Monday, March 27, 2017

Isabella of Castile (Giles Tremlett)

Isabella of Castille: Europe’s First Great Queen is a thorough profile of the Spanish monarch mostly known for financing the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean in the 1490’s and 1500’s.  However, Isabella was a much more prominent monarch in European history.  Along with her husband Ferdinand, she was responsible for joining much of what is now Spain under one kingdom, unifying it through marriage and then through military and political conquest of the Moors in Southern Spain.

Giles Tremlett’s chronicle of Isabella is thorough but probably a little too lengthy to keep most readers' interest the entire time.  There is quite a lot of inside information about the political interweaving between the Roman church and European politics in the 15th Century, briefly touching on the corruption within and outside of the Church that fueled the Reformation and development of Protestant denominations in the 16th Century.  Isabella fought for a more pious church and nation, helping unify disparate confederacies and kingdoms into a singular state that dominated world politics for a century after her passing.

Tremlett’s book is generally fair in its approach, mentioning the negatives of Isabella’s lengthy reign in contrast to the strong points.  These conflicts worked to make Isabella an intriguing and interesting queen, traits that are not always seen among the great monarchs of European history.  Her rule was instrumental in setting the stage for our modern life in the Western Hemisphere through her desire to globalize and colonize foreign lands in pursuit of wealth and faith.  Tremlett astutely mentions that despite her strength in bringing Spain together as one geographic entity, it took centuries for the country to fully unify, and this slow, quarrelsome process was a contributing factor in the gradual decline of the Spanish Empire over time.  Isabella may have been a strong, powerful monarch, but her successors were not able to fulfill her vision.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Burntown (Jennifer McMahon)

Jennifer McMahon and Jodi Picoult are the two authors I most look forward to seeing on the “Coming Soon” list.  In fact, I made the mistake of taking McMahon’s Island of Lost Girls on vacation one year.  I say “made the mistake” because reading that book was all I wanted to do -- no sightseeing or anything. In fact, that was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog back in July 2009.  McMahon has always succeeded in creating that creepy, “just one more chapter” atmosphere.  Until now, that is -- unfortunately, Burntown was no winner in my book.

The plot is quite difficult to explain, but I’ll make an attempt.  Eva grew up close to her father, Miles, and loved watching him invent wonderful things.  There’s one invention, however, that’s wanted by someone dangerous; this person will even resort to murder to get it.  Eva (later changing her name to Necco) has always believed that her father drowned in the Great Flood, but it’s only after the death of her mother and boyfriend that she begins to think differently. 

Helping Necco to find out what really happened is a motley crew of characters, and I found it difficult to care about any of them.  There were so many stories and threads going on here, and when they finally all came together, the payoff was less than rewarding.

I began reading Burntown in January, and it took everything in my power to finish it by March.  I found it boring, and far beneath McMahon’s usual standards.  Unfortunately, this was no Island of Lost Girls.


Friday, January 6, 2017

At the Edge of the World (Jean-Vincent Blanchard)

At the Edge of the World by Jean-Vincent Blanchard documents the first century of the French Foreign Legion, from its founding in the 1830's under a French king to its use as a force helping the French Republic expand throughout North Africa in the years after World War I.  It circles largely around Louis Herbert Gonzalve Lyautey, who rose through the ranks of the French Army to command several missions for the Foreign Legion in various French colonial military campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A scholarly work, Blanchard spares little detail in the inner workings of the French Foreign Legion and how it's uniquely made up of both French citizens and foreigners who are willing to serve and fight for France in foreign lands.  The book as a whole, while solid and well-grounded from a historical standpoint, did not captivate me as much as other historical military books of the past have.  It comes across quite wonky and scholarly, lacking the ability to captivate this reader at several points.  

Blanchard also focuses much of the book on the French Foreign Legion’s impact in Morocco and Southeast Asia; this comes at the expense of covering its contributions and impact on World War I.  The author’s focus was clearly on French colonialism and the French Foreign Legion’s contribution to those efforts; however, skipping over a major global conflict seems inappropriate in telling the full story of this outfit of French fighters.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

How Will I Know You? (Jessica Treadway)

Jessica Treadway’s How Will I Know You? has a simple whodunit premise: a teenage girl has been murdered.  Joy was found close to a pond in the woods, presumed drowned but actually strangled.  Treadway succeeds in developing the suspense this type of book needs, until what really happened is finally revealed in the last few pages.

