Friday, February 16, 2018

The Cold Light of Dawn: The King's Greatest Enemy #4 by Anna Belfrage

The Cold Light of Dawn: The King’s Greatest Enemy #4. Anna Belfrage. Timelight Press. February 2018. 593 pp. ASIN#: B0795BMD9W.

“Caught in the middle” is the perfect way to describe Adam de Guirande’s place in the Court of the young King Edward III, too young to rule but old enough to resent the behavior of the regent rulers, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Adam initially serves Edward in whatever way asked and ultimately will become the King’s Guard, in charge of all soldiers who protect the King at all times.  Edward has not reached his majority to rule but is showing signs he is more than able to do so. Isabella and Mortimer are lovers, despite the fact that Mortimer is married.  Mortimer works long hours but he goes farther than he should as he truly loves fine dress, food and riches.  He listens only to Isabella and this is heading toward rebellion from the people he rules or betrayal from one or more of the numerous factions always plotting to thwart Mortimer’s plans.

Adam de Guirande is married to Kit, the grand love of his life.  The passion between them is obvious, frequent and well-described.  Such a great union is all that keeps Adam from losing his sanity.  For Adam is also tied to Roger Mortimer who brought him from a low position to the place Adam now occupies.  He owes Roger everything and yet has sworn loyalty and love to King Edward.  Roger knows this but pulls at Adam’s conflicted, tortured thoughts and feelings, saying he realizes the conflict but always reminding Adam of where his first loyalty should be.

The King, Mortimer, Lancaster and others all have spies everywhere, throughout the country as well as in other countries such as France and Italy. The issues are not new nor are the machinations that would give England France, earls and other nobles who would acquire more land and power throughout England, etc. 

The tensions among Adam, Edward, Roger, Isabella and Lancaster are gradually increasing to the point that the reader knows an explosion is soon to occur and for some end quite badly.  Kidnappings, sword fighting engagements, ladies who enchant with more dangerous but subtle plans in mind, and more fill these swiftly moving pages with excitement and intrigue.  A medieval sense of brutality leaves the reader occasionally breathless.

The Cold Light of Dawn is great reading and easy to follow whether or not the reader knows the history of that particular time period.  Adam loves both his Lords but “a divided house cannot, indeed, stand!”  One suspects another novel in this series is to follow which will be highly anticipated by this reviewer!  Spectacular historical fiction!

Surprise Me: A Novel by Sophie Kinsella

Surprise Me: A Novel.  Sophie Kinsella. Random House Publishing Group. February 2018. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399592881.

Sylvia and Dan have been married for ten years; they truly are best friends who completely understand each other and their rambunctious twin daughters.  One day they visit a doctor for a wellness visit and from here to about three-quarters of the way through the novel the plot gets downright silly.  They are healthy and are told by the doctor that they have another sixty-eight years more of life together.  For some odd reason, this scares the heck out of Sylvia and Dan.  While their uncanny understanding of each other’s thoughts and feelings brings great peace and joy to their life, the unpredictability of it is unacceptable.  So, they come up with a plan of surprises to keep the future fresh and novel, but it doesn’t really work out at all.

Meanwhile the only thin friction between them has to do with Dan’s dislike of Sylvia’s privileged past and his refusal to let her “Daddy” finance their future.  However, it will turn out that Daddy wasn’t the perfect husband and parent in Sylvia’s memories and this part of the plot saves this novel from being a disaster.  Dan is more than just an understanding husband and lover.  He’s someone who’s been trying to save his wife’s perfect image of her father, sheltering her from the stark reality of a very flawed father.  The ending is quite a shocker for Sylvia but what is more precious is the fact there are some secrets in Dan that are stunning elements and a definite surprise! 

While the second half of this novel “saves the day,” overall, it’s a bit of a strain on credibility.  However, Kinsella manages to pull the reader into an interesting and real part of the relationships that work.  Nicely done, to a degree!

The Queen of Hearts: A Novel by Kimmery Martin

The Queen of Hearts: A Novel.  Kimmery Martin. Berkley Publishing. February 2018. 352 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399585050.

