Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Have you noticed that some of the most entertaining fiction turns out to be the real deal?  So it goes with Circling the Sun, a biography of  Beryl Markham, a singular woman who was raised without rules and limitations in turn-of-the 20th century Kenya.  The prologue begins as Beryl is beginning a solo flight across the Atlantic from England in 1936.  Alone, she flies into a fierce storm, and then has the unsettling experience of an obviously empty fuel tank and a sputtering engine.  Not knowing if this is will be the end of her life or not, she begins to recall the unique and spectacular life she has led.

As the book begins, she arrives from Great Britain in 1904 with her parents, who are ready to turn 1500 acres of raw and beautiful country into their own horse farm and country estate.  Beryl's mother discovers within a couple of years that she cannot bear the harsh life and returns to England with her son, but shockingly, leaves her little four year old daughter behind.

Beryl's dad is determined to make it as a horse breeder and trainer, and raises a daughter with similar interests and skills.  Beryl is not much for school or traditional feminine pursuits, and spends much of her childhood playing with the children of the Kipsigi families who live in mud huts on their farm, always willing to challenge the child who could jump the highest or run the fastest.

Author Paula McLain uses beautiful prose to capture the beauty of the untamed land as well as the strength and power of the indigenous animals, not to mention the sleek and powerful horses they are training.  She captures the different values and cultures of the British and the Kipsigi villagers.  Much of the story is taken from the memoir that Beryl Markham wrote herself, as she looked back on the life she led, more or less making up the rules as she went along.

As Beryl grows older she is exposed to and sometimes confused  by the looser moral code of the Britishers in Kenya.  Her dad, a quiet man, does not offer her much in the way of guidance.  She is a beautiful and confident young woman who naively marries (first) the wrong man and second, way too soon.  Her husband doesn't love her, drinks too much and does not want a divorce.  Though a divorce is a long time coming, she insists on making her own living as a race horse trainer, a field unknown to women professionals at that time. She is a strong woman who is shaped by the land of Kenya and the people who share the life and choices available to them at that place and time.

I received an e-copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. It is well worth reading, and it is especially interesting to note that the great love of Beryl's life was Meryl Streep's main guy (oops I mean Karen Blixen's main guy) in Out of Africa...just depends on who is telling the story...

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

This charming book, I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, was first published in 1948 in Great Britain, and as I understand it, has been in print there continuously since then. The protagonist, 17 year old Cassandra Mortmain, is keeping a journal to teach herself how to write, so she is recording the life and times of her very unique family.

Years ago her dad had written a best seller, Jacob Wrestling, combining fiction, philosophy and poetry, which supposedly inspired James Joyce and other writers, but, for various reasons, he has never written another book.  When the money was still rolling in, the dad invested in a castle in ruins...what he did was to acquire a 40 year lease from the family who owns the estate, and move his family in.  The family made a few improvements, but as the money dwindled, they eventually sold off everything of value they own and are living in not so genteel poverty.  They can't even afford the monthly payments any more, but the elderly land owner has not insisted that they pay or leave.

But that situation may change when the elderly gentleman passes away, and the estate passes to his American grandson. The story takes place in the 1930's and is loaded with interesting characters, both wealthy and poor, generous and selfish, wise and maybe a little loony.

Cassandra's story expands to include her beautiful older sister Rose, whose sense of entitlement includes the need to take walks when  it is time to clean the castle, not to mention how much she despises being so poor; their stepmother, a bohemian woman who swears her birth name is Topaz, and who has made a name for herself in the art world modelling for artists...but on the positive side, likes to cook and greatly admires her husband in spite of his appalling lack of productivity.  Cassandra also has a younger brother Thomas. Another boy Stephan has lived with them since his housekeeper mother  passed away some years earlier.  He is loyal to the family and particularly fond of Cassandra, though she is not interested in him romantically.

Life gets exciting when the heirs to the estate show up and take an interest in the Mortmain family.  The mother, Mrs. Cotton, remembers James Mortmain's lecture tour in the US, and tries to talk him into writing again.  Her sons Simon and Neil are interested in Mortmain, but lots more interested in his daughters. The American family begins to subsidize their tenants financially and culturally.

Dodie Smith has created a witty and charming narrator in Cassandra.  She changes and grows as the family's story grows more complex and the stories of individual family members and friends begin to weave together. It becomes a coming of age story for her as she experiences infatuation, love and increasing frustration with several family members, growing and maturing through various awkward situations.

