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The Sandcastle Girls (Vintage Contemporaries)
The Sandcastle Girls (Vintage Contemporaries)
by Chris Bohjalian
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.58
136 used & new from $0.01

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holocaust in the Desert, July 8, 2013
As a child, I can remember my mom referring to someone - destitute - as "a starving Armenian." I had no idea what an Armenian was. And though it was years later that I understood the context, I'd since forgotten that WWI atrocity in which at least one-and-one-half million Armenians were slaughtered by their Turkish hosts of the Ottoman Empire who aligned with Germany in this "war to end all wars." As one pundit quipped to the question, "How can you murder over a million people - mostly women and children - and keep it a secret?" he answered: "Do it in the middle of the desert."

"Sandcastle Girls" is a brilliant work of literature and history; an engrossing page-turner that pulls no punches in the brutality man can inflict upon fellow human beings, wrapped around a tragically poignant love story - as well as an unexpected mystery. A large part of this novel's visceral impact is the depth of author Chris Bohjalian's craft: this guy knows how to tell a story - a skill that is regrettably becomingly increasingly rare in today's fiction. Set in 1915 in the then Ottoman Empire city of Aleppo in modern day Syria, Bohjalian spins the tale of Elizabeth Endicott, a Mount Holyoke-educated and privileged Brahman from Boston who, with only a crash course in basic bandages and bed pans, is thrust into the unimaginable carnage and depravity of the genocide of hundreds-of-thousands of Armenians at the hand of their own Turkish government. But Elizabeth plays the role of neither an aristocrat nor the helpless, subservient role expected of women in the early days of the 20th century. Rather, Elizabeth is brave, adventurouous and, while mindful of the culture and propriety of the day, is an intelligent, unapologetic, and unconventional. So unconventional that she falls in love with Armen Petrosian, an Armenian refugee and engineer whose wife and infant daughter have been swept up in the holocaust. Armen, as smitten with Elizabeth as she is with him, is compelled to join the British Australian forces resisting the Turks in the meat grinder of the Dardanelles - a virtual death sentence. Notwithstanding, both Armen and Elizabeth write religiously, mindful of censorship and the much more real likelihood that their proclamations of unconsummated love will never reach their lover.

Kudos to Bohjalian for rendering such a unique but believable protagonist - resisting the overdone and juvenile "Laura Croft" persona - painting instead a credible image of a woman who is indeed well beyond her years in maturity - a defiant firebrand acting on character over convention - is nonetheless mindful and respective of the bounds and ties that subjugated woman of this period.

The author tells his story through the eyes and words of the granddaughter of the American Elizabeth Endicott and her husband-to-be, the resolute Armenian Petrosian. She takes on the challenge of uncovering the true history of her beloved but tight-lipped grandparents uncovering not only evidence of even more slaughter, but also . Bohjalian's technique is effective: the juxtaposition of the comforts of modern day American over the horrors of the Syrian desert nearly a century ago is artistically and emotionally effective. In short, this is an extremely well-crafted novel; richly articulated with well drawn and credible characters and painstakingly accurate historical context, set in that desolate and bleak hell hole of War. If you've been a fan of "The Kite Runner," this is your refuge though, while I loved Kite Runner, I think Bohjalian spins a better tale. Well done.


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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Miracles, May 27, 2013
Graham Greene's classic "The End of the Affair" is a brilliantly layered story of love, jealously, hate, and faith - a fascinating glimpse into the author's guilt-ridden soul as he struggles with his own personal issues of adultery and religion. And as with most of Greene's work, despite the heavy moral undertone and literary craft, this is an easily read popular story that will appeal to mass audiences.

On the surface, this is the story told in the first person by Maurice Bendrix, a novelist of modest acclaim living in London in the years immediately following World War II. Bendrix pines over a love affair with Sarah Miles that ended abruptly and unsatisfactorily nearly two years before following a German air raid in which Maurice narrowly escaped death. As the novel begins, Sarah's husband, Henry, a colorless civil servant, confides in Bendrix that he believes his wife may currently be having an affair. Curious - and still wracked with jealously and despair - Bendrix engages the private detective agency referred to Henry, and sets out to track down Sarah's new lover.

