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Posts Tagged ‘thrillers’

I just finished the third in the Kingsbridge novels by Ken Follett, A Column of Fire. It’s another thick historical novel (although not as thick as the previous two, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End). This one starts in fictional Kingsbridge again, and follows the lives of the descendents of some of the families from the earlier books. But it follows the great drama of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (actually, beginning when she is still a princess), and the religious strife as Protestants and Catholics struggled over “true” religion tolerance in 1500s Europe.

It’s a tough thing to read right now, in a time when the world is polarized and we’ve had an election in the US where the religious right believes that they are the keepers of true faith and patriotism in this country. Throughout A Column of Fire, characters who are zealous plot against those who favor religious tolerance. Follett highlights the role of the French queen mother, Caterina ( a Medici), and Elizabeth in keeping things calm and tolerant. While there are a few hypocritical Puritans, he really illuminates the incredible greed and hypocrisy of the Catholic church, from the cruel (even bloodthirsty) Spanish inquisitors, to the traitorous (and also bloodthirsty) English nobles and their collaborators.

Our hero is a Kingsbridge man, Ned Willard. He becomes a secretary to Elizabeth’s trusted counselor, Sir William Cecil. Eventually he develops into a spyrunner, quietly observing the people who are fighting each other and noticing their weaknesses. He falls for not one but two women, each kind and utterly dedicated to her cause (one Catholic and one Protestant) and brave.

I admit I skimmed over some of the fighting. Now that I’ve read the trilogy, I think The Pillars of the Earth was the best, for me, because of the building details, but I liked that about World Without End as well. While A Column of Fire is true to its time — people venture farther afield, even to the New World, and there is a long list of historical figures who appear as characters — for me, it wasn’t as much about Kingsbridge, so I didn’t enjoy it as much. But Follett is a compelling writer, and I again couldn’t get to sleep while reading this, because I wanted to know what would happen. I also admire how he addresses modern concerns, like systemic racism, with historic examples.

A decent read, and very distracting during a very stressful time (COVID, politics, semester starting at work). But sad. At least, I guess, we no longer burn people at the stake and run each other through with swords but still, we haven’t moved on all that much.

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I’ve read previous books by Robert Harris, and especially enjoyed Pompeii and Enigma. So when I saw a New York Times review of V2 recently, I was intrigued. And then it was available to check out as an eBook right when I was ready for a quick, page-turning read. I was fascinated to read that Harris wrote this just since COVID, although he got the idea in 2016 when he saw an obituary for Eileen Younghusband and went on to read her memoirs.

V2 is the story of the rocket that Hitler hoped would turn the war around for Germany, and which Harris notes in his acknowledgements killed about 2,700 people in London and 1,700 in Antwerp, as well as 20,000 slave labourers who died building the rocket program. He also notes that it destroyed 20,000 homes and left 580,000 more damaged, causing more longstanding issues in England after the war.

Harris tells the story of the program through the recollections of Rudi Graf, a PhD engineer (who, by the way, the other character call Dr. Graf) who has worked on rocketry since he was a teen. Graf recalls his long standing friendship with the real life rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and describes the rise of the program, funded by Nazi money and built by slaves. He also remembers feeling ill about the forced labor, but being too deeply involved to extricate himself. In the novel, Graf is directing the technical aspects of the V2 launches from Holland that hit London.

Meanwhile, the other main character in V2 is a young WAAF, Kay Caton-Walsh, who survives a V2 attack that injures her lover. Fearing they’ve been found out by his wife and anxious to contribute more actively to thwarting the German V2s, Kay asks to be transferred from her unit, which analyzes aerial photographs, to a new unit in Belgium that will use mathematical calculations to find the V2 launch sites so the air force can bomb them. Harris alternates between Graf’s story and Kay’s as the V2 program heads towards its — and the war’s — inevitable end.

Graf is interesting, and some moments where his struggle with the immorality of his work turns to action. It’s interesting to think about whether people actually have enough agency in a regime like Nazi Germany to defy, openly or surreptitiously. And if some of them are, like Graf, a little ambiguous; he wants to see his engineering dreams realized even as he is sickened by the means and the consequences. Kay isn’t as fully realized, but parts of her story are interesting too.

I especially enjoyed thinking about this novel as I considered a thread on Twitter today about the representative who just declared he’d spend his final month or so in Congress as an independent because he has finally decided the Republican party’s full throttled support of Trumpism is too much. Many people asked “why now?” — where was this guy when children and parents were separated, white supremacy embraced, violence incited, etc? One person posted that he felt it was probably like asking someone why they don’t leave an emotionally abusive partner. It’s understandable that people who are sickened by political immorality, especially in a powerful and violent regime like Hitler’s, feel trapped, threatened, afraid — which explains why Graf kept most of his uneasiness to himself. Although plenty of people escaped.

