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.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Last Chance Olive Ranch

The Last Chance Olive Ranch is Susan Wittig Albert's 25th China Bayles cozy mystery.  In this installment of the series there are two separate plots which are unrelated to each other.  China Bayles and her business partner Ruby Wilcox are scheduled to teach a workshop at the Last Chance Olive Ranch the next day. However, China's husband and ex-cop McQuaid gets a phone call advising that a killer he put on death row has escaped and has killed 2 people already.  He suspects that he is on the killer's list of people to exact revenge from.  China does not want to go to the workshop so that she can stay home and keep her husband safe.  However, she is talked into going and finds herself involved in a dangerous matter at the ranch where 2 characters battle for ownership of the ranch.

I have read the entire China Bayles series and this is the first time that China's activities and those of her husband were not related to the same plot.  I did not feel that it took anything away from the story though.  I know and love all of the characters in the series and they are strong enough to carry separate plots on their own.  Both plots were complex and interesting.

When you love a series you come to love the characters.  The sad part about finishing a book is that you have to wait another year before the author can write and publish the next book and separation anxiety sets in.  That just shows the strength of the series though.

The Last Chance Olive Ranch has alot of information on the almighty olive which was fun to read about.  There is also some suspense with the chapters alternating between China's story and McQuaid's story.  All in all, this was another great read from Susan Wittig Albert.

The Empress of Tempera

The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan begins with protagonist Paire Anjou watching a man stab himself to death after sobbing in front of a painting in the window of the Fern Gallery where she works.  The  Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated was painted on wood with tempera paint by an artist named Qi and was on loan from an unknown source.  Paire, while being in shock from watching a man kill himself, was surprised to see the painting in the gallery as the gallery was hosting an exhibition of works by her boyfriend Derek Rosewood.  Hundreds of people from all over the world come to the gallery and obsess over the Empress's stare and clothing, including Paire.  The painting is stolen, stolen again and stolen a third time as Paire researches the painting and the artist's histories.  She sets in motion a plethora of crimes by others as they bribe, steal and kill in order to possess the painting.

The story shows the dark underside of the art world. It is also about art history and the family secrets of those who are trying to possess the painting.  Paire's own family background is a part of the story which was interesting to read about.  Nobody seems to be whom they say they are which gave the novel a lot of suspense.  The plot was complex with many twists and turns.

I loved this second novel by Mr. Dolan.  He is a new author for me and I will be following him in the future.


Shelter is a family saga about 2 generations of a Korean American family in America.  Kyung Cho is a husband and father of one son with financial problems due to not being able to live within his means.  After considering selling his house and moving back in with his wealthy parents who he does not get along with, tragedy strikes his parents and they become dependent upon him.  Kyung tries to re-enter their lives as he takes care of them but he is rejected and does not know why.  He believes that he is doing his duty as a Korean son.

Shelter shows the cultural differences of Korean Americans.  The way they think about family life, community life, and religion is clearly shown.  While the author was born in South Korea she was raised in North Dakota by her immigrant parents just as Kyung was.  She obviously knows what she is writing about here.  The story moved along at a good pace and much of the tension was between how differently Kyung perceived his duties compared to what his parents actually expected of him.

This was a lovely debut novel from Jung Yun and I am looking forward to reading more from her.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Vatican Princess

I read C. W. Gortner's first novel The Tudor Secret and liked it.  After seeing The Vatican Princess on my public library bookshelves I knew that I would have to get caught up with reading his other books.  I knew nothing about the Borgia family before reading this and was not sure if I would like it as much as other historical mysteries from the Tudor era. It did not disappoint however.

Lucrezia Borgia is growing up in a household owned by the widow of her father's brother Adriana de Mila.  She had left her mother Vannozza's care when she was seven.  Lucrezia is her father's favorite child and he decides that she should be educated and sends her to school, a rarity in the 1490s.  Pope Innocent VIII has just died and Lucrezia's father, Rodrigo Borgia, is soon elected to the papacy as Pope Alexander VI.  With Lucrezia's great education she becomes her father's pawn in the marriage market in an effort to gain him power.

While much of this story is about her family, it is seen through the eyes of an innocent Lucrezia.  She is used by her father and brothers throughout her father's papacy in order to gain money and power for the family. Everything that they do is all for the family.  Lucrezia is completely devoted to her father and brothers until she learns their true natures.  After that she only desires happiness, but not at the expense of the family of course.

I found it amazing that a priest who openly acknowledged his four illegitimate children could become Pope. While Pope he allowed them to violently play the political scene of the times.  In fact, Lucrezia's brother Cesare was Machiavelli's inspiration for his book The Prince.  The Borgias certainly earned their reputation in history and I enjoyed reading about them.

Salem's Cipher

Salem's Cipher is Jess Lourey's debut novel and it is a fabulous start to what I hope will be a long writing career.  I loved this book which I believe is going to be a series with Salem Wiley as the main character. She is a cryptanalyst, able to decipher codes.

