Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Sunbird By Wilbur Smith

When I visit my library, I always wander through the stacks and after examining favorite authors I always seem to be drawn to the works of Wilbur Smith. The Sun Bird was written in 1973; the price on the cover was $7.50. I read it years ago but the story tugged at my memory so I reread it.

This was a wonderful tale! A marvelous factual history of South Africa combined with an imaginative and detailed story; the idea of a Phoenician city and culture established 2000 years ago.

A series of aerial photographs shown to a prominent Archaeologist and a wealthy industrialist, Louren Sturvesant, seem to indicate that an unknown city may have been photographed. The Archaeologist, Benjamin Kazin, has been writing about the legendary, city of ‘Ophir, the prehistoric gold-working civilization of Central Africa with special reference to the city of Zimbabwe and the legend of the ancients and the lost city of the Kalahari.
The photos are enough for the industrialist to finance an exploratory expedition.

Louran and Ben are lifelong and very close friends. Loren has always been a leader, excelling in sports, hunting and business. Ben, with a physical disability is a hunch back; strong and intelligent and willing to follow Louran anywhere.

A small group of dedicated men and women travel to an isolated desert
location only to meet with disappointment after disappointment until only Ben Kazin and his assistant are left alone for an additional month to look for some indication of a city or a culture. As water supplies begin to run out the discover, by following birds and monkeys, the entrance to a huge area that contains a deep pool and on the walls, there are ancient drawings and paintings and a marvelous, giant sized, painting of an ancient warrior. The expedition returns and excavation begins. The dig reveals only a paucity of information until careful examination of the warrior painting enables the party to discover an area that produces written records engraved on gold sheets that tell the history of the civilization. The history, also, describes the fall of the city. The author of these scrolls was a hunchback named Huy.

Wilbur Smith has the imagination and the ability to create danger, suspense and grand adventure where his characters are faced with unique and mysterious puzzles that must be unraveled as the story reaches it’s climax. Just when you think the story has ended, a long and detailed imaginative story is told about the last king of the city, Lannon, and his loyal counselor. the hunchback, ax wielding warrior named Huy from the time that Lannon took kingship through the battle for the city that cost Lannon and Huy their lives. It seemed to me to be a parallel life to that of Louran and Ben. I, really liked this story (again).

Friday, May 15, 2009

Finding Nouf By Zoe Ferraris

This is a fascinating first novel by an American woman who lived with her Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin husband and family. Saudi Arabia has, probably, the most rigid attitude towards women in society among the Middle East cultures. The “system” is supposed to “protect” women but it seems to totally restrict their freedom and it is hard for me to determine just what they are being protected against. The laws are strict; women, if allowed to go out must have an escort and must wear their figure concealing robes, and the burqa and even gloves. There are religious police who accost couples to show proof of their marriage and there are “vigilantes”, zealous individuals who will accost people in the street if they feel that the woman is not modest and some will report things they may see to the police. Households have their own rules of segregation.

Nouf is a sixteen year old girl, one of several daughters and sons in a large, very wealthy, Saudi family. Nauf is engaged to be married and is allowed to go out but never without the “protection” of a family member or her escort, a trusted young man she has known for years.

Nouf is missing; the family suspects kidnapping but when no ransom note appears, the family calls in Nayir ash-Sharqui a desert guide and friend of the family to lead a search. Nayir is a dedicated Muslim; he prays five times a day and adheres to the social system to the point of fanaticism. He is offended if a women shows the least bit of immodesty; he is not quite a “vigilante” but close to being one. He is very uncomfortable being with women and he is very troubled if his thoughts stray as men’s sometimes do.

The body of Nouf is discovered in the desert; the coroner determined that she did not die of dehydration but rather, of drowning. The circumstances seem mysterious but the family seems ready to accept “accidental death”. Nayir was present at the coroner’s office when the body was being examined; he met Katya Hijazi a Saudi woman technician working at the morgue who immediately offended and startled him because she did not wear her burqa and further because not only was she working, she was very outspoken and competent .She made her own examination.

After the funeral, Nayir meets with one of the brothers, Othman, who encourages him to investigate further. Nayir goes back to where the body was found where he finds some things and goes back to the morgue where he learns that Katya is the fiancé of Othman. Othman has asked Katya to look into the matter, also.

