One last taste…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PAINTED QUEEN. By Elizabeth Peters and Joan Hess. William Morrow. 352 pages. $27.99.

paintedFans of Elizabeth Peters’ beloved Amelia Peabody series can enjoy this final installment if they read it as light entertainment, a glimpse of sorts of the beloved characters and perhaps a reminder of just how extraordinary Peters was. But if they focus on comparing it to what Peters might have written herself, they will likely be disappointed.

But then, Joan Hess took on what was probably an impossible task when she agreed to finish The Painted Queen, the Amelia Peabody novel Peters was working on when she died in 2013 at age 85. Peters had done considerable work on the book, but it was not anywhere near finished. Nor were the notes Peters left comprehensive or even easy to read. On the plus side, Hess, a mystery writer herself, was friends with Peters for decades, and the two had discussed the book as Peters worked on it.

As to the story: Although it was the last book Peters wrote about Amelia and her family of archaeologists in Egypt, its setting is actually between the 1999 book The Falcon at the Portal, set in 1911-12, and her 2000 book He Shall Thunder in the Sky, set in 1914-15. Nefret, the Emersons’ adopted daughter, is still recovering from her brief, disastrous marriage to the late Geoffrey Godwin, and she and Ramses, the Emersons’ son, who (as fans know, so this is not a spoiler) eventually marries her in a later book, are ill at ease with each other.

The action begins in fine form, with a man bursting into the bathroom of Amelia and Emerson’s elegant Cairo hotel suite while Amelia, weary from travel, is trying to relax in a bubble bath. The man, who turns out to have a knife protruding from his back, drops dead after gasping “Murder.” Oddly, the mysterious man is wearing a monocle, and he is carrying a card that says “Judas.” Adding to the drama, a note saying only “Where were you?” is pushed under the hotel suite door, apparently meant to chide Emerson for not having protected his wife himself.

Before long, more monocle-wearing and murderous men appear, posing threats to the Emerson family. Meanwhile, Amelia, Emerson and their entourage head for the excavation site at Armana, where they will be on hand for the discovery of the long-sought bust of Nefertiti. But odd things are happening at the site, as well as in Cairo.

Tension mounts, as the Emerson family deals with mysterious villains, faked antiquities and criminals including Sethos, the master of them all and an ardent admirer of Amelia. In the background seethes the political intrigue and jockeying for strategic positions that foretell the coming great war in Europe.

In other words, the book has all the makings of a fine Amelia Peabody novel, with lots of lore about Egyptian history and the competitive world of archaeological digs, and ample opportunities for Amelia and Ramses to rush off on dangerous adventures.

So what’s the problem? It’s not so much that while Hess is a mystery writer herself, she is not an Egyptologist or a scholar, as was Peters, whose real name was Barbara Mertz. Hess did have an archaeological consultant, and for the lay reader at least, those details are convincing enough.

The problem is subtler than that, and the best way to explain it may be to say that Elizabeth Peters was a genius, and genius cannot be fully imitated. Ardent fans of the series will – and already have – found some discrepancies in facts and time lines, which is understandable, given the number (20) of books, all brimming with details. Nor is this the first novel in the series to have been written out of chronological order, so it would be easy to make minor errors.

More troubling are the ways in which the characters are just a bit off. Hess does a pretty good job of mimicking Peters’ tone and dry humor, but there are times when Amelia, or Ramses or Nefret or even one of the servants just doesn’t act or talk quite like him or herself. Some indefinable something is missing.

Or maybe it’s not so indefinable – it’s simply that Elizabeth Peters is missing. I enjoyed the book sufficiently to be glad that Hess’ labor of love and friendship brought it to us, so that fans could have one last taste of the story. But reading it made me realize anew that in Elizabeth Peters, we had a treasure. Sadly, that treasure cannot be duplicated.

 

 

 

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Beware the beasts

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DEADFALL. By Linda Fairstein. Penguin Audio. Read by Barbara Rosenblat. 11 ½ hours; 10 CDs. $40.

deadfallAlex Cooper is back – sort of – after her kidnapping ordeal, but she’s supposed to be on leave from work, and she’s struggling emotionally.

