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Perla

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When Perla decides to study psychology at university, she realizes, at some level, that she is seeking an end to her family's tradition of not asking questions, particularly about what her father did as a naval officer during the years of Argentina's Dirty War -- the years in which Perla was born. As she grows up, she realizes that she is somehow set apart from many of her schoolfriends, and as people she remembers from her childhood confess to what they saw and did -- including tossing supposed subversives from airplanes (drugged but alive) into the ocean -- she tries to separate her family life from her personal life. Even her lover, Gabriel, a journalist who writes about those who disappeared during those years, has never met her parents; it takes her a year to confess her father's identity.Then comes the week that changes everything; the week that Perla arrives home suddenly from a trip with Gabriel, with her parents away, to find a strange man in the living room. Strange in every sense of the world -- he is dripping wet, and oozes water constantly. In the tradition of magical realism, Perla reacts to this apparition -- "a phantom", a "drenched interloper" who she eventually concludes "would be handsome if he weren't so blue and soggy" -- with surprise, curiosity but a degree of aplomb. After all, she concludes, "if you can't explain how something went away , then why should its return obey the laws of reason?" She has realized he must be one of the Disappeared, those who "left holes more gaping than the ordinary dead, because they can't be buried and grieved." His appearance -- despite the fact that their dialogue, over the course of several days, is limited -- prompts Perla to look back over her relationship with her father and the questions she has to work to contain. Eventually, she is forced to ask how those questions might affect her personally.The outcome of Perla's re-evaluation of her life won't surprise many who are even somewhat familiar with some of the more horrific elements of the Argentinian military dictatorship's war against its own citizens; the clues are there from the first pages, and the only question is how Perla will explore them and act on what she concludes. But elements I might normally consider "spoilerish" in the first few dozen pages turned out to be irrelevant to my appreciation of this novel.That said, I'm not sure this is a novel it's possible to talk about "enjoying"; the topic is so grueling, and de Robertis doesn't flinch from the grim details. There are segments here that require a strong stomach to deal with (specifically the torture scenes, detailing the fate of the soggy man and his wife), but although I finally cried in the concluding pages (something I almost never do when watching movies or reading books), it wasn't out of sadness.Caroline de Robertis has produced a tour de force here, an elegantly simple and eloquently-written novel that encapsulates the legacy of a national tragedy in the shape of a story of one young woman coming to grips with her own personal history. Once I got passed the elements of magical realism (ghost-like men who ooze sea water and reek like a dirty beach appearing out of nowhere aren't usually my cup of tea), there was no question I'd end up deciding that this book deserves a spot on the list of best books I've read this year. Which is undoubtedly where it will end up. Highly recommended, but be prepared for some gut-wrenching material and take the time to digest de Robertis's language as well as the subject matter.
Overseas

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The only reason that I'm bothering to write a review for this is that I figure if I don't, I'll never get another ER book! This took me no fewer than FIVE attempts to finish, over the course of many months, and when I was finished I felt like I needed a strong cup of coffee to take the saccharine taste out of my mouth.I have no objection to novels with a hefty dose of romance in them (I read a lot of chick lit, for instance), but I do want it to be believable. Even accounting for the problems with the time travel plot line (I'm a big fan of Connie Willis' time travel books, and just finished "11/22/63") in this novel, the romance simply wasn't convincing. The characters, Julian and Kate, were two dimensional and ultimately tedious -- I simply ended up not really caring what happened to them, which is the kiss of death for any novel. The 1.5 stars are really because it could ultimately be finished. It wasn't simply that this wasn't my cup of tea, but that the author didn't seem to invest enough time or energy in making her characters vivid in their own right, turning them into people and not stock characters from some romantic drama. If you don't mind feeling as if you've seen these characters with other names, other costumes in other books, you'll be fine with this. If you are looking for something more, all I can say is "avoid".
Perdida