And so begins an unlikely partnership between this outspoken and “modern” woman and this very “trustworthy” religious man. The evolvement of the mystery is excellent and the rapport between the couple and the difficulty that Nayir has as they travel around together investigating is humorous although sometimes you want to give Nayir a swift kick.
Good story!!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blood and Ice By Robert Masello

This was a fun and interesting read! The story moves back and forth from Great Britain in the mid 1800’s to the present time in frigid Antarctica. At the earlier time, “the great bear Russia” had designs on Turkey; The Crimean war was heating up and Florence Nightingale was running her hospital for woman in England and would, soon, gain fame as “the lady with the lamp”. Young British officers were bold, fun loving, chauvinistic and confident that they could conquer anything. We meet Nurse, Eleanor Ames and Lieutenant Sinclair of the 17th Lancers of the Light Brigade both of whom experience the horrors and defeats of war (remember the poem of “The Charge Of The light Brigade”) and another, worse, horror that will change their lives forever.
At the frozen South pole, Journalist Michael Wilde has taken an assignment to take photos and write an article on a research station that does climate change studies. Except for the severe weather and cold it would be pretty routine but while making a dive under the ice to take pictures of underwater glaciers, he finds a strange, old bottle, a wooden chest and very near, encased in ice, the chained bodies of a man and a woman perfectly preserved. An amazing archeological find, a prize winning story? Who are they? How did they end up chained in a block of ice? The ice is allowed to melt very slowly at a controlled temperature but when it finally melts, the research station is faced with a new, terrifying situation. Mr. Masello put plenty of action and suspense in this thrilling novel.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dark Shadows the Salem Branch Laura Parker

It has been about thirty five years since we last viewed the adventures of the Collins family. Back in the late 60s the kids would hurry home from school in order to watch the popular, to become cult, TV series about the vampire Barnabas Collins. The author actually played the character, Angelique; her real name is Lamar Rickey Hawkins.
We are back in 1971 and Barnabas Collins is still taking medication from Doctor Julia Hoffman in an attempt to cure him of his curse. Julia loves Barnabas and expects to marry him once he is cured of being a vampire; she looks haggard and tired. Barnabas is sickly, he has lost his prodigious strength and he can not get used to eating "human "food; it makes him sick but every day he must under go nauseating shots.
Roger and Elizabeth Collins, their son David, and Quintin Collins (still a werewolf; like Dorian Grey, his portrait ages in some hidden closet while Quintin stays the dapper, carefree, man about town) are living at Collinwood. The Old House, (Barnabas’ house) which was burnt to the ground was sold along with the grounds to Antoinette Harpignies, a 60s hippy type who bears a remarkable resemblance to Barnabas’ former lover, a witch and his nemesis, Angelique. Barnabas wonders if the woman is really Angelique even though he actually killed her. She is restoring the old house exactly the way it was down to the flaws in the wooden floors. Barnabas has the opportunity to explore the old house and he discovers a coffin in the basement where he used to spend his days. He, also finds the body of a workman who was clearly the victim of a vampire. The story brings all the characters into action and poses questions; is Antoinette really Angelique? Who is the vampire that kills several people? Is Barnabas having second thoughts about the cure?
There is a parallel story that takes place in Old Salem in the year 1692. The community is controlled by the strict bible quoting elders who seem to blame almost everything bad that happens on the Devil and his spawn of witches. The women live in terror; the elders are mean lustful men who threaten women and hold disgusting "witch hunts" and trials. Women are put in the Stocks, the elders use the water test to prove witchcraft; they tie the woman and throw her in the water; if she floats she is a witch if she sinks she is innocent. One of the women Miranda du Val is actually a witch but she is very careful not to be found out. She owns land that the deacons desire and eventually, false witnesses tell of her association with the devil and when the to the "dunking" test, she manages to free her hand enough to swim into a beaver hole and survive. She hides and sneaks around until she finds evidence that the sanctimonious elders are evil and lecherous. She goes to the village to confront them, one is a "Collins", but she is not believed and she is condemned to hang. Before she hangs, she places a curse on the elders:"if you take my life, God will give you blood to drink". ( Barnabas’ curse?)
Very interesting tale with a sensational ending.

