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We have published approximately 2450 posts here–most of them about books that inspire and inform travel. Just plug in the name of a place you want to go over on the right hand side of the page, or browse through our collection of books. If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, why not start with the books I rated best books for travelers of 2014?
Becky Masterman, a Tucson resident, created a female character who stands out in the crowd of female detectives. Fans who read her first novel,Rage Against the Dying, have been eagerly waiting for the second in what they hope will be a lengthy series featuring Brigid Quinn. A retired FBI agent, married to a retired Episcopal priest, she has recently settled (not that Brigid actually settles) in Tucson.
You might guess by the “retired” that comes before FBI agent, Brigid Quinn is somewhere north of 55, but age is just a number, and she’s not counting. She is insatiably drawn to mysterious situations with a dangerous edge, to the despair of her peace-loving husband. Brigid still knows how to handle bad guys–and gals–both physically and through meticulous analysis of evidence and application of street smarts.
The new book, Fear the Darkness, shows Brigid trying to fit in to a ‘normal’ life. She has followed through on a promise to her brother’s dying wife and brought the couples college-age daughter to Tucson to live so that the girl can establish residency for college. As we learn more about Brigid’s former job as an undercover agent–adapting to roles of prostitute, drug runner, or other lowdown vermin– it is easy to see how she can have doubts about this normal-family-surrogate-mother thing.
I could do this. I was tough. I may be small and have prematurely white hair, but I’m as psychologically and physically fit as you can be at my age. And as I’ve explained, I can disarm a grown man before he could say..anything….Next to somebody like me, Chuck Norris is just a wuss. How hard could it be to be a good aunt.
To add to her angst, Gemma Kate, the neice, shows some odd quirks of her own. In fact her behavior is so odd that Brigid begins to wonder if the clever girl is a psychopath. Bad things start happening all around, and Brigid herself becomes a target of some sort of evil that she can’t quite identify.
The plot is complex–peopled with the sort of friends and neighbors you can recognize without thinking “stock characters.” This complexity takes a lot of time to set up–the mysterious teenage suicide; the devotion of a friend (the only one Brigid has ever had) to her paralyzed husband; the appearance of an appealing man at church one day; even the rather unenthusiastic minister. Then there’s an arrogant doctor with a wife who seems unhinged; a cop who may be hiding family secrets. Readers who want their thrillers to leap right in to the action are going to have to cool their heels while they meet these characters and experience how “normal” can slide into a horror show so gradually that you hardly notice.
The climax is frightening not just because of the violent action, presented in proper thriller fashion in a breath-taking sequence, but also because the “I never saw that coming” ending has you wondering about the assumptions you make in your own life. It’s not as though the author didn’t try to warn you.
I admit from the start it’s at least embarrassing to not recognize the devil, but I can understand because I’ve been there…During my time with the Bureau, I lived among killers who cheerfully attended their daughters’ ballet recitals, and men who trafficked in human flesh whole baby-talking their parakeets.
Although I was impatient with the slow setup of this book, I still am a big fan of Brigid Quinn and her smart-ass wisecracks and derring-do. The first book was a nominee for best first novel in the Edgars (mystery writing) and no doubt this one will garner some of the same recognition. Brigid’s dialogue is not the only smart thing about the writing.
If you’re wondering what Tucson is like–not just the mountain paths and the wildlife, but also the culture–Masterman weaves that kind of information into the story. Just one thing threw me, and I’m probably petty for mentioning it, but I can’t resist.
Gemma Kate and her boy friend take off for Sabino Canyon and tell Brigid that they are going to look at the “night-blooming cactus and the wildlife”. Sabino Canyon does have moonlight walks. Except this scene takes place in March. The night-blooming cereus–the night-bloomer that makes the best show doesn’t bloom until late June or early July. Until then, all there is to see is a pathetic plant lying on the ground imitating a dead stick. I know–picky, picky, picky.
Where you can absolutely depend on Masterman’s research, of course, is in forensic details. She has worked for years as an editor of forensic medicine books or law enforcement officials, and has a wide array of experts to call on. These nitty gritty details make the novel come to life. And nothing is livelier than the terrific creation, Brigid Quinn.
The publisher sent me the book for review. I have met Masterman personally, and interviewed her after her first book was published (you can read that interview here.) Neither of these things affects my giving you my honest appraisal of the book.
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Book: Émigré: 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count by Paul Grabbe with Alexandra Grabbe
Until I read Émigré, despite my knowledge of Russian history, I tended to think of the nobility surrounding the Tsar as characters in a novel. Their fantastic homes, elaborate costumes and their expulsion from their country were appealing to read about, but not quite real.