A quiet time of healing is not in the works, however. Leaving a fund-raising gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Coop hears a man call her name. Before she can respond, her boss, District Attorney Paul Battaglia, has been shot twice in the head by someone in a passing car, and he’s dying in her arms.

As if all that weren’t sufficiently traumatic, especially for someone already in a fragile state of mind, Coop quickly realizes that she’s high on the list of suspects in her boss’ death. And far from showing any professional courtesy, some of the investigators seem bent on treating her more harshly than they would anyone else.

Writing what she knows and doing it well, Linda Fairstein has had great success with her long-running series of crime/police detective novels starring Alexandra Cooper, head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

In real life, Fairstein held that position herself for many years, and she draws on her own experiences as well as her deep knowledge of Manhattan.

She’s developed a winning formula for these novels, although there’s always plenty of fresh material: new villains, interesting plots, developments in Coop’s personal life and new settings that lend themselves to description and historical exposition.

This time, the storyline gives Fairstein an opportunity to educate her readers about global wildlife preservation, the lucrative and illegal trade in ivory and other goods, people who pay big bucks to kill unusual and endangered animals, exclusive hunting preserves including the one where Justice Antonin Scalia died and the Bronx zoo, among other interesting information.

Anyone who knows Coop knows she’s not going to follow orders to stay out of the investigation into Battaglia’s murder, and her boyfriend, NYPD Detective Mike Chapman, is likely to be aiding and abetting her efforts.

There were times in Deadfall when I got a little impatient with Coop’s recalcitrance, as well as her self-pity, but as one does with an old friend, I forgave her and went on with the story. It was worth it in the long run.

Fairstein’s Alex Cooper novels work especially well as audio books. The long sections detailing, for example, the history of the Bronx Zoo are not what we expect as dialogue in most novels and might make some readers impatient. But when Barbara Rosenblat reads them, they make for fascinating listening and add to the enjoyment of the story.

 

 

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The sins of the past…

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

Y IS FOR YESTERDAY. By Sue Grafton. Random House Audio. Read by Judy Kaye. 17 hours; 14 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Putnam.

YYou know how in stadiums after the rows of seats have been through the alphabet, the designation starts over with double letters – AA, BB, and so on? Here’s hoping Sue Grafton will do that when her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series mysteries reaches its end, which looms ever closer.

After all, with this newest book, Y Is for Yesterday, we’re only one away from the culmination of a series that’s been entertaining readers since 1982.

And, as if to make the prospect of the end of the series even more distressing, Grafton has outdone herself with this Y offering. It’s one of the best books in a series that includes lots of very good ones.

In Grafton’s fictional world, Kinsey is still doing her detecting work in the 1980s, although we have reached 1989, and the end of the decade, like the end of the alphabet, is nearing. The case she’s hired to investigate is firmly rooted 10 years earlier.

Back in 1979, a girl who was a student in the exclusive private school attended by Santa Teresa’s elite teenagers was murdered, and four of her male classmates were implicated. Fritz McCabe, the one who actually shot her, and who received the stiffest punishment, has just been released from California’s youth detention system.

One factor in the girl’s murder was believed to have been a cheating scandal at the school; she had been rumored to be the one who told on those involved. But another factor was a videotape the boys had made showing the brutal sexual assault of a freshman girl. Just as a gag, of course, or so they say.

Can it be a coincidence that just as Fritz – now a man in his late 20s – is released from prison, a copy of the videotape surfaces, along with a demand for money to keep it out of the hands of the police? His parents hire Kinsey to try to find the blackmailer and make sure their son doesn’t face more legal troubles.

The story grows increasingly complex as Grafton moves back and forth between what happened in 1979 and what transpires as Kinsey gradually learns more of the truth about both then and the present.

