Happy Reading

Toni's bookshelf: read

The Godfather of Kathmandu (Sonchai Jitpleecheep, #4)
Ape House
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
Operation Napoleon
Walking Dead
The Sentimentalists
The Heretic Queen
The Midnight House
Cross Fire
Peony in Love
Finding Nouf: A Novel
City of Veils: A Novel
First Daughter
A Place of Hiding
Peter Pan

Toni Osborne's favorite books »

Friday, August 26, 2011

"The Sentimentalists", by Johanna Skibsrud

This debut novel, a sombre story of the unreliability of memory and the emotional ghosts of war won its author the prestigious Scotianbank Giller Prize in 2010.

Skibsrub's background as a poet stands out immediately. The prose is heavy in precision, mainly focussing on words and turns of phrases and less on the action and character development. In my humble opinion this book is overwritten, it is composed with an astounding play on words and over use of adjectives that may be appealing to some but not all.

The novel is narrated by an unnamed person who returns to stay with her father, a Vietnam War veteran. She recalls her father's life in a meandering voice that moves between the present and the past and shifts rather awkwardly between Fargo, ND and Casablanca, Ontario and the battlefields of Vietnam.

The first half of the book was so tedious it fast became boring and I simply lost interest, only 200 pages and I couldn't stick with it till the end ...Something I rarely do....So in all fairness I leave others to be the judge.

"The Heretic Queen", by Michelle Moran

"The Heretic Queen" covers a period several years after the timeline of previous novel "Nefertiti".

Once more, the author is taking us into a fulfilling journey through time with her simple and beautiful prose. This historical fiction recounts the life of young Nefertari, niece of Nefertiti, from her orphan years in the court of Seti 1 through the days after her coronation as Queen of Egypt.

It is clear from the start that the story although based on facts is highly romanticised for appeal. The author has let her imagination fill the gaps in history with creative speculation to grasp the reader's attention and plunge him into the Ancient Egyptian world of Ramesses the Great with all its splendour and tribulation.

Through the ups and downs of life, Nefertari narrates how although a Princess she is first treated like an outcast but her love for Ramesses since childhood and her determination to succeed will be her triumph. By 15, fluent in 5 languages and highly educated, this young woman not only wins the heart of a future Pharaoh but also of a nation, her skills and wits made her a successful Queen admired and respected by her followers.

This novel is a heart-warming love story and a delight to read.

"The Midnight House", by Alex Berenson

Book 4, in the John Wells series

This story is a fictional account about people, their politics on interrogation and the harsh techniques performed on detainees to obtain information.

CIA agent John Wells was on R&R in New Hampshire when his superior Ellis Shafer calls him back to Langley. An assassin has been killing one by one, members of the defunct team of 10 called 'Task Force 673 '. They were based in Poland at a place code name Midnight House and their mission was to interrogate high-value terrorists with whatever means necessary and extract vital Intel from the most dedicated and most radical. Could the killings be a question of pay back at all cost?

With Wells back in the fold, he poses as an Arabic-speaking journalist in Cairo with the ultimate mission to find and interview Alaa Zumari and back at the home front, Shafer works his contacts he has developed over the years. Soon into the investigation they realize members of the 673 are being not only targeted by the enemy but also back at home by high ranking officials who do not want the truth to become public.

This 4th instalment is a tale of moral corruption, cynicism and political manipulation. I find the storyline has a deeper message than the author's previous novels and has a slight philosophical and political overtone. It also covers an interesting topic: the torture of enemy combatants by Americans on foreign soil. The story jumps back and forth in time; it covers the 673 operations in Poland and the present day investigation. The pacing is slow at times with only a few vivid action sequences to provide a good adrenaline rush, however the writer has cleverly incorporated events of the past years with some plot twists to intrigue and challenge us. The story is driven by a large cast of interesting and well-drawn characters and Mr. Berenson has expertly developed his protagonist into multi-dimensional patriot extraordinaire.

'The Midnight House' is very engaging and a mind stimulating read.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Cross Fire", by James Patterson

Book 17, in the Alex Cross series

After reading so many books in this series, the style and structure have become predictable. I found the story to have many familiar aspects about it that left me with a sense of déjà vu. This latest is definitely for the die-hard fan that slowly plods along or the reader who only reads the occasional thriller.

