Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Juliet Marillier/WILDWOOD DANCING


In rural Transylvania, five sisters are left alone for the winter in their secluded manor while their father is on a business trip. Jena, the practical second oldest, has the job of looking after the family's expenses, receiving and storing incoming shipments, and fending off the unwelcome interference of her older male cousin. The sisters have more than just surviving the winter to worry about--for almost ten years, the sisters have been hiding a secret: every month on the evening of the full moon, they descend through a magic portal to the enchanted glade of the Other Kingdom, where the magical residents of their forest dance until the wee hours of the morning. And, worst luck of all, Jena's older sister, Tatiana, seems to be forming an untenable attachment to someone on the wrong side of the portal. Will Jena be able to keep her family from falling to pieces while her father is gone? Will she be able to right the balance between the human and the magical worlds?

On the surface, Wildwood Dancing is a retelling of "The Dancing Princesses," albeit much less patriarchal than the original. But it is also rather more than that. I'd recently reviewed another YA book about fairies and really enjoyed it, but my friend Faye, an expert on the topic, told me I needed to read this book or I'd be missing out. Woah, was that an understatement. There are a number of bad puns I could use to describe how enchanted I was by the story, so suffice it to say they all apply. I got so lost in the story that I canceled plans one evening to make time to finish reading the last 200 pages in one sitting.

Marillier ties together threads of adventure, romance, and magic, all the things we've come to count on in good YA literature, along with a a sensitive and vivid rendering of her setting and a keen nostalgia for the fairy tales we read as children. "The Dancing Princesses" is only one of the several fairy tales whose themes she has woven in. I'll admit that what I knew what the plot twist was going to be almost right at the beginning of the book. Nevertheless, I eagerly read on to see how it would come about.

Perhaps most importantly--even better than her ethereal fairy world and her faithful attention to atmosphere--Wildwood Dancing is among the very finest of coming-of-age stories, the kind that everyone secretly wants to read (even people who think they don't). Jena's story, however magical, is also realistic in the extreme--the kinds of challenges that beset her, the way she reacts to them, the way her rational hopes for her own future need to be negotiated with her less rational hopes. Jena, the character, was at least as transporting as everything going on around her.

I'm not sure I have anything else to say about this book that wouldn't make me sound frivolously hyperbolic. Give it a shot--I'm pretty sure you'll find it as satisfying and delightful as I did.

(Re: category: Although it is categorized as YA and doesn't contain content parents would find unsavory, I've already recommended it to several adult readers, as well.)

Maureen Freely/ENLIGHTENMENT

Nothing about my first glance at Maureen Freely's novel Enlightenment threatened disillusion. The cover photo depicts a skyline clearly nowhere in America, a jumble of old and new architecture, street lights, and billboards, with birds fluttering up everywhere at once, from nowhere in particular; behind the title is positioned, where it's hard to ignore, a striking graphic: the star and crescent, iconic symbol of (among many other institutions) the country of Turkey. The blurbs and jacket copy promised an exotic experience: "quietly stunning"; "riveting"; "brave and unflinching"; "gripping and critically acclaimed"...

I enjoyed the book for a while.

----

Here's the story in its general form:

The plot spans the last three decades of the 20th century and the first few years of the 21st. An American woman, Jeannie Wakefield, has engaged a journalist friend -- known only as M -- to help her uncover the truth about her husband Sinan, a US-born Turkish documentary filmmaker who has disappeared. Jeannie herself disappears, leaving M (by her own admission, a specialist in stories about mothers and babies) to assemble on her own the shadowy international jigsaw puzzle.

By far most of the action takes place in Turkey, especially Istanbul. Jeannie's father William is stationed there, pretty clearly as a US intelligence professional -- a "spy," although one of the aloof, sit-and-observe, John le Carré variety rather than the rough-and-tumble Ian Fleming sort. And it is there, in the 1970s, that Jeannie falls in with a leftist cadre of young (but mostly upper-class) Turkish intellectuals and American expats, including the young Sinan.