The world of medical students is fraught with exhaustion from working too many hours that any human being should endure and with tension from working in an urban Emergency Room rife with life and death scenes.  It all requires the utmost tenacity, refined medical skills and the patience and calm of a saint!  This is the world of Emma and Zadie, two best friends, who are about to undergo a true test of their solid rock friendship.  Add to that their male friends, Dr. Nick Xenokostas and Graham.  The time element in this story goes back and forth from past to present and back. 

The story concerns scenes that make Gray’s Anatomy and other medical TV shows seem tame in comparison.  For reality isn’t pared back in a novel.  So for the squeamish of heart, you’ve been warned!  Blood, guts and gore as well as actions and reactions force the reader to flip the pages and want to stay up way past a normal bedtime.  No spoilers here but two particular events score the plot with tension and shock!

Exhausted doctors or even doctors handling multiple near-fatality emergency room scenes will make mistakes!  Those inadvertent errors can wreck a person’s career and such a danger is posed for Emma upon the death of a little girl.  The minutiae of that scene will be repeated in her mind as well as the minds of her physician peers and the family of the little girl.  The outcome of this processing will absolutely amaze the reader!

Relationships happen out of all this chaos and non-stop turmoil.  Some make sense and some take twists and turns that make no sense.  But they happen to Emma, Graham, Zadie and Nick and they are life-shattering.  How much wrongdoing can one forgive and should one even consider forgiveness? 

Kimmery Martin is a past medical doctor who knows her professional world well.  This is a well-written, intense, caring, brutal and shocking story that is written with sensitivity and care, enabling the reader to enter this world as fully as possible and root for every character, halting judgment and awaiting the evolution of healing and grace on every page.  Highly recommended medical fiction!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

All Systems Down - The Cyber War #1 by Sam Boush

All Systems Down: The Cyber War #1.  Sam Boush. Lakewater Press. February 2018. 284 pp.  ASIN#: B078CXKYQF.

Imagine for a moment that all the electric power in the world gradually and quickly turns off.  Everything! We’ve all occasionally had power outages at home but not everywhere else, including cars, planes, trains, cell towers, etc.  The world is dark and cold.  And forces are about to attack America!

Brendan Chogan is out of work. He was a parking meter attendant and former boxer but automation has forced him out of his job and he’s none too happy.  His interview for a new job goes nowhere and then suddenly his world situation gets so much worse after the power goes out – everywhere!

Cyber war is a problem that many fear will eventually happen on a world-wide scale but few realize what Brendan gradually realizes.  When there is no help to be had and no substitution for heat, water, transportation, protection, etc., then human beings show their best and worst characteristics. 

Small groups begin to form, looking to steal and kill just for the sheer pleasure of it.  Families have only each other and seek to escape away from the highly volatile urban areas.  Nine strangers learn to rely on each other and we never learn the full outcome of this Portland, Oregon area.  It seems there will be more to come of this cyberwar series.

North Korea is behind this masterful hacking job and there’s a story behind the solution, but there are human frailties that almost prevent that from happening.  
Sam Boush is a writer who knows how to craft a completely engaging story that is all too real, given our knowledge (and lack of it) about hacking, cyberwar and international spying.  This goes deeper and the rollercoaster ride herein is highly recommended reading!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

As Bright as Heaven. Susan Meissner. Penguin Publishing Group. February 2018. 400 pp. ISBN#: 9780399585968.

Pauline, Thomas and their three children move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania so that they can have a better life.  This opportunity arises out of the kindness and generosity of Thomas’s Uncle, a mortician who is childless and wants to leave his business to Thomas.  Before they came, this family lost a child, Henry, but rather than fearing what lies ahead in taking on the learning of how to prepare dead people for final viewing and burial, Pauline is more than open to the idea and oddly calm.  For she believes Death is a constant spiritual presence in her life since she lost her son and thinks she will hear a message at the right time.

Readers may have heard the famous poem about death having no sting or power, and this comes to mind as the children, Evelyn, Pamela, and Willa, not only adapt to their father’s new job but also want to be a part of it.  They not only follow the lead of their parents but also seem to have an uncanny perception that death is not to be feared.  They are about to be sorely tested!

No spoilers here, but suffice to say that the coming of the Spanish flu epidemic to Philadelphia in 1918 almost defies description but the author deftly presents the overwhelming nature of this catastrophic illness.  The family will suffer more staggering losses but will also gain a child who they adopt after mysterious circumstances, an occurrence that will come full circle years later.

