Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Brides of Blood by Joseph Koenig

Brides of Blood
by Joseph Koenig
4 stars - more than a little disturbing

This book was sent to me by a friend after my attempts to locate it via the library network came up short. I'm going to donate it to the library so that other people will be able to read it.

Dark and very disturbing, Brides of Blood is a murder mystery set in Iran. I confess that I wavered about halfway through. Sure, I had trouble keeping the names of the players and political organizations straight, but more than that was the horror of the contents. 

You're thinking "Hey, Mango Momma, you read lots of really icky books." You are correct. But they typically involve sociopaths operating in somewhat civilized societies. The bad guys are aberrations. The good guys are legion.

Not so here because modern Iran is an unspeakably awful place. In particular, awful for women. The fear of and need for power over women is part of the culture, part of the government. Women have nothing and there is no amount of care a woman can take to protect her from an arbitrary punishment for slights (real or fabricated). Horrible punishments. Torture, imprisonment, violent, painful death.

Darius Bakhtiar is a western-trained chief of homicide trying to unravel the murder of a young woman. He has few friends, fewer allies. He quickly becomes tangled in a plot which includes powerful officials. For his efforts, he is repeatedly beat up and finally imprisoned and subjected to horrific torture. It is almost too much to read, much less imagine.

I do recommend the novel, but prepare yourself for it. The mystery is well conceived and plausible.

I was brought to mind of a movie that I watched a few years back that has continued to haunt me. The Stoning of Soraya M. Throughout the movie I kept thinking "Well, that isn't really going to happen" and then "but it won't be so terrible." Well, it did happen, it does happen, and it is terrible beyond imagining.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14
One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
by Blaine Harden
5 stars - an important book to read

From the dust cover:

North Korea's political prison camps have existed twice as long as Stalin's Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. No one born and raised in these camps is known to have escaped. No one, that is, except Shin Dong-hyuk.

In Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden unlocks the secrets of the world's most repressive totalitarian state through the story of Shin's shocking imprisonment and his astounding getaway. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence - he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his mother and his brother.

I feel inadequate to write a review strong enough for this book. Mr. Harden has done his research and while we only have Shin's word for what he experienced, his stories are supported by stories from other escapees from North Korean prison camps as well as research done by writers, journalists, and humanitarian groups.

The ugliness is complete. Total and unimaginable. Shin is born to two prisoners in one of North Korea's massive political prisoner camps. He is raised like an animal. He is constantly hungry, compelled to do whatever he can to survive. Even with that, he cannot always do the right thing and is subjected to horrific treatment that includes not only torture, but being forced to participate in the torture of others lest he and his family suffer worse fates. 

Mr. Harden tells the story unvarnished. Here is what happened to Shin. Here is what he did. Here is how he felt. 

There is also information regarding the prison camps in general and the society that has been created in North Korea. 

It's easy to distance oneself from this when just reading the occasional news article about North Korea. The book makes it all very real. Is there evil in the world? Are there evil people? Yes and yes. It's there,  and for the people of North Korea, there is little hope of escape. 

Don't look for a happy ending. The damage done to Shin is irreversible. Yes, he does escape and eventually finds his way to China, South Korea, and then the U.S. but how can one ever undo the lessons learned during childhood? Some things, once experienced, are part of a person forever. Haunt the person. Make it impossible to ever live "normally." Ever. 

You might be thinking, "Hey, Mango Momma, I don't want to read that book. It sounds scary and depressing." It is all of that, but read it anyway. Be aware, if nothing else. To know about the world is to be able to make better decisions in the world you inhabit. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fire Season by Jon Loomis - 4 stars

Fire Season
by Jon Loomis
4 stars - good summer fun

Read the book and you'll get the photo...

Perfect summertime mystery set in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Hey, I love Provincetown, but only off season. During the summer... yuck.

Frank Coffin, interim police chief has a lot on his hands. To start with, somebody is setting fires around town which is totally not good when you have dried out wooden structures so close to each other you can almost reach out the window and touch the house next door. 

Add to that murder, UFO's, and a boatload of curious characters and you've got a fun ride. 

I'd write more, but this is the first day in forever that isn't overwhelming jungle hot, so stuff to do. Later!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

by Jonothan Kellerman
1 star - this party is over

I've read all 27 previous Alex Delaware novels. Sure, they've been getting a little thin, but still good enough to distract me for a couple of days. Until now...

