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Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

A Thrilling Pursuit in Twenty-four Days

Twenty-four Days is the second thriller in J. Murray’s Rowe-Delamagente series about forces combating a terrorist nuclear attack. And lest you think the potential threat of a nuclear attack could never happen, as in what fool would provoke such world-wide disaster, just remember Kim Jung-un still sits on his North Korean dictator’s throne, threatening the world with his paranoid delusions – and his nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Murray gathers a talented and sometimes unlikely crew of heroes, including a brilliant American scientist, the quirky AI (artificial intelligence robot) she built, a former Navy SEAL, and an MI 6 (British Secret Intelligence Service) special agent, each of whom contributes a unique expertise toward locating and obliterating the peril. Then there are the antagonists, beginning with terrorist Salah Al-Zahrawi. And someone has attacked American submarines with a cyber virus, making them disappear.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is how Murray includes an early hominid named Lucy to help resolve the crisis facing the team hunting the lost submarine as they attempt to defuse the nuclear threat. The author reaches back into the anthropological evolution of human beings to take us into the future. I enjoyed how this reminded me that all accomplishments stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Way before, in this case.

 

In Murray’s own words, here is a summary of her book:

World-renowned paleoanthropologist, Dr. Zeke Rowe is surprised when a friend from his SEAL past shows up in his Columbia lab and asks for help: Two submarines have been hijacked and Rowe might be the only man who can find them.

At first he refuses, fearing a return to his former life will end a sputtering romance with fellow scientist and love of his life, Kali Delamagente, but when one of his closest friends is killed by the hijackers, he changes his mind. He asks Delamagente for the use of her one-of-a-kind AI, Otto, who possesses the unique skill of being able to follow anything with a digital trail.

In a matter of hours, Otto finds one of the subs and it is neutralized.

But the second, Otto can’t locate.

Piece by piece, Rowe uncovers a bizarre nexus between Salah Al-Zahrawi, the world’s most dangerous terrorist and a man Rowe thought he had killed a year ago, a North Korean communications satellite America believes is a nuclear-tipped weapon, an ideologue that cares only about revenge, and the USS Bunker Hill (a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser) tasked with supervising the satellite launch.

And a deadline that expires in twenty-four days.

As America teeters on the brink of destruction, Rowe finally realizes that Al-Zahrawi’s goal isn’t nuclear war but payback against the country that cost him so much.

 

It’s no surprise how pleased I was that J. Murray graciously agreed to an interview about her new book.

 

S: Can today’s science make a warship invisible?

J: If not today, in the very near future. DARPA and other scientific arms of the US Military are experimenting with approaches such as the use of metamaterials (the device used in Twenty-four Days) To hide military equipment from all sorts of waves—like sound waves and light waves. In a nutshell, here’s how they work: Rather than the sound or light waves hitting the object, they are deflected around the object and they land on what’s behind it. That means, the viewer (or in the book’s case, sonar) see what’s behind the object rather than the object. This is already effective for small objects, but is experimental for large ones like tanks and subs, and planning stages for sonar.

Pretty cool.

 

S: I’d day that’s way more than cool – it’s astonishing to think we are on the brink of such a scientific breakthrough.

Is the technology described in the book really possible?

J: Absolutely. It takes real laws of physics—science in general—and extrapolates intelligently on those to what could be if there was time and money. It follows the model of what is commonly referred to as Star Trek Science. But in the case of Twenty-four Days science, you don’t have to wait centuries. It’ll probably be around in a matter of decades. You can say you read about it first in Twenty-four Days.

 

S: I’m going to remember that. Is this a romantic thriller?

J: Maybe. There is a budding romance in it.

 

S: That sounds compelling. How did you choose this topic?

J: I actually didn’t choose it—it chose me. My daughter worked as an officer on the Bunker Hill, but it didn’t start there. That just gave me the nautical tie-in. I really can’t say how the rest of it developed. It just did, over time. Sigh.

 

S: Did you encounter anything unexpected either when doing research or writing this book?