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"I'm a big fan of the lie of ommission."By the time Nick Dunne provides us, his avid readers, with this insight into his character, we've already figured it out, thanks to Gillian Flynn's masterful ability to drop one twist after another into this chilling tale, in such as a way to cause a kind of literary double take of such magnitude that if it were a physical response, I'd by now be hospitalized with whiplash.This is certainly the best thriller I'll read this year, and possibly this decade -- and I don't say that lightly. Flynn took me on a hair-raising journey, the equivalent of speeding along a slick, twisting highway at night, with not even a railing separating the car from a plunge down a cliff and into the ocean -- and I simply couldn't put the novel down. Every time I thought I had figured out where she was taking me -- and at what point this novel would relapse into classic "thriller mode", with a relatively predictable denouement -- she proved me wrong. Better yet, she made each twist completely convincing.The novel itself is the saga of an unraveling marriage that climaxes in the disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne, Nick's wife, on their fifth wedding anniversary. It's an ironic nod of sorts to so many true-life tragedies (there's even a vitriolic Nancy Grace-style television commentator!), but also a deep dive into a kind of toxic relationship that had me thinking three or four times about every individual I've come into contact with. Amy is the photo-perfect victim: blond, beautiful, the model for her parents' best-selling series of children's books featuring "Amazing Amy". But just how amazing is Amy? Well, fairly -- if perhaps not in the sense that we are used to viewing our "victims". The slow and gradual revelation of the layers of this story is tantalizing; the nature of what is revealed is chilling. And the real climax of the book is quite possibly the best I've read in any thriller -- Flynn shuns any thought of the "easy out" when looking for a conclusion, and the final pages left me gasping in astonishment at her imagination and the effortless way she holds all the strands of this narrative together -- and at the plot itself. If this isn't turned into a blockbuster movie, Hollywood execs should be lined up against a wall and shot.On holiday and it's raining, or too hot to go outside? Grab this, and you'll forget about your sunburn, your heatstroke, the mosquito bites and pretty much anything else. On the other hand, it will make you re-evaluate everything your spouse says and does for days and quite possibly weeks... It's not literature, but it's the epitome of a "thumping good read", and you should stop reading this review now and just go get it -- bookstore, library or just purloin your friend's copy before he/she has finished. 4.5 stars, rounded up.Full disclosure: I got an advance reading copy of this book via NetGalley.
The Memory Key: A Commissario Alec Blume Novel

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When I finished reading the first novel in this series of mysteries set in Rome, I groaned; I knew that the second book in the series sitting right there, thanks to the the ER win, and that I had an obligation to read & review it, despite the fact that had I been left to my own devices, I would quite happily have bidden farewell to Alec Blume, Fitzgerald's protagonist, after his first outing. Which is how it became a "Late Reviewer" book instead... Instead, when I finally forced myself to pick it up and read it, I was pleasantly surprised. When the book opens, we're seeing the scene of a possible crime -- an elderly Irishman is dead in an Italian piazza -- through the eyes of Caterina Mattiola, and seeing Commissario Alec Blume, her boss, through her eyes, too. That worked for me, and their nascent working relationship kind of made the book and its setting "click" in a way that the first hadn't. Fitzgerald has crafted a smart and intriguing mystery here, one that begins with uncertainty -- is Harry Treacy's death an accident or murder -- and evolves into a complex plot involving art fraud, corruption and bureaucratic nonsense. Fitzgerald's second novel still isn't flawless -- too many of the complexities of Italian law enforcement either feel superfluous or aren't explained carefully, and the plot sometimes is simply too complex to follow readily -- but it's lively and intriguing, and this time around Blume is a more nuanced and engaging character. I ended the first novel willingly and reluctant to read its sequel; this time around, I finished the sequel sadly and find myself excited about reading "The Namesake", of which I've managed to acquire a copy from NetGalley. This is a series I'd recommend; you may need to be patient at a few points in the narrative, but you're always rewarded. The characters are all vividly written without ever becoming caricatures. It might even be possible to start with this second book; there's enough of Blume's background given here that you can grasp all the essentials. 3.9 stars.
Shatter

