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 cliché, 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.

Day 17 - Second Day in Amsterdam

It's interesting to see the Erotic Museum in a building where "God is my burgh"

Public outdoor urinals.

Everyone was getting excited about the World Cup Final.

I didn't realize that Amsterdam was on Route 66.

Quite an open society in Amsterdam.

This is the artwork on the outside wall of the hotel we stayed in.

This is a bar on wheels. Everyone pedals while drinking beer and seeing the city sights.