Posts Tagged ‘Big Al’s Book and Pals’

Review of ‘Wisdom of Fools’, collection of short stories by Phil Harvey

February 26, 2017

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Wisdom of Fools: Stories of Extraordinary Lives by [Harvey, Phil]

 

Of this collection of eight stories by Phil Harvey six of them are contemporary, two are science fictionish.

Phil Harvey has other important career strands alongside his fiction writing. He is the author of non-fiction books about contraception, government snooping and libertarian values; he has set up a charity which implements family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention programs in developing countries; helped fund the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Police project and NORML; he works to raise awareness of freedom-of-speech issues and injustices caused by the war on drugs; and he runs a company which helps adults enjoy their sex lives. His compassion in and deep knowledge of these various areas informs his fiction, to advantage.

These are meaty stories. The author turns out to be one of those treasured finds in whom, as a reader, one may place absolute trust (although that was, perhaps, not completely true of the final story in the collection ‘Xa’s Pool’: it is still a fine story).

The eight stories are delightfully varied. Nevertheless, they do have aspects in common. I would describe them all as having both a visceral foundation and as many layers as an onion. Harvey sketches in characters at the same time as he develops the story – no hanging around to see the set and meet the cast here. Not a word is wasted, which is essential when constructing short stories. The story is underway from the first sentence: the pace and length are perfectly judged – and at the end is a payoff, which one had not seen coming, which is perfect and thought-provoking.

Harvey is a man who really understands the short form in fiction and uses it beautifully. The Amazon puff names several writers of short fiction in whose company these stories can stand. I hereby add Ernest Hemingway – yes, Harvey is THAT good.

My favourite (and it’s a hard choice) is ‘Virgin Birth’ which looks at particularly difficult moral choices that might surround a surrogate pregnancy – the sort of choices that I’ve never been encouraged to think about before. I found it revelatory.

This is a short book. One can absorb a story in a sitting. Even if short fiction isn’t your usual fare I urge you to give these a go. If you’re still wrinkling your nose at the idea, Harvey has longer fiction available. This is an author well worth discovering.

Review of ‘The Damascus Cover’ by Howard Kaplan

February 25, 2017

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

The Damascus Cover (The Jerusalem Spy Series Book 1) by [Kaplan, Howard]

In the new introduction to this edition the author tells us that in its first incarnation, in 1977, this novel sat in the lower reaches of the Los Angeles Times best seller list for 10 weeks. This reissue, self-published by Howard Kaplan in 2014, has obviously been put out to tie in with the forthcoming film, now apparently due in 2017. (Although how they will manage without the late lamented John Hurt, who can say.)

For present purposes, perhaps the most important thing to know about Howard Kaplan is that he has a little experience of being a spy and a lot of knowledge about the Middle East. He has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. He knows the life of which he writes.

This is an excellent spy thriller. Authors are so often recommended by publishers as ‘the next John Le Carré’. None of them are, of course. And attempts at comparison simply weaken the writing of those who are not. However, Kaplan is (or was), writing gritty spy fiction which stands genuine comparison with Le Carré circa ‘The spy who came in from the cold’.

I pride myself on being able to spot a plot twist even if it is secreted in a bag of fettuccini, but this book wrong-footed me not once, not twice but thrice. I like to be wrong-footed. Nor did those cunning plot twists feel remotely strained: as soon as the unexpected occurred one could see how it was the inevitable result of what had come before. Thus the book quickly gained a sense of menace: what has Ari missed? How will it come back to bite him? The spy-protagonist is no two-dimensional cipher: the reader goes with him into the abyss created by his own character failings, spiralling down and down, as shown through the action of the book.

The settings are Cyprus, Jerusalem and Syria – economically and vividly drawn. The Middle Eastern setting are topical (despite the book’s age). Aleppo, Beirut and, of course, Damascus all figure largely and are described at a time when they were still beautiful, multi-cultural cities.

The new introduction gives some insight into what has occurred in the Middle East since 1977, but it is not really sufficient for those of us whose knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and wars since 1948 may not be deep or recent. To enjoy this fully it will repay a quick and dirty Google of the main dates and conflicts in the area (there are quite a few) so as to have at least The Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War clear in your mind. This link may be of assistance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Middle_East#Modern_Middle_East

FYI: The prologue and final chapter comprise *graphic* scenes of torture.

There are a few typos which could have been put right when the text was readied for printing this time around. Or perhaps they were introduced at that point – who can say. They will not spoil your enjoyment.