J: I did. I was surprised how often if I dug deep enough, I found synergies between the plot and reality. For example, I needed a way to for a third-world nation like North Korea to defeat one of America’s premier warships. By digging, I came up with one. Pretty cool.

 

S:  Can we look forward to another book in this vein, with these characters?

J: Yes! I’m working on book three. I’ll probably move from the Fleet to the backwoods and feature more of Otto, but that could completely change when I start doing more research. Plots have a way of unveiling themselves despite my best of plans.

 

S: I know what they say about plans. What’s on the horizon for the rest of your writing career?

J: I hope to publish a book a year, to build my portfolio. Right now, I’m working on a spin-off of To Hunt a Sub featuring Lucy, the ancient human. The working title is Born in a Treacherous Time. I hope to publish that next summer which will give me two years to prepare book three of the Rowe-Delamagente series.

 

S: I’m very pleased to hear this, as you know how fond I am of the character, Lucy. Anything else we should know about?

J: Besides fiction, I continue to work on my non-fiction books*. I have over a hundred out, but they do require constant attention to be sure they remain current.

 

S: Thank you for this interview, Jacqui. It was so interesting to discover what inspires your writing and to pick your brain about the advances in science and technology. What sounds like science fiction is coming true, and that’s just incredible.

J: You’re welcome, Shari.

 

Twenty-four Days by J. Murray is a terrific book, that I can promise you. Fast paced, exhilarating, and engaging, this is a book to keep you turning pages and make you proud of what’s right and good in the world.

 

*J. Murray is the brain and brawn behind Structured Learning which is the premier provider of technology books and eBooks to the education community.

 

Book information:

Title and author: Twenty-four Days by J. Murray

Genre: Thriller, military thriller

Cover by: Paper and Sage Design 

Available at: Kindle US, Kindle UK, Kindle Canada

 

 

Cover image courtesy: Paper and Sage Design

 

Dark Wine at Midnight – A Book to Keep You Up All Night

Dark Wine at Midnight by Jenna Barwin will keep you up all night – reading, not hiding under the bed in fright. It’s Book I of A Hill Vampire Novel, and I can’t wait till Book II is available.

Murderous attacks on prominent vampires unsettle everyone who must adhere to the rigid rules of living on the Hill of Sierra Escondida. We meet Cerissa Patel, a medical scientist from New York and member of the mysterious Lux, and Henry Bautista, a successful vineyard owner on the Hill. A host of other vampires compete to attract the attention of the intelligent and beautiful Patel, some for love, or friendship, or business prospects – or to ban her from their protected enclave.

Pursuit by two of the town’s most eligible vampire bachelors complicates things. Has Cerissa been sent to spy on the residents, to kill them, or only to open the research lab she claims is her goal? Is the danger to her or because of her? And just what is the research she wants to pursue?

Barwin’s intelligence shows in her authentic rendering of blackjack, wine making, horseback riding, vampires, business politics, and a complex plot that never wanders off track. It leaves plenty of suspects about who might hold a grudge big enough to kill, and who is a spy or a loyal friend. One of the most rewarding aspects of the book is the characterization of every person – each is believable and has depth, no matter how much or little their presence in the book. The story is paced just right as Barwin lingers over some scenes and plows through others, leaving the reader breathless at every turn. Did I mention the sexy romance? Oh yeah, that too.

Vampire stories aren’t something I usually seek out but I do look for excellent writing, a compelling story line, and characters who are interesting and unique. Dark Wine fulfilled all my hopes for a story that would keep me engaged, and it did that with aplomb and sparkles. Barwin is a talented writer who tops out on all the markers that identify really good writing.

If you like fantasy romance, you’ll love this book.

That’s what I wrote for my review of Barwin’s book on the Amazon site. As a writer, I’m interested in finding out about the journey of other writers, both in creating and marketing their stories. So you’ll appreciate my excitement when I had a chance to interview the author.

May I now introduce you to Jenna Barwin.

S: Jenna, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

J: Thanks for asking, Shari. I’m very happy to talk with you about my writing.

S: What’s the “elevator pitch” for Dark Wine at Midnight?