That image was only confirmed by a visit my husband and I made to St. Petersburg, the glorious city packed with reminders of the glory of the Tsars. Amazingly, the Soviet government restored and protected the gilded palaces and the magnificent art works. As an aside, I finagled my way into the boyhood St. Petersburg apartment of Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite authors. The building, just off Prospekt Street, the area where the Grabbes lived, was closed to the public, since it was under construction, but still gave us a flavor of the life of Nabakov as a young boy, and Paul Grabbe and his family. Nabokov’s Speak Memory tells of his life as a boy–very closely paralleling Paul Grabbe who was nearly the same age.
Paul Grabbe poses in front of his family’s second home, near Smolensk about 1910. (Photo courtesy of Alexandra Grabbe.)
However, Paul Grabbe lived that storybook life as a young man, and had to cope with all the problems of becoming a person without a country when the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the tsar and his family were executed and all the upper classes were banished. It is a heart wrenching tale and one seldom hears about it from the point of view of the Russian aristocracy. Perhaps because of the truism that history is written by the victors or perhaps because Americans have a difficult time warming up to royalty, we know much more about Lenin and Trotsky and the Red Army than we do about the uprooting of a whole class of people from Russia. A quick refresher on the Revolution here.
If you watch Downton Abbey, you caught a glimpse of these exiled Russians and their grief for a life that disappeared.
The beginning of this book paints that life in appealing detail. Paul’s adored, if rather cold, father dresses in extravagant uniforms. Servants at their St. Petersburg apartment become some of the young man’s best friends. The family travels frequently, but always come home. Until the Revolution.
When the teen-aged Paul Grabbe and his family fled, they were convinced it was a temporary inconvenience. Whatever country they went to, they had wealthy friends, so their way of life continued to be one of privilege. However, wherever they landed, there was the threat of danger. Grabbe’s father, who had been a right-hand man to the Tsar, turns up on execution lists drawn up by the Revolutionaries back home.
The country was weary from the devastation of World War I. We learn from Émigré that even the lower classes had something on their minds besides idealism.
“Lenin emerged victorious because he realized what the masses wanted and provided it: the soldiers yearned to go home; the peasants desired land.”
Their stop in Latvia is typical of the ups and downs of their experience. By the time the fleeing family reaches Lativia they see Germany, up until now the enemy of their country, as their ally. And they appreciate the orderliness of German rule.
“When we reached the capital of Latvia on September 3, 1918, the German Army had occupied the city for almost a year, and order prevailed. The streets were swept. The trains ran on time.”
But the Red Army marches on neighboring Estonia and threatens Latvia. The Grabbe family learns that their names are on a list of “undesirables to be liquidated.” Temporarily helped by the British, that salvation disappears when the German troops pull out. Tired of fighting, the Germans refuse to honor the treaty that ended WW I in which they promised to fight off the Red Army. The British follow the Germans, and the Grabbe family flees once again.
Eventually, the young man is on his own, first living in Denmark for several years and then sailing to America, like so many before him, hoping for better opportunities.
Later trying to adjust to becoming an American father, Paul Grabbe realizes that his image of a father–his own–is a man in resplendent uniforms who shows up once in a while, but shows little warmth.
Grabbe truly believes the adage, “you can’t go home again”
I used to think going back to Russia would be dangerous because of my father’s association with the tsar, but gave up that idea as the years went by. Now I’m sure visiting the Soviet Union would be quite safe. Safe, but not without pain. I’d find my home occupied by strangers…I would probably want to avoid certain parts of the city, like the Moika Canal, where my uncle was stoned to death. There is something else, too, besides troubling associations. I know all too well that losing one’s homeland leaves a wound that is slow to heal.
Reflecting on glasnost when he was writing in 1997, at the age of 95, Paul Grabbe said:
“…I am not convinced that the revolutionary pendulum has ceased swinging. There is no guarantee that it will not reverse itself again.”
What would he think of Putin?
The book’s first part was published during his lifetime, but the concluding portion was left as notes. His daughter Alexandra Grabbe, who lives in the house that her mother and father settled in on Cape Cod, is a writer who decided to complete her father’s work. We can be glad that she did. The Russia section of the book is a fascinating look at a world that has disappeared. And the American section sheds light on the life of immigrants–a world that increasingly begs for our attention.
Ms. Grabbe provided me with a copy of the book for review. In full disclosure, I have known her as part of an online group for several years. Neither of these facts affects my opinion.
The author photos were provided by Ms. Grabbe.
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