Noonday by Pat Barker

Noonday Cover

Years ago, I read Regeneration, the first in Barker’s trilogy about World War I — and it totally blew me away. At that time, I knew nothing about Pat Barker. In fact, I was stunned when I learned that the author was female, as I assumed only a man who had experienced battle could write such a searing indictment of war. Since then, I have been in awe of Barker, and was ecstatic to have the opportunity to receive a preview of her forthcoming novel, Noonday, from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

I dived in, and read late into the night, stopping only out of exhaustion…and kept at it, although I admittedly took a few breaks when the story overwhelmed me – Barker’s skill in capturing the horror of war is unreal.

It was only after I finished the book and found myself feeling slightly unsettled by the story that I went looking for information about the writing of the book and then SMH!!!!! (Smack My Head!) I learned that this is the THIRD book in Barker’s trilogy set in World War II England. (more on this later)

The story in Noonday revolves around Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant – all of whom appeared in the first two novels in the series, Life Class and Toby’s Room. In Noonday, Elinor is married to Paul, and she and Kit both work as ambulance drivers in London during the Blitz, while Paul is an air-raid warden. Toby, Elinor’s brother, died in the Great War, but Elinor’s memories of him are strong enough that he remains a significant character. In fact, the impact of Toby in her life is revealed early in the book: “When he was alive, Toby’s presence had been the only thing that made weekends with the rest of her family bearable.”

Another character who impacts events in the book is Kenny, a child who has been relocated to the country to escape the horror of London during the Blitz. Elinor isn’t overly fond of Kenny, and she realizes “he was the sort of child who attracts bullying, she thought, guiltily conscious of her own failure to like him.” She does feel something for him, though: “…he’d arrived in the village with no name, no history. Something about that appealed to Elinor.” But it is Paul to whom Kenny gravitates, and it is Paul who will help Kenny return to London and wander the streets with him as he tries to reunite with his family.

Elinor is childless, a status that is snidely commented on by a live-in helper at her sister Rachel’s house, Mrs. Murchison: “…she’d heard Mrs. Murchison whisper to the woman beside her: “She’s a Miss, you know.” Elinor knew exactly what she meant. Miss-take. Missed out. Even perhaps, miss-carriage?” Elinor tries to take it in stride: “Of course there’d always be people like her, people who regarded childless women as hardly women at all.”

Elinor’s mother is dying as the book begins, and the description of her room is chilling, perhaps particularly for anyone who has gone through this ordeal: “A fug of illness rose to meet her: aging flesh in hot sheets, camphor poultices that did no good at all, a smell of feces and disinfectant from the commode in the far corner.” Elinor’s relationship with Rachel is strained by the stronger relationship Elinor had with their brother Toby, and despite Elinor’s talent as an artist, Rachel’s house is “…beautifully furnished. Oriental rigs, antique furniture—good paintings, too. Nothing of hers, though. She had three in the Tate; none here.

Elinor is at midlife as she waits with Rachel for their mother to die. “After each dragging pause, the skeletal chest expanded again. Let go, just let go. Elinor almost said it aloud, only she was too ashamed, knowing it was her own deliverance she was pleading for.” After her mother’s death “Elinor went to her own room, also grieving, not for what she’d lost, but for what she’d never had, and never could have now.” These passages give the reader an anguished look at the family dynamic, magnified by the revelation of the nature of Elinor’s relationship with Toby (which I suspect was known to readers of the earlier books in the series, but which came as a shock to me).

Another character is the “witch of Endor,” who conducts an séance that is attended by Paul, distraught after events during a bombing and its impact on Kenny. There is a wrenching scene in which desperate relatives pay to attend this event, which is revealed as a sham conducted by a fraud who claims she is calling the dead back to life to “speak to” their loved ones.

The book captures the horror of the Blitz and the effect it begins to have on the citizens, both in the city and at Rachel’s house in the country: “how easily they’d all come to accept it: searchlights over the church at night, blacked-out houses, the never-ending pop-pop of guns on the marshes.”