J: Dark Wine at Midnight, the first book in my urban fantasy Hill Vampire series, is equal parts mystery, political intrigue, and love story. It’s also a little bit Dr. Frankenstein meets Shark Tank, but with vampire entrepreneurs.

Here’s the elevator pitch: A research scientist is forced by her people to spy on the vampires she’s trying to help. One of those vampires is an expert winemaker with eyes the color of dark bourbon—and just as intoxicating. To succeed, she must convince him to trust her, despite the dark secrets each carries, and the mutual attraction they can’t resist.

S: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

J: Escaping into the fantasy and watching the story unfold. I particularly enjoyed discovering the chemistry between the lovers, Henry and Cerissa, and learning who they are as people.

S: Escaping into fantasy sounds like a fun adventure. What inspired you to write about vampires?

J: I’ve always been fascinated by vampires. I read Dracula as a young teen, and watched all the horror movies. And something in me wanted the vampire, the tragic hero, to get the girl.

I’m also fascinated by what the vampire represents in society. I saw Dracula as the clash between modern science and superstition. But over one family dinner, I listened to a relative argue that the 19th century vampire tale represented the Englishman’s fear of losing his “women” to Eastern European immigrants.

The more you dig, the more there is to see. In some ways, I think the vampire story parallels substance addiction—the vampire is addicted to drinking a substance that, by drinking it, hurts the one he/she loves.

S: Addiction is a very interesting metaphor I’d never considered before in relationship to vampires, but I see your point. It makes the theme of your book a current topic, something on everyone’s mind, as many of us confront addiction in the people we love or in ourselves.

J: There are so many interesting themes to play with when it comes to vampires. I enjoyed flipping some of them around. For example, I got tired of reading about white European vampires. The vampire community in Dark Wine at Midnight is multicultural, with residents from places like Mexico and Kenya. They are immigrants who came to California, and made their home here.

S: Are you married to a vampire?

J: LOL, no, I’m happily married to a mortal. Although he’ll tell you he’s a superhuman ninja.

S: OK, I didn’t really think so, but you probably wouldn’t admit if you were. So tell me one quirky thing about your writing process.

J: I see the movie in my head before I write a scene. I’ll hear the characters speaking, and see them move in their environment. Because of that, my first draft reads like a movie script. Then I have to go back and ask myself, what is the point-of-view character thinking about? What are they feeling? And I have to try to show that, too.

S: By the way, the book cover is gorgeous.

J: Why, thank you. I’m glad you like it.

S: Aside from vampires, what inspires your writing?

J: Relationships. I think relationships change people. They call us to be our best selves, to have insight into who we are, and why we do what we do.

In addition to relationships, I get some of my most creative spurts after long hours spent applying analytical and logic skills to a task. Too much left brain work will cause my right brain to jump up and down and scream “Let me out! I wanna play, I wanna play.”

S: Do you have any favorite books about writing?

J: It’s a toss-up. Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story is at the top of my list, but Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict follows as a close second. At this year’s California Dreamin’ Conference, both authors gave presentations on writing, and I was taking notes as fast as I could type.

S: What’s next on your writing agenda?

J: Dark Wine at Sunrise is book 2 in the Hill Vampire series, and I’m currently editing it.

S: I’m happy to know that as I’m looking forward to reading the next book soon. Where can we find your current book?

J: Dark Wine at Midnight is currently free in Kindle Unlimited. The eBook and paperback are also available for purchase on Amazon. Here is the link:

https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Wine-Midnight-Vampire-Novel-ebook/dp/B06XTKJRHZ/

S: Where can we find out more about you and what you write?

J: For the latest news and special offers, sign up to be a VIP Reader at: https://jennabarwin.com/jenna-barwins-newsletter/

Or find me on social media and join the conversation:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennabarwin/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JennaBarwin (@JennaBarwin)

Instagram: jennabarwin

Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/jennabarwin/

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jenna-Barwin/e/B06XV6TMG9/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16632097.Jenna_Barwin

 

S: Thanks for the information, Jenna. I wish you well on your writing career.

 

My dear Ink Flare Readers, I hope you find this interview illuminating, and I bet you’ll love Barwin’s book.

