Saturday, May 30, 2009

The African Queen by C.S. Forester

What can I really say about the book The African Queen that isn’t already well-known as an award-winning movie? Originally published in 1935, this exceptional book was fairly closely reproduced in the movie in 1951 with relatively minor changes, the most obvious being that the main male character, Charlie Allnutt, was (and is) written as a Cockney character, whereas Humphrey Bogart, who played the role, was unable to carry this accent off and the character was rewritten. The time period of the story is the WWI-era in what is now called Tanzania. This book is a wonderfully exhilarating and inspiring story of faith, craftsmanship, relationship and adventure; a veritable roller-coaster ride.

The characters are very consistent in their growth and change, and Rose, the missionary’s sister left alone in Central Africa when her brother dies, shows her true spunk, tenacity and passion previously hidden in the type of life she had led in the past. Allnutt also grows in creativity, strength of character, and realization of self. The combination is volatile, electric, and passionate by turns and the interaction plays out well. Rose’s determination to “do her part for the Empire” so to speak, clashes with Allnutt’s wish to remain alive. He knows the rivers and the delicate condition of his boat, African Queen. He also is aware that nothing except a canoe has ever even attempted to go down the miles of rapids and cataracts she is proposing to do in order to reach Lake Wittelsbach. This is where the German gunboat Konigin Luise is patrolling to keep the British from gaining access to the German colony in Central Africa. Her proposal includes the destruction of this vessel.

Allnutt eventually agrees and with his engineering experience and handyman abilities, he decides that he after all can create torpedoes from items at hand. So begins the adventure of a lifetime. Malaria, torrential rains, lightning most nights, mosquitoes, flies and other insects in vast clouds around them, and damage to the boat, nothing gets in the way of their determination. I absolutely loved this book, the action, drama, excitement, and character was so complete, I almost felt myself running the rapids with them. Having loved the movie, I was surprised and delighted to find that the book had been reissued in 2006 and immediately purchased it. I am so glad I did. Once you get used to the cockney wording when Allnutt speaks, it reads beautifully. Adventure is definitely the most obvious, but the evolution of the characters is marvelous! I highly recommend this book for all the above reasons.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Promise of Hope: The Astonishing True Story of a Woman Afflicted With Bipolar Disorder and the Miraculous Treatment That Cured Her

The author: Autumn Stringam. I reviewed this book in 2006 and posted a short version of my full review. Still based on the proof I read than the final publication, I thought this book was worthy of posting the full review:

This book brings the reader inside the mind of a Bi-Polar Disorder patient in her own words. All the chaos, highs, lows, delusions, anger, and deep depression are felt in a way that could not ever be accurately described by anyone who has not lived the story. Autumn Stringam has lived the story. The depth of the urge to suicide is indelibly written. It is told with no holds barred in the still voice that is often seen in trauma victims describing what has happened to them. A distance that makes the story very compelling and true. There is nothing asked of us other than to believe the story and what it means. No requirement to sympathize with the writer for what she has gone through.

We see her life with her mother’s undiagnosed bi-polar swings and final suicide through a child’s eyes, never dreaming that the same terrors would one day be hers. The illness does not surface until she is an adult and married. From this point on, we travel through her own mind, while at the same time she finally begins to understand her mother. The family once again suffers the same fate as her younger brother also is diagnosed. There seems to be nothing to live for because nothing, no treatment yet used, could do more than remove them from a life into a stupor from which they dare not try to emerge.

Her father begins a quest to find a way to help his children in a way that he had not been able to save his wife. All he wants is for them to be safe. A chance meeting with an animal nutritionist eventually leads to trying a new way, a nutritional concoction of vitamins and minerals, based on the formula for quieting aggressive hogs, “tail biters”. Over the next few years we journey through the miraculous recovery of the siblings. Indeed, both now lead healthy and productive lives.

There are agonizing legal battles to get the product approved. The futile fights with the Canadian government are spelled out completely and succinctly and made me want to join in the fight! I can see it exactly as if I had lived it. I would strongly recommend this book for a number of reasons. For understanding of the bi-polar progress, for the discovery and preliminary trials to improve on any new medical discovery, and for how difficult it is to bring government acceptance of alternative medicine for many illnesses, are three main reasons. This is a real life, Autumn lived this life and tells the truth as it is, plain and simple, with suspense as to what will happen with the discovery, and the final outcome. Read it, you will be glad you did.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Library Paradox by Catherine Shaw

This book is interesting in that it is a work of fictional mathematical mystery. That said, it is a murder mystery with a substantial history of the Jewish community, particularly in East London, in the 19th century. Catherine Shaw has done a great deal of research into this time period. Here we have a heroine very much ahead of her time, Vanessa Weatherburn, a young mother of two toddlers who is also an amateur detective. Fans of Anne Perry’s Charlotte Pitt series will relate to this character who has an ability to mix and mingle while collecting information.

