Friday, December 31, 2010

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter by Robert K. Massie



Just like the first time, I read this incredible book in one day. Since the fall of Imperial Russia and the rise of the Bolsheviks played a pivotal role in my family’s history, I’ve had more than a passing interest in the last czar, Nicholas II and his family.

Robert K. Massie’s work is based on numerous reports, interviews and research into what happened the night of July 16-17, 1918, when the czar, his wife, their five children and four servants were massacred in a cellar room in Ekatrinburg.

Six months after the czar disappeared, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, “Supreme Ruler” of the White Government in Siberia ordered Nicholas Sokolov to investigate. Following eyewitness reports, he found a site where bodies had been burned. He collected a box of ‘relics’, which included small bones which clearly showed axe marks. He concluded that the czar and his entire family had been killed and the bodies completely destroyed by fire and acid. His report published in 1924 created a furor across the world, since it was widely believed that the empress and the children were still alive. Skeptics argued that it is not possible to destroy eleven bodies by fire alone, but there were no bodies.

After eight years and no sign of the empress and her children, Moscow had to do some serious back-pedaling and published a Soviet version of Sokolov’s book. Its author, Pavel M. Bykov, admitted that Empress Alexandra and her children had been murdered along with the czar. However, in this version, he gave historians vital clues to the real location of the bodies.

Massie picks up the story when the bodies are discovered in 1991. His research rises above the chaos of lies, corruption and bureaucracy of several governments for over 70 years. Massie followed the process from the removal of remains and through the exhaustive DNA testing to find the conclusion that these remains were actually Nicholas II, family (minus two) and friends. There was almost as much drama in the scientific community as there was in Imperial Russia as different researchers clamored for a chance to test the bones, back-stabbing and criticizing each other.

But the biggest mystery remained. Where were the bodies of Alexis and Anastasia? The grave discovered in 1991 only held nine bodies when there should have been eleven. Almost from the beginning, shortly after the murders were discovered, rumors sprang up that some of the family had escaped with help from their executioners. Impostors appeared everywhere but were soon exposed as frauds. One exception however was Anna Anderson. In February 1920, a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia was pulled from the Landwehr Canal in Berlin. After she was placed in the Dalldorf Mental Hospital, another patient declared she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia. It’s interesting that a mental patient would be believed so readily. For six decades, Anna Anderson had as many people believing she was Anastasia as she had detractors. Massie describes the long arduous process after her death and the legal battles to have a tissue sample taken from Anna during a previous surgery (Anna was cremated immediately after she died). Eighty-nine pages later, the inevitable and anti-climatic conclusion was reached. Anna Anderson was NOT Anastasia.

So if the bodies of Alexis and Anastasia were not found with the rest of their family, where are they? Massie has a plausible theory. The box of relics gathered by Sokolov at the site of the burnings contains bones from two different bodies. After Sokolov collected the relics, he offered the remains to Nicholas II’s mother, who refused since she stoutly believed that her son and his family were still alive. He then traveled to England and offered them to Nicholas’s cousin King George V, who also refused them.

Sokolov went to Brussels and the box of relics is in the safe-keeping of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The church has absolutely refused to allow anyone to inspect the contents of the box. They are mistrustful of Communists, the KGB and anyone from the West. Massie believes the remains of Alexis and Anastasia are in this box. At some point in the future, the box may appear and we will know the complete truth of the fate of Nicholas II and his family.

The Romanovs: The Final Chapter is one of the most fascinating historical books I’ve read. As I mentioned before, I couldn’t put it down until I had finished it.

The Coiners' Quarrel by Simon Beaufort


I prefer to read a series like Simon Beaufort’s Sir Geoffrey Mappestone in chronological order, so I knew I’d be missing some action when I read The Coiners’ Quarrel, the fifth book without reading the third and fourth novels.

Fortunately, I wasn’t too far out of the loop from the events in the second novel, A Head for Poisoning, the last Beaufort work I read. Geoffrey is still in cold, damp, musty England, desperately hoping to return to the dry, hot, dusty Holy Land and the service of Tancred. His hopes are dashed when King Henry I orders him to investigate the charges of counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement levied on a coiner of the realm by another, and to find a large shipment of silver that was stolen.

