A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Some books are like a cat that curls up purring on your lap, looking up at you with all the affection and mystery a cat can muster and you are, of course, immediately beguiled and entranced with this unexpected and precious gift.  Towles seems to know how to evoke that response better than anyone I know and does it with such skill that you don’t even realize it is happening until at the very end when you are left bereft just as if a cat, tired of your lap jumps down and walks away.

The gentleman of the title is Count Alexander Rostov. It is 1922 in Russia, a rather inconvenient time for anyone who is titled and aristocratic and the count, being no exception is found to be guilty and unrepentant of his status by a Bolshevik tribunal and confined, at the age of 30, to live in a small attic room in the Metropol Hotel for the remainder of his life.

Count Rostov must now figure out, with all the aplomb and resiliency that he can muster,  what it means to be a man of purpose in such circumstances. With humor and curiosity he begins to find a larger world of relationships, as he forges friendships with the headwaiter, Andrey, Chef Emile, Marina the seamstress, Anna the actress and even with Nina, the young girl staying with her governess at the hotel who asks endless questions. In all it is a good life, unexpected to be sure, but nonetheless one that is perfectly acceptable.  But even the Metropol, that bastion of civilization in the midst unprecedented change, cannot keep the consequences of the proletarian struggle from intruding and so it is that fate places the life of a young lady in the counts hands and now he must not only carve out a future for himself, but also for this young woman who deserves a brighter future.

Towles, whose breakout novel Rules of Civility established him as a writer with extraordinary skill, excels at creating these perfectly renderred scenes, full of humor, life, and emotion. But his real skill is creating characters who are complicated and brim with life. This is a book to savor and read slowly, letting the magic slowly soak in and touch your soul.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out Of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Lauren, Sharon, Ken and Keith

Books Study Worthy: Yes!

Read in hardback format.

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Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

It is always interesting to see what people from other countries think about Americans. When I read and come across descriptions of Americans, I confess to taking vicarious pleasure in seeing how Americans are often ridiculed and mocked for their sense of entitlement and their lack of curiosity about other cultures, languages and history-it’s as if Americans think they live in a separate world other than the one named Earth.  You will notice that I have taken myself out of the equation by saying “they” when in fact I am American, too. I hope that having lived abroad for 16 years in my formative years allows me some leeway and perspective, after all it took me years to get over my squeamishness and to finally self identify as an American. (Of course the Presidential Election a year ago didn’t help much, bringing back all of my ambivalence and resistance with a vengeance.)

Commisario Guido Brunetti, a detective in Venice’s police force doesn’t much like Americans. They are loud, obnoxious and have no manners, and they always cause trouble. So when a body of an American is found floating in the canal close to police headquarters he is not very happy. When it is determined that the man was stabbed, Brunetti’s boss is even more unhappy, since a murdered American could impact tourism and cause trouble with the mayor. “This must be Brunetti’s highest priority,” he insists. But when Brunetti begins to look into this strange death, he is stymied at every turn. The man turns out to have been a member of the US military working as a health inspector and overseeing the quality of the US military’s housing and food supply. He took his job seriously and was meticulous in his work. So it is with some surprise when Brunetti arrives on base to inspect the man’s apartment, that he finds a clumsily hidden stash of drugs that was obviously planted. Brunetti is intrigued. Who is trying to divert his investigation? What are they hiding and why? As he digs deeper Brunetti finds that there are forces beyond his power to investigate and he must find extrajudicial means to stop what might be a catastrophic disaster from killing even more innocent people.

Leon brings Venice to life! You can literally smell the coffee that Brunetti drinks incessantly. Grouchy and smart, Brunetti and his boss have a passive/aggressive relationship that is both humorous and oddly satisfying since Brunetti always seems to get the bettor of each encounter. Brunetti’s relationship with his wife and two children is portrayed with a graceful reality allowing us to see both the love and the tensions that exist in all families.  If you haven’t read one Leon’s Commisario Brunetti books yet, you are missing out!

