Sunday, September 26, 2010

Page 39: The Moses Expedition

The Moses Expedition by Juan Gomez-Jurado is a real thriller.  Once you start this book, try putting it down for more than a few moments before you are back to reading more.  I just finished it today and passed up a bike ride in the process.

The search for the Ark of the Covenant and the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments is the basis of the plot, but the other components of the plot and how the author ties them all together is what makes this book so darn good.  Rather than go on about this book let me share the synopsis found on the inside cover of the book jacket with you.

"After fifty years in hiding, the Nazi war criminal known as the Butcher of Spielgelgrund has finally been tracked down by Father Anthony Fowler, a CIA operative and a member of the Vatican's secret service.  He wants something from the Butcher--a candle covered in filigree gold that was stolen from a Jewish family many years before.  But it isn't the gold Fowler is after.  As Fowler holds a flame to the wax, the missing fragment of an ancient map that uncovers the location of the Ten Commandments given to Moses is revealed.  Soon Fowler is involved in an expedition to Jordan set up by a reclusive billionaire.  But there is a traitor in the group who has ties to terrorist organizations back in the United States, and who is patiently awaiting the moment to strike.  From wartime Vienna to terrorist cells in New York and a lost valley in Jordan, The Moses Expedition is a thrilling read about a quest for power and the secrets of an ancient world."

If that doesn't convince you to read this book, then just take my word for it.  This is a great read.

Page 38: A Secret Kept

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay is a fascinating story about a brother and sister trying to remember their mother. Antoine and Melanie Rey return to Noirmoutier Island, the scene of many happy summer vacations more than thirty years before.  On the return trip they are in a very serious auto accident.  Antoine is not injured, but Melanie has life threatening injuries that require surgery and a long recovery.  Just before the accident, Melanie turns to her brother to say something she has discovered about the past, but at that moment the car slams into the guard rail and turns on its side.  When Melanie is recovering she cannot remember what she wanted to tell Antoine.

The trip to Noirmoutier Island and Melanie's attempt to reveal something she remembers about the past concerning their mother starts a series of events that eventually lead to a family secret that has been hidden since their mother died nearly thirty years before.  Antoine's strained relationship with his father, the devastating divorce when his wife left him for another man, and the difficult teenagers that are his children are enough to complicate anyone's life.  While dealing with all this he continues to search for answers regarding his mother's death.  His search for the truth leads him to many surprising discoveries about his mother and himself.

Praise for A Secret Kept:
"The story of an emotionally distant family as it struggles to come to grips with changing dynamics and the mysterious death of a young mother many years ago[...] De Rosnay’s writing is eloquent and beautiful, and her characterizations are both honest and dead-on[...]" -Kirkus

"A Secret Kept is a beautiful and haunting exploration of wanting - and not wanting - to understand one's past, of learning to see parents as individuals, whether the parents in question are our own or ourselves."  -Erica Bauermeister, bestselling author of The School of Essential Ingredients

"In A Secret Kept, Tatiana de Rosnay takes us on a journey to that haunted place where the past seeps into the present, where memory appears and disappears, and where healing seems always out of reach. With her lyrical prose and her gift for creating deeply sympathetic characters, de Rosnay has given us a hopeful story, as addictive as it is moving." -Diane Chamberlain, New York Times bestselling author of Summer’s Child

Page 37: Ape House

Ape House by Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants) should change the way you think about bonobos or as many people refer to them, great apes.  Isabel Duncan is a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab at a major university.  She is studying the learning behavoir and language skills of Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena.  They are able to reason, and know American Sign Language.  They communicate with each other in their own language and with Isabel.  A reporter, John Thigpen, does an article for his newspaper on the research lab, and is forever changed as a result of his direct interaction with the bonobos.

An explosion destroys the lab and severely injures Isabel.  The bonobos escape and later turn up in a reality TV show in New Mexico.  The man who has the bonobos is more of a P.T. Barnum, and certainly not a Jane Goodall.  He doesn't care about the research that the bonobas have been involved in, he only wants to exploit them for as much money as he possibly can.  Those of you who have ready Water for Elephants will find this theme familiar.

The rest of the story plays out as Isabel tries to rescue her bonobos.  It also follows the life changes experienced by John Thigpen and his wife as they move across the country and start new jobs.  John ends up playing a major role in helping Isabel, but you need to read the book to find out how.

