Thriller: The English Girl, by Daniel Silva

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  My rating:     5 of 5 stars

The English Girl is author Silva’s thirteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, the brilliant, honorable, and ruthless Israeli intelligence operative. The book opens with a summons from number 10 Downing Street. The PM has been conducting a secret affair with Madeline Hart, a political aide who was just kidnapped while on holiday in Corsica. Hoping to keep this potential scandal from the press, the Brits are calling in a favor, asking Allon to find and rescue Madeline.  Reluctantly, and against his better judgment, he agrees.  What follows is a kind of Russian doll of a situation,  made up of plots within plots that grow ever more perilous,

Just as Allon is the consummate master of his trade, so too is Daniel Silva. There is no writer working today who is better at crafting a credible, mesmerizing thriller, one that reads like a James Bond movie. Allon, his wife Chiara, and his team, are by now old friends of readers, serve as the hook on which to reel us in. But Silva’s secondary characters are equally three-dimensional, and in this case include the killer for hire  who recently targeted Allon, the Don of the Corsican underworld,  and a peasant woman who can read the future in a bowl of water and olive oil. The exotic settings, which Silva brings to life with rich detail, and the intricate plots that never grow stale or predictable, add to the enjoyment.  As for the icing on these cakes, the geopolitical situations underlying all the intrigue provide the moral reason for the mayhem.

All of the Gabriel Allon novels can be read as stand-alones, but, for the richest experience, it’s best to take them in order. Highly recommended for those attracted to literary thrillers.

Monday Morning Poem: Tree at My Window

by Robert Frost

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream-head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Medieval Art: February in Les Tres Riches Heures

Medieval art is my favorite genre in the visual arts, and one of the most interesting forms is the illuminated book of hours. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (literally: “the very rich hours of the duke of Berry”) is the most renowned book of hours ever produced. It is often referred to as le roi des manuscrits enluminés (“the king of illuminated manuscripts”), and it is one of the most important pieces of artwork in history. In terms of historical and cultural importance, it is certainly equal to more famous works such as the Mona Lisa, marking the pinnacle of the art of manuscript illumination. Today it is located at the Musee Conde in Chantilly, France.

Like most books of hours, the Très Riches Heures depicts numerous biblical scenes and saints, and the initial capital letters and line endings are lavishly decorated. But unlike most books of hours, this work includes landscapes (most well-known are the twelve miniatures for the months of the year), as well as unusual subject matter like the “anatomical man,” the garden of Eden, the fall of the rebel angels, and even a plan of Rome. To what extent the artists had a say in the subject matter, and how much was determined by the patrons, is unclear.

Desolate winter is dazzling in this landscape for the month of February. Snow blankets the countryside and chills a peasant bringing his wares to town with the aid of a donkey, while a farm family warms themselves in a wooden house. Pale light from a wan sky falls onto the whitened countryside. The starkness of the snow underlines planes and accentuates details, giving the landscape a particular sharpness. In the distance a village hides its snow-covered roofs between two hills. In the foreground, a farm is represented, its every element executed with meticulous care: the dovecote, heehives, cart, casks, sheepfold, a hare tree, the house and the wattled enclosure. Near the farm a young man cuts wood; in front of the dovecote a benumbed figure clutching a wool coat over his head and shoulders hurries home. A large fire shines from the wooden house in which two peasants immodestly warm their legs; looking more closely, it is possible to observe that they do not wear undergarments, a detail of interest to textile historians! The mistress of the house, elegant in a lovely blue dress, warms herself with more decorum. Linen has heen hung to dry on rods along the walls, and smoke curls from the chimney. The severity of winter is further emphasized by the birds huddled near the house, scratching for food which the snow makes it impossible to find elsewhere.

Additional information about this glorious masterpiece can be found at http://www.christusrex.org/www2/berry/berry1.html

and http://historymedren.about.com/od/booksofhours/p/riches_heures.htm , from which these excerpts were taken.

It’s a Mystery: Instruments of Darkness, by Imogen Robertson

Instruments of Darkness (Crowther and Westerman, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“When I found the body I thought you might be able to read his death like the read picture cards.” So explains Harriet Westerman, mistress of Caveley Park manor, when she makes her first visit to renowned but reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther. And a forensic team, a la 1780, is formed.

Instruments of Darkness is the debut novel of Imogen Robertson, and an auspicious beginning it is. This book has everything an English country house mystery needs in its compelling characters, beautifully described Georgian settings, and rich historical detail. Conversations are proper but anything but dull, and the multi-murder plot plays out in rural Sussex, London during the Gordon Riots, and the American War for Independence. As Harriet and Gabriel piece the deadly puzzle together, light dawns for the reader as well, and by the end, although we know who’s behind all the evil, that simply makes the denouement that much more satisfying. (One of the villains comes to a particularly gratifying finish.)

As of this writing, there are three sequels to Instruments , and it looks like I’ll be reading and enjoying them all.