 

 

Cover image courtesy: Author

 

 

 

 

S is for Song of Solomon

I picked up Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison at the supermarket when my sons were very young, probably five or six years after its publication. Standing at the checkout line, I read enough to be hooked. Long aware (in general) of the terrible injustices suffered by African Americans, this book was an astonishing revelation to me. Not only did it depict a lifestyle I’d never imagined, but Morrison proved a brilliant storyteller with characters who engaged me with their originality, prose that transformed ordinary moments to sublime experience, and a plot that revealed truths about who we are as Americans. This is a book worthy of giving up common pursuits to settle into reading. Everything else can wait while you are taken to communities in our country you may have never before noticed. While you are lured by characters evil, noble, or conflicted, language as much poetry as prose, and social injustice that will make you cringe.

It begins with a man in a blue cape standing atop Mercy Hospital in a town in Michigan, intending to fly across Lake Superior. Among the crowd waiting to witness his flight is Ruth, the daughter of the first black doctor in the city and pregnant, resting on the hospital steps, unable to be admitted because she is black. When the man who believes he can fly leaps to his death, Ruth is admitted to the hospital, and the first black child is born there. So begins the life of Milkman Dead, a child marked by one strange twist of fate after another. When at age four, Milkman finds he can’t fly any more than the man who leapt to his death, “he lost all interest in himself.”

Not really, but he lost the compass directing his best interests, and for many years Milkman is torn between choosing an easy life of criminal tendencies, and the respectable life to which he might aspire. He is loved by his mother and by his aunt Pilate, his father’s sister, a decent and honorable woman despite many hardships.  Persuaded by rumors his father promotes, he and his best friend, Guitar, plan to steal the gold they are sure Pilate harbors in her house. When that proves to be false, Milkman goes off in search of his roots. One of his discoveries is that the legendary Solomon who flew back to Africa to escape slavery is in fact his own great-grandfather. Flight is a constant objective as a means of escaping injustice or discovering riches, and the eventual outcome of the book reflects this quest.

Pilate is the other predominate character in the story, her indomitable spirit a guide post and anchor to the very best of human endeavors. She remains stalwart after the theft of her strange green bundle, said to hold gold, and the death of her beloved but lovelorn granddaughter. People of lesser spirit would succumb to a bitter reclusion or angry aggression but Pilate remains an independent and kind woman who nurtures the greatness within all people. Including Milkman.

The story is rich with characters whose lives are unlike anyone I’d ever known, circumstances I couldn’t imagine, and metaphors and references that stretch a reader’s perception beyond the obvious surface connections. It opened my sheltered eyes to a culture I’d only glimpsed as an outsider. Morrison uses magic realism, local myths, children’s nursery rhymes, Biblical and classical tales, and songs as the means of conveying a multi-layered story. The plot doesn’t follow a traditional chronological order, yet it never left me stranded for explanation. Even the perverse characters generate sympathy for the human frailties that beckon their worst behaviors.

I won’t tell you the ending.  In truth, I’ve told you very little of the story.  Read the book and discover a journey within yourself as you follow the journeys of these memorable people in this remarkable landscape in a country said to offer equality to all people.

Song of Solomon was published in 1970 but its depiction of African Americans seeking their rightful place in a predominantly racist white society tragically compelling today. In some ways it’s a story of a young man coming of age, finding himself and establishing the adult he will become. In that sense, it’s one of the legions of similar stories, always interesting, but almost never as well written as Morrison’s book whose writing exponentially transcends ordinary.

Song of Solomon was the first Morrison book I read. I went on to read Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Tar Baby, and it’s because this book introduced me not only to a remarkable story but also to the monumental body of work of a commanding author that I chose it for my S selection.

Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Morrison has also won the Pulitzer for Beloved in 1987 and was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for S:

 

Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo

The Sand Pebbles by Robert Wise

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

A Separate Peace by John Fowles

The Seventh Beggar by Pearl Abraham

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sotah by Naomi Ragen

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovksy,

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Alfred Knopf

 

R is for The River Midnight

Time grows short at the end of century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which…Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future. But shh, we can’t talk, now. The story is about to start.*

Thus opens the curtain on Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight, a grand tale about the fictional Jewish shtetl (little town) of Blaszka at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a year of ritual and miracle, of friendship and betrayal, of yearning and fulfillment. Also the lifetime of a Jewish community surviving the struggles of existence on the spiked tail of Russian-occupied Poland.

