Saturday, March 27, 2010

Eye of the Red Tsar

Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland is a thriller sent to me as an advance review copy by Bantam Books through LibraryThing. Publication date: April 27, 2010.

This is the first novel about an intriguing character named Pekkala and I'm happy to report that Eastland is working on a second one to be published next year. It's been a long time since I've had a fictional character take up residence inside my head like Pekkala has, and I have a feeling he'll be there for a while. Normally I need to really like a character for that to happen. With Pekkala I can't decide if I like him or not, but I certainly respect him and I definitely care what happens to him. I need to know how his life continues.

This story is set in the time of Stalin with flashbacks to tell Pekkala's tragic life story. He is born in Finland, but eventually sent to Russia by his father to be in the Finnish Guard, the tsar's trusted regiment. Then he becomes Nicholas Romanov's chief detective, one of only two men the tsar can trust. During the revolution Pekkala is arrested and ends up a prisoner in Siberia. The story begins when he has been there, alone in the woods, for nine years. They had sent him there to die, but he has survived.

We all know the fate of the Romanov's, how they were murdered near Ekaterinburg and their bodies thrown down an abandoned mine shaft. People are always suspicious of conspiracies though, so through many years there were rumors that one or more of the children had survived. One German lady, I remember, claimed for years that she was Anastasia, the youngest daughter. This story picks up on those rumors and rumors also that the tsar had someone hide a great treasure before he was arrested.

At some times as I read the book I felt like it was too long, and yet I didn't want to miss a thing. Every time I thought I had things figured out, another twist in the story would send my mind off in another direction. Since the Cheka had sent Pekkala's estranged older brother to bring him out of Siberia, their personal hatred adds another interesting dimension. Motives are lurking in the shadows and it's difficult to tell what is true - until the end when most of it becomes clear. Pekkala makes a choice at the end that still puzzles me. I must read the second book.

I highly recommend this involved and involving book. I am an Amazon Associate.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March Madness and Spring Fever

This sounds like a medical post, and feels like one too since I'm just recovering from bronchitis. (Thought Dave would throw me out of the house the way I was coughing.) Seems like I've been sick a lot this winter so I'm very happy to see spring come in with the grass getting greener, crocuses popping up, turtles and frogs around our pond, and swelling buds on the lilac and forsythia bushes.

Yesterday felt like Christmas. I've been tossing old magazines, not renewing subscriptions, and getting books ready to donate to sales. Really felt virtuous. Then yesterday a friend brought two boxes of books he and his wife had finished, and another friend is bringing yet another bundle. Oh my! I'm so excited and anxious to read the books, but time is at a premium. My to-be-read pile just morphed into boxes of TBR.

Meanwhile, my reading time is greatly lessened by March Madness. Can't help it - I grew up in basketball country you know. Even President Obama's brackets have been shredded by the upsets this year. It's really exciting; if you like basketball at all, you should be watching. Small schools like St. Mary's and Northern Iowa are just racing up and down the floor leaving big guys in their wake.

The only problem with watching basketball on TV, or any other sport for that matter, is that the broadcasters and color commentators don't listen to what they're saying. They are so determined not to call things by their actual names that we hear about touchdowns in basketball and field goals in skiing for Pete's sake. Now they keep talking about players leaving their feet! Where do they leave them? Mine go with me wherever I go. :)

They tell us individual stories about players, and that can be interesting or heartwarming or whatever. But then they remind us every time that player touches the ball. Give it a rest already, would you? I almost threw something at the TV set during a Syracuse game, I think it was the conference championship game but I'm getting a little foggy about details at this point. At any rate, one of their star players had lost his mother a few days before the game. His father bravely sat in the stands watching his son play, and of course his face was on TV more than the game. The media just couldn't wait for him to cry. Finally after the game, he did cry and the camera stayed on him for waaaay toooooo looong. Don't television people have any humanity?

Despite my yelling at the TV, things are looking good around here. The deer are back every morning and evening and rabbits are wallowing in all that grass. Life is good.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I've Just Read an Odd Book

I've just finished a sort of weird book that I picked up at a book sale. It's from 1998; I bought it without really looking much because the author is Patricia Cornwell. A glance at the blurb told me it was not one of her Kay Scarpetta series but since I like her writing, I bought it. Well, I should have looked at it a little better. The cover says this is a "sometimes zany" look at big city police so that should have warned me.

It's called SOUTHERN CROSS. Everyone who has ever read Cornwell knows that she and her character Scarpetta are known for their cooking. In this book her recipe involved taking a bunch of morons, throwing in a sociopathic teenager, and stirring well. The recipe doesn't work; it left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't realize until I was well into the book that it was apparently supposed to be a comedy, until then I was simply puzzled.

The story begins as the police chief and her assistant from Charlotte, NC have been sent to Richmond, VA to try to turn that police department into a professional law enforcement arm. Turns out some of the morons in the story are the Richmond cops. Chief Hammer, Assistant Chief West, and a rookie, Andy Brazil, who they take along aren't actually much brighter than anyone else - with the possible exception of Brazil. No one can figure out the new computer system Hammer wants to use, they are unable to solve a rash of robberies of people at ATMs, and then there's the matter of someone using paint to turn a cemetery statue of Jefferson Davis into a black basketball player.

