Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine BalanceA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Fine Balance tells the story of India in 1975, during the state of emergency, when the opponents of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (who is never mentioned by name) are jailed and Gandhi’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, spearheads a forced sterilization campaign in an attempt to deal with overpopulation.

The story looks at cultural sexism, religious prejudice, the caste system, and police corruption from the perspective of the poor and lower middle class. It touches on the lives of some wealthier individuals, but only briefly, looking primarily at their opinions of the poor.

The publisher's description states that the novel has “a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens.” Like Dickens, Rohinton Mistry focuses on the underprivileged and like Dickens, his style includes numerous minor characters who keep reappearing throughout his story and plot twists that depend on coincidence.

The title comes from a character referred to as “the proofreader.” He states, “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” The scales seem to weigh heavier on the latter of those two choices, but the book is well worth reading. The ending is particularly engrossing. I couldn't put it down.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

The White Queen (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, #2)The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The White Queen” by Philippa Gregory is the story of Elizabeth Woodville who married Edward IV in 1464 and became the Queen of England. She is the daughter of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the woman who was featured in Gregory's novel “The Lady of the Rivers”.

Edward IV was a descendant of Edward I, who I believe was also one my ancestors. One of these days I will have my DNA analyzed to find out for sure, but that is the story that has been passed down through generations of my family and part of my motivation to read Gregory's “The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels”. Regardless of what I discover, I'm glad I read the first two and I'm certain I will enjoy the others.

I liked “The White Queen”, but didn't feel it was as exciting as “The Lady of the Rivers”, partially because some major sections were presented from Elizabeth Woodville's point of view while she was locked in Westminster Abbey where she'd gone seeking sanctuary from her political rivals. This meant that some battles were described through second and third hand rumors told to her rather than by characters who had been in the fights.

Gregory's books are historical fiction and the fiction portions contain some magic. This aspect adheres to the beliefs of the time and gives “The White Queen” a sense of reality it would lack if the author had ignored everything supernatural. It's also fun.

The novel brings out the self importance felt by the royalty, but also the burdens. Here's a quote from Elizabeth as she thinks of one of her sons:

“Perhaps he will be an ordinary boy and I will become an ordinary woman again. Perhaps we will not be great people, chosen by God, but just happy.”

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Gentleman in Moscow works on many different levels.

It is the story of “Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt,” who had the misfortune of being a member of the upper class following the Bolshevik (later called Communist Party) revolution of 1917. He probably would have been executed except for a poem attributed to him written prior to the “failed revolt of 1905.” This literary “call to action” saves him from the firing squad. Instead he is sentenced to house arrest. However, Rostov's home is in the Metropol, a first class hotel in Moscow. There is a massive lobby with restaurants, a seamstress, and a barber. There are also people who come and go, along with many people who stay for a long time. Rostov finds he is capable of adapting to his new situation and making friends. Here's a quote:

“It is a well-known fact that of all the species on earth Homo sapiens is among the most adaptable. Settle a tribe of them in a desert and they will wrap themselves in cotton, sleep in tents, and travel on the backs of camels; settle them in the Arctic and they will wrap themselves in sealskin, sleep in igloos, and travel by dog-drawn sled. And if you settle them in a Soviet climate? They will learn to make friendly conversation with strangers while waiting in line; they will learn to neatly stack their clothing in their half of the bureau drawer; and they will learn to draw imaginary buildings in their sketchbooks”

So on the first level this is about a man adjusting to what life has sent his way and of that man observing the changes happening to his country from a place of seclusion. Here are some of the other ways this novel works.

1. It is the story of a man who treats people well, when they deserve it, and has those small niceties returned from friends when he needs help. I suppose this is a story of a man's Karma, but all within a single lifetime.
2. It is the story of what a man gains when he befriends a young girl and, years later, raises another. He explains it like this: “To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka – and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me the most.”
3. It is the story of a man whose seclusion helps him observe and understand life. These observations occur in the novel as very quotable lines such as: “For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

There are a number of coincidences in the plot and an ending I had to research in order to understand, but the strength of the character, Rostov, the subject matter of post revolution Soviet Union, and the quality of the writing make this a wonderful book and an easy novel to recommend.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Daughter of FortuneDaughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daughter of Fortune is the story of Eliza Sommers, a nineteenth century woman raised in the home of a well-to-do brother and sister in Valparaiso, Chile. The first part of the book takes place in Chile. The second part is set in San Francisco during the California gold rush.

Isabel Allende's writing is beautiful and accessible. She writes from inside the heads of her characters, making them real and sympathetic. Here's a sample from a letter Eliza is writing to her “faithful friend, the sage Tao Chi'en”:

"I am finding new strength in myself; I may always have had it and just didn't know because I'd never had to call on it. I don't know at what turn in the road I shed the person I used to be, Tao. Now I am only one of thousands of adventurers scattered along the banks of these crystal-clear rivers and among the foothills of these eternal mountains. Here men are proud, with no one above them but the sky overhead; they bow to no one because they are inventing equality. And I want to be one of them. Some are winners with sacks of gold slung over their backs; some, defeated, carry nothing but disillusion and debts, but they all believe they are masters of their destiny, of the ground they walk on, of the future, of their own undeniable dignity.”