Central to the plot is the so-called "trunk murder" of 1971, in which the group's mentor -- an American named Dutch Harding -- was brutally killed and then disposed of in a large wicker trunk. And yet this murder is something of a Hitchcockian McGuffin: it perhaps did and did not happen; the victim may have been Dutch Harding, or someone else, or no one at all; the killer may have been one or more of the students, or perhaps someone in the employ of the Turkish government and/or American intelligence service. As the years and decades pass, Jeannie fitfully tries to learn the truth of the trunk murder. No one tells the story consistently, unambiguously. She drifts out of and back into contact with the others of the group, especially Sinan, whom she eventually marries and has a son with... but she can't get a straight answer even from him.

And then comes 9/11, and the over-reaction by the US Department of Homeland Security which sends anyone "foreign" remotely associated with terrorism straight into the shadowy world of Guantanamo Bay and extreme rendition... anyone like, say, Sinan, with his leftist past. Denounced by old enemies in the Turkish "deep state," Sinan simply disappears into the maw of US security. Their son is taken from Jeannie and placed in foster care. Enter M, and her investigation.

----

Now, all of this sounds promising enough. Yet Enlightenment, to my taste, not only failed to deliver on the promises of the plot; it failed as well to depict convincingly the characters and their interrelationships, and it even failed to bring Istanbul to life for me. And, in a coup de grace for the things I like to find in fiction if I can find nothing else, it's sylistically, well, uninspired.

Let's tackle the Istanbul setting as an example.

I love reading about other countries (although I've been overseas exactly once, for barely a week). Having read a description of a city street down which I have never walked, and probably never will, I love to close my eyes and see it for myself -- the shops and the faces and the windows and flags and trees and mountains -- to feel for myself the pavement under my bare feet and the fabric between my fingertips, to hear the wind blowing through the leaves and the voices of children and their parents in a marketplace.

But Maureen Freely never managed to pull off any of that for me in Enlightenment. She is not the first novelist to namedrop streets and landmarks -- think of all the writers who've used phrases like "the Twelfth Arrondissement" as glib summations of everything important about a setting. Freely seems to have forgotten that the reader may not see what she herself sees upon encountering a proper noun like, say, Belek. ("Oh yes, Belek. I remember it well. No need to describe it!") But I can't enjoy reading about a place of which I know nothing if I must constantly run to Wikipedia to pull it together in my mind's eye; eventually I just stopped trying to picture any of the places mentioned. Perhaps a map of Istanbul in the book's front or back matter would have helped.

As for the style, I will say only, with embarrassment, that it took voracious-reader me four damn months to read these fewer than 400 pages. It was very difficult for me to read more than a few pages without getting distracted or, well, nodding off.

I owe it to you to note that I'm apparently in a very small minority among the book's readers. The blurbs on the book jacket do not mislead: they do represent fairly the critical response to the novel. Non-professional reviewers around the Web, by and large, agree with the pros. They pronounce the plot's resolution satisfying, and are enthralled by the magical/luminous/etc. picture of Istanbul which the book paints.

As a junior in high school, I read Silas Marner with much the same sense that I read Enlightenment. Baffled that it had attained the standing of a highly respected classic, I yet made up my mind to finish it. At the book's end, many weeks later, I sighed with huge relief -- and never read anything else by George Eliot.

Please do not be put off by my review, then. There are so many ways in which any given author's sensibility and aesthetic can misalign with any given reader's that it's a wonder we ever fall in love with novels in the first place. Enlightenment, for me -- and perhaps only for me -- turned out to be one of those rare, utterly out-of-whack duds.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris


I never knew what acedia was until I picked up this book. It means something like sloth, ennui, what the French called "le spleen anglais" in the 19th century; a weariness of life and of everything and everyone. According to Kathleen Norris in Acedia & Me, acedia was recognized as one of the deadly sins in the Middle Ages, but unless you're a student of monastic disciplines you probably don't know that. She is, and was able through her studies to identify herself as a frequent victim of acedia.

This book is part memoir, part scholarly study of the subject of acedia, and part reflection on a writing career and spiritual journey. It moves in a somewhat circular way from one subject to another and back again, rather than taking a linear approach, although the memoir is more or less in chronological order.

