Monday 27 April 2015

My Favourite Reads - April 2015

When I started this blog I wasn't sure if I would post my book reviews.  Should anyone actually be interested in what I thought of any particular book there's a list in the sidebar or you can go to my Goodreads Bookshelf.  Then I thought about the generous authors and publishers who send books to me at no charge in exchange for a review.  Well, whether my review is good or bad, they at least deserve the exposure so other readers can make up their own minds.  Just because I didn't love doesn't mean it may not be some one else's favorite and vice-versa.

I guess what I am trying to say is I will be posting reviews ... some or all ... THAT I have not decided yet.

This month I was very fortunate to have received several books from both Netgalley and Goodreads First Reads so I've been reading rather voraciously.  I can find something redeeming in almost any book, something that captures my interest and keeps me reading.  Once in a while I will persevere through a book I may not be enjoying as much as I think I should and, very rarely and reluctantly, I just give up and close the cover before the end.  Not finishing a book always leads to guilt and remorse.  It's okay though, that usually goes away by the time I am halfway through the first page in the next book in my TBR pile.

But enough of my rambling ... in no particular order and not necessarily published this month ... these are the books that shone for me in April 2015.

ORHAN’S INHERITANCE by Aline Ohanesian.

* I received this as a free eBook from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. *

Orhan’s grandfather Kemal built the family business, making kilim rugs, out of the dust remaining after WWI.   By 1990 he has become quite eccentric often immersing himself in a brass cauldron of dye.  No one knows why, but one day he is discovered dead in one the cauldrons, his body from the neck down stained deep blue.  Orhan idolized his grandfather because of his business acumen, respected him for his dedication to family but more importantly loved him deeply; unfortunately he never felt the same way about his father.  After the funeral, when Kemal’s will is read Orhan is relieved that the business his grandfather worked so hard to build was willed to himself rather than, as tradition and Turkish law dictates, to his father.  He had worked side by side with his grandfather while his father lived off the fruits of their labour.  He knew his father would run the business into bankruptcy.  His relief was short-lived when the family estate is bequeathed to someone of whom he’s never heard.  What was his grandfather thinking?  And more importantly who was this mystery woman?

Armed with legal papers, an offer of a settlement and firm determination Orhan travels to America to meet this woman, with the sole intention of retaining his family’s home.  Before he arrives in Los Angeles Orhan comes to the decision that, yes, he wants her to sign the papers, but he also need to know why Kemal willed the estate to her in the first place.  What connection could this 90-year-old woman living in a nursing home possibly have to his grandfather?  When Orhan meets Seda he is very persistent and she reluctantly begins to tell him the story of her life that by default is also his grandfather’s life.  A story that takes Orhan back to when she and Kemal were children, the years of WWI and the horrors they endured during what has come to be known as the “Armenian Genocide”.  A story that cracks the very foundation of everything Orhan ever believed about his family.

This book is a touching, somewhat tragic, love story.  This book is a story of survival and the strength of the human spirit.  This book is a study of what happens when racial, religious and ethnic prejudices erupt and how it impacts on the “everyman” trying to simply live his life.  This is the kind of book that stays with you after you close the back cover and I can’t help but make comparisons to “Kite Runner” and “The Almond Tree”, also outstanding debut efforts for their respective authors as this is for Ms. Ohanesian.  This one will certainly not disappoint fans of those books.

I must admit that I was not aware of the “Armenian Genocide” issues that are so prevalent in the news these days.  There is no such thing as coincidence so I assume the publication date of this book was well planned.  “Orhan’s Inheritance” is beautifully written and tells an incredible story and if, like me, you don’t know much about that particular piece of world history it may give some perspective on current events.

THE FARM by Tom Rob Smith.