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out Of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Just enjoy.

Read in ebook format.

 

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The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

I am often haunted by books that initially I would not have thought had that power.  These are books that usually are quietly subversive, working their way into your heart slowly without a lot of drama or fireworks. Anita Shreve has mastered the art of this kind of book, from The Pilot’s Wife or Fortune’s Rocks, she knows how to tell a story that slowly seeps in, awakening emotions and your heart in ways that are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

After a devastating drought during the summer of 1947, fires begin to break out in the fall up and down the coast of Maine.  Men from all over the state volunteer to fight the fires and so Grace, pregnant, and with two small children is now home alone while Gene, her husband, is fighting the fire. Grace, worried and overwhelmed with responsibility, feels lucky to have Rosie, her good friend, right next door to help shoulder the weight of taking care of their homes and families while their husbands are gone. But after the severe drought, the fire finds fuel everywhere and soon overwhelms all attempts to contain it, moving ever closer to their town. When Claire, Grace’s daughter wakes her up coughing from all the smoke in the air, Grace knows that time has run out and rousing Rosie and her children bundles them all into in the car and makes her way to the beach while watching in the back view mirror as their homes are completely consumed with fire. Once on the beach they cover themselves with sodden blankets as close to the water as they dare, and then covering their children with their own bodies wait out the fire as it consumes everything in its path.

When they are finally rescued, their homes are gone, their town is gone, and although Rosie’s husband returns, Gene does not and Grace is alone, homeless and penniless. As the days, weeks and months pass, Grace begins to find a strength she did not know she possessed, and she begins to make a life for herself and for her children, and to experience a sense of freedom and joy she had never known while married to Gene. Life is not easy, but it is good, until something unexpected happens which Grace must meet head on with with her new found courage and take control of her life in ways that she never thought possible.

Shreve is a writer who, although ostensibly writing about one unique woman’s experience, makes that character so relatable that her story becomes every woman’s story. Grace is a woman of 1947, but her story is timeless, and although our choices are different the concerns that Grace must face into are our own as well. This is a subtly powerful and life affirming story which is something we all need to hear no matter who we are or what out circumstances!

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out Of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian Lauren and Keith.

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format

 

 

 

 

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A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

Charles Cumming is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  His spy novels, in particular, are grounded fully in reality without the fancy equipment, car chases or thrilling daring do.  They are in the tradition of John Le Carré with meticulous attention to detail with a focus on the psychological aspects of being and recruiting spies while acknowledging the human cost of this kind of life. Cummings writes with a hard edged soulfulness that is both refreshing and insightful.

Thomas Kell was done with MI6. His last mission had ended badly and Rachel, the woman he loved, had been killed on his last mission. He still carried the burden of that loss and the guilt that he had been in some small part to blame for her death. Besides, being a spy had taken its toll on his life in other ways to numerous to count. It was time to let it go, and find a new life.

That is until Mowbray, one of his fellow intelligence officers, told him that he had seen Alexander Minasian, a Russian agent who Kell held responsible for Rachel’s death, in Egypt while on vacation with his wife. Everyone had assumed that Minasian was dead and Kell could hardly believe what he was hearing since the agency had declared Minasian dead in the aftermath of the terrible debacle which had taken Rachel’s life. But as Mowbray showed the pictures he had discreetly taken while on vacation, Kell began to believe it was true. Mowbray also described in detail how Minasian had been with an older gentleman and indicated they were clearly lovers which was also surprising, since Minasian was married to the daughter of one of Putin’s oligarchs.

Suddenly Kell was in the game again only this time he is set on revenge. But as he delves deeper into the complicated life of Minasian he begins to see someone who is not so unlike himself. When Minasian’s lover is suddenly killed, Kell begins to suspect that someone else is also after Minasian and in a strange twist of fate Kell and Minasian must begin to work together to thwart a much larger threat.