This is a good story, and will change the way you think about animals, especially the bonobos. Their intelligence, sense of humor, playfulness, and use of language are more human than we care to admit.  This book is worth reading just to discover more about them.  Here are a couple of reviews:

"Sara Gruen knows things--she knows them in her mind and in her heart.  And, out of what she knows, she has created a true thriller that is addictive from its opening sentence.  Devour it to find out what happens next, but also to learn remarkable and moving things about life on this planet.  Very, very few novels can change the way you look at the world around you.  This one does." (Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife)

"I read Ape House in one joyous breath.  Ever an advocate for animals, Gruen brings the apes to life with the passion of a novelist and the accuracy of a scientist.  She has already done more for bonobos than I could do in a lifetime.  The novel is immaculately researched and lovingly crafted.  If people fall in love with our forgotten, fascinating, endangered relative, it will be because of Ape House."  (Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Page 36: City of Veils

City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris is a unique and insightful look inside Saudi Arabia by an author who actually lived there.  This is her second novel set in this country.  I have not read the first one, Finding Nouf, but I have it high on my list of next books to read.  As usual, my wife has made another excellent recommendation of a book for me to read that I probably would have missed.

This is a real thriller with plenty of action, plot twists, and good characters.  It begins with a young woman's body found on the beach in Jeddah. One of the next sequences is the return of Miriam Walker to Saudi Arabia from some time off in the U.S.  Her husband, also American, works for a security company and disappears soon after she returns.  The story turns to the search for the killer of the girl found on the beach, and soon begins linking supposedly unrelated individuals to the search for the killer and Miriam's missing husband.

The culture in Saudi Arabia is an intrinsic part of the story, both secular and religious.  The role of women in Saudi society and how they are treated by men is explored as part of the story, and may be quite a shock for western readers who are not familiar with this aspect of life in Saudi Arabia.  The plot moves very quickly as one clue after another is found, examined, and then followed to the next clue until the amazing conclusion during a severe windstorm in the desert.

Here is a product description from the inside cover of the book:

"Women in Saudi Arabia are expected to lead quiet lives circumscribed by Islamic law and tradition. But Katya, one of the few women in the medical examiner's office, is determined to make her work mean something.

When the body of a brutally beaten woman is found on the beach in Jeddah, the city's detectives are ready to dismiss the case as another unsolvable murder-chillingly common in a city where the veils of conservative Islam keep women as anonymous in life as the victim is in death. If this is another housemaid killed by her employer, finding the culprit will be all but impossible.

Only Katya is convinced that the victim can be identified and her killer found. She calls upon her friend Nayir for help, and soon discovers that the dead girl was a young filmmaker named Leila, whose controversial documentaries earned her many enemies. 

With only the woman's clandestine footage as a guide, Katya and Nayir must confront the dark side of Jeddah that Leila struggled to expose: an underworld of prostitution, violence, exploitation, and jealously guarded secrets. Along the way, they form an unlikely alliance with an American woman whose husband has disappeared. Their growing search takes them from the city's car-clogged streets to the deadly vastness of the desert beyond.

In CITY OF VEILS, award-winning author Zoë Ferraris combines a thrilling, fast-paced mystery with a rare and intimate look into women's lives in the Middle East."

I hope you enjoy this book.

Some future reviews: The Glass Rainbow, Ape House, A Most Wanted Man, and The Passage.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Page 35: Thank You

I just wanted to thank all of you who have been checking out this blog.  We have gone international.  The early traffic has been mostly from the US and Canada.  Over the past several weeks the visits have expanded to countries such as Australia, Brazil, China, Turkey, United Kingdom and several more.  Let's see if we can keep adding more countries.

Not many of you are leaving any comments.  Please don't be shy.  There are a lot of readers out there and I would really like to know your opinion(s) of the books I blog about and/or the blog in general.  Also your suggestions for other books we may all like to read are most welcome.

Thank you again and keep on reading.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Page 34: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is a literary work of historical fiction that is set in Japan in the early nineteenth century.  Jacob de Zoet comes to Dejima, a small Dutch East India Company trading post on an island adjacent to Nagasaki, in 1799.  He is a clerk whose superiors want him to inventory the vast quantities of merchandise found in the various warehouses, as well as discover how much has been stolen due to the corruption of those assigned to oversee the trading operations.

The huge cast of characters includes his fellow Dutchmen, foreigners hired by the Dutch to work at the trading post, and the various Japanese they interact with while there.  The Japanese include interpreters, servants, high officials and one very special Japanese woman Jacob falls in love with.  Orito Aibagawa is a midwife studying with Dr. Marinus the company physician. Jacob, even though he is engaged to his fiance back in Holland, falls madly in love with her.  Unfortunately for Jacob, his love must cross the very strict barriers established by the Japanese for relationships with foreigners.  The lessons Dr. Marinus teaches the Japanese students are a fascinating aspect of this novel.  There is plenty of other material in the story that includes detailed descriptions of Japanese culture during the period.  Japan was still a feudal society at the time, and Mitchell portrays the relationships between rulers and subjects, and within classes quite well.

