Friday, October 29, 2010

Innocent Blood by P.D. James

I would have thought I had read all of P.D. James' books but I spotted this paperback at a book sale and realized it was new to me. I have never, ever disliked a P.D. James book and this one is just as good as all the others.

The wonderful characters and the setting are what make her stories come alive. The reader feels like a mouse in the woodwork watching every move and somehow privy to every thought. The heroine in this one is Philippa Palfrey who lives in style in London with her adoptive parents, Maurice and Hilda Palfrey. Maurice is not affectionate and Philippa believes he has used her as a sort of experiment, making her a posh sort of girl despite her background. She thinks she was the daughter of a maid on an estate and the aristocrat who lived there. She thinks her mother is dead. By law, on her eighteenth birthday she is allowed to request a copy of her birth certificate and learn how to contact a surviving parent.

What Philippa learns on that birthday astounds her. Her actual birth parents were exactly the opposite of what she thought and it is her mother who survives. She determines to get to know her mother in order to know who she herself really is. This sets her on a journey of discovery that will change her life forever.

Many other secrets are revealed in the course of the story as well, some of which greatly surprised me, and there is a final secret at the end which may or may not surprise you as much as it did me. Yet when I gave it some thought, it was inevitable.

I really can't tell much more without ruining the story, but I must recommend this one for anyone who loves a good character-driven mystery. Be warned that once you get into it, you won't be able to put it down.

I am an Amazon Associate if you decide to buy it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Cabinda Incident by Michael J. Ulissey

This historical novel is a win from GoodReads. I was interested in it because I enjoy reading stories set in different locations around the world, especially places I don't know much about. Also, this one is based on an actual event in Angola in 1985 when a group from South Africa was caught in an attempt to bomb Gulf Oil operations.

The story is the old one of a multinational corporation taking a third world country's resources and making obscene profits from them without repaying that country by making life better for its citizens. Unfortunately, it's an all too common story, but one that Ulissey is familiar with. He grew up overseas, then worked as an IT specialist for a major oil company in West Africa. He is a doctor and has served in the U.S. Navy as well. This background serves him well in crafting such a novel.

What he has here is a fascinating story, but it is a story in search of characters and sense of place even though it appears to be at least in part autobiographical. The hero, Ethan Archer, has no flaws and we don't really get to know him, or any other character for that matter. Everything he desires comes to him easily and the only bad things that ever happen to him are the deaths of his best friend and his father, but those episodes seem stilted, as though Ulissey doesn't show emotion well.

Ethan is recruited by the CIA and the book begins with he and his trainer Ed on a mission to meet with a rebel leader in the jungle. Then there are flashbacks to Ethan's childhood, before we settle into a chronological account of Ethan's life. By the time we get back to 1985 when he is 26 years old, it's nearly the end of the book. I had to skim the beginning again to remember what was going on but I was still confused.

You'll remember that I like learning about other countries. Here I never had a sense of a change in scene although Ethan travels all around the world. In short, I was very disappointed in The Cabinda Incident because I had such high hopes for it. I think Ulissey is a talented writer and I hope this will not be his last novel because I think he'll get better with time.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost Triumph by Tom Carhart

This book is five years old and I've had it for quite a while but never got around to reading it until now. Nineteenth century American history is my major interest, which of course means I'm also a Civil War buff. Since we live in Pennsylvania and have spent time at Gettysburg, this book promised to answer a question I had long wondered about.

Most people who know anything about the battle at Gettysburg, know about Pickett's charge on the clump of trees. It was the main event of the battle. Pickett's men charged across an open field to attempt overrunning Union artillery and infantry on the other side in a clump of trees. It was, of course, a slaughter and although a few made it across, they were forced to retreat under withering fire. It was a costly defeat for the Confederate army.

My question has been: General Robert E. Lee was by all accounts a brilliant general. The North suffered many losses to this man because of his military planning and that he was such an inspiration to his men. So why would he send these divisions on such a suicidal charge? He would have known they didn't have a prayer of winning that battle.

If Tom Carhart is correct, I now know the answer. I had trouble reading parts of the book because Carhart is a retired military man who writes of the maneuvering of troops and planning for battles that I had to concentrate hard to grasp. I wish there had been more maps; it would have helped me. However, from what a layperson like me can understand, Pickett's Charge was part of a masterful plan that was stymied by General Custer and troops from Michigan.

Jeb Stuart's cavalry was positioned so that they could ride past Union cavalry and attack the rear of the Union lines just as Pickett charged the front. The Union was in a fishhook formation and Stuart's men would have collapsed the hook and decimated the line at the clump of trees. Stuart didn't show up though because, realizing what was happening, Custer personally led Michigan cavalry divisions in a charge of Stuart which succeeded in routing Stuart's cavalry back out of the action.

Lee never blamed Stuart and never admitted to this plan because he didn't want to destroy reputations, and why admit a plan of his had failed. Apparently Lee never discussed the war after he surrendered to Grant. Carhart did years of research to find hints of the truth, finally realizing Stuart had a role that he couldn't fulfill and that Custer was the Union hero of the day. We shouldn't think of Custer only as the guy who led his troops to slaughter by the Indians. He was a brave, though reckless, fighter.

