Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Nonsuch Lure

By Mary Luke

A successful business man finds himself drawn back to a landscape he visited as a little boy, the site of Henry VIII's pleasure palace, the Nonsuch, of which only ruins remain. The man, Andrew Moffat, finds out that the site is being investigated by archaeologists and he decides to visit England and return to the site he remembered from his childhood. While strolling on the grounds he is suddenly taken ill at a particular location in the old ruin.
Still his fascination remains with the site and with the family that owned the land before King Henry took it to build his palace on and in particular he is fascinated by Chloe Cuddington, the beautiful daughter of that family whose portrait he has seen the home of a distant relative of hers.
Realizing his fascination is turning into an obsession he pays a visit to a doctor friend in London and the doctor uses hypnosis to regress Andrew back into a previous life, the life of a young Virginia planter who also visited England and who also became enamored of a Chloe Cuddington, an indirect descendant of the Chloe in the painting.
This young planter experienced the same illness that Andrew did in the exact same location and his experience was deadly, killing him and leaving the beautiful young Chloe to die of a broken heart within a few years.
For something evil lingers at the site of the ruined palace, something that is hateful and jealous and willing to kill to protect the secret of the palace, the Nonsuch Lure.

This was a pretty good story, about eternal love, past lives, karma and reincarnation. Even if you don't believe in reincarnation, still it was an engrossing tale and it was touching reading about a love strong enough to span the centuries. And about the mystery of the Lure and what it is and what demonic spirit guards it. I also enjoyed the background story of the Nonsuch Palace, which really existed and which was later torn down to pay for gambling debts. An ignominious end to what was described by the people of its time as one of the most magnificent and amazing palaces in England.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Seance for a Vampire

By Fred Saberhagen

Number 8 in The Dracula Series.

In Saberhagen's series, vampires are people too. They are just a tad different, that's all. Sure they want to suck your blood, but they wouldn't mind being your pal too.
Anyway, in this story, Sherlock Holmes and Watson are called upon to investigate a phony psychic who has supposedly conjured up the spirit of young woman who recently drowned. The woman's fiancee is sure her grieving parents are being scammed and wants Holmes to prove it. He invites the two investigators to the parents' house to attend the seance.
So Holmes and Watson attend the seance, and sure enough, the dead girl appears. She claims she will never be able to rest in peace until an ancient wrong is righted and treasure stolen by an ancestor of the family is returned to its rightful owner. In the uproar that follows, Watson notices that the so-called spirit has no reflection. Holmes is attacked and carried off by some immensely strong attacker and disappears.
Watson, having prior experience with vampires, is pretty sure the spirit girl is in fact not dead but a vampire and he is also afraid that Holmes is now in the clutches of whatever vampire turned the girl into one. Fearing for Holmes' life, Watson contacts Dracula for help. Dracula, it turns out, is related to Holmes and is willing to help Watson in finding the kidnapped Holmes.
The course of their investigation puts them on the trail of a pirate who lost his treasure and blames the vampire girl's family for it. This vampire is a little bit nuts and totally barking up the wrong tree as far as his treasure goes.
Anyways, after rescuing Holmes from an early grave, they track the pirate vampire to Russia and confront him in his sumptuous home. (A home so sumptuous it makes you wonder why the pirate vampire is so intent upon getting the treasure because he sure doesn't seem to be hurting for money.)

I was not familiar with this series before I read this book. To jump into a series without starting at the beginning is a bit jarring. Especially Dracula turning up as a friend of the family and ready to lend a helping hand when needed, that was odd. But never mind that, the story just never touched me. Maybe because the women in the story are mainly only props to be used and abused and put aside. They get raped, turned into vampires, sucked on, entranced, killed, staked, kidnapped and driven insane, but they never really get much of a say in the story. They are just there to be the pathetic victims and that's all. Also, the Dracula character is pretty much a wet fish. He pulls a few vampire tricks but never gets to confront the killer vampire and at the end of the story he misses out on all the action because he gets hypnotized by Rasputin who gets to make a surprise appearance at the end of the story. Bottom line, this story was just not that interesting.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sea of Memory

By Erri De Luca

A sixteen-year-old boy is spending his summer on an Italian island. It's the 1950s and Naples, his home town, is still full of American soldiers. So even though World War II is over, its effects are everywhere. The boy, whose name is never given, has questions about the war but the adults around him just want to put it in the past.
The boy spends his days out on a fishing boy, learning the trade of the fisherman. The man who operates the boat sometimes imparts a little information about how he spent the war and the boy soaks it all up.
The boy meets a girl, Caia, and becomes smitten. She is a little older than him and seems like she has a secret burden. He finds out that she is Jewish, a fact she prefers the group she hangs out with not to know. The boy becomes her confidant, and she sometimes imagines her dead father talks to her through him from some trick of gesturing that the boy has that reminds her of her father.
As the summer goes on, and the boy comes to feel more deeply the role the Italians played as allies of Germany. He especially sympathizes with Caia, who lost her whole family during the war. His rage and guilt become focused on the many German tourists who are vacationing on the island and he carries out a kind of stupid and pointless revenge against a few of them.

