Saturday, November 9, 2013

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree: Book One of the Islam Quartet by Tariq Ali

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree: Book One of the Islam Quartet.  Tariq Ali. Open Road Media. Reissue October 2013. 288 pp. e-book, 955 KB, ASIN #: B00FEZ2432.

The Banu Hudayl family has a momentous choice to make, convert to Christianity or die.  A Moslem family proud of their heritage, they are proud of the ancient stories displaying wisdom and at the same time warning of what leads to the demise of great Arab cities.  They lust as avidly as they brag about their Arab military history.  But the family has been divided in many ways by the hidden relationships begun and ending in disaster. 
Now in 15th Century Spain a new danger looms.  The story begins with a huge book burning scene, the destruction of religious, scientific and artistic works worth a fortune but seen as nothing but heresy by the fanatical Ximenes de Cisneros, who is also the private Roman Catholic confessor of Queen Isabella.  Up to now the Church’s policy has been that reason would eventually compel the Moslem population to convert.  But Ximenes knows that only force and an ultimatum of life or death will bring about this change and at the same time cleanse the country of its impure residents.  He’s determined that his plan to guarantee this end is carried out to completion! Granada has fallen and now the outlying town where the Banu Hudayl family lives is next to fall!

A chess set serves as the appropriate metaphor for this historically devastating time, the pieces representing Queen Isabella and the great grandfather of Yazid, one of the Banu Hudayl sons, who was once a very famous Muslim knight.  Yazid’s father doesn’t initially believe he and his family and peers are on the brink of annihilation, not until his brother Miguel, a convert and the Bishop of Cordova, begs and threatens him to convert or die.  For Miguel, survival is better than being dead but his family does not see it that way at all, at least not all of them. 

While there are innumerable names mentioned, at times providing annoying confusion, it is clear who the protagonists are herein.  There is Yazid’s brother, Zuhayr, who’s been visiting a wise old man, Ibn Zaydun, whose past love story involved a family member supposedly gone “mad” because she could not marry her lover.  But Ibn Zaydun has used the years wisely, studying the ancient writings of Muslim philosophy and culture, and these are what he shares with Zuhayr.  The latter seems too interested in the story quality of what he hears, but later all these things will come to his mind’s foremost thoughts when he chooses to fight rather than surrender to the surrounding Christians. But this is no chivalric tale as Zuhayr comes to learn discernment between the time to strike, the time to do what needs to be done outside of a direct attack, and the time to withdraw to fight again at a better time. 
There is also a feisty female character, Hind, a passionate woman who dreams of romanticized olden days that are rapidly dissipating, “Remember the shadows of the pomegranate tree during the full moon, Amira?  Remember what we used to say?  If the moon is with us, what need do we have for the stars?”

In between the constant debates about the Christian threat, there are lovely descriptions of the luscious Arab meals shared, palaces and homes with beautiful tapestries and artifacts within, snippets of quotes from famous Arab writers and scholars, and descriptions of clothing typical of the time and place of this notable Arab family.

Many more intriguing tales and family interactions fill these intriguing pages.  This is the first of a planned quartet.  One often hears about the Crusades of earlier times, but this is the first work of fiction this reviewer has read that is a powerful account of what it was like to be a Muslim family and community threatened with extinction, all because of the rise of Christianity.  In one way, it’s a sad story but this family’s pride, humor, passion and pragmatic outlook are the noble characteristics that make this novel a wonderful read!  Definitely highly recommended and definitely looking forward to the next addition to this talented writer’s opus of well-established historical fiction!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Sister Season: A Novel by Jennifer Scott

The Sister Season: A Novel.  Jennifer Scott. NAL Trade: Penguin Group USA.  November 2013. 368 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780451418814.

Clare, Julia and Maya Yancy have come home, home to celebrate Christmas and bury their father.  Their mother, Elise, is trying so desperately hard to make it a festive time but she seems most of the time to be thinking how she wants it to be and really not surprised that every day seems a more intensified form of dysfunctional disasters a la bickering, sarcastic comments, and threats.  These are the dysfunctional children of an abusive father whom no one is really mourning at all.  If anything, they all seem rather relieved!

Maya believes one of her sisters had something going with her husband, never bothered to truly listen to what had happened and is dealing with a serious illness as well.  One of their children is suicidal and the mother spends a heck of a lot of time beating herself up figuratively speaking for her neglect of this once happy and delightful son.

Elise knows something more about her husband’s death and she’s not about to share that with anyone, even though not one of them would have a problem with her secret.  The reader wonders whether Elise is really grieving as she seems to be caught up in memories at the oddest moments and oblivious to whatever is being discussed right in front of her.  Perhaps age is taking its toll more than she realizes?

How did such a romantic man turn into such a verbal and physical abuser who never had a kind word for anyone and who was feared by everyone in the house. One could hardly call this a home under such a constant threatening atmosphere!  How could one be other than grossly dysfunctional.  It has made one daughter terrified of committing herself to any romantic bond, even though one has recently appeared that would be sheer delight for anyone.