Juxtaposed on this rather simple plot are complex issues regarding the Catholic Church, reflected through Sarah's struggles in a relationship with God that is even more convoluted than the love she feels for Bendrix - and the conflict that is later revealed - even as he struggles with insecurity and jealously. Clever sub-plotting and foreshadowing build the foundation for a well-executed core of the supernatural, a risky move that would be clumsy if tried by a less talented author, but rendered with subtlety and appropriate ambiguity by Greene's practiced hand.

In short, a remarkable novel, easily read and never forgettable - a story that will leave an indelible mark on your soul and remind you again why some books are rightfully "classics."


Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series)
Waiting for the Barbarians: A Novel (Penguin Ink) (The Penguin Ink Series)
by J. M. Coetzee
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.41
100 used & new from $5.53

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Blows Against the Empire, March 30, 2013
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Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee's "Waiting for the Barbarian's" is a tour de force of thought, reason, morality - an epic poem more than a novel - beautifully crafted, probing, disturbing.

A frontier outpost of "the empire" - exact period and locale matter little here. An aging and, up to this point, loyal servant to the empire - the local Magistrate - begins to question the ethics of his superiors as they prepare for war against "the barbarians" - the primitive nomadic tribes native to the occupied territory. The Magistrate suffers his own crisis of conscious as he witnesses cruel and apparently unprovoked torture of enemy prisoners of war. Is it compassion - or guilt - that drives the Magistrate to take a barbarian girl, blinded and crippled at the hands of her imperial tormenters - into his rooms? And to eventually embark on an ill-advised and dangerous winter journey into the badlands of enemy territory to return the girl to his family? However you interpret his motives, there is no question of the consequence, as the Magistrate learns the fragility of human dignity, while never extinguishing the flame of human life. This is a brutally effective novel - be prepared for two-by-fours liberally smacked against your forehead - a vivid and unapologetic photo album of man's depravity, and ability to compartmentalize and rationalize deploring behavior.

Allegory runs rich here - is the Magistrate the Christ figure or Don Quixote? - to familiar themes probing war and definitions of "civilization." If it were not for the 1980 copy write date, one may think Coetzee a critic of America's Iraq Wars. But I don't think Coetzee's intent is grinding a political axe - his message runs loftier - more important - more profound - and ultimately more disturbing. This is a journey into the dark heart of man, and if it is the journey, and not the destination that counts, well, enjoy the ride. You won't forget it.


World Without End (The Pillars of the Earth)
World Without End (The Pillars of the Earth)
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $5.69

5.0 out of 5 stars Steel Swords and Iron Women, March 17, 2013
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"World Without End" is an epic triumph of historical fiction; an uncommon love story for those not fond of love stories; a bold and fitting sequel to Follett's landmark "Pillars of the Earth." Set in mid-14th century England's fictional town of Knightsbridge, two-centuries after the author's sprawling saga of building the city's Gothic cathedral, Follett spins a remarkable tale of war, treachery, death, disease and, of course, love spanning the interwoven lifetimes of three Kingsbridge families. "WWE" reads a lot like Bernard Cornwell with a smart bit of Ariana Franklin ("Mistress in the Art of Death") throw in - rich in historical detail, lore, and culture, combined with masterful storytelling and a lively pace. And while loosely a follow-on, don't be bothered if you haven't read "Pillars of the Earth," as this one easily stands alone without the need for the predecessor's context.

It is 1327, the year in which King Edward II died under sinister conditions, the reign passing on to his young son Edward III. Four children, including Merthin, 11, and his younger brother Ralph, 10, wander into the forest to test a new bow-and-arrow, where they stumble upon an attack and subsequent killing, setting a thin central plot for the novel - and the next four decades. Merthin and Ralph, sons of a down-on-his-luck knight, are the descendants of "Pillars" genius architecture, Tom Builder. Merthin is small, wiry, and brilliant - in direct opposite to little brother Ralph, who is not only bigger, but is already showing signs of anger and cruelty that will determine the course of their lives. Accompanying Merthin and Ralph on that fateful November day are Caris, the clever daughter of a wealthy wool merchant, and Gwenda, daughter of a penniless serf and thief. Putting these very different family backgrounds to good use, Follett is able to paint a vivid picture of Medieval life, from an overbearing Church to the merchant guild, the privileged lives of nobility, mechanics of the feudal system, and the early decades of England's 100 Year War with France. The raging bubonic plague plays large in shaping the twists of fate of this rich set of characters; a struggle between religious dogma and an emerging enlightenment in the medical arts. The budding and frustrating love story between Merthin, the talented builder and Caris, bright, independent, and untamed, is a poignant and beautifully told literary feat. In contrast, the brutal and lustful Ralph rapes and pillages on both sides of the channel, finding his own brand of fame through treachery, cruelty, and some timely good luck.