It is strange reading about a teenage obsession, knowing that a crush will most likely pass and that the boy's revenge is the product of an immature mind. All that youthful passion, thrown away in an act that really has no purpose other than to relieve some of the boy's stress, guilt and rage. The reader follows along as a young man's feelings take to him places that may ruin and will probably change the rest of his life. You never find out the consequences of his actions, but even if he is never caught, surely such a drastic step must affect and skew his outlook permanently. He will always be the person who did that terrible thing just as the Germans will always be the people who did that terrible thing, the Holocaust.
But is it a good read? I found it slow going and rather dull. Took me several days to read a very short novel, only 118 pages. Normally I could do that in one sitting. I'm not saying it's a bad read, but it just didn't grab me. Also the abrupt ending was a let down. The boy does his dirty deed but we are not told its effect or the consequences. I can only rate this one fair.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


By David Lozell Martin

Charlie Curtis is sent by his dying father to New Orleans to see his father's half-brother, James Joseph Pelikan. He wants Charlie to bring Pelikan to see him before he dies. Charlie doesn't want to go because he has a grudge against his uncle who stole the affections of a woman Charlie was interested in. But he goes anyway.
Pelikan grew up in distressed and deprived circumstances that have colored and affected his whole life. Living a marginal existence, involved with hookers and street people and addicted to drugs, cruel and manipulative, Pelikan is not your average guy. He has gotten involved with a group of nuns who are chasing down a lost relic, a gold crown of thorns, that was stolen from their convent by the Nazis and ended up in a private collection in New Orleans. And Pelikan has a plan to get the relic back and he wants Charlie's help.
Charlie, holding on to his grudge, is not inclined to forgive or forget and certainly doesn't want to help. But he soon finds himself accused of murder, under very strange circumstances that involve a nude woman with a fish hook adorning her mouth, and needing his uncle's contacts and influence to get out of jail. Charlie falls in with his uncle and spends a lot of time getting drunk and sleeping it off. He agrees to help Pelikan out after running afoul of the weirdo that used to have the relic but who is also trying to get his hands on it again as it's ownership is under dispute and it is locked up by the courts. The nuns, instead of waiting for the courts to settle the case, are determined to snatch the thing as they know that the weirdo is planning to steal it and they need to beat him to it. And it turns out the best time to do so is during a raging hurricane and so that's what they do.

The novel is populated with strange and repulsive New Orleans characters, including Pelikan and his cronies. New Orleans comes off as a very nasty place full of very nasty people, including the tourists who get drunk and vomit in the streets. Supposedly the novel is meant to be humorous -- I didn't find it so. Still, it is full of odd characters and has an interesting plot, so even though it has a high "yuck" quotient, it made for pretty good reading. But not a funny as it was touted to be, mainly just gross. Is gross considered funny nowadays? I don't know. If you can swallow the grossness, the worst part of which to me was a hooker describing giving blow jobs which made me want to vomit like the drunks in the streets of New Orleans, it's a pretty good story.

For another review see The New York Times.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

24-Karat Kids

By Dr. Judy Goldstein and Sebastian Stuart

Shelley Green has just finished up her training as a pediatric physician and has landed a cushy job with an upscale pediatric office and all her dreams are starting to come true.
Moving from a working class lifestyle to that of a well-off young physician means some adjustments need to be made. What with the new hairstyle, the sophisticated makeup, the trendy clothes, the la-de-dah new friends and the marvelous new apartment, Shelley's fiancee can scarcely recognize her any more and he is not happy. And Shelley is not happy that he can't seem to accept the new Shelley. They both end up the arms of others and the engagement is at an end.
Caught up in her new job and new lifestyle, it all kind of goes to Shelley's head. But she never lets the lifestyle affect her main priority, her young patients. She loves kids and she loves providing medical care for them. In fact, adding in her sexy new boyfriend and her rich new girlfriend, seems like life can't get any better. But sometimes life in the fast lane is not all it is cracked up to be and rich people are famous for looking out for number one. Shelley is about to get a harsh lesson in who you can really trust.

For the most part, I enjoyed this story of a working class woman getting to enjoy the perks of the rich and famous. Shelley is suddenly earning stacks of dough and hanging out with folks who hobnob with the A-list celebs. She enjoys it and her new job and reading about her transformation from dowdy medical student to the new hot pediatrician in town was interesting and fun. However, the medical stuff where she visits with her little patients just wasn't very compelling. About the most interesting case turns out to be misdiagnosed Lime disease. Other than that, the patients are mainly used as a vehicle to point out how stupid and selfish their rich, self-involved parents are. For example, one famous parent is about to have a melt down because her nanny is leaving for a couple weeks and the rich bitch's 18-month-old baby is not potty trained. The mom "doesn't do poop" and wants Shelley's advice on how to get the baby potty-trained in the few days left before the nanny takes off. Shelley has to explain that babies that age are not capable of controlling their bowel movements and that potty training is not possible. But the mom rallys and comes up with a plan: she and the baby will go and stay at a resort near where the nanny will be visiting and every time the baby needs to be changed, she will have her driven over to the nanny's house so the nanny can do it. Holy crap! And that is typical of the wealthy, successful parents depicted in the story. Also the hot new boyfriend and wealthy new girlfriend are mostly there just to show us what creeps the wealthy classes are.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The medical cases were not compelling, though, not even the girl with the Lime disease. For a book titled after her patients, the "24-Karat Kids," it is surprising how little they figure in the story. Mostly it is about Shelley and her transition from deprived to affluent. The ending is very contrived and obvious, as the author lets you know several times that rich people are not to be trusted. Shelley is probably modeled after the author herself as Goldstein is also an upscale pediatrician practicing in Manhattan. And Goldstein's despite for her patients' rich parents comes through very clearly. Makes you wonder what cruelty and heartbreak the author experienced in her own life that has turned her so thoroughly against the upper crust.
Despite these problems I had with the story, overall I enjoyed it and read it in only two days, which is always the sign of a book that can capture and hold the reader's interest.

Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847

By Susan Magoffin, edited by Stella Drumm

As young newly wed, Susan joined her husband on a trading expedition from the United States across Kansas and down through New Mexico and on into Mexico, eventually ending up at Matamoros on the Gulf Coast. Only eighteen years old and married to a man 27 years older than Susan and a veteran of these long, arduous journeys, Susan accompanied her new husband Samuel with a teenager's glee and enthusiasm and optimism.
Through her diary we get a picture of life on the trail. And of what life was like for Americans in that area during the conflict between Mexico and the USA that came to be called the Mexican-American war. Her husband's brother James was heavily involved in the behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuverings common to such occasions and Susan mentions him and his activities in her diary often.
Also, it is clear from how she writes of Samuel that she is completely smitten with him but as we near the end of the diary which covered a span of about fifteen months, although she still calls him "mi alma," which means my soul, she does admit that, "...this thing of marrying is not what it is cracked up to be."
When they reached the Gulf Coast they sailed back to America. But Susan's health, after contracting yellow fever and possibly malaria, had been so compromised by the disease and rigors of the trip that she died eight years later in 1855, her youth and vigor destroyed. Oddly, her husband remarried a cousin of hers who was also named Susan Shelby.
Susan was one of the first Anglo American women to make this trek and her observations are full of details overlooked by male chroniclers, including info about shopping, housekeeping, servants, clothing, food and recipes, the stuff of every day life. Susan and Samuel traveled in style, with servants and in their own carriage and with all the comforts money could provide, but still Susan reported on a lot of domestic details and also gives many interesting impressions of the locals she encounters. Once they entered New Mexico, though, her diary reflects the fear and uncertainty of travelling in a foreign land during a time of war. Often they sit on the brink of disaster, fearing imminent massacre by enraged locals. But American successes in the war keep the locals from turning against the travelers and they reach the end of their journey safely. Although Susan had one miscarriage and later another baby died soon after being born.

This was a pretty interesting book to read. I especially enjoyed her accounts of life on the trail and her descriptions of the locals and their customs. What I didn't really enjoy were her lapses into religious fervour and her descriptions of the ongoing confrontation between Mexico and the USA. I just skimmed those parts to get to the good stuff. It's too bad things didn't turn out better for Susan, losing two babies and contracting illnesses that may have ruined her health. As a true life account, her diary has a candor not often found in these types of journals. For the most part, I enjoyed reading it.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Driving Like Crazy

By P.J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke takes us on a look back at some of his writings about cars. Topics include "How To Drive Fast On Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink", which appeared in the NATIONAL LAMPOON, and essays about the Baja 1000, Nascar, Rent-a-Wreck and the California Mille and also about various cars he has owned or test driven.
Although often amusing (as per usual) at times, especially on the second essay about the Baja, which was one Baja essay too many, and when he starts talking car talk about specs and such, I found it rough going.
Still O'Rourke can be pretty fun to read even if I don't agree with his politics. Well, you don't have to like him or even agree with most of what he spouts to still get a chuckle reading him. So even though I found a few parts of the book a bit much, overall I liked it and enjoyed it.

The Monkey Wrench Gang

By Edward Abbey

The Southwest is being developed and there's some people who don't like it. They don't like the roads, the dams, the power plants, the mines. So they get together and try to stop it in whatever small way they can. They're the Monkey Wrench Gang and they specialize in sabotaging road-building equipment although what they would really like to do is blowup some bridges and take out some dams. But since there are only four of them the most they can do is be a pain in the ass to the road construction outfits.
Naturally, their activities attract the attention of the authorities and they come looking for the gang who find themselves fleeing on foot across some of the hottest, driest and most rugged country the USA has to offer.

I didn't really care for the Monkey Wrench gang. I thought they were a bunch of creeps and fools. I understand they didn't like what was happening to their beloved wild lands but they way they went about it just didn't make sense. Bottom line, they accomplished nothing more than to slow things down briefly and mainly just ended up getting themselves into trouble.
Besides that, I found the story rather boring and tedious and didn't really get into it until the last part where the gang is fleeing in the desert. That part was really good but the rest of the story just dragged along.
So, I didn't like the characters or their actions and mostly I found the story rather dull til almost the end.