Thriller: The English Girl, by Daniel Silva


  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.

It’s a Mystery: The Deliverance of Evil, by Roberto Costantini


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Deliverance of Evil is the debut novel of Italian writer Roberto Costantini. It opens in 1982, when Italy is celebrating the winning of the World Cup, thus taking little notice of a young woman’s murder on the streets of Rome. Detective Michele Balistreri doesn’t have the luxury of  ignoring the crime, but the heavy drinking, chain smoking womanizer is arrogantly certain that he’ll solve this murder. The case goes cold, however,  and the next 100 pages of this book are dedicated to demonstrating what a pretentious, hollow lowlife Balistreri is.

Though not exactly  on fast-forward, the story eventually takes its readers to 2006, and Italy is again on the verge of  another World Cup. Balistreri has finally hit rock bottom, where he lingers until pulled out of his self destructive funk by the death of his mother. When his clears, he remembers his failure to solve the long ago murder, and, feeling a modicum of guilt, sets out to rectify the situation.   Don’t look for the emergence of a Columbo, but Belistreri stumbles upon a deadly Eastern European prostitution ring,  and, when more murders occur, begins to piece together some links between past and present.

The Deliverance of Evil is full of extraneous detail, sketchily drawn characters, and a wordy rather than action based plot.  But buried among the extraneous clutter are some valuable insights in Italy’s social problems, which include widespread political corruption, a flood of immigrants, and constant conflict between church and state.  Rather than repeatedly demonstrating Balistreri’s moral ambiguity, some exploration of his own conflicts would add interest (ala Kurt Wallander.)  This novel is too long by at least a hundred pages, and tighter editing might shape it into a tauter, more appealing work.

Archaeology News: Fifth Century Church Set to Open in Rome

How exciting, and great! Excerpt from an article at :

Click on link for more photos.

Fifth-century church in Roman Forum to reopen to public

Restoration of S. Maria Antiqua church nears completion

Fifth-century church in Roman Forum to reopen to public

A 12-year restoration programme at the fifth-century church of S. Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum is almost complete.

Rome’s superintendent for archaeology Mariarosaria Barbera said that once the final works had been carried out on the floors, preparations would begin in January to cater for visits on a limited basis in the spring. Barbera said the church would then open to the public for at least three days a week, “allowing adequate breaks to ensure the microclimate.”

Located on the north-western slopes of the Palatine hill, the church is one of Rome’s earliest surviving Christian monuments. Its richly decorated walls contain 250-sqm of frescoes from the sixth to the late eighth century which have led it to become known as the “Mediaeval Sistine Chapel”.


Thriller: Inferno, by Dan Brown

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of how or why he came to be there. No sooner does he regain consciousness than a mysterious, spiky haired woman in leather bursts into his room with her gun blazing. She misses Langdon, but, sad to say, kills his doctor instantly. Once again, Langdon goes on the run, accompanied by the beautiful Sienna Brooks, who is also on his medical team. Bit by bit, she informs him of a plot by a mad geneticist, who will shortly release a virus upon the world, one that promises to curtail population growth just as the Black Plague used to do naturally. Clues left by the geneticist are excerpted from one of the most famous poems ever written, Dante’s Inferno. It’s up to Langdon to decipher them and save humanity from disaster. His quest will take them to Venice and Istanbul, where he’ll be required to search within the holiest shrines of the Christian and Muslim cultures.

OK, as usual, the exploits, close escapes, and intellectual feats of hero Langdon are over the top, incredibly so. But that’s what makes Brown’s series so much fun. With Inferno, Brown has tightened up his writing style, producing a novel with less unnecessary window dressing and more substance. The fate from which the madman is trying to save the world is a true one, which most realistic scientists agree will probably begin wreaking havoc very soon. Brown weaves in information about architecture, literature, medicine, genetics, and population growth while managing to keep the action speeding right along. And, darn it, Langdon’s such an appealing kind of guy. So pack away your common sense and literary pretensions, and enjoy another wild ride with Robert Langdon. Great literature? Nope. Great entertainment? You bet. And the movie is already in production.

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It’s a Mystery: Beastly Things, by Donna Leon

Beastly Things (Commissario Brunetti, #21)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Vianello, Signorina Ellettra, and Guido Brunetti’s daughter all gave up eating meat, especially beef, some time ago, for humanitarian reasons and also because so many diseased animals end up in the food chain. The topic is beginning to give gourmand Brunetti serious pause. When he’s assigned to the case of a veterinarian whose body, punctured with stab wounds, is found floating in a canal, he’ll soon have even more reasons to watch what he eats.

Beastly Things is a fine police procedural, in which readers can follow the steps to identifying, first, a John Doe (Giovanni Doe?), and second, the motive for his murder. Brunetti is at the top of his form, as always concerned with both justice and social ethics. Over the years (this is Brunetti #21), author Leon has developed into fine art the ability to inject and weave together both themes without resorting to preaching. One of the characters, for example, embeds a message to his little boy into a bedtime story. Brunetti and Vianello are so deeply affected by their visit to a slaughterhouse that they can’t even talk about it between themselves. And her plotting and dialogue are impeccable. As always, La Serenissima is very much a character.

Leon closes this book with the most evocative, moving, and meaningful description of a funeral that I’ve ever read, or experienced, for that matter. She’s another who’s at the top of her form.