Daniel’s parents Tilde and Chris liquidate their successful nursery business in England and retire to a farm in Sweden.  Every family keeps secrets and Daniel’s family is no exception.  He thinks his parents moved to the remote part of Sweden because it is where his mother was raised and they wanted a quiet retirement.  They do not know their son is gay.  They each assume the other is leading their own idyllic life until on day Daniel receives a telephone call from his father – “Your mother is not well … she’s been imagining terrible things … she’s a danger to others and herself … she’s been hospitalized.”  Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden his mother calls – “Everything that man has told is a lie … I don’t need a doctor, I need the police.  Meet me at Heathrow”.

When Tilde gets off the plane Daniel sees that she is but a shadow of her former robust and confident self and instead of luggage she is carrying nothing but a weathered leather satchel.  She is convinced her husband Chris is following on her heels on the next plane so at her insistence they go into hiding so she can share her story.  How can Daniel not listen to her, especially when she tells him “If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son”?

Her story unfolds as she pulls item after item out of the satchel to prove the veracity of what she says.  The secrets start to unravel, but can she convince Daniel she is not insane, as everyone claims?  Before Daniel can make that decision he needs to investigate her claims himself and that’s when he discovers that the secrets we bury deep within ourselves are often the worst secrets of all.

Reading this book is like falling down Alice’s infamous rabbit hole.  Everything sounds logical, but can you really believe what you are hearing?  Is this all imaginary?  Is it the ramblings of an old lady who has had a break with reality?  Could it by chance be true and danger is around the corner.  The writing had me guessing and wavering back and forth through the whole book.  Mr. Smith didn’t let any secrets slip and didn’t alleviate my uncertainty until he was good and ready to have me know.  At that point everything fell into place seamlessly.  I could finally release my breath.  Loved it!

I listened to this as an audio book and I have to give credit for my enjoyment of the story to the readers.  James Langton voiced Daniel and did a wonderful reading but Suzanne Toren’s voicing of Tilde was outstanding.  Excellent production!

HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum.  

Anna Benz, ex-pat American, married to a Swiss banker and living in Switzerland for 9 years has managed to have three children and run her household but not bothered to learn German or even “Switzer-Deutsch”. She gets through her days by keeping to herself. She is depressed, bored and lonely. Much to the relief of her husband and mother-in-law she agrees to two things: one – she will start therapy, two – she will take German lessons. As Anna attends German class her German vocabulary increases and during her visits with Doktor Messerli she (and the reader) learn more about Anna, the woman. 

One thing the reader is privy to but Anna refuses to share with her therapist (or anyone else) is the fact that while she has no close friends, Anna has affairs. Lots of them.

Hausfrau is Anna’s story and she has no problem justifying the affairs to herself and tries her best to convince the reader as well. Ms. Essbaum’s word play in this book was impressive. I enjoyed how she would take a small snippet of a German lesson or a doctor’s appointment and weave it into the telling of the next part of Anna’s story. Kudos to Ms. Essbaum for her creativity as it never ceased to impress me as I was reading. Anna’s psychoanalyst sessions force Anna, and by turn, the reader into thinking about the themes running through the book … marriage, fidelity, secrets, family, self respect and love. There were so many parts of this book that had me nodding my head thinking, “Good job Jill, very well done!” The writing was clever and smart.

In all honesty I picked up this book on a whim based on the title. I guess it appealed to my German side. If you speak German you know that “hausfrau” most commonly refers to a woman who probably does not hold a job outside the house and spends her time looking after home, hearth and family. However depending on the inflection one gives the word it can also be a genuine (or back-handed) compliment or, a snide derogatory judgment. In the case of this book is seems to be a combination of all of those.