Review: The Museum Heist by Kameel Nasr

December 17, 2016

The Museum Heist: A Tale of Art and Obsession by [Nasr, Kameel]     

**Originally written for “BigAl’s Books and Pals” book blog. May have received a free review copy.**

Genre:  Crime

Description:  The crime at the bottom of this mystery actually took place. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston exists and works of art, including the paintings the book speaks of, were stolen from it in the small hours the day after St. Patrick’s Day, 1990. There art and life diverge: the real stolen paintings have never been recovered.

The fiction is partly a ‘what if’ about what might have happened to the art and how it might have been retrieved. But it is also about the sort of odd-ball who might have found the missing art.

The blurb claims the book “is a fast-paced, wily whodunit filled with intrigue, romance and stimulating scholarship,” which sounds pretty accurate to me. The blurb continues: “Author, Kameel Nasr, an international adventurer and art connoisseur, shines a penetrating light on the motives, habits, and sometimes less-than-noble intentions in the demi-monde of world-class art collecting. Along the way, he’s created a wonderfully satisfying mystery novel for anyone interested in historical fiction. The Museum Heist takes you on a roller-coaster ride of suspense, a meticulous portrait of the underbelly of the art world at its highest echelons.

Author: Kameel Nasr was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the USA as a child – since when he has turned his hand to very many spiritual, physical and creative pursuits. He describes himself as “an ebullient and upbeat New England writer, adventure cyclist, dancer, spiritual seeker, amateur astronomer, social activist, and patron of art and music. Over the past 25 years he has produced books and articles on cycling, international politics, early Christianity, and a Boston Cozy Mystery Series [of which this book is part]. His works have been published in several formats and languages and been cited in numerous articles and journals.”

See more about Nasr at his website, here: https://www.kameelnasr.com/about/

Appraisal: this book is the first ‘Lieutenant Lowell mystery’, published in August 2015. (A second book in the series – The Symphony Heist: A Tale of Music and Desire has been published recently.)

Nasr riffs delightfully on the real news-story (the theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston), producing a fantasy of increasing complexity. He mingles investigations into art fraud, forgeries and art thefts with rich information about artworks, known and lost, of the Classical world.

Although this is supposed to be Lieutenant Lowell’s mystery, Nasr’s main protagonist is one ‘Paris’, who lives his life according to Pythagorean principles, following the philosophical tenets of the Greek Classical world, their heroes and heroines, and their pantheon of gods. This develops, inter alia, into an interesting debate about pantheism and monotheism, which led me to ponder on the differences between the rational and the animal mind.

You may throw up your hands at this point and say that all this sounds like heavy going, but the way Nasr treats his subject matter you can begin the book knowing nothing about any of the above, romp along enjoying the story and emerge at the other end knowing considerably more about high art (its collections, forgeries and thefts) and Pythagoras’s Classical Greek world than you ever thought you would – having acquired the information as painlessly as you might consume Greek yoghurt.

So this is a book that is more than a crime novel, and certainly more than the ‘cozy mystery’ that Nasr claims it to be. It is a fascinating and sophisticated puzzle. If you enjoy historical fiction, and/or have a working knowledge of some of the better known Greek stories, e.g. Odysseus’s journey home to Penelope, Orpheus and Eurydice, Helen of Troy and Paris, this will certainly help you to get the most out of the analogies drawn between those tales and the goings-on in this modern heist novel. But lack of that knowledge is no barrier to enjoying the book.

And it has more to say about the human heart and that organ’s motivation than your average crime novel would be interested in.

Oh yes – Lieutenant Lowell does have a considerable role in the book. And his own foibles too. His ‘gut’ is as prominent in the investigation as that of Leroy Jethro Gibbs, if for rather different reasons.

This book is unusual in its subject matter; a bit like Paul Adam’s books about long-lost, priceless violins, but without the murders. If that is your sort of thing, then hie thee to the Classical world without more ado. Here is a link to it on AmazonUK. If that is not your local Amazon you’ll be redirected, I think.

FYI: The book is written in the present tense. This gives a sense of urgency to events and for some reason which I can’t quite put my finger on, imparts a pleasing ingenuousness to the character of ‘Paris’. However, it is a tense which can get wearing over the course of a novel-length read. Fortunately, this is not a long book. Of course, from time to time the author needs to look ahead or behind and, in the file I was working on, such time shifts were not secure which meant the reader had to spend a few minutes working out ‘when’ she was rather than getting on with enjoying the story.

Format/Typo Issues: there were rather many of these in the file I was working from. A scan through an Amazon sample indicates that at least some of these (particularly the more irritating, running oddities) have been fixed. Why would an author seeking positive words about his published opus send a file full of errors to a reviewer? Why indeed.

The infelicities above had to lose the book a star.

Rating: ****

 

 (Approximate page count: 230 pp)