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This is one of those thrillers/suspense novels that deserve the label -- from start to finish I simply couldn't put it down, to the detriment of everything else I was supposed to accomplish in the last 24 hours. Yes, it's formulaic in some ways -- will the flawed but heroic clinical psychologist Joe O'Loughlin catch the bad guy before he can destroy more lives? Will he figure out where he went wrong in time? But while you're reading, you don't really care that there are flaws -- some early clues tip us off to something that O'Loughlin misses a bit too blatantly -- and really are so immersed in the narrative that you don't care.When the book starts, O'Loughlin finds himself on the Clifton suspension bridge outside Bristol, charged with keeping a terrified, naked woman from jumping to her death. Oddly, she seems to be talking on a telephone, and pleading with someone -- and then she jumps. When her teenage daughter shows up on O'Loughlin's doorstep to insist his mother's fear of heights made it unlikely she'd ever commit suicide that way, Joe investigates, and finds his own suspicions mounting that something drove Christine to her death -- or rather, someone, someone particularly evil.Yes, the evildoer here is almost a caricature, but the plot is sufficiently complex, as is Joe's character, that it didn't bother me much. I just held on for the wild rollercoaster ride. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys a thumping good read in the form of a suspense novel; 4.2 stars.
Shake Off

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I struggled to get into this novel, despite a longstanding affection for thrillers, mysteries and espionage yarns. This one, despite a very promising premise, plods, ambles and meanders. Perhaps the details of tradecraft and all the routine precautions of Michel's existence is more like what day-to-day life is like for a 'real' spy, but if you're more than 100 pages into the book (as I was) and still have no idea of what the point is and are wondering whether it will ever pick up, that's a sign of trouble. Yes, it eventually got a bit better, but never really delivered on the promise implied by the fact that the spy in question is working for the Palestinians, and trained by the Soviets, while working undercover in London and then finding himself on the run. That should have made for drama and a book that was at least somewhat hard to put down. Instead, I kept putting it down and forgetting to pick it up again. Yes, the writing is very good, which boosts it from a 2/2.5 star rating. The pacing, however, is a real problem -- and that's coming from a reader with a high tolerance for character-driven novels. 3.2 stars. I don't need formulaic poorly-written novels, but I also can't imagine what might prompt me to pick up this book for a re-read. Had it not been an Early Review book, probably wouldn't have finished it at all.
The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People

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"By the summer of 1847, newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do any more was die."That sums up the horrific story of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1848ish, a dreadful event that was sadly in need of a new and readable history. That is what John Kelly has delivered -- in spades. He does the world a service by not arguing that the collapsed of the potato crop was artificially manufactured and created by the British with the express purpose of triggering what ended up becoming the equivalent of a genocide of the Irish, nor does he romanticize life in pre-famine Ireland. What he does do is deliver a crisp, well-researched and authoritative history of the cataclysm and its consequences.In Kelly's eyes, the English have a responsibility for the astonishing fatality -- about a million died; another million emigrated -- but it's of a different kind. English policies and especially the commitment to policy ideals rather than the preservation of human life (eg the government determination that no one should interfere with the market's operations by providing free grain or selling below the market price) had an impact that proved devastating. Kelly makes clear that the starting point of their thinking was radically different than what ours might be today, 160 years later: to the English of the 1840s, it was easy to see the famine as a kind of divine judgment, whether on the over-reliance on the potato crop, the antiquated system of barter rather than a modern cash economy, or simply the fact that the Irish were Catholic. To them, the crop failures were a welcome opportunity to reshape Ireland, and the policies that they tried to execute exacerbated the catastrophe. In the wake of any tragedy of this kind, it's easy to slip into the "but they should have known..." analysis -- 20/20 hindsight. That has been particularly true of the famine, which has played a critical role in the thousand years or so of conflict between England and Ireland, so it's not surprising that Kelly does do a bit of that. (Another example of what I mean by this: it's akin to the comments made about Jews in Germany and Austria in the mid-1930s -- why didn't they leave? Didn't they realize?? Kelly occasionally slips into comments along the lines of "they should have realized...") But the deft marshaling of the complicated facts and the juxtaposition of these against some vivid writing (the only other history of the period I've read was very very dry) and an anecdotal style more than offsets this. Many of my ancestors are Irish, although Irish protestants, with names like Duke (Kelly quotes a Co. Leitrim physician, John Duke, who was viewed as a savior by some of his Irish Catholic patients and whose grave marker is still decorated with flowers today) and Casement (yes, as in Roger), but most left before the famine, in the 1820s or 1830s, in the aftermath of the failed 1798 rebellion. Most were themselves small farmers or craftsmen, not peasants, but not landowners. I wish that my g-g-g-g-grandfather Francis Duke had left some mention of what he thought of his great-nephew's actions during the famine, and what he thought of the flood of new Irish immigrants to Canada in the years before his death. What is sure is that the Co. Leitrim he left today has a population that is only about 10% of what it was before the famine -- and that for every person now living here, there are at least 7 or 8 members of the Irish diaspora who can trace their roots to Leitrim. That's an example of the impact of this horrifying few years of Irish history, a period that still affects the sense of what it is to be "Irish", and that country's relationship with England.Kelly has a knack for combining great historical detail and accuracy with narrative detail and vivid writing, making this compelling reading. Recommended: 4.4 stars.
Lehrter Station