Jacob soon learns to be wary of everyone until he decides who he is able to trust, those he cannot, and the ones he is just not sure about.  Before the ship leaves for Batavia, the major trading city on the island of Java, Jacob is asked to sign a manifest of trading goods.  He is offered a higher position and other perks, but he refuses to sign since he knows the manifest is false.  His own superiors have used Jacob for their own profit and demote him on the spot when he refuses to sign.  He is left on Dejima in disgrace to face a new superior who is no friend.  But this is when the story becomes much more interesting and the plot shifts to Aibagawa  and how she is treated when her father dies and she is sold to the local feudal lord.  She is sent to an abbey controlled by the feudal lord.  The abbey is located high on a mountain and surrounded by walls.  In addition, it is guarded around the clock.  She finds herself in a prison where the inmates are the sisters, and the male monks main duty is to father children with the sisters.  This part of the story includes an escape by Aibagawa, an attempted rescue by her former love interest, and the startling revelation of the main purpose of the abbey.

When a Dutch ship does not return to Dejima the men left behind find themselves in a very bad situation.  They must depend on the Japanese for help while they wait for a ship.  A ship does eventually come, but it is  English.

Read the book to discover all the details for yourself, and what happens to Jacob, Aibagawa, and Dejima.  As usual, here is a review of the book.  This one is from by Tom Nissley:

"David Mitchell reinvents himself with each book, and it's thrilling to watch. His novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas spill over with narrators and language, collecting storylines connected more in spirit than in fact. In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, he harnesses that plenitude into a more traditional form, a historical novel set in Japan at the turn into the 19th century, when the island nation was almost entirely cut off from the West except for a tiny, quarantined Dutch outpost. Jacob is a pious but not unappealing prig from Zeeland, whose self-driven duty to blurt the truth in a corrupt and deceitful trading culture, along with his headlong love for a local midwife, provides the early engine for the story, which is confined at first to the Dutch enclave but crosses before long to the mainland. Every page is overfull with language, events, and characters, exuberantly saturated in the details of the time and the place but told from a knowing and undeniably modern perspective. It's a story that seems to contain a thousand worlds in one." 

Here is another review from Publishers Weekly:

"Mitchell's rightly been hailed as a virtuoso genius for his genre-bending, fiercely intelligent novels Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. Now he takes something of a busman's holiday with this majestic historical romance set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, where young, naïve Jacob de Zoet arrives on the small manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station's entrenched culture of corruption. Though engaged to be married in the Netherlands, he quickly falls in hopeless love with Orito Aibagawa, a Dutch-trained Japanese midwife and promising student of Marinus, the station's resident physician. Their courtship is strained, as foreigners are prohibited from setting foot on the Japanese mainland, and the only relationships permitted between Japanese women and foreign men on Dejima are of the paid variety. Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he's demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk. Meanwhile, Orito's father dies deeply in debt, and her stepmother sells her into service at a mountaintop shrine where her midwife skills are in high demand, she soon learns, because of the extraordinarily sinister rituals going on in the secretive shrine. This is where the slow-to-start plot kicks in, and Mitchell pours on the heat with a rescue attempt by Orito's first love, Uzaemon, who happens to be Jacob's translator and confidant. Mitchell's ventriloquism is as sharp as ever; he conjures men of Eastern and Western science as convincingly as he does the unscrubbed sailor rabble." 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Page 33: Ford County: Stories

I have been meaning to read this book since it came out.  I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago to South Carolina to visit family, and picked up a copy of this book at the airport shop and started reading on the plane.  John Grisham is one of my favorite writers.  He is not only a very good writer, but a great teller of stories.  This departure from the novel to short stories is a real joy to read.  Each story is a gem.  They all take place in Grisham's Mississippi and capture the good, bad, and ugly of any small town.  I will not try to pick a favorite story from the seven since they are all that good.  There is something special about the south when it comes to stories, and Grisham has mastered his own sense of place in Mississippi.

Pat Conroy, another great writer of novels set in the south, has high praise for Ford County.  Here it is.

"Ford County is the best writing that John Grisham has ever done.  One of the many things I've admired about his books is his intimate chronicle of Mississippi life in the generations following William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.  Grisham writes equally well about the plantation south, the black south, and white-cracker south.  Over the years he has used the legal system as an instrument to illuminate the world of mansions and sharecroppers and everything in between as he not only defined Mississippi but also staked it out as his home fictional territory.  His short stories were a surprise to me.  All of them are very good; three of them, I believe, are great."