Saturday, October 31, 2015

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino is an author new to me.  This is the first of his books I have read and it is lyrical, almost merging prose with  poetry, offering descriptions rich in visual imagination.  The translator, William Weaver, deserves commendation for rendering the Italian into richly satisfying English.

The genre Calvino is associated with is new to me also, and it is Magical Realism. Invisible Cities is an imagined conversation between the aging emperor Kublai Khan and the young explorer Marco Polo. Khan and his Tartars have conquered lands so vast that he cannot hope to visit every city, and he is fascinated as the young Venetian describes city after city within the realm.  But the descriptions are so imaginative and sometimes so fantastic that it is hard to accept as real.  At the same time, Khan is always eager for Polo's return so that the philosophical conversations might continue.

Polo's descriptions indicate that the cities have many facets, and in fact may be different cities, depending on whether one is viewing from afar or from within.  The same city may be new and vibrant or dirty and decaying. Khan begins to feel that he may learn more from the atlas and maps in his palace than from the vivid descriptions of the explorer. Polo responds to one of Khan's probes with the intriguing thought that " is not the voice that commands the story.  It is the ear."

And that quote goes along way in describing the experience of the reader of this fascinating book.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

This tragic tale unwraps the mystery of the shocking and unexpected loss of the Lee family's eldest daughter. Lydia is fifteen and the apple of her parents eye, and when she disappears they are shaken and distraught. Lydia's siblings, her older brother Nath and her younger sister Hannah are shaken too, and they know more than they are willing to share with their parents.

In fact, communication, or lack of it, is the key to this unraveling family, and author Celeste Ng does a masterful job of telling their story, using the perspectives of every member of the family, and thus revealing the true thoughts and feelings that they never reveal to one another. James and Marilyn Lee, the parents, meet in college and fall deeply in love, but their differences may be stronger than the love that pulls them together.  James is ethnically Chinese though born in California. His parents were blue collar workers who worked at a private prep school.  This allowed James to receive an excellent education by virtue of a scholarship, but he was never accepted or befriended by his classmates.

Marilyn was raised primarily by her mother, a Home Ec teacher whose highest dream for herself and her daughter was to be a homemaker.  Unfortunately, her husband abandoned the family early and her daughter dreamed of becoming a doctor.

When Marilyn realizes she is pregnant, she and James marry and  settle in a small college town. She never visits her mother again after her wedding day. It is the 1950's; there are no other families exactly like them, and their children are made to feel odd and different too.

Ms. Ng does a masterful job of revealing the inner thoughts, misunderstandings and dreams of each member of the family, both before and after the disappearance of Lydia.  As sad as their story is, the ending hints at hope and healing for those who remain.

Everything I Never Told You is well written and lays open the loneliness of those who are the only ones who don't look like the others in a community group.  Lots to reflect on concerning the need on the part of the majority to be open and accepting of the stranger in the group. Kindness and the art of listening may go along way in nurturing a healthy sense of self in a lonely child.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I recently enjoyed the classic adventure, Treasure Island,  on my IPad, but this cover captures the thrill and the danger that fiesty young adventurer, Jim Hawkins faced on his perilous journey to Treasure Island.

With an old treasure map, complete with encrypted clues, Jim Hawkins enlists two trusted adults, Dr. Livesey and the squire, Mr. Trelawney to hire a sailing vessel and attempt to retrieve the treasure.

The map was found in the possession of a recently murdered seaman, himself killed by pirates in the inn owned by Jim Hawkins' parents. The plan would have gone more smoothly perhaps, if the squire had not been such a blabbermouth.  But as it was, the ship's hired crew was shot full of pirates masquerading as good sailors with every intention of stealing the treasure themselves, leaving no witnesses, of course, once they were in possession of the treasure.

When Jim comes to realize the double dealing that is going on among the pirates on board in an attempt to win over the other seamen, he sees the dire straits he and the "good guys" are in.  Lots of treachery, power shifts, and mayhem ensue before the treasure is even located.