Sir Geoffrey is furious but realizes that he has no choice. To compound his frustration, Geoffrey’s sister Joan and her husband are implicated in the case between the coiners, as being traitors to the crown. From the very beginning of the trip to Bath, attempts are made on his life. The wife of a coiner tries several times to seduce him. Two physicians constantly squabble. Everyone, it seems, including his sister Joan and his squire are hostile toward him and no one is telling him the truth. As a result, his investigation stalls.

Finally, with help from an unlikely source, the mystery begins to unravel and it comes apart at a breathtaking pace. Beaufort’s plot has twists and turns with surprises on every page and incorporates a background rich in historic detail.

One of the most interesting characters is Mappestone’s reluctant squire Durand. From the beginning of the book (and I’m sure I missed his introduction somewhere in the previous two novels), it is clear he is gay. But unlike Thomas, the gay character in Priscilla Royal’s series featuring Prioress Eleanor of Wynthrope, who struggles with his sexuality in an era where he could be put to death because of it, Durand flaunts it. He makes no secret of the fact to the point of anachronism. He’s a total queen. I’m not sure how many gay men in the early twelfth century would comment on women’s shoes, or would admit, nay brag, about dressing as a woman, even if it is to spy. Homosexuals at that time had no protection (just like today) against any type of oppression, no matter their status. But at that time, fear of execution kept many homosexuals closeted. Durand acts as if there is no specter of death. Nevertheless, Durand’s real role in the mystery is more disturbing than his sexuality.

Mappestone endures more adversity than squabbling physicians, an aloof sister, and a gay squire. Beaufort pumps up the action along with the plot tangles. It is books like The Coiners' Quarrel that keep me coming back for more.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Descent" now at loveyoudivine Alterotica


The prequel novel to the Master Mike and mutt series is now available at loveyoudivine.com!
Is Todd the best slave Master Mike ever had? How far will he go in his struggle to convince Master Mike?
Excerpt:
i heard Master get out of the car and start calling orders. The lid opened and the sudden dim light blinded me. Hands grabbed me and hauled me out of the trunk. They laid me on the ground and untied me. My arms and legs had stiffened from being restrained so i couldn't move for a few seconds. i groaned in pain as the blood returend to my extremities and i managed to rise to my feet.
eight thirty-five stood next to two more slaves, both shaved head to toe and not wearing a stitch of clothing, except for the chain collars and padlocks around their necks. i glanced around and saw we were in a large triple car garage. Where you would expect to see cars or storage shelves sat a work space with power tools, welding equipment, stacks of lumber and bundles of iron and steel bars. i caught a glimpse of cages, benches and St. Andrew's crosses in various stages of construction.
"boi todd!"
At the sound of Master's voice, my head snapped around. "Yes, sir!"
"eight thirty-five will show you where you will stay tonight." He turned and left the garage through a door into the house. The two slaves followed Him. eight thirty-five picked a flashlight from a shelf and led me through the same door and down a staircase into a basement room. he locked me into a cage with a pallet for a bed and a blanket.
"Someone will come and get you in the morning." he left me alone, turning out the flashlight.
i didn't sleep well that night because the cramped cage didn't allow me to stretch out. It was also pitch black in the room. If there were windows, they must have been covered completely to not let any light from outside. i dozed off and on for a while, and finally fell into a restless sleep only to be woken up a short time later to the sound of running feet overhead.
Daylight filtered in through a window high up on a wall, and covered with a heavy curtain. i looked around the room and saw three other naked forms in cages similar to mind. One guy was starting to come around but the other two slept on through the ruckus. Not knowing what to do, i lay still and listened to the noises coming from above to see if i could determine what was going on.
The footsteps didn't sound hurried or rushed, rather more like people determined to get things done efficiently and quickly. The door to our room opened and eight thirty-five came down the stairs. Without a word, he opened all the cages and roused the two sleeping. he showed us to a toilet where we could relieve ourselves.
"you three report to the kitchen," he said to the others. he turned to me. "you are to stay here until Master calls for you." i thought i detected a tone of condescension in his voice but tried to dimiss it from my mind as just me being self-conscious about my nakedness.
i was a little disappointed that i had to remain behind, and even more upset when eight thirty-five locked me back in my cage. Fortunately, i didn't have to wait long before another slave came to release me. i recognized him from Master's blog. A little thinner than the others, he wasn't as handsome either.
"i'm four-eleven. i'm here to take you to Master Mike." he said it with a slight smile, which was a relief from what i felt with eight thirty-five. i followed him into a large dining room. Master Mike sat at one end.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters


Years ago I read a mystery by Elizabeth Peters so I’ve been introduced to Amelia Peabody Emerson and company. Although I can’t remember which one it was, I apparently enjoyed it enough to purchase more of her books.