The Library Paradox is not just the title of the book, it is an actual mathematical paradox concerning a catalogue of catalogues. In this case, the book title also represents the fact that the murder took place in a library and paradoxically no one could have done the crime. The murder victim is a fiercely, almost insanely anti-Semitic professor of high standing. With no witnesses to the actual murder but 3 witnesses to the aftermath and one person on the walkway heading the other direction when the shot was heard, no amount of tests of timing could put any of them on the spot at the exact moment of the shooting. The professor himself had an exceptional number of enemies, and therein lies the dilemma of discovering a suspect.

In the course of events, many real crimes against Jews are mentioned, including the Dreyfus Affair, famous in French history, and it is soon discovered that the professor had a hand in the conviction of two Jews in the "ritual" murder of an 11 year old boy, James Wilson. There are several seemingly unrelated issues throughout the book, but it holds itself together. The segments pertaining to tracking down an elderly rabbi, or rebbe as the Hasidic community refers to him, is quite entertaining in an odd way. Did I like the book? Yes, I enjoyed it enough that I would read another of Catherine Shaw’s books, but I personally felt it was a little dragged out in spots, particularly at the beginning, but it took all my attention once the actual drama began. Still, I recommend it for its adventures into a time and place we do not often hear about, and for a sound and satisfying mystery.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Ghost of a Chance by Elizabeth Eagan-Cox

The first in the Shannon Delaney Paranormal Mystery Series; as one might expect there is time given over to the introduction of the main characters of which there are quite a few. I’ll be interested to watch further developments in later books. Solving a mystery that is over 130 years old may seem a daunting task, but interesting, especially when the mystery involves a famous magician, his old mansion and mysterious chest, handsome descendants, and a psychically sensitive heroine.

Working as a team, five main characters try to determine what happened to Eric Blackthorne, the magician of over 130 years ago; did he just disappear or was he really murdered? The story builds throughout the book as the team resurrect clues from varying sources. The excitement of discovery and meaning of each clue is contagious to the reader. Not least of the clues appear to come to Shannon in the night. Is she dreaming them or are they manifestations? Is there a ghost helping her? and are the hilarious appearances in the night truly clues? All these questions come to bear on the case and play their role in the mystery. I loved the author’s wily way of incorporating not only clues but humor in the mix! The story flows well, the discoveries of the past weave through the present day smoothly and build the reader’s interest. Hints of jealousy and romance appear throughout the story, and it seems to end with a promise of more about to blossom with the continuation of the series, but not without its complications.

I really enjoyed this first book and look forward to the growth of the series. I am definitely hooked on Shannon’s dreams! The cast of characters form a unique alliance, too. Once the first characters were established the book took off and took over, leaving me reading almost straight through at one go. Easy to read, strange quirks to throw us off balance, glimpses of life of the rich and of early San Diego, two families tied together in mutual interest in the case, all make for an effortless but exciting journey through a very “cold case”!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

An amazing chronicle of a quest to discover how a family secret evolved. Part memoir, part history, part mystery and part investigative reporting, this book is a must-read.

It is spring in 1995, and author Steve Luxenberg has just discovered that his mother, who had always said she was an only child, had a sister. This startling discovery intrigues the investigative reporter in him as he begins a trip through memories that takes him into a Jewish history that begins in the Ukraine prior to the Holocaust, moves on to America, into a world of physical and mental disabilities, and into the memories of descendants of his mother’s friends. He manages occasionally to discover some living witnesses to the fact that this newly discovered aunt really existed. This is not only a journey of personal discovery, but a discovery of time and place.

The reader is right with the author as he digs into what histories are available for the time periods, 1920s and 30s for nuances of how disabled persons are perceived with shame as if the parents are responsible somehow for what has gone wrong. Add to that the perceptions of children who are “slow” learners and they are immediately classified as “feeble-minded”. These perceptions allowed them to invariably be classed by the courts as “Insane”, placed into an asylum where records were scanty, and in fact many destroyed. The sheer number of patients deposited into these facilities is completely overwhelming. They were virtual cities! Most patients would not have needed to leave home had the knowledge and treatments of today been available then..

Steve Luxenberg’s journey is emotional and thorough and the reader is a constant companion. This is very much his story of the search for “Annie”, and is very well told. Going back generations to get at the truth is heart-wrenching and yet curious to today’s way of thinking. To anyone who has researched their genealogy, much of the way will be familiar to them, or may even be helpful to them. The book is sure to be an eye-opener to anyone who was born after the 1960s. The writing is exceptional, as are the notes in the version I read. Written with honesty and integrity, with an understanding generated from his findings, I commend Steve for baring this family secret with compassion and dedication. Full of history and a mystery to be solved, I highly recommend this book, in fact I would even go so far as to say it should be in every high school library. Though not classified for young adults, they can benefit and enjoy it as much as I, a grandmother did.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Katherine Howe’s debut novel is a well-crafted, deeply researched and exceptional work centered around the Salem witch trials of the 1600s and reaching out to the present time. The novel features several real people of history in real situations but extended by imagery and imagination to fill in the blanks. Holding a PhD in American and New England History she has brought these times to life in a very realistic way. She also has the advantage historically of being descended from two of the accused witches so has invested a great deal of effort into this amazing story.