Cummings is a great writer who knows how to develop his characters realistically and subtly. This is the third in a series of books about Kell, who keeps asking the larger existential questions about his work and his own life. As he engages with Minasian and the larger threats which emerge we see how Kell, must think beyond the duality of friend vs enemy and develop another way to think about things even if it means risking his relationships with his own agency. Exciting, soulful, and well written- his books are a spy novel lovers dream books!

Brenda’s Rating: **** (4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian and Keith

Book Study Worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Fiction, Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Series, Spy/Covert Operatives, Suspense, Thriller | Leave a comment

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

Sometimes the reviews just don’t get it right. Ephron’s Siracusa was hyped and well reviewed and was on everyone’s “Best Book” list.

A New York Times Bestseller
One of People Magazine’s Top 10 Books of 2016
Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2016 (Fiction)
Washington Post Bestseller • A Los Angeles Times Bestseller • A USA TodayBestseller • One of Vulture’s 100 Greatest Beach Books Ever • A People MagazineSummer Reading Pick • One of Elle, InStyle, and Marie Claire’s Best of July

With these kinds of endorsements I should have loved this book, but I really didn’t.  All the way through I hoped I would, but after every chapter I was disappointed.

Told from alternating view points this is a story of two couples and a child who go on vacation together to Siracusa, Italy. Michael is a a famous writer, who has stagnated and can’t seem to get past some major writer’s block. Lizzie, his long suffering wife is a journalist who knows she may not have a job soon and is worried about her own career stagnating. Finn is a resturantuer, who although knowledgeable about food and wine, revels in his “bad boy” image and is seemingly oblivious to civilized rules of behavior. Taylor, his wife has given up having a career to stay home with their daughter, Snow, who is painfully shy. But during their vacation together many secrets and lies are exposed that strain the marriages of each couple and their friendship as well.

Much was promised in this book, but nothing was delivered. It was not sexy, it was not very suspenseful, and none of the characters were interesting or in any way sympathetic.  As the consequences of their bad decisions, secrets and lies began to pile up, the only reaction I had was that this was their comeuppance for their own stupidity. Not quite the response Ephron was looking for I am sure. The adult characters were stuck in their own stereotyped silos. Michael is the egocentric, philandering male. Lizzie is the neurotic ditz who enables her husband’s egocentric ways to her own detriment. Finn is the amoral, fun loving, Peter Pan who continually resists growing up and Taylor is the control freak mother who lives only for and through her child.  Additionally, by the end of the book I was convinced that daughter, Snow, had all the hallmarks of being a predatory sociopath at the tender age of 10! There was nothing redeeming about these characters, nor was there any growth, change or development-they remained in their silos through out the book. In the end this was an exploration of unconscious, and immature people doing stupid and impulsive things that had horrible consequences for which they were unable to take responsibility. There is enough of this kind of behavior going on in the real world without having to read about it in a novel!

Brenda’s Rating:  (0 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to? No One.

Book Study Worthy? No

Read in ebook format.


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The Song of Albion Series by Stephen R. Lawhead

A parallel universe to our own, a mistaken intrusion from our world to theirs and the unintended consequences that ensue. That in a nutshell is the premise of Lawhead’s Song of Albion series, but that hardly tells you how full and dynamic that new world is, or the way the characters pull us into their lives and befriend you. Although these books were published in the early 1990’s, they have retained a timeless quality and still resonate today.

Lewis Gillies, an American graduate student in Celtic studies at Oxford University, needed to be preparing for his meeting with his adviser, but instead found himself roaring up the M6 in his roommate’s Jaguar to confirm the sighting of a massive auroch in Scotland. Simon, his roommate, always seemed to pull him into these larks, but it was Friday, and driving towards an adventure was much preferable to having to acknowledge how little progress he was making on his research.