According to Doktor Messerli “A bored woman is a dangerous woman.” The idea of an unhappily married, bored woman embarking on an affair is not a new concept by any means. Classics such as The Scarlet Letter, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary through to contemporary fiction such as All The Things That Never Happened and The Girl On The Train all have adultery as one of the main threads carrying the story. Paraphrasing Dr. Messerli (again, because she really is quite wise) “A mistake made once is an oversight. A mistake made twice is a choice but a mistake made a third time is a decision”. In the end Anna learns that decisions also have consequences. As I read the book I found that I did not care for or sympathize with Anna much, however I did find her intriguing. I found myself so drawn into her rationalizations and dramas that there were tingly moments of intense anticipation and tension on my part as a reader. That certainly kept me turning the pages. While on some level highly predictable I was still surprised by the conclusion to Anna’s story. That sounds a little oxymoronic … predictable surprise … yet that was the case. I hope to meet Anna again in another book sometime down the road because I’m curious to know how things work out.

I, RIPPER by Stephen Hunter.

** I received this in a Goodreads “First Reads” giveaway **

Jeb is a young newspaperman working for the Star, an afternoon newspaper fighting for readers and their pennies among the more than fifty newspapers coming off the presses and then hawked by the newsboys of London in the late 1800’s. He starts his career as “the intermittent substitute music critic” but when Harry Dam, the night crimes reporter, is not available one night Jeb is sent to cover “a nice juicy murder” that has just taken place in Whitechapel. This is the break that Jeb has been waiting for. Jeb had no way of knowing he was about to be introduced to the work of “Jack the Ripper”. As it turns out Jeb is very good at his job (and apparently has a very strong stomach) so soon earns the respect not only of the reporters from other papers but of the “Blue Bottles” (police) as well. They allow him up close and personal access to
the carnage The Ripper leaves behind. This is 1888 and forensics are unheard of, the head of the police department is a laughing stock, yellow crime scene tape does not exist and Jeb is in his element.

Before long he is beginning to form his own theories and suspicions about “Saucy Jack”. Although an adamant tee-tote he aggrees to attend a party one evening where he happens to meet Thomas Dare a linguistics professor at a prestigious university. Not being an abstainer, when he is in his cups Professor Dare enjoys bragging about his linguistic knowledge and how is able to see “the beneath” in writing. When a letter arrives at the newspaper allegedly penned by Jack himself and then a sign written in blood is left to taunt the police Professor Dare is convinced he can help Jeb discover the killer’s identity through linguistics. Jeb has first hand knowledge of the crime scenes and Dare has the resources and patience to put the clues together. Between the two of them (ala Sherlock Holmes … Jeb’s literary hero) they develop the first “profile” of a killer and then set out to trap him.

As any good newspaperman should, Jeb tells a good portion of this story as his first person, eyewitness account. Then, as now, the media is quick to come up with catchphrase names for serial killers and Jeb takes the credit for naming Jack the Ripper, rightly so because Jeb is also a nickname – he has a secret identity of his own. 

The rest of the account of that bloody “autumn of the knife” we hear from Jack himself. Jack keeps a journal where he writes out the meticulous planning and thought that goes into each of his kills before he carries them out. Then when the evil deed is accomplished he comes back and records exactly what happened. Being privy to a serial killers journal is gory reading, and Jack holds nothing back. He gleefully recounts every detail and takes a great amount of pleasure in the fact that he has bested the local police and stymied “the Yard”. Of course Jack never signs his journal entries.

Mairsian is one of the fallen angels walking the streets of Whitechapel. Like so many of her fellow ladies of the evening she has an unfortunate liking for gin. Unlike some of the other ladies Mairsian has a home, parents and family. From her ramshackle room she pens letters to her mum assuring her that she is being careful and not be worried. She only “entertains” gentlemen now and has a guardian angel in the form of a nice man who doesn’t beat her to shove her about. She promises to be home as soon as she can lose her taste for the gin so her parents can be proud of her again. 

Mairsian’s letters to her mum are interspersed between Jeb’s account and Jack’s diary giving an insight into what the ladies of Whitechapel were thinking while Jack was on the loose.