There is a spiraling tension as the war worsens and the characters search for comfort, finding it in ways that will both bind them and tear them apart.

I am still in awe of Pat Barker’s skillful writing, about war and relationships, family and fear. After thinking about it, I decided that any disappointment or lack of satisfaction I might have initially felt upon completion of the book likely stemmed from my lack of familiarity with the characters. This was reinforced by the following online review I found: “ I wonder if anyone reading this as a ‘free-standing’ book will successfully appreciate the complex back story of the relationships between the three principle characters. I also found myself re-reading some passages to understand which of the three points of view I was now following.

Having said that, this is without question the best researched and most compelling fictional account of the Blitz I’ve ever read. Pat Barker cleverly lulls you into a false sense of security, as the ambulance crews and wardens seem to dodge bombs and incendiaries with amazing impunity. Then, of course, we experience the cruelly indiscriminate nature of the bombing.

That eloquently sums it up! In order to do it justice, I plan to re-read Noonday after reading the first two books in the series, but it is seriously worth FIVE STARS. Pat Barker is incredible.

 

 

 

And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel

Engel book cover

Even though I find the subject of the Middle East depressing these days, I LOVE Richard Engel’s reporting, so I was excited to get an advance copy of his book And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East from NetGalley in return for my honest review. Overall, I will just say I am so happy to have read this book, because I learned so much! Engel lived in the Middle East for decades, is a fluent Arab speaker, and has the gift of being both an entertaining storyteller and a patient teacher. My own bias leans left, and I found my negative opinion of the Bush administration’s actions reinforced…but I really looked forward to the opportunity to evaluate my uncertainty about the actions of the Obama administration by learning more about the history and current situation in the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Libya and, of course, Syria.

This book reminds us that if our view of today’s Middle East consists of looking at “those people” and their rebellion in the streets in recent years and thousands of refugees streaming to escape recent battles, we may have forgotten (or perhaps never knew?)  that “In the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, the Islamic world was a main center of culture and civilization…leader in astronomy, algebra and poetry, experiencing a golden era as Europe sank into the Dark Ages.“

The Middle East of today is a mess, no doubt about it, and the book does a great job explaining the origins of today’s conflicts, detailing how during World War I, the “Ottomans sided with Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm. Russian Empire had collapsed…leaving England and France to feast on the ottoman carcass.”

After the end of that war, the …”lines that separate Jordan, Syria and Iraq were mostly drawn by England and France” the “Middle East was reorganized, redefined, and the seeds were planted for a century of bloodshed.”

There was a lot of jockeying for position for the land being carved up. “Lebanon, a Christian enclave…was of special interest to France…Sunni Muslim Wahhabi fanatics aligned with Ibn Saud, a warrior chief from a desert outpost in central Arabia…Iraq was a jigsaw puzzle, a forced combination of three Ottoman provinces, each dominated by a different ethnic or religious group: the Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shiites in the south.” No surprise that Iraq seems like it is broken – it was never a cohesive state to begin with. (Very Alice in Wonderland-ish, IMO)

Engel’s view of the reason for the mess that is the Middle East today? The “flawed and cavalier treaties of World War I explain to a large degree why the Middle east remains unstable and angry today…even carefully drawn borders…would have been problematic in a region that had no concept of nation states or parliaments. But the European victors made a total hash of it. Ethnic minorities were divided and put in different states. The Kurdish people were scattered among five nations. Syria was reduced to a tiny fraction of the powerful Ottoman province it once was…Iraq was cobbled together with different Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds and given almost no access to the sea…the house of Islam was in pieces and humiliated…the afterthought of victorious European powers.”

He sees the decades after World War I and right up until the George W. Bush administration as being the years when “big men” ruled the region. When he moved to the Middle East, Mubarak was in complete control in Egypt, Hussein in Iraq, Gadhafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and both Jordan and Saudi Arabia were kingdoms ruled by their own “big men.”