The story opens with the mothers of Salem and her best friend Isabel "Bel" Odegaard being kidnapped.  The mothers were also best friends and Salem and Bel grew up together.  After being contacted by the police about the crime the two of them meet at the scene of the crime where Salem finds a note that her mother wrote years ago.   The note was hidden in a wooden box that Salem had made for her when she was a child.  The note references a Dr. Keller who is a curator at a local museum and gives them a clue to look at a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi called Judith Slaying Holofernes.  After examining the painting Salem finds some words written deep within the painting.  Dr. Keller is vague about how he knows the mothers but gives them enough clues to send them off to Salem, Massachusetts in a search for the truth about what the mothers were up to.  As Salem and Bel follow numerous word and number puzzles they are led to travel  cross country all while being followed by men who are trying to kill them.

This was a wonderful story.  The puzzles that the women, in particular Salem, had to solve were difficult.  I had no idea how they were going to be figured out.  As an aside, the truth of the story involved the first woman presidential candidate just days before the General Election.  This added a nice element. Also, it is always great to see a novel with alot of strong female characters.  There are 5 here so you know the book was written by a woman.

Simply fabulous!

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Change of Heart

This is the first book of Sonali Dev's that I have read. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the book.  I just could not get into it.

The back cover blurb summarizes the story "Dr. Nikhil 'Nic' Joshi had it all - marriage, career, purpose.  Until, while working with Doctors Without Borders, in a Mumbai slum with his wife, Jen, discovers a black market organ transplant ring.  Before she could expose the truth, Jen was killed.

Two years after the tragedy Nic is a cruise ship doctor who spends his days treating seasickness and sunburn and his nights in a boozy haze.  On one of those blurry evenings on deck, Nic meets a woman who makes a startling claim:  she received Jen's heart in a transplant and has a message for him.  Nic wants to discount Jess Koirala's story as absurd, but there's something about her reckless desperation that resonates despite his doubts.

Jess has spent years working her way out if a nightmarish life in Calcutta and into a respectable Bollywood dance troupe. Now she faces losing the one thing that matters - her young son Joy.  She needs to uncover the secrets Jen risked everything for; but the unforeseen bond that results between her and Nic is both a lifeline and a perilous complication"

After reading 100 pages I did not know any of the above other than that Nic was an alcoholic cruise ship doctor.  So, I stopped reading.  My rule is that if I cannot get hooked after reading 50-100 pages, I put it down.  Alot of verbage was wasted on descriptions of Nic's alcoholic state which did not interest me and I did not see anything developing in the story. Better luck with the next book.

The Killing Ship

This is my first time reading Simon Beaufort and I was not disappointed. The Killing Ship is a short novel with only 217 pages but alot of action is packed into its pages.  It takes place in Antarctica where a group of scientists are spending the summer doing research.

With 10 days left to finish their research, marine biologist Andrew Barrister turns down a request from his co-workers to take a long hike to view the scenery on Antarctica's remote Livingstone Island. No one is supposed to leave the station on their own due to hazardous conditions.  However, a few leave but do not return.  No one knows if they were together or went out on their own.  A crew is dispatched to look for them but one hears gunshots and another sees a ship.  It is too late in the season for ships to be in the region so it is a suspicious arrival.  Then one of the scientists discovers that their food and supplies have been sabotaged and there is not enough food to go around until their rescue ship comes to pick them up.  As they leave the station to search for their crew members the scientists run into killers on the island who are pursuing them for reasons unknown.

I loved this story.  It was very fast paced and suspenseful.  The ending was surprising and a little shocking too. Psychological thrillers are my favorite mystery subgenre for a reason.  They are engrossing with each chapter ending with suspense and characters who are so shocked by their circumstances that they begin to lose reality.  The Killing Ship aptly fits the bill.  Highly recommended!

Dragon Springs Road

Dragon Springs Road is Janie Chang's second novel.  It takes place in early twentieth century China and follows the childhood of Jialing from age 7 when her mother abandons her through age 21.

Jialing and her mother reside in the Western Residence on Dragon Springs Road.  On the day her mother left Jialing, she burned incense and sat with the fox spirit who has lived in their courtyard for centuries.  She promised to return but after 3 days she had not returned yet.  Jialing does not leave the Western Residence because her mother told her never to do so.  She is Eurasian and is not accepted by society.  A new family soon moves in to the recently vacated Central Residence and Jialing meets a friend her age, Yang Anjuin. Anjuin becomes her best friend and introduces her to Anjuin's grandmother, Grandmother Yang, and Jialing is hired as a bondservant to do housework in the Yang home in exchange for food and the few coins Jialing's mother left her. Jialing continues to sleep in the Western Residence where she talks daily with the fox spirit and continues to wait for her mother to return.

When a new white family moves into the Eastern Residence Jialing befriends their daughter Anna Shea.  She soon learns Mrs. Shea is unhappy living in Shanghai and takes it out on her husband and daughter with abusive behavior.  After Anna mysteriously dies the Sheas move and a group of teachers from a local Christian school move in.  Jialing is offered an education and the Yangs agree to let her attend in exchange for money.

Jialing grows into adulthood, always relying on advice from the fox spirit and always looking for her long lost mother to return.

There is alot more to this story than what I summarized.  I found it to be engrossing and read it in one sitting.  I loved the characters.  Jialing and Anjuin are sympathetic characters as is Jialing's fox spirit friend.  The story moves along at a nice speed with Jialing having to deal with alot of obstacles including racism.  I have always been attracted to Asian fiction which is one reason why I loved this story.  However, I must say that this is one of the best books that I have read in awhile.