The plot involves two main running threads. The first involves a pair of assassins who take it upon themselves to eliminate people of questionable ethics, in particular those who have committed crimes against the poor and have escaped the strong arm of justice on a technicality. Alex knows if the killers are not caught soon, this vigilante justice will continue. The second thread involves Alex's old nemeses, Kyle Craig, who recently escaped from prison and is on a mission of revenge '. It is payback time for Alex and his family'.

True to his trademark, Patterson has stayed with his choppy style of writing, short chapters and many empty pages to provide an easy and speedy read. Although the plot follows a pattern that has been used many times before it nevertheless created some entertaining moments. Maybe the time has come to retire Alex Cross and move on to a successor with a different flair to solving crimes.

"Peony in Love", by Lisa See

This book is a blend of historical perspective combined with the spiritual life of 17th century China. A 9 hours long opera 'The Peony Pavilion' written by Tan Xianzu in 1598 provides the framework. The opera tells a tale of lovesick young women who fall in love go on a hunger strike and gradually waist away only to be reborn after their death as ghosts.

The author's tale is a mix of spirituality, cultural details, tradition, superstitions and everyday life experiences. The story opens with 16 year old Peony and other young women watching through a slit in the viewing screen the opening performance of 'The Peony Pavilion', custom does not allow them to mix with the male audience. During a poignant moment in the performance Peony catches a glimpse of Wu Ren, a handsome young man in the audience. Overcome by emotion she leaves the room and as destiny would have it, she eventually encounters him in a courtyard near the lakeside pavilion'..it is an encounter that launches a love story with all the atmosphere of the period'..

This tragic love story takes us through a mystical journey to hell, with demons, ghosts and sword fighting. The main character Peony narrates her life in a rather lackluster manner and appears a little naïve when devastated by cruel twists of fate. When she reappears as a ghost the story become monotonous, a constant tale of stalking and obsessiveness and the slow pacing became overwhelming and I found myself quickly losing interest and eventually wondered how I made it to the last page.

In all fairness, there are interesting parts that add a tad of substance to the tale, I found the background information about the Cataclysm, the Manchu overthrow of the Ming regime and the beliefs and ritual of the people to be interesting.

I may not have appreciated this novel to its fullest but others have and others will.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Absurdistan", by Gar Shteyngart

The book is a strange story about love, the affection for a beloved papa, for the city of New York, for a sweet and poor girl in the Bronx and for the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).

The story is told by Misha Borisovich Vainberg, aka “Snack Daddy” a grossly overweight man, an in your face secular Jew with a distinguishably parrot beak and above all, the son the 1238th richest man in Russia. While in the US, on a student visa, he has earned a degree in multicultural studies from Accidental College NY and his sole ambition is to immigrate to the USA and live with his hot Latina girlfriend. However it was not meant to be, it was discovered his gangster father had murdered a businessman in Oklahoma, and to make matters worse his visa card was revoked.

Misha sees his salvation in the oil-rich nation of Absurdistan where consular officers can be easily bought and will sell him a Belgian passport. With his new identity and help from his friend Alosh-Bob and his manservant Timofey, Misha hopes to circumvent previous hurdles but things do not go as planned and everything turns south….

I am surely not the only one to realize that 338 pages of satire quickly becomes a drag especially if the story doesn’t grab you from the start. Maintaining a steady diet of satire and mockery has its limits and is not meant for everyone, Misha’s pathetic sex driven and unappealing character reaches a point of over exposure and a turn off. I felt the book to be mostly ridiculous, unbelievable and above all absurd. All this said, it may nevertheless appeal to a certain group with a broader sense of humour.

"Nefertiti", by Michelle Moran

Writing historical fiction set in the Eighteenth Dynasty, ancient Egypt, is a challenging endeavour and difficult to deliver. With a vivid imagination the author has created an interesting spin on a fascinating chapter in history. This is a dramatic tale of two unforgettable sisters one so beautiful she will attract the attention of all Egyptians.