The Secret Season is a very intense read, heavy and at times as oppressive as the atmosphere depicted.  For this alone Jennifer Scott deserves accolades, although it’s not a pleasant experience.  But more than that is the fact that these sisters have to learn to face each other with care, stop navel gazing, forgive (although one could never forget what they have endured) and be there for each other as well as their Mom.  The book is carefully crafted with pivotal moments carefully placed in a solid plot that moves after a slow beginning.  Nice writing and very appropriate themes as the holidays approach for families of all! 

The Vintage Teacup Club by Vanessa Greene

The Vintage Teacup Club: A Novel.  Vanessa Greene. Penguin Group USA.  November 2013. 400 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425265581.

Three women are standing together but apart as they stare at a set of vintage teacups.  One can feel the tension as each wants to buy the whole set but knows the others want that sale just as much. Before the reader realizes it, they come to a perfect compromise.  Each will share the set for a certain period of time before the last purchaser gets to own the whole set.  In the process a wonderful friendship is established and this novel is about the lives of these apparently unimportant women who live such typical and yet unique lives.  Their past is as much vintage living as the cups they share, with a history and consequences worth sharing!

Jennie’s engaged to Dan and seems very content with their love.  She enjoys sharing with her new found friends but is about to receive the shock of her life when she hears from someone unexpected.  And it’s not someone she wants in her life again at all!

Alison is a happily married woman with two daughters, one of who is feeling every one of her teenage oats and doesn’t mind letting her mother know it.  Alison worries that her previously close relationship is falling apart but something will occur that shows Alison hasn’t lost her daughter at all.  It’s a fairly common tale here but the way Alison and her friends deal with it all is what makes the friendship so valuable.

Maggie has tossed the past away along with a relationship which practically devastated her after she was rejected by the man she thought she would be living with forever.  However, she’s started a new florist business which has prospered and now includes a wedding she’s planning that’s probably the largest job she’s ever had. It’s got unique challenges since it’s to be geared to an Alice in Wonderland theme, complete with mushrooms and tea party to be held in a gorgeously planned garden.  The man in charge of the garden, however, Owen, is an ornery creature who seems to find a problem with Maggie’s every plan or suggestion and could definitely thwart her plans for the future as well since success with this endeavor would bode well for future business for sure.

The Vintage Teacup Club has a fairly simple plot but is no less endearing for that fact.  Sometimes there can be a loveliness to a simple story that is well-told with dynamic characters and unique plot. This is just such a story and very nicely done as Vanessa Greene’s first novel.

Flash and Dazzle by Lou Aronica

Flash and Dazzle.  Lou Aronica. The Story Plant.  November 2013. 288 pp. e-book. ISBN #: 9781611880694.

Flash and Dazzle are two guys lucky enough to find each other not only as great colleagues but who also become best friends or soul mates who supposedly know each other’s thoughts before they are thought and who bring out the best in each other.  Their friendship is uniquely remarkable, but their future is about to become even more so in the most unexpected way possible.  Flash is a copywriter and Dazzle is an art director in a small but well-known ad agency.  Reading about how they bounce ideas off each other until they come up with brilliant ad campaigns is fascinating stuff and even humorous because of their antics and light style with it all.  They are no lightweights in the industry, however; and Flash is very, very surprised when another opportunity arises for him to work elsewhere, without Daz, his best buddy. 

Flash will be wined and dined, interviewed, cosseted with a perky weekend trip set to woo him but with one unexpected caveat that stuns him.  That won’t be the ultimate stunner, however, as he doesn’t realize that the recent brief illnesses of Daz are much more serious, in fact devastating.

It’s after discovering Daz’s problem that the real sharing about life and life’s changes suddenly become devastatingly real and poignant beyond words.  In the process he meets Daz’s sister and the three discuss numerous serious and hilarious memories that forged their personalities into the capable and admirable people they have become.

Secrets and fantasies fill the mix as the three friends work their way through exotic meals, movies and music while awaiting the ultimate challenge of change.  There are potent moments that are depicted in a very real way without being maudlin or exaggerated.  A deep respect for the vivaciousness of life fills every page and the prospect of change heightens each moment’s precious value.

Flash and Dazzle, like so many of Lou Aronica’s other novels, is a dynamic contemporary novel that readers will for sure find fully engaging and worthwhile reading.  Lou Aronica is a talented writer who uses subtlety rather than explicit description to depict the normalcy, quirkiness and fluctuations of honest characters.  Terrific writing and reading!

Dollface: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties by Renee Rosen

Dollface: A Novel of the Roaring Twenties.  Renee Rosen. Penguin Group USA.  November 2013. 416 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780451419200.

