris Bookshop is an uneven book. I liked the story of Mr. Perdu; how he dealt with his grief, and the trip he embarked on to find himself again. I also liked the language: rich and smooth like velvet, the descriptions of French towns and life in the southern coast, and food recipes.

I didn't like, however, Manon's diary entries or the passages involving her, at least until the very end when her story finally came together. I don't think her character, despite being drawn out of memory, was that well defined. The book would have been better off without those passages, again until the end, because it was then that Manon’s journey and choices finally made sense.

The ending was nice, positive and all wrapped up with a colorful bow, but I liked it very much particularly because it was a good departure from the grief so talked about during the earlier chapters.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The President’s Shadow by Brad Meltzer (♦♦♦♦)

In The Inner Circle, Tot invited fellow archivist Beecher White to join the Culper Ring--a secret group first assembled by George Washington during the Revolutionary War to protect his secrets and win the war--after Beecher stumbled upon a presidential secret. In The Fifth Assassin, the sequel, apparently (I haven’t read it yet) Tot was shot in the head and Beecher assumed his position as the head of what remained of the Culper Ring. In The President’s Shadow, this third installment in the Culper Ring series, Beecher “sneaks” into the White House only to discover they were waiting for him all along.

The First Lady Shona Wallace unburies, while gardening, a severed arm that had been buried in the Rose Garden by a White House intruder. The president’s inner circle suspects it was done with inside help. In its closed fist, the severed arm is holding a penny with an inscription that ties it to Beecher’s personal history, or rather, that of his father’s service in the armed forces. Beecher needs the president to know more about his father and how he died. The president needs to keep the investigation under wraps and off the press. Who better than Beecher and his Culper Ring to investigate?

I think this country is in real trouble if the Secret Service needs help from an archivist to solve a case like this, still I willingly went along for the ride. Count on Brad Meltzer to concoct a story where fact and fiction intertwine seamlessly and U.S. history is just part of the mix with such outlandish result that could very well be real. With small bite chapters and easy to read prose, The President's Shadow will breeze before your eyes.

Secret government agencies, ultra secret government projects in off the grid locations, conspiracy theories...What's not to like?!

Strongly recommend it.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris (♦♦♦♦)

Tragedy seems to follow Benny Lehrman since he was a young boy. Now at fifteen, he faces tragedy again on Chicago’s wharf as the SS Eastman has sunk before his very eyes taking with it three siblings of the Chimbrova family who is bidding farewell to the boys who were riding the boat. In this way the destinies of Benny and Pearl intersect, though they won’t meet again until several years later with Benny as a freelancing Jazz musician and Pearl as one of the owners of Chimbrova’s saloon, which has been dubbed The Jazz Palace.

The reader goes on a ride, spanning fifteen years, which starts with a public tragedy on Chicago's shore, follows with the apogee of the Jazz movement, and finally the Great Depression and how it impacted the city and its people. The Jazz Palace is an ode to Chicago, to its blue collar heritage, to the glamour and decadence of the Jazz Age and Prohibition era, to the music that defined the early part of the 20th century which had its roots in New Orleans, and the famous and sometimes shady figures that inhabited the city.

Through The Jazz Palace, the reader gets a glimpse of Chicago under the reigns of mafia bosses, the most prominent of who was Al Capone, who resorted to brutal intimidation tactics, intent on controlling the entertainment establishments.

Prepare to be thoroughly entertained.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl (♦♦♦)

Belial, Kitten, and Penrose (Pen) Davenport are the three best bookaneers the world has ever known. But with the advent of stricter copyright laws in the last decades of the 19th century, the loophole that has allowed them to steal literary manuscripts for profit, with some impunity, is coming to a close. The bookaneers' way of life is endangered.

Kitten has fallen victim in her search of her own Holy Grail. Only Belial and Davenport have survived, but they are about to have the duel of their lives when they travel to the islands of Samoa in the South Pacific, in search of the last novel, supposedly a masterpiece, penned by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Having read Dante Club when it was first released and being one of my all-time favorite books, when I had the opportunity to request a copy of The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl, I didn't think twice. Pearl has gotten comfortable in the literary thriller genre he writes so well. Unfortunately, Dante Club, his debut novel, set the bar too high even for himself. In Dante Club there is the enduring mystery of who is behind the killings that match exact descriptions of the passages of Dante's Inferno as discussed by a literary club of eminent Bostonians. The plot was as enthralling as it was clever, and Dante Club became a literary sensation. This time around the plot is less ambitious and though the writing is so brilliant that it reads like a genuine 19th century novel, the result is rather labored.

The Last Bookaneer is an old fashion adventure in an exotic locale. That would have been a great start if the story had been about pirates, which it is in a sense (of the literary kind), but I'm afraid I didn't find the bookaneers, or their journey, fascinating enough. I liked Mr. Fergins, the narrator, but though the plot revolves around one bookaneer, others of his kind come and go throughout the novel and none of them is interesting or likeable enough.

