Monday, August 21, 2017

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey

Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey is a graphic memoir of the author's life as a student in post-coup Turkey where she grew up. This coming of age story takes place in the 1980s and early 1990s covering the author beginning primary school in Izmer and attending college in Istanbul. The artwork includes both doodling and collage work.

Ozge Samanci's parents were both teachers.  Her mother taught sewing at a vocational women's high school and her father taught technical drawing at a vocational men's high school. Her father wanted both Ozge and her older sister Pelin to become engineers so that they could get good jobs and have a better life. Pelin wanted this career but Ozge had other ideas like being an actress, an oceanographer, or an artist. Wanting to please her father, both Pelin and Ozge cram studied in order to get into the best school that would guarantee their admission to the best colleges. Pelin was successful but Ozge could not pass her entrance exams.

While she was growing up Ozge was fascinated by Turkish leader Ataturk and frequently would apologize to his picture when she felt she did not live up to his ideals. She also idealized Jacques Cousteau and had a poster of him up on her bedroom wall. Together they would discuss what Ozge's role in life should be.  

Ozge eventually gets into the college Pelin was attending but could only get in as a math student. After flunking most of her classes she eventually graduates but knows she cannot work as a mathematician. As her Jacques Cousteau poster told her, she had learned how to learn by studying math and was prepared to learn whatever she wanted, including art.

I loved this book. It seems that the ending was abrupt and I believe a sequel is needed to finish the author's story. She is currently a professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois where I live. I am curious as to how she got there.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

I Remember Beirut

Zeina Abirached, in her follow-up graphic novel to A Game For Swallows, concentrates in I Remember Beirut on those things that she remembers about her life living in war torn Beirut in the 1980s. There is no formal plot. Each page begins with "I remember" and talks about a different memory she has such as the sound of unwrapping a Kitkat candy bar, never having running water and that the school bus did not stop in her neighborhood.

The artwork is the same used in A Game For Swallows.  The drawings are stark black and white.  Each time the letter "o" is used in a word the author placed a dot inside it. This is a bullseye and shows how victimized the residents feel about the war.  It is a most unconventional graphic style but works well for the story the author is telling.

I loved the book but must admit "Swallows" is better.

The Arab of the Future 2

This book is part two of the author's biography of his childhood.  It covers the years 1984 - 1985 and will be continued in another installment of the series.  Like the first book, the artwork consists of line drawings with color schemes for different places that the author lived at.  As he did in the earlier book, Sattouf uses pink for his life in Syria and blue for visits to his mother's native France.

When this story opens it is time for Riad Sattouf to begin school.  He is terrified because he does not speak Arabic, knows no other kids and stands out due to his blonde hair. Some of the kids think he is Jewish because he is blonde but Riad denies this. His Lebanese father is a university professor so the family has some status. Riad meets two kids who become his friends and together they all share a healthy fear of their teacher, a woman who enjoys hitting her students in the hands with a stick.

The story covers one school year, Riad's summer visit to his mother's family in France and the beginning of his second year in school. I think the first book was a little better.  It covered his life from birth to age 5. It had more action as the family moved to 5 different countries during this period of time. However, I am interested in reading however many installments to this series that are written.  The series gives an interesting perspective of a child with European and Arabic ancestry living in the Middle East.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Photographer's Wife

The Photographer's Wife is the Suzanne Joinson's second novel. It is about a British woman, Prudence Ashton Miller, who spent  part of her childhood in Jerusalem where her father was working. Prudence, however, is not a photographer's wife. Eleanora Rasul is the photographer's wife.  Although she is central to the story, she is not the protagonist. The title of this book is baffling.

The story begins in Jerusalem in the 1920s where an 11 year old Prudence Ashton has recently moved into the Hotel Fast in order to be with her father Charles Ashton. Her mother was confined to an institution in England. There she meets her father's friends and business associates William Cunningham, an aviator, the beautiful Eleanora who has just married the Arab photographer Khaled Rasul, her father's mistress Frau Baum and Khaled Rasul's friend Ihsan, who is teaching Prudence the Arabic language.

The story alternates between the 1920s and the late 1930s/early 1940s when the English are trying to erase from history their time collaborating with Germany in Jerusalem. War between England and Germany is about to begin and there are things that need to be covered up. The British government wants Prudence, now separated from her husband and with a son, to give them photographic evidence of this past that could incriminate them in working with the Nazis. This brings back memories that Prudence thought had left her mind.

At first I thought that this was a historical fiction novel. It is not written with the historical fiction template and I was not sure if it was written poorly or another type of novel. I soon realized that it is another type of novel and is written in prose. While I felt the story moved a little slowly, it was only because my expectations were wrong. I am not used to reading this type of novel.

The plot was interesting and the reader does not know until the end of the book that the reason for telling the story is that the British government wants to erase this part of their history. I think the book may have been more exciting if there were clues throughout the story of this intent.

This was a great read and I would rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy

French author and diplomat Antonin Baudry, writing under the pen name of Abel Lanzac, has written a fictionalized account of his time working for the French Foreign Ministry during the time period leading up to the U. S. invasion of Iraq. It is a graphic novel.

The story begins with Arthur Vlaminck getting hired as a speechwriter for Foreign Minister Alexandre Taillard de Vorms.  De Vorms has a nasty temper and loves to quote poets and philosophers. He is never happy with what Vlamink writes. Never. Vlamink gets to travel with the Minister on diplomatic trips abroad and to the United Nations (U.N.) where he sees the American president (George W. Bush) and Jeffrey Cole (Colin Powell) address the U.N. concerning Resolution 1441 which provided for inspections on the nation Khemed's (Iraq) weapons of mass destruction in order to avoid war.

While this is a serious topic, the author has written a wonderful satire of this part of our recent history. He has shown the difference of opinions between France and the U. S. on the subject all while showing the reader how diplomacy works.

I do not understand why the author does not use his real name, the name of his boss, Bush, Powell or Iraq. I am certain there is a professional reason for this but I do not know what it is.

This book was pretty amusing.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Use of Force

Use of Force is Brad Thor's 12th Scot Harvath spy thriller. I have read every book that he has written and loved them all.

In this installment of the series main character Scot Harvath is able to prevent most parts of a terrorist attack in the U. S. He is then sent to Libya to pick up an ISIS operative. While he is trying to get to the terrorist, ISIS mounts escalating terrorist attacks in Europe, killing many.

One thing I love about Brad Thor's writing is that the mystery to be solved begins early in the book. This gives me the entire book to soak up the changing action and try to figure out clues to the denouement.

That said, I feel that Use of Force falls a little short.  While it is still a good novel, the writing is not up to par with Thor's earlier works. Thor admits that he changed his approach to writing with Use of Force. I am not sure what the change is but this novel was not as fast paced as all of his others. It does have the usual non-stop action though.

While I feel that Thor's writing falls short with this novel, because he was at the top of the thriller game, his writing is still heads above other thriller writers' abilities and I would still recommend the book to everyone. However, instead of giving a usual rating of 5 out of 5, Use of Force is 3.5 out of 5 because I was disappointed.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

Sarah Glidden is a comic book author and illustrator who primarily writes nonfiction and reportage comics. Her artwork is usually done in watercolors and is usually drawn in traditional comic panels. I reviewed her second book, Rolling Blackouts, in May.  How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is her first book which was originally published in 2010. It covers a Birthright Israel trip that she took to Israel with a friend in 2007.

