Review of “Visions” by Kelley Armstrong

This is Book Two of the paranormal “Cainsville Series” that blends mystery, crime, and the supernatural with romance.

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Olivia Taylor-Jones, 24, is now living in Cainsville, a suburb of Chicago, and working as a research assistant to a handsome and emotionally distant lawyer, 30-year-old Gabriel Walsh. She is also starting a relationship with hot 22-year-old Ricky Gallagher, heir-apparent to leadership of the “Satan’s Saints” biker gang.

As if all that weren’t enough to occupy Liv, she has the power to detect and decipher omens, which have been increasing in number since she came to Cainsville. And in fact, the denizens of Cainsville are definitely not normal, but Liv doesn’t quite understand what it is about them that is different.

This book is part of the urban fantasy genre, which consists of stories usually set in current times in the real world but containing elements of fantasy. In this case, the fantasy aspects involve characters from Welsh mythology and folklore, including the Tylwyth Teg, or fae, and the Cŵn Annwn, the spectral hounds of Annwn – the mythological Welsh otherworld. Liv and Gabriel find out more about these creatures than they would probably prefer as they set out to uncover just what is going on in Cainsville.

But this is a crime series as well, and in this “episode” Gabriel and Liv search for the killer of a dead girl whose body inexplicably showed up in Liv’s car. In addition, we find out a bit more background on Gabriel’s tortured psyche and what caused it. Liv’s relationship with Ricky intensifies, but I’m on Team Gabriel.

Evaluation: I got pulled into urban fantasy series by reading a “regular” crime series by Armstrong (The Nadia Stafford series) and then I wanted to read everything else she wrote. I love the style of romantic tension she creates between her main characters. I also love how her characters are always so complex, torn, contradictory, and vulnerable, while also being hopeful and brave in unexpected ways. As a special bonus with this particular series, you get to learn a lot about Welsh folklore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: These books are not standalones.

Published by Dutton, a member of the Penguin Group, 2014

Review of “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell” by Nadia Hashimi

In 2010, Time Magazine reported the far from atypical story of 18-year-old Aisha, who tried to run away from her village in Southern Afghanistan to escape her abusive husband and in-laws. (She was married at age 12.) The judge, a local Taliban commander, decreed she must be punished, and while her brother-in-law held her down, her husband sliced off her ears and then her nose, leaving her on a mountainside to die.

It is not just the Taliban, however, who enforce this harsh treatment of women. According to Nicholas Kristof writing for the New York Times in 2010:

One man from Helmand Province, Wali Khan, told me that there would be no difference for women in his village, whether the Taliban rule or not, because in either case women would be locked up in the home. He approvingly cited an expression in Pashto that translates to: “a wife should be in the home — or in the grave.”

[And Afghanistan is not the only region in which these practices prevail. For example, in June, 2014, a pregnant Pakistani woman who had married against her family's wishes was beaten to death in a busy Lahore street while a crowd of men watched. In 2013, over 850 women were killed in Pakistan by their families after marrying or dating unapproved men, or after having been raped.]

According to a U.N. study, in 2013, Afghanistan saw a 28 percent increase in reports of attacks against women, with little rise in prosecutions. (The report cautions however that many women are understandably afraid to report abuse so the numbers are probably much higher.)

The report, horrific to read, contains testimony like this:

I was 15 when I was forcibly married to someone in an exchange marriage when my brother married my husband’s sister.… From the very first day my husband made it clear that he was married to me against his will and he regularly subjected me to violence including beating and abuse.”

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In The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, we get to know a (fictional) victim of very similar abuse in Afghanistan, a young girl named Rahima, who is married off at age 13 to Abdul Khaliq, a fierce local warlord in his late forties. Rahima was to become his fourth wife. She was resented and mistreated not only by her husband’s other wives, but by his mother, who lost no opportunity to berate and beat Rahima. (One notable aspect of this story is that women are fully complicit in the abuse.)

Rahima’s story alternates with that of her great-great-great grandmother Shekiba, as gradually told to Rahima by her mother’s sister, Aunt Shaima. Shaima is a spinster who largely takes over the role of parenting Rahima and her sisters when the parents become incapacitated by the opium paid as bride prices for their girls.

Shekiba lived in the early 20th Century, and was disfigured because of a burn to her face when she was two. After her family died from a cholera epidemic, she was farmed out to relatives, who scorned her because of her face, overworked her, and beat her.