There is a lightness to the way this story is presented that is almost beautiful, hardly a word one would think of in the face of such a disaster for thousands of people.  Each child is obviously so touched by this historical event that it affects their future career choices.  While it might seem contrived at times, Meissner manages to favorably wrap all the loose ends together by the end of the story.

As Bright as Heaven is certainly a memorable novel that highlights character and historical event development – highly recommended historical fiction.

Next Year in Havana: A Novel by Chanel Cleeton

Next Year in Havana: A Novel. Chanel Cleeton. Penguin Publishing Group. February 2018. 400 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399586682.

This novel spans the lives of a well-to-do family who thrive in and love the Cuba of their past in the 1950s and the Miami where they live as exiles in the present.  The Floridian Cubans have recreated their past which they celebrate.  But the love they shared as family is actually all that remains of the real world in present day Havana and its outlying neighborhoods.  This novel takes the reader deeply through both worlds in a transforming story that should be must reading. 

Half of the Perez family fled Cuba in 1967.  Elisa Perez’s granddaughter, Marisol, has now returned to Cuba with her late grandmother’s ashes, accompanied with the instructions for Marisol to scatter Elisa’s ashes “where she thinks best” and a surety that Marisol would know where when the moment came. 

Marisol meets Luis, a married man to whom she is attracted, who introduces her to the real Cuba where everyone is equal, equally poor, equally oppressed, and equally fearful of being arrested for criticizing the government of Fidel and then Raoul Castro.  Multiple shocks fill Marisol and the reader as we realize that we don’t have a clue as to what it’s like to live in a Communist regime.  However, that stark reality is juxtaposed with the beauty of Cuba’s shores, flowers, trees and homes and the fierce pride of its people.  Luis is a professional history professor who takes Marisol through the historical background of the people who hope for so much but wait for it in silent patience.  Others are not so patient and the violence is never far from day-to-day living.

In the past life of Cubans, Elisa, who comes from an aristocratic family, meets and falls in love with a Cuban rebel, a man who believes that Fidel is the answer to becoming free of Battista, the former ruler of Cuba.  Elisa struggles fiercely to mesh the spoiled lifestyle she enjoys without thought and the life and death struggle that so many Cubans, including family members, are living to move the country toward what they believe will be a free, democratic society.

The story neither sanctifies nor vilifies the rebels in different generations.  Instead the author deftly allows the reader to observe and reflect on the realities of Cuban life, government and freedom movements, forming one’s own opinions which cannot be avoided.  This is masterful historical fiction in which one gets to know not only the history of Cuba but the strengths and foibles of very human, passionate people who cherish their Cuba.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone. Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press. February 2018. 448 pp. ISBN #: 9780312577230.

Leni Allbright’s father, Ernt, is a Vietnam War veteran who returns from the war with PTSD that gradually threatens Leni and her mother.  He sees everyone as a threat, can’t keep a job, drinks too much and repeats the cycle of paranoia and violence toward his wife, Cora. 

A dream arises for Ernt, to get away from the influence of government and rich people that smothers the lives of those who yearn to live a free, unencumbered life.  Ernt sees Alaska as the land that can enable the family to start a new life.  From this point onward, we see an amazing juxtaposition of what life could be and what life is.  The reader also yearns for the dream to become reality.  It will do so but not until events escalate to a crescendo of beauty and horror. 

For Lena falls in love with Alaska, its gorgeous scenery depicted in descriptions that make the reader want to live there and its feisty, strong residents who support each other in good and hard times. Ernt seems happy for a brief period of time but then succumbs to his fears. 

No spoilers here but suffice to say that after more brutality than one person can bear, Cora commits a startling act that will change their future forever.  Leni will complete, yet change, the cycle of love, forgiveness and honesty, returning to call Alaska “home.” 

Kristin Hannah is a very talented writer who deserves more public acknowledgment and praise.  The pace of this complicated plot is exquisitely crafted, mixing love for one’s environment with the need to deal with veteran post-war issues that shake and threaten the solidarity of a united community.  Stunning historical fiction that is highly recommended.