Youthful indiscretions, mistakes, poor judgment or pure evil – whatever happened a decade ago continues to affect the lives of all who were involved: the boys, their victims, the parents. One of the four boys disappeared back in ’79, as soon as their attempts to conceal their roles in the murder began to crumble. Could he have returned? Or could Fritz, still in many ways a spoiled child, be in on the blackmail scheme?

With so many of those involved telling lies or incomplete truths, Kinsey faces a daunting challenge.

And that’s not all she’s facing. Ned Lowe, the creepy villain from the previous book, X, is back, leaving diabolically clever clues to mess with Kinsey’s mind and trying to harm her and others in more serious ways.

Along with the two suspenseful story lines, we have Kinsey as we know and love her, with her eccentric network of friends and associates, some of whom have interesting developments in their lives.

Judy Kaye, who has read the audio versions of all Grafton’s Alphabet books, is so convincingly the voice of Kinsey that any other reader would be immediately disregarded. She does a superb job, as usual.

This is an outstanding book. Read Y Is for Yesterday, and then hope there will be lots of tomorrows in the world of Kinsey Millhone.

 

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History, mystery and French food

Where’s Bob, who might as well be Waldo? Japan? Michigan? Germany? In his heart and in his taste buds, at any rate, he’s lately been in the Perigord region of France, savoring the latest Bruno, chief of police, mystery. Here’s his review.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE TEMPLARS’ LAST SECRET. By Martin Walker. Knopf. 336 pages. $25.95.

NewtemplarscoverNear the town of St. Denis, a woman has fallen to her death below the medieval fortress of Commarque. When Bruno, Chief of Police, gets to the site, he interviews the Count of Commarque about the day’s events. In return, the Count briefs Bruno on the last 800 years, and how interest in the Knights Templars’ reputed treasure may have some relevance to her death. In conclusion, he says: “Sometimes I wonder if we don’t have too much history here in France.”

What a joke on the part of the author, who can’t get enough of French history.

His use of history is what makes this series so refreshing as well as remarkable. Martin Walker draws upon detail from the deep history of France’s Perigord region to accentuate his carefully drawn plots. In this latest episode, besides the Templars’ history, he identifies research about one of the “seven daughters of Eve” who lived in the region, and is a progenitor of 45 percent of Europe’s population. Bruno drives along the Grand Roc, “…a sheer cliff 50 meters high and a kilometer long with an overhang where people have lived 15,000 years.”  The Cave of Lascaux, with its remarkable prehistoric paintings, is not only central to this story; it is only one of 25 painted caves in the area. Walker fills his narrative chockablock with engaging information.

None of the detail, however, detracts from the plot development. On the contrary, each fresh ingredient enhances the recipe that Walker has perfected over the many volumes of this series. Into the peaceful village of St. Denis, he draws history into confrontation with contemporary events, producing here what Bruno calls a “…strange mixture of Templars, Crusaders, Jerusalem in history – and Arab-Israeli politics.”  It is up to Bruno once again to solve the mystery.

And Bruno, once again, is up to the challenge. Not only does he kiss babies, save lives, coach rugby, change lives and cook, but he also displays one of the finest investigative minds in mystery fiction. The author gives one of the best descriptions ever of the process that makes Bruno one of the leading detectives in today’s literature:

A very faint idea began to form and almost as quickly it went, too elusive to stay. He recognized these subterranean mental stirrings. Sometimes Bruno thought of them as hunches, and sometimes as an idea coming from a part of his brain that was not entirely his — a part formed of curiosity, experience and intuition — that kept churning, calculating and making hypotheses that would suddenly erupt as a breakthrough. He knew the components of this latest puzzle — an ancient château and an Arabic name, Crusaders and Templars, a modern woman falling or perhaps being pushed to her death – and at some point and in some mysterious way they would fall into a pattern that made sense to him.

Well-articulated plot, charming characters, and engaging history aside, however, these books are just a front for the author’s real skill – food porn. Walker saves his most passionate prose for the many meals Bruno either prepares or participates in. The two noteworthy (and replicable) items here are a one-paragraph recipe for fresh salmon, and a multi-page meal preparation consisting of “…fish soup, followed by blanquette de veau with rice, salad with cheese and pears poached in spiced wine for dessert.”