At the heart of this story are four vilda hayas, the young wild girls with dreams of freedom, love, and the future. Hanna-Leah, Faygela, Zisa-Sara, and Misha run to the woods outside the village to dance, sing, collect wild mushrooms, and share secrets, untamable as teenagers everywhere. As they grow up they accept their places in the community, each with an outlook reflecting her position.

Hanna-Leah, a talented cook who always does what is right, marries the butcher but is unable to bear children. She is envious of her best friend, Faygela, the would-be intellectual who has six children as the wife of the baker. Always kind-hearted Zisa-Sara follows her husband to New York where they both die in a terrible factory fire. Their orphaned children, daughter Emma and a son, return to Blaszka to be raised by the sensible Alta-Fruma. Misha, the most outspoken and independent of the four vilda hayas who flaunts disdain at all useless rules, divorces after a brief marriage. She lives alone near the river, becoming the village midwife and the person to whom everyone turns when they desire a potion for special needs of inciting romance, building strength, or overcoming illness.

Blaszka is also populated by rabbis, water carriers, busybodies, prophets, gypsies, drunkards, mysterious strangers, the vulgar, and the refined. Some folk are noble, some are vulnerable, and some pious. Each contributes an essential, memorable element, no matter how small. You will recognize all of them.

It’s soon discovered that Misha is pregnant by a man she refuses to identify. Gossip moves along the lifeline of the village as certainly as the meandering current of the adjacent river. Villagers speculate who might be the father but are met by her silence. Misha’s painful labor provides a tender scene at the end of the story. I haven’t spoiled it by telling you that much because what ensues is a bit of a miracle in itself, given that the birth falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

At times the book reads like a fairy tale, rich with Jewish nuance and superstition. At other places it resonates with the history of Jewish Europe.  In some passages it blares like a bawdy song one might hear in a saloon where the drunkards mingle with those who might be prostitutes, angels, or conmen. Its scenes of magical realism will remind readers of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, or Sholem Aleichem who also wrote of the European Jewish communities lost to World War II. Always, Nattel’s sensitivity to universal relevance is captured within the intimacy of a place so small that only a few hundred souls live there.

Nattel based her book on the stories her family told when they emigrated from Poland to Canada. She researched for years, reading dozens of relevant books, and included a glossary at the end to help the reader understand the Yiddish dispersed throughout. The glossary is essential for those unfamiliar with the mixing of two languages. I was also raised with Yiddish words and phrases sprinkled by my family as well as stories about shtetl life, and I still found it illuminating.

This is one of the very few books I’ve read six times (the other is To Kill a Mockingbird) and I’ll one day read it again. The quality of Nattel’s writing and the strength of her characters draw me back to the pages to follow the vilda hayas’ hilarious shenanigans and harrowing predicaments. At each reading, I’ve tried to determine who are the Director, the Traveler, and the Boss, and every time I’ve reached a different conclusion. The first time I read the book I had just completed writing the “final” draft of a novel that also tells the story of a fictional Polish shtetl and the strong women who live in it. (My story is in no way even wanly derivative of Nattel’s book, by plot or characters. My “final” draft was in no way final, either.)

The very last words of the book are once upon a time. How enchanting is that?

The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award in Fiction in 1999.

I look forward to learning about your favorite R fiction books.

 

*Just so you know, this passage is the very beginning and the very end of the prologue of the book.

 

 

Other books that were serious contenders for R:

 

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Pony John Steinbeck

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Room by Emma Donoghue

Roots by Alex Haley

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Run by Ann Patchett,

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Scribner

 

Q is for Queen of the Summer Stars

Queen of the Summer Stars by Persia Woolley is book two of her Guinevere Trilogy, and a story that continued my passion for romantic Arthurian legends. Woolley’s unique take is to present the famous tale from Guinevere’s point of view. The series takes us from the princess as an adventurous youngster in book one, through the years of her romance and marriage to King Arthur and her attraction to Lancelot in book two to her final years in the third book when the legend of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table have become the stuff of the past.

