Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cold Vengeance

Cold Vengeance is Preston and Child's latest addition to the Pendergast series. It continues the story of Pendergast's hunt for his wife Helen. The book starts with Pendergsat being shot in the chest by his brother-in-law Judson Esterhazy. Esterhazy tells the police the shooting was a tragic hunting accident, but when he takes them to the shooting site, there is no body.

While this is taking place in Scotland, Constance (Pendergast's niece) is being moved to a mental institution after having claimed to have thrown her infant son off a moving boat. She is being housed in the same institution and secure room that her Great Aunt Cornelia was. Several other characters from previous books make reappearances: Corrie Swanson shows up at D'Agosta's office seeking Pendergast's whereabouts. He had an appointment with her and he missed it, something he has never done. D'Agosta knows nothing.

In Mississippi, a reporter is investigating the reappearance of the Brodie's - a couple who faked their own suicides and disappearance. The Brodie's are murdered shortly after an article appears in the local paper describing their escapades. Esterhazy thinks it may be something called the Covenant. A shadowy group he has had dealings with in the past. Esterhazy is not happy to hear the Pendergast may have survived the shooting and he hatches a plan to get back at Pendergast by using Constance.

Pendergast's search for his wife, whom he now believes is missing and not dead, takes him back to New York, a secret military institution and into the home of a Nazi hunter. Turns out that Helen ( and Esterhazy, her brother) are related to Wolfgang Faust - the "Dachau Doctor." The book contains the usual twists and turns and Pendergast's considerably skills are on display as usual. The story line leaves enough open ends that a sequel is certain.

What is not the same with this book ( and the previous one Fever Dream) is the delicious creepiness that accompanied the early books in the Pendergast series. I miss that.

But this is still a book worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Agent Pendergast.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Lantern

I tend to tread carefully when people tell me a book is just as good as some other book or that it is one of the best books ever written. The Lantern has been compared to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. And in some ways they are similar.

The Lantern starts off when a couple meets. She is a translator and he is a mysterious business man of independent means. After a whirlwind romance they move in together in a falling down mansion in France. Les Genevriers has been abandoned for years and was in total disrepair but Eve and Dom loved it. Dom bought the house and the surrounding lands and they began their solitary life together. They didn't marry - because Dom's first wife Rachel was a constant presence.

The story line moves between the present with Eve and Dom in the house and the past whose voice is Benedicte, one of the last of the family of the original owners. Benedicte is haunted by the ghost of her brother Pierre - who as a boy was a menace to himself and others. Benedicte tells the story of her life as a child and of the treasure that is supposed to be buried on the property.

Eve, who is blissful in her ignorance of Dom's previous life is increasing haunted by sights and sounds that she can't quite explain. Smells, breezes, strange lanterns left lighted on the path all have her concerned. At a dinner with some of their neighbors, Eve is introduced to Sabine. The conversation turns to the alleged ghosts and strange happenings that occur in the village and at Les Genevries. Sabine believes that she has met Dom before but he denies it. This encounter with Sabine has Eve wondering about Dom's previous life and his first wife. As Sabine and Eve become closer as friends, Eve becomes more insistent that Dom tell her about Rachel.

The story lines continue on their own paths, gradually coming together. The story is actually quite good. Eve makes for an interesting character. You never really know just what is keeping her tied to Dom. And Dom's own mysterious past follows him almost through to the end of the book. The story did have elements of Rebecca. A young girl falling in love with a mysterious older man, the first wife hanging like a shadow over the new relationship, the third person seeking to interfere with the new relationship. Add to that just a touch of the supernatural and you have a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

Set in post-colonial Trinidad, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle explores the boundaries of love in a marriage spanning fifty years. The book begins in 2006 and then goes back in time to 1956, switching narrators so that we, the reader, see the marriage from the perspective of both husband and wife.

Trinidad, in 1956, has just elected its first leader, Eric Williams, and the country is passionately in love with him. He is Oxford-educated and promises to help the poor with the basic necessities they are lacking. Many, such as Granny Seraphina, have no running water and live in former slave quarters. The poverty is shocking. The white residents, most of them English, are buying land cheaply and living like royalty.

Among these residents are George and Sabine Harwood. George is a civil servant in England whose life has been drab and uneventful. Taking his young wife, he comes to Trinidad to work. He soon falls in love with the land and its people.

Sabine, however, longs for England. She is oppressed by the heat and sensitive to the racial tensions plaguing the country. George sees only the sensuous beauty. When George discovers the cache of letters Sabine has written to Eric Williams, he mourns the erosion of his marriage.