The flap of The Last Camel Died at Noon made it sound like it would be an intriguing mystery. And it was, but it took a long detour into Neverland. I wondered if I was reading a late-nineteenth century mystery set in England or a tame cross-over with Indiana Jones and Dan Brown. No offense to Ms. Peters. She writes much better than Brown although her stories are a bit cozier.

While the Emersons are entertaining at their palatial estate in London one rainy night, they get several uninvited guests. Arriving at one’s house unannounced is a serious no-no in Victorian England etiquette rules. First, a young man collapses in their parlor and a short time later his overbearing grandfather bursts in.

The older man implores the Emersons to search for his son and daughter-in-law who disappeared into the sands of Egypt fourteen years earlier. Against all odds, Viscount Blacktower has received a coded message that he claims proves his son is still alive.

Amelia and her husband emphatically refuse to go on a rescue mission, especially one with such sketchy details and the possibility of success is remote. They proceed to Egypt, following their own agenda, excavating a site of little archaeological significance. The grandson Reggie appears out of the blue with an entourage in tow. The Emersons are still unmoved but when Reggie is kidnapped by desert wild men while attempting to search for his uncle on his own, they feel they have no other recourse but to go in hopes of rescuing him.

After a brush with death by dehydration, the Emersons are taken to a secret oasis, hidden away, where an entire monarchy thrives with its court and castes. Amelia and her family are treated like royalty but soon find themselves caught in the middle of a civil war between brothers fighting for the throne.

At times the mystery takes a back seat to Peters’ knowledge of ancient Egyptian customs and rituals as she displays for half the novel while the Emersons are embroiled in drama, intrigue and schemes in this hidden nation. There never was an absence of suspense but oftentimes, I wondered where the story was going. When we learn the solution to the mystery, it’s almost a moot point. It’s also wrapped up a little quickly, as in one page.

Despite no page-turning excitement, The Last Camel Died at Noon is a good story, as pleasurable than any other mystery out there.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Battleship Oklahoma BB-37 by Jeff Phister with Thomas Hone and Paul Goodyear


It’s difficult to dramatize history and non-fiction, because in some cases there is more drama and action in the story that no more can be added. That much is true for just about anything written about the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. The sailors on board the USS Oklahoma when she capsized after being hit by at least eight torpedoes had no shortage of drama, action and terror. Over four hundred men lost their lives on the battleship that horrible day.

Jeff Phister and Thomas Hone teamed up with USS Oklahoma survivor Paul Goodyear write Battleship Oklahoma, BB-37, which appears to be the most comprehensive account of the tragedy from the sailors’ point of view to date.

Phister, Hone and Goodyear interviewed dozens of living survivors to recount a minute-by-minute timeline of the event starting at 7:55am when the attack began until the last man was rescued from the hull over two days later.

The authors recreate the men’s movements and their escape from the Oklahoma based on their positions in the ships. In successive chapters, they chronicle the men on deck, then below decks and finally the lower decks and the hull. When the attack began, many men fled for cover below decks as they had been trained to do during an aerial attack. Another protocol required the hatches to be sealed, which in turn sealed the fate of many men in the belly of the ship. By the time it was realized that the Japanese were using torpedoes, it was too late. The Oklahoma had been hit twice and was starting to list.

Some of the accounts get graphic as one survivor witnessed nine of his fellow sailors crushed by artillery as it rolled out of its spot when the Oklahoma tilted. Others watched friends drown, unable to save them. Two men were asphyxiated by toxic fumes created by cutting torches when a rescue crew ignored warnings of cork lining the room where the men were trapped.

It took over two years to right the Oklahoma and get her afloat so she could be towed into dry dock. During the latter months of her salvage as she was being patched to pump water out of her lower decks, the crews had to deal with the bodies of the sailors submerged for so long. Each one had to be treated with utmost care. Of the 429 who died, 380 still remain unidentified. Thirteen bodies have never been found.

With advances being made in DNA research and testing, efforts continue to identify the fallen sailors so they can be given a proper burial.