It all started for me with the 1967 movie Camelot, the musical starring Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Franco Nero. I couldn’t get enough of singing (badly) the songs and imagining myself so loved by two men. Of course I was very young then and in love with all handsome men, none of whom were in love with me. The movie was a perfect foil for the alluring alter ego I longed to be. Several years later when my marriage had become nearly impossible*, the books fed my craving to be adored. I was smitten by the adventure and fantasy of a world of magic, power, quests, nation building, and a beautiful woman at the heart of it all. I can’t even remember which book of the list below I read first, but I know I read several out of order.

The essential Arthurian legend concerns Arthur Pendragon who is guided by the magician Merlin to claim his birthright to the High Throne of Britain, a land of warring lesser kings. The beautiful Guinevere becomes his bride and the High Queen but eventually she falls in love with  Lancelot, supposed to be Arthur’s most loyal and noble knight. Thrown into the mix is Arthur’s jealous and evil sister Morgan le Fey and her dour son Morgause, as well as the quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur is determined to establish the strength of the Round Table of fellow leaders to preserve the trembling country and protect it from foreign invaders as the Roman Empire collapses around them. The dream of enduring peace drives Arthur, and Arthur needs Guinevere at his side.

Ideas of faith, passion, sacrifice, fidelity, betrayal, rebellion, determination, schemes, and murder accelerate the action. Guinevere, the symbol of greatest femininity and desire, despairs of ever having the one thing she most yearns for but cannot achieve: a child of her own. Though she is revered by everyone, she also suffers sorrow and self doubt. Every character is majestic but flawed, except for those who are well known to be simply evil and unredeemable.

This second book focuses on the best known parts of the legend, so I was familiar with the characters and the outcome. Woolley describes the complex political intrigue in detail but also lingers over the beauty of the land itself as well as the castles, dwellings, and aspects of daily life in the sixth century. Her fresh and masterful approach kept me eagerly turning pages, and then seeking the other two volumes in the series.

At a time in the world where greed, manipulation, and lies promote agendas to protect the powerful and sublimate the common man, the Arthurian legends speak to noble causes. Though the premise of a perfect world falters at the end because of human foibles, it’s nice to know there are ideals to which we may ascribe. If I had to describe Queen of the Summer Stars in a word I’d say sumptuous. Ah, queens and kings, campaigns and secrets, myths and reality – these books have it all.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Q fiction books – or your favorite Arthurian books.

 

*We’ve struggled, but the marriage remains intact; just celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary.

 

 

Other books based on the Arthurian legends or related ancient Britain topics:

Child of the Northern Spring, and Guinevere:The Legend in Autumn: books one and three of the Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Woolley

The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, all by Mary Stewart (I haven’t read The Prince and the Pilgrim, her final book in the series)

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (there are six other books in her series, but I haven’t read them)

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Sherwood by Parke Godwin (about Robin Hood, but similar in its romantic fantasy tone)

Oddly, I have not read Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory.

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Sourcebook Landmark

 

 

 

P is for The Poisonwood Bible

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver captivated me from the prologue where a mother traipses through an African jungle with her four young daughters.  Orleanna Price, the wife of a zealous Baptist minister from Georgia, knows she is an oddity, a white woman in a Belgian Congo village in 1960. She seems to be speaking from a distant time and place, perhaps from her own grave. Her gimlet eye sees the jungle with its voracious ants and fecund flora, but more, she sees her internal life riven with conflict, acquiescence, and inadequacies that have cost her most dearly.

If Orleanna is quiet and submissive to her husband, it is he, Nathan Price, who is loudest and most obstinate. Intending to convert the native Congo inhabitants, he attempts to convince them of Christianity’s truth by pointing to the Bible and describing it as bangala, a Kilanga word he believes to mean “precious.” But his pronunciation is incorrect, and thus he declares the Bible to be “poisonwood.” It’s just the beginning of everything he gets wrong about Congo, from the language to the people to the customs to how hungry the community is to the coming revolution that will jettison colonialism in the Congo – and will alter his family’s course, one by one. Yet Nathan listens to no one and his obdurate convictions have catastrophic consequences for everyone.