Whether you are in the mood for a good mystery, or a good meal, Bruno’s latest adventure will probably be to your taste.

 

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Out of the briar patch

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest fine book in a series that he considers very good indeed.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FALLOUT. By Sara Paretsky. William Morrow. 448 pages. $27.99.

Fallout_Sara-Paretsky_coverPrivate eye V.I. Warshawski, known as Vick to her friends, has been called a few other things by those who are not her friends — Pit Dog, Douna Quixote and “interfering bitch.”  She’s been solving tough cases in and around Chicago for 18 or so novels now, taking advantage of  “…how to get things done here, who the players are, and what games they cheat at. It’s where my friends are, so if I fall on my face, as we all sometimes do, the people are here who will glue me back together.” In short, she’s comfortable in what she calls her “briar patch.”

When her niece persuades her to track down an African-American documentary filmmaker and his subject who have disappeared, she has to leave the comfort of home for foreign territory — Lawrence, Kansas. Within a short time after her arrival, the African-American community collectively clams up, a woman who calls her with information gets almost killed with an overdose of “roofies,” and both the police and sheriff stonewall her. She’s definitely not in her “briar patch.”

That’s before the body count begins to build. Every time she turns around, another body turns up. With suspicious frequency, so do the sheriff and the commander of the local Army base. Combining conversations with her only resource, her dog Pepper, and her “…gut, that famous residence of detective intuition,” she figures out the source of the danger that made the filmmaker and his subject disappear.

Sara Paretsky places the crime within a context of Lawrence’s complex racial history, as well as the conflict brought about by the presence of a missile base back in the 1980s. She also puts the trademark “oops I didn’t bite my tongue soon enough” dialogue into and out of Vick’s mouth, and of course drops her into mortal danger, the Fallout for knowing too much. It’s another well-planned trip with V.I., the pre-eminent female P.I. in American crime literature.

 

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Hot on the trail of a missing island

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

Dangerous-Minds-2916515When Janet Ivanovich’s first Knight and Moon novel hit the stands a year ago, I quickly declared the new series my second favorite of Ivanovich’s prolific offerings (the Stephanie Plum books have a lock on No. 1). Now Dangerous Minds, the second in the series, has arrived, and, yep, it’s another good one.

Riley Moon, a Texas sheriff’s daughter with Harvard degrees in business and law, was supposed to be building a high-powered career in the banking industry, but through a strange series of events, she finds herself in the role of “amanuensis” to Emerson Knight, whose inherited wealth is exceeded only by his eccentricities. It doesn’t help Riley’s occasional attempts to extricate herself from this situation that Emerson is young, handsome and charming, albeit in a decidedly odd way. And, as an introvert with limited social skills, he needs her help.

Enter Wayan Bagus, a Buddhist monk who wants Emerson to help him find his island, which was near Samoa before it disappeared. Yes, an island complete with rain forest, beaches, a mountain and even a volcano vanished, after some strange men forced Wayan Bagus to leave.

Emerson rallies his team – in addition to Riley, there’s Vernon, Emerson’s cousin, from West Virginia, who is living in an R.V. behind Emerson’s mansion in Rock Creek Park – and starts asking questions around Washington. But it quickly becomes obvious that some pretty dangerous people don’t want the missing island found.

Opposition and danger, of course, only intensify Emerson’s resolve to solve the puzzle, and soon the unlikely team, along with the monk, is off to Yellowstone National Park and then to Hawaii. It seems, strangely enough, that there’s some deep, dark, dangerous secret involved, and that the guardian of the secret is the National Park Service.

There’s plenty of adventure, action, suspense and some quirky violence in this tale. There’s also some esoteric science, which may or may not be accurate. And, of course, there’s the budding romance. But, true to Evanovich form, the main element in Dangerous Minds is humor – improbable, often ironic, highly entertaining humor.