Weighing in at over 1,000 pages, Follett has plenty of time to build characters and multiple story lines - and he does is with aplomb. But despite its length, "World Without End" is neither tedious nor complex. Combined with "Pillars of the Earth," this is legend of Arthurian proportion - a swashbuckling adventure and as good a slice of Medieval life as I've read. A highly recommended cross-genre read that will have very broad appeal.


Suspect
Suspect
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pack, February 24, 2013
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This review is from: Suspect (Kindle Edition)
Robert Crais gives Elvis Cole and Joe Pike a day off, and spins a terrifically entertaining crime mystery starring Maggie, a US Marine bomb-sniffing dog who, after a near fatal ambush in Afghanistan that killed her Marine handler, is send to the LAPD K9 unit for another chance. K-9 is also a second chance for Scott James of the LAPD, a survivor of a shootout on LA's mean streets. James' partner and close friend, Stephanie, wasn't as lucky, gunned down in the mysterious assault leaving her and two others dead and five assailants unidentified. Scott was on the shortlist for SWAT, but with a shot-up leg and PTSD, he instead requests assignment to the K9 corps, where he's teamed up with Maggie. As his memory of the tragic event comes back in vague recollection, James works with the detectives to crack a case gone cold. The two stories: building the man and dog bond, intermeshed with James' obsession with avenging Stephanie's death and hopefully absolving his guilt, roll together for a fitting climax.

If you're a dog lover (I am), "Suspect" is a must read, but even if not, the talented Robert Crais crafts a clever mystery here - solid police groundwork and forensics, coupled with some insight of K9 unit operations. The author clearly did his canine research here, with chapters actually told from Maggie's point of view, painting a fascinating view of the pack mentality, loyalty, and one-hell-of-a sense of smell.

No one does LA crime better than Robert Crais, and "Suspect" is no exception. Authentic settings, well-drawn characters, and a staccato pace keep the pages turning and the enjoyment high. All the bases are covered here: it's poignant, exciting, and informative - a quick shot of pleasurable reading not to be missed.


1356: A Novel (The Grail Quest)
1356: A Novel (The Grail Quest)
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $11.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cornwell Running Out of Relics, February 23, 2013
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As a big fan of historical fiction, it is almost redundant to say I'm also a big Bernard Cornwell fan. And surely on the short list of his best was the epic "Grail" trilogy, a swashbuckling romp through 14th Century England and France as seen through the eyes of Thomas of Hookton, the illegitimate son of a rogue priest. Thomas is also an English archer, and Cornwell spares no detail in describing the life and tactics behind the bow. Using a quest for the Holy Grail as the backdrop for a chronicle of the early days England's eventual route of France by Edward III and his renowned son, the Black Price, in what would become the Hundred Years War.

In "1356," Thomas of Hookton is back - a good thing, I figured, given how much I enjoyed his earlier escapades. Thomas is no longer a common archer, but a knight, with his own land and small army, a band of mercenaries known as the Hellequin, "the Devil's beloved" and scorn of the all powerful and powerfully treacherous Medieval Church. But the battles at Crecy and Caen have been fought, and the Grail found and disposed of - so why the encore? Well, for the Grail, substitute the sword St. Peter used to defend Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane - "la Malice," as Cornwell calls it - and move on to the Battle of Poitiers. Problem is, while the Grail is indeed one of those Indiana Jones-inspiring legends, the sword that reputably lopped of a Roman soldier's ear doesn't quite, um, cut it. And Poitiers, while a strategically important victory for the English, may have been one of the least understood and most uninspired battle of that century. Unlike the heroics of Crecy or Agincourt, the French, who again vastly outnumbered a tired and starving English army, simply walked away - more or less. Cornwell fans by now will have gotten their fill of the power and tactics of the long bow, so reading about it again is simply repetitive and, in the case of Poitiers, less significant.