In the mid-90s, Engel optimistically moved to Egypt with no job, and set out to report on the region.   Egypt is a large country with large problems. Discussing events up to and including the Arab Spring, he notes, “Rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait could buy their way out of trouble pumping money into the pockets of their people, but a big, poor country such as Egypt faced a severe reckoning. Economic resentments, not religious or ethnic division, had sent Egyptians into the streets. “

In Egypt, what had “kept it all together was Islam. Islam was the solution, or at least that’s what the Muslim Brotherhood was selling…a political and religious organization that was officially illegal. ” As Engel looks back on the people he encountered on a daily basis, he notes that the “fundamentalism that I saw in my neighborhood… wasn’t violent”… (it was) “about helping the poor”…(it) “wasn’t the kind of urban meanness you find in many American cities.” As things heated up, he sees “the fundamentalist mentality—the rage, the anger, the hate, the feeling of being left behind by history, the sense that Islam was under attack and needed to defend itself.”

After several years in Egypt, Engel moved to Jerusalem, where he was “expecting to report on the birth of a new state, Palestine, instead I saw peace talks collapse.” After 9/11, everything changed, including the degree to which people cared about what was happening in Palestine. There was a “bloody conflict…the outside world, especially the United States, paid little attention to the Palestinians’ second uprising. It was a sideshow after 9/11. “

After the Bush Administration decided (for, as Engel reminds us, “no reason”) to invade Iraq following 9/11,  all the action for a foreign correspondent seemed to be in Baghdad, so of course that is where he relocated. As he notes, in retrospect, he “had no idea at the time how bad Washington would bungle it, how inept the Iraqis would be at managing their own affairs, and the horrible forces—the rot deep within the Middle East—that the war would ultimately unleash.” As time passed, Engel finds he “grew increasingly skeptical that the US had a plan to manage Iraq. The Americans arrived with decisiveness and purpose but then seemed to improvise everything else.” There was “no plan to deal with Iraq after invading it.

As a foreign correspondent, over the years he had to deal with the business of the media, and there were many interesting oddities about covering the war in Iraq: “ I’ve never quite grasped…why the networks didn’t weigh the risks beforehand. Instead they spent millions preparing to cover the war from Baghdad only to pull out at the last minute.”

Saddam was clearly a bad guy, but Engel spells out the way in which the attempt by the Bush administration to link him with 9/11 is preposterous: he “imprisoned anyone who exhibited the slightest hint of religious radicalism,” which made the accusations by the Bush administration ”that he was in league with Osama bin Laden …so preposterous. Saddam was a murderous tyrant, but Islamic al-Qaeda style radicals only came to Iraq because of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and not, as the Bush administration repeatedly claimed, the other way around. “

I found it fascinating to read’s Engel’s analysis of the growth of ISIS. He flatly states, “ISIS wouldn’t have existed without the US invasion of Iraq. It was born out of the Sunnis’ feeling of alienation, their belief that they’d been pushed aside—which, of course, they had been. Sunnis suffered a thirteen-century old injustice with power stripped from them by Washington and given to Iraqi Shiites and their coreligionists in Iran. This grievance is at the core of ISIS ideology. “

Looking at the situation in Syria, Engel draws parallels with Libya, as he spells out why Assad was unlikely to trust Washington: “Gadhafi had …made peace with Washington…his reward was Washington…used …force to back rebels who would tear him to pieces and put his body in a meat locker for public ridicule. The message certainly wasn’t lost on Syria’s Assad. What incentive did he have…to trust Washington?”