Having read a book like Dante Club is enough to give Pearl the benefit of the doubt, but...will lightning strike twice?

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg (♦♦♦)

A Novel of George Sand 

Aurore Dudevant, neé Dupin (a.k.a. George Sand) was born in July, 1804, to Maurice Dupin, an aristocratic military man, and Sophie, a passionate belle with a checkered past and low social status. Maurice's mother never accepted the union between her son and Sophie, though in later years both women learned to coexist to the point of sharing the same living space.

Aurore grew up under her paternal grandmother's care, until she married Casimir Dudevant, then her best friend, when she was eighteen years old (1822). By 1831 she had been tempted once to have an extramarital affair that never consummated, and had had a one night stand from which her daughter was conceived. By then it was evident she could not tolerate her husband any longer, while he hated her, so Aurore decided to leave him and become an author in Paris, at that point rather out of necessity, to supplement her annual allowance.

Though Aurore inherited her family's fortune, her husband administered the estate because women could not. In 1835, she sought out legal separation from her husband and recovered Nohant, the property she inherited. She was also awarded custody of her two kids: Maurice (eldest) and Solange, five years his junior.

George Sand was lover of poet Alfred de Musset and composer Frédéric Chopin. Among her friends were the likes of painter Delacroix, novelist Honoré de Balzac, musician and composer Franz Liszt, and novelist Gustave Flaubert.

George Sand died in her estate of Nohant in 1876.

The story is told in two parallel accounts: one starting with Aurore's birth to the point when she left her husband in 1831, and the other, which starts in 1831, marked as a relative "present tense" that continues for the ensuing years. While the past may hold a key to understanding Aurore, it is the "relative present" that is interesting enough to keep the reader from giving up on reading The Dream Lover, for Aurore becomes her truer self (not necessarily happier) after she leaves her husband and takes on many lovers. It is during those years that she starts dressing as a man, changes her pen name to George Sand and becomes a celebrated author with a much talked about public persona.

I don't think Elizabeth Berg planned in advance what kind of flow would better suit this novel. From time to time there are brief glimpses of sumptuous prose, but soon after Berg recovers from those poetic spells and resorts to a sentimentality under which her protagonist suffers immensely. The prologue shows beautiful promise, but then Berg opens the novel resorting to language so common that even lovemaking seems trivial. It is a pity that a life so scandalous has been reduced to inconsequential for lack of passion for the subject.

Favorite quotes: (From an uncorrected advance copy)

The light is amber, the air still; the daylilies have folded in on themselves. Soon the hooded blue dusk will fall, followed by the darkness of night and the skywriting of the stars, indecipherable to us mortals, despite our attempts to force narrative upon them.”

“But when I looked up, I was soothed by the beauty around me. In late afternoon, the light turned the lagoon into liquid copper. Every day, I could hear the songs of the gondoliers and the cries of the fishermen and the good-natured arguing by housewives over the price of melons. There were beautiful gowns and exotic masks worn at balls, lavender clouds at sunset. I could take walks in narrow alleys or lie back in a gondola for an evening ride that passed beneath the Bridge of Sighs. From the window behind the desk where I wrote at night, I could see lambent lights reflected in the dark waters, the luminescence seeming to ride the waves; and on foggy nights, veils of mist rose and swirled on journeys of their own.”

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer (♦♦♦♦)

In 2006, Celia Favréau, neé Harrison, and Henry Pelham had been a couple for a year in the morally complex world of intelligentsia, until four Islamic terrorists hijacked a plane on arrival at Flughafen airport in Vienna, and sent Celia's, Henry's, and other US embassy personnel's lives spinning out of control for the next six years. One hundred and twenty lives were lost in the incident, and it was always suspected that the terrorists had had a mole inside the embassy.

Six years later, Henry is still looking for answers to finally close the investigation. To that end, he interviews former personnel who played key roles during the Flughafen affair, and he ends up in Carmel-by-the-Seathe town where Celia lives with her newfound family.

All the Old Knives has a consistent writing style throughout, very reminiscent of Le Carré’s: the story unfolds in an interview fashion alternating perspectives between Celia and Henry, the past and the present. I’m not an expert on Le Carré, far from it; in fact I have only read Our Kind of Traitor, and I have watched the films The Constant Gardener, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (I’m planning to correct that travesty before the end of the year), but the little I have read or watched on the films that follow his narrations very closely, match the style of All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer. It is certainly a flattering comparison since Le Carré is a master of the espionage genre.

All the Old Knives is a solid four until the end, which I thought was so ingenious that I felt tempted to give an extra half star just for it. When it ended I said, wow. It was that good of an ending. The novel isn’t predictable, though the reader finds out (sort of) who the mole was long before the end, but the interview imparts real-time plot development that complements the story rather well. The knowledge of the mole’s identity doesn’t spoil the unfolding of the story because there are other factors at play, namely a cat-and-mouse game among the people involved.

If you think you have read something like this, think again. You are in for a treat.

DISCLAIMER: I received from the publisher a free Galley of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.