Friday, May 30, 2014

Destroyer Angel by Nevada Barr

Reviewed by Kristin

Nevada Barr jumps right into the action in her newest book,  Destroyer Angel.  Anna Pigeon is on a camping and canoeing trip in the Iron Range area of northern Minnesota with two women and their teenage daughters.  One of the women, Heath, is a paraplegic and the other, Leah, is a designer of adaptive outdoor equipment. The trip will serve as a test for some of Leah’s designs. Returning from a solo canoe trip on the Fox River one evening, Anna hears a group of men taking the other women and girls captive.  Anna stays hidden and follows the group, hoping to help the campers escape.

With such an abrupt jump into the action, I didn’t feel that I knew the camping party characters at all.  Eventually they are revealed during their adventure, but it took me a little time to understand who was who, and why they were acting in whatever manner was characteristic of each of them.  Anna is such a familiar character because Barr has written seventeen previous adventures.  (Read a review of The Rope, a prequel to the series, here.)

Heath is Elizabeth’s adoptive mother, and a paraplegic.  She was very active before her accident, and continues to be physically active and good natured about her limitations.  She and the fifteen year old Elizabeth have a very good relationship.  The other woman is Leah, a brilliant and wealthy designer of outdoor equipment.  While she easily becomes lost in her work, she is often distant from Katie, her thirteen year old daughter.

When a group of four men come into the camp and force the mothers and daughters to come with them, the scared captives must work together to keep everyone safe and alive.  Leah converts the prototype, lightweight wheelchair into a unicycle chair so that they can maneuver Heath over the rough territory.  The men, or “thugs” as they are referred to in Anna’s mind, are not cut out for back country hiking.  While the “dude” seems to be the leader, (and yes, he is actually called “dude” by his compatriots) there is definitely someone else calling the shots.  The women do all they can to take whatever advantages their outdoor knowledge affords them.  The men are not at all prepared for the rigors of walking several miles in the woods.  However, they are the ones with the knives and guns.  As Anna follows the men and their captives, she does all she can to save her companions.

The tension filled action continues; it kept me on edge and urgently reading to find out what the group’s fate would be.  Eventually most of the characters emerge from the woods bloody and battered, but alive.  (I said most, but won’t tell you which ones.)  While most Anna Pigeon books do show humans who are challenged by nature and other humans, this is definitely one of the darker volumes as Anna must look into her own soul while she attempts to stop the thugs by any means possible.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Nevermore: Sliver of Light, Wrong Enemy, Maine, Star Called Henry, and Close My Eyes

Summary by Jeanne
One of our Nevermore regulars was unable to attend a meeting, but she insisted on phoning in a review.  She was most enthusiastic about A Sliver of Light:  Three Americans Imprisoned in Iran by Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd.  This is the story of the three young hikers who were captured and held for two years, at least in the case of the two men.  Our reviewer said it was a beautifully written book and the story was absorbing.  According to the book, they were actually lured across the border to be used as political pawns.  Much of the rest of the story concerns how they were able to survive imprisonment, the relationships they forged with each other and with their captors, and how they were finally released. The story is told by all three in alternating chapters.  A Sliver of Light is highly recommended.

Another book receiving much praise is set in the same region.  The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 by Carlotta Gall is an overview of the U.S. involvement in the area.  Gall, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, brings over a decade’s worth of observation to this insightful, well written, and—in the words of our reviewer—scary book.  Gall views Karzai as both inept and corrupt, but makes a case that our real problem is actually Pakistan where the ISI has supported the Taliban for its own purposes.  Again, the book is highly recommended.

Moving from non-fiction to fiction and from Iran to Ireland, our next reader touted Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry.  This is the first book of “The Last Roundup” trilogy which tells the story of Ireland in the 20th century as viewed by Henry Smart.  In this book, we meet Henry as an impoverished child, son of a hit man with a wooden leg and a teenage girl.  By 14, Henry is involved with the Irish Republican Army and is a witness to the 1916 Easter Rising. Later books follow Henry as he goes to New York, encounters film director John Ford, and back to Ireland.  The other books are Oh, Play That Thing and The Dead Republic.