“Dollface” was the name frequently given to girlfriends of mobsters during the “Flapper” years of the Roaring Twenties.  To be so labeled was an honor, indicating the woman was highly protected and fawned on, but at a very great cost. Vera Abramowitz appears initially as a girl who thought she was escaping a world of drudgery by fleeing to Chicago.  Her father had been killed by the Black Hand Gang and she wanted nothing of that life or of the meat packing plant her mother was now running, an amazing feat in itself in this era when women were only just starting to work in offices and factories but certainly not in management.   Vera doesn’t quite see it that way and is barely making her meager bills with her typist’s salary. But two men are about to change Vera’s entire world and introduce her to the world of flashy living, guns, mobster hits, illegal booze running, and more toughness than any sane woman would ever want!

Tony, an Al Capone hood, first dazzles Vera with his fancy lifestyle to which he introduces her.  Their world is filled with unbelievable passion but without commitment and the latter is the only part that leaves Vera feeling somewhat unsure of the future. Still she hangs on as her life has become somewhat easier since Tony treats her well with occasional gifts and even money.  All of this changes when she meets a man named Shep Green, who owns a nightclub and is deeply involved with Capone’s rival gang, the North Side Gang.  Tony knows Vera is attracted to Shep, but Shep knows nothing of his serious rival.  It is Shep to whom Vera pivots because he actually shows that he really cares about her, a novelty for this love-starved gal who is so dazzled with the luxurious lifestyle around her new friends.  Questions arise, though, that are extremely disquieting at times but which Vera shoves away in denial, literally questions of life and death!

Hints are dropped by Shep’s friends that seem to indicate shady business deals and rivalries that wind up in “hits.”  These increase in frequency throughout the novel as vengeance and fury rule the day with the grief of losing each member.  Vera is lost in her new home and eventually a gorgeous baby girl after a very quick wedding to Shep, but her denial phase is about to end with a bang when more murders occur and Shep seems slated to go to jail.  Her fortunes, it seems, are as fickle as fate since they rely on something that is totally falling apart at the seams.

There is enough partying, gaiety, intimate sharings with guys and gals, dancing, drinking, shopping for the latest flapper styles and hairdos, tension, unexplained dangers, and so much more that keep the reader riveted to every page and flipping them rapidly to find out more.  It’s an attractive and glamorous lifestyle these characters lived, a post-WWI revel that couldn’t possibly last but which was relished by participants and observers (readers as well) while it reigned supreme in the streets of major cities around America in the 1920’s. The end is stunning and can be visualized as a fierce and heart-rending mobster movie scene! Renee Rosen has captured not only the essence of it all but the fierce passion in which mobsters and their gals moved with elegance and gusto! This is a terrific read about a volatile and exciting time and is highly recommended to all!

Cold Light - Book 2 of the After Trilogy by Traci L. Slatton

Cold Light.  Traci L. Slatton. Parvati Press. October 2013. 215 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780986061103.

“Gun fire and war cries, screams of terror and hooves and explosive charges, rattled, boomed and whistled through the frigid air.” This is the beginning of Book Two of the After trilogy series.

A major raid on Emma’s village and the kidnapping of her daughter, Beth, tear Emma apart. In one sense, she’s lucky Beth is alive but doesn’t know where she’s been taken or what will happen to her by the brutal raiders who care not for life or death but only their own gain.  It’s been over a year since the last vicious battle, but once again Emma steels herself and insists she will travel through the brutal winter to find and rescue her precious child. The weather is not the only danger; the poisonous Mists that feed on the lives of the ones they surround have been seen northwards.  Add to that there are enemy towns with strict rules, especially the one promising death to any person stupid enough to steal a horse.

For supplies are thinning out and winter is the worst time as nothing can be grown.  Towns that were destroyed by the Mists have run out of canned goods and other necessities of life, but the people are learning to survive by the old ways before technology made life so amazingly easy, so unappreciated at the time.  So Emma travels through vicious storms and enters towns where she trades her skills as a Healer for basic food and shelter for sleeping, just managing to avoid those with lurid desires and plans.
In her heart as she travels, Emma longs for her lover, the enigmatic Robert who actually accidentally created the Mists that are destroying the world a section at a time. Yes, she is married but not to Robert.  Her husband Haywood is not strong enough to keep her from going and Robert has returned for Emma and another reason which he will not initially reveal.  Can Robert still control the Mists as he used to be able to do?  Is there a way to finally conquer the devastating Mists?

Cold Light continues with scenes of adventure, treachery, brutality, and passion for these feisty characters who love and live with such fierce intensity that actually seeps into the reader while reading.  Traci Slatton’s series is a notable work of science fiction and/or paranormal fiction that will intrigue and thrill readers who love this genre.  How these characters surmount the numerous threats plaguing them on a daily basis makes for a great read! The dangers of science remain a powerful undercurrent of this futuristic story that could turn into reality by those who fail to recognize the lurking threat in their experimentation. Again, nicely done, Traci Slatton!