Book Review: House of Spies, by Daniel Silva

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5 Stars

I bought House of Spies because it won Kirkus Best Book of the Year—and I am thrilled that I did. The book deserves the award and the bestselling status it has enjoyed

House of Spies is the only book I have read (so far!) in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, and I am hooked by the strong characterization, the sense of danger, and the tenuousness of the lives that Israeli spy chief—and ostensible art restorer—Gabriel Allon seeks to protect. The plot centers on capturing the Iraqi terrorist Saladin, who has perpetrated a series of deadly attacks on western cities that have scarred national treasures like The Lincoln Monument. A committed jihadist, Saladin seeks to install a caliphate that will destroy the very freedoms those monuments celebrate.

I especially loved the various settings of the novel, which take the reader from London to Provence and Marseilles and, in the climactic scenes, to the Berber lands of Morocco. Any book that has me drinking tea at sunset in a Bedouin tent in the Middle Atlas Mountains is going to enthrall me.

One caveat: other reviewers have criticized the repeated sentences, which should have been edited out. I agree, but these were minor foibles in an otherwise strong narrative.

When I finished House of Spies, I downloaded The Kill Artist, Book #1 in the Gabriel Allon series. If the other 19 books live up to House of Spies, I will read the entire series.

Fans of spy novels will love this book.

#thrillers #suspense #spy #espionage #fiction #danielsilva #houseofspies

Book Review: Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams

5 Stars

A reviewer has described Queenie as a black Bridget Jones, a comparison that doesn’t convey the full scope of Carty-Williams’ complex, unflinching examination of a young woman and the emotional toll her childhood has taken on her.

Queenie is the story of a 25-year-old Jamaican-British woman who is falling apart, a disintegration that begins when her fiance Tom—the love of her life, who nonetheless tolerates his racist uncle calling Queenie the n word—initiates a break in their relationship, right after Queenie suffers a miscarriage. Heartbroken but determined to view their separation as temporary, Queenie endures several disastrous, even abusive interracial encounters—she fears black men don’t want black women, no matter how light their skin—who fetishize her body, trample upon her self-respect, and even hurl false accusations of harassment at work, leading to her dismissal.

As her life disintegrates, Queenie reluctantly seeks therapy, which uncovers the traumas and multiple abandonments of her childhood. Her eventual healing is demonstrated in a two-hour shouting match with a neoNazi skinhead, where she bravely defends her commitment to the BlackLivesMatter movement.

Numerous characters prevent Queenie’s story from turning bleak: her domineering grandmother, who shelters Queenie when she is fired from her job as a reporter; her hilarious friend Kyazike, whose own dates demonstrate the strength that the weakened Queenie must learn to show; and her empathetic colleague Darcy, who eases her panic-stricken transition back to work. Her friends, nicknamed the Corgis (like The Queen’s favorites), are full characters in their own right, with idiosyncratic personalities that add depth to the book. Every woman needs a Kyazike and a Darcy in her life.

I happily give Queenie 5 Stars. By the time she deletes Tom’s contact info from her phone, I was silently cheering for her recovery. I can’t wait to read more of Carty-Williams’ writing.

Book Review: Keep Her Safe, by Sophie Hannah

Zero Stars

 

Keep Her Safe doesn’t merit even one star. I hated the book and forced myself to finish it.

The plot is convoluted, nonsensical, and repeatedly strains credulity. Accepting some of its twists requires a suspension of disbelief that was beyond me.  For instance, why would a female tourist traveling alone in a foreign country insist that a sketchy car rental operator keep her mobile phone until her vacation is over? This was an absurd way to ensure that Cara Burrows didn’t communicate with her family, particularly since she quickly acquires an iPad at the Swallowtail Resort where she stays. I love an unreliable narrator, but can’t abide a stupid one–or a ludicrous plot device.

I particularly disliked how the author introduced new characters late in the book.  How is the reader supposed to identify with a major character–one with a significant backstory–when that character only appears two-thirds of the way into the book?

Finally, I never got into the transcripts from the Justice with Bonnie Show or the excerpts from the book Melody never wrote. These sections seemed like a lazy way of conveying important information.

I’ve heard great things about Sophie Hannah, but Keep Her Safe does not justify its hype.

Book Review: Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Salt Houses provides an interesting and vital perspective: the Palestinian diaspora and the emotional toll emigration takes on those forced to wander from country to country.

Through the lived experiences of three generations of a Palestinian family, Salt Houses asks the reader to confront the concept of home:  where is home when you have been displaced by war? Can a refugee create a new home elsewhere, even as one’s own offspring reject the values on which their culture is based? How does one maintain family bonds strained by constant upheaval? As the grandchild of emigrants who fled civil war in Belfast, Northern Ireland, these questions resonated with me.

It’s important that Salt Houses is told from the viewpoint of a moderate Palestinian family that seeks to protect its relatives, especially its sons, from jihadists—and who are deeply suspicious of the imans whipping those boys and young men into a frenzy of anti-Israeli violence. Hala Alyan succeeds in creating characters who are far from the stereotype of rock-throwing terrorists. The Yacoub family are well off, with middle-class aspirations, romances, and jobs—and a snobbish disdain for their own compatriots living in refugee camps.

From a writing perspective, several criticisms: there were too many dream sequences, which took me out of the story. Also, I did not get a sense of what many of the characters wanted. The notable exception was Alia, who is desperate to leave Kuwait and live in Amman, even as she wrestles with a deep homesickness for her childhood home in Nablus. Finally, the occasional switch to the present tense was jarring. These issues are the reason I only gave the book 4 stars.

Anyone interested in fictional representations of Middle East history will enjoy Salt Houses.