The story is Eliza's, which brings me to my single complaint. I felt too much time was spent on the backgrounds of some of the other characters. I thought Rose's background was necessary, because she raised Eliza and understanding her baggage was critical to understanding the choices she made. I also though Joaquin's story was important, because Eliza's relationship with him was the force that drove her forward during most of the book. However, I thought there was too much time spent on Tao's background and Jacob Todd's story was almost entirely unnecessary. There were intriguing parts in those sections, but I believe tightening them would have advanced the plot just as much without slowing the story.

Overall, Daughter of Fortune was a very good read. I intend to read the sequel, Portrait in Sepia.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.

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Thursday, January 10, 2019

Slingshot: Building the largest machine in human history by Robert G. Williscroft

Slingshot: Building the largest machine in human historySlingshot: Building the largest machine in human history by Robert G. Williscroft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Slingshot: Building the Largest Machine in Human History is a hard science fiction novel based on a design concept developed by Keith Lofstrom in the 1980s. The story is about the construction and first trial of a launch loop, a machine designed to launch spacecraft at a much lower cost than the rockets in use today. The idea is fascinating and the description in this book is thorough and highly technical. Here's a sample:

As Slingshot continued to bootstrap itself skyward, teams on Baker and Jarvis performed virtually identical actions. Initially, they loosely passed the skytower cable through the anchoring loops in the sockets. As the rail moved up, they fed cable from a huge reel located on a barge in the harbor, keeping it loose, without tension. Simultaneously, they attached the lift-cable suspensor to the skytower cable every five hundred meters with aramid-based polymer rings. Both the lift and boost cable passed through meter-long tubes connected to each ring that were lined with neodymium magnets. These tubes restrained the cables without friction...

Although the technical descriptions in Slingshot are intricate, the relationships between the characters do not have that level of careful detail, lots of physical intimacy, but little emotional intimacy. There is one “relationship” that is explored in depth, but it's not between two living characters. It is between Margo, the chief engineer, and her mental image of Amelia Earhart, whose plane had gone missing in the same part of the world where the Slingshot project was taking place. Her feelings for her hero are intense.

Another issue I had with the story was the opposition to the launch loop. Any project of this magnitude is going to have problems. The pros and cons should be explored equally. In his novel, Williscroft created Green Force, an extremist group of naïve people who conduct violent opposition to the project and are easily dissuaded from their goals. As the story goes on, the reason for this weak opposition is revealed, but the book is left without any science based explanation of the cons.

Slingshot introduced me to an idea that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration. I loved reading about it and enjoyed the concept enough to check out the Wikipedia page for the launch loop ( ). Slingshot is a perfect book for people who like reading about new technical ideas. I believe fans of shows such as National Geographic's Mars will enjoy this read.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross

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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers (The Plantagenet and Tudor Novels, #1)The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Lady of the Rivers is the story of Jacquetta St. Pol, a young woman from a wealthy family. She came to England from Luxembourg when she married the English Duke of Bedford. It was an arranged marriage. Her family wanted her to have wealth, title, and influence, but the Duke wanted something unusual. Jacquetta's family claimed they were descended from the water deity Melusina. He wanted to use her power to learn about his rivals and enemies.

Jacquetta is much younger than her husband and is widowed at age nineteen. Her husband's last request of his wife demonstrates that he thought of her as a possession rather than as someone he could respect and confide in. Perhaps from a need for respect or from love or desire, but Jacquetta's second marriage is the opposite of her first.

I love the way Philippa Gregory maintained historical accuracy, but also managed to weave Jacquetta's mystic abilities into the story. Here is an excerpt from a conversation where her great-aunt is explaining the sight she seems to have inherited:

“You have to listen,” she says softly. “Listen to the silence, watch for nothing. And be on your guard. Melusina is a shape-shifter; like quicksilver, she can flow from one thing to another. You may see her anywhere; she is like water. Or you may see only your own reflection in the surface of a stream though you are straining your eyes to see into the green depths for her.”

I also love the way Jacquetta's character is constantly drawn between the goals of power and duty vs. the desire for family and safety. Her two marriages demonstrate this, but this goes on throughout the book as both Jacquetta and Richard, her second husband, must take sides in the power struggles of the times.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

Her Daughter's Preacher by Jeannie Sharpe

Her Daughter's Preacher: A Second Chances NovelHer Daughter's Preacher: A Second Chances Novel by Jeannie Sharpe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Her Daughter's Preacher is the second book in Jeannie Sharpe's Second Chances series. The books are about people who have had some problems in their lives, but are presented with opportunities to start over. This novel is a light, Christian romance about Corey Fisher, a woman who has lived through the pain of a failed marriage. Her husband, Bennett, was a preacher who “put his church before [Corey], Haley and sweet Sara Anne.” Now along comes Luke Anderson, another preacher, this time from the church (coincidentally named St. Luke's) where Corey's children attend Sunday school. Corey finds this new man attractive and generous (sometimes overly generous). When he confesses his own attraction, she is worried about his impulsive behavior and similarities with her ex.

It's a fun read for people who like sweet (there's even a puppy in the story), fast-paced romances, but what I found most interesting was the underlying theme of a competition between the love someone feels for God and the love that same person feels for his or her spouse. We don't get to know what Bennett was thinking when he left his family, we just know the thoughts Corey had after he was gone. Perhaps Bennett abandoned his marriage more for his own ambition than for a calling. There's also a line in Sharpe's novel that says “...put you first, right after God.” That is a difficult concept as well, worthy of a long discussion.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul, White Horse Regressions, Hopatcong Vision Quest, and Under a Warped Cross.

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