Lorelei King, well known to fans of audio books and the narrator of many Stephanie Plum tales, puts her skills to good use with Knight and Moon. She manages to read the often over-the-top scenes and conversations with what sounds like a straight face – with only a hint of a sly wink.

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Whom we love, what we see

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WATCH ME DISAPPEAR. By Janelle Brown. Random House Audio. Read by Tavia Gilbert with Kaleo Griffith. 13 ½ hours; 11 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Spiegel & Grau.

Watch-Me-Disappear-2918940Billie Flanagan was a force of nature, almost larger than life. Everybody loved and admired her. Right?

When Janelle Brown’s gripping third novel opens, Billie has been missing, presumed dead, for almost a year. Her husband, Jonathan, and her teenage daughter, Olive, have been struggling to adjust to life without her, and as the anniversary of her disappearance nears, things take a decided turn for the worse.

After the overwhelming response to the emotional eulogy he gave at her memorial service, Jonathan decided to quit his demanding job as a journalist writing about the tech industry to write a loving memoir about this remarkable woman with whom he was blessed to share a life and a daughter.

But until Billie is declared legally dead, he can’t collect her life insurance money, and he’s having a tough time affording their Bay Area lifestyle. He’s woefully behind on tuition for Olive’s private, all-girls high school. He’s behind on everything, even keeping groceries and necessities in the house. It doesn’t help that he’s drinking too much.

And Olive, increasingly, is feeling that what few friends she has are turning away from her. Olive always felt that she didn’t live up to Billie’s example or expectations, that she was never going to be as confident, daring and forceful as her mother. With her strong-willed mother no longer there, she is not sure who she is or what she wants to do. She feels abandoned by nearly everyone.

Billie disappeared while on a solo hiking trip in the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. Her body has not been found, only her smashed cell phone and one hiking boot. A passionate woman, Billie had thrown herself wholeheartedly into the role of Berkeley super mom, but she was never free of the restlessness that had fueled her “lost years” before she met Jonathan.

Olive begins having visions. She sees her mother in various settings, and her mother encourages Olive to look for her. Convinced that Billie is still alive, Olive becomes obsessed with finding her, and she runs into even more problems at school.

Worried about his daughter’s mental and emotional health, Jonathan wants to convince her that Billie is dead. But the more he learns about his wife, the more he has questions of his own. Did he ever really know her? What did she really do during those “lost years”? What was she doing as she grew more distant during the months before she disappeared? Could she really still be alive, and if she is, what does that mean about their relationship. Was their whole marriage a lie? He’s finding it increasingly difficult to write the loving memoir his publisher is expecting.

Brown reels the reader into the increasingly tangled web that is Billie Flanagan’s life. Like Jonathan, we want to know the truth, and the more we learn, the less we find to admire.

Eventually, it’s not just that Billie physically disappeared in that remote wilderness. It’s that the whole image of the Billie Jonathan married, and thus the whole idea of their marriage and family, that Jonathan sees slipping away.

The reader is left to wonder how well we know other people, even those with whom we are most intimate. Does love make us believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see? And what happens when that love begins to erode?

This is a book that takes hold, driving you to keep going to learn the truth and see what happens. Brown deftly moves among different points of view and different times as she weaves a story built on familiar themes – grief, loss, teenage angst – yet, in the end, original and surprising. In the audio version, the use of two narrators helps convey the shifting viewpoints and evolving understandings of whatever the truth might be.

 

 

 

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A perilous “fairy story”

Bob Moyer may have been traveling in Japan in real time, but in his reading world, he’s been in post-war Germany, courtesy of the latest in one of his favorite series.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

PRUSSIAN BLUE. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 523 pages. $27.

PrussianIn this now-venerable series, Bernie Gunther has made his melancholy way from Berlin cop to valued investigator for the Nazis to a concierge alias Walter Wolf on the Mediterranean coast. In the last installment, that cover was blown.