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Anyone who has been following the adventures of reporter and reluctant spy John Russell through the four previous novels by David Downing (starting with "Zoo Station") is going to want to read this fifth in the series, if only to figure out how Downing, his son Paul, Effi, his German movie star girlfriend and other assorted members of his circle deal with the advent of peace after a decade or more of upheaval, war and tragedy. Certainly, it's not back to business as usual: when we meet Russell again, he's struggling to find someone to run his stories in London and postwar life is bleak. Then one of his old spymaster buddies comes calling to collect a bill owing from his past, and it's back to Berlin...Downing does a fabulous job of capturing life in Berlin at the end of 1945, only six months or so from the bloody final battle for control of the city that was his focus in "Potsdam Station". Russell may not have to dodge the Gestapo, SD and SS any longer but he finds himself caught between rival spy agencies, as both the Americans and Soviets lay claim to his loyalties and service. And the ending of the war hasn't brought about peace and harmony: Nazis are still strolling the streets and while Jews get special ration cards as victims of fascism, they are being driven out of their homes in Poland or confined to DP camps until the victors can figure out what to do with them. Then there are the shady black market figures and the groups seeking vengeance for the horrors of the concentration camps, who live in an even darker world...While I enjoyed this book -- and was delighted to see that the series didn't end with the last book, as I had feared might be the case -- it wasn't as strong or focused as the others. Perhaps that is inevitable, given that the prior books subordinated all previous conflicts to the one great conflict that pitted everyone against Nazi Germany. In this book, it sometimes felt like Russell was playing "whack a mole" -- as soon as he figured out a way to deal with one problem, another popped its head up, not necessarily connected to the first. It also made me slightly irritable that the author seems to have decided to find a way to bring back -- in kind of cameo performances -- characters that Effi and/or Russell encountered in prior books. This is mildly interesting, but often felt too much like a deliberate effort to tie up loose ends. As someone remarks late in the book, "this has been our month for renewing acquaintances"; I groaned, yes I had noticed. At times it felt like I was being introduced to a special guest star per chapter, and not all of them fit naturally into the plot.So this is a book for Downing's fans, of whom I'm sure he has many after writing four excellent suspense novels. Those admirers will find in this fifth book another noirish series of adventures, with echoes of "The Third Man" and Joseph Kanon's "The Good German". Newcomers to the series should start with book #1, and read their way through the others, which are stronger and more coherent. That said, this is still a "thumping good read", just not quite as unputdownable as its predecessors. Recommended, although I'm not jumping up and down with excitement about it.
The Frozen Shroud