The sociopath is a high school student who doesn't attend school, and who finds the dumbest of the dumb to force them into his six person gang. We also have a Bubba who works the night shift at a cigarette plant, but who thinks the cigarettes he makes are actually fuel rods for alien spaceships. He is upset at the increase in cigarette/fuel rod prices because those are the only things keeping the aliens from running out of fuel and landing, thus taking over the world.

Are you laughing yet? Neither was I. Instead of finishing the book and saying, "Wow, that was good," I closed the book saying, "Well, that was a waste of time."

I haven't read everything Cornwell has written, so I do hope she sticks to writing about intelligent adults who go about the serious business of solving murders. This was definitely a mistake.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wealthy Senators and the Consequences

Most of us are shocked by the obscene amount of money required to successfully run for elected office now, particularly on the federal level. Hence, more millionaire politicians, from the mayor of NYC to the U.S. Senate. I believe that fact leads to a variety of consequences and one of them especially affects Dave and me.

I really don't like the term senior citizen, probably because I am one, but as a group we seniors are vulnerable to the decisions of these rich pols who don't have a clue how the rest of us live. The decisions that have me riled up at the moment are 1) not to give Social Security recipients a cost of living increase this year because according to the fat cats we don't need it, and 2) now the Senate has decided that President Obama's promise of a $250 check to Social Security recipients this spring to soften the blow would cost too much, and besides of course, we still don't need it.

I would love to see each U.S. senator put on a Social Security budget for one month. Toward the end of that month we would send him/her to fill the gas tank on the old car we drive, then to the drug store to buy normal items like toothpaste, deodorant, maybe a greeting card, a pain reliever, and most important refills for a few prescriptions. Following that, Sen. X would have to go to the grocery store to buy a week's worth of groceries for two people, including non-food but necessary items like laundry detergent, paper products, soap, and perhaps some pet food. Then home to find the mail carrier has brought utility bills for the month. We would then ask them, "How are you going to pay for all this?"

How I would love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation. Maybe I'm wrong, but I believe that once a person rises that high in elective office, he or she is so cushioned from the real world lived by the majority of U.S. citizens, seniors or not, that they are no longer representative of their constituents. Of course those millionaires in office never were.

Out here in reality we are still having a tough time making ends meet. That $250 probably seems like chump change for the members of the U.S. Senate, but to people like us it's a good amount of money that could have been put to very good use - partially paying the bill to heat our homes, for instance.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Recommended Reading

We've been away to a basketball tournament in Connecticut so I haven't had time to read books, although I saw several women in the stands reading books between games. With that deafening noise they insist on playing for basketball games I wouldn't be able to concentrate.

However, I took along a few magazines to read in our motel room and one article struck me as something I should tell you about and encourage you to read. It's a report by Scott Horton, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, called "The Guantanamo 'Suicides,' A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle." The article is in the March 2010 issue of Harper's Magazine.

The story involves three supposed suicides at Guantanamo in 2006. The authorities shut out reporters and just announced that three detainees had committed suicide by fashioning nooses out of torn tee shirts and sheets, stuffing rags into their mouths, tying their feet and hands, standing on the sink, putting their heads in the nooses and jumping. The three were in separate, non-connecting cells, yet did this simultaneously.

Just on the surface of it, this sounds kind of fishy. Then you learn that all three were about to be released. They had never been charged with anything and had merely been picked up on a sweep. Two were from Saudi Arabia and the third from Yemen. A new Marine guard, Joe Hickman, was on duty that night and his observances and subsequent investigation blow this story of suicides right out of the water.

The three were actually spirited out to a section the guards called "Camp No" because it supposedly didn't exist. It was nothing short of a torture chamber and these unfortunate young men died there. I can't even bear to write about what was done to prisoners there. As an American, I am deeply ashamed that these things were done by Americans to people in U.S. custody. To say I'm shocked and horrified at not only the killings but the cover-up is the biggest understatement of the year.

This is a well-written, well-chronicled account that I do hope you will read. It'll open your eyes about what is done in our name.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Corporations Will Run Elections

You must have heard by now of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. I'm stunned. According to this ruling, corporations can now legally donate as much funding as they want to any candidate!

Maybe you should read that last sentence again. Funding unlimited from corporations to the candidates of their choice. Do you realize what that means? Apparently Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg does since she disssented from the majority opinion.

Republican CEOs must be over the moon. Is this the end of the two party system, to be replaced by the who has the most money system? If huge corporations join together to back a candidate, how can that candidate possibly lose? You and I with our $10 and $50 donations can't possibly fight that - and in this economy who can afford even those small donations? I'll tell you who: corporations, some of whom got bailout money from the government during the Obama administration and would now love to bite the hand that fed them.

I'm not naive, I understand that it takes millions and millions to run a successful campaign which is why many of our politicians become millionaires before they run for office. If you think, though, that corporations will back Joe Niceguy who lives down the street, forget it. They will back powerful candidates from their own party who can have the most influence on Washington, D.C. They will back people who are willing to reciprocate by passing laws that benefit the corporations, not you and me.

I sincerely hope something can be done to reverse this decision. Maybe Congress will pass a law against it. Hah, who am I trying to kid? Never happen.