But Jim's daring, bravery, and quick thinking just may save the day as he works to outwit the wily and cunning Long John Silver.

They call it a classic for a's quite the entertaining adventure, not to mention the useful exercise in interpreting all that pirate lingo!

A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin, a successful fantasy and science fiction author, has been compared to iconic writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis for years.  Though I have certainly seen her name many times, this is the first Le Guin book I have read, thanks to my co-Reed W. grandmother/friend, Sara Quigley. She suggested it as a good starting place as we explored the aisles of Powell's Used Book store in Portland, Oregon this past summer.

A Wizard of Earthsea was originally published in 1968 and is the first of the Earthsea trilogy.  The novel introduces a young sorcerer in the making...we are given to understand that he is now legendary, but was once a lonely but gifted young man, longing for power and jealous of others whose superior people skills made Sparrowhawk, as he was called, feel inadequate.  His raw talent at magic has made him valued in the remote village where he was born.  He comes to the attention of a master sorcerer who offers him an apprenticeship.  Though he appreciates the Master Ogion, Sparrowhawk is eager to learn skills, impatient with the master's plan to imbue the boy with wisdom and power much more slowly, philosophically, so he asks the Master to provide him an introduction to an academy in a far away Wizard Training Academy....yes, he goes to Wizard School!

He continues to be an excellent student, but his desire to be seen as the best leads him into a disastrous contest that not only severely injures him, but introduces evil into the world that he may never fully comprehend, much less master.  But conquering that evil becomes the quest he must obtain, or die trying. There is magic, there is friendship, there is treachery, and yes, there are dragons.

A most enjoyable fantasy/coming of age adventure that I highly recommend.  Please don't wait as long as I did to start this journey...

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Beautiful Blue Death, by Charles Finch

This English murder mystery is set in the Victorian era and features the wealthy and refined Charles Lenox.  As a second son of a wealthy landowner, he is skipped over both for running the family estate and serving in the House of Lords, which responsibilities fell on his older brother Edmund's shoulders.  So Mr. Lenox, a man of leisure, fancies both world travel and reading widely, not to mention problem solving when random thorny issues arise.

His dear friend and next door neighbor Lady Jane needs him to look into the mysterious death of a house maid recently in her service.  Prudence Smith has recently left Lady Jane's employment to go to work in the home of Mr. George Barnard, another wealthy gentleman who also has in his employ Prue's fiance'.

At Lady Jane's urging, Lenox takes his carriage over to the Barnard home so that he might have a look at the circumstances and perhaps interview the residents there to ascertain just what has happened. Mr. Barnard asserts with certainty that the death is a suicide, but Lenox almost immediately suspects otherwise. Barnard has already called in Scotland Yard, but not a doctor to examine the body.  No problem however, as Lenox had foreseen a need and invited his friend Dr. Thomas McConnell to come with him.  The young woman had died in her room and it seemed obvious that she had died from poisoning.  There is an empty medicine bottle on her dresser and what seems to be a suicide note.

But Lenox soon deduces that the bottle is a red herring; it's contents had never contained the substance that poisoned Prue.  Dr. McConnell deduces from an examination of the dead body that the cause of death is the relatively rare poison bella indigo, aka, the blue death.  He does a quick test on the empty bottle, which he said likely contains the substance the killer intended them to suspect. Sure enough,  the bottle had contained arsenic.

And in an interview held subsequently at Lady Jane's house, one of Prue's friends of the housekeeping staff reveals another clue:  Prue was illiterate and could not write.

There are so many people either residing or visiting in the Barnard home that it is hard to narrow down the field of suspects. Author Charles Finch keeps us guessing as Mr. Lenox ferrets out more and more clues, some which lead to one or another suspect.  The field of potential killers begins to narrow only when the most likely of them turns up murdered, thus belatedly cleared of Prue's death.