“Saucy Jack”, “Leather Apron”, “The Whitechapel Killer” and “Jack the Ripper” – nicknames all – because his true identity is still unknown, 127 years after his killing spree. Countless books, both fiction and non-fiction have been written about Jack the Ripper. Add television programs and movies into that mix and you would be hard pressed to find someone not familiar with Jack the Ripper. I have read a handful of books about the subject myself and in my opinion Mr. Hunter holds his own. He does not profess (as some other authors have) to solve the mystery, but appropriately he does give us his culprit in the end. There is no doubt that this book is meticulously researched, Mr. Hunter incorporates not only accurate accounts of the killings he also draws a clear picture of the social values of the time, the poverty, filth, overcrowding and danger of the area and how the Ripper case added to the anti-Semitism rampant at the time. This is excellent historical fiction written in the era's manner of speech and peppered with colorful cockney phrases. While reading it amused me to catch certain references to modern day police procedures and newspaper terms, which the characters in the book claim to “invent” (like the profiling) or wish such a thing existed so they could somehow have at their disposal. It made me smile and that’s a good thing when I’m reading about Jack. 

Because I received an Advance reader Copy I cannot quote from the book’s text but there is a note from Mr. Hunter on the back of the book in which he writes “I hope you find it a blazing fast hansom ride through the gritty, sensual, blood spattered streets of London’s Whitechapel in the autumn of the knife … with the devil himself as your driver.”  It was a bloody good ride.

THE ALPHABET HOUSE by Jussi Adler-Olsen.  

I couldn’t describe the book any better so from the book cover:

During World War 2, two British pilots, James and Bryan, are shot down over Germany. They know that they will be executed if taken hostage. Pursued by German dog patrols, they manage to escape by jumping on to a German hospital train transporting mentally deranged German SS-officers away from the front. James and Bryan throw a couple of patients off the train so that they can occupy their sick beds, hoping to make an escape later on. However, the train takes them to "The Alphabet House", a mental hospital far away from the front line. Their only means of survival is to simulate madness. But can they do so? Without going mad for real? And are James and Bryan the only ones faking it?” 

I’ve mentioned before that I tend to stay away from books dealing with certain subjects and WWII is definitely on my personal “stay away” list.  Alas, nothing is written in stone and sometimes the premise of a book just sounds too appealing and I have to break down and give it a try.  Besides, Mr. Adler-Olsen assured me in the forward that this was not a book “about the war” it is a book “set in war time”.  The two mean the same thing to me.  Sometimes I am pleasantly rewarded for stepping out of my comfort zone (The Book Thief) and sometimes I am not.  I sit on the fence with this book. 

First of all I should warn any potential readers of a gentler constitution that there are a lot
(A LOT!!) of gristly (grizzly?) scenes in this book.  I listened to it on audio and found myself driving to work grimacing (okay, grimacing more than I usually do on my drive to work).  Of course it is a book “set in war time” so I knew that was going to be part of it.  The book consists of two parts.  Part one deals with “The Alphabet House”, an insane asylum for SS officers, where James and Bryan find themselves delivered by the train.  When one of them escapes, by necessity and lack of options leaving the other behind, we move into the second part of the book which takes place 30 years later.  With equal parts undying friendship and survivor’s guilt the soldier who escaped has never stopped looking for the friend he had to leave behind.  Despite having hired professional private detectives to search for his friend no trace of him has ever been found.  Just as he is ready to give up his search and admit that he probably did die when the hospital was bombed near the end of the war, a clue falls into his lap and he goes looking one more time.

Although both parts of the book are interesting I found myself wishing things would move along at a little bit of a brisker pace.  Obviously, since our two protagonists were forced to assume the identity of two other men there was a name change involved.  As it turns out most of the characters in this book were known by two or more name/nicknames and they were used interchangeably depending on who was doing the speaking.  This got to be a little confusing and I would have enjoyed the book a bit more if in the second half the author could have stuck to using one name per character. 

Although the book is not in a genre I usually enjoy I am glad I picked it up.  Mr. Adler-Olsen did a fine job with a complicated subject.

THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell.