The Well of Lost Plots By Jasper Fforde

A delightful romp through the world of books, words, letters and characters from fiction and non fiction. The heroine is Literary Detective of Special Ops, Jurisfiction, Thursday Next who is going to try to get a well deserved rest by entering the Book World as part of the Character Exchange Program. She has chosen a character from an unpublished book of dubious quality where she thinks that she will have little to do. This is her first entry into the Book World where she will be viewed as an "outlander" a real person, by the book characters. Thursday’s mentor is Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations".
To understand the concept of the Well of Lost Plots, the reader must learn about the "Great Library"; all published fiction is stored on 26 floors, one floor for each letter of the alphabet. Millions of books are stored on endless shelves and each book is alive. Beneath the Great Library are another 26 floors of dingy sub basements where books are constructed, edited and polished for a place in the library above if they make it that far. There is a "Text Sea" which is full of letters, verbs, nouns, phrases and everything that makes up a book. Grammasites run rampant and plot devices are bought and sold on a black market and bad (lousy) books are scrapped for salvage. There is a murderer threatening to throw Thursday’s novel, her temporary home, into the Text Sea and real or not, she could be destroyed. Very fast paced and original humor.
This book is one of a series of Thursday Next novels by this very creative author; so much fun to read! I have ordered his latest effort from Amazon

The Devine Comedy By Dante Alighieri

"The Devine Comedy" Dante Alighieri
Translated by Allen Mandelbaum written in the 1300s.
"Inferno", " Purgatorio", "Paradiso".
A recent article in the "Wall Street Journal" prompted me to study this classic poem. This will take a while, I am sure, but the copy I have has some splendid notes for each "Canto" that will help a lot. The church and the religious dogmas of the period certainly influenced and dominated the paintings and poems and thoughts of those living in Dante,s time.
Imagine a "Limbo", the first circle of Hell where even those "considered worthy" must spend eternity because they died before Christianity was invented and the sacraments were not available to them.

Prior Bad Acts By Tami Hoag

A family has been brutalized and murdered. A seasoned homicide detective, first to arrive on the scene, is so emotionally affected by what he sees he has to be hospitalized and is subsequently put on "medical leave". The prime suspect is in jail waiting trial. The suspect, has a long record of crime but his lawyer, a public defender. has gone before the Judge to get a ruling to make the prior criminal acts inadmissable. The judge, after hearing argument, so rules. Everyone, the prosecuting attorney, the entire police department, the relatives of the murdered family and the press are angry. That same night, the judge is assaulted in the parking lot; she is pretty well beat up. The detective assigned the case is not very sympathetic because of her ruling but he begins his investigation. The suspect escapes! He is a real bad character; he kills several people while he is evading the police. Ms Hoag brings in several other characters and soon there several suspects for the assault on the judge. The defense attorney’s house is invaded by the detective who was so traumatized by the killing that he wants the lawyer to "stand trial" for his actions; he thinks that without the inclusion of the suspects prior acts, the jury might let him go (the DA does not, really have a solid case backed by evidence).The judge is then kidnaped by the crazed murder suspect who views her as "the only friend he ever had" because of her legal decision. It is a twisted and suspenseful tale that will keep you guessing. Tami uses a lot of violence and gore in her novels

God is Not great Christopher Hitchens & Letter to a Christian Nation Sam Harris

god is not Great" Christopher Hitchens
"How Religion Poisons Everything"
Hitchens, an Atheist, discusses the malignant force of religion in the world and attempts to make a case against religion using a critique of major religious texts and logic. Some of the chapter headings in the table of contents are:
"Religion Kills’
"A Short Digression on the Pig" or "Why Heaven Hates Ham"
‘The Nightmare of the "Old" Testament "
"The "New" Testament exceeds the Evil of the "Old" one"
"The Koran is Borrowed from both Jewish and Christian Myths"
He raises some interesting questions about Joseph Smith and founding of the Mormon religion and he does the same with the enlightenment of Mohamad.
Agree with him or not, a lot of time and study and research went into this provocative essay.
The July 16th issue of the Wall Street Journal has a rather long column by Peter Berkowitz (Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution) which calls Hitchens, Harris, Dawson and others creators of "The New New Atheism" and spends a lot of words trying to say that there is not much substance behind these "latest atheist tracts". Unfortunately, his summary is very weak as are his sources..