So when all is said and done, one wonders Cornwell's motives here. He certainly tied up any loose ends nicely in "Heretic," and "Agincourt," which takes place in Henry V's bit of the Hundred Year's War, provides the historical closure apart from the fictional climax of the Grail. This is by no means a bad book - Cornwell is not capable of that. It is gritty, violent, and as brutal as you'd expect for that time, with treachery, evil villains - mostly Churchmen - lots of action, and ultimately some delicious redemption. But I found the pace was uneven, and I couldn't escape that "been there, read that feeling." Indeed, even Thomas of Hookton seemed only slightly more inspired than that French army who decided there were better things to do at Poitiers than fight. Maybe Cornwell should have taken the hint as well.


The Fallen Angel: A Novel (Gabriel Allon Book 12)
The Fallen Angel: A Novel (Gabriel Allon Book 12)
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $6.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Holy Terror, February 10, 2013
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There's a bit of a challenge in being a Daniel Silva fan. On one hand, Silva is a sure bet for delivering well-paced, high octane thrills - modern day espionage that credibly capture the tension and terror of the explosive Middle East, while sidestepping enough of the minutia and tedium of spy craft to keep it entertaining. On the other hand, Silva can be formulaic and derivative - a succession of novels that often feel like you're reading the same story with a different villain.

"The Fallen Angel" reflects both of these: a gripping story of an apparent suicide inside the Vatican - the "fallen angel." The victim, a curator in the antiquities division, was a casual acquaintance of art restorer Gabriel Allon, is currently working on a priceless Caravaggio canvas from the Vatican's massive collection. Allon finds suicide implausible, and while murder investigations are hardly the turf of this Mossad assassin, he suspects a sinister and politically charged link between the curator's death and the Vatican's trade in ancient artifacts. Silva deftly pieces together multiple plot lines, crossing Europe and the Middle East, landing in an unexpected twist underneath Jerusalem's Temple Mount.

So while there is some of that nagging "been there, read that" feeling in "Fallen Angel - especially with a cast that includes the Vatican's Monsignor Luigi Donati from previous Silva thrillers - this one rises out of the mold, delivering a unique combination of a murder investigation and high stakes international espionage. Like Silva's best efforts, "Fallen Angel" adds historic and cultural content to the mix, and to the credibility - and fascination. Likewise, while perhaps only a trivial part of story, I found the Caravaggio references intriguing - another element of Silva novels that make them so entertaining.

In short, even if you've been a bit worn out by barrowed-content overdose in Silva's recent novels, give "The Fallen Angel" another look - high entertainment mixed with a sobering view of the explosive Middle East.


Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot
Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot
by Martin Dugard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.01
494 used & new from $4.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History the Way it Ought to be Told, February 3, 2013
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The strength of O'Reilly's "Killing Kennedy," like "Killing Lincoln" before it, is its pace and brevity: this is the clipped, streamlined story and lean prose you'd expect from this veteran newsman, unencumbered by lofty rhetoric or inflated opinion. This is the Sergeant Joe Friday in the overstocked shelves of JFK lore: "Just the facts, m'am."

And like its predecessor outlining Lincoln's assassination, by penning such an approachable, easily-read history of the early years of the 1960s - that seminal decade that, when understood, explains so much about America today, O'Reilly touches a much broader audience than the combined reach of weightier tomes, exposing the important chapter of world history in a time when reading has taken an unfortunate back seat to YouTube and video games in a culture all but ignorant of our heritage. So while this is story of Kennedy's death, it cannot be told out of context, which O'Reilly efficiently sets in the events of the day, from the young president's disastrous and ham-fisted "Bay of Pigs" invasion to the other end of the spectrum, where a steely-eyed JFK stares down Soviet tyrant Nikita Khrushchev in a game nuclear holocaust brinkmanship in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a period of explosive Civil Rights marches and demonstrations, the early days of the Viet Nam War and the all but forgotten South Vietnamese president-thug Ngo Dinh Diem, of self-emolliating monks, and J. Edgar Hoover honing his now legendary skills of extortion. While O'Reilly's portrait of Kennedy is respectful, giving all due credit for JFK's heroism in WWII, and his bipartisanship and leadership as president, it is hardly fawning adoration. JFK's many dalliances - Marilyn Monroe only one conquest of a myriad - his connections with mobsters, mistrust of VP Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, and various missteps add balance to a man all too easily martyred. If O'Reilly was smitten by any of the players, it is certainly Jackie, who emerges as a doting mother with a steel spine; a steadfast and loving companion hurt by her husband's infidelity, but willing to look the other way.