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I have been a fan of Martin Edwards' Lake District mystery series since I picked up a copy of the first several years ago. They hit all the right spots with me -- rich in character detail, enough suspense but not a constant and improbable lurching from one excessive bit of violence and drama to the next, historical backgrounds play a role, and there's a great sense of place.In this outing, the murders are set in a remote Cumbrian valley on the banks of Ullswater. An Edwardian murder left rumors of a ghost of the murdered girl walking the byroads; then, in the 21st century, there is a copycat killing that appears to have been solved when the presumed perpetrator is found dead. But then, five years after that, a third murder shakes everything up again...The two protagonists here are historian Daniel Kind, who have moved to the Cumbrian neighborhood where his late father, a police inspector, once lived; and Hannah Scarlett, a protegee of Daniel's father who has developed a still-platonic-but-who-knows-what-might-happen kind of relationship with Daniel himself. There is work for both to do here, as Daniel's historical research knowledge may help finally put to rest the question of who killed Gertrude a century ago, while Hannah is heading up a Cold Case squad under siege by budget cuts.If you're deeply into ultra-dark Scandicrime, or rollercoaster Steve Berry-style thrillers, this won't do much for you. On the other hand, if you're happy occupying the middle ground between "cozy" mysteries and the police procedural, this will delight you. The last book in the series somewhat underwhelmed me, but Edwards is back on track with this book -- just start back at the beginning if you're interested, as you'll be able to follow the evolution of the characters' relationships, which is a big part of the fun for me. Definitely recommended, and I did a happy dance when NetGalley enabled me to read this as an e-galley. The month or so that is left before publication will give you enough time to read up on its predecessors! I've rated this 4.2 stars; very entertaining and not-put-downable.
Wanted Women

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This gripping narrative is a kind of parallel biography of two controversial women, both Muslim, who ended up taking radical and radically different approaches to the West and to their faith. While Pakistani-born, MIT-educated neuroscientist Aafia al-Siddiqui became an even more convinced Islamist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali made her name as an atheist equating Islam with oppression -- by definition. One is probably well known by name here; the other not. "To her followers, each woman is an icon; her legend will always be more alluring than her reality." And Scroggins has done a pretty good job contrasting the legend with the reality, although her success was doomed to be limited by the very nature of Pakistani political culture -- being unable to speak with the Siddiqui family or get to the bottom of Aafia's "lost years" inevitably limits her ability to completely portray that woman's life, whereas Ayaan Hirsi Ali led her life in the glow of the public eye. But in both cases, Scroggins gets behind the public hysteria, both pro and con, to calmly and coolly present the facts. In Aafia's case, that was less surprising to me; while I wasn't familiar with much more than her name, I'm familiar enough with the basics of political Islam to understand the context; the surprise was in the degree to which she became part of the West, studying and living in the United States for a decade and raising two children here, and yet living a parallel life, in a way. Scroggins' portrayal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, is almost certain to be controversial -- but again, the research is painstaking and her conclusions are a reminder of the dangers of inhabiting a black and white world. To Ayaan, there can never be any such thing as a moderate Muslim; it's a contradiction in terms, and understandably, that infuriates the millions of moderate Muslims. Certainly, she is a polarizing figure, and it's arguable that while she initially claimed to be trying to obtain justice for Muslim women, she ended up creating at atmosphere where they would be unable to do so, both by radicalizing her opponents and by winning support for the idea that Islam is an evil religion, and a woman who chooses to remain a believer is choosing oppression and thus (implicitly) not worthy of support. I was familiar with the controversies surrounding Ali's refugee status in the Netherlands and her arrival in the United States; I wasn't aware of all the nuances surrounding that. Looking at her writings, I've long wondered about whether she is really a "scholar" -- she seems to be writing the same thing, over and over again -- but because of what it is that she is saying, there is a will to believe that she is, even when her writings are proven incorrect. Ultimately, this should be a reminder to anyone who wants to place a halo on anyone's head -- that charisma should always be met with a matter-of-fact analysis. True, as Scroggins points out, Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn't advocate murder; words are her weapons. In contrast, Aafia al-Siddiqui was plotting (albeit unsuccessfully) mayhem and mass destruction. But words can lead to or provide the justification for violence, and violence can provide a rationale for hateful speech and narrow-mindedness. I ended up wanting to put both women on a desert island somewhere, because the absolutism of both terrified me. That testifies to the success of this book, despite its inevitable limitations and occasional structural awkwardness. Reviewers who find it biased are, I fear, basing their views more on what they wanted Scroggins to say -- to canonize Ayaan while despising Siddiqui -- whereas what the author actually did was to submit both women's lives to the same kind of analysts. The result isn't perfect, but Scroggins brings no agenda to it -- she's no relativist arguing that Siddiqui's views are rational, but she's also alert to the fact that Hirsi Ali is not some next-gen Enlightenment goddess, either. Recommended to those genuinely curious, but not to those who already have their minds firmly made up and don't want their opinions challenged. 4.4 stars.
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