The back cover blurb states: "Sarah Glidden is a progressive Jewish American twentysomething who is vocal about her criticism of Israeli politics in the Holy Land. When a debate with her mother prods her to sign up for a Birthright Israel trip, Glidden expects to find objective facts to support her strong opinions. What she gets, however, is a regimented schedule meant to showcase the best of Israel: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Masada, Kinneret and the Dead Sea, and other landmarks. Worries she may be falling prey to an agenda, Glidden seizes various opportunities to discuss the fraught complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But with self
-effacing humor and reflection, Glidden realizes that the opinion she is most surprised by may very well be her own."

I love the author's reportage comic sub-genre. This memoir of her birthright trip is part travelogue and part memoir. The arguments that she presented concerning the Israeli-Palestini issue were well thought out and show both sides of the issue. She is a non-observant Jew with Palestinian sympathies when she begins her trip but returns home confused about the issue. While the subject matter is serious, the book is an easy and relaxing read.

This is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time and everyone needs to take a look at this one.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Game For Swallows

A Game For Swallows had a huge impact on me, challenging my American notions of what life is like in war torn countries. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true in this graphic novel with its stark black and white drawings of the author's former Christian neighborhood in Beirut.  She shows how much of her community is safe by drawing a small circle on a page of paper. She also shows how barricades are set up to make it safer for people to walk outside without getting hit by a sniper. This tells me so much more than what I hear in tv and newspaper news reports.

The story begins with the author as a child being holed up in the foyer of her family's apartment, the only safe place in the apartment. Neighbors come by during bombings to join the family in the foyer for safety reasons. There is much hospitality present as coffee and alcohol are always being offered to everyone. Worry is present also as the family worries about other family members who got stuck in other parts of town when the guns and bombs began to go off. The neighbors create a homey atmosphere for the author and her brother by sharing cooking lessons, games and gossip.

The title of the book comes from a quote by Florian "to die  to leave  to return  it's a game for swallows." I am sure it was chosen to represent the fact that people have to constantly move to new places when they are living in a war zone in order not to get killed.

I thought it was interesting that the author placed a dot inside the letter "o" every time it was used in a word. It is a bullseye and let's the reader know just how much the country's residents feel they are being attacked by the warring parties. The font used for the dialogue was a plain style font that contributed to the seriousness of the story. The author, Zeina Abirached, used her artwork to the fullest extent in telling her story. It made the story much more compelling than if she had used a different style.

I was blown away by this book and cannot recommend it more highly.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Prisoner

The Prisoner is Alex Berenson's 12th novel and 11th John Wells spy thriller.  It is the first book of his that I have ever read.

The front cover blurb summarizes the book as follows:  "An Islamic State prisoner in a secret Bulgarian prison has been overheard hinting that a senior CIA officer may be passing information to the Islamic State. The agency's top officials, and even the President, say the possibility is unthinkable. But John Wells and Ellis Shafer, his former boss at the agency, have reason to believe it. To prove their fears, Wells will have to reassume his former identity as a hardened jihadi, then get  captured and sent to the same prison as the source..."

I enjoyed this book somewhat but was disappointed that the main story did not commence until halfway through the book.  It took me over a week to read it which for me is a long time.  I usually finish a book in 1 or 2 days.

The pace was slow which made it a boring book. I know that this is a minority opinion as I have read many glowing reviews of the book. It just did not do much for me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Soldier's Heart

Soldier's Heart The Campaign to Understand my WWII Veteran Father is a wonderful graphic memoir by Carol Tyler. Tyler shows how her father's war experiences traumatically affected him and, in turn, affected his relationships with his children as they were growing up, including how they obtained their own emotional baggage from their upbringing. The book joins the author's angst over her present life, a failed marriage and mentally ill daughter, with the memories her father has from his war experience. The trauma has now affected three generations. At the time the book was published in 2015, he was still alive and was 95 years old.

Carol Tyler wants to be closer to her parents but is unable to penetrate the hard exteriors they developed from the trauma of the war experience. Like most members of the greatest generation, they did not talk about the past. One day Charles Tyler calls his daughter on the phone and talks for 2 hours about the war. His daughter, the author, then begins 2 projects. She begins a scrapbook of her father's war years and also begins to research his war experiences by going through government archives and interviewing her father. What she puts together is a magnificent history of how WWII affected the generation that fought it and how their battle scars affected their abilities to raise their future families. Having been raised myself by this generation I can truthfully say that every family I grew up with has the same baggage that Tyler family has. It is part of our American history.

The reason for the title "Soldier's Heart" is simple. This was the term used after the Civil War to describe the PTSD that soldier's suffered from. The artwork changes throughout the book from comic panels to full page drawings done in both pen and watercolors. The colors vary by page from saturated colors to desaturated colors.

A Soldier's Heart is a fabulous history lesson on WWII. If you did not live through it I highly recommend that you read it. For those of us that lived with the aftermath of the war, it may explain why your family life turned out the way it did.

Simply magnificent!!!!!

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

Sam Zabel is a comic writer who has suffered from writer's block for six years. After giving a speech at a local university he meets Alice Brown who tells him about an old comic book called The King of Mars by Evan Rice. Sam gets a copy of the book and begins to read it. He suddenly sneezes and finds himself in the comic's world on Mars. Sam begins a fantasy journey that takes him through the history of comic books and a discussion on how women have been treated in comics over the years. He discovers that Evan Rice used a magic pen that helped him write the King of Mars.

The book involved time travel which I am not fond of. I cannot fault the author for writing a book in a genre that I do not like. The reason that I selected this book to read is because I knew it was considered to be comic book classic.

Time traveling fans, this one is for you.


I must start off this review with a mention of the artwork.  The author has used psychedelic sixties colors which puts me in heaven.  I wish that the story matched these lovely colors but for me it did not.

The story opens with a man named Jack finding his pregnant wife Patience murdered in their home. After years of living with his grief Jack finds a time traveling machine and uses it to go back in time to save Patience.

I am not a fan of time traveling stories so I found this book hard to follow. It does not seem right, though, to fault an author for writing a book that I am inclined to not like.  I pickd up the book at my public library based on the color of the artwork. So, if you love time travel books, maybe this one is for you.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Best We Could Do

The Best We Could Do is the story of the Bui family in both Vietnam and the U. S. Most of the story, though, takes place in Vietnam.  It gives the family's history from the time of the  author's grandparents to the family's arrival in America in 1978 and then to the present time.

The story opens and ends in 2005 with the author giving birth to her first child and then switches to 1999 when the author left home to move in with her boyfriend. The cultural differences between the author and her mother and their inability to communicate confounds the author and results in her wanting to search for her roots in Vietnam.  Her memories move back to 1978 Malaysia where the Buis lived in a refugee camp for several months before emigrating to America. Then we travel back in time and to Vietnam as the author's father tells her the family history. This is where most of the story is told.