Battleship Oklahoma BB-37 is moving tribute to all those aboard her on the day in infamy.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

When The Dead Speak by S. D. Tooley


It was the paranormal aspect of S. D. Tooley’s novel, When the Dead Speak that caught my attention. The sleuth, Sergeant Samantha (Sam) Casey has a unique gift. She can sense images and intuition from the dead. They tell her things. Being an author of paranormal abilities, I had to read this book.

A quote from Mystery news is printed on the cover above the title: “The book opens with a bang, literally.” Well, not so much ‘literally’ but it does open with an eighteen wheeler smashing into a concrete support on a highway overpass. As the column crumbles, a body is exposed, encased in the concrete. That is a good way to open a novel.

Meanwhile, Sam Casey is working undercover, infiltrating the household of a state senator, who has his eyes set on the governor’s seat. She is nearly caught by a security guard but manages to escape.

After hearing reports of a break-in at the senator’s home, her chief suspects Sam of using her off-duty hours for private work and transfers her to another precinct. There, Sam comes face to face with her near-captor, Jake Mitchell and his partner Frank Travis. She is assigned to work with them to investigate the body in the concrete pillar. Since she was in disguise when he almost caught her, she hopes he won’t recognize her. Unfortunately, Jake never forgets a perfect set of legs.

The find themselves at odds with each other, exacerbated by Sam’s mother, Abby, who soon has Jake staying at their house, fixing him meals and washing his clothes. They manage to forge a working relationship as they try to solve the mystery. The man, Harvey Wilson, was reported as AWOL during the Korean War. So what happened to him between 1951 when he went missing and 1977 when the overpass was built? The leads they uncover lead to the state senator, Washington, DC and even to Sam’s father, who was an investigative reporter who died in 1977, the same year as Harvey Wilson. The common bond between all of them is a pin in the shape of a lightning bolt.

The investigation is hampered by the length of time since the Korean War. Most of the men who fought have long since died, narrowing down the number of people they can rely on for clues. But it seems there are those still alive and want those secrets to stay buried and Sam finds herself in increasing danger. She’ll need all of her powers if she is going to come out alive.

Tooley incorporates Native American mysticism into the story, more so than the paranormal. Abby has the ability to communicate with the spirits and ask for their intercession. Whether the spirits answer her supplications is conjectural, but Abby knows that Jake is meant for her daughter and makes certain that they see each other through her eyes. If they can stop being hostile to each other.

There is more than spirits and clairvoyance here. Tooley’s characters Sam, Abby and Alex, a Native American man living on Sam’s sprawling estate, can talk to the animals. Birds, especially, act as messengers and spies. Of course, not all conversations are aboveboard as Sam demonstrates when she has two pigeons do their business on her new commander’s paper work.

So the book has a sense of humor, too. Tooley spins a great tale mixed with government cover-up, blackmail, the unknown and love. It’s reminiscent of Brad Thor’s thrillers, which also involve government officials all the way up to the president.

When the Dead Speak is an exciting mystery with interesting turns every chapter.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson


I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (even though George Clooney is a tempting reason), but it’d be interesting to see how a non-fiction book about America’s enigmatic psychic program. Ronson’s funny sarcastic book centers on an incident in which a man stared a goat to death.

In his quest to find the fatal gazer, Ronson finds a lot of other weird stuff going on. The book starts with a general hypothesizing but failing to prove it’s possible to walk through walls. It doesn’t get any less bizarre. He tells of America’s Psychological Operations (PsyOps) program, a group of psychic spies, who were charged with keeping a clairvoyant eye on our enemies. But like walking through walls, the remote viewing had limited success.

The ideals that the military entertained, according to Ronson are so esoteric and bohemian, they are hysterical. Despite the improbability of emulating Kitty Pride, the military top brass bought into the idea.

Another possibility was Jim Channon’s First Earth Battalion, developing the ‘Warrior Monk’, someone who could become invisible and walk through walls. As Channon wrote in 1979 “The U.S. army doesn’t really have any serious alternative than to be wonderful”. Trainees to the First Earth Battalion would “fall in love with everyone” and carry “symbolic animals” such as lambs into hostile countries. These Warrior Monks would also be ‘supersoldiers’, that could “pass through objects such as walls, bend metal with their minds…see into the future…and be able to hear and see other people’s thoughts”.

Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Not so fast.

The pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison that sparked such a firestorm of controversy were part of a carefully orchestrated plan by the PsyOps to incense our enemies. Other aspects of this type of mind-blowing warfare included blasting Iraqi prisoners 24/7 with Metallica’s “Enter the Sandman”, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, and Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You”. If that won’t make them talk, nothing will.

