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.

Patience

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.