The Bui family was quite resourceful in adapting to the changing political terrain in Vietnam. They were always able to remain just above destitution until the Vietnam War decimated the country. The Buis were not concerned with which side of the war was right or wrong.  They were only trying to survive and keep their extended family safe. Author Thi Bui's parents' relationships with their own parents is dissected and how the grandparents coped with a changing country is shown. Likewise, Thi Bui's siblings' relationships with their parents also unfolds as they grow up and learn to deal with the harshness of their lives.

I was captivated by the family's story and believe that their cultural background aided their ability to survive conflict and make a new life in a different country. The Vietnamese are longsuffering.  They are family oriented and as long as the family is OK, life is good.

I am unclear on the reason for title of the book. Obviously, the family's sufferings to survive could be the reason the author chose "The Best We Could Do." However, I think it is about her relationship with her mother. Thi Bui became assimilated into American culture including its expression of affection. Her mother rarely displayed affection or said what she felt in her heart, which I believe is pretty normal for a person who experienced the trauma of war and displacement. These differences seemed to create a divide between them that could not be breached. Ms. Bui clearly wants to be closer to her mother. Another thing I noticed is that throughout the book the author included several private moments that she had with her mother. She did not share her siblings having these moments. With the book opening and closing with the author having a baby, and her mother being present for the birth, instead of this being a family saga, it seems more like the back story for the reason that their relationship is restrained.

Since the book is a graphic novel I feel that I must mention the artwork. Ms. Bui used pen and ink drawings to tell her story. They were colored in cool-toned orange shades.

The Best We Could Do is such a great story that I read it twice in a row. I cannot recommend it more highly. I think that you will love it and, at the very least, you will learn about the history of the Vietnamese in the 20th century.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

California Dreamin': Cass Elliott Before the Mamas & the Papas

I loved, loved, loved this graphic novel. Cass Elliott seems to have been born with that cool attitude that she had during her lifetime. She was cool even as a child. The book covers her life from birth until the release of the Mamas and the Papas first hit song California Dreaming.

She was born with the name Ellen Cohen and was especially adored by her father. As a child she was encouraged to eat because her parents did not have alot to eat when they were young. Cass had a great singing voice from the time she first began to sing. She was born with talent.

The black and white drawings show her becoming more and more overweight as she grew up. It did not bother her at all but when she was old enough to seek music jobs, music producers did not want to hire her because of the weight. As Cass sought the perfect band to sing with she used her strong personality to get ahead. She wanted to sing with a trio called the Journeyman, composed of John, Michelle and Denny. Having pushed her way into their lives she was able to become part of the group and the rest is history.

The book details how the band got their name, how Cass got her stage name, how California Dreaming was composed and how Cass's personality propelled her to success in the music business. I found only one drawback to the book. I had been expecting the artwork to be colored in psychedelic sixties colors. When it came in the mail I was disappointed to see that it was done in black and white drawings. Perhaps that was intentional by the author as the psychedelic sixties began at a time when the book's story ended. I would love to know from the author if this is true.

This book is a must read for anyone coming of age in the sixties or seventies when the music of the Mama's and the Papas was popular. It gives an inside view of one of the greatest music groups of our time.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Big Kahn

The Big Kahn is a graphic novel about a family secret, so secret that Rabbi David Kahn's wife and kids do not know about it. At the Rabbi's funeral, his long lost brother arrives and tells the family that Rabbi Kahn has lived a lie. He is not Jewish, not a real rabbi and his real name is Donnie Dobbs. They are horrified.

All of the family members react differently to the news. Son Avi who was expected to inherit the rabbinate worries that the congregation will not vote him in, considering him to be a fraud like his father.  Scandalous daughter Lea becomes more interested in Judaism and wife Rachel cannot cope with the whispers about her that she overhears from ladies in the congregation. Young son Eli is just trying to find himself.

I loved this novel with all of its Jewish flair.  However, the same story could have been told about any faith tradition. All churchy people gossip about other church members so I can fully understand Rachel wanting to withdraw from society. The scenes from the funeral are not unique to Judaism as all people say the same words at funerals.  That said, this is a very Jewish story.  I can relate, though, from my experiences as a Protestant.

While this is a small book of 166 pages, the author has created characters with great depth through superb dialogue and emotional drawings.  This is the first time I have seen characters created as fully as you would find in a regular novel. Speaking of the artwork, The Big Kahn has black and white drawings with minimal shading done in comic panels.

Loved this book.  I give it 5 out of 5 stars!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown is the 2nd installment of the Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation series by Vaseem Khan. The not-so-amateur sleuth is retired police investigator Ashwin Chopra who lives in Mumbai. Inspector Chopra has a pet baby elephant that he takes with him everywhere, having bought a special van to drive the animal around in. The elephant, named Ganesha, has intelligent and emotional features similar to a human, at least in Inspector Chopra's eyes.

The story begins with the opening of an exhibition of the British Crown Jewels at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. The Queen is also in India on tour. Chopra manages to obtain tickets for the first day of the exhibition for himself and his wife Poppy.  The main treasure of the exhibition is the Queen's crown with its Koh-i-Noor diamond. The diamond was given to Queen Victoria from India, via its British masters, and many Indians feel that it should remain in India. While Chopra is gazing at the crown he hears several loud noises and smoke engulfs the room.  When he regains consciousness, the crown is gone.

The Force One guards investigating the theft quickly find the perpetrator, police Inspector Shekhar Garewal, after finding the crown in his home, minus the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Chopra is asked by Inspector Garewal to help him clear his name as he is innocent of the theft.

I enjoyed the first half of the book but got bored when Inspector Chopra's investigation began and I started skipping pages. The characters did not appeal to me.  Chopra's wife Poppy seemed to be interesting but she had a minor role in the plot. Also, I had a hard time recognizing the pet elephant's role. Let's face it, the suspension of belief required to believe that an elephant can contribute to an investigation is too far to go. While the book is advertised as a mystery I would categorize it further as a cozy mystery.

Since I liked half of the book I will give it 2.5 stars.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Midnight in St. Petersburg

Midnight in St. Petersburg takes place in pre-revolutionary Russia.  Orphaned Inna Feldman flees her home in Kiev where a pogrom is beginning, for St. Petersburg where she has a distant relative that she hopes will take her in. The Leman family agrees to let her stay for a few days but are fearful of letting her stay longer as Inna has no papers to identify herself. She left them behind, as well as her Jewish identity, and stole the papers of a wealthy woman during the pandemonium of the prime minister's assassination at a concert that the Tsar had also attended.

Inna and her cousin Yasha Kagan, who lives and works for the Leman's in their violin making workshop, soon become attracted to each other and Yasha convinces them that Inna should stay for awhile and begin an apprenticeship in the workshop to help pay for her keep. Inna agrees and stays for several months, meeting all of the Leman's friends including an Englishman, Horace Wallick, who works for Faberge and has fallen in love with her. She also becomes enamored with a priest that she met on the train to St. Petersburg, Father Grigory, who is becoming famous by his last name, Rasputin.

As the revolution continues to get bigger, restrictions on Jews are lifted but soon are put back into place.  When Inna is asked by a member of the aristocracy to repair a Stradivarius, she thinks that she can get away from another coming pogrom by escaping St. Petersburg for Yalta when she delivers the repaired violin.  Does she go alone? Take Yasha or Horace with her?  Is she able to escape? You will have to read the book to find out!