After reaching the village where the auroch had been sighted and getting directions to the farm where it had appeared, Simon and Lewis are surprised to discover that rather than this being just the normal sleaze reported in sensational rags along with alien sightings, this seems to actually be true. Soon Simon and Lewis are focused on the small ring of stones and cairn that exists on the farm as the locus of where the animal seemed to appear. While at the stones, Lewis gets distracted talking with some other researchers who are also investigating the stones, and realizes that Simon has disappeared.  Hoping that Simon will turn up full of his adventures, Lewis remains in Scotland for a few days but when he does not show up Lewis returns to Oxford. In the middle of Lewis’ turmoil over what has happened, a small scholarly man named Nettles who is deeply steeped in Celtic lore appears and encourages Lewis to return to site of Simon’s disappearance to see if he can find out more specifically what happened. This time with Nettles’s assistance, Lewis enters the cave like structure at the center of the ring and is pulled into another universe: Albion.

Although there are many books that talk about parallel universes to our own, most notably The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or more recently Outlander or Dark Matter, Lawhead’s series explores the idea that one universe has a direct impact on the health and welfare of the other. In this case that the welfare of Albion and its people has a direct impact on the health and welfare of England itself. Thus Albion is not only a separate universe, but it is also the lodestone or the “soul,” if you will, of England. It is a  fascinating idea and it makes the story of Lewis that much more urgent and pivotal. Lawhead is a consummate writer, giving us a richly imagined world and characters like Lew, Simon and others who are interesting and multi-dimensional. Addictive and entertaining, these books also have a deeper message about what guides us, and how our choices have significance beyond what w might understand. A message that we need now more than ever!

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend these books to? Lauren and Marian.

Book Study Worthy? yes

Read in ebook format.

 

 

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Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

According to Amazon I bought this book in July of 2014 but I didn’t read it until last week.  My only excuse is that sometimes my relationship and expectations of an author are complicated. I love Karin Slaughter! Her Will Trent series and Grant County series are amazing and I wait with bated breath until a new one comes out. But this book was a stand alone back story set in 1974, of two supporting characters in her other books and somehow everything else that I had on my Kindle was way more interesting. Well, lesson learned.  That is not going to happen again!  This book was phenomenal; a tour de force of nail biting suspense, an impassioned and deeply insightful look at discrimination against women, blacks and gays, along with Slaughter’s attention to historical details make this one of my all time favorites.

Atlanta’s police department in 1974 was highly segregated-mostly white and male. The few women who joined were usually assigned to the typing pool, but a handful wanted to become beat cops, like Maggie Lawson who came from a cop family and Kate Murphy, who joined because her husband had died in combat in Vietnam and she wanted to find a way to support herself.

The story begins with the terrible news that Jimmy, Maggie’s brother has been shot and his partner killed by the the cop killer who had been targeting the department for the last few months. Nicknamed “The Shooter,”a manhunt had been in effect creating even more tension in a department that was already experiencing enormous pressure as the new black police commissioner began implementing new policies and procedures.

Unfortunately for Kate Murphy the day Jimmy gets shot is also her first day on the job. Her reception is anything but easy. Wearing a uniform three sizes too big and shoes that don’t fit, her efforts to blend in only make her stand out more. The other women are less than kind to this newcomer, but Kate perseveres and eventually is teamed with Maggie as they try to track down the killer who almost killed Maggie’s brother.

Slaughter’s gift for developing her characters is on full view in this book. Maggie and Kate leap off the pages and simply glow with life. Their encounters with misogyny and discrimination are brutal and are a reminder of the heavy cost paid by the women who went before us and how far we have yet to go. There are several scenes that powerfully foretell the women they later become in Slaughter’s other books. The suspense and pacing keep you at the edge of your seat until the very end. So don’t be like me, get this book and read it immediately!

Brenda’s Rating: ***** ( 5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to? Keith, Sharon, Marian and Lauren

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

Read in ebook format.

 

 

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