And, indicating the consequence of the US not helping in Syria, he notes, “Clearly, Syria would not be Libya. The cavalry from the West wasn’t coming. Instead, al-Qaeda was offering a helping hand. “

When Engel first went to live in Cairo, as noted before, things were held steady by the “big men” who, as he relates, “were part of the system the United States depended on for decades to keep a volatile and religious region of rich governments and poor people in line, and to keep the oil flowing. In the end, however, the big men were all undone by a fatal combination of their own poor management and the actions and inactions of two two-term US Administrations: Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.” (This is where my uncertainty about the efforts – or lack thereof—by the Obama administration to deal with the Middle East began to move toward a sense that things just got worse in the last 7+ years. Sad, after so many of us voted for Obama in large part because we were sick of what the Bush administration had done in Iraq, and believed Obama’s pledge to end that war.

What is his view of the “big men” in retrospect? “I like to think of the Middle East of the Arab big men like a row of old rotten houses. They looked stable and imposing from the outside but were in fact full of mold and termites, which they both contained and created the way old houses do if no one opens the windows or cleans them out. President Bush knocked down the first rotten house by toppling Saddam Hussein, unleashing the anger, ignorance, and Sunni-Shia rivalry inside. President Obama, by turning on old friends, was now helping to knock down another house. Worse still, Obama would later fail to follow through on this new promise when the wave of protest reached Bahrain and then culminated in Syria. The Bush Doctrine was attack foreign nations before they attack you, even if you attack the wrong country for the wrong reason, or for no reason, at all. The Obama Doctrine would turn out to be: help those seeking democracy when they are oppressed, except when you don’t want to and prefer to promise help while not delivering it. The combined impact of these two radical policies—radical departures from decades of trying to find Middle East stability—would be devastating. “ (a long quote, but so interesting to me!!)

I didn’t come away from reading this with an optimistic view of the situation. Engel notes: “These days, I no longer believe there ever are truly good guys or bad guys in a war, at least in the Middle East.” On a trip back to the States, he visited the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in DC. I was saddened as I read his thought that “after months of traveling and reporting I came to believe that Washington was trying to put out the fires of terrorism with gasoline. “

While unsettling, this book is totally worth five stars. It is a great read for anyone who wants to learn more about how this mess all came about, or who wants to try to understand the current situation in which the US finds itself. I don’t feel any better about the situation after reading it, I definitely don’t have a positive feeling about the actions of the Obama administration after reading it, but I definitely think I understand it much more than before. And I still LOVE Richard Engel, perhaps even more than I did before. FIVE STARS.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

beforethefallcover

Whenever I see a blurb that says something like “…THE thriller to read in 2016!!” my reaction is something along the lines of “hmmm, I’ll be the judge of that.” So I was a bit of a skeptic going in to this one. Also, a bit of curiosity about whether this might come across as one of those novels that you just KNOW was written with a film or TV adaptation in mind, as the author has a successful history as a screenwriter and is currently show runner for the TV series Fargo. You know how some novels just fall apart at the end, with the obvious geared for the screen ending? Clearly, this one had challenges from me going in.

The basic plot is that on a Sunday evening at the end of August, a bunch of rich people plus a less-than-successful painter (for a total of 11 individuals) hop on a fancy private jet for a quick flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. A famous TV producer/media mogul, who weekends on the island in summer while his wife and their son and daughter have spent the entire month of August there, chartered the jet. It was during that month that the wife became friendly with the painter, Scott Burroughs, whose work she admired, so she offered to let him hop a ride on their flight rather than endure the ferry ride into the city on a Sunday night. Other passengers include their bodyguard and a Wall Street bigwig and his wife (friends/investors who are well-known to the producer and his wife), who we will learn are on the cusp of a financial meltdown. The crew includes a career pilot, a female flight attendant, and a copilot who steps in at the last minute as a replacement for the originally scheduled copilot, who is reported as having taken sick.

Sixteen minutes into the flight, the plane and its contents disappear into the Atlantic Ocean, and the only survivors are Scott and the media mogul’s 4-year old son, who clings to Scott’s back as they endure an unbelievably challenging swim to safety.