As Rahima’s situation gets worse, she thinks more and more about Shekiba’s story, and the steps Shekiba took to change her naseeb or destiny.

There are no magical dei ex machina for women in Afghanistan, but the two brave and determined women who are the protagonists of this book do what they can to save themselves, and it will make your heart soar.

Evaluation: This is an excellent story and an important one. It provides an intimate look at the conditions in which women in other cultures must survive, and raises thought-provoking questions about what can and cannot be done to help them, and, indeed, what should be done, given that cultural, religious, and even the social attitudes of women themselves reinforce the shocking ways in which girls and women are used and abused. As Rahima observes, “Men can do what they want with women.” Thus far, it has been extremely dangerous for victims of abuse to object.

This would make an excellent choice for bookclubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

Review of “Torn Away” by Jennifer Brown

This very intense story tells what happens to a girl who loses her family when a strong tornado hits her city in Elizabeth, Missouri.

Jersey Cameron, 16, lives with her mom, 5-year-old stepsister Marin, and stepdad Ronnie in a town where tornado warnings are fairly common. Residents often practiced for what to do when the sirens went off, but as Jersey says later, “. . . we’d never – not once – discussed what to do after.” For some people, the tornado is only the beginning of the pain and heartache.

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When the tornado hits, Jersey is home alone and goes to the basement. She later finds out her mom and Marin are among the 129 dead. Ronnie eventually comes back to the wreckage of the house and takes Jersey to stay at a motel, but he is emotionally devastated, and decides he cannot take care of Jersey. He drives her three hours away to the home of her father’s parents, people Jersey didn’t even know existed. She had not previously met her dad, Clay.

Clay and his wife are mean drunks, and their two girls are even more vicious. Clay’s parents – ostensibly Jersey’s grandparents, aren’t much better. Clay’s sister is the only one who even shows a spark of humanity, but she has her own burdens, and not much time for Jersey. Jersey begs her BFF Dani back in Elizabeth to ask her mom to come get her, but Dani’s mom calls Ronnie instead.

Ronnie comes to pick up Jersey, but won’t take her back himself. He delivers her to Jersey’s mom’s parents this time. Jersey had always been taught by her mom that they were “the enemy,” and Jersey had never met this set of grandparents either. Barry and Patty seem to be warm, loving people, but Jersey feels that even being nice to them would be a betrayal to her mom. In fact, loving anyone seems like something Jersey never wants to risk again. She is filled with confusion and guilt and rage, and she is scared and lonely and tired all the time.

As time passes, however, Jersey starts to see that the truth isn’t always black and white, and what her mom told her was only one side of the story. And her grandparents have infinite patience, even when Jersey herself knows she is being “unfair, and selfish and ugly.” She is somewhat astonished to observe that her grandparents seemed to understand what she was going through, and “they’d acted like… family. Like they were offering a place to belong. I just had to take it.”

By the end of the book, Jersey is starting to realize that “family” has to do with “what was in your heart.” Her grandparents’ hearts were open. If Jersey wanted family again, “all I needed to do was open up and let them in.” She is beginning to think that maybe she can.

Discussion: This book will be very helpful to kids who feel betrayed by people they thought they could trust. When a child is abandoned or mistreated or shocked by finding out unpleasant truths, who can help the child cope if the very people who are supposed to be the caregivers aren’t available? How can the child overcome the anger and grief? For all those who have been victims of disasters, divorce, abuse, abandonment, or other situations causing profound emotional dislocation, this story will make them feel less alone.

Evaluation: This is a sad but hard-hitting and very realistic seeming story that ends on a hopeful note.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014

Review of “Lighthouse Island” by Paulette Jiles

I was immediately swept into the world of this creatively different post-apocalytic dystopian reverie for adults.

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As with many post-apocalyptic scenarios, the world has been decimated by unsupportable levels of population growth, environmental devastation, decline of education and technology, urban wars and perhaps most central to this story, “the ineradicable fungus of bureaucratic jargon.” And you have to love how political districts are now referred to as Gerrymanders.

In this shady world where freedom is uncertain and aleatory, people kept disappearing, “but everybody pretended not to notice and stayed neutral and colorless like fabric lampshades.”