I found many things to like in this book. The first two thirds, in particular, were very nicely written and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed reading the excerpts from Norris's source materials in the last section. The final third of the book seemed to drag a bit, though, and appeared to go back over some of the earlier material.

Acedia & Me is not too heavy on what Norris calls "God talk", so it's accessible to non-Christian readers in my opinion. The writing is direct and easy to read, considering the complexity of the subject-matter, and Norris's personal illustrations are very helpful. I would recommend this for readers who have a general interest in spirituality and spiritual health. In the end I felt I was left without answers, but with a greater appreciation of the questions.

This book might be worth a re-read, so I'll give it the "excellent" label.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

THE ISLAND BENEATH THE SEA - Isabel Allende


Published first in Spanish, this book's English release was pushed back after the earthquake in Haiti. However, now is the perfect time to read about the beginning of the Haitian culture with its mix of freedom and oppression. Seeing the poverty during the telethons did not share its historical grace and pride: this was the first country to be recognized as a free black union during a time when Marie Antoinette and her prince lost their heads during the revolution. What an amazing historical time to write about.

However, the state of "French" life in Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue, was quite different in the late 1790s. Life revolved around the sugar and rum plantations. You were a white planter or businessman, a mulatto soldier or madame, or a black slave. According to Allende, at one point, there were only about 30,000 free souls compared to half a million slaves on the small island.

All of this is background to the story of Tete, who is sold to Toulouse Valmorain as a maid to his wife. Later, Tete becomes the backbone of the inner workings of the plantation, and Valmorain relies on her as he would a mistress.

But Tete's heart does not beat hard for her master; instead, she falls for one of the revolutionaries. In typical Allende style, all of the intertwinings of plot bob and weave until a somewhat predictable ending. This time, however, I was not convinced, as I had been when I read Daughter of Fortune. This time, I thought the ending was rushed, and many of the the braids loosened.

Still, for a spring/summer read, this is a fascinating look at history in both Haiti and New Orleans, where many of the refugees relocated after the revolution. I always love a brainy, sexy read.

3.75 out of 5.0 Island Martinis.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Qiu Xiaolong/WHEN RED IS BLACK


Mid-1990s, Shanghai: an author of a famously controversial novel about the Cultural Revolution is found murdered in the room she lives in in a shared house. The Chinese government is very concerned about the possible political implications of this dissident's death, and puts a lot of pressure on Chief Inspector Chen to get his team to solve the murder in a hurry. But Chen is on vacation, working from home on a private literary translation project. Detective Yu, his man assigned to the case, is feeling a little disgruntled because the Party has taken away the apartment they promised him and his wife, Peiqin, and he vows to solve the case and prove himself.

But the death of a controversial (and, it turns out, not exactly beloved) writer stirs up lots of complicated feelings about China's past, individuals' political records, and the power of literature to affect, hurt, and heal. Every man and woman over 30 remembers Mao's Cultural Revolution--and many are still wearing the scars of loyal Party commitment that suddenly backfired, or of grueling years in "re-education" facilities, doing hard labor in the remote countryside. Detective Yu and his wife met in one such re-education camp. Luckily, Peiqin's love for literature wasn't beaten out of her after all that re-education, and she helps her husband and the literary Chief Chen get to the bottom of this literary figure's murder.

Definitely a worthwhile read, particularly if you have any interest in modern China. To be honest, this really isn't a very good mystery--the conclusion is totally unsatisfying and not very mysterious. However, I feel as if this book isn't intended to be a mystery--it's much more a snapshot of modern China and the way the Cultural Revolution continues to affect lives 30 and 40 years later. Fully half the narrative is about Inspector Chen, who isn't even working on the murder case, so it becomes clear that Qiu Xiaolong's agenda isn't just to tell a potboiler story.

I find it interesting that Qiu was born in China but chooses to write in English--literary translation is such an important aspect of When Red Is Black, but he is writing in a language other than his first.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton


Oh, I do love a good biography. And this is a good biography. I knew absolutely nothing about America's second First Lady, and only slightly more than absolutely nothing about the War of Independence (or Revolutionary War, depending on which side of the pond you're looking from).

