The Last Queen of England–Steve Robinson


I love great books, but I also love those books that I can wolf down and enjoy for all of their naughty empty calories, like a bag of Cheetos or potato chips.  This is one of those salty snack books.

If you’re a Dan Brown fan, like I am, this book is fantastic.  If you’re looking for something innovative, maybe not.  Jefferson Tayte is an American genealogist in London for a conference and to see his friend, Marcus, a big-whig genealogist recently retired from the National Archives.  Tayte does not wear tweed, but tan, suits.  Marcus introduces him to Jean Summer, an attractive divorced historian specializing in the British royalty at the dinner that precedes Marcus’ murder and sets the plot in motion.  What was Marcus working on about which he was so secretive at dinner and how was it connected to his being gunned down outside the restaurant?  Got the formula?

The puzzle concerns the British family’s royal tree, particularly at the time that the dynasty changed from the Stuarts to the Protestant, but distantly related, Hanovers after Queen Anne’s death in the seventeenth century.  Whatever Marcus had discovered seems to have caused his death, as well as the death of several others across the city, and the dead bodies start piling up as Tayte and Summer, assisted by the faithful loner DI, Fable, suss out the details.

In solid Dan Brown style, the duo traverse London and end up in familiar London sites as well as some less familiar.  They discuss construction and re-construction dates and decode some ahnentafel, binary numbers that stand for places on a genealogical table.   Because Tayte is a silly American, he requires history 101 lectures from Summer, who can then educate the reader on the Stuarts and Hanovers and the Jacobite rebellions of the seventeenth century.  What she does not supply, some students of hers do, and this was the one cringe-worthy portion of the novel, where history geeks are presented as rebels for challenging the text books.  That is what all good historians do, especially graduate students in history trying to carve their niche in the dialogue of interpretations that is history.  No historian believes history is a set of facts to be memorized and canonized  in anonymously handed down textbooks.  Historians write those books.

That small irritation aside, the novel was a fun read in terms of pacing, likable protagonists, and fun travelogue descriptions.  Jackson has a series of Jefferson Tayte novels that are probably worth a look if you enjoy this type of novel.

Finished 8/30/15 


State of Wonder–Ann Patchett (Audio Book)


Books are like foods–some are empty calories, some are starchy, and some are just plain fine eating.  State of Wonder is reading gourmet.  

The first chapter of Ann Patchett’s book is a study in excellent writing.  Mr. Fox, head of Vogel, a pharmaceutical company based in Minnesota, bring Dr. Marina Singh news that her colleague, Anders, has died in the Amazon.  As Patchett spins out why he was there, how the three are related, and takes Marina and Fox into Anders’ home to break the news, the writing crackles with emotion and suspense.  Anders’ death is told by a letter from Dr. Swenson, the lead researcher at an undisclosed location in the Amazon who is looking for a fertility drug based on the unending fertility of the Lakashi tribe and her extremely clinical letter paints an unsympathetic portrait of her as a person.  She’s an archetype–the overly driven professional woman who left behind her humanity in order to succeed in a man’s world.  Patchett’s description of Anders’ wife’s initial grief is so spot-on to be painful.  She blows up the details the way people under these circumstances focus on random parts of their environment to keep from crumbling altogether under the weight of such news.  The first chapter is simply amazing.

No one could maintain that pace, but Patchett does a masterly job of keeping the pace and the balance of detail and plot motion throughout the remainder of the novel.  Marina Singh is drafted to go to the Amazon and find her former teacher, Dr. Swenson, and to find what really happened to Anders.  During Marina’s journey, she reveals that her relationship with Dr. Swenson is deeply problematic.  Add this to her complicated relationship with Mr. Fox and Marina looks a bit of a mess.  Her insides begin to match her outsides when she finally arrives at Dr. Swenson’s site, the Lakashi village, her clothes are stolen, and she ends up wearing the tribal shift dress and flip flops for the remainder of her stay.

Patchett’s description of the Amazon is both terrifying and romantic.  She dwells on the claustrophobic tangle of vegetation and the dizzying array of insects and wildlife.  The birds, in fact, are what drew Anders to take on the task of visiting Dr. Swenson in the first place.  Marina is terrified by her first sight of the Lakashi, who scream with flaming torches on the riverbank and swim out and swarm her boat as it tries to dock.  By novel’s end she is watching avidly for those torches and cries to welcome her home, slapping thighs and arms in greeting, and accepting the grooming ministrations of the village women as soothing.  She has been seduced by the life of the Lakashi, but the rhythms of life in the Amazon, and disenchanted with the pretenses of life in the civilized world.  But hold onto your hats because Patchett, who starts her novel with a tranquil office scene that descends into horrific grief, will not leave you this comfortable, with an answer this easy.

There are political themes in the novel:  the quest of western women to delay fertility in order to live more fulfilled lives and the dilemma of that freedom; the west’s treatment of the environment and our need to consume to escape; the delicate balance of the ecology and the amazing gifts of nature; and the west’s continuing colonialism even as we espouse democratic values for all.  These are interesting themes, but most interesting to me were the three key women in the novel:  Karen Eckmann, whose strength and conviction in the face of loss drives the premise of the plot; Marina Singh, whose biracial background and her gender complicate every moment of her life; and Anneck Swenson, whose dedication and drive, once necessary to impel her, decades later appear morally suspect at best and bankrupt at worst.  