The story is narrated by Mutnodjmet (Mutny), the younger (haft) sister of Nefertiti. She tells the story of how her beloved sister, a woman of exceptional beauty and great aspirations to power eventually marries and becomes the ruler of Egypt. It commences with the arranged marriage of fifteen year old Nefertiti to pharaoh Amunhotep IV, a young man with great plans that include changing the entire spiritual structure, ultimately making Aten (the sun disk) the center of worship. It was hoped the marriage would tone down Amunhotep’s vision but as fate would have it, Nefertiti had high ambitions of her own and like her husband wanted the complete support and adoration of the people. As we progress through the pages, we follow the struggle to change the course of politics and worship of the Egyptian population.

Strong family dynamics come to life within the main thread and we see double dealing, corruption and vengeance running ramped in the Royal court. It is the ultimate recipe for a Dynasty spiralling downward to a disastrous ending.

I enjoyed Ms. Moran’s version, she provides an exciting atmospheric story where the reader can almost see the sights, smell the scents and hear the sounds. Of all the characters I preferred Mutny, she is portrayed as a loveable and sympathetic person a complete contrast to her egocentric and unstable sister and the Pharaoh. I also found the unusual dynamic between the pharaoh and his daughters particularly interesting. Some may find the dialog to be a bit too simplistic but it made for a light and a refreshing summer read for the none purist.

The novel is highly fictionalized to make it entertaining so history critics should probably take a pass or take it for what it is.

"City of Veils", by Zoë Ferraris

Book 2 in the Katya Hijazi series

“City of Veils” is a modern crime fiction that provides a unique insight into the minds of men highly influenced by their religious upbringing and customs. As a reader from the West, it is an intriguing and shocking glimpse into a life where men and women contribute in a totally different manner in day to day survival. The scorching sands of Saudi Arabia provide the backdrop in this fast-paced and compelling story. The exciting plotting with its many twists and turns and well-drawn characters are what make this exceptional novel what it is.

The author has weaved seamlessly three threads together to create a sizzling thriller; it begins with the discovery of a mutilated body of a young woman on a beach. Detective Inspector Osama Ibrahim of the Jeddah Police and female officer Faiza start the investigation and are later join by Katya to interview female witnesses. Katya is very ambitious and her drive will push her too independently research the murder with the help of her trusted friend, Nayir. Another thread has Eric Walker, an American, disappearing under strange circumstances, his wife Mariam seeks help from the American consulate but is disappointed in their lack of results and eventually turns to Nayir and Katya. The author also skilfully develops the personal side of the main characters, Osama who is totally smitten by his wife is in for a rude awakening and Nayir struggles with his principals and feelings towards Katya as their attraction to each other becomes stronger….

This is a great sequel to “Finding Nouf”, time well spent between the pages.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"Finding Nouf", by Zoë Ferraris

Also published under the title 'The Night of the Mir'aj '

Book1 in the Katya Hijazi series

This is an unusual and engaging detective mystery that takes us inside Saudi Arabia, to the heart of a society normally closed to outsiders, thus offering a fascinating and riveting glimpse into the stricter side of the Islamic culture.

The story is basically a run of the mill mystery but what makes it stand above many in its genre is the manner in which the author has conveyed her thoughts on a segment of Saudi life. This exquisitely written tale is told with respect, without judgement and from both female and male perspectives skilfully drawing the reader into the psyche of the author's finely portrayed protagonists.

The suspense starts with sixteen year old Nouf disappearing from her house days before her arranged marriage and under murky circumstances. Could she have been kidnapped or has she run away? Her brother Othman seeks help from his trusted friend Nayir and asks him to investigate. A week into the investigation, Nayir and his Bedouin comrades discover Nouf's body in the desert outside Jeddah, but this leaves many questions to be answer. The coroner quickly rules Nouf's death an accident but lab assistant, Katya Hijazi, feels there is more to the story and shares her thoughts with Nayir. The fact that Nouf was pregnant and had defensive wounds sets off alarm bells, how can this be considered an accident? Katya and Nayir lead the reader through a maze of Saudi customs to find out what really happened...

'Finding Nouf' is fast paced and loaded with twists and turns, very entertaining and captivating from start to finish