Katherine has taken her university experience and interwoven it into the research that Connie Goodwin, her protagonist, undertakes for her choice of dissertation. An accidental discovery in her grandmother’s home she has been asked to prepare for selling, brings her right into the world of old Salem. The book reads smoothly and consistently while building the tension throughout. The characters grow, and almost come alive as the reader gets more involved in the story. This is an interesting time of American history, referred to in the book as the Salem Panic. In fact, Connie soon finds that the dynamics of what she has discovered has put her in a very delicate and dangerous position with her university advisor.

The fact that she is dealing with two distinct time periods in the same location does not disturb the flow at all. In fact Katherine has called these sections reverting in time as “Interludes”, which means you are not suddenly propelled from one instance to another. There is enough mystique in the book to keep the interest flowing, enough history to really get a feel for the time, enough mystery, a dash of romance, a froth of magic, maybe a bit of vision, a bit of sadness, all continuing to build toward a fascinating ending. Yet through most of the story Connie is considering this a project and that she is detached from the reality. An altogether enjoyable experience, it is my hope that there will be more books to come from Katherine Howe. An wonderful journey bringing the past to the now in an incredibly entertaining manner. Grabbed me and didn’t let go! Definitely recommend, don’t forget to read all the notes beginning and end, very interesting.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Under the Fifth Sun by Jeffrey Osburn

Reviewed for Front Street Reviews

This novel by Jeffrey Osburn takes place primarily along the Mexican/American border, predominantly the Texas/Juarez area, a place of great activity of all kinds and an excellent locale for this exciting debut. As might be expected, the drug cartels of Mexico play a huge role in this story, but also the devastating use by the warring cartels of Mexican innocents who believe a better life for their families await them in the USA. Mix this up with the generations of mostly-corrupt vs honest politics, the plot of the ousted president to overthrow the current government, and ultra-high technology, and you have a captivating winner of a story. Jeffrey Osburn, with his personal and professional experiences is just the author to write it.

Although the story and action takes place interactively from separate locales, it flows much more smoothly than one might expect. The activities of the military, US and Mexican government agencies working together, drug cartels who are also warring for control, and others are told in "real" time keeping the story compact and updated. The use of satellite technologies by the Americans is fascinating and amazing. The ingenuity of the drug cartels is astounding, and the plight of the Mexican population is heartbreaking. There is one very important person on loan to the American team who is stranded in Mexico and on the run which brings the reader into some very interesting history of the still largely untouched RarĂ¡muri tribe, existing for millennia as part of the Tarahumara, indigenous to Mexico. Here he is able to remain unnoticed for a few days. His run is not without a couple of miscalculations on his part, putting him and others into more jeopardy. His journey is also played out interactively with the rest of the plot and everyone appears to be looking for him.

This book demonstrates the brutality of the cartels, the fear of the people, the corruption of many governments in Mexico. It also demonstrates dependency on oil, the hopes of the Mexican government, and the hopes of the American government to be a part of the production in Mexico. But it also shows the kindness offered to Vega, the man on the run, by people he meets, even in this hostile environment where Americans are not welcome.

A very tightly woven and sophisticated novel, an excellent debut. My congratulations to Jeffrey Osburn.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Death of a Rug Lord by Tamar Myers

#14 of the Den of Antiquity series. I'm not quite sure how to describe this one. Once again, Tamar Myers has tickled my funny bone with her antebellum wit overflowing in this hilarious series. It was truly laugh out loud. The mystery almost played out in the background behind the characters, but on the other hand I found a lot more characterization in this book than earlier ones I've read; the characters grew some in this outing.

Someone is switching priceless oriental rugs with machine copies and no one has been aware until Abby's very own purchase became the latest ruse. Abby owns the Den of Antiquity and is an expert in antiques so this was quite a blow! Put that together with Abby's June Cleaver-mother who has changed nothing, including her crinoline style, from the day her husband died in the 1950s, the zany C.J. who is full of incredible stories about everything and nothing, and all the other quirky characters and some new ones too, and you have hilarity and mayhem... and a solved crime. This is #14 in the series and I feel it concentrated considerably more on the Keystone Kops type of solving with all characters on board than usual. Great entertainment for a quick cozy read.

Tamara also writes the "Pennsylvania Dutch" series featuring Magdalena Yoder who runs a very unique Amish Bed & Breakfast, another hilarious cozy mystery series, includes recipes.