The 28th installment. Blech. DID NOT CARE! I bailed early before Alex's tiresome girlfriend, Robin, showed up (never cared for that character).

Just too much of the same here. Plus a mystery that didn't interest me at all.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac

Cousin Bette
by Honore de Balzac
4 stars - oh how naughty

He left River City the library building
But he left all the books to her!
Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep.

It is clear to me why the ladies of River City did not want their young people reading such stuff. Oh my goodness. Page after page of bad behavior. And not "titter titter, people were such prudes" bad behavior. I'm talking about cheating, stealing, adultery, greed, gluttony, disregard of family, and even murder most vile. Timeless stuff.

But I must set the record straight. This book, my friends, is most decidedly not about Cousin Bette (who is actually a somewhat minor character in the story). In fact, I found Cousin Bette herself to be a sympathetic character. The ugly sister of a poor family, she watches her beautiful sister make a wonderful marriage while she herself is consigned to the role of "ugly old maid." Sure, there are the odd prospects thrown at her in her youth, but they are disagreeable chaps and good for her for not agreeing to marriage for the sake of marriage. But Bette appears only occasionally and is not fully engaged in the action.

The real villain in the story (and the main character) is Bette's cousin by marriage, Baron Hector Hulot. Bah!

The Baron suffers from a total inability to keep his pants buttoned up. His succession of increasingly demanding mistresses cause him to squander all the money he has and then to move on to borrowing in the most convoluted pyramid schemes and ultimately to some bizarre strategy involving sending a relative to a military post in Algeria and siphoning off the money intended to keep the poor soul safe from the natives. 

He is incorrigible! Every decision in his life is directed by his "little soldier." His downfall, while possibly hastened a trifle by Bette, is nothing but his own doing. 

Page after page of this novel is filled with women seducing men, men seducing women, people plotting against each other, endless debauchery. 

The Baron writes to his (married) mistress thusly:

My wife has never, for the last twenty-five years; interfered with my pleasures, as I have told you. I would sacrifice a hundred Adelines for you! I will be there this evening at nine, in Crevel's temple, waiting for my divinity. Oh, that your deputy clerk might soon die! Then we need never be parted again.

Excuse me?

And what of the mistress herself? Here in full form convincing the Baron that the other men in her life (including her husband) are nothing to her and she loves only him.

"You don't love me any more, Henri - I can see it." said Madame Marneffe, hiding her face in her handkerchief and bursting into tears.

It was the cry of real love. The outcry of a woman's despair is so persuasive that it draws forth the forgiveness that is latent in every lover's heart when the women in question is young, beautiful, and wearing a dress so low cut that she could slop out at the top in the garb of Eve.

Oh indeed.

And what of Cousin Bette? Apparently she primarily suffered from terminal virginity which, according to the author, can make one truly terrible.

Virginity, like all monstrosities, has its peculiar richness, its absorbing grandeur. A life whose energies are conserved, takes on in the persons of virgins an incalculable quality of endurance and strength; the reserved faculties of the brain are enriched in their entirety. When chaste people have occasion to exert their bodies or their minds, when they are required to act, or think, they have muscles of steel; their intelligence is reinforced by intuitive knowledge - diabolical energy, or the black magic of will.

Why four stars and not five? Well, to be honest, the book is fairly rough going. The plot is so detailed and twisted that one is forced to take the odd time out to consider what has been read. In fact, it is on page 146 when the author informs us "Here, then, ends the introduction to this story." Yup, a 146 setup. 

Which is all to say that as much as I enjoyed this novel, I will not be tackling the multi-volume La Comedie Humaine any time soon.

Now then, is there any reader not familiar with the little ditty at the opening of this review?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Detour by James Siegel

by James Siegel
4 stars - oh what fun

If you're looking for an easy, action packed, totally distracting read, look no further.

Detour is the literary equivalent of a Bruce Willis movie. 

Paul and Joanna Breidbart are off to Columbia to adopt a baby. Uh oh. 

Bad stuff happens so fast in this book that I dare not provide any more information.

Let's just say, lots of twists and turns (but, seriously, is the outcome ever in doubt?). Who cares? Cartoonish violence that won't give you nightmares (well, won't give me nightmares). Jungle, city, bad guys, good guys, good/bad guys, you name it.

Bonus! One of the main characters is an actuary who lapses into the occasional calculations of the probable outcomes of events. Who wouldn't?

Whoosh! Feel like my reading brain just got a rotor router.