Unlike James Mortmain, Dodie Smith has written several books, including the children's classic, The Hundred and One Dalmations. It was recommended to me by my  book-loving, avid reading dental hygenist, Erika O.  Thank you, Erika!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Susannah Screaming, by Carolyn Weston

Susannah Screaming is set in Santa Monica in the 60's. It's a police procedural and a fast paced thriller to boot.  It begins with a hapless lonely guy at the all night laundromat who happens to witness a murder, which looks for all the world to the cops who are investigating like a hit and run. The thing is, Paul Rees had seen the Mercedes run over the motorcyclist, back up, and run over him again.  But the police are skeptical, particularly when another witness describes a different kind of car. The woman seems like a local, whereas Paul sounds kind of sketchy, like he has something to hide.

But when the medical examiner gets a chance to see the body, he is somewhat taken aback that what should be a naked corpse is covered in cellophane wrap, encasing the body in many, many $20.00 bills.  Maybe Mr. Rees' story sounds a little more plausible now.

Al Krug, the older cop, can't get passed his deep doubt about Mr. Rees and continues to think of him as more of a suspect than a witness.  It doesn't take long to learn that he is a recently released convict, who was in prison for attacking the man who had run over his wife a couple of years ago. The female witness is Susannah Roche, who says she is an actress, but the older cop has her pegged as a prostitute who was likely on her way home from a "date" when she witnessed the accident.

As morning comes, the police partners, Krug and the younger cop Casey Kellog have finished interviewing the witnesses and release them, but the very tired officers find that their superior officer is extending their shifts.  All that money might be counterfeit and has attracted the attention of the Fraud Unit, and perhaps the Feds.  There is a lot of investigating yet to do.

In the meantime, Paul and Susannah have spent enough time together at the police station that he gathers up his courage and asks her to breakfast.  He begins to dream that there might be a chance for the elusive Joy to return to his life, and he and Susannah plan to meet later for dinner.  But the more involved the case gets, the more the hapless Mr. Rees seems to look to the police as if he might be in on the counterfeiting.  Why else would he be so nervous?

Lots of twists and turns and funky characters, not to mention the tension between the older experienced cop and his younger partner, who is more into thinking and analyzing...practices which don't hold a candle to experience, as Krug likes to point out. 

Really entertaining, fast paced reading.  I highly recommend it and intend to watch for more work from Carolyn Weston.  The book is published by Brash Books, which provided the e-book, via NetGalley, which I read on my Kindle App.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Ice Like Fire, by Sara Raasch

This is the sequel to Snow Like Ashes and though the reader can certainly follow the thread of the story, it will be more meaningful to read the novels in sequence. This continues the story of Meira, a young would-be soldier of a downtrodden kingdom called Winter.  In this world, several of the kingdoms are called by the names of the Seasons and the weather in each kingdom matches its name. As Ice Like Fire begins, Meira has been named Queen of Winter; she has some magical powers, but no real confidence in her ability to lead.

Though Winter is now technically free, the kingdom is now in debt to Cordell, another  kingdom to their north, and is more or less a vassal state.  Meira is no longer engaged to Theron, the prince of Cordell, but he is still in love with her and is eager to advise her as she makes decisions about the mining industry of Winter.  Noam, Cordell's king, is also very interested in the potential wealth of the struggling kingdom of Winter, and may be influencing his son to favor Cordell's interests over Winter's.

Unexpectedly, the miners discover a door to a hidden chasm filled with magical power, but the keys to gain entry must be found by visiting other kingdoms.  Meira is willing to go and try to build alliances with other kingdoms, but before she knows it, Theron is also traveling with her and has an agenda of his own.  Mather, the boy she grew up with and thought she loved, remains in Winter, still intent on protecting the kingdom and his people just  as certainly as he did when he thought he would be king. He and Meira still have a strong bond, but awkwardness is its main feature since she has become queen.

Magic is key to the power which is part of the dynastic rule of each kingdom, and Meira has come to realize that magic can be used for either good or evil.  She sees the results of misused magic in the other kingdoms and ponders whether the world would be better off with no magic at all.  She is certainly frustrated by the lack of control which she has over her own powers, but comes to realize that her warrior skills may be what is needed most of all.  Much still needs to be done, but does Meira have the wisdom and skills to undo all the damage that evil magic has accomplished?

The Watchers (Book 1: The Watchers Series), by Lynnie Purcell

Claire Michaels is a 16 year old teen who prefers to be a loner.  She knows she is different and has known it for years.  Her mom did not hide from her that her absentee father is actually a fallen angel.  She knows that there are other fallen angels out there who will be pursuing her and her special talents for their own purposes.  For that reason she and her mom have moved from place to place any time they felt threatened by otherworldly powers.