"Letter to a Christian Nation" Sam Harris
Harris is another advocate of doing away with religion; his supporters are those who hold no religious doctrine and are probable some what depressed by our country’s increasing unification of church and state. Like Hitchkins and Dawson, he raises big questions about the sources and the authorship of the religious texts that are used to support the various dogmas. He should be read carefully and not totally disregarded.

The Savage Garden By Mark Mills

A beautifully crafted novel that completely enchanted me. The story is entertaining and challenging to the reader.
A young undergraduate at Cambridge is asked by his professor to consider a study of a famous Italian garden that was built in Tuscany as a monument to a fifteenth century nobleman’s wife. The garden is full of statues, grottos, woods, a nine tiered, stone trimmed amphitheater and monuments with classical inscriptions. The student, Adam, becomes involved with the surviving relatives of the nobleman,( Lord Docci) the matriarch Signora Docci, her son and the servants at the estate; he meets the old woman’s grand daughter and there is a love interest. Adam is given free reign to the extensive library of the estate and as he wanders through and studies the garden and the precise placement of the statuary he suspects that something sinister happened in the garden. His study of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (a volume given to him by his professor)gives him insight as to the meaning of the different statues and which real person the statue was supposed to represent but as he tries to reconstruct the overall meaning of the garden, his scenario just won’t work. The puzzle of the garden was intriguing to me particularly because of the nature of the Greek gods and goddesses that have been placed in the garden; there was even a unicorn with a broken horn symbolically placed. (I had to stop and read Ovid where he talks about these particular Greek heros; interesting experience I even learned more about Deucalion, son of Prometheus, whose name the creature in Dean Koonz’s story about Frankenstein took) It was also helpful that I have a copy and I am studying Dante’s "Devine Comedy". It was not until Adam discovered an anagram relating to the nobleman’s wife’s name "Fiore"who was represented by Daphne as pursued by Phoebus and located near the top of the amphitheater did he take a different approach to the puzzle. The anagram referred to Dante’s Inferno which, in turn, led Adam to the second circle of hell where adulterators are found. Splendid and plausible logic leads Adam to the conclusion that the Nobleman actually murdered his wife.
As a secondary plot, the Docci family that Adam was staying with had it’s own, more recent, secret and mystery that was dark and evil and related, in it’s way to the old garden mystery. How the story of both of these mysteries is finally concluded and revealed to the Doccis proves to be difficult and dangerous to Adam. There are some very interesting and lively characters in the story including Adam’s brother who shows up. A book like this makes reading fun because there are so many different areas for further study and reading.

The Unquiet By John Connelly

A disturbing and haunting horror story about the abuse of children and the kind of people that do such things and some dark shadowy people who track them down seeking "justice" or revenge for the victims. John Connolly has a private detective named Charlie Parker who has been in the business too long , has seen too much and tells this twisted story as a first person narrative. Parker takes on a case when a woman with a small child comes to him in fear because she is being stalked. The stalker, it turns out, is a very dangerous man, an ex convict looking for information about the woman’s father who has been missing for the last six years and declared legally dead. The daughter has told the man that her father, a once prominent child psychologist, left home after a scandal of allegations that he betrayed confidences to men that use and abuse children and probably committed suicide. The stalker will not accept that he is dead and insists that the woman knows more. Very scary man. As Parker gets into the investigation and learns more and more about the horrifying world of child abuse, he tries to reconstruct the happenings that caused the Doctor to disappear. Other child abuse cases are studied and a pattern emerges that takes Charlie Parker on a twisting path where he meets some very strange characters. His investigation takes him to the prison that the stalker was in where he talks to an inmate that was protected and befriended by the stalker. This man was terribly abused as a youngster by a group of men who, very likely, are the same people that Parker is on the trail of. It turns out that the stalker had a daughter who was abused and disappeared. The stalker befriended the man so he could find out as much as he could about the evil people that did the deed so he could take revenge. The plot gets complicated and the author throws in a very bizarre, shadowy character that lurks in the background to keep you guessing.
This novel will keep your interest and attention.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

