Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Fifth Servant By Kenneth Wishnia

The setting is Prague in the late 16th Century; the Catholic Church and the newly formed Protestant groups are fighting for religious control of all of Europe. The inquisition is hard at work torturing folks for heresy and witchcraft and both the Protestants and the Catholics fear and hate the Jews who are segregated, forced to wear yellow badges and confined to the Ghetto. They are blamed for any misfortune that occurs in the city. Clearly, misunderstood, they are accused of sorcery and eating infants during “blood rituals”.

On the eve of Passover, a Christian girl has been found dead in a Jewish shop with her throat slashed. This brutal crime is a grand excuse for the people of the town to place the blame on not just the shopkeeper but on all of the Jews in the Ghetto. This has happened before in other towns and the Jews have paid a terrible price in blood and fortune.

A sexton of the Synagogue, (a “Shammes”) named Benyamin Ben-Akive has been given three days to find the real killer. Benyamin is a scholar well versed in the Talmud and all of the esoteric writings and laws that dominate Jewish lives but he is new to the village and must rely on others to assist him. He aligns himself with the High Rabbi of the Jewish community and together with a council of other Rabbis, Benyamin finds ways to investigate the crime and stay within the rigid rules relating to Jewish laws especially during Passover as outlined in the Talmund. No work is allowed, no words can be written; not even a single letter. The entire Gheto is in danger of rioting and burning by the zealots of the Christian community. Witnesses must be found and evidence must be uncovered all under the scrutiny of the Christian officials who raise objections to practically everything. The body of the young girl must be examined but the Jews are not allowed to touch the body; Benyamin's wits are constantly challenged.

The author, Kenneth Wishnia, has drawn marvelous, complicated and interesting characters and the story is replete with Jewish history, customs and scholarly discussions about the Jewish writings as compared to the bible as the Jews know it and as the Christians interpret the words.; it is so very interesting to see the wry humor expressed by Benyamin as his people resign themselves to their life in the Ghetto. There is even a debate between the High Rabbi and the Catholic Bishop representing the inquisition. The is not only a fascinating history but also a puzzling mystery.

Fortunately, the author provided a glossary to help the reader understand the Jewish words and phrases.

This was a fascinating read and I strongly recommend it.

Living Witness By Jane Haddon

Exciting and interesting story about a small town, Snow Hill, located in the hills of Pennsylvania. The native residents have been there “forever” have very fundamental religious views and are not very friendly to newcomers. They are very suspicious of the people who have settled in the new subdivision with their fancy cars, their college educations, the “big words” they use, even the clothes they wear. Snow Hill folks drive pick-up trucks, don’t read books except for the bible of course, wear parkas not coats and most of them hardly got through high school. Then, there is religious disagreement among the natives; one of the groups were snake handlers another created their own "Christian " school.

A new school board decided to introduce Intelligent Design into the curriculum and the town is in an uproar. People, immediately, take sides; “Creationists” who take the Bible literally (the earth and everything was formed in seven days), those who do not go that far but still do not believe in evolution and the “Evolutionists”. Very strong language and opinions are expressed openly on the streets and in the stores very insulting; there is no middle ground.
A law suit has been filed against the school board and a very public trial is eminent.

The oldest, wealthiest and most opinionated woman in town(very liberal in all of her views)is discovered close to death, badly beaten in her own home. The local sheriff, a very biased “Creationist” thinks that he might be among the “suspects” and because there is going to be a media circus when the trial starts hires former FBI Agent Gregor Demarkian to investigate. Demarkian is an “out of towner” (and an Athiest) the town people do not warm to him.

This was an interesting subject and Jane Haddon researched it well and presented it with vigor and some bias I think. This was my first meeting with Gregor Demarkian; I like him and I will read more Jane Haddon.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Beau Geste By Perceval Christopher Wren

The great classic story of the French Foreign Legion and the three Geste brothers, John, Digby, and Michael, the oldest, who was called Beau.
These inseparable boys were adopted by Lady Brandon a wealthy woman who included among her treasures a magnificent sapphire called “The Blue Water”. The story tells of their life in England, how the sapphire went missing and Beau’s sudden departure from the home of Lady Brandon to join the French Foreign Legion. Beau’s brothers joined him later; all of them had confessed to stealing the gem.

The life and hardships endured by Legionnaires, the assignment to North Africa, the great battle at the fort of Zinderneuf and the harsh treatment of the Legionnaires by the brutal and sadistic Sergeant Markoff are all told in this wonderful story. The “Viking funeral” was memorable!

In 1939 I saw the movie which stared Gary Cooper as Beau, Ray Milland as John and Robert Preston as Digby. Brian Donlevy was the mean Sergeant Markoff it was true to the novel that I have just read for the first time. A great boy’s story!!

Impact By Douglas Preston

Wyman Ford, former CIA, hero of two other Preston novels (Tyrannosaur Canyon and Blasphemy) has been asked to investigate the source of some very radioactive gems that are showing up in large quantities on the black market. The search takes him to Cambodia where he investigates a mine shaft that appears to be the source. His mission was to investigate, take pictures and report but the people running the mine were using child labor and terribly mistreating them, working them to death and dumping the bodies in open graves. Ford took it upon himself to move the workers out of the area and then blow up the whole complex including the overseers and the mine. The people in Washington were very angry; they had lied to Ford and Ford soon learned that they had an entirely different reason for their interest in the mine. Apparently two huge meteors were tracked to have landed in the Atlantic off the coast of Main and in the Cambodia location. Shortly after, the radioactive stones started showing up. The Government was concerned because of the danger of the gems in the “wrong hands”.

In Main, Abby Straw, the rebellious daughter of a Lobster fisherman was taking pictures of constellations when the meteor crashed into the sea and she got a digital picture. Her immediate thought was meteors are worth a lot of money and she had the savvy to use the picture to triangulate a very close location as to where it hit the ground. She found the point of impact but she could not find the meteorite.

At the same time a young analyst, Mark Corso, at the National Propulsion Facility, an organization that plots the orbits of planets has discovered something very special about the meteor. The NPF has traced the origin of the meteor as Mars, but Corso has been secretly studying the phenomenon and using classified tracking information finds that the Meteor originated on one of the moons of Mars. Careful study of satellite pictures show what appears to be an ancient alien machine.

The planet Earth is threatened by more than a natural happening. Wyman Ford’s pictures and GPS statistics taken in Cambodia indicate that the meteorite did not hit the Earth at the mine’s location, the pictures, clearly, showed that it left the Earth at that spot!

This was a good thriller, likeable characters and an improbable but interesting and fun plot; the Government bumbling as usual but Wyman Ford, Abby Straw and Mark Corso work together to an exciting conclusion. I enjoyed this one very much.