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January 4, 2009 Edition
Steve Kemp, returning to Saudi Arabia’s shifting political environment after a decade away, finds he no longer understands the rules of the world he’s in. Much has changed in his absence, not the least of which is the marriage of the lovely Helen, a diplomat stationed in Saudi Arabia. When what is intended as a friendly dinner between old friends at a familiar restaurant becomes a hostage situation, their romance is rekindled. Three months into the affair, Steve is still working on a business deal, but is anxious to escape with Helen from the crumbling country. As the final step nears, he becomes uneasy: something is not right – the terms are too vague, the conditions more dangerous than Steve had thought, and to top it off, he suspects that Helen and her husband have been hiding their plans from him.
Set mostly in turn-of-the-century Vienna, this somewhat historical novel explores the life of “Wheeler” Burden, who has time-traveled by accident from his comfortable life in 1980s San Francisco to 1890s Vienna. Thanks to an eccentric and influential prep-school teacher’s obsession with the era and place, Wheeler wastes no time making himself at home. Readers may take a bit longer, though, as the narrative swings between Wheeler’s childhood in California, his schooling on the East Coast, and his new life in Vienna. Wheeler is Walter Mitty brought to life: handsome, charming, athletic, and academically precocious, with a career as a rock star and fame as editor of his beloved mentor’s notes, but none of that is enough to save him in the end. Smoothly written, this chugs along, accreting details until it becomes clear that the story is cyclical, not linear, and that it isn’t just Wheeler Burden caught up a purposeless life-changing event, but an entire family.
As in Tolstoy’s classic, impetuous Anna K. is unhappily married when a chance meeting gives her the opportunity to change the course of her life. In this modern-day reworking though, Anna is a Russian-Jew living in Queens and her strictures come from her traditionally-minded community, not society at large. Her sheltered Bukharian-Jewish cousin Katia provides cover and counterpoint to Anna as each falls in love for the first time, with inappropriate men: Anna, with Katia’s American-Jewish boyfriend, David; and Katia with the dreamer Lev. As Anna’s marriage falls apart and Katia’s romance blossoms, their lives intertwine in new and unexpected ways, forcing them towards the inevitable conclusion.
Esperanza, or Alice, as her employer prefers to call her, is Lady Emily Tansor’s newly hired lady’s maid. She is also under assignment by her guardian to befriend her Lady, watch the household, and wait… but for what, Alice doesn’t know. She keeps a journal with her observations, makes friends with many of the other staff in the manor, and gradually teases out a mystery that seems to involve her own life. Written in the style of Wilkie Collins, this compelling historical mystery will draw readers into the life of its engaging and intelligent heroine.