Monday, December 21, 2009

Wolf Hall bu Hilary Mantel

Winner of the Man Booker prize, Wolf Hall, is a gem of a novel. The reader is positioned behind the eyes of Thomas Cromwell in the 1520’s as he battles for Henry VIII in his resolve to divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. The character Cromwell as drawn by Mantel is smart, witty, shows moments of kindness and humanity and is intuitive in the reading of the motivations of the nobility and the king. Born in humble and brutal circumstances to a blacksmith, his intelligence is self made and rises above everyone around him. Above all he is faithful servant first to Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII.

What is most interesting is the portrayal of Sir Thomas More as the reversal of the sainted movie hero in A Man for all Seasons. . In the book he is flawed, nasty, narcissistic and a fanatical torturer of heretics. More is his rigidness to his idealistic spirituality contrasts with Cromwell’s worldly adaptation to the political environment of Tudor England.

Court politics abound along with the political conniving of Rome, the clerics, and the royalty of France and Spain. This is a lively emotional novel with Anne Boleyn, Catherine, Mary Tudor, and Jane Seymour starring in vivid roles.

In an NPR interview Hilary Mantel is questioned why she champions villains in her novel. If a historical figure has been given bad press armed with a sense of justice she is drawn into a re-examination of his life. She feels she does not have to redeem the character of Cromwell the facts will redeem him.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The English American by Alison Larkin

As an Anglophile, I guess my most deep, dark fantasy (no, NOT that kind) is that I will find out that I was switched at birth…and that my real parents are British! Trust me…this is not an insult to my American parents. They would be MORE than happy to trade me to an unsuspecting couple across the pond. But, alas, my fantasy is just that…fiction. Well, in this novel, the first by stand-up comedienne/actress Alison Larkin, the main character, Pippa, is raised by British adoptive parents in England but finds out that her biological parents are truly American. This immediately makes sense to Pippa, since she’s always considered herself something of an American-phile but most importantly, she is NOTHING like most the British people around her. This information propels Pippa on a quest to find her true identity and the reasons for all of her non-British idiosyncrasies. Larkin, herself, is a biological American and adoptive Brit, so the story resonates very true. Larkin’s writing style is sharp and witty and Pippa is a truly engaging and highly enjoyable character. We want her to be happy…whether in America or England. For me, I will just keep searching for that one day when I find my true parents…and I’m able to go home where I belong...England! Sorry mom and dad.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Try a Graphic Novel

Stitches by David Small

If you haven't read many graphic novels, this is a good place to start. Actually a memoir, Stitches reads like a novel. It is the story of a little boy who loves to draw growing up in an abusive, loveless household. He wishes he could escape down the rabbit hole with Alice. As a young teen he has an operation that results in his losing half his vocal cords and consequently his voice. The rest of the story is about his survival and recovery. Stitches is an intense and rewarding reading experience.

Small is a children's book illustrator, and his drawings add so much to the story. Small conveys an amazing amount of feeling and intelligence in a few simple lines. Note the drawing of his mother at the bottom of page 113 and compare it with the photo of Small on the inside back cover. You won't believe the resemblance.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Woman in Red by Eileen Goudge

This book was a very pleasant surprise. Having never read Goudge before, I did what I usually do with new authors – give the first 50 pages a go – apprehensively. Right from the start, though, I was hooked. Goudge has an excellent knack for building characters from the ground up…and using those characters to be the basis for her strong storytelling. This story starts, told mostly in the present but also during WWII, with the story of Alice, a mother who just lost her older son and cannot deal with the not guilty verdict the jury just turned in on her son's drunk driving killer. Alice's story flash-forwards nine years later...and is then interwoven with the story of another wandering soul...Colin, who is in AA and recently widowed. Both of these main characters, as well as the sub-characters, are engaging and full of intensity...and passion. We want to get to know them better...we want them to get their troubles resolved. We want them to be happy. I would read Goudge again in a heartbeat!