Ubiquitous large television screens now provide the opiate of the masses, with news programs that gave people “the feeling of being informed”; public trials to shame and destroy those who don’t comply with regulations; fantasy serials to satisfy peoples’ desires for a better life; and even public executions to titillate them while instilling more mind-controlling fear. And always there are ads encouraging people to save up for a vacation at Lighthouse Island, a supposed paradise somewhere in the Northwest.

But that isn’t the only entertainment available to the masses. While the language on the tv was “crushed by fear and boredom,” there was also “Big Radio,” a voice from an abandoned satellite that cycles through all the old classics of literature all year long. It is in this way that Nadia, an orphan abandoned when she was four, acquires her unusual education. Since she was briefly blind, her eyes never adjusted well to television, and she relied on Big Radio to fill her hours with entertainment, and her imagination with dreams. In addition, “Nadia plunged into books because there was no danger of fictional characters disappearing, and even better, they were not subject to arrest.”

Like so many others, Nadia aspires to go to Lighthouse Island, but she is smarter and more resourceful than most. When circumstances dictate that she needs to run and hide for her life, she decides to try to make her way there. She finds an unlikely source of help from a politically powerful paraplegic, James, who falls in love with Nadia, and is determined to help her.

Discussion: There are many elegantly phrased passages in this book, as well as apt allusions to poems and classics reflecting Nadia’s frame of reference – snippets inserted slyly that will titillate more literate readers. When Nadia first sees an airplane, for example, her wonder at its creation evokes William Blake’s “The Tiger.” There are whispers of Eliot and Yeats and opera and plays. Everything comes together without fanfare but in symphonic alignment, as with this nice passage, when Nadia and her fellow prisoner Charity are in a room with their prison administrator and James:

Nadia glanced quickly from one side to the other. The entire room seemed to be electrified, its photons and electrons and atoms and beige-and-blue-striped curtains in a slubby weave were all charged with desire. With potential and kinetic love. With poetry and antique emotions. With faith, hope, and Charity, who was standing quietly by with a bread knife in her hand thinking of slitting the administrator’s throat.”

I admired the many ways in which the author (a poet as well as a writer) juxtaposes the ugliness of the man-made world to the beauty of nature, such as her description of the sea when it beat and spangled on the rocks “and threw sequins into the air and overhead the gulls sailed and watched.”

And there is this well-crafted and astute definition of love:

James searched [Nadia’s] face as if wondering how a blind orphan child had become this ardent young woman with her face now smoothed out by wet and damp. To him she was erotic and steadfast and endearing and if she were not this to other people, then he alone held the key to her being. Sometimes love is blind and sometimes it is sighted, perhaps with a third eye.”

Sometimes the tone of the prose was a bit dream-like and fantastical, and some aspects of Nadia’s journey lacked for realism, but while I didn’t like those aspects of the story as much, they fit.

Evaluation: I was quite impressed with this surprising book, and consistently absorbed in the story. Those who like poetry will find this book especially rewarding, as the author – through her craft, manages to transmogrify bleak destruction and hopelessness into transcendent beauty and salvation.

Rating: 4/5

Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013

Review of “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” by Kai Bird

This is a very timely book, even though it tells the story of a man who died on April 18, 1983 in the suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.  That man was Robert Ames, a CIA expert on the Middle East.  In the course of telling his story, the Pulitzer Prize winning author also provides excellent background on the roots of the current problems in the Middle East.

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Bob Ames was highly regarded in the CIA because for one thing, he could speak Arabic fluidly.  He even acted as a translator at times for State Department officials in the Middle East.  (I find that to be a rather sad commentary on the qualifications and/or training of the Foreign Service.)  Ames was also attracted to the Arab culture generally and made it his business to interact with natives rather than just hanging around with other diplomats, as so many others did.

Bob Ames

Bob Ames

This admirable quality of Ames had the effect, however, of making him rather biased toward the Arab side of affairs.  He had little sympathy for Israel and seemed to consider himself an advocate for the Palestinians.  To that end, he made some close friendships with members of the PLO, including Ali Hassan Salameh, the so-called Red Prince, commander of Yasser Arafat’s personal security squad and chief of operations for the terrorist Black September group (the organization responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre and other attacks).

