Book Review: Silent Water (A Jagiellon Mystery Book 1), by P.K. Adams

5 Stars

Silent Water is an engrossing historical mystery that focuses on a series of murders that grips the royal court of Krakow, Poland, in the year 1519. The book’s first-person protagonist is Contessa Caterina Sanseverino, chief Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Bona Sforza of Italy, who two years earlier had married King Zygmunt of Poland and Lithuania. Caterina keeps watchful vigil over the young girls who serve as the queen’s attendants, but she—and the court around her—are roiled by the discovery of a stabbing victim during the Christmas Night banquet.

The murder at first appears random, but as Christmas turns into the New Year, a second murder occurs. Clues point to the inner circle of Queen Bona, who is controversial not only for the agricultural reforms she is implementing, but for her hawkish advice on how to wage war against the kingdom’s Teutonic and Crimean enemies. At Bona’s request, Caterina sets out to investigate. As her investigation takes her from the castle’s rat-infested dungeon to its kitchen storerooms, she is aided by Sebastian Konarski, a junior secretary to King Zygmunt.

I was particularly intrigued by the book’s setting in 16th-century Poland and how it contrasts the customs of the Polish court with those of the Duchy of Bari, Italy, where Caterina grew up. The book touches on so many fascinating themes, including the religious discord fostered by Martin Luther and his edicts. Also, the book illustrates the many limitations on women’s roles during this era in Poland, which makes Caterina’s bravery and willingness to transgress those limitations exciting. Caterina’s intelligence and inquisitiveness mirror the best qualities of the queen she serves and makes her a strong protagonist, one whom I would follow into the twisty depths of any medieval jail.

Fans of historical mysteries, particularly those of the Tudor period in England, will love Silent Water and appreciate its unique setting in the royal court in Krakow. I highly recommend Silent Water and am eager to read future books in the Jagiellon series.

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips

5 Stars

I have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with its native Even people.

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.

Long isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments, and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the reindeer-herding Even people.

Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?

Like reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who understands the salmon dances of their people.

The woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend whispers. The police can hurt you.

As a writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active volcanoes. How can my stories compare?

While I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.

Book Review: House of Spies, by Daniel Silva

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: 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: 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.