Maine is the second novel for J. Courtney Sullivan, following Commencement.  Once again, Sullivan explores the intricacies of relationships, but this time between three generations of women in the Kelleher family.  Each year, they all meet at the family beach house in Maine.  The point of view rotates between the characters, giving the reader multiple viewpoints to consider.  Our reader praised the book for its great dialog and well-written characters.  She commented that while the reader does see the mistakes of one generation repeated in the next, that it all “felt real.”

In Close My Eyes, Gen Loxley is still grieving for her stillborn daughter eight years later.  Then one day a woman shows up at her door with a fantastic story about the baby being stolen and that Gen’s husband Art was in on the scheme.  Desperate for answers, Gen doesn’t know who to turn to for help or who to trust as she tries to discover the truth about her child.  Our reader found this thriller by Sophie McKenzie to be a very satisfying book, and thinks any suspense fan would enjoy the book.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War by Paul Jankowski

Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War, by Paul Jankowski.  Oxford University Press, 2014.  324 pages.  

Reviewed by William Wade

Modern wars have often been highlighted in history by some Titanic battle between the two opposing forces, an clash that often led to a decisive conclusion.  For the Napoleonic Wars it was the Battle of Waterloo, in the struggle between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany it was Stalingrad, and in our own American Civil War, Gettysburg.  For World War I, or the Great War as it was known in Europe, that battle was Verdun.

A strong fortress on the Western front in Europe, it was attacked by a well organized German assault in February 1916.  Determined that this mighty symbol of French resistance must not fall, the French responded with equal ardor and vigor.  The Germans redoubled their efforts, as did the French, and within a short time Verdun had taken on a symbolic presence in both the Allied and German news media. And so attack followed upon attack again and again – and again.  It was not until December that the Germans gave up the effort.  Ten long months – it was the longest battle of World War I.

Thus it is no surprise that Paul Jankowski, an acclaimed member of the faculty at Brandeis University, has taken on the history of this battle during our centennial observances of the Great War.  He writes in detail and with high skill; it is an excellent account.  But it turns out that there is more to this story than just recounting the battles.  One must seek to understand why General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of staff of the German army, ordered the attack in the first place.  It was by no means the best location from which to assault the French army. And so it has been argued over the years that von Falkenhayn had no intention of seizing Verdun; his real objective was a blood-letting of the French army, an Ausblutung he called it. But because of the symbolic nature of the battle the Germans gave about as much blood.  And the question has remained over the years; was this the real motivation of the German general staff?  The general was not known for the clarity with which he expressed himself. Supposedly von Falkenhayn sent a confidential message to Emperor William II laying out the complete objective of the battle, that document lying for years in the archives of the German army.  Unfortunately, Allied bombing of Berlin in 1945 destroyed those records, and we may never know.

Jankowski tells all of this very thoroughly and then points out that Verdun took on an even greater symbolic meaning when the French built a huge ossuary and deposited in it the bones of 135,000 German and French soldiers who died on that bloody battlefield.  The ossuary as well as the battlefield quickly became a “must see” pilgrimage for French and German families and many more, all of this high-lighting Verdun’s symbolic meaning in World War II.  It survived World War II, and while you may not be able to go there in person, you can visit it – again symbolically – by reading Jankowski’s book.  Some of you are surely already planning your travel agenda for 2016!  Since the battle lasted for the whole year, you’ve got your choice of dates.

Friday, May 23, 2014

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Reviewed by Kristin

Going back to the classics—well, the  Janet Evanovich classics anyway—is quite entertaining.  I rarely buy books to keep (libraries, libraries, libraries!) but for several years I was buying Evanovich’s books, so that I could go back and laugh at the hijinks whenever the urge struck me.  For the past several Stephanie Plum books, I have been wondering what in the world happened to the best-selling author that I had enjoyed for years.  To explore this point, I decided to re-read One for the Money to see if my mind was clouded with nostalgia, or if the books truly were better at the beginning of the Plum series.  What I have found is that many of the writing passages are more descriptive and more enjoyable to read than the staccato jokes and repeated crazy situations of the latest books.  For example, a spoiler-free passage from One for the Money:

“I awoke to the steady drumming of rain on my fire escape.  Wonderful.  Just what I needed to complicate my life further.  I crawled out of bed and pulled the curtain aside, not pleased at the sight of an all-day soaker.  The parking lot had slicked up, reflecting light from mysterious sources.  The rest of the world was gunmetal gray, the cloud cover low and unending, the buildings robbed of color behind the rain.”