Anyway, V2 is a quick, entertaining read that may leave you wanting to read some history.

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My grandmother used to find mysteries soothing. If the news was bad, or she was worried about something, she felt there was nothing like a good mystery. Arguably the news is perpetually bad, but I’m also worried and/or preoccupied by a good many things at work and home. A good friend of mine used to tell me that after work, all she wanted was a book with a body in it. With that advice, and my grandmother’s, in mind, I picked up Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, which I bought at a small used bookstore in Prescott, Arizona, last fall when I visited family after a conference.

I first found William Boyd’s work at the Five Colleges Book Sale. I picked up Armadillo in part because it was a Penguin Street Art edition and the cover caught my eye (to the Computer Scientist’s continuing amazement, I sometimes buy wine that way, because the label caught my eye). I’ve kept an eye out ever since for his novels when I’m at sales or used bookstores, because I loved Armadillo, which opens with a man coming across a dead body and unspools the impact this has.

Ordinary Thunderstorms starts in a similar fashion. A young man, Adam Kindred,  through sheer chance, chats with a stranger in a restaurant, realizes he left a file behind, tries to return it to him, and ends up interrupting the man’s murder. He tries to help the man, who dies, and even in his shock, realizes that he, Adam, will be taken for the murderer because his prints are now in the man’s apartment and even on the murder weapon.

Boyd imagines what it would take in a modern city, in this case London, to disappear. Those who don’t use services the rest us take for granted like credit cards, ATMs, phones, etc. become “invisible or at least transparent, your anonymity so secure you could move through the city — uncomfortably, yes, enviously, prudently, yes — like an urban ghost.” As Adam becomes a ghost and tries to understand the circumstances that led to his new life, we meet Rita, a police officer called to the murder scene; Mhouse, a prostitute who tries to both fleece and help Adam; Jonjo, former soldier turned assassin whose life is permanently changed by the interrupted murder; and Ingram, CEO of the small pharmaceutical firm that was developing a new asthma drug based on the murdered man’s research.

Boyd brings these disparate lives together as Adam works to return to a fully human life, if not nearly the life he once had. Most of Boyd’s characters are neither fully good nor fully bad. He manages to elicit occasional sympathy for Ingram, the privileged CEO, who is desperate to restore at least one relationship in his mostly shallow life; and occasional contempt for Adam, who can be ruthless even though he knows what it’s like to be utterly lost because of others’ ruthlessness. In my view the ending left room for a sequel, although I couldn’t find any evidence that Boyd plans to write one. Readers are left with Jonjo vowing to exact revenge and Adam unsure of whether to tell Rita his full story. among other loose ends.

Despite this untidy ending — which is probably truer to life than a neat ending would be — Ordinary Thunderstorms is a satisfying “book with a body in it.” It was a page turner but also made me think about lives quite different than my own (in different ways). It was an interesting book, with a lot of insight into contemporary London, the pharmaceutical industry, and human social structures. And, it took my mind off the many things preoccupying me. A good read.

 

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In today’s New Hampshire Sunday News I review two New Hampshire authors — both prolific, both excellent in their genres — Jeremy Robinson, who writes what I think of as sci-fi thrillers with a dash of political intrigue, and Margaret Porter, whose historical novels are richly detailed.

Their new books are MirrorWorld, a thought provoking page turner set right here in New Hampshire and A Pledge of Better Times, about real members of the British royal court in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, a real treat for Masterpiece fans and history buffs. Here’s the beginning of the column:

NH writers spin altered reality of two sorts

Jeremy Robinson’s new thriller “MirrorWorld,” which comes out this week, is set mostly in New Hampshire, but not necessarily the one we know.

Josef Shiloh, former special forces soldier and CIA assassin, knows himself only as Crazy. He can’t remember anything about his life or identity and he is quite literally fearless; it’s an emotion as unknown to him as his past.

A woman appears at the mental hospital where he lives, offers him a chance to leave and takes him to a mysterious company called Neuro.

He finds out that Neuro exists to counter a race of mythical creatures called the Dread that have co-existed with humans since the dawn of time and are the source of terror and violence in the world.

– See more at: http://www.unionleader.com/article/20150426/OPINION02/150429344/0/SEARCH#sthash.JPLUvhU4.dpuf

 

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