Now, Erich Mielke, deputy director of the East German Stasi, orders him to murder a spy in England. Mielke is a real life figure, like many that author Kerr works into his fictional web. To “convince” Bernie, and to keep an eye on him, Mielke brings along Kerr’s creation Friedrich Korsch, a Nazi cop turned Stasi muscle — and Bernie’s former partner in a Nazi murder investigation. Korsch’s presence sends Bernie into even deeper despair:  “It was strange the way he had entered my world again after all these years, and yet not strange at all, perhaps. If you live long enough you realize that everything that happens to us is all the same illusion, the same shit, the same celestial joke. Things don’t really end, they just stop for a while and then they start up again, like a bad record. There are no new chapters in your book, there’s just the one long fairy story — the same stupid story we tell ourselves, and which, mistakenly, we call life.”

Bernie takes off, not wanting to play a part in Mielke’s fairy tale. As he races toward the German border, he reaches into the past to recall the case in which he partnered with Korsch. Korsch becomes the thread that ties Bernie’s escape in the present to his excursion into the past, and makes this a two-for-one tale.

Back in 1939, Reichsfuhrer Heydrich had ordered Bernie to investigate a sniper killing at Berchtesgarden, Hitler’s monumental retreat in the mountains. The Nazis spent millions on it, “Money that could have been spent on something more important than the comfort of the madman who now ruled Amer —(oops, Freudian slip) Germany.”  The Fuhrer’s safety has been compromised, and Bernie has only days to solve the mystery before Hitler arrives. Of course, he must do so while negotiating the politics of the powerful surrounding Hitler. As usual, Kerr uses Bernie’s investigation to throw light on the horrific history of the Nazi regime. As Bernie travels through the rooms and rumors of Hitler’s aerie, he uncovers uncomfortable truths that endanger him at every turn: a brothel run by Hitler’s doctor, paybacks to high officials, use of the drug Pervitin, abuse of that same drug, and the bitter struggle between two of Hitler’s most trusted advisors, the Borman brothers.

With Germans all around him, Bernie might not escape alive from France. Although disguised successfully as a Frenchman (“All I needed now was to neglect my personal hygiene, and to obtain a service medal for a war I hadn’t fought in.”), he can barely evade the French police complicity with the Stasi. Tension builds as he nears the border.

Back on Hitler’s mountain, the tension builds as Bernie nears the truth. Of course, that’s not what his superiors want; Hitler said “…it’s not truth that matters, but victory.”  As one official says after Bernie finds the “truth,” “The status quo is restored… The important thing in concluding a case successfully is actually concluding it.”

Korsch was close beside Bernie on the mountain, but he’s closer behind him in France. Needless to say, this is a series and Bernie survives — until he gets a new identity in Germany. Bernie Gunther and Walter Wolf are dead — long live Christof Ganz!

 

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High (and sometimes deep) adventure

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

NIGHTHAWK. By Clive Cussler and Graham Brown. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in hardcover from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

nighthawkThe United States’ most advanced aircraft/spacecraft has gone missing, and the Air Force and the National Security Agency have called on NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, to help in the search.

When Kurt Austin, NUMA’s intrepid head of special assignments, is hustled off a Hawaiian beach to lead the charge, he and Joe Zavala quickly begin to suspect that the secretive NSA isn’t telling them everything.

Clearly, a lot is at stake, and to complicate things, dangerous Chinese and Russian operatives are also looking for the craft.

The Nighthawk, as it’s called, had been orbiting the Earth for three years on a highly secret initial mission. It vanished mysteriously when it was preparing to land in California. The last signals received indicate it was somewhere over the South Pacific.

As Kurt and company soon learn, the Russians and Chinese aren’t just interested in the Nighthawk’s advanced technology. The mission involved harvesting “mixed-state matter” from the polar magnetic field, and if the matter isn’t handled properly – including being kept extremely cold – the matter and antimatter will combine to create a tremendous explosion. But if one country can secure it before it destroys much of the world, that country will have enormous power.

Time is of the essence because the batteries of the cooling system will soon run out. Kurt and his small band of colleagues, including Emily Townsend of the NSA, must race to figure out where the Nighthawk is while thwarting attacks by the Chinese and Russians.