 The actual narrative is told through four different perspectives: Harper (Joy’s best friend), Susanne (her mother), Martin (the man accused of her murder who is also having an affair with Susanne), and Tom (a rescue diver and the son-in-law of the town’s police chief).  If done poorly, this style of storytelling can distract from the cohesiveness of the book, but Treadway does it very well.  She also effortlessly goes back and forth in time.  What happened before the murder to lead up to it, and what are the repercussions to everyone involved following the tragedy?

How Will I Know You? was definitely a solid 4 until the ending, which I found disappointing and unsurprising.  However, 95% of the story is very suspenseful, so I’m going to split the difference for a 3.5.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is a memoir of the author's life as he rose from a broken home to become an Ivy League law graduate, largely overcoming the obstacles of his childhood and family. Vance argues that many of the struggles that he and his family faced were commonplace throughout the Rust Belt and Appalachia, where his family once lived before his grandparents moved to suburban Cincinnati several decades ago.

This book has risen to prominence in thought leader circles to help understand the struggles of the white working class in this country.  Vance points out that his hurdles, though different in specifics, are not markedly unlike those of other demographic groups in that much of what drives the struggles in health and education are also economically driven.  Vance’s own struggles emulate those of many we know near or within our own extended families, not just in the Rust Belt or in Appalachia, but in working class communities throughout the country that have fallen on or have remained downtrodden for many decades.

Given the vitriolic nature of the election, Hillbilly Elegy provides a refreshing and real take on what many are struggling with in this country; there is a large segment of the population that is frustrated at being left behind in a more globalized world.  While Vance does not argue for any specifics in fixing those problems, he does call upon the working class of this country to not blame Washington alone. More important, he argues that success starts with ensuring we take care of young children and making sure we provide opportunities for them, their mothers, and for their extended families -- to ensure that homes don’t fall apart completely and that families, even if they are markedly extended, somehow stay together for the sake of the next generation.


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Night Film (Marisha Pessl)

I've been wanting to read Marisha Pessl's Night Film for a really long time, and I finally got to it on my list.  I'm usually reading 3 or 4 books at once, and to Pessl's credit, this was the one that I kept wanting to return to.  It's extremely well written and plays with the reader's mind immensely.  While I don't feel I can give it a 5 rating due to the final chapters (that ending again!), it came pretty darn close.

Ashley Cordova, daughter of legendary reclusive movie director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead.  Journalist Scott McGrath is absolutely driven to find out out what happened to her; in doing so, we're introduced to memorable characters and ingenious plot lines that all help to tell the story.  Pessl also intersperses newspaper articles and shocking photos that are just as important to the novel.

Night Film is a lengthy read and starts to feel that way toward the end.  I had an idea about where this novel was going to go; I'm not saying it was predictable by any stretch, but when my idea didn't happen, I was a little disappointed by the shock-free ending.  However, the journey is what's important here, and Night Film takes you on one heck of a ride.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Democracy for Hire (Dennis W. Johnson)

Democracy for Hire: A History of American Political Consulting is a candid look into the world of consulting in political campaigns.  Dennis W. Johnson’s work details the rise of political consultants, pollsters, and campaign operatives, and how political campaigns and politicians have been transformed because of their impact.  The author provides tremendous insight into all of the facets of a campaign that many of us claim to hate: negative commercials, direct mail, and campaign calling.  He also discusses how campaigns have utilized more and more of our consumer data to help craft advertising and approaches geared toward demographics, neighborhoods, and even preferred Pandora stations.

When I was through, I felt like I needed to take a shower simply from learning more about the inside working of politics at a level that will make many stomachs turn and simply leave many others exasperated with the political process.  However, politics in this country is big business; over $6 billion (with a B) was spent on the 2012 elections and a higher amount is likely to have been spent on this most recent election once all is said and done.  There are third world and tropical countries with lower gross domestic products than our electioneering process.  Johnson argues that business is continuing to boom for campaigns and politicians, fueled in large part by money pouring in from mega-wealthy interests that will wage issue-oriented campaigns or set up organizations that are for or against candidates.

After trying to wash the stench of political consultancy off, I looked for glimmers of reform and hoped that Johnson could come up with some salient suggestions on how to bring some sanity to the spending.  The author advises caution and vigilance on our part to avoid falling into the "faux news trap" (his words, as opposed to the more viral “fake news” term that’s trending now) and wishing we would see through the noise to select the best possible candidates.  Those are good places to start, but they won’t change the reality that elections are becoming ever less substantive and
ever more divisive, and consultants are making a boatload in the process through their roles in shaping that reality.