I listened to this book on audio and I go back and forth about audio vs print.  A beautifully written book can, I think, be best enjoyed on audio, where the poetry of the prose cannot be ignored, even by a reader who tends to rush through the words to consume the plot (a true product of the west).  However, Patchett provides so many beautiful scenes, so many memorable lines, that I feel compelled to follow up with a print copy that I can mark, dissect, and colonize (again a product of the west).  

As the novel moved forward, I kept wondering to whose state of wonder Patchett was referring.  Ultimately I concluded that it’s that of the reader.  Read this book.

Finished 8/29/13

The Lady and the Peacock: The life of Aung San Suu Kyi–Peter Popham (E-book)


I first heard of Suu Kyi in The Lizard Cage.  She and her father, Aung San, were emblems of democracy and foci of a struggle against dictatorship in that novel.  I was hooked and wanted to know more because I had never heard of these figures.  This led me to Peter Popham’s life of Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi is a major figure in Burmese politics.  She is the daughter of Aung San, the man credited with throwing off the mantle of Britain and bringing Burma to the bring of democracy just before he was assassinated.  Popham begins his life of Suu by looking at her father’s legacy, foregrounding the idea that to understand Suu one must understand this legacy.  Aung San is not a sanitized figure.  To throw off the British, he allied with the Japanese, whom he later threw over due to their fascist ideology, or perhaps because they were losing.  Suu’s mother is another powerful force in Popham’s life of Suu.  Not only did she raise their children following Aung San’s assassination; she was named to a diplomatic position in India and its her stroke that bring Suu back to Burma and positions her to become involved in Burma’s modern drive to democracy.

Suu was educated in a Christian school in India and attended Oxford after.  She married the man who became the expert on Tibet, Michael Aris, with whom she had two sons.  She seemed to be searching for her role beyond wife and mother when she was called back to Burma following her mother’s serious stroke.  While there, the current dictator,  U Ne Win, called for open elections and set the wheels in motion for an appeal to Suu Kyi to pick up her father’s mantel and lead a newly formed party, the NLD.  What followed was the release of hope and its subsequent dashing by the Burmese government, once it recovered from U Ne Win’s apparently unplanned announcement.  Suu toured the country, winning followers wherever she went and building the government’s suspicions.  She was placed under house arrest for most of 1989-2010, during which time she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in large part due to her insistence on nonviolent resistance, despite severe, violent government reprisals.  

Popham follows the ups and downs of Burmese politics as well as the ups and downs of Suu’s personal life in these years.  He tries to address criticisms of her choices, which led her to isolation from her two children and her dying husband, as well as more current criticisms of her silence regarding atrocities against ethnic minorities in Burma.  

For many Americans, Burma likely remains an unknown place on the map.  Some may have noticed the name change to Myanmar, but few of us know the story behind that change or the reasons for its people’s struggles.  Popham’s life of Suu Kyi offers a focused window into the modern life of this country and its peoples and a view of a modern political leader who is widely vaunted, but not a saint.   Suu Kyi is an important modern figure and Burma/Myanmar an important player on the global scene.   Popham’s work makes both easily accessible to the uninitiated.

Finished 8/25/13

Hour of the Rat–Lisa Brackmann (E-book)


Ellie is an Iraq vet with a blown-up leg who lives in Beijing and is the sole agent for a Chinese artist who’s in hiding.  His work has earned the attention of the Chinese government, and not the good kind.  Their security forces are pretty sure Ellie knows where to find him, even though she does not.  Ellie’s military buddy/lover, Dog, wants her to look for his brother, who’s gone missing somewhere in China and, by the way.  Some crazy billionaire wants to buy some of Ellie’s client’s art, even though they can’t sell until the attention from the government goes away, but this is not a man who is accustomed to being told no.  To top it all off, Ellie’s mom’s visit has been extended indefinitely and she’s fallen for a man, again, this time Ellie’s neighbor, who’s into a new religion that involves naval denting.  

Ellie feels guilty about her affair with Dog, wants to escape her mother and the Chinese government’s security forces, and so decides to go in search of Dog’s brother as a diversion.  Both her mother and her neighbor tag along on what she billed as a holiday.  Between this annoyance and the pain in her blown-up leg, Ellie’s not sure there’s enough alcohol and Percocet to make things bearable.  

Her search for Dog’s brother, Jason, leads her down a rabbit hole of GMOs, big money, ecoterrorism, and global politics, as well as thugs from many different sides, and across some of the most beautiful and most horrifying sites of contemporary China.  

What struck me most about this novel is the modern feel of the characters.  They’re complex, neither fully good nor fully bad, but this complexity is rooted in the paradoxes of modern life.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Affairs between soldiers who have spouses at home who love them, but can’t understand their experiences.  Communist China immersed in capitalist ventures and ambivalent about the pace of change.   Seeds that will grow in the wasteland created by our addiction to electronics, but that enslave farmers and endanger future generations with untold risks.  A mystery that makes you think.