But at long last they are going home.  Claire's estranged grandfather surprised them all by leaving his home to his daughter, Claire's mom, in his will.  Though Claire does not expect to be accepted by the kids at her new high school, she is surprised by the openness of several of the other students.  One of Claire's special gifts is that she can "hear" the thoughts of most of them.  Interestingly though, the thoughts of the guy who is most interesting, also obviously the most  popular and athletic, are not open to her.  They may have more in common than Clare realizes.

In fact this picturesque rural community is not all it seems to be on the surface, and danger may be closer than Claire realizes.  This is the first book in this series, so readers can look forward to seeing Claire grow stronger and more mature as her powers expand along with her ability to battle the evil that surrounds her and those she loves and cares about.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Bluffing Mr. Churchill, by John Lawton

John Lawton has written several books in the Inspector Troy mystery series.  The books are set in the WW II era, for the most part, and so are infused with real history wrapped around intriguing stories for super sleuth Inspector Troy of Scotland Yard to resolve.

In Bluffing Mr. Churchill, the story begins with a double agent, an Austrian who has joined the Nazi Party and risen to a position of power and influence.  Wolfgang Stahl receives a cryptic message that tells him his cover has been blown. Conveniently, he survives a bombing raid that destroys his apartment and is able to put his uniform on his dead and mutilated neighbor, hoping that the Nazis will believe he has been killed. 

He escapes, apparently to London, but the American, Calvin Cormack, his contact in the Austrian Embassy does not hear from him either.  His priority is to find Stahl asap, but he is teamed with a career London police officer, Walter Stilton, whose style of detective work is much different from Cormack's.  In spite of differences, they do become friends, and Stilton's police officer daughter, a fiesty woman with a mind of her own, abruptly begins an affair with him. 

More bodies begin to pile up and there is a question of whether Stahl is a killer or if the Nazi killers are catching up with him.  What secret is the Nazi regime willing to kill to protect?  Eventually Cormack begins to work with Inspector Troy, who also has a relationship with Policewoman Stilton, by the way.  And maybe it is not the Nazi's trying to kill Stahl after all.  Could it be the Americans?

And FYI, one potentially confusing thing for the reader is that Mr. Lawton does not bother to write and publish these books in chronological order, so if you are beginning the series, try to find a site that tells you the order that is sequential, as far as the Troy family history is concerned.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Martian, by Andy Wier

Mark Watney sees himself as the least significant of the crackerjack team of astronauts that were sent to Mars for the third visit from Earth.  Plan A has them staying 31 days, but a sand storm on day 6 with winds up to 175 kph calls for aborting the mission.  The astronauts, fully suited, leave their habitat and begin the short trek to the MAV (Mars Ascending Vehicle).  But an aerial, knocked loose by a  flying communication dish, spears Mark through his suit and sends him airborne and out of sight.  His team has no choice but to assume he's dead, abandon their search for him, and depart.

A few hours later, Mark regains consciousness and realizes he ought to be dead...but he had landed in such away that his suit did not lose the oxygen mix and his blood had coagulated around the hole in his suit, preventing a drastic change in pressure that would have ended his life.  He pulls out the aerial pole (agony), and patches his suit (patch holds).  He stumbles back to the Hab, takes out the medical supplies and follows the basic medical procedures all astronauts know:  local anesthetic, irrigate the wound, 9 stitches, a couple of weeks of antibiotics, and done.

All he has time to do now is think about how hopeless his situation is, but wait, he is an engineer! He can fix things!  And what will he eat after 31 days of food runs out? They were allotted enough food to last 56 days for the whole crew, so that's 300 days for just him. But wait, he's also a botanist! What about those potatoes NASA sent for the crew to prepare a Thanksgiving Dinner together. He can prepare some soil and plant those babies!  But where will he put that garden? Just wait and see...

He is thinking like this all the time, and keeping a daily journal though he has not a clue who will ever read it. He has a great wise-cracking sense of humor, so there is no bleakness, even in the face of overwhelming odds.  He just never NEVER gives up or gives in.

When NASA becomes aware that he has survived, they cannot talk to him but they can study the pictures of satellite cameras and see what he is doing.  Soon the whole world is watching and rooting for Mark Watney.  It's a great book with plenty of heroes, of course including all the folks at NASA, and even some international heroes emerge before its all over.

The book is well worth your time, it's a thriller, its space technology, it's a survivors guide if you are ever stranded on Mars, and as reviewer James Thane says, "science fiction but almost not." Read it soon so you'll be ready for the movie: it's already in the works!