This charming mystery featuring a detective with insight reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, yet with a charm and gentility that endears him to the reader, is a quick read, and fortunately is the first of six Charles Lenox mysteries, which should keep us busy reading by the fireside for quite awhile!

I received an ebook courtesy of NetGalley; enjoyed the read, and look forward to reading further in the charming series.

White Leopard, by Laurent Guillaume, translated from French by Sophie Wiener

White Leopard is the nickname attached to private investigator Solo Camera who has fled France after a "misunderstanding," and is now residing in Mali, the homeland of his father.  In France he is seen as black, in spite of his white mother. Corruption is the norm in Mali government and police hierarchy, so Justice is relatively illusive, unless someone like Solo is on the job.

Like many literary detectives that have preceded him, Solo is a flawed and wounded soul. He is alone and still grieving the violent loss of his wife and son, but still notices the ladies, who notice him right back.  His intuitive skills are well honed, not to mention his skills with firearms and hand to hand fighting with the bad guys when called for.

The case that is introduced early in the book is brought by an attractive woman, perhaps Moroccan he thinks, who turns out to be a lawyer from France. She needs his help to get her sister out of jail. The sister was arrested with a suitcase full of cocaine right before boarding a plane to Paris and the help she needs is delivery of a bribe to the police.

Solo takes the case, against his better judgement, and of course it becomes more complex, confusing and dangerous immediately. Guillaume's descriptions are detailed, provoking vivid images of beauty and squalor, memories associated with odors, both good and offensive, and a real sense of the oppressive heat that permeates Mali. Working relationships, both at his home and professionally, are nuanced and provide insight into Solo's more noble nature, a side he keeps sublimated, sometimes even from himself.

Wiener's translation from the French reads very naturally in English. There is no doubt as to the hard boiled, edgy style of Solo's investigative work as he sometimes skirts the law to achieve resolution in a case that is far more dangerous and far reaching than he at first realizes.

I read an ebook copy courtesy of Net Galley and the LeFrench company.This book is published by the Le French company, whose mission is to get a wider audience for popular French mysteries by translating into English.  Publication date for the English translation, is coming in November 2015, so be watching for it on Amazon and in book stores in the international crime sections.

If you long for Philip Marlowe's return this one might be just for you!

Newt's Emerald, by Garth Nix

Garth Nix's new novel, Newt's Emerald is a romantic adventure set in the Regency era, so is it historical fiction? Or wait, there is a definite helping of magic thrown in, so is it fantasy? It is definitely a fun read and a great fusion of genres that ought to entertain the Regency Romance fan as well as the Fantasy fanciers!

The title character, Newt, is actually Lady Truthful Newington, seventeen-going-on-eighteen, and set to inherit her family's treasured heirloom, a rare and costly emerald, which she doesn't yet realize is also embued with serious magical power.  But just before her big birthday, the emerald is suddenly stolen, her father is suddenly dangerously ill, distraught over the loss; her cousins are accused of the theft, and Truthful decides she must travel to London to try to recover the missing stone.

Her reputation in society will be dragged through the mud if she begins her search of London pawn shops without an escort, so her great aunt suggests the obvious solution:  assume the persona of a distant male cousin from France and begin the detective work as a young man.  Great aunt Ermintrude has some magical skills herself, so she plants a glamour, or heavy illusory spell on the moustache Truthful will wear as her alter ego, Henri de Vienne.

There follows shortly great adventure, mistaken and hidden identities, some pretty serious sorcery, kidnapping of our heroine and the no nonsense soldier who has decided to help the naive young chevalier, Henri de Vienne, in the quest to find "his cousin's" stolen jewel. The author has succeeded in providing a thoroughly entertaining page turner of an adventure, spiced with humor and romance, not to mention just a little magic, along the way.

But will this add up to the emerald being returned to it's rightful owner?  There may need to be a follow up book to resolve that complicated issue, but readers who pick up New's Emerald will not be disappointed!