Column of Fire by Ken Follett – Book

Column of Fire by Ken Follett is the third book in the Kingsbridge Series and my least favorite of the three. It’s not that it was difficult or did not tell a story. It was not so terrible that it made me set it aside or stop reading. I liked the fictional characters placed among the actual historical figures enough to wonder what would happen to them but I did not feel strongly invested in them. I always realized they were fictional and there to involve the reader in the events occurring in the mid 1500’s and beyond in England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Religion was the key issue of these times after the declarations of Martin Luther and the beginnings of a Protestant movement that was growing and alarming Catholics. Protestants thought they could talk directly to God without a priest as intermediary. They published Bibles in national languages, rather than Latin, so people could read the Bible by themselves or in church services. They did not feel any allegiance to the Pope in Rome. Catholics saw Protestants as heretics and felt it their religious duty to crush them and their interpretation of Christianity. As Column of Fire begins Protestants are hunted by Catholics, considered criminals by royals, and must practice their religion in secrecy. But this book also covers the pivotal moment when events, especially in England, turned this dynamic around. By the end of the story Catholics are on the defensive and, at least in England, Protestants can worship without fear.

Since England had recently lost Queen Mary Tudor, a strongly Catholic queen, there were two women who could possible take the throne, Elizabeth Tudor, tolerant of Protestantism, and Mary Queen of Scots, strongly Catholic. The story of how Elizabeth took the throne and how she held it against Catholic sympathizers who stood to lose both their brand of religion and lots of power and money has fascinated readers for centuries. Elizabeth held her throne with the help of talented spies and one of these spies was William Cecil.

Ned Willard becomes one of Cecil’s spies, moving in and out of France, with family in Spain for a while (Barney Willard), who later becomes a shipper and a ship’s captain adding more clout to Ned Willard’s information network. There is a villain, in fact there are two and they are just about as hateful as you would like them to be. Pierre Armande de Guise is an ambitious, soulless creature who uses information he steals through his first wife Sylvie Palot, a list of important Protestants in Paris, to ingratiate himself with the de Guise family and to realize his life time ambition of being a royal (however tangentially). Rollo Fitzgerald, brother of Ned’s first love Margery trains a group of sinister priests and hides them in English households for when Mary Queen of Scots takes the throne from Elizabeth, and an invasion plan is afoot.

Even with the historical drama of this critical time in Europe the book never really taps into that drama. Women are expendable and are damaged by the villains but few men are and there is just little tension and fright in most of the telling of this story. Fortunes do switch from the Catholic Fitzgeralds to the Protestant Willards but Ned is never in any real danger and seems more like a nice guy than a spy. So, what we get in Column of Fire by Ken Follett is a good story, but not a great story.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly – Book

Detective Renée Ballard is a cop on the night shift aka the late show in Michael Connelly’s book, The Late Show. She works in an LA precinct. Ballard was a promising detective on the day shift until the Lieutenant leading her team began to stalk her sexually, refusing to believe that no meant no. When she lost her case against him she became a pariah and the late show, to which she was demoted, gave her some less judgmental space in which to do what she loved, bring bad people to justice.

But the night shift did not run at the same intense pace that animated the precinct in the daytime. She had a brilliant partner on the day side, but he betrayed her and took the side of her lieutenant.

Now, seemingly buried in the minor crimes of a precinct that no longer buzzed with activity, with a partner, Jenkins, who has a wife with cancer and is doing his job as if it is always an eight hour shift, Ballard gets sucked back into a case that is being led by the man who was her harasser. At the same time she is pursuing a serial abuser who likes to tie up, beat up, and torture women; a case that hooks in to all her current demons. There is also a case, more typical of the late show, of a report of theft of credit cards from an upscale home.

This book moves fast and falls squarely in the area of people who like their recreational reading to include a bit of social commentary. It’s The Late Show by Michael Connelly.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Book

We live in a time when civility and charm seem difficult to find and tempers are on a short fuse. Even a trip to the grocery store can seem like negotiating a mine field of human hostility. People disconnect from fellow shoppers and single-mindedly rush to get items crossed off their errand list. All they long for is to get home to their personal sanctuary. In times like these, Amor Towles is just the antidote required to inspire introspection and self-evaluation. Perhaps he will even help us change the way we relate to the world. A Gentleman in Moscow, although just a fiction story, makes a point that could transform us all.

Our gentleman in Moscow, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, Member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt, is 33 years old when we first meet him in 1922. He is a man caught between two ages in Russian history so disparate as to induce whiplash. He is an aristocrat who returns, to his peril, to Russia from Paris in 1918, which if you know your history, is just after the Russian Revolution when Russian society gets turned over like a compost pile. What was on the bottom is now on the top and what was on the top is now, for the most part, either dead or in Siberia.

But Count Rostov is such a benign style of aristocrat that he manages to wend his way through the anger and revolutionary righteousness of the new Communist state, not completely unscathed, but as a permanent resident of a luxurious Russian hotel right near the center of Moscow. Rostov has never held a job, has never been a worker, but he is trained by his former lifestyle to have skills that are quite useful to have. He is a great judge of human interaction and he knows how to arrange people at a state dinner or in a well-run restaurant so that any strife is defused and affairs run smoothly. Besides this talent he is charming and amenable and flexible in the face of change. His good nature is adaptable but he is not a chameleon; he is always himself.

Count Rostov’s punishment for coming back to Russia at exactly the wrong time is that he is imprisoned in the lovely Metropole Hotel where he has been living for four years. When asked by the tribunal why he came back he says he missed the climate and they all shake their heads in understanding. He has to give up a large suite of rooms with excellent views that he has been occupying and move into servant’s quarters in the attic. If you think that once sentence has been passed this tale will turn gloomy and scary then you have not yet met our Alexander. He’s in a hotel. Things happen. You may find that you have to “suspend your disbelief” a bit but it will be well worth it.

Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility writes like times that are past and gone, like one who is on earth to remind us of slower times when people were kinder and more (heaven forbid) socially correct. It was a balm to my spirit to read A Gentleman in Moscow at this particularly pugilistic moment in the history of our nation.