From the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book …

“Two Thousand Years ago, a pair of brothers set out from the Holy Land to spread the Christian gospel.  Saint Peter traveled to Rome, becoming the symbolic founder of Western Christianity.  His brother, Saint Andrew, traveled to Greece, becoming a symbolic founder of Eastern Christianity.  For centuries, the church they helped create remained a single institution.  But one thousand years ago, west and east divided.  Western Christians became Catholics, led by the successor of Saint Peter, the pope.  Eastern Christians became Orthodox, led by the successors of Saint Andrew and other apostles, known a patriarchs.  Today these are the largest Christian denominations on earth.  Between them exists a small group known as Eastern Catholics, who confound all distinctions by following Eastern tradition while obeying the pope.
            This novel is set in 2004, when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  It is the story of two brothers, both Catholic priests, one Western and one Eastern.”

Father Alex Andreou is a Greek Catholic priest teaching gospel studies to students inside the Vatican, where he lives with his son (Greek priests are allowed to be married if they do so before taking their vows).  His brother Simon is a Roman Catholic priest working for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.  Both are acquainted with a man by the name of Ugolino Nogara who is currently curator of the newest Vatican Museum installation … an exhibit that both brothers are excited about and fear and equal measures.  Ugara has found information that will refute the carbon testing conclusions ruling the Shroud of Turin fake, conclusions that greatly impacted the lives of the two priests when they were boys.  One night Alex receives an urgent call from his brother asking for help.  When he arrives at his brother’s location he finds that Ugo Nogara has been murdered and, impossible as it sounds, Simon may have had something to do with it.  A break and enter into Alex’s apartment which terrorizes his son seems, strangely, to be related.  When Alex attempts to get answers about what is going on he is stonewalled – the Pope’s office is unusually interested in the case, the Swiss guard is sworn to secrecy and the Vatican Police are less than forth coming with any information about the break in or the murder.  With his son possible in danger and his brother under house arrest Alex begins his own investigation.

This is the point where the book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.  I had been reading bits and pieces of the book here and there when I had time, but when Mr. Caldwell got to the nitty-gritty of exploring the history of the gospels and of the shroud interweaving it expertly with what was going on in the lives of the characters he got my full attention.  I finished the last two thirds of the book on Sunday afternoon.  Admittedly, I do have a soft spot for conspiracy theories.  

In his author’s acknowledgments Mr. Caldwell gives thanks to all the “generous assistance” he received from all kinds of Catholic scholars and theologians, both Eastern and Western, so I am working on the assumption that what he writes about the gospels has a reasonable foundation in truth.  That part of the book was fascinating to me.  He explores the history of the bible and the evolution of the Catholic Church in it’s shining moments and its less proud actions.  However, the appeal of the book did not end there.  This book is also about the struggle of a family trying to put their family first while living the confines of a country (The Vatican) where there is only one “Papa” and religion dominates every aspect of life. 

This is the type of book that makes me wish I belonged to some sort of book club because there are so many other themes and so much imagery that could be discussed but I am refraining because this is a book review. 

Since its publication The DaVinci Code seems to be the standard to which all other books of this type are compared.  Yes, I loved it too.  I feel The Fifth Gospel holds it’s own and in some respects surpasses Dan Brown’s blockbuster.  If you pick up this book looking for another Robert Langdon – be warned – you won’t find him in these pages.  You will find a very readable, complex and intriguing story.  I feel Mr. Caldwell treated any personal beliefs readers might have respectfully throughout the book but it is a book that just might make you think twice about what you know about Catholicism and organized religion in general.  Just as Mr. Brown’s book had me grabbing for some art books and looking up famous works of art this book had me grabbing a bible off my bookshelf to check on Mr. Caldwell. 

Being familiar with the various Saints and traditions involved in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy the following quote made me laugh out loud.  Father Andreou sharing his 5-year-old son’s opinion on how to decide which is the appropriate Saint for a particular prayer.

“He told me once that praying is like being a soccer coach and calling saints off the bench.”

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