If you have ever wondered at Lee's judgement at Gettysburg and thought he must have lost his mind, you should read this book and see what you think. I think Carhart must be right.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Negative Campaign Ads Drive America Totally Loony!

It's that season again when no one dares to turn on their television because they will be inundated with negative campaign ads. I simply don't understand this. The only winners are the local channels who must make tons of money from the campaign treasuries.

I'm sure we aren't the only ones who are sick of this. It must be the same in every household in America. Well, it proves one thing - politicians do not listen to us - at all!

The channel we watch for news has a "Talkback" segment where people call in or e-mail their complaints (mostly) or compliments (a few) about the channel's programming and news. All year people call in to complain about someone's haircut, or that they only air bad news, or that the morning weatherman is a complete idiot, or to congratulate one of them on the birth of a child. Now most of those calls are overrun by complaints about negative campaign ads, and quite a few of those callers have concluded that since all of the candidates are apparently crooks, they just won't vote at all. This is especially true in a county south of ours where a widespread corruption scandal involving comissioners, judges, etc. has been in the news for the past year.

So far only one candidate in northeast Pennsylvania has a positive commercial in which he thanks the people who voted for him in the primary, thanks his primary opponents for now supporting him, and saying what he would stand for if elected in November. He has only that one ad. Good for him! If only the others would follow suit rather than slinging mud.

I'm not condemning any party or any candidate here. Both parties and all candidates are equally guilty. We seem to have reverted to the supposedly "good old days" of our early history when mud slinging like this was very common. It isn't new at all, but why candidates and their staff people think this type of thing is effective is beyond my powers of understanding. I will vote because I think it's my privilege and my duty as a citizen, but I won't have that good feeling I used to have when leaving the polling place. I'll just be relieved to leave the stink behind.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Wishing Nevada Barr a Long and Fruitful Life

I'm a huge fan of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon series but yet I haven't read them all. Life keeps intruding, you know. Anyway, I found a paperback of A Superior Death at a book sale and realized this was one I had missed. It's as heart-pounding and funny and scary as all the rest and I absolutely loved it.

This one is set in Isle Royale National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior. Brrr! Anna has recently transferred from Texas so she's cold, freezing cold even though it's June and tourists are coming in to fish. As usual the characters are fascinating, especially one couple who have taken a sort of hippiness to an extreme.

Under the surface of Lake Superior lie many wrecks. You probably know that the Great Lakes are notorious for weather that blows up so suddenly many ships have gone down through the years. Since most are cargo ships, divers haunt the remains looking for something valuable or just out of curiosity about the ships. You just know there's going to be underwater trouble and sure enough there is. I won't tell more; don't want to spoil your fun if you haven't read this one.

This is an earlier book where Anna is still having trouble coping with the death of her husband, Zach, but keeping on keeping on because she's a strong woman with a good hold on reality. She still hasn't gotten a firm hold on sobriety though. I must say Anna is one of my favorite all-time characters; she's so real it's almost spooky. I recommend any of the Anna Pigeon series wholeheartedly.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Network by Jason Elliott

I won The Network from GoodReads and actually I enjoyed it before I read it. The dust cover, size, and feel of this book is just perfect in your hand. That might sound silly to someone who doesn't read much, but any avid reader will know exactly what I mean.

The story begins with a hawk soaring in the sky and ends with an eagle. In the beginning, in Spring 2001, our hero, Anthony Taverner, aka Ant, has been kidnapped, then escaped and is now on the run from the bad guys. He has no idea who they are or why he has been taken, just that he's going to do everything in his power to get to safety. He is discovered and that particular mystery is solved.

Meanwhile, he has been recruited to find and destroy Stinger missiles hidden away in Afghanistan, and while there to find his best friend who is under cover with al-Qaeda and bring him back to England. He undergoes training that makes Marine Corps boot camp look like kindergarten, and then is sent to Sudan to pry information out of a woman who was married to one of Osama bin Laden's brothers. There's a good balance of rigorous training, calm planning, learning about missiles and weapons, and romance, all building to the operation in Afghanistan where it's terribly difficult to tell who the enemy is. He doesn't dare trust anyone, not even his British handlers, and yet he must trust a select few.

Elliot is a travel writer and this background certainly makes a difference as he describes the scene whether he's in England, Sudan or Afghanistan. He manages to describe the people of each country as well, although not dwelling on any particular person except for those vital to the story. As when I finished The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I feel like I know much more about the look and feel of Afghanistan, this time from the point of view of an adult who is there on a mission.

It's hard to believe this is Elliot's first novel. I have a feeling it has been knocking around in his head for years until it finally poured out in a beautifully evocative thriller that ends with a bang - literally. I do hope he'll write more novels; this one is impressive. Perhaps Ant will appear in future works. He's a hero well worth following.