Free Country-George Mahood (eBook)

free country

George and his friend, Ben, are in the kind of jobs that are going nowhere fast and offer all sorts of flexibility. George concocts the idea of cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, from the southern tip of England to the northern tip of Scotland, without spending a penny and starting out with just boxer shorts to cover their bits. Everything else they must “blag.” They cannot compensate those who help them with bikes, clothing, places to stay, food, etc., but they agree to take their pictures with a sign that says “I’m OFFICIALLY a nice person,” and post it with their book. Those pictures are adorable and I wish they had included more of them.
George is more into the trip than Ben, who provides a lazy-ass foil to George’s journey of self-discovery. Part of George’s reason for the trip is to prove he can finish something. Early in the journey, a kind person gives him a kid’s racing bike, which he refuses to relinquish, even when the chain is falling off every few minutes and the brakes are creating a serious safety hazard.
Some of the people they encounter turn them away, but few are rude, at least those they report, and the vast majority offer them help of some kind. They sleep in barns, in tents in car parks, on the floor of the homes of those they met in local pubs, and in hotels from posh to so poor they closed mere weeks after their visit.
Their journey is interesting for the sights, but primarily for George’s account of the responses of the people the two meet. I would recommend this book with no reservations except for an insidious homophobia that pops up near the end, particularly from Ben. It’s part of their banter among guys, but that makes it even worse. It’s too bad that a book about kindness felt the need to include this sort of speech to help us see the friendship between the two men as just between two regular guys, who should not be seen as gay in any way.

Finished 8/10/13

More Ketchup Than Salsa: Confessions of a Tenerife Barman–Joe Cowley (eBook)

confessions of a tenerife barman

This book was a super deal on Amazon and the concept intrigued me–quit your day job and buy a bar on a tropical island and let the zany adventures ensue.  Cowley’s travelogue/escape memoir offers fun stories and interesting commentary on life as an expat as well as our forays into paradise as tourists.  Cockroaches are supporting characters who seek refuge in every crack and cranny of Joe’s Tenerife bar.

Joe and his girlfriend, Joy, were hawking fish in a nondescript British town.  When Joy returned from a vacation in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, with a scheme to borrow money from Joe’s stepfather, go into partnership with Joe’s brother, Dennis,  and his girlfriend, Faith, Joe is first intrigued, and then alarmed at the idea of leaving his comfortable routine.  Faith is reluctant and Joe counts on her to get him out of this without having to be the bad guy, but Faith is ultimately persuaded to give it a go, even when it requires a quickie marriage to Dennis in order to obtain a word visa.  Joe and Joy evade the law, move to Tenerife, and put Joy to work without marrying.  Ultimately, Faith loses faith in the dream and returns to the mainland.  I would have liked to have heard more about how this all turned out for Dennis, but that plot line is not a major focus of Joe’s confessions.  Getting to know the locals is, however, as is learning to navigate the rules of a growing bureaucracy flush with cash.

This is a fun read in terms of content, but is self-published and really needed further copy editing.  I can overlook the occasional error (those are even showing up more regularly in work put out by respected publishing houses), but this eBook contains several plurals formed with apostrophe s and similar common errors.  A paragraph about the author at the end of the work suggests Joe is working on further books.  I would not mind hearing an update on the Tenerife bar’s adventures, but I do hope to see some of these basic errors removed in part two.

Finished 8/11/13

Murder à la Carte: A Maggie Newberry Mystery–Susan Kiernan-Lewis (eBook)


Under a Tuscan sun, a summer in Provence…..American fantasies of the good life in the southern climates of Europe surrounded by wine and cheese and a connection with a village of authentic characters.  Maggie Newberry lands in the middle of this fantasy, complete with French boyfriend with mysterious dark past, now turned good boy all for her love.  He inherits a vineyard and she takes a leave of absence from her marketing/advertising job in Atlanta to spend a year living the dream.  Except she can’t let go and live it.  She refuses to learn French and obsesses over whether or not her boyfriend, Lauren, intends to return to the States when the year is up.  She doesn’t particularly like her job and her parents are able to visit, so her desire to return home is a bit unclear until her mother pushes her and she reveals that she is not sure what she would do.  It takes her mother five seconds to give her an idea that she can embrace.

Wine cellars, charming villagers, yummy baked goods, sexy French boyfriend who insists on cooking, an old murder story with loose ends, and a new murder with a cast of sinister characters as possible bad guys and Maggie’s year in southern France becomes a fun mystery that she, with no other way to fill her time, decides to solve.

The setting, the characters, and the plot are all fun.  If only Maggie, who had the guts to leaver her job with no promise of a place when she returned and fly to an unknown village and live in a house outside which a mass murder took place, if only Maggie had made clear why she could not embrace waking up every morning in a free vineyard next to a sexy Frenchman, and decide what oh what she would do with herself.  Give me those kinds of problems, right?  Other than this small flaw, it’s a fun read.  Maggie has other mysteries, which means murder follows her around (rather odd, but we’ll go with it) and now that she has resolved her France issue, the read should be nothing but fun.

Finished 7/13