The seventh and final in the series. Poor Harry; this is not a fun adventure. Voldemort and his "Death Eaters"are openly taking over the Ministry of Magic and will eventually take over Hogwarts. Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione, are on a quest to find the magical items that will, hopefully, defeat Voldemort. This takes them to very dangerous places and almost every chapter has a "cliff hanger" where one of the team is almost killed; lots of danger, intrigue, magic and action and some new characters who give Harry background information on the important people in his life and help him move forward on his quest. There are bitter arguments between best friends and Harry’s mind is very dark. He does not understand why Dumbledorf did not completely confide in him, he begins to doubt and loose faith in his old mentor. He also feels tremendous guilt because he has endangered the lives of his friends; some have even died. All the while his mind is closely attached to that of the dark lord to the extent that Harry can actually see and experience Voldemort’s actions.
There is a final great battle at Hogwarts and many things are, finally, explained and questions are answered. The author did a splendid job with this final story; the evolution of all of the characters was very well done, our Hogwarts friends have grown up and matured. The survival and the death of various characters was both sad and sometimes surprising and for me, the series had a logical and satisfactory ending. Seven hundred and fifty-nine pages of enjoyment!

Harry Potter

On Saturday, July 21st that remarkable woman, J.K. Rowling will release her seventh and final (?) book in the "Harry Potter" series. She released the first on July 1st 1997 in England; "Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone". It came out in the U.S in September, 1998 under the name of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone"; do not know why the title was changed in the U.S. A lot of the words were changed because we say things differently over here - bathroom instead of Loo.
Six books later and she is still a wonderful story teller using history, mythology, fairy tales and folklore in magical prose and construction. I rank her with C.S. Lewis , Tolkein and even Austin T. Wright as a creator of lands, people and cultures.
As I read her stories, I can not help but think of that most talented writer of computer games, Roberta Williams who was not a bit bashful to borrow from literature, fairy tales and mythology to create her characters and adventures.
In preparation for the coming novel, I reread the last three, "Goblet of Fire", "Order of The Phoenix", and "The Half Blood Prince" all of which, I thoroughly enjoyed. Us kids of all ages are fortunate, indeed, to have such an extraordinary continuing story to savor over these last ten years. Can’t wait for the next one - in just a few more days!

Emma By Jane Austen

A rich, spoiled young girl with not enough to otherwise occupy herself believes that she is the consummate matchmaker and gets involved in other peoples lives with tragic consequences. Emma’s life is perfect as far as she is concerned but her ideas about people and relationships are badly flawed. She makes a mess of things when she tries to match a good friend with, clearly, the wrong person even though her friend is enamored with a somewhat dull but kind and caring person, a farmer. Emma, ever class conscious, does her best to convince her friend that the man is entirely wrong for her. It all gets sorted out in time and Emma is put in her place by a good friend who turns out to be more than a friend.
Jane Austen consistently draws great characters and places the reader right in the times that she lived in; a fun, lively and interesting read.

The Silmarillin By J.R.R. Tolkien

This classic tale begins with the genesis of middle earth. This is an enchanting fantasy that tells of the coming of the Elves the first to inhabit the earth who could live for thousands of years unless killed in battle, then, the coming of the Dwarfs and then of Men. There were long peaceful, harmonious times but the evil Melkor (later called Morgoth the "Black enemy) and those he duped, most easily,m en but also some of the Elves, eventually caused discontent and war among the peoples. There are tales of wonderful and horrible battles and heroism and included in the work is a summary of "the rings of power and the coming of the Third Age" which, really, whets one’s appetite for the three volume novel of "The Lord of The Rings.
This is an extraordinary piece of work that must be savored; the names of the places and the names of the characters are long and difficult to say but the story stays together.

