Sunday, September 25, 2016

Belonging by Umi Sinha

Belonging. Umi Sinha. Myriad Editions. December 2015. 320 pp. ISBN#: 9781908434746.  

Belonging is a multi-generation saga narrated by Grandmother Cecil, her son Henry and his daughter Lila.  It’s the story whose Indian history parallels the love, cruelty and madness in its all too human characters.  For this family are all British outsiders, accepted as masters of their Indian subjects while in reality constantly waiting for the shoe to drop with revolution and rebellion.  Despite their position, the English narrators come to love this country with its lush vegetation, spicy and colorful food and dress, and the wisdom and care manifested through those who are soldiers, servants and nannies. 

It takes a while to distinguish the different voices but we discover careful details of Cicely and Henry’s life in India while Lila is sent home to Sussex, England to live with her stern Aunt Mina.  All of these people have lost spouses or relatives to the occasionally erupting violence in India and the reader is intrigued by the fact that with so much surrounding hostility, the main characters deny the heightened volatility of the region and choose to believe they are well-loved.

The famous siege of Cawnpore took place in 1857 when the British subjects were promised safe passage and sanctuary but instead were all brutally raped, stabbed and murdered.  Cecily will intensely suffer during this horrendous event, but she leaves behind a series of letters describing their hopes and gradual realization of how they were maliciously betrayed.  All those years of politeness and acting like family and loyal soldiers in reality erupted into the fight for rebels and others who wanted freedom and independence, ironic to say the least since that wish would not be fulfilled for another fifty or so years.

The above sounds like a very simple plot, but this reviewer must emphasize the beautiful and skilled manner in which this story is crafted is beyond words.  Even the confusion over who is who and what events are being depicted may be seen to reflect the always confusing relationship between Indian soldiers and servants and their English masters and mistresses.  The descriptions are so artfully presented that one feels one is right there in the middle of it all and the same may be said for the thoughts and feelings swirling through each event and each character’s mind and heart.  For a first novel, Umi Simha has definitely displayed gifted skills in writing historical fiction.  Highly recommended, great reading!

Home (Myron Bolitar #11) by Harlan Coben

Home (Myron Bolitar #11). Harlan Coben. Penguin Publishing Group. September 2016. 400 pp. ISBN#: 9780525955108.  

Two young boys, Patrick and Rhys, are kidnapped.  A ransom is demanded and met, but nothing is ever heard after that time.  The boys remain kidnapped.
Windsor Horne Lockwood III or Win as he is known herein is in London, having received a tip that Rhys, his cousin Brook’s son, has been spotted.  After spotting Rhys, Win is led to a seedy area of London where he is attacked but quickly and more than adequately takes out his three attackers but in the process loses the young teen he believes is Patrick, not Rhys.  He quickly alerts his buddy, Myron Bolitar, who comes to London to join the search.

Win and Myron enter the world of a crime lord who uses children and teens to further his business of prostitution, hacking, drugs and other devious jobs.  He’s also very savvy with communications, having cameras, voice hacking, and more to protect and further his business interests.  Feeling sad about their failure, they return to the United States and decide to revisit every step of this crime to see where it leads them.  This, then is the essence of the story that is even more thrilling than the blood, guts and gore scenes of their initial London discoveries.

The parents of Patrick and Rhys are obviously and understandably upset beyond words.  Patrick is found and is in terrible shape.  His mother is forever grateful but Rhys’s mother is furious that they lost her son and perhaps any chance at finding him.   After all, ten years is a long time and if he hasn’t been found in that time how will he be found now when almost every stone has been overturned to find him.

Readers will be shocked beyond words when the resolution of this case is finally realized.  It’s not the usual find the bad guys and rescue the missing!  Still, it’s worth the read to experience all the twists and turns involving Win, Myron,  Mickey (Myron’s nephew), the parents and others.  This reviewer hasn’t read any of the previous Myron Bolitar novels in the series but liked the tone of this novel more than the other Harlan Coben novels that I’ve read. This a crime novel/mystery that will satisfy all readers. Nicely crafted fiction replete with puzzles, violence, determination, betrayal, loyalty and sharp detective skills!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Twilight at Blueberry Barrens - Sunset Cove Series #3 by Colleen Coble

Twilight at Blueberry Barrens (Sunset Cove Series #3). Colleen Coble. Thomas Nelson, Inc.. September 2016. 352 pp. ISBN#: 9781401690304.  

Kate Mason is feeling stronger now, since she completed her chemotherapy and had a stem cell transplant for aplastic anemia and she and her sister are reunited.  She’s loving the fact that she’s back at her favorite spot in the world, a remote farm in Maine.  Even though it’s been a bad year for the blueberries, she and her sister Claire have put their thinking caps on and decided that Kate will renovate a small cottage on the farm and rent it out for the rest of the summer.  Claire is about to get married and Kate hopes that union won’t separate she and her sister again!  The rest of her family is in jail or nowhere near to comfort and support Kate who desperately needs some stability at this pivotal period of her life.