Great literature?  No.  But I find it much more enjoyable when the author shows me what is happening, instead of telling me in words of one syllable.  Evanovich doesn’t go on for pages with these descriptions, but they make a nice backdrop to laugh-out-loud moments such as when Grandma Mazur is playing with her new .38 Special at the dinner table.  Let’s just say that particular roast chicken carcass will never be the same.  Mrs. Plum may as well go ahead and start her secret drinking in the kitchen now.

In addition to Grandma Mazur providing great comic relief in this outing, the series’ stage is set with Stephanie beginning her career as a bounty hunter.  Here we first learn about Joe Morelli and how he took Stephanie into her garage and played “choo choo” while still in elementary school.  After Stephanie blackmails her cousin Vinnie into giving her a try as a bounty hunter, her first bond is for local cop Morelli. When Stephanie explains that she knows Morelli and sold him a cannoli in high school, office manager Connie replies, “Honey, half of all the women in New Jersey have sold him their cannoli.”

Morelli may or may not be the bad guy in this book, and I won’t say too much so that it’s not spoiled for readers new to the series.  There is another character who is definitely a bad guy, and is the type who will make your skin crawl.  The early books in this series have characters with much more depth than some of the throwaway characters in later books.

Ranger is also introduced in One for the Money:  an ultra-capable guy working in security and wearing all black.  With mysterious sources of income and a never ending stream of black high-end vehicles, Ranger is the one Stephanie goes to when she needs a little help in apprehending a fugitive.  He makes Stephanie shivery in a very positive way, but she is never sure whether or not she wants to be involved with him.  Actually, twenty books later Stephanie’s still not sure whether Morelli or Ranger is the man for her.

My conclusion regarding this re-reading of One for the Money is this:  Yes, it was better written than some of the later books in the series.  I’m not quite sure when the series jumped the shark, but it has.  But for some “before the shark” action, check out One for the Money.  It may hook you and take you on a wild ride.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, by Mark Harris.  New York: The Penguin Press, 2014.  511 pages.   

Reviewed by William Wade
The title, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, by the accomplished movie historian Mark Harris, is not very descriptive of what is between the covers of this book.  It is specifically a collective biography of five well-known and accomplished movie directors, who left their studios to join the military service and help film World War II.  The five are Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Weyler.

These five, all well aware of the impact movies could make on the general public, felt a strong desire to do their part by using their talents to tell the story of the American role in World War II.  They came from a variety of backgrounds.  Ford had been speaking against Nazism for years before Pearl Harbor.  Frank Capra, probably the best known, was a Sicilian immigrant who had mixed feelings, but was persuaded by a meeting with President Roosevelt to become an interventionist; William Weyler had grown up in Mulhouse, a town on the Franco-German frontier.  And although the military services welcomed their talents, the army and navy brass hardly knew how to fit them in with their regular corps of photographers.  Roosevelt wanted them to make war movies that would boost public morale.

Ford was one of the first to see action after Pearl Harbor.  Receiving an order to prepare to leave Hawaii he found himself on the carrier Hornet heading toward Japanese waters for the launching of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo.  General George C. Marshall told Capra he wanted a series of films that would tell the soldier and the sailor why they were fighting, and from that was developed the Why We Fight series, films that were also shown to the public.

One would expect that the Normandy invasion in June 1944 would have been a photographer’s dream, and both Ford and Stevens were present on the occasion with their staffs and a world of film.  But as it turned out the D-Day landings were so frenetic and action was scattered over such a wide scale, the films failed to provide an overall picture.  Much film was ruined by contact with the sea, and clips showing dead servicemen on the beaches were ruled unacceptable for American audiences.  Stevens’ best work came as he accompanied Patton’s army across France and into Paris.  He remained with the army as it neared the German border and got some harrowing pictures as the Americans were thrown back in the initial stages of the Battle of the Bulge.

This is a big book, and there is far more between its covers than can be told here.  It’s an aspect of World War II that most of us are unfamiliar with, and the story of the inter-relationships between the military staff and these five directors is a lively chronicle.  The title of the book apparently comes from the fact that all five returned unharmed, but they were also changed individuals.  It’s one thing to direct a movie with a fight between the Indians and the U.S. cavalry, but it’s another thing to be an active witness in a real war.  And these five knew the difference, and it affected their personalities and their later work.