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Monday Morning Poem: Winter Trees

by William Carlos Williams

photo by katknit

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical  journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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Thriller: Cabal of the Westford Knight, by David S. Brody

Cabal of The Westford Knight: Templars at the Newport Tower
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The daVinci Code crosses the pond to Westford, Massachusetts, following clues about the secret Jesus/Magdalene bloodline hidden in Scotland’s and the Sinclair family’s Roslyn Chapel. Cabal of the Westford Knight is based upon legends concerning the infamous Templar Knights, a band of which is supposed by some to have arrived in what is now New England, more than a hundred years before Columbus. Cameron Thorne is a small town lawyer who grew up in the region, and in the course of ordinary business, he stumbles into a diabolical conspiracy by parties unknown. The Knights are rumored to have left a priceless treasure, and Thorne quickly learns that there are those more than willing to kill for it. He determines to reach that treasure, whatever it may be, before the conspirators can.

Author Brody weaves existing artifacts and places into a historical fiction thriller that expands from local legend to archaeological fact to world wide religious conspiracy. Westford Knight is a labyrinthine tale, dependent upon countless twists, turns and incredibly lucky breaks. Amply supplemented with photos, it invites the reader to consider the physical evidence and draw his/her own conclusions. Character development is sacrificed to the necessities of a complex, galloping plot, though there is a budding romance between Thorne and a beautiful, brainy historian. Together, the couple track down artifacts and draw some pretty spectacular inferences, all while dodging bullets and jumping off bridges. Brody’s writing is competent but extremely literal, and appears to have been thoroughly researched. For readers interested in further exploration on this topic, he maintains a couple of interactive websites, referenced in acknowledgments.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death, by Gary R. Varner

Strangely Wrought Creatures of Life & Death: Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strangely Wrought Creatures is subtitled Ancient Symbolism in European and American Architecture. The first half of this slim volume (157 pages) discussing those two iconic figures, the gargoyle and the green man, which have been a feature in ecclesiastical architecture for more than a millennium. Quoting from his own research and that of others, Gary Varner speculates about the reasons for the inclusion of these “pagan” figures in most of Europe’s great churches and cathedrals, and about what they might symbolize (there are five times more green men in one English cathedral than images of Jesus!) He does the same in the book’s second half, where he covers such enigmatic creatures as dragons, unicorns, mermaids, and griffins, and others. The upshot of his study is that there is much disagreement about what these image “mean”, and why prelates would allow such carvings in a place of Christian worship.

The book is liberally illustrated with photos of strange creatures located on buildings old and new, primarily in England, France, and America. Why do twenty and twenty-first century folks find these images so compelling? Perhaps, Varner believes, because we long for connections to our distant past, and are influence by our embedded archetypal memories. This is a good overview for readers new to the topic, but for those with broader knowledge about it, there’s little new to be found in its pages.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mistake to think of history, any history, as static, and now Nathaniel Philbrick offers the general reader a new take on the earliest days of America’s War for Independence, most of which played out in and around Boston. Starting in the aftermath of the infamous Tea Party, he describes the passions, tensions, fears, squabbles, and the incipient battles in well documented and lively detail. Of particular interest are the character sketches Philbrick included in his larger narrative. about Washington, local hero Joseph Warren, and a heretofore little-known rabble rouser who called himself Joyce Jr. As a museum docent who talks about Washington and the Revolution on a daily basis, it was amusing to read of his appalled reaction, when this self-styled, Southern officer and gentleman arrived in Boston and attempted to take command of an army composed of poorly supplied, rough hewn, strong willed Yankees, who insisted upon electing their own officers and following orders only when they thought they were sensible. Joseph Warren has long been a local hero in Massachusetts, and Philbrick tells of how the New England soldiers revered him; Warren was brought down a few notches in my opinion, however. Until reading Bunker Hill, I had no knowledge of a vigilante calling himself Joyce, Jr., who patrolled the streets in flamboyant disguise looking to tar and feather any Tories whom he happened to encounter (tar and feathering is a brutal affair, not a joke.)

But as the author himself states in his closing, the real hero of this story is the city of Boston, and he has done it a great service in relating its history from the point of view of the courageous citizenry who gave birth to a revolution.

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It’s a Mystery: The Lost Days of Agatha Christie, by Carole Owens

The Lost Days of Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In December, 1926, Agatha Christie, England’s most popular novelist of the era, disappeared for eleven days. When she was finally located in a Harrogate hotel, she could not remember who she was, and was unable to identify her husband. She did finally recover her memory, but was never able to recall what she did during that mysterious interval, or indeed, why she even left home. In a novel reminiscent of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, American psychotherapist Carole Owens imagines changing that outcome by placing Christie in an intensive, day long therapy session with a fictional Oxford psychiatrist. This plot device serves admirably as a way for the reader to learn about Christie’s childhood, writing career, and first marriage, while the psychiatrist helps his patient explore some of the possible psychological ramifications of the memories that she describes. It also serves as a vehicle for gaining insight into some of the ways in which therapy can work. In addition to providing a very credible explanation of what might have caused Christie’s strange experience, the book also paints a picture of early twentieth century life, its attitudes and expectations, among the minor English gentry. It’s difficult to write a story containing only two main characters, but Owens did so with authority, style and elegance, making both doctor and patient very real and likable. Though the book is heavy on dialogue, she builds in enough suspense to make her book a page turner. It’s a sleeper that deserves much wider readership, and it’s interesting to discover how some of the features of Agatha’s life might have influenced her creativity as an author.

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