Woody Holton has, I think, done a good job with both subjects in Abigail Adams. This is a very readable and well-paced biography, avoiding over-simplification and over-analysis alike. The angle (there always has to be an angle, straight biography being out of fashion) is how Abigail could be a successful businesswoman and stock market trader in a time when married women were not legally allowed to own any money at all. Holton shows how, during the long stretches when Abigail was separated from husband John Adams due to the latter's political postings, she built up a private fund of wealth that probably made John Adams' political career possible. Ever the proto-feminist, she left her fortune to her female relatives and ignored the men, because they were favored by the legal system anyway. Two thumbs up, Nabby!

I loved the extensive quoting from Abigail's letters, 18th-century spellings and all. Holton handled them so well that they never became cumbersome or halted the flow of the text, and that's quite an achievement. He's also very adept at keeping the reader oriented as to where he or she is, sprinkling the text with unobtrusive reminders as to which Adams is which.

I learned a lot from this book, and will seek out more of Holton's work in the future. Gets the "excellent" rating.

Eat, Pray, Love- Elizabeth Gilbert

I am sort of surprised at myself for avoiding this book for so long. I bought it a few years ago, at the height of it's popularity, but let it languish on my bookshelf. For some reason it irritated me, sitting there, Gilbert's pretty blonde face smiling, gloating at me from the back cover. "Every woman on the planet loves me right now," she said. It was probably my own irritation at my life that made me mad at her. Who was she to go have some grand adventure in three of the most beautiful places on Earth, and be able to write a book about it, and get paid to write about her travels, AND get a cool cover for said book as well!? It was just too much for me as I sat and stared at the white wall of my office, struggling to complete my first novel, and so, the book sat. It wasn't until this spring when an audio book copy of it turned up on the book trading shelf at work, that I finally gave in to the crowd and picked it up. I always liked audio books, especially those read by the author, and hadn't listened to one in a while, so I decided to give it a chance. I'm glad I did.

Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir of Gilbert's journey to find herself and her purpose in life after a traumatic divorce and major life crisis. On the surface that quick synopsis might sound like any other divourcee's memoir of love lost and life found, but Gilbert's story is different. Her marriage has ended, it seems, for no major reason; she just wasn't happy any more. Initially, her husband refuses to grant her a divorce and after a long and arduous battle with lawyers, Gilbert is finally set free... a little too free. The on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend is off-again, she's depressed, anxious and beginning to feel a little crazy. So, she plans a year of travel, to three very different but equally stunning places around the globe, with the hopes of finding her pleasure, passion, devotion, and herself.

To me, on the surface, this book still sounds irritating. I'm not a huge fan of the "find yourself" novels that have been popular of late. No one else's journey has ever made me realize something in myself and generally I'm just mad that they've been able to leave their lives behind and embark on the journey to begin with. I didn't feel this way with Gilbert's work, however. Her writing has such a frank and earnest tone that I couldn't help but immediately relate to her and, dare I say it, love her. She has just the right amount of self deprication and self esteem to drag me with her around the globe and never once feel a twinge of jealousy. I was there in Italy with her experiencing all of the pleasures of pasta and gelatto. In India, I meditated alongside her and deeply felt her desperation for spiritual guidance and serenity. Indonesia brought her balance and made me reflect on the delicate balance of my own life. I was completely taken in by her descriptions, her adventures, even her evervescence.

I felt empowered after reading this book, not irritated. I felt like she had given me a blueprint and permission to explore my own world and desires. I am unlikely to get divorced, quit my job and travel around the world for a year, but I feel like I could now. So, while I really didn't want to like this book, I ended up loving it. As a writer, I also appreciate how she structured it (which is explained in the preface). I liked her attention to detail; how every word had a place and while it felt carefully crafted, still flowed like a long conversation with your best friend.

I'm quite glad I got over my aversion of following the crowd and my anger at those whose lives are more spectacular than mine, to read this book. It was definitely worth the time and I think is one that I might even visit again to refresh my own commitments to food, prayer and love.