The plot was somewhat predictable. I knew which man Inna would pick based on the type of woman that she was. What I could not predict was the ending, which surprised me a little.  You knew it was going to end in either 1 or 2 ways.  I did enjoy, however, learning about the era and how the Russian people coped with all of the problems a revolution brings, ie, food shortages, uncertainty and for the Jews, deciding whether to leave Russia or stay.

The storyline about Inna's passion for one of her suitors was exciting. I won't tell you which one! Most of the hints that the author gave the reader were from Inna's thoughts.  It would have been nice to have had more of them.

I enjoyed the book and hope to both read more about this era and more from this author.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Scribe of Siena

The Scribe of Siena is Melodie Winawer's first novel.  It takes place in Siena in the 1340s, before, during and after the Plague killed most of the residents. While there is some time travel involved, 90% of the story takes place in the 1340s.

Beatrice Trovato is a neurosurgeon in New York City.  Her brother Ben, a medieval researcher lives in a house in Siena where he is researching why Siena lost more people from the Plague than other European cities. After agreeing to visit him, Beatrice receives a letter in the mail from his attorneys advising that her brother has died and that she has inherited his estate, including his research notes.  They advise her that several local scholars would like to finish his research and write a book.  Beatrice travels to Siena and moves into his house.  She intends on finishing his research project.

While following up on his research notes, Beatrice finds a journal from a fresco painter of the era in a library.  She is fascinated by his life and finds within one of his paintings an image of her own face.  Beatrice falls asleep in a cathedral and when she wakes up she is still in the cathedral but 650 years before the 21st century.

Of course Beatrice finds people staring at her because she is improperly dressed for the time period.  After being charged with this crime a nun, Umilta, rescues her and takes her to the Opsedale where she will live and work.   Because Beatrice is literate, unusual for women of the era, she is allowed to work in the scriptorium as a scribe.  While taking a break one day she meets a fresco painter who is painting a fresco for the Opsedale.  He is Gabriele Accorsi, whose journal she had read.

As Beatrice tries to sort out how she traveled back in time and how to return to the 21st century, she continues to work as a scribe.  She worries about catching the Plague as she knows from history that it is about to be unleashed in Siena, but realizes that she is better suited to life in the 14th century than the 21st. She loves her new job and has friends, including Gabriele.

I loved this book. I was spellbound from the moment I began reading.  While I am not a fan of time traveling, most of this book was a medieval mystery.  I did enjoy, though, the present era where Beatrice was trying to figure out what her brother had discovered in his research. The beauty of Siena captivated me and I think that I am going to have to put this city on my travel bucket list. I want to see everything that Beatrice saw. This is a wonderful debut book for the author and is a must read.

The Tea Planter's Wife

I loved this book!  It is the first novel by Dinah Jeffries that I have ever read and I am impressed.

The story begins in the 1920s with 19 year old newlywed Gwendolyn Hooper traveling from England to Ceylon to join her thirtysomething husband Laurence at his tea plantation. Culture shock is her initial problem with the need to learn new words for workers such ayah and appu, get accustomed to the loud noise and fragrant smells of the country as well as the danger of the political strife between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. She also has to learn how to manage a household staff of employees who are much older than her.  In addition, Gwen has to deal with the other women in Lawrence's life, his ex-mistress Christina, his sister Verity and his deceased first wife Caroline. None of this is easy for the teenager.

The Tea Planters Wife was a fast read.  I loved the setting descriptions of Ceylon's topography, weather patterns, the smell of cinnamon in the air and life on a tea plantation. The fragrance of cinnamon captured my imagination as it is so different from Chicago where I live which smells like . . . something different. The only exception would be when the latrine coolie did not arrive on time. Ugh!

The characters were interesting. Gwen had nothing but adversity to deal with throughout the novel. Sister-in-law Verity is a pretty nasty person, Christina is still pushing Laurence to continue their relationship and Laurence is something else. I felt he totally ignored his wife's needs and put the needs of the other women in his life first as well as those of his employees. I would have dumped him.

All in all, I would give this novel 4 out of 5 stars.

The River of Kings

I had a difficult time getting interested in this book.  I re-read pages 1-50 several times but could not get into it.  I then skimmed over a few more pages but could not follow the plot.  The back cover blurb describes the writing style as prose which is not the style normally used in historical fiction. This might be my stumbling block. However, here is what the book is about, per the inside cover blurb:

". . . The Altamaha River, Georgia's 'Little Amazon's one of the last truly wild places in America. Crossed by roads only five times in its 137 miles, the black-water river is home to thousand-year-old virgin cypress, to the direct descendents of eighteenth century Highland warriors, and to a staggering array of rare and endangered species.  The Altamaha is even rumored to harbor its own river monster, as well as traces of the oldest European fort in North America.

Brothers Hunter and Lawton Loggins set off to kayak the river, bearing their father's ashes toward the sea.  Hunter is a college student, Lawton a Navy SEAL on leave; they were raised by an angry, enigmatic whimper who lived the river and whose death remains a mystery that his sons are determined to solve. As the brothers proceed downriver, their story alternates with that of Jacques de Not be, the first European artist in North America, who accompanied a 1564 French expedition that began as a search for riches and ended in a bloody confrontation with Spanish conquistadors and native tribes. . ."

Almost every review that I have read of the book has been a 5 star review.   I don't get it.  If you have thoughts about the book please leave a comment.

Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings is the first book in a trilogy about the pharaohs of Egypt. Book 1 covers the 18th dynasty and is about the lives of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamen.  Nefertiti makes an appearance as she was married to Akhenaten. It is the debut novel of Terrence Coffey.

Ancient Egypt is a fairly new historical period for me and this was one of the easiest books for me to read.  Gary Corby's mysteries are the only other books about this era that I have read but I need to read them slowly as I get bogged down in the Egyptian names and words that he uses.  Coffey's book has more contemporary language which made it is fast read.  

I am looking forward to reading the next two books and whatever else this author writes.  Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Bones of Grace

The Bones of Grace is the third book in the Bengal Trilogy.  I had not previously heard of the trilogy when I saw this book at my public library so I have not read the first two books.  Because I had some difficulty with how the story was told I will not be reading them.

The inside front cover blurb summarizes the book as follows:  "On the eve of her departure to find the bones of the walking whale-the fossil that provides the missing link in our evolution-Zubaida Haque falls in love with Elijah Strong, a man she meets in a darkened concert hall in Boston.  Their connection is immediate and intense despite their differences: Elijah belongs to a prototypical American family; Zubaida is the adopted daughter of a wealthy Bangladeshi family in Dhaka. When a twist of fate sends her back to her hometown, the inevitable force of society compels her to take a different path: she marries her childhood best friend and settles into a traditional Bangladeshi life..."

I did not continue with the blurb summary because I did not read any further than the above part of the story. It is told from Zubaida's perspective but is only told through her thoughts and her thoughts are not written in a straight storyline.  The storyline jumps back and forth without chapter breaks.  I do not even remember if the storyline changes by paragraph. All I know is that I could not follow the plot with Zubaida's random thought process.

While I have a rule to stop reading a book if I cannot get interested by the 50th page, I read to page 175 (out of 407 pages) because the plot seemed so interesting and I thought that the book would get better.  It didn't.  It is unfortunate as I had high hopes for the book because it is about Bangladeshi culture.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

2 Sisters

2 Sisters is a World War 2 spy thriller written in a graphic novel format.  It has very little dialogue so you need to view the drawings closely to determine the plot.