PsyOps, according to Ronson, is also responsible for LSD being introduced to America’s subculture, a cheap way of observing its effect on humans.

I didn’t know how to take The Men Who Stare at Goats because I’ve been caught off-guard by tongue-in-cheek non-fiction before, but Ronson seems to have a good handle on the “covert” machinations of America’s psychic spy program. Even if the psychic spies don’t have much of a handle on anything.

Ronson’s writing style flows easily, almost conversational, making it an easy read. But it makes it easy to be scared, too. I’m an advocate of learning psychic skills but it doesn’t seem that anyone is taking this seriously.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard


In an interview with author Louis Bayard, he said he didn’t set out to write a sequel to A Christmas Carol, and although Mr. Timothy takes place fifteen years after the events in Dickens’ classic novel and contain two of its most memorable corporeal characters, it most definitely is not a sequel.

Tiny Tim is now Mr. Timothy and his crippled leg has nearly been healed, leaving him with only a slight limp. He’s not the sweet innocent boy, spouting ‘God bless us, everyone’, endearing himself to all. His parents have passed away and his surviving siblings scattered across England.

Timothy has immersed himself in the seedy underbelly of London, teaching the madam of a brothel to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. As part of their arrangement, he rooms at the bordello.

Timothy seems determined to distance himself from his beneficent Uncle N, aka Ebenezer Scrooge. The crabby old miser remains changed after his encounter with the spirits. He dotes on his ‘nephew’ Tim. He spared no expense in finding the best doctors and medical care money could buy in treating Tim’s bum leg.

But Scrooge’s change of heart had a negative effect on the Crachitt family. He hired a second clerk to help Bob. Mr. Crachitt had more time on his hands and drifted away from his family.

Timothy’s siblings didn’t begrudge him the attention shown him by Scrooge but it did manage to set him apart from him. The final result is Timothy is only in contact with his brother Pete and his wife Annie.

Mr. Timothy is a trip through the sexual deviancy in Victorian England, a stark contrast of the prudish era in which the novel is set. It could probably be considered a prequel to Jack the Ripper, since Bayard’s novel shows us the dark and violent side of London. We see the buildings covered in soot from hundreds of chimneys belching smoke. We smell the Thames at low tide where the receding water reveals refuse Londoners have tossed away. We feel the bitter cold, sleet and fog that permeate thin blankets, threadbare clothing and worn shoes. No Mary Poppins or Eliza Doolittle here.

In these filthy streets, Timothy finds the bodies of two young girls. He soon encounters a third who is very much alive. He pursues her, wanting to keep her safe from the diverse people – a rich gentleman, a female ‘proprietor’ of a safe haven for orphans – eager to grab her and ‘save’ her.

Bayard’s tale gets even seedier as Tim uncovers a child prostitution ring catering to London’s elite. Why should the dukes and lords of the city degrade themselves with the common whores when they can have a younger, prettier and more importantly, pure and innocent.

Sexual perversion is a recurring theme throughout the novel and not just the mystery and Tim’s abode. He is accused of being a homosexual as his manhood is questioned more than once. And he is assaulted by his accuser.

The harshness of Mr. Timothy packs as much of a punch as A Christmas Carol, but more shocking than scary. It’s a grown up version of the Dicken’s tale. Bayard doesn’t give us a happy closing line from Tim Crachitt and he leaves a huge question unanswered.

Slow to start, Mr. Timothy draws you into the shadows and you may not want to leave.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Private by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro


There is a lot going on in Private, the collaboration between James Patterson and Maxine Paetro. In the novel, Jack Morgan has just received fifteen million dollars from his loser-father who is in prison. His father wants him to re-establish their private investigation firm. Five years later, Jack has more clients than he can shake a stick at.

His best friend’s wife has just been murdered. Shelby Cushman was Jack’s former lover, before he introduced her to his pal, Andy.

Jack’s uncle, who has part ownership of a team in the NFL, hires him to investigate accusations of a gambling and bribery scandal that could ruin the sport.

During all of this, Los Angeles is a hunting ground for a serial killer preying on school girls. His modus operandi is different with each victim, making it difficult for the profilers to get a fix on him.

Jack’s twin brother Tom is a chip off the ol’ block. Unfortunately. Jack discovers that his brother owes the mob $600,000, but there is so much animosity between the siblings they make Cain and Abel look like the Olsen twins.