As it turns out, the boy stands to inherit an enormous fortune, and the mysterious crash suddenly looks like a conspiracy. Why else would so many influential people have died? As the mystery around the financial shenanigans of the Wall Street bigwig begin to be revealed, a huge media frenzy unfolds, spurred on by Fox-ish personalities whose outrage and accusations threaten to swallow Scott whole.

Questions of fate, chance and destiny run rampant through the book, and I enjoyed the thought-provoking way the events of the story were presented: “Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.” Scott has lots of time to ponder the events that led him to this, and he tries to make sense of it all, as he consider “it is the job of the human brain to assemble all the input of our world—sights, sounds, smells—into a coherent narrative. This is what memory is, a carefully calibrated story that w make up about our past.”

The relationship between Scott and the boy whose life he saved is a key piece of the story, and as Scott turns the boy over to his aunt and uncle, he things it is “one of those critical junctures in life when you’re supposed to say something or do something, but you don’t know what. Only later does it hit you : later, the thing you should have said will be as clear as day, but right now it’s just a nagging feeling, a clenched jaw and low nausea.”

Two other themes are the role of journalism/entertainment in the media and the nature of art itself. Scott ponders the media circus that surrounds and considers how it might have been covered in the days of Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Woodward and Bernstein. The question becomes one of information versus entertainment. In looking at the nature of art, Scott considers that “to be an artist is to live at once in the world and apart from it. Where an engineer sees form and function, an artist sees meaning. A toaster, to the engineer, is an array of mechanical and electrical components that work together to apply heat to bread, creating toast.To the artist, a toaster is everything else. It is a comfort creation machine, one of many mechanical boxes in a dwelling that create the illusion of home.”

There is plenty of suspense, and I was eager to discover the reason for the crash, how Scott fit in to the picture, and how his relationship with the boy he had rescued would resolve. Too many spoiler possibilities, so I will just say I give it 5 stars: it held my interest, it made me think, and it made me care. I appreciate getting an advance copy of this in exchange for my honest review.

 

Angels Burning by Tawni O’Dell

Angels Burning Cover
I admit it. I apparently am a name bigot. Otherwise, why was I so hesitant to dive in to Tawni O’Dell’s new book Angels Burning? I am pretty sure I read her Back Roads (2001), but I had no strong feeling about her other than that her named evoked a memory of a real-life woman named Tawny whose presence in my life was always like fingernails on a blackboard, and around whom I always felt incredibly inferior…so possibly Ms. O’Dell inherited my prejudice. Wow, was I wrong!! I loved this book!!!

The short version is that the protagonist, Dove Carnahan, is a small-city police chief in Buchanan, a small city in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. She is coming up on her 50th birthday, outwardly successful following a rough adolescence that included her mother’s murder and secrets that add to her dark and self-destructive nature. Dove is called to a crime scene, where a young female has been beaten to death, set on fire, and thrown down an abandoned coal mine (which is still on fire, like much of the ruined landscape). She turns out to be Camio, a teenage daughter of the local extended redneck/criminal family named Truly.

A parallel story is that during Dove’s investigation into Camio’s murder is the release from prison of the man who was convicted of murdering Dove’s mother. He shows up, threatening Dove and her sister Neely, and evokes unsettling parallels between the Carnahans and the Trulys.

I love psychological thrillers when they are well done, and the plot of Angels Burning is tightly woven and revealed with excellent pacing. The story deals with both the present (Camio’s murder investigation and the pathetically poor and dysfunctional Truly family) and the past (Dove’s mother’s murder and the dysfunctional Carnahans). On top of all this, Dove’s brother Champ, from whom she has been estranged since he left home decades ago, shows up with an 8-year old son (whom Dove has never heard of, let alone met) and dumps the kid with Dove and leaves town.