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Modern Lit: Indigo, by Graham Joyce

IndigoIndigo by Graham Joyce

Rich, eccentric Tim Chambers, resident of Chicago and Rome, has died, and his estranged son Jack has been named executor of the estate. Chambers was a master of manipulation, and has left a manuscript with instructions for its publication. Entitled Indigo, A Manual of Light, it is nothing less than a set of instructions for teaching oneself to assume the aura of invisibility. Jack has inherited nothing of his father’s fortune, which goes to half-sister Louise and to a protege named Natalie, but he’s been designated the estate executor. Resentful and perplexed, he sets out to accomplish his assignment as quickly as possible. Traveling to Rome with Louise, Jack is greatly disconcerted to find himself powerfully attracted to her. When he meets Natalie, an artist, he is equally drawn to her. His time in Rome grows increasingly surreal, as Natalie encourages him to follow the bizarre process set out in the Manual of Light.

Beautifully written, author Joyce imbues his tale with the imagery of light and color, which works especially well in the Roman setting. The deceased Tim Chambers is very much a presence, though not in the ghostly sense. The narrative is interrupted by both a series of flashbacks and chapters from the manual, and at times, like Jack, the reader wonders what is real and what is illusion. He gradually arrives to the realization that his father is still manipulating him and others from the grave, which creates a sort of mild paranoia. Compelling on the psychological and metaphysical levels, the novel ends with a final conundrum that does not quite dispel all its mysteries.

Modern Fiction: The Gilder, by Kathryn Kay

The Gilder

Young Marina Nesmith, fresh out of college, moves from NY to Florence, determined to acquire the best possible training as a gilding and restoration specialist. Sarah and her husband Thomas, a noted photographer, take her under their wing, and although Marina views herself as heterosexual, some of her feelings for Sarah make her wonder. As she’s establishing herself in her new career, Sarah becomes pregnant, and abruptly returns to the states. Now, fifteen years later, her daughter demands to know who her father is, and Marina has some difficult choices to make.

What I liked about The Gilder: Marina is an independent woman who makes her own way in the world. As she traverses Florence and its environs, her impressions capture some of the essence of the city and its art. This author’s prose style is competent.

What I didn’t like about The Gilder: Coming of age novels tend to be very similar, and this one seems more suitable for young adult audience than for mature readers. Too many questions about motivations remain unanswered, and, except for Marina, characters are shallow. For the most part, I breezed through the pages, never fully, or even partially, captivated by any of the situations.

My Puzzle Jug

A puzzle jug is a jug built around a trick. The challenge is to drink from the jug without spilling, which cannot be done because of perforations in the pottery. The earliest example is the Exeter jug, which dates from the 14th century.

When handed a drink in one of these flagons, the way to save embarrassment is to know that  the jug has a hidden tube, like a kind of early dribble cup. Obviously, the human sense of humor has not grown more sophisticated over the centuries. But I’m not going to reveal the solution, in case you ever encounter one of these yourself. Wouldn’t want to spoil the fun!

When my husband Tony and I visited Italy during the autumn of  2007, we made a visit to the town of Grottaglie, long famous for its beautiful pottery. Among the lovely pieces that we just had to buy was this beautiful handmade puzzle jug.

Click on photos to enlarge.

It’s a Mystery: A Sea of Troubles, by Donna Leon

A Sea of Troubles (Commissario Brunetti, #10)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fisherman and his son die in a fiery boat explosion on the island of Pellestrina, a barrier island near Venice. Commissario Brunetti is assigned to investigate, and when, as always, he seeks research assistance from Signorina Elletra, she takes it into her head to visit her relatives on the island and do some unofficial undercover work. Brunetti is most discomfited by her decision, and though he tries to dissuade her, feels he can’t give her orders about where to take her vacation. He should have taken a firmer stand.

This tenth entry into the Brunetti series gives readers a deeper glimpse into his inner, emotional life. The knowledge that Elletra could be in serious danger becomes an obsession that threatens to derail his professional objectivity, a situation that comes to the attention of his wife, Paola. When the inevitable problems arise at Pellestrin, Brunetti has difficulty restraining his natural impulses. What makes this novel so interesting for those familiar with the long back story is watching how his mistakes play themselves out. There will be more fatalities.

As always, Leon’s knowledge of Venice and its environs, her understanding of human nature, and her very natural and fallible characters make for compelling reading. And it’s fun to visit some of the places near La Serenissima.

It’s a Mystery: Carnival for the Dead, by David Hewson

Carnival For The Dead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

David Hewson’s Nic Costa series always comes through with an enticing mystery set in atmospheric Italy. In Carnival for the Dead, Nic and his police colleagues are present only in the thoughts of Teresa Lupo, the feisty pathologist who assists on their cases. Teresa’s on her own in this outing, in Venice at the behest of her mother, who is worried about Sofia, her sister and Teresa’s favorite aunt. Sofia has always led a bohemian sort of life, but now seems to have vanished.

Hewson has set this mystery in the midst of Venice’s famed Carnival, and the ambiance couldn’t be more unsettling. She is staying at her aunt’s disheveled flat, and no sooner has she arrived than a thick manuscript is delivered by a neighbor. She spends the evening reading what appears to be a work of fiction about Sofia, in which Teresa is also a character. When she awakens in the morning, the pages are blank.

This is a tour de force sort of novel of stories within stories. It requires careful reading, because after a while it becomes more and more challenging to separate fact from fiction. Most of the people that Teresa meets on the street are in full costume, and the ominous disguise of the Plague Doctor seems the most common. Hewson does a masterful job invoking the spirit of Carnival Venice, where no one can be taken at face value as they wend their way through the dark maze of calle and canals. The ending is sensational, intricately layered with surprises.

Hewson’s best novel yet, in a string of very good novels indee