The profile of the infamous Lee Harvey Oswald is worth mentioning. Much has been written about Oswald's connections with shadowy figures like George de Mohrenschildt, and Oswald's failed attempted murder of right-winger Ted Walker, which get only a passing mention here. But since O'Reilly essentially dismisses five decades of conspiracy theory speculation - one can assume that O'Reilly's dismissive treatment of Oswald is wholly intentional - a conscious ploy to insure this miscreant is never given credit for being anything other than a misguided and deranged murderer. Unlike the well organized conspiracy crafted by John Wilkes Booth nearly a century earlier, O'Reilly is firmly in the camp, as am I, that JFK was the victim of the lucky shot of a single madman acting alone.

In short, a vigorous and wholly engaging read - a great example of history the way it ought to be told. Even if you think you already know this story, you'll do yourself a disservice by not hearing O'Reilly's take on this remarkable man in a fascinating slice of Americana. Bravo Zulu!


Outrage: An Inspector Erlendur Novel (An Inspector Erlendur Series Book 7)
Outrage: An Inspector Erlendur Novel (An Inspector Erlendur Series Book 7)
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $8.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Victims, February 2, 2013
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While billed as "an Inspector Erlundur Novel," the cantankerous Erlundur spends the entirety of "Outrage" unreachable in eastern Iceland, leaving female detective Elinborg in charge to deal with Reykjavik's crime scene. "Outrage" grabs attention quickly, tracing the steps on a young man on the prowl on the local club scene with date-rape drug Rohypnol as his weapon. The next morning, the man is found dead in his apartment lying in a pool of his own blood, throat cleanly cut and his pants around his ankles.

Detective Elinborg, with minor assistance from series regular detective Sigurdur Oli, tries to piece together scant evidence - a woman's shawl smelling faintly of Indian cooking spices - making for a neat murder mystery with good old-fashioned gumshoe police work and the atmospherics and local color one should expect from author Arnaldur Indridason, a veteran of the Scandinavian crime writer club with chops that were well-honed before Sven Larsson put this unique brand of noir mainstream with "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." But absent the gloomy and irascible Erlunder, "Outrage" projects a much different tone than black Indridason classics like "Jar City" or "Silence of the Grave." "Outrage" is softer, sensitive, more feminine shades of gray, consistent with the female lead, exploring weighty issues like rape and cultural attitudes towards it. Unlike the near-recluse Erlundur, Elinborg has a life, doting on her family and wishing she could spend more time cooking - the murder investigation almost an annoying distraction keeping her from the things she'd prefer doing.

Indridason's shift in style is remarkable, reading more like Karin Fossum's more cerebral psychological mysteries than his typical jagged and brutal noir. But while a departure in form, there is no less substance: the author's fans should still appreciate the detail and intrigue in "Outrage" as Elinborg meanders through what at times feels like a disjointed and haphazard case to reach a surprising conclusion.


John Dies at the End
John Dies at the End
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $8.99

20 of 31 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Slick Marketing, Dismal Fiction, January 27, 2013
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"John Dies at the End" is abysmal fiction - not funny, not clever, and if it is "disturbing" as promised, it is disturbing only in that a novel this ill conceived and poorly written could receive such notoriety.

"John Dies" is, on the other hand, a brilliant example of marketing, clearly the benefactor of a concerted campaign to create a tsunami of over-the-top positive reviews, creating a buzz and accelerating sales. And now, wow - what a surprise - "Now a Major Motion Picture!"

I was fooled - take my advice and avoid the trap. I've read and reviewed hundreds of books across genres - this is my first one-star in years. Read the one and two-star reviews first - these were written by disappointed readers like me who actually purchased this silliness (note the number "Amazon Verified Purchase" tags on the one-star reviews - and compare that to the ones on the five-star reviews).
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2013 6:05 AM PDT


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