O’Dell is masterful in evoking a sense of place…and in this part of the world, it isn’t pretty. Describing the local landscape when she goes to the crime scene when Camio’s body is being recovered, she says “The sweetish smoky reek of charred flesh mixed with the acrid odor of sulfur always present in this poisoned ghost town.” Her response to her surroundings is summed up: “The lush green waves of rolling hills on the blue horizon, and I feel the familiar ache that always comes over me whenever I’m faced with ruined beauty.” As she goes to the Truly family compound as part of her investigation, she finds the “curtains are drawn against the bright sunshine. An overhead lamp has been turned on, but little light can shine through the powdery layer of dead insects accumulated at the bottom of the fixture. The room has a fried food, dirty diapers, damp dishrag odor to it. ”  I swear, when I read that, it just creeped me out, it captured the scene so perfectly.

Her descriptive skills also apply to the people of the town of Buchanan. You can easily visualize them from her words: Rudy Mayfield, someone she has known since childhood, “ swallows and stares hard at his impressive beer gut straining against an old undershirt spattered with various colored stains like countries depicted on a great white globe.”

Shawna Truly, mother of Camio, is a beaten-down mess of a woman whose whole life is a mess: “her bulk takes up half the couch but her presence takes up the entire room.” When Shawna is brought to the station for an interview, the extent to which she has totally checked out emotionally is described as “…like a she elephant grandly walking through a group of deadly big cats to get to the water hole, she has a regal disinterest in her surroundings because she knows nothing can touch her.”

Shawna’s mother Miranda is a cruel old bat, and has little humanity remaining, which O’Dell clearly describes: “ Joy, pleasure, optimism left her long ago. Not all at once, like air from a punctured bicycle tire with the nail still embedded in the tread, her compassion atrophy was probably a slow leak.

A huge amount of plot and characterization centers on Dove and her family, in particular her murdered mother. Dove says she “knew she was bad at mothering, but I was never sure if this was the same thing as being a bad mother.” And, talking about the Truly children, who seem to be treated badly by Shawna and Miranda, Dove says, “I also know what it’s like to have a mother who doesn’t care about you. This isn’t always the same thing as having one who doesn’t love you. Love is a highly subjective concept; everyone has different standards for what qualifies.” Dove’s pain around her parents is summed up by her when she says “By the age of fifteen I had the best kind of parents: ones who were dead and couldn’t hurt me anymore.”

As Dove works on the Camio Truly murder case, we see how she has learned to work on grisly crimes while trying to retain some humanity. She leaves a meeting, acknowledging she is “ left teetering on a precipice of unwelcome memories and the equally unwelcome discovery that time does not heal all wounds. It may have taken the edge and shine off but the blade has remained permanently plunged in the flesh of my soul, a dull, rusty, eternal reminder… I leave the interview room with the intention of stripping off my clothes, kicking off my shoes, getting in my car, and driving naked until I reach the nearest ocean, then jumping in and swimming until I find a deserted island where I can live alone far away from all people and the things they do to each other.”

As Chief of Police, Dove has learned to maintain a shell around herself, stating “My philosophy regarding a problem is fix it, and if you can’t fix it, find a way to live with it that is least destructive to yourself and others. Whatever you do, don’t talk endlessly about it while you do nothing. “

Her interview of Camio’s sister Jessyca reflects her brusque style, as Dove asks the teenage Jessyca about her baby girl, Goldie. Jessyca tells Dove “Goldie was an accident, ” to which Dove asks “You mean you were using birth control but still got pregnant?” Jessyca replies “ I mean I got pregnant ‘cause I wasn’t using birth control,” and Dove’s response is “Then Goldie’s not an accident. She’s a consequence.”

I loved both Dove and her dog-training sister Neely, who has responded to the trauma they endured as teenagers by developing a lifestyle that means her main communication is with canines rather than humans. As it turns out, there is a HUGE revelation about their childhood, and O’Dell deftly handles a combination of emotional scenes and plot twists.

Don’t be a name bigot. Tawni O’Dell is great, and this book is fun, entertaining, and skillfully written. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of Angels Burning  in return for my review. Five enthusiastic stars!