Book Review: Calypso, by David Sedaris

Calypso is David Sedaris’s most intimate book, a tender, funny, and challenging memoir from an author renowned for writing humor that lays bare his own and his family’s soul. In Calypso, he spares no one, especially himself.

The central theme of the book is his sister Tiffany’s suicide and the emotional turmoil that follows.  He writes with great clarity of the mental health challenges that she faced, the fights she inflicted on her family, and his own sanity-preserving estrangement from her. In the aftermath of the suicide, all the Sedaris family has left are strange clues—like a phone number written on her apartment wall—to try to comprehend why Tiffany would take an overdose of prescription medication and tie a plastic bag over head.

Against the suicide’s backdrop, he is forced to face issues around caring for his elderly father, who lives alone and in increasingly-eccentric fashion, determined not to use electricity in order to leave a larger inheritance to the surviving children. More than two decades after his mother’s death, David grapples with residual sadness that she died before he achieved literary success, without their ever confronting her about the alcoholism that left her a mess each night. He expresses his poignant longing to have had the chance to spoil her.

Still, Calypso is about a family drawing closer after a tragedy. Attempting to recreate the summer vacations of their childhood, Sedaris purchases the Sea Section, a duplex on the beach in North Carolina, where he encounters a deformed snapping turtle, a vacationing former FBI Director, and man-eating sharks that fail to terrify his boyfriend Hugh. In their own unique and often-hilarious way, the Sedaris family heals. Every step along their quirky journey is a joy to read.

#amreading #books #bookblogger

 

Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, by Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans

3 Stars

 

I have a secret affection for stories about cantankerous old people, appreciating their disaffected views of the care homes to which they are banished when arthritic joints, heart troubles, and high blood pressure start ravaging their bodies. I love a caper led by a wheelchair-bound rebel, and the more insubordinate the elderly, the more hilarious the story.

Hendrik Groen, who is 83 ¼ in 2013, is conducting a secret war against the governing body of his Amsterdam nursing home, which establishes new rules on a whim, often in response to his own escapades. He recruits a spy in the managing director’s office, who smuggles him the minutes of board meetings, and even hires a lawyer to sue the nursing home for greater transparency.

His affection for his fellow residents—the ones he likes, at least—is endearing. Together with a select band of non-whiners, he establishes The Old but Not Dead Yet Club, which becomes the envy of the nursing home for the outings they undertake twice a month. It is during these trips to museums, wineries, and golf clubs that he falls in love with Eefje, a woman who is comfortable with silence, doesn’t complain, and kisses him on both cheeks when he takes her out for an elegant dinner.

My only suggestion is that the book needed a stronger overarching theme, greater than the year-long diary he keeps. I would have loved it if the book delved more into the tragic death of Hendrik’s daughter, who drowned at the age of 4, or into the decades-long confinement of his bipolar wife. These story lines would have provided greater emotional depth and allowed the reader a sense of who Hendrik was as a father and husband.

Fans of the 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared will enjoy this book.

 

 

Book Review: The Witch Elm, by Tana French

5 Stars

 

The Witch Elm, a psychological suspense novel set in Ireland, upturns its author’s preoccupation with how the Dublin Murder Squad nabs a killer; instead, it focuses on a shallow, self-absorbed young man, who comes to believe himself guilty of murder—and the evil he inflicts when slammed with that knowledge. Like a feral cat toying with food, Tana French reveals all the little deceits and treacheries that build on one another to produce a corpse rotting in an elm tree.

Toby Hennessy views himself as a lucky man. He was born to wealthy, Anglo-Irish parents, is good-looking, did well in school, and has spent his childhood summers playing with his cousins, Susanna and Leon, in Elm House, their Uncle Hugo’s expansive home. Now in his late 20’s, he has a flashy job in a Dublin art gallery, a BMW and a gold watch, and an apartment that his parents helped buy. He’s also dating Melissa, a sweet woman whose nurturing nature serves him well when he is grievously injured during a burglary.

Struggling with a droopy eyelid, a faulty memory, and a bad limp, Toby returns to Elm House to nurse both himself and Uncle Hugo, who is dying from brain cancer. For a few weeks, he enjoys a rebirth of the golden summers of his childhood, helping Uncle Hugo with his genealogical research, healing, and reconnecting with Susanna and Leon, who had—for reasons unremarked by him—broken off their friendship years earlier.

The idyll ends when a playing child makes a gruesome discovery: a skeleton stuffed inside an elm tree in Uncle Hugo’s back garden. The police investigate and quickly determine that the body is not some random victim of Ireland’s civil war, but Dominic Ganly, a teenager who was thought to have committed suicide ten years earlier.

Like a garrote squeezing a bully’s neck, the police zero in on Toby; out of self-interest, he had failed to confide in them a disreputable scheme he concocted at the art gallery, which they suspect as the reason for the burglary that left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Under the police’s growing pressure, Susanna, whom Toby had always dismissed as the quintessential “good girl,” confides that she sees herself as ruthless—and that she has acted on that ruthlessness. While stoned, Leon screams the real reason for the break in their friendship: Toby had ignored and dismissed tortures Dominic had inflicted on both the cousins. How these revelations play out results in some seriously cold-hearted scenes.

Two caveats: this is a gloomy book. French’s description of the symptoms of a head injury almost had me believing burglars had bashed my head in with a candlestick. Also, Toby’s poor memory begged credulity; even before his concussion he couldn’t remember anything except the fun that he had when younger. Anything that impacts negatively on his self-image, like the casual cruelty he had wielded against his cousins, is quickly forgotten.

The Witch Elm illuminates the determining nature of one’s self-image, through the luck that Toby sees as the very essence of his character. With his luck depleted, he is forced to confront the reality that he is no better than the track-suited skangers whom he continuously derides.

Readers of Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver will love this book.