"If only he'd known then. Eric Williams--of all people... Williams had died a broken man...He had (failed). George was like her, though; ...the same as Sabine, a cheat. He had cheated on Sabine all along, from the first day they arrived, stepping off the Cavina. It had been immediate, a strong physical attraction. He had fallen, and that was that. Head over heels, with the sounds and smells, with the smiles and shapes, with all the bewitching qualities of another woman called Trinidad (p. 73)."

Monique Roffey uses the country's disappointment in Eric Williams and its eventual dissolution into riots as a metaphor of the marriage itself. Violence breaks out around them, Molotov cocktails are thrown into their yard, the dogs are poisoned. Meanwhile, George and Sabine argue and call each other names; their sexual relations are laced with anger. "Stupid man," Sabine thinks. "His castle built on sand drenched in the blood of thousands of dark-skinned souls, those brought to Trinidad whether they liked it or not, forced to toil unpaid, all those who lived here before them hounded into extinction (p. 390)."

This book portrays the inequities of Trinidad's class system in rich, descriptive language. We see the home of Grandma Serephina in all of its squalor. Grandma Serephina, herself, is an engaging character who attracts and repels in equal measure. Her anger, hatred, and disappointment reflect that of the downtrodden on the island. Her sense of injustice resonates with Sabine, as it does with the reader.

In 2010, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was a finalist for Britain's prestigious Orange Prize. It is a captivating depiction of the limits of love even as that love never dies. And it is the story of an island whose beauty and resources are ravaged by expatriates, much as they were by the colonial powers years before.

This is a powerful novel, written in first person narrative first by George, and then by Sabine. It is a unique style that brings the reader closer to the characters and the events that shape them. Roffey has written a haunting novel that remains in one's mind long after the final page.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Lady Blue Eyes

Celebrity tell-alls are not necessarily my cup of tea, but when I saw that Barbara Sinatra was coming out with the book Lady Blue Eyes, I was interested. Barbara was not only Frank Sinatra's fourth and final wife (staying married to him until his death in 1998) but she was married to Zeppo Marx as well for a number of years. I'm a big Marx Brothers fan and there are a number of fun Chico, Harpo and Groucho anecdotes through this book. Apparently Groucho (in his 80s at the time) was one of the few people who criticized Frank to his face when Barbara decided to divorce Zeppo and live with Frank.

Barbara Sinatra grew up in a small town in Missouri and was able to parlay her tall blonde looks into a modelling career in Las Vegas. She would eventually move to L.A. to marry Zeppo, who was actually her second husband (though her only child, a son, came from the first marriage). Zeppo was much older and Barbara tells us that this was a marriage for financial security, though she expresses very few ill feelings towards Zeppo. Frank Sinatra was a neighbor and over time the two of them became close, allowing Frank to woo her away from Zeppo and eventually marry her.

Obviously, the reason to pick up this book is for the anecdotes, and while Barbara provides plenty of them, they mostly focus on an older crew. Sinatra's buddy Jilly is a major part of the stories as is Frank Sinatra's mother (both of whom died in tragic accidents at an advanced age). Frank's supposed ties to organized crime are addressed as is his drinking and occasional foul moods, but for the most part this is a feel-good love story. Frank truly seemed to find the right woman at the right time.

The latter half of this book is essentially devoted to Frank's domesticity. After retiring from performing in the mid-seventies he was eventually lured back on the road, though you get the sense that his skills were declining in his last decade of performing. Barbara Sinatra has been focused on charitable activities in the latter part of her life and she details these, along with Frank's contributions. While the first half of the book certainly has plenty of drinking, fighting, carousing and practical jokes, you won't get to see the raucous mob-connected Sinatra portrayed in other biographies.

What I loved most about this book was it's portrayal of a bygone time when stars were stars. Dino, Sammy, Princess Grace, Cary Grant, Don Rickles, Gregory Peck and many other Hollywood and entertainment greats continually pop up as part of the entourage. It's fun to imagine what hanging out with Frank and Sinatra would have been like, although Frank's ability to stay up all night might exhaust a person in no time! This is a breezy and generally involving read for anyone interested in Sinatra and his associates.

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Thursday, September 8, 2011


When I finished Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken. A World War II story of survival, resilience and redemption. I actually felt guilty that I was sitting in a nice comfy chair with a stack of oreos next to me. And I was exhausted.

The story about Louis Zamperini is indeed one of survival. Zamperini was not a model child. He gave his parents a hard time, but his older brother Pete would not give up on him. Pete trained Louis to run. Trading on Louis' natural ability to run at great speed (mostly away from police) Pete turned him into a world class runner. At one point the world record belonged to Zamperini and it looked like he would be the first man to break the 4 minute mile mark. He competed in the 1936 Olympics and seemed to be on his way - then World War II intervened.