Then as a filler, it seems, two high-profile celebrity couples come to him wanting to switch partners. Legally.

With all of this going on, it would appear difficult for Jack to have a social life but he does manage one. However he screws it up.

And his isn’t the only one to hit the skids during the short time span in the novel.

With keeping up on all the plot lines, Patterson and Paetro throw another curve at the reader. The narration switches from first person told from Jack’s point of view to third person. It’s difficult to see what the advantage is to this since it doesn’t add to anything to the story except perhaps to write a death scene from the viewpoint of a person dying, in this case, Jack. He expired briefly in the prologue after a helicopter explodes during his tour in Afghanistan. This incident causes nightmares, interrupting Jack’s sleep. Another aspect to an already crowded novel.

With numerous stories occurring at once, a few of them are dispatched without much suspense or action. The celebrity couples appear in only two chapters, so why include them? They didn’t add anything either. The NFL scandal which makes the blurb on the inside flap is relegated to a subplot.

Despite the dizzying pace and the constant switching of viewpoint or plot from page to page, Private is a good story that will keep your interest, especially if you have a short attention span.

The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker


The only problem I had with Ted Dekker’s chilling novel The Bride Collector was it’s all about the beautiful people. The victims are beautiful. The serial killer is beautiful. The main character. All the secondary and periphery characters. Yet all that was a minor aspect of a great novel and a scary story.

Unlike the globe-trotting, money-falling-for-the-sky spy novels, The Bride Collector is well-grounded and entrenched in Denver, Colorado. Brad Raines, a special agent for the FBI, is on the trail of a killer who has murdered several beautiful young women and leaves a bridal veil covering their faces.

Dekker reveals the identity of the serial killer in the second chapter so no mystery here. But he takes that opportunity to build the suspense and terror as the reader is allowed into the mind of a murderer. Dekker takes his audience on a thrilling ride into psychosis.

Nearly all the main players have their own demons to deal with, none more so than Brad. He hasn’t gotten over the suicide of his gorgeous fiancĂ©e over a decade ago. She took her own life believing she wasn’t beautiful enough. As Brad delves into the case, he is drawn to a young woman who can see ghosts.

Paradise and her friends live in a picturesque manor in the mountains near Denver, a place for those with mental illness and money. The world sees them as crazy but Brad slowly realizes the genius trapped inside their addled minds. Soon he is asking for their help and the results astonish him. Each utilizing their own gifts, the ‘residents’ help him decipher the ramblings of a madman who is just as psychotic and as brilliant as they are.

Meanwhile, the killer continues his murderous rampage and turns his attention to Brad, taunting him and challenging him.

Brad and Paradise form an uncomfortable alliance, not trusting themselves with each other, but gradually their mutual trust grows and so does their love.

The final showdown between Brad, Paradise and the killer who knows them both is the longest section of the book because Dekker milks it for all it’s worth. The pages fly by with unexpected twists and surprising developments. The Bride Collector is a spooky story that will have you looking over your shoulder.

Blowback by Brad Thor


After reading The Defector by Daniel Silva, I thought I was ready for Blowback by Brad Thor. Like the former, Blowback was the first novel I read by the author and like the former, I’m ready for more. Both are action-packed spy novels with pulse pounding excitement.

Since I’ve been turned onto spy novels, a new genre for me, only I thoroughly enjoyed Blowback. Compared to Gabriel Allon in The Defector, Thor’s main character Scot Harvath is tougher, less suave and much less subtle.

However, Scot’s playing with a different set of rules. While trying to apprehend a notorious terrorist in Afghanistan, he is caught on tape beating a seemingly innocent market vendor. An ambitious senator with her sights on the White House tries to serve his head from a silver catapult to oust the current president. The commander-in-Chief has no choice but to ask for Harvath’s resignation.

With his next breath, the president hires him back in secret. A strange virus has decimated all but the Muslim population of a small village in north Afghanistan and Harvath is the person best qualified and now, most expendable to find out what’s going on.

The repercussions from this virus are staggering. The West suspects Al-queda may have a terrifying weapon at their disposal. But how? The terrorist group and their sympathizers don’t have the capability to engineer a virus or a plague that affects only non-Muslims.

Harvath finds that there is a connection between the lethal illness that turns its victims’ brains into a black goo and the discovery underneath a glacier in the French Alps. Since Harvath is officially ostracized from Washington, he has to rely on his own resources with minimal help from the very few who are in-the-know about his situation.