Elle and her sister Anna live in England with their alcoholic father.  Elle takes a job as an ambulance driver in order to help out during the war.  She then meets a man named Alan and they become friends.  Soon after, Elle is recruited to be a spy for England and is sent overseas. While Elle is performing as a spy she constantly has flashbacks to growing up with her sister.

I expected more from this story than I got.  Perhaps because I am used to reading spy thrillers I expected more detail.  The drawing style was crude and grey toned colors gave the book a sinister feel which is appropriate for the storyline. However, this book just did not do much for me.

3 out of 5 stars. 

Everything Belongs to Us

I have struggled with categorizing this book as historical fiction.  It takes place in 1978.  I remember 1978.  I was 20.  My millennial co-workers tell me that this was a historical period of time, Korea after the Korean War.  However, it is not historical fiction.  It is a story about the relationships between friends who just happen to come of age during this time period.

The inside cover blurb summarizes the story as follows:  "Seoul, 1978. At South Korea's top university, the nation's best and brightest compete to join the professional elite of an authoritarian regime. Success could lead to life of a rarified privilege and wealth; failure means being left irrevocably behind. For childhood friends, Jisun and Namin, the stakes couldn't be more different. Jisun, the daughter of a powerful business mogul, grew up on a mountainside estate with lush gardens and a dedicated chauffeur. Namin's parents run a tented food cart from dawn to curfew. Her sister works in a shoe factory. Now Jisun wants as little to do with her father's world as possible, abandoning her schoolwork in favor of the underground activist movement, while Namin studies tirelessly in the service of one goal: to launch herself and her family out of poverty. But everything changes when Jisun and Namin meet an ambitious, charming student named Sunam whose need to please his family has led him to a prestigious club: the Circle. Under the influence of his mentor, Juno, a manipulative social climber, Sunam becomes entangled with both women, as they all make choices that will change their lives forever."

The four student characters in this story were loveable and how they handled their friendships as they grew up forms the basis for the plot.  The characters are the success of this novel.  While they faced the usual ambition, desires, anxiety and betrayal that all young people deal with, they also are coming of age at a time when their nation is trying to become an economic powerhouse in a short period of time.

5 out of 5 stars!


Mercy was written by Dan Palmer, the son of medical mystery author Michael Palmer who died a year or two ago.  I don't know if Mercy was an unfinished manuscript by Michael or whether his son is going to continue to write medical mysteries in his memory.  Either way, I am glad that there is someone still interested in writing medical mysteries. It is my favorite mystery sub-genre. With the death of Michael Palmer and Robin Cook no longer writing there currently isn't anyone specializing in this sub-genre.

The topic of Mercy is the critically ill patient's right to die with dignity.  In the novel's White Memorial Hospital expensive, critically ill patients mysteriously die of heart attacks even though none of them have heart disease. It saves the hospital a bundle of money but how is it happening and who is involved?

ICU doctor Julie Devereaux is an outspoken advocate for a patient's right to die until her fiance becomes a paraplegic from a motorcycle accident. He dies of an unexpected heart attack. His autopsy reveals an unusual heart defect, one that is only seen in people under extreme stress.  Since the defect disappears when the stress is alleviated it is not seen as a fatal disease.  Julie investigates similar cases and finds herself the target of threats, even to the point of being accused of a mercy killing herself.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was quite relaxing to read a book that I knew I would like because of its genre.  I also knew that any book written by the Palmers will have great characters, excellent pacing, and suspense.  They have the writing gene.  Mercy was somewhat bittersweet due to personal circumstances that have put me in the hospital several times over the past 2 months.  I have been subjected to nurses yelling at me for not having a living will and they let it be known that they wanted me to sign a DNR (do not rescesitate order).  Being stubborn I refused.  But the beginning of the book was too real for me and made me a little paranoid.  However, it has a compelling plot and excellent writing and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Butcher Bird

The Butcher Bird is a sequel to Sarah Sykes' Plague Land.  In this installment of the series Oswald de Lacy must solve the murders of infants Catherine Tulley and Margaret Beard. The villagers of Somershill believe that they were killed by a butcher bird but Oswald knows that no such bird exists.  Oswald also has to contend with the villagers who work his farm fields.  With half of them dead from the Plague, the survivors have twice as much work to do and want to be paid more money.  The Ordinance of Labourers prohibits raising wages above what they were before the Plague and the local earl enforces the Ordinance with the area lords. Oswald does not want to break the law and he certainly fears getting caught if decides to increase wages.  As usual he has to contend with his contrary mother and sister who manipulate him well.

Oswald is a loveable character. However, I think I like his spiteful mother and sister Clemence better. Clemence knows how to push Oswald to his limits in order to get what she wants, a trait that I share. His family reminds me of my own so their interactions are humorous to me. Ah . . . sibling rivalry.  You gotta love it!

It goes without saying that the author knows her medieval history well.  She shows the era as it was and uses many terms of the day.  I have had to pull out an old English language medieval dictionary that I bought years ago at a travel bookstore to keep track of everything. However, if you do not have such a dictionary you should be fine using the glossary at the end of the book.

I am looking forward to reading the next Somershill Manor Mystery.  Since The Butcher Bird was published last year I assume the third book in the series will be published in 2017.  Can't wait.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


Wizzywig is a story about a brilliant child computer hacker.  Kevin Phenicle gets beat up daily at his elementary school until he finds a way to cheat the phone company out of excessive fees.  He then becomes popular.  His first hack is of the phone company.  After overhearing 2 older men discuss sex as "boingthump" he takes that word as his online name.  After finding ways to scam free pizza and rigging radio contests, Kevin creates some of the world's first worms and viruses all before graduating high school.  He has to go on the run though as several companies have each lost $10,000,000 from his hacking of their computer systems.

I loved this kid.  He is a composite character of 3 young hackers of the early computer era.  If you want to learn about this era you should read this book. Though informative, it is hilarious.  I really enjoyed this one.

Insomnia Cafe

Peter Kolinsky is an expert on rare books and had a good job at an auction house. After black marketers use him in their schemes Peter loses his job and a friend gets him a job at a book depository company.  However, Peter has insomnia, stays up all night, wakes up late and is frequently late to his new job.  He is fired again.  Peter has found a cafe that is open all night called Insomnia.  There he befriends a waitress named Angela and she helps him get a job at the cafe.  On one of their dates she takes him to the archives-a place where books being currently written by famous writers are on the shelves.  However, the black marketers have not forgotten about him and are pursuing him.  Peter is terrified and seeks refuge in the archives.  Most of the story, though, takes place at the cafe.

Insomnia Cafe is a cute book and is a fast read since it is only 80 pages.  The artwork consists of black and white drawings in comic strip panels. Turkish illustrator M. K. Perker wrote and drew the book.  It was a relaxing read for me last weekend where I read it in a park on a hot and sunny day.

5 out of 5 stars.

Plague Land

This is S. D. Sykes' first novel and it was published in 2015.  The sequel, The Butcher Bird, was published last year and I hope that this series has an annual installment.  They are both medieval mysteries featuring Oswald de Lacy as the Lord of Somershill Manor and the amateur sleuth.