Thursday, November 5, 2009


I love dogs. I own a dog. Often, I like him more than about 90% of the people I know. I also enjoy books about the relationships between men and their dogs. Especially when the gruff guy shows a kinder, gentler side to his personality as a result of the actions of his dog.

One of the best "guy/dog" books I have read is "Merle's Door" by Ted Kerasote. It is a wonderful true story that is sensitive without being sappy.

Although I love the "guy/dog" books, I know that they will never end well. The dog always dies.
About two-thirds of the way into the book, the guy finds "a lump" on the dog's leg, or the dog develops this phlegmy cough. You know you are pages away from uncontrollable sobbing.... by both you and the guy.

So, it was with delight that I picked up the latest book by Dean Koontz noted for his suspenseful raw thrillers. Koontz and his wife, following years of consideration, adopt a three-year-old golden retriever from Canine Companions, an organization that provides service dogs to those in need. The dog was on "early retirement" as a result of an elbow surgery. The book, a memoir of his 9-years with the dog, is about as far away from his usual shocking tales as one can get. I knew Koontz had an affinity for "goldens" as they are characters in many of his books, and his book jackets show a picture of him with a "golden".
Koontz delights in the mundane, day-to-day activities of "Trixie" to the point of some degree of boredom from this reader. It is also could be a little uncomfortable for the reader when he refers to Trixie as "my little girl" or tells her "your mom and I are so proud of you". But maybe that's because you do not expect that form of emotion from someone whose stories are otherwise so dark and chilling. Koontz also takes anthropomorphism to an extreme, but as a dog owner and lover I found it acceptable.
This book definitely shows another side of Koontz, and in the end.....I sobbed uncontrollably.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle

The Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle is a fun, light wine mystery set mostly in the South of France that will get your taste buds all set for a good bottle of vino! Not really a true “mystery” (there is a caper element towards the end of the book) but rather more of a breezy whodunit where the end result is no where near as much fun as the finding-out-who part. Mayle (of A Year in Provence fame) knows how to write great characters with wonderful inter-play and chemistry…making this almost as much fun as an episode of Moonlighting (the TV show from the 1980s). And the setting of Marseilles, rural Provence, Paris, and even Los Angeles make for a perfect backdrop to this entertaining romp about stolen wine.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Charley's Web by Joy Fielding

An excellent thriller -- my first read from Fielding. It was a true page-turner. I could hardly put it down -- even for sleep! About a journalist who gets suckered in to write the memoirs of a sadistic child killer, Fielding really has a way of increasing the suspense as the story progresses. Strong characters and a good, trick ending make it a must read for any thriller fan. Not exactly the most intellectual read ever, but for thriller fans, I would say it's a must! I'm going to try another Fielding soon and see if she's always this good!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Holmes on the Range

Meet the Amlingmeyers. A pair of brothers riding the range from one grub stake to the next. Are they just obsessed cowpokes thinking about food, smokes, horses, women and more food? Nope. Old Red (Gustav) and Big Red (Otto) have other things on their mind. Like detecting. Just like that Sherlock fellow. Welcome to the world of Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith.

Old Red's obsession with all things Holmes - read to him by his brother from Harper's Magazine - leads them to adventure. The slightly shady outfit they have signed up with - the Bar VR - ends up having two deaths on the premises. And the foreman really does not seem to care since everyone is supposed to be preparing for the arrival of the foreign owners of the ranch. Just who is lying to whom? And just what is going on with the ranch finances and stock? And those fancy English folks might have a hand in this mess too.

Hockensmith's characters are great fun. The story is told in Big Red's voice and he is a perfect doubting Thomas about his brother's detection skills. But he will stand by him as a loyal "Watson" and family member should. Old Red sometimes doubts himself - he is just an average uneducated cowboy - but he has studied his hero Holmes' methods.

With wonderful characters and a twisty plot, this series is off to a great start. I'm eager to read the rest. A very fun read!

Friday, October 2, 2009

One Fifth Avenue by