Still he manages to bounce all over the globe, where money is no object and avoiding ID checks at border crossings, since he is wanted for murder in a number of countries.

Thor includes plenty of cliffhangers but what really stretches the imagination is Harvath’s near-indestructibility and extreme luck. He gets out of more scrapes and close-calls than Indiana Jones. Nevertheless, it’s all in good fun.

To me, Blowback is a terrific book that I couldn’t put down. Even readers who aren’t fans of thrillers and spy novels may enjoy this.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Defector by Daniel Silva


Daniel Silva starts The Defector with the best first sentence hook I’ve ever read: “Pyotr Luzkhov was about to be killed and for that he was grateful.” This starts an action-packed, page-turning spy thriller. The Associated Press called it the perfect book for fans of well-crafted thrillers, which is a pretty big compliment but The Defector delivers. It hooks the reader in from the first sentence and doesn’t leg to until the last.

Silva’s main character Gabriel Allon is an Israeli spy/assassin, who’s enjoying solitude with his wife and restoring painting masterpieces for the Vatican. He once made a promise to a colleague and friend Grigori Bulganov, a Russian spy who once saved Gabriel’s life. He promised Bulganov not to let him be killed and buried in an unmarked grave.

Now the Russian has disappeared several years after defecting to England. The British Government thinks he’s re-defected back to Russia but Gabriel knows better. Grigori would never return to his home country for fear of being killed the moment he set foot on Russian soil. Gabriel gathers a multi-national team of operatives to find Grigori and punish the ones responsible for his abduction.

As they bounce around the world, money is no object and the players in the game involve the highest levels of government in Washington, DC, London, Tel Aviv and the Kremlin. The further Gabriel goes to find his friend, he realizes that he may lose much more.

Silva has a great knack to pull you into a story and make you feel and empathize with the characters. Gabriel Allon seems to be a bit clichĂ©, an assassin with a heart of gold, but Silva doesn’t sugarcoat anyone. No one is innocent. Still you’re drawn into their stories and connect with them. He makes it easy to know who to cheer for.

Silva doesn’t include many Americans in this novel. In fact, only two have important roles but remain secondary characters. He even takes a couple of pot shots at Americans. However, it seems he’s laughing with us, not at us. Hmm….

This is the first novel I’ve read by Daniel Silva and it has wet my appetite for more of his works. Its breath-taking pace doesn’t leave the reader out of breath or out of touch. It soars but remains grounded without becoming so far-fetched the readers are reminded they’re reading a work of fiction.

Read the first page of The Defector and then hang on. You’ll want to read it in one sitting.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Lithium Murder by Camille Minichino


I always enjoy reading Dr. Camille Minichino’s Periodic Chart mysteries featuring Gloria Lamerino. Not only do you learn a little about Italian culture and a bit of science but it’s hysterical to see how much trouble and the predicaments a woman with a PhD in physics can get into. I wonder if PhD chemists are as stubborn and headstrong. That probably goes without saying. There’s nothing like standing in front of your graduate committee delivering your doctoral research to instill a long-lived taste of danger and peril.

In The Lithium Murder, retired physics professor Dr. Gloria Lamerino is looking forward to the first anniversary of her return to her hometown Revere, Massachusetts after three decades of self-imposed exile in California. Her best friend since childhood Rose Gagliani is planning a one-year anniversary party for her. Everyone needs a friend like Gloria’s bff Rose, who is shocked at her fashion sense, aghast at her still unmarried status and couldn’t be happier to have her back home.

A janitor at the local research facility is garroted but leaves a cryptic clue written in fresh cement. It’s quickly discovered that the old man had access to areas involved in lithium research being conducted to investigate the element’s application in batteries.

Gloria suspects that the janitor may have discovered or heard something pertaining to problems with the hazardous waste disposal of lithium compounds. Her detective/boyfriend Matt Gennaro agrees that it is a plausible possibility and contracts her as a scientific advisor to the Revere Police Department. It’s not long before Gloria’s relentless pursuit of e murderer puts her in danger. When a second body is found on her doorstep, Matt rips up her contract and tells her to quit het investigation.

Fat chance of that happening. Gloria cannot let a good mystery pass her by, especially when the RPD arrest the first victim’s son. She feels a grave mistake was made and the real killer is still on the loose. Since the RPD and Matt think they have the guilty party, Gloria knows it’s up to her to find the real killer, because her life may be in danger.