Upon hearing of the deaths of his older brothers, Oswald de Lacy has to leave the monastery where he is studying to be a priest in order to take over the management of his family's estate. His mentor, Brother Peter, comes with him. Oswald has not been trained to manage the property as he entered the monastery at age 7 and is now just 17.  The Pestilence has changed the estate with half of its residents succumbing to the Pestilence and those that survived are now quite fearful and superstitious.

After his arrival home, Oswald hears of the death of a local girl, Alison Starvecrow, and is told by Brother Peter that it is his job to investigate the death as he is now Lord of the manor.  The parish priest John Cornwall believes she has been killed by a demonic dog headed monster and convinces the village people that they are in danger of these creatures.  Oswald knows these creatures do not exist but has to deal with the villagers' beliefs in order to solve the crime.

Oswald gets grief from his mother and sister Clemence as well as from John Cornwall as he learns how to investigate the crime and manage an estate as well. He gets alot of advice from Brother Peter who seems to always know what the best approach to a problem is.

I am so happy that someone is writing a medieval mystery series.  I haven't seen too many of them lately and miss them. The medieval period is my favorite period in history.

Anyone who loves the medieval era will like this book.  The author has well-researched the era and it shows.  She has created plausible characters and there are many twists and turns in the solving of the crime.  A great read.

Monday, June 12, 2017


I just finished reading Min Jin Lee's 2007 novel Free Food for Millionaires.  I loved it so I had to pick up her latest novel Pachinko.  It took the author 30 years to write this story and I am glad that she persevered.  It was wonderful.

The story involves 4 generations of a Korean family who originated in Pyongyang.  The novel covers the early 1900s through the 1980s. After Sunja Kim became a pregnant teen whose father refused to marry her, a Christian missionary lodging at her parents boardinghouse, Isak Baek, offers to marry her and take her to Osaka, Japan where he will be serving a church as its pastor.  The family had cared for him while he suffered a bout of tuberculosis during his stay.  The family feels this is a generous offer as Sunja and her baby will be ostracized if they stay.

Sunja and Isak leave North Korea for Japan where they will live with his brother Yoseb and Yoseb's wife Kyunghee.  Sunja and Kyunghee become fast friends and the newlyweds become accustomed to harsh discrimination from the Japanese who even Japanize their last name to Boku.  Koreans are believed to be a lesser sort of people and are treated accordingly by the Japanese. However, life is better for them in Japan because food is more prevalent.  Sunja gives birth to a son, Noa, and a year later gives birth to another son, Mozasu. Yoseb and Kyunghee treat them as their own as they are unable to have children.

Noa is smart at school and plans to take college entrance exams so that he can attend university.  Mazuso gets into alot of trouble for repeatedly fighting with Japanese classmates at school and is told to go work for a family friend who owns a couple of pachinko parlors.  There he blossoms but Noa is unhappy with the arrangement because he feels that it is beneath the family's dignity to be involved in pachinko.

Pachinko is a mechanical game that is both an arcade game and a gambling device which is popular in Japan.  It is similar to slot machines in Western casinos but operates differently.  Small steel balls are given to the operator to use inside the machine and they are both a bet and a payout.  Many pachinko parlors are run by Yazuki (organized crime).

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the women.  They had hard lives and were constrained by societal expectations of what a woman can do. Sunja got lucky with Isak.  They had a good marriage even though it was short. Kyunghee was barren but her husband stayed with her.  Sunja's mother, Yangjin, married Sunja's father Hoonie, who had physical disabilities, so that she would have food to eat but they had a good marriage too and ran a boardinghouse together.

The story moved along at a good pace. The plot grew out of the tumultuous lives of the characters who lived in an uncertain time for Koreans, both in Korea and in Japan. The Baek family's experiences with discrimination kept them at hands length from the Japanese as much as possible.  One wrong move by any of them and they could have been deported back to North Korea even though most of the family was born in Japan.  It did not make them Japanese citizens and it was difficult for Koreans to obtain Japanese citizenship.

This is a must read.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Free Food for Millionaires

The theme of Free Food for Millionaires is resentment.  The main character, Casey Han, resents her parents expectations for her success and whenever they find out about a mistake that she has made her father hits her. The parents, likewise, resent Casey for not following their native Korean customs while living in their new American homeland.  They also resent her for not having a job lined up yet especially after all they have saved from their dry cleaning business to help support her.

The story opens with Casey returning home with a degree from Princeton. After a fight with her father she is thrown out of the house and with no where to go other than her white, American boyfriend's house. Upon arrival she sees him in bed with 2 girls and walks out.  Eventually they get back together and she lives with him; a secret from her parents and their Korean friends.  All of Casey's friends have trust funds and have great opportunities after graduation but Casey doesn't.  Since she has no money she has to adjust her expensive habits to her pocketbook.  That proves to be difficult and she gets into alot of debt, another secret she must keep from her parents.

Casey takes a job as an assistant at an investment banking firm which is basically secretarial.  She is qualified to be a banker but failed to apply for jobs while she was still in school and was unable to get one of those jobs.  She lives in Manhattan with her boyfriend and socializes with her Korean girlfriend Ella and Ella's Korean husband.  In order to make a few extra bucks she continues to work weekends at her mother's friend Sabine's retail shop.

Sabine would like Casey to take over her shop when she retires but Casey cannot decide what she wants to do with her life.  She seems to be just going through the motions with her career and personal life and does just that for several years.

As I have said in earlier posts I like Asian fiction so I loved this book.  The fear of and the need to break cultural traditions by the first generations in America are always fascinating to me.  The native Korean culture is on full display with the thoughts and actions of her parents. Casey, her sister Tina and friend Ella all have different ideas on how to assimilate into the American society.

The younger characters were perfect examples of the dilemma facing Korean Americans.  The author did a great job creating them as well as how they related to each other.  The pace was perfect for this 500+ page book as was the writing. If you decide to read this book I don't think that you will be disappointed.  It is wonderful.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

This is the first book of Dominic Smith's that I have read and it was fabulous.  The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is part mystery and part historical fiction.  The book alternates between the 17th century, the 1950s and year 2000.

The back cover blurb summarizes the book as follows:  "Amsterdam, 1631: Sara de Vos, the first female master painter in the Guild of St. Luke, defies convention by painting a haunting landscape. New York City, 1957: Her only known surviving work, At the Edge of a Wood, hangs in the bedroom of a wealthy lawyer descended from the original owner. Ellie Shipley, a struggling art history student, paints a forgery for an art dealer. Sydney, 2000:  Now a celebrated art historian and curator, Ellie mounts an exhibit of female Dutch painters and finds that both versions are en route to her museum."

Loved, loved, loved this book.  Each era depicts women artists in the male dominated art world.  There was alot of information on art history, art restoration and forgeries which I found to be exciting.  Of course, there is also alot of information about Dutch painters of the 17th century.  The author was well researched in these areas.

All of the characters were appealing, especially Sara.  I enjoyed reading about her life even though the author created her from a composite of real Dutch female painters.  She seemed real to me and I felt that I had known her.  Another great feature was that there were at least 3 strong female characters, remarkable in a book written by a man and done so well.

This book is a must read.