Bob Ames considered Salameh a “special friend” and even tried to get permission to give him a firearm as a gift.  He was denied that request, but he was able to arrange (with the approval of CIA Director George H.W. Bush) for Salameh to get an all-expense paid trip to Disneyland, New Orleans, and Hawaii with his mistress.  (This mistress, a former Miss Universe, eventually became Salameh’s second wife — the allowance of multiple wives being one of the few aspects of Islam to which Salameh paid obeisance.)

Ali Hassan Salameh (left) shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Lebanese Phalangist party. Gemayel's son Bashir is between them. As-Safir newspaper, Beirut

Ali Hassan Salameh (left) shaking hands with Pierre Gemayel, the founder of the Lebanese Phalangist party. Gemayel’s son Bashir is between them. As-Safir newspaper, Beirut

Bird devotes a lot of coverage to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and brutal massacre that same year in mid-September by Lebanese Maronite Christians of mostly civilian refugees in the camps at Sabra and Shatila.  The massacre was horrific, involving rape, torture, mutilation, and execution.  Oddly, the Maronite Christians were not the ones who were blamed for the outrages they committed.  Most Arabs blamed the Israelis, who were in fact in the area, and did nothing to prevent what happened.  But in addition, the U.S. had pulled out most of its forces shortly before the Maronites went on the rampage.  The U.S. preferred Maronite primacy in Lebanon to the increasing influence of Soviet-backed Syria.

In any event, the blowback from the murder of all the innocents in the refugee camps energized a number of terrorist groups who wanted nothing more than to wreak havoc on both Israel and the U.S.

The United States embassy bombing in Lebanon the following April was part of this blowback.   A car loaded with explosives drove into the lobby of the building and detonated.  At the time, concrete car barriers had been sitting in a storage area at the Embassy, yet to be put outside to prevent just such an occurrence.  Aside from Bob Ames, 62 others were killed, including a total of seventeen Americans.

US embassy in Beirut bombed in 1983 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

US embassy in Beirut bombed in 1983 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer

One of the men thought to be a mastermind behind the attack, Imad Mughniyeh, went on to arrange a number of other suicide bombings for Hezbollah, and it was rumored that Osama bin Laden consulted with him in planning for the September 11 attacks.  Mughniyeh was assassinated in 2008 in an action that the CIA says was undertaken by Mossad, and Mossad says was undertaken by the CIA.

Discussion:  While incredibly well-researched, there is occasional repetitiveness in the book, which is surprising.  I can only guess it was rushed into publication precisely because the issues in the book are so relevant to today’s news.

Northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

Northern Gaza Strip, Monday, Aug. 11, 2014

That relevance relates to one of my biggest takeaways form from this book, which is that, if the past is any guide (and I have no reason to think it would be different now),  no one can say what is ever really going on behind the scenes with governmental players.  They not only have to present a certain face to the world for political and diplomatic reasons, but also a lot of their negotiations are highly dependent on secrecy and even duplicity.  Maybe you will find out the truth forty years later, maybe not.  But I think we can be fairly certain that whatever Obama, Netanyahu, Putin, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, King Abdullah, David Cameron, or anyone else says in public, it only has a 50% chance of reflecting what is really going on in private.

My second takeaway:  both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have legitimate concerns and grievances, and both sides have responded to each other irrationally.  But Bob Ames definitely sympathized with the Arab side, overlooking or justifying somehow their terrorist activities, and I think the author sways in that direction as well.  This was never conveyed by a discussion of the pros and cons of each side, if you will.  It was just simply always there, in the background.

Third:  One of the biggest tragedies with the situation between Israel and the Palestinians is that, while people in countries all over the world feel passionately about one side or the other, no one wants to allow either one to emigrate, so neither side really has anywhere else to go.  Furthermore, both sides are convinced (largely for religious reasons) that they need to be in that particular place.  (So much for the idea of Larry Ellison, who purchased an entire island of Hawaii, buying them each a place somewhere else ….)  There seems to be no alternative but for the two sides to find a way to get along with each other, but of course, that doesn’t seem to be happening….

At Hezbollah's "Museum for Resistance Tourism" in Lebanon, celebrating terrorism against Israel

At Hezbollah’s “Museum for Resistance Tourism” in Lebanon, celebrating terrorism against Israel

Evaluation:  I tended not to regard this so much as a biography but rather as a detailed examination of the operations of the CIA, particularly in the Middle East.  As such, it is an extremely valuable insider look of a part of U.S. operations that don’t often see the light of day.  