This novel is in the best tradition of Kurt Austin’s NUMA adventures – fast-paced, full of action and intrigue, brimming with unlikely feats and laced with occasional humor. The action ranges from the Pacific to the Andes, and from submarines and small submersibles to a variety of aircraft. There are plenty of high-tech gadgets and gizmos.

If you’re looking for plausible, well-explained science or complex character development, you’d better go elsewhere. But if you want to be entertained, kept on the edge of your seat and occasionally treated to some interesting bits of history, this book is worth your time.

As an added treat, the ending, one of the best yet, will leave you smiling, if not laughing out loud.

This is a good beach read, or, if you go for the audio version, a good tale to entertain you while you’re driving to that vacation destination.

 

 

 

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War, independence and family ties

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

loyalTHE LOYAL SON: The War in Ben Franklin’s House. By Daniel Mark Epstein. Random House Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 16 ½ hours; 13 CDs. $60. Also available in hardback from Ballantine Books.

Most of us probably think we know the story of Benjamin Franklin, and certainly the story of the American Revolution and the Independence from England whose anniversary we are about to celebrate yet again.

If you read, or listen to as I did, this engrossing new book by Daniel Mark Epstein, you’ll realize that there is a lot to both of those stories that most of us don’t know.

For example: Benjamin Franklin had an illegitimate son, who had an illegitimate son, both of whom were close to the patriarch.

And for many people living in the former colonies at the time, the Revolutionary War was less a clear-cut military action between two countries and more a civil war, with neighbors, former friends and even relatives quarreling bitterly and attacking one another – often brutally. The lines between who was a patriot, loyal to the effort to separate from England and establish a new nation, and who was a loyalist, hoping to preserve ties with the mother country, were in many cases amorphous and evolving.

Thus we get the double meaning of Epstein’s title: William Franklin, the illegitimate son whom Franklin took from his mysterious mother and raised in his home, was lovingly loyal to his father – but in later years, he was loyal to his king and country while his father was one of the leading forces in the revolution.

William was his father’s close companion, his able assistant in scientific experiments such as the famous kite-flying venture. He accompanied Franklin on some of his diplomatic missions to England, attempts to improve relations between Parliament and the colonies. With cultured manners and a winning personality, he was more popular in London socially than was his father. He found his bride in England, and he also made the connections that led to his becoming the governor of New Jersey.

As the situation deteriorated and war against England appeared inevitable, Benjamin Franklin became one of the foremost patriots. William, however, as a royal governor, remained convinced that the loyalists were on the better course and deserved continued support.

The resulting rift between the two men grew into an apparently unbridgeable chasm, causing much distress for the other members of the family as well as for father and son.

The elder Franklin spent the war as a diplomat in Paris, helping to secure vital French support for the American cause. He also, as is well known, enjoyed Parisian high society. William Franklin’s illegitimate son, Temple Franklin, who had come to the colonies as a teenager after early schooling and foster care in England, accompanied his grandfather to Paris as his aide. Meanwhile, William Franklin, Benjamin’s son and Temple’s father, was imprisoned for his role as a loyalist. At first he was only under tolerable house arrest, but later his recalcitrance led to his being in a squalid, harsh prison that nearly broke his health. His wife died while he was imprisoned, unable to get permission to rush to her side.

While others, including George Washington, tried to help William Franklin, his father, the influential and revered Benjamin, left him to his fate.

Even after the war, when William sought to reconcile with his father, Benjamin Franklin never seemed to be able to forgive and move on.

Epstein tells a fascinating story that reminds us that even though we tend to transform our national heroes into some sort of super beings, they were only human, flawed as all humans are. And Benjamin Franklin, a genius and passionate man who lived life more fully than most people do, was much more complex than our image of the genial elder statesman.

Epstein, a noted poet as well as a biographer, brings history to life, with lots of personal details, insights and anecdotes. In the audio version, Scott Brick does justice to a fascinating story.

 

 

 

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