The Obsidian Chamber

The inside cover blurb summarizes the book as follows:

"After a harrowing, otherworldly confrontation in Exmouth, Massachusetts, Special Agent A. X. L. Prendergast is missing, presumed dead. Sick with grief, Pendergast's ward, Constance, retreats to her chambers beneath the family mansion at 891 Riverside Drive-only to be taken captive by a shadowy figure from the past. Proctor, Pendergast's longtime bodyguard, springs to action, chasing Constance's kidnappers through cities, across oceans and into wastelands unknown.  And by the time Proctor discovers the truth, a terrifying engine has stirred-and it may already be too late."

The Obsidian Chamber is the 16th Special Agent Pendergast mystery.  I have only read one other book in the series, Blue Labyrinth and my lack of knowledge about the series definitely affected how I felt about the book. I felt that it was a little slow.  There is alot of back story written into the novel which I needed to know to understand what was happening, but it made the reading less suspenseful for me.  The book is described as a thriller by the publisher but I did not feel any thrill.  The plot was definitely interesting but because half of the book was back story, it fell a little flat to me.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017


I had a hard time getting into this novel but after the first 50 pages I became interested. The story alternates between events that occurred in 1965 and the present time.  I liked the 1965 story better but it ended with the present and all the loose ends were wrapped up.

The story opens in 2015 with 4 childhood friends getting reacquainted. The story then goes back to 1965 with 5 teenage friends running away from their homes in Glasgow for London with hopes of making it big in the music industry. Guitarist Jack Mackay makes the decision to leave after being expelled from high school and his bandmates decide that they don't really want to stay home either. Luke is tired of going door to door with his Jehovah Witnesses parents, keyboard player Maurie wants to give up the opera lessons his parents have forced him into taking , drummer Jeff is a school dropout selling cars and bass player Dave just wants to leave. They lose all their money from a fellow traveler who takes advantage of them and upon arrival they are taken advantage of again by a man who says he can get them a demo record that they can market to an agent.  While they are in London a new friend is killed. When the group are seniors they decide to retrace their steps in London.  Maurie gathers the group together telling them that he has something to finish in London that got started all those years ago.  With Jack's grandson as the driver they set off for London.

While this was a good book it was not as good as earlier May novels.  The plot was simpler and the characters were less developed.   It just wasn't as interesting as the usual Peter May novel.

3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, May 27, 2017


Hostage is Guy Delisle's newest graphic novel.  It was published last month by Canada's Drawn and Quarterly.  The book recounts the experiences of Christophe Andre who was kidnapped in 1997 in the Caucasus where he was working for Doctors Without Borders.  He was held for four months in Chechnya. The story is told just as Andre told it to the author.

Andre spent his days counting them so that he could keep track of time.  He was held in empty rooms and a closet during his captivity.  In order to remain sane he would replay in his mind old military battles.  He was fed the same soup for every meal of every day.  His thoughts about what his NGO was doing to rescue him and when it might happen created some suspense as you felt that it might actually happen the way he fantasized about it.

I have read all of Delisle's travelogues and they were cute and humorous. Hostage is a different book.  Not only is it a serious book, the reader cannot help but feel the same thoughts that Andre was feeling, understanding the discomfort of being handcuffed to a radiator, and wondering along with Andre when he will next get some information about his situation.  You feel that you are in that room with him.

The color scheme is various muted greys for each page which conveys the heavy mood of the story.  It is most appropriate for a tale such as this.

I think that Hostage is Delisle's best book to date.  While his other novels were great they did not contain any suspense and as a mystery reader I appreciate that.

The Arab of the Future

The Arab of the Future A Childhood in the Middle East 1978-1984 is a graphic memoir by Riad Sattouf covering his life from birth through age 6.  It recounts his childhood in Libya, France and Syria in the 1970s and 1980s and is written from his perspective.  Sattouf is a former Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.

The book opens with his French mother Clementine and Syrian father Abdul-Razak meeting in France where both were in school at the Sorbonne.  It was not love at first sight but they eventually married and graduated.  His father had received his doctorate in history and accepted a job as an assistant professor in Libya where the family then moved.

Both mother and son stood out from their neighbors because of their blonde hair and were thought by most to either be American or Jewish.  Riad took notice of the Gaddafi regime's provocations toward Israel and America and had to deal with food shortages as well as the cultural differences between France and Libya.  When Gaddafi ordered people of different social statuses to switch jobs his father started looking for a new position. After two years in Libya they returned to France for the summer and then traveled to Syria where his father had been hired as an assistant professor at a university.

In Syria Riad suffered abuse from his cousins because they thought he was Jewish due to his blonde hair.  He saw a country in ruins and posters of Hafez al-Assad everywhere.  Again, Riad had to deal with a new culture.  The family returned to France for the summer to visit with Clementine's parents and then went back to Syria.  It is here that the story ends with a promise that the story will be continued in another book.

While the artwork consists of basic black and white line drawings there are alternating color schemes for the different locations of the author's life. France is light blue, Libya is yellow and Syria is light pink.

The name of the book was inspired by the author's father who said that he was trying to raise his son to be an arab of the future, one that would get an education to escape religious dogma.  His father, while educated, was sexist, racist and an anti-semite despite himself being an arab of the future.  He treated his wife abysmally and I have to wonder why she stayed married to him.

The Arab of the Future shows the Arabic mindset and was educational for me. The story was not as compelling to me as other graphic novels but I am still looking forward to reading the sequels to this novel.

Rolling Blackouts

Rolling Blackouts:  Dispatches From Turkey, Syria and Iraq is a graphic novel summarizing a trip that the author took to the Middle East with friends who are international journalists.  It is a comic about how journalism works and is based on true events that occurred during the two month trip.

The journalists have formed a collective called Seattle Globalist and have planned a trip through  Turkey, Syria and Iraq to write reports primarily about the region absorbing refugees with dwindling resources, an underreported subject in the mainstream media.  All but one are friends from childhood and includes a former Marine who had been stationed in Iraq.  The author observed her friends interview civilians, refugees and officials including a UN refugee administrator, taxi driver, Iraqi refugee deported from the U. S., Iraqis seeking refuge in Syria and the American Marine.

The journalists use their first interview with a subject mainly to get to know them personally.  Then they meet afterward to discuss what kind of story they can get from the person and how to lead the interview.  Follow-up interviews focus on how the war affected them and if the interviewee was a refugee the journalists discussed their life before the war, how they became refugees, what their future plans and/or desires are and what kind of life they think is actually possible for them.

I found it interesting that none of the refugees wanted to resettle in the U. S. They believe the U.S. invasion of Iraq caused their life to be permanently over. It was also interesting that while the refugees were both rich and poor, most of them were formerly middle class with degrees. There is no longer a middle class in this region and that is why these countries are finding it impossible to rebuild.  All of the people with skills that are needed to rebuild are sitting in refugee camps.

I loved this serious non-fiction graphic novel and hope that more serious graphic novels are written in the future. The information inside its pages was very informative.  The artwork was created with colorful watercolor drawings done in comic panels.  This book is a must read for our national politicians as they do not seem to understand the problems facing the Middle East.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Undertaking of Lily Chen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen begins with a quote from a July 26, 2007 Economist magazine article "Parts of rural China are seeing a burgeoning market for female corpses, the result of the reappearance of a strange custom called 'ghost marriages.'  Chinese tradition demands that husbands and wives always share a grave.  Sometimes, when a man dies unmarried, his parents would procure the body of a woman, hold a 'wedding,' and bury the couple together... A black market has sprung up to supply corpse brides.  Marriage brokers - usually respectable folk who find brides for village men - account for most of the middlemen.  At the bottom of the supply chain come hospital mortuaries, funeral parlors, body snatchers - and now murderers."