Along with Orleanna, the four daughters tell the stories of their lives in Africa in alternating chapters. Rachel, the oldest at fifteen, the most beautiful and the most materialistic, is also cynical, selfish, and mixes metaphors hilariously. She yearns to be a normal teenager, something not possible in a jungle. Yet as an adult she carves out a unique livelihood managing a deluxe hotel in the French Congo, albeit with a bit of dishonesty, forgoing the luxurious American life she once imagined.

Leah, fourteen, is hard working, a natural leader, and a fearless idealist who most shares her father’s religious passion. She relishes education and especially Anatole, the man who is her teacher and whom she will marry. She is the daughter who becomes part of the fabric of Africa in the most authentic way, by moving with her husband and their four sons to Angola. Invigorated by a vision of a just society, she and Anatole help Angolan citizens reclaim their heritage and their country.

Adah cites her twin Leah’s dominant personality for stealing more than her share in the womb, leaving Adah to be born mute and crippled. Because she does not waste time trying to vocally describe what is happening around her, she is a brilliant observer. Adah returns to the United States, is healed of both her infirmities, and becomes a dedicated physician who studies viruses, an apt occupation for someone influenced by early life in Africa. She is the one who comforts Orleanna in her mother’s old age.

Ruth May at five is the baby, adorable and wise beyond her years. She makes friends with the tribal children, teaching them to play Mother May I, a game that becomes a plaintive elegy toward the end of the book. Ruth May is beloved by everyone in Kilanga, but it is her fate that turns the family inside out, that shows Nathan how much he has failed, and that destroys his mission to Congo.

The story exposes how completely wrong the Western world has been about Africa. From misunderstanding its rich language to its beguiling and sometimes horrific customs to assuming the indigenous people are bereft of intelligence or self-determination. Nathan of course is symbolic of wrong judgments at every turn, yet Kingsolver’s masterful writing prevents him from being a one-dimensional cartoon. However inappropriate his agenda for Congo, he is sincere in his faith and in his quest. We weep with him when he realizes he has failed to baptize his youngest child, but we do not mourn when we learn of his death.

Of my many favorite quotes, I begin with this from Orleanna: Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?

From Rachel: I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down. I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore.

From Leah: Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God – which fortunately weighs nothing at all.

From Adah: It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.

From Ruth May: If somebody was hungry, why would they have a big fat belly? I don’t know.

Each of these quotes, all of them early in the book, exposes a significant part of this multi-layered story and also reveals the personalities of the speakers. What moved me the most was how arrogant and assuming Nathan Price was, as well as a few other white people. Though some of the Congolese were confrontational or untrustworthy, as would be some people in any given population, this is their land. The richness of their culture sustains them even in hard times yet Price sees them only as ignorant folks who need agricultural education and Christianity to better their lives. He is unable to understand that what they need is nothing he has to offer, but freedom from a dominating and patronizing European government.

Written in chapters that echo the books of the Bible, each section shows the dissolution of impractical dreams and the creation of work that might truly sustain the inhabitants while respecting their history. The book ends with an epilogue that bookends the story. The mother and her four daughters walk through an African market, recalling the walk through the forest made decades earlier. Everything is changed, of course, everything about their lives and about Africa is different. As Ruth May notes, “Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Everyone is complicit.”

It is a long story. My regret is that I came to the end of it and had finally to say good bye to the country, to the Price family, and to the Africans who peopled the land. Do not think I have already told you the whole story. I have told you nothing. Only Barbara Kingsolver can tell you the story of The Poisonwood Bible. Make yourself comfortable, open the book, immerse yourself in its pages. Read.

I look forward to learning about your favorite P fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for P:

Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Painted House by John Grisham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Peace like a River by Leif Enger

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Prague by Arthur Phillips

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

O is for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.

Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.

Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.

I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.

I look forward to learning about your favorite O fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for O:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic