Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Most books that really move me have an element of sadness, but this one is relentlessly depressing.  Marina has Alzheimer's and barely recognizes her children, much less her granddaughter, Katie, who is getting married.  She does remember, however, quite vividly her time as a young tour guide at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad while it was under siege during WWII.  The staff dismantled all of the artwork for safekeeping, but Marina remembers in great detail every painting that inhabited every empty frame.  She endured starvation, bitter cold, and darkness, and even gave birth during this terrifying period.  Her story switches seamlessly between her lucid wartime memories and current day activities, in which she is confused and struggling (unsuccessfully) to appear normal.  Her daughter Helen seems to be the only family member not in denial about the seriousness of her mother's illness, and she doesn't find out about it until the family gets together for the wedding.  Failure to take appropriate measures results in dire consequences, and I silently groaned every time the narrative switched back to the museum. I can imagine how these sections might appeal to an art buff, but I'm not one and found it a challenge to get through these chapters.  I found the modern day sections much scarier, as I imagined myself or my loved ones losing their grip on reality.  I was particularly puzzled about one flashback--the apparition who came to Marina on the roof of the museum.  If he was, as Marina asserts later, a hallucination, why does she make the weird comment about her son's parentage?  I suppose this is intended as another example of how muddled her memory has become, unable to separate fact from fiction.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

THE TRINITY SIX by Charles Cumming

Sam Gaddis is an authority on Russian history and desperately needs a book deal.  His collaboration on a book about a sixth spy in the renowned Cambridge Five ring is cut short when his co-writer is murdered.  As far as he and the family know, she died of natural causes, but as Sam begins investigating the mysterious spy Edward Crane, whose death was faked, his sources are dying for real.  Maybe Brits are more familiar with the Cambridge Five, but I had never heard of them, so that I didn't really have a good frame of reference here.  In this novel, the sixth spy may have been a double agent, but there's an even bigger story, according to one of Sam's sources, and there may be a recording to prove it.  As Sam gets closer to unraveling the whole intrigue, he begins to fear for his own life, as well as that of his young daughter, and he has to evaluate what are the consequences if he continues to pursue the story.  And who is his real enemy—the KGB or perhaps a traitor inside MI6?  Sam Gaddis is sort of any everyman, caught up in a dangerous situation that he is in no way trained for.  He thinks fast on his feet, though, as in the airport security scene, and I had to admire that.  Still, I couldn't really get a handle on what makes him tick.  Sometimes Cold War thrillers can be thrilling and sometimes they can be complicated, like le CarrĂ© novels.  I found this book to be neither.  I found it pretty easy to follow, except for the background on the Cambridge Five, which wasn't that critical.  As for the thrills, I just didn't find that there were any.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Gypsies add another layer of mystery to private investigator Ray Lovell's search for a missing woman.  Not only that, but Rose vanished about seven years ago.  When she married into the Janko clan, her family refrained from intruding into her new life, as is apparently the custom with gypsies.  As Ray gets to know the Jankos, especially handsome, taciturn Ivo, Rose's husband, he begins to suspect that Ivo murdered her.  Now Ivo is the sole caretaker of his beloved young son, Christo, who has the family disease—whatever that may be.  Several family members died young from this unknown affliction, but Ivo mysteriously and miraculously recovered.  Ray—still hung up on his soon-to-be-ex-wife—is half gypsy himself, although he was not raised as a Traveler.  When the book opens, Ray is in the hospital recovering from an exotic food poisoning that could have been accidental or attempted suicide or the result of foul play.  Ray's hallucinations and gnarled short-term memory make his illness just one more enigma that he needs to unfurl.  The first-person narration seesaws between the voices of Ray and JJ—a teenage member of the Janko family whose mother may be in love with Ivo.  I personally preferred the Ray chapters, where he sorted through and followed up on clues.  JJ's struggles are of a different nature.  He attends public school and, although he loves his family, has to grapple with the shame and ostracism that come with his offbeat lifestyle.  One of my many guesses about what was going on turned out to be right, but I certainly didn't come up with all the particulars.  If this book is not on your radar, it should be.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

Having your 14-year-old son indicted for murdering a classmate would cause any family to unravel.  The narrator is Andy Barber, an assistant DA, whose son Jacob has means (a knife), motive (bullying), and opportunity.  Jacob also has a mean streak, a history of shoplifting, and a nasty temper.  Oh, and his fingerprint is on the victim's sweatshirt.  Why his parents have chosen to ignore obvious signs that their son is a sociopath is anybody's guess, especially since Andy's forbears had a propensity toward violence—a fact that he has failed to share with his wife, Laurie.  Now Andy and Laurie are paying a huge price for turning a blind eye to their son's abominable behavior.  The book shifts back and forth between the year of the murder and the following year, in which Andy is testifying before a grand jury.  The reason for this latter testimony is as much of a puzzle to the reader as the uncertainty of Jacob's involvement in the murder.  Before Andy's replacement as prosecutor on the case, he had wanted to pursue a known pedophile as the most likely culprit.  As the damning evidence continues to mount against Jacob, however, even Andy and Laurie begin to doubt their son's innocence, especially after a particularly disturbing assessment of his mental health.  More importantly, the parents have to question to what degree they are to blame for their son's problems and misdeeds.  To some readers, this book is not just a legal thriller; it's a portrait of a family facing an unfathomable crisis.  For me, it's a story of a child whose parents are victimized for granting him too much privacy.  Either way, it's a crowd pleaser.