Louie joined the air corps and was trained to be a bombardier. His brother Pete was a naval chief petty officer stationed in San Diego. Louie's flight group was assigned to a B-24D known as the "flying coffin." Trained not only to sight bombs but survive a crash, Louie rapidly developed his skills. The plane, named Super Man was sent to Oahu for battle. After some fierce air battles the Super Man could no longer fly. Louie's group was given the Green Hornet a plane that had been patched together. 30 to 40 sorties was the expected tour for the flight crews. Louie's tour was much longer.

On May 27, 1943 Louie boarded the Green Hornet. The plane took off but never arrived at the agreed site. It had crashed. The plane was woefully under supplied. Not enough life vests, food or survival gear for the men who actually survived the crash and the sharks.

3 men survived. Louie, Phil and Mac. They had 2 rafts, some chocolate, little water, some fishing line and flares. Their survival depended on their own tenacity. Once the plane was discovered missing search teams were sent out. They searched for days but never found the men. In the mean time the men continued to drift with the currents. Relentless sun and no water they could drink took a toll on them. They tried to fish with little success, they ate raw sea birds they collected. They tried to collect rain water and still they drifted. 2,000 miles they drifted right into the Japanese.

Here is where the real survival tale begins. Hillenbrand details the horrors inflicted upon Louie and the other POWs. Filthy living conditions, enslavement in the industries used in the Japanese war effort, starvation and the relentless physical abuse. For years Louie and other POWs endured these conditions, leaving them living skeletons. Rescue finally arrived. The captors fled so they themselves would not be captured.

Louie and his fellow captives were rescued and finally sent back to the United States to recover. Louie's reappearance was a shock to his family - the army had declared him dead. Louie's life after the war was checkered. Plagued by flashbacks of the abusive guards he started drinking. He couldn't run because his leg had been shattered in the camps and never healed correctly. Louie was literally the walking wounded. Married, Louie couldn't even support his wife. Taken advantage by schemers he was always buying into one thing or another. Salvation came in the form of a tent sermon by Billy Graham.

That Zamperini survived to even hear Billy Graham is a miracle. The book is relentless in it's descriptions. Horror abounds in the Japanese prison camps, yet Louie seems remarkably resilient. He survives to live another day. And live he does.

I highly recommend this book. It is not a happy story but it is one that shows the strength of the human spirit. Graphic descriptions don't detract from the story they are simply part of it. Something to get past. Something to survive, like Louie did.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Dog Days of Summer...The New Yorkers

The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine, is a light and charming story about a group of single people in New York City's Upper West Side. It is an urban fable whose characters are linked by their loveable dogs. The cast includes Jody, a spunky music teacher who labels herself a spinster, takes up knitting, and worries her nights away. Believing she should own a cat (more in keeping with the spinster life), she none-the-less falls in love with an elderly pit-bull mix. Found by the ASPCA wandering the streets emaciated and covered with ticks, this gentle dog is adopted by Jody. She bestows her with the dignified name of Beatrice. Given Cathleen Schine's love of literary allusions, one wonders if she named the mutt after Dante's muse, Beatrice Portinari--the inspiration for his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy (1308-1321).

This novel abounds in funny characters. We have the handsome but stuffy, Everett. He is a 50-year-old chemist who falls, not for the 26-year-old Polly, with whom he is having an affair, but with her exuberant puppy, Howdy. While dog-sitting for Polly, Everett takes Howdy on walks through central park. He becomes a part of the dog-walking society around him and ceases to feel so alone.

It seemed almost incomprehensible to Everett. He had lived with this dog for five days. In five days, his life had come alive for him. His street was full of people, and his city was full of streets. His park, once nothing more than a grand exercise track, was now a landscape, a lawn, a garden, a thicket, a boulder, a swamp ( pp. 209-210).

Other colorful characters include George, Polly's brother; Simon, Jody's self-centered boyfriend, Jamie, owner of the Cheers-like restaurant where patrons and their dogs are welcome, and Doris, the woman who hates dogs and wants to bar them from public places. Part of the action involves Doris, with her orange skin and not-so-repressed anger, hatching schemes with the city councilman.

The New Yorkers would be especially liked by singles in their 20's or 30's, or by those seeking a book with wonderfully comedic passages. As always, Cathleen Schine's writing sparkles. You don't have to be a dog-lover to enjoy this book, but it helps.

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