The story opens with the death of Deshi Li's brother Wei.  Deshi accidentally kills him during a fight at the air force base where he is stationed.  When he tells his parents that Wei is dead his mother sends him off to bring back a corpse bride for Wei to be buried with so that he is not alone through eternity.  Deshi hires a man to dig up a grave of a woman for him but Deshi is grossed out after seeing the bones of an old corpse and leaves him at the cemetery to seek a "crisp" corpse.  He then begins to travel looking for a bride when he runs across Lily Chen who is getting water from a well for her parents.  Lily joins him believing that he will take her away from her remote village to Beijing for a better life.  Deshi is planning to kill her though.  As they travel they run into some strange folks and Lily's sassiness begins to grow on Deshi.

What makes this book special is the incredible artwork.  The author has used watercolors, pens and inks in her drawings in gorgeous colors that leap off of the page.  She has detailed Chinese papercuts drawn in red as well as colorful landscapes and simple line drawn characters.  This could really be displayed as an art book on a coffee table.  The art is that good.

I cannot recommend this book more highly.  The story was well paced and had an interesting storyline that could actually happen in China today.  Lily is hilarious with her sass.  I love her character.

I give it a 10 out of 5 stars!

The Lost Order

The Lost Order is Steve Berry's 12th Cotton Malone mystery and his 16th book to date.

Cotton accepts an assignment from the Smithsonian Institution and travels to Arkansas to locate a lost treasure.  He becomes involved with the remnant of the most powerful group in American history-the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights were founded in 1854 and disappeared in the early 20th century. The KKK was an off-shoot of the group. However, there are now only about 550 sentinals of the Knights that are rumored to be guarding billions of dollars worth of Confederate gold.  The Smithsonian is not government funded and would like to have the gold to finance their museums. The only problem is that the treasure can only be found by locating 5 stones with clues to the location of the treasure.  All of the clues have been encrypted in a code that has been unbreakable for 150 years. Cotton travels from Washington, DC to Arkansas and then to New Mexico to solve the code and locate the treasure.

There is a subplot about the Speaker of the House of Representatives putting a group of Reprentatives from the House Rules Committee to make a change in their rules that the House will only vote on legislation that originated in the House.  This makes the Senate powerless. Some elected officials want to push this rule through while others want to make this change by holding a second Constitutional Convention and write a new Constitution that 3/4ths of the states will have to ratify.  The idea for the rule change originated in the Confederate Constitution.  Most of the Knights were Confederate supporters. Who wins?  You have to read the book to find out.

The Lost Order was an interesting read.  I learned alot about our country's history from the Writer's Note at the end of the book wherein he explained which parts of the story were true and which parts he created in his mind.

Cotton's family history is central to the story and that added to his character growth.  Angus "Cotton" Adams, a Confederate spy, holds the key to everything needed to resolve this hunt for treasure.

While I loved the historical facts surrounding the plot, this installment of the series was not as compelling as earlier books in the series.  The earlier books were page turners but this one had a slower pace.  However, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

The Golden Son

The Golden Son is author Shilpi Somaya Honda's second novel.  It is the story of Anil Patel, the oldest son of his family in Panchanagar, India.  He is the first to read in his class and the first to memorize math tables.  While he is expected to inherit his father's farm one day, his father knows he will be a doctor and encourages him to continue his education.  When he is 17 he leaves home for medical college in Ahmabadab, leaving behind his family, friends and especially his best friend Leena.  After gaining acceptance into a medical residency at Parkview Hospital in Dallas, TX Anil leaves everyone behind and travels to the U. S.

Leena marries someone else while he is gone but the marriage is marred by her demanding husband and abusive in-laws.  Anil on the other hand struggles with adapting to American culture and the most difficult part of his life, being an intern at Parkland.  While he used to be good at everything it seems that Anil cannot get anything right in his new position.  A few years later Anil and Leena see each other again and struggle together with their past and present circumstances.

Loved, loved, loved this novel. The characters of Anil and Leena were sympathetic.  They both had heart wrenching challenges to deal with as they each broke with tradition in a different way. Their old-school parents Mina and Jayant Patel and Nirmala and Pradip were stereotypical Indian parents and I loved reading about all the cooking Mina did.  I wish I knew how to make those foods.  The family arguments between the Patel brothers was also interesting to watch as each tried to carve out their own destinies within the family business.

This family saga was fun reading.  Give it a try.  5 out of 5 stars!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Last Jew

The Last Jew covers the life of Yonah Toledano of Toledo, Spain.  When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella he remained behind, having missed the last boat out of the country.  He was 15.  The novel is a story about the Spanish Inquisition where Jews either had to convert to Catholicism or leave the country.  Those that converted, the so called "new Christians," were still in danger of being accused of heresy, a crime punishable by death.

Yonah witnessed the death of his father and brother during the 3 month period that they had to leave within and vowed to his father that he would always remain a Jew.  Yonah changed his name and frequently changed jobs.  When he felt that he was in danger of being exposed, he left the job. He worked as a farm worker, seaman, shepherd, armorer and finally apprenticed as a physician.

You really get an idea of what life was like during this time period.  The author well-researched the history and it shows. I felt sorry for this character who had to keep running away from potential trouble.  It reduced his life to basic terror.  While I know that many people lived this way at the time, it is hard to come to grips with it as a modern person.

I did not know much about the Inquisition before reading this novel and my curiosity has been peeked.  I would love to read more about this era both in historical fiction and non-fiction.  

Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Black Widow

I am a big fan of Dan Silva and The Black Widow is his 19th novel in the Gabriel Allon spy series.  The Black Widow begins with master spy Gabriel Allon putting off becoming chief of Israel's intelligence service in order to do one more operation.  ISIS agents have attacked France's Jews and killed Allon's friend Hannah Weisberg.  The man running ISIS has taken the name Saladin and Allon has decided to put a live agent in the caliphate in order to destroy it.  He recruits a young female doctor for the job who will pose as a possible ISIS recruit.  She will be a black widow - a woman who becomes radicalized after losing her boyfriend to an attack from the West.  The recruit will travel from Israel to Paris to Greece then to Raqqa and eventually to Washington DC while performing her mission.

The Black Widow is one of my favorite installments of the series.  Here we get to see how a spy is recruited and trained. Also, Allon's personal life has changed as he now has two kids and he is beginning to see how his life will change when he becomes the head of the Office, as the intelligence service is called in the series. These are interesting character developments which we don't get to see too often.  Our Gabriel Allon is moving on with his life.

This book is a thriller writer's thriller. There was so much suspense that it kept me reading until I finished its 500+ pages in one Sunday morning.  It has been a long time since I have had the luxury of reading a thriller this good.

If you have never read a book in this series I highly recommend that you give it a chance.  They all move fast and have a good balance between exposition, rising tensions, and action.  I doubt that you would be disappointed.