Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #102: Storm Front by John Sandford

This is the latest of Sandford’s series centered around Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  While the majority of the series is based on the adventures of Lucas Davenport, self-made video entrepreneur, millionaire, and cop supreme with the Bureau, this novel’s hero is the straight-talking Virgil Flowers, an unmarried 30s-something friend and co-worker of Davenport’s whose cowboy boots and long hair makes him look like a redneck but whose finely-tuned intellect and keen cop sense keep rising to the surface to help him catch the bad guys.

In Storm Front, however, it’s not obvious who the bad guys are. An apparently priceless Israeli relic which could turn biblical history—and thus history—on its head, has been snatched from a dig site and smuggled into the US, to Minnesota in fact, where it is made available to the highest bidder. The thief is a highly-respected minister and professor of archaeology named Elijah Jones, who is weeks away from death from colon cancer. Flowers gets paired with a tough Israeli female investigator who appears more Mossad than archaeologist, to track down the thief and get the stone back to Israel. But he wasn’t counting on shootings, kidnappings, false identities, Hezbollah thugs, dangerous killers, and a curvaceous scam artist named Ma Noble to all converge on the scene and muddy the waters.

Sandford’s writing is delightfully humorous and irreverent in all the right places and his characters are colorful, even if his plot is rather silly. Storm Front was a quick and rather forgettable, but a fun one.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #31: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

This newest collection of Englander’s short stories is mesmerizing, a fascinating mix that runs the gamut from humor to homicide, from pathos to the pathetic. Englander gives us a multifaceted view into the minds and hearts of a people which has been fighting for — and occasionally running from — its own identity for centuries.

Some of these stories have the ring of an old Isaac Babel or Isaac Bashevis Singer story (“Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows”), while others smack of Woody Allen (“Camp Sundown” and the title story). All of them are designed to provoke the reader, as Englander’s tales of fear, guilt, anger, vengeance and mercy are meant to challenge our own moral compass. A gang of young American Jewish boys, inspired by tales of Masada, band together to battle the anti-Semite in their community and learn a lesson about violence, while a philosophy professor in Israel carries the corrosion of violence forever inside him. A prosperous Jew indulges in a moment of lust at a peep show, and learns more than he bargained for about who he is and where he came from. A camp for Jewish senior citizens turns into a nightmare parody of a concentration camp when lanyard-weaving campers suspect there is a former Nazi guard in their midst. And Englander includes an autobiographical piece about his search for his family’s history, which is both hysterically funny and a surprisingly poignant self-reflection which speaks to all of us.

One story I keenly felt, entitled “The Reader,” expresses Everyman’s fear of extinction, whether through cultural death or physical death. A once prominent author returns to the bookstore circuit after spending a decade on his last great novel, only to discover a very changed terrain and no audience. Englander’s personal nightmare or a commentary on the tragic decline of a reading public? Perhaps both.

My favorite story, however, was the lead “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” in which a secular Jewish couple from Florida and an ultra-orthodox Jewish couple visiting from Israel get stoned together, and play the “Righteous Gentile” game. This story had me in stitches from the first page, and had me crying at the end, and I will say no more except that everyone should read this story and then spend a little time getting to know oneself. I can’t say that every story in this collection grabbed me the same way, and a few had me downright squirmy, but Englander’s talent in turning uncomfortable issues into unavoidable ones is a valuable contribution that shouldn’t be missed.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #25: The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva

Another in Silva’s well-written espionage series centered around art restorer and reluctant Mossad spy and assassin Gabriel Allon, The Fallen Angel has a broader scope of action than ever before. As usual, the bad guys are Arab and the good guys are Israeli – Silva makes no effort to hide his fierce Zionist loyalties—and again, as usual, Allon manages to save the world from dire Arab terrorist conspiracies while simultaneously using his brilliant talent to bring lost works of art back to life. A true hero with a tragic past and the gray hairs to show for it, along with a voluptuous young Italian wife to give the romantics among us some sustenance.

The story begins with the tragic fall to her death from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome of a Vatican antiquities curator. The Pope’s personal secretary calls in Allon—who is conveniently restoring a Carravaggio in Vatican City at the time—to quietly investigate her murder, and that investigation leads him to a far-flung antiquities looting ring that extends from a respected Vatican banker to the Iranian Hezbollah and beyond. The conspiracy expands even further, to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem which supposedly lies at the heart of the ongoing Jewish/Arab conflict. It falls to Allon to stop the bad guys before they can ignite a new Holocaust.

As always, Silva’s story is well-researched, well-plotted and well-written, and has his readers hopping around the globe with Allon and his black-ops Mossad team in heart-stopping action interlaced with quiet moments of studious contemplation of the sufferings of the Jewish faithful down through the ages. I found the archaeological discussions embedded throughout this novel to be especially fascinating. Everything wraps up pretty neatly by the end, with Israel getting to survive another day, the Vatican coming every cleaner with each new apology to the Jews the Pope offers (I was not surprised to learn that Silva is a Catholic turned Jew), and of course the Arab bad guys getting their just desserts.

The only niggling little complaint that I had with this book is the author’s apparent endorsement of an Israeli nuclear first-strike against Iran—mirroring current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own insane position!  Be advised, Mr. Silva (and President Obama, for that matter), that in the event of such an event, not even Gabriel Allon will be able to save the world from the global nuclear holocaust that would be sure to follow. I keep hoping that the next Silva book will offer a more balanced and rational view of the world, but alas, that doesn’t appear likely anytime soon.