Dr. Camille puts her heroine in some bizarre situations, many of which occur do to Gloria living in an apartment above a funeral parlor. This setting and the climax combine for hilarious actions on Gloria’s part as she uses her wit and intelligence to escape the killer’s clutches.
Dr. Camille also changes things up a bit from her first two novels, such that the lithium research is not at the center of the crime. It turns out to be those good ol’ family values.

One refreshing aspect of Dr. Lamerino is that she’s not the gossipy busybody she likes to portray. She’s personable, intelligent and true to her roots. A down-to-earth PhD? Who’da thunk it?

The Lithium Murder, the third in the series, continues the trend of the stories getting better and better. The best part is you don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy them.

The PIlgrim of Hate by Ellis Peters


It’s easy to see why Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series is so popular, since it was made into a television series with Derek Jacobi. She brought so much of the twelfth century customs, culture and political environment into stark and vivid details, the setting comes alive on the pages. The Pilgrim of Hate is the tenth chronicle of Brother Cadfael and written as if Peters was present, writing the events down as they occurred.

In the year of our Lord 1141, England is still ripped apart by civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud, cousins each with designs on the throne. While Stephen is held prisoner, Maud waits in London to be crowned queen. A noble knight, Rainald Bossard, in the service of the empress is cruelly murdered one night during a brief and otherwise minor scuffle. Abbot Radulfus brings news of this when he returns form a council to the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul. The festival of Saint Winifred is just days away and pilgrims from the far reaches of the island will come to Shrewsbury to pray for a miracle.

Among those making the long journey is a weaver with her teenaged niece and nephew. The boy has a crippled leg and his sister has caught the eye of another young man, making his way to Shrewsbury festival. He is traveling with a self-proclaimed penitent, who claims he must suffer his journey barefoot and carrying a heavy cross around his neck.

Ne’er-do-wells are also amongst the many sojourners and Sheriff Hugh Beringar must stay one step ahead of the riffraff.

Cadfael is busy with his herbarium but his mind is distracted by the good Saint Winifred since only he and Hugh know the real location of her remains, which is not in the shrine built for her. Will the blessed saint still grant them a miracle or will she show them her wrath?

Despite the deceit, Winifred continues to bless Cadfael and the Abbey with many miracles. For Brother Cadfael, it is the return of Olivier Bretagne, his son by a woman in the Holy Land, sired during the Crusades. The good brother has told no one about his progeny, preferring to keep that part of his life before the cowl a guarded secret.

Peters reflects more than a passing reference to two earlier works: A Morbid Taste for Bones, which tells the story of Cadfael’s mystery and adventure with the remains of St. Winifred; and Virgin in the Ice when he first meets the son he hasn’t seen in many years. Fortunately, the reader doesn’t need to read those excellent novels prior to The Pilgrim of Hate, since her reflections are detailed enough that anyone unfamiliar with them can easily understand.

Peters writes with such feeling that you rejoice with Cadfael when he is reunited with Olivier. The reader feels Cadfael’s anxiety and urgency when he rushes to prevent a second murder from occurring. She knows how to connect her readers to her characters as well as any writer.

The Pilgrim of Hate is cozier than some of her previous works but still contains a great mystery with an interesting twist. But it also has a romantic side as well as Saint Winifred grants one pilgrim a wish and the Abbey witnesses a wedding. A happy ending to a baffling mystery.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Adonises in Amsterdam

At the port of Amsterdam mooring the Prinsendam.





Delivering Heineken.







Our sexy waiter Daniel.

Day 17 (cont.) - Oude Kirk, Amsterdam

The Oude Kirk is a medieval church in the heart of Amsterdam.




















Many graves were beneath the floor dating from the sixteenth century. There is a movement to restore the church since the graves are in danger of being erased by centuries of people walking over them.







The grave of Rembrandt's wife Saskia in 1642.
























This grave dates back to 1573.







For 6 Euros you could take a tour of the tower of Oude Kirk. This is a door in the tower where the bell ringers were. They could open it to hear the preacher or the organist so they would know when to ring the bells during church.









This bell has been here since 1659. It weighs 3700 kg, a little over 4 tons. The clacker is made of manganese, a soft metal so it won't damage the bell.



The view of Amsterdam from the tower.































The 'music box'. It played a short tune every hour. It's playing here.