Rating:  4/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Wow!  Rene Ruiz does a fantastic job.  He clearly did a great deal of research into the pronunciation of a multitude of Arabic names and Middle East places.  His intonation and pacing are good as well. 

Published unabridged on 12 CDs (15 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “A Thirst for Home” by Christine Leronimo

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This is the story of a young girl from Ethiopia named Alemitu, which means world. Her mother, Emaye, can no longer feed her, and sends her to the United States for adoption, but not before telling her she will love her forever.

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Alemitu’s American mother is a loving woman who is “the color of the moon” and the girl feels safe again. She is given the name Eva, which means life. In America she also acquires a sister, two brothers, a dad, and a dog.

In her new home, water is plentiful, unlike it was in Ethiopia, and Eva wishes she could show her birth mother. When she hears raindrops, she remembers what Emaye told her:

All over the world, the clouds make the rain and the rain brings us our water. This connects us to everyone and everywhere. Water is life.”

The next morning after the rain, Eva looks into a puddle and sees an image of her Emaye smiling:

The water has connected my two worlds, and I know who I am.”

At the end of the story, an author’s note explains that in Ethiopia, 65 percent of the population lives without access to clean, safe drinking water. In many places, women and girls travel miles each way to retrieve water from dirty and contaminated watering holes. The author provides websites for interested readers to learn more about the problems of dirty drinking water, and how to help.

Gathering water in Ethiopia (from website water.org)

Gathering water in Ethiopia (from website water.org)

Discussion: The author herself adopted a girl from Ethiopia, and she has traveled back to Ethiopia several times to see the mother and give her news of her daughter (also named Eva). But in the book, we don’t know if Eva ever sees her mother again, or even what becomes of her mother. In fact, we only assume that Eva was taken to an adoption agency in the first place; it isn’t actually mentioned in the book. In addition, the author never explains why there is no choice but for the mother to send Eva away, or how Eva feels about it. And while Eva does think about her mother here and there, she adjusts amazingly quickly and well to her new life. I would definitely want to know what happens to the mother, who is portrayed so sympathetically but is then summarily dismissed in favor of showing all the riches of Eva’s new life.

The oils by Eric Velasquez are soft and lush, skillfully employing selective colors to convey the parched landscape of Ethiopia versus the greens and blues of the girl’s new home in America.

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Evaluation: As long as an adult is available to fill in the gaps in the story, this book could be soothing to children who have had to leave their original homes. It also alerts kids in the U.S. that not all countries are as blessed in even the basics, like food and water.

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Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Walker Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014

Review of “Ironhorse” by Robert Knott

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Robert B. Parker, who died in 2010, is best-known for his crime novels featuring a tough, but literate, detective named Spenser. He was a master of lean prose and snarky dialog who had only in his later years tried to write westerns. He finished four such novels, which feature U.S. Marshall Virgil Cole, a tight-lipped dead shot with his Colt revolvers. The Parker Estate along with the publisher commissioned actor and screenwriter Robert Knott to continue the series with Ironhorse.

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I haven’t read the other Virgil Cole novels, but I have read about ten of Parker’s crime novels. The characters in Knott’s version of Parker are men of fewer words than Spenser or Parker’s other protagonists. They are also not as literate or literary, but I’m not sure I want my cowboys to be making veiled references to Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky.

I half expected the author to keep me guessing who the real bad guys were, but there is not much ambiguity in the plot of this novel. Cole and his deputy, Everett Hitch, are riding back home on a railroad train when the train is commandeered by a gang of robbers. Cole and Hitch manage to take back some of the cars of the train (killing a few of the robbers on the way), but then their cars are disconnected from the engine. The remaining robbers make their escape, taking with them the two pretty young daughters of the governor of Texas as hostages. Cole and Hitch go off the rescue the girls and settle some old scores with various members of the robber gang.

There are several opportunities to complicate the plot, for instance by having the governor be complicit in the kidnapping of his daughters to have state money pay the ransom, but all the characters are just who they appear at first to be. Despite the simplicity of the story line, the book manages to keep the reader’s attention. The author has mastered the details of 19th century railroading and teaches us a lot about the functioning of the telegraph. Perhaps his attention to the fine details of each character’s actions brings the story to life.

Evaluation: I enjoyed the book enough to plan to read one of Parker’s westerns written by Parker himself.

Rating: 3/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA), 2013

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