That piece is shattered when while looking through binoculars at a group of birds nesting nearby she sees the bodies of a man and woman at the bottom of a cliff.  In very little time, the police seem to write it off as a murder and suicide, in spite of the fact they have little evidence other than the bodies to substantiate that claim. 

The activity ramps up when Derek Carter arrives in the area with his two daughters. Outside of an elderly but spunky aunt nearby, Derek isn’t stating why he’s spending the summer here.  He’s got his handful with these two girls as they are deeply hurting over the recent death of their parents. Derek and Kate meet and she agrees to rent him the cottage and a few days later accepts his offer of a summer job as a Nanny.  From this point, the action swings into a fast-paced plot.

Kate learns that it was Derek’s brother and sister-in-law who were found dead but Derek believes they were murdered and that it is related to a deal related to a sale of drones.  Kate’s home is broken into and she senses she is being watched but doesn’t know by whom.  Here we also learn that her Uncle is out of jail and she believes him to be in the area after her.  It’s at this point that one realizes reading the earlier novels in this series might result in less confusion about the way all of these threads connected to Derek and Kate cross each other, often creating confusion in the mind of the reader.

Eventually, each thread is solved after some theorizing and alert watching.  While the mystery and its outcome is worth the reading, the end is rather anticlimactic with Claire dropping an unexpected bomb on Derek and Claire who by this time know they want to be together permanently.  All in all, Twilight at Blueberry Barrens is a plot-driven mystery thriller that engages the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go.  Nicely done, Colleen Coble. This reviewer is wondering where this series will go next and looking forward to it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Empress of Tempera by Alex Dolan

The Empress of Tempera.  Alex Dolan.  Diversion Publishing. September 2016. 282 pp. ISBN#: 9781682302972.  

Katie Novis legally changes her name to Paire Anjou because her family’s name is notorious for a horrible criminal event.  She’s very artistic and bohemian in taste and thinks her life in New York as a new artist is bound to be new and refreshingly clean of nefarious doings.  Her life with her boyfriend Derek Rosewood is exciting as he is a graffiti-guerrilla style artist who wants to both shock viewers and awaken them to social consciousness about troubling issues.  There’s an element of crime in the way he places his paintings but nothing that causes harm to anyone.  That’s all about to change for this young, vibrant couple.

Paire is unfortunate enough to observe a man staring into a storefront window of Fern Gallery.  She is entranced when looking at the painting the man is staring at so intensely he doesn’t even notice her presence.  But all of a sudden, before she can do anything about it, this man quickly dies.  The turmoil that follows is almost sidelined by shock and Paire’s realization that this painting is so intense as to enchant the viewer to obsessive looking. 

This is the story then of “The Empress Xiao Zhe Yi, Seated” by a Chinese artist Qi.  It turns out this is the one remaining painting from his entire life that is being shown for the first time.  The woman in the painting actually is supposed to represent a real woman, but the reader will discover her real story, a tale of bribery, greed and obsession that pulls in a financier, a gallery owner and his lover, Paire and Derek, and the artist’s sculptor daughter.

Although the characters are rather stereotypical, the reactions of viewers to this painting are both exaggerated and yet mesmerizing in their intensity.  One wonders how viewers could faint or become so enamored of this woman that it elicits their most lustful feelings?  Deny it but admit it’s temporarily mesmerizing!  One wonders if this is how some viewers saw “The Mona Lisa” when it was first displayed to the public? 

The plot will progress to attempts of theft and the effects will be disastrous for several characters.  Paire discovers that she is not so different from her family, a background that is also gradually revealed, and that her lover’s innocent acts shock even him into realizing how art reflects life’s most noble but also baser passionate aspects.

The Empress of Tempera is a great read that will move a large, wide audience and rightfully so!  Nicely crafted, Alex Dolan!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Velvet Hours: A Novel by Alyson Richman

The Velvet Hours: A Novel. Alyson Richman. Penguin Publishing Group. September 2016. 384 pp. ISBN#: 9780425266267.  

Solange Beaugiron discovers that her father was adopted and finally gets to meet her grandmother, Marthe de Florian, who has literally reinvented herself.  Everyone who has grown up very poor has a different reaction to it and very few would repeat those years of struggle and adversity. Some will do anything to escape its death-like grip!

Just when Marthe meets Charles, a rich married man who adores Marthe and keeps her in luxury for the rest of her life, Europe is about to experience its own hell spawned by Adolf Hitler.  Little, however, touches Marthe, even in times of crushing starvation for the rest of France.  This then is the story that Marthe shares with her granddaughter as they struggle to share their lives, a relationship that grows from storyteller to author to a deep abiding love between grandmother and granddaughter.

It would seem a simple story initially, one that’s actually been told by others in many and different ways.  But the magic of The Velvet Hours lies in the appreciation and celebration of beauty, whether that be in Marthe’s collection of Far Eastern cups, pottery and other items or in the lovely and priceless pearls Charles gives to Marthe for her financial security “forever.”  Then there is the magnificent portrait of Marthe commissioned by Charles from the famous painter, Giovanni Baldini, with its vibrant colors but most of all its living essence that has captured the spark of life constantly emanated by Marthe.