Monday, April 12, 2010

P.J. Brooke/BLOOD WEDDING


In Granada, Spain, one of Europe's multicultural Muslim centers, a young British Muslim woman is found dead at the bottom of a hill. Detective Max Romero has a personal connection to Leila Mahfouz, the victim--besides hoping that he'd eventually convince her to date him, his grandmother had subjected herself to numerous interviews for Leila's postgraduate research into the Spanish Civil War. Was her murder related to her research, which had uncovered some surprising secrets about Spanish resistance? Or is it the work of a Muslim terrorist group the police have been following? Or is the culprit one of the many young men who seem to have been competing for the lovely Leila's attentions?

Although the premise of the book sounded promising, I was a little disappointed with the execution. The ambitious plot of the book is sadly not served very well by the chatty, unfocused Max, who is sallow and spends much of the book drinking wine with various women. Nevertheless, the attention to both the political and racial tensions around the Muslim minority in Spain and the secrets of the Spanish Civil War are interesting. Although I wish the writing had been tighter and a little quicker moving, the subject and story are definitely worthy--this is no run-of-the-mill family-drama murder mystery. Unrelatedly, I was also charmed by the fact that the name "PJ Brooke" is in fact a pen name for a wife/husband writing team.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi

Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
Hyperion Books, 2003
Middle Grade (ages 9-12)
Historical Fiction

Crispin--without a father, and only known as "Asta's son" in the beginning--thought that the death of his mother was the worst that could happen. Well, since that is the inciting incident, we know there is much more evil to come, and the author doesn't waste any time getting there.

No sooner has Crispin seen his mother buried than he finds his own life suddenly threatened. He's been declared a "wolf's head", and as such, he can be killed by anyone who sees him, without question.

Um... he's only 14. Yikes.

He goes to Father Quinel for help, who gives Crispin his mother's cross of lead. It has an important message written on it, but Crispin, of course, doesn't know how to read. Father Quinel promises to read it to him, later, and reveal the identity of Crispin's father, whom Crispin thought had died from the Plague.

Crispin hides during the day, then returns to Father Quinel that night and finds him murdered. Before he can question, there is a mob after him. Crispin has no choice but to run for his life, not having ever left his home town before this night.

Alone, tired, and starving, Crispin stumbles upon an abandoned town. This is where he meets Bear, an entertainer and former man of the church. He offers Crispin food, money, and protection, and teaches him to play the recorder and how to defend himself with a dagger. They travel from town to town, entertaining, and Crispin picks up clues along the way that he hopes will lead him to the answers of why he has been wrongly accused.

What he finds is something far greater. And by the end of his journey, he has clearly transitioned from boy to young man.

I highly recommend Crispin: The Cross of Lead for readers of all ages.

~Lydia Sharp

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lisa Miller/HEAVEN

Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife

A religion editor for Newsweek explores the idea of heaven, including its religious history and treatment from pop culture. Lisa Miller includes interviews with people from several different faiths and outlines common beliefs about what heaven is like, who gets there and how. She even makes reference to cultural figures as varied as Dante and Homer Simpson. Miller is herself something of a wishful skeptic, unorthodox in approach to both religion and the afterlife and writes in a way that allows readers from all different religious (or non-religious) backgrounds to enjoy her book.

I couldn't stop reading this book--I even took it with me to a coffee shop with the hope that I could get a few pages in before my friend met up with me. Its draw is in its journalistic approach--it presents heaven in an objective way, making use of quite a lot of interviews. I loved learning about the approaches of different religions to this subject, and was most fascinated with Miller's delve into the historical start of the idea of heaven. I did feel that some of her finer theological points were presented in a biased way (for example, she talks as if Christ's resurrection were merely a story started by his followers), but the general descriptions of religion were very interesting.

If you're curious about exploring your own notions of heaven, which may have been influenced by anything from Plato, to Dante, to The Simpsons according to Miller, grab this book.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher but was not obligated to write a favorable review. These opinions are my own.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Peter Leithart/JANE AUSTEN

After the first 25 pages or so, this short biography of Jane Austen becomes very interesting. A few things I learned:

  • In her girlhood, Austen entertained her brothers with gruesome tales, but the works we know her for were considered oddly pedestrian in a culture that embraced Romantic and Gothic literature. (Charlotte Bronte had no love for Austen.)
  • Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent only out of obligation after the Prince's librarian gave her permission to do so. In truth, Austen didn't think much of the Prince.
  • While Austen held deep convictions regarding Christianity, she detested moralizing and shied away from emotional displays of her religious sentiments.
  • Austen had a lot of nieces and nephews whom she liked spending time with and writing letters to. But her brother edited out many of her sharp-tongued witticisms before publishing these letters. (The originals still survive.)

Even though this biography is only about 150 pages long, I felt like I knew Austen well after finishing it. One of my favorite features was Leithart's many comparisons of other Austen biographies and his accounting for their differences. For example, he claims that a biography written by Austen's brother portrayed a more socially acceptable Austen--a sort of Victorian domestic goddess that didn't include Austen's sharp and candid observations about other people. I highly recommend this as a great place to start a study of Austen's life.

View the product page.

I received this book for free from the publisher but was not obligated to write a favorable review. These opinions are my own.

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

You Should Read If: you like a dark, erotic twist to your literary fiction OR rebellious characters searching for authenticity floats your boat.

When Susan sees a homeless woman who looks like her former best friend Leisha, the sight evokes a rush of emotion ranging from 'schadenfreudian' joy to pity to shame upon realizing the homeless woman is not her friend. The event recalls a series of memories beginning with their unique introduction in college (Leisha is the ex-girlfriend of Susan's ex-boyfriend) to their friendship's ultimate and bitter disintegration years later...

There are nine stories in this debut story collection by Mary Gaitskill, the veteran author I saw a few weeks ago at the panel "Why We Read."  The story she's most known for is likely "Secretary," which provided the basis for the movie featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, but that wasn't the one I liked. In fact, the story that got me the most wasn't about romance or kink, though it was, like most of the stories, centered around the belief that the only connection you can have with people is "intense, inexplicable, and ultimately incomplete." I could have been entranced by "An Affair, Edited," a carefully constructed story about a man who sees his former girlfriend in the street and begins to remember their tortured relationship, or "Trying To Be,"  my 2nd place pick, about a young woman/writer/prostitute/hipster who grows attached to one of her clients.  But instead it was "Connection," the story described initially, that really got me reading. Maybe it's because the story is about platonic love rather than romantic love, and because the complicated feelings--both women are self-damagingly envious, competitive, and judgmental--between Susan and Leisha felt painfully relatable. Anyone who's ever watched Mean Girls knows that things can get complicated between girlfriends, but Gaitskill captures it deftly. If I said it was a must read, would that make you read it?

Favorite Line(s):
 
"She was in love with the idea of intelligence, and she overestimated her own" -- "A Romantic Weekend"

"Susan now identiified her early fascination with Leisha as a vicarious erotic connection with the ex-lover they had both slept with" -- "Connection"

"Of course, she realized what he liked about her. He loved the idea of kooky, arty girls who lived "bohemian" lives and broke all the rules. It was the kind of thing he regarded with a certain admiration, but did not want to do himself. He had probably had affairs with eccentric, unpredictable women in college, and then married the most stable, socially desirable woman he could find" -- "Trying To Be"

"She pictured herself in the future, so successful she could talk about being a hooker without anyone minding...they'd all laugh at this adorable admission of her female vulnerability" -- "Trying To Be"

Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson/VARIABLE STAR


In 1955, Robert Heinlein outlined a novel he would never write. Modern science fiction writer Spider Robinson has completed the work from Heinlein's notes, and the result is a novel that feels like a Heinlein novel with some marked differences. The voice sounds like Heinlein's--accessible, friendly--but with a great number of terrible puns thrown in. And while Heinlein's plots are usually straight shots, Robinson has given us a more meandering story that is basically a collection of snapshots of life on an imagined space ship.

The story follows Joel Johnston, who breaks up with his fiancee after finding out she's absurdly wealthy and that her grandfather would expect Joel to quit composing music to carry on the family business. A distraught Joel takes off on a twenty year journey to a planet he will help colonize. Most of the story takes place aboard the ship, where we meet odd characters and learn about the ups and downs of space voyaging.

I found the plot to be sometimes interesting and sometimes boring and indulgent (almost an entire chapter is devoted to Joel's learning how to meditate). The story comes to quite a dark crisis, with a great many people dying terrible deaths, only to be given a chipper ending after a blatant deus ex machina that also neatly ties up the romantic plotline. Overall, I think I'd rather read an actual Heinlein novel, but this novel does satisfy an enduring curiosity of mine--what life would be like on a spaceship.

Matt Beynon Rees/THE SAMARITAN'S SECRET

Omar Yussef, a history teacher from Bethlehem, makes a trip for a friend's wedding down to Nablus, the historical but bullet-torn West Bank Palestinian community. Omar Yussef's friend Sami is a police inspector, and when he learns that there has been a crime on the tiny religious mountaintop community of the Samaritans--their sacred scroll of Abisha, the focal point of their religion, has been stolen--Sami takes the too-curious Omar Yussef along for companionship. This is how the slightly arthritic 57-year-old Omar Yussef becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous murder mystery that seems to implicate everyone from the highest echelons of Palestinian landholders to the poorest, angriest lone gunman in Hamas.

This is an excellent mystery, with a satisfying story and a lovable protagonist. In terms of your standard detective fiction, this novel is truly special. Matt Beynon Rees spent years as Times' bureau chief in the Middle East, and his journalistic attention to the details of place and mood are brilliant. I actually feel, having read The Samaritan's Secret, like I've seen Palestine. The atmosphere and respect and detail for Palestinian culture are exquisite (including food, so be forewarned; this is another book that will leave you hungry). Rees's every scene is pregnant with fragrances, textures, and tastes, down to the damp feel of a building's shady wall under Omar Yussef's fingers or the stench of the gutters in the poor Yasmina district of the casbah.

Furthermore, I am grateful to Matt Beynon Rees for having educated me on the Palestinian situation--politics, religion, corruption, fundamentalist elements--more completely and more palatably than any newspaper article ever could. Somehow, he achieves this without making the book either too heavy, and it is a real joy to read. I would recommend this book particularly as a crossover for literary readers who don't normally read detective fiction, and vice versa.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Message from JEFFERY DEAVER!

I was very excited to receive a message from JEFFERY DEAVER who "loved" my debut CUT SHORT and was kind enough to send me a blurb quote as a result -
"Cut Short is a stylish, top-of-the-line crime tale, a seamless blending of psychological sophistication and gritty police procedure. And you're just plain going to love DI Geraldine Steel."
Not only is he a brilliant writer, he is also generous enough with his time to take the trouble to support a new author when he's enjoyed reading a first book.

Before you go - watch the tear on the book cover below!


Cut Short by Leigh Russell

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Chang-Rae Lee/THE SURRENDERED

The Korean War ended in 1953, but its repercussions continued to ruin lives for years--in some cases, decades. A ten-year-old girl named June lost her entire family, one piece at a time, before ending up at a Christian orphanage run by an American couple. Hector, an American soldier, decided to stay on in Korea because he had nothing to go home to, and so helps out at the orphanage while sinking into alcoholism. June and Hector are only two of the many lonely and psychologically scarred war survivors thrown into unwilling company at the orphanage, and thirty years later, when June tries to track Hector down once again, the psychological scars are bared.

The Surrendered covers the sad territory of Asia in the mid-twentieth century, from the invasion of Manchuria through the Korean War. Most of the book, however, takes place either at the orphanage during the three years following the ceasefire, when the Tanners, the American couple, are trying to decide how best to save the children while saving their own marriage, and in 1986, as the survivors of the plot are forced toward each other again.

I read this book because I love Lee's Gesture Life, a novel of an ethnically Korean man fighting for the Japanese during World War II, and his encounter with kidnapped Korean "comfort women." I love that Lee's popularity has succeeded in bringing some attention to Korean history--incredibly tightly intertwined with American history, and often overlooked or completely ignored. I admit I did not love The Surrendered as I'd hoped I would. I found it both overly chatty and ultimately emotionally unresolved. But I liked it, and am certainly glad I gave it a read.