The Children Of Hurin By J.R.R. Tolkien

Fascinating story about Tolkien’s middle earth in a time long before the Hobbits and the people of "The Lord of the Rings". The first dark lord was Morgoth who, with his tormentor, Glaurung, a huge wingless dragon made war on Hurin a man who defied and scorned Morgoth. Hurin’s children, Turin and his sister Nienor are cursed by Morgoth and are forced to flee their kingdom. They become separated for years, become wanderers and meet up with each other again under bizarre circumstances. The Elves and the Dwarfs play supporting roles and for those of us who are primarily familiar with the Ring Novels we learn a lot more about the Elves and their early kingdom. There are references to Elrond of Rivendale and of Treebeard in the notes which tell how long ago all this happened. Lots of travels and battles and a sad recounting of the death of Turin. This novel is one of many published after Tolkien’s death and was edited by his son, Christopher.
I did not know that the story of "Sir Gwain and the Green Knight" was by Tolkien it was a favorite . Vivid in my mind since early college years.
C.S. Lewis was a friend of Tolkien; I wonder if they shared stories about their imagined people and kingdoms.

The Hadassah Covenent Tommy Tenney

Hadassah is the Jewish name for Queen Esther. Story is set in modern day Iraq and Israel and it moves back to Persia some 1500 years earlier. Esther is no longer Queen, there is a new king and she is corresponding with a young girl named Leah who is in the royal harem and after being with the king only one time, she and the king are in love and Leah expects to be queen. But because king finds out that she is a Jew she is rejected. There is some tender and enlightening correspondence between Leah and Esther. Mordecai is active as an Exilarch who is representing Jewish people in exile trying to maintain peace and harmony. In modern days, there is a wave of anti-Semitic murders in Iraq and in Israel, the wife of the Prime Minister (her name is Hadassah) is the target of an assassination. Seems that some of the correspondence between Esther and Leah has been found and it includes bloodlines and names of Jews living in Iraq. It is a mystery and an adventure; the idea is to find an acceptable modern day Exilarch who cam bring peace to the Middle East.

The Club Dumas Arturo Perez Reverte

An amazing, intelligently written, mystery and occult puzzle novel written by a favorite Spanish author. Books, writers, collectors and dealers in old and rare books are introduced into this story about a certain book dealer who makes his living researching and finding and buying and selling books for a selected clientele. Lucas Corso is hired to authenticate part of an original manuscript, part of "The Three Musketeers", written by Alexander Dumas ;Dumas was known to collaborate with others when he wrote his novels, hence the need for verification. As he goes about this task, he is engaged by a very wealthy collector, Varo Borja, to research a demonic book called "The Book of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows" supposedly authored by Lucifer himself. The book is supposed to enable the owner, if he can figure out the puzzles, to meet the Devil and become all powerful. There are only three such volumes in existence and Corso is charged to examine each one in order to assure Borja that the one he has is genuine; he suspects it might be a forgery. (Perhaps, Borja tried to meet the Devil and the ritual did not work) Corso finds himself involved in a complicated plot where he meets people that seem, to him, to resemble the main characters of the "Three Musketeers", a sensuous woman the wife of the previous owner of the manuscript that he identifies as Milady De Winter and a man who is closely identified with the woman he thinks of as Rocheforte.
At the same time ,as he begins to compare the second of the Book of the Nine Gates, he discovers that while the binding, the paper and the print are identical, there are slight differences in the nine prints. He also discovers that some of the prints were originated by the publisher and others were originated by another person "LCF" (Lucifer?). Corso is followed and threatened by the person he thinks of as Rocheforte but each time he is in danger, he is rescued by a strange young girl who follows him. As the story progresses, death and destruction of their libraries come to the two other owners of the Book of Nine Gates; the books are destroyed but the prints were removed prior to burning the books. Corso finds himself in the middle of a twisting plot that involves devil worship, occult practices and a secret organization relating to Alexander Dumas.
This was a fascinating novel; the plot was complex and the climax was interesting and throughout the book there were lively discussions between Corso and book dealers and book collectors where literally hundreds of novels and author’s works were discussed or quoted from and great care was taken in the story to show the sources that Corso and others used as they researched both the manuscript and the occult book.
This novel was adapted into a film by Roman Polanski. Johnny Depp played Corso in this dark and exciting movie called "The Ninth Gate". Get the DVD.