Add to this Belle Époque tale a lovely romance experienced by Solange as she learns about a Jewish text she has inherited that was hand-created with beautiful illustrations.  As Hitler approaches, momentous decisions must be made whether to stay or leave Paris. 

No spoilers here – as there is so much more about Marthe and Solange that makes for engaging attention and an unrelenting desire to know what will happen next.

Alyson Richman has created a story replete with the most beautiful descriptions of art, food, ancient books and more and interspersed with the nerve-wracking tensions brought on by WWII.  Readers will love this superb story and will be recommending it to everyone they know.  Highly recommended historical fiction!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa by Tony Cointreau

A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa.  Tony Cointreau. Easton Studio Press, LLC. September 2016. 200 pp.  ISBN#: 9781632260499.

Tony Cointreau lived his youth with a constant background message, “You must be perfect…” in order to be loved. So when Tony learned of the work Mother Teresa was doing with both sick and poor, it struck him as both too good to be true but also something he desperately had to experience. Unconditional love shared with those hungry in body, mind and spirit!

Tony went to India but was so traumatized by the devastating poverty, he came back to America.  Then he volunteered at a Greenwich Village, New York Hospice in 1990, a place specifically dedicated to caring for dying AIDS patient.  This was brave work at a time that little was known about the disease and AIDS patients all too frequently died alone and suffering greatly.  This book is the story of Tony’s volunteer experiences.  Yes, it’s about what he learned and experienced but it’s also an inspiring book for those who want to learn how to “be” with those who are dying, with or without AIDS.

The secrets shared are humbling experiences for both patients and volunteers who come to truly know the richness of listening, touch, sharing music, showing respect, bypassing assumptions, sharing humor no matter how severe a situation, doing whatever needs doing in the given moment, non-judgment, having faith (in something or someone – not necessarily church-oriented), and realizing saints are all around us and in us. These are just a few of the vibrant chapter headings that each contain poignant and powerful scenes exemplifying these virtues. 

A hug here and there when it’s the last thing one would normally imagine, sharing a make-believe, exaggerated, funny story with an elderly woman that makes her come alive for the first time in a long time, hugging a person with no visitors, holding a hand to give strength to someone in excruciating pain, avoiding those who would exploit the suffering and neediness of patients, allowing each individual the right to “choose” where and when to die, and so much more. 

Believe it or not; this isn’t a sad or saccharine book at all!  It’s so full of vibrant hope and peace that it’s a privilege to read it.  It certainly applies to every man, woman and child in the world.  Mother Teresa was far from the serious person people put on a pedestal but her gift of unconditional love and life permeates every page of this book and of the man she mentored to serve life and thus be served!  Moving, inspirational and highly recommended! Messages the reader will never forget and will hopefully live!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters (Katherine of Aragon #1) by Wendy J. Dunn

Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters (Katherine of Aragon #1). Wendy J. Dunn. MadeGlobal Publishing. August 2016. 302 pp. ISBN# 9788494489396. 

Catalina, a/k/a Catherine of Aragon, is a child being reared in the Court of her parents, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Spain.  Beatriz is Catalina’s tutor who narrates this poignant story of children who must learn to respectfully accept both homely joys and devastating tragedies.  They must do this with dignity and aplomb, no matter how grievous the events that are honestly not fit for children’s awareness. 

In an age when women are educated to marry and raise children, the royal children, Catalina and Marie, are educated as men are.  Catalina flourishes in this environment, having a natural and exciting curiosity about literature, philosophy, science, and other subjects.  She is being prepped to be the future Queen of England, expected to separate from her Spanish family forever, and to be loyal to England, a huge task that will hopefully unite both countries. Wendy Dunn does a fine, fine job of conveying the essence of Catalina and Isabella’s world in which woman must appear to be obedient and self-effacing to their husbands but in reality wielding royal power that shapes the destiny of one’s kingdom.  Subtlety is the art being taught through listening, observing, and commenting on her mother’s rule.

A secret mystery suggests King Ferdinand’s complicity in the death of the husband of one of Catalina’s siblings.  Beatriz herself is accosted by the King several times which fills her with fear that will not be cast aside for many years.  Several siblings of Catalina will die, causing such grief that it brings some to near-madness.  In the effort to banish the Moors from Spain, Beatriz, Catalina and her siblings are forced to view in person the most devastating and horrifying aspects of actual warfare. The conflict between the Catholic faith that exhorts brotherly love and yet murders the infidel enemy causes intense consternation in Catalina’s mind, heart and soul.

Royal children are political pawns as their children must choose foreign spouses and political expediency over happiness.  If love occurs, so be it; if not, one may perhaps learn to love.  The loss of real love is mourned but then quickly pushed to the side for political strategies.  It’s a relevant reality that makes the reader why a certain hardness pervades royal personalities.  The reader is left to judge but of necessity accept as brutal reality that keeps nations united and safe.

While the events of history generate intense interest, it is the multi-dimensional characterization within this novel that is so intriguing and enchants the reader on every page.  It’s also a window into the world of this woman who would become such a formidable and beloved Queen in England years hence!

Wendy Dunn’s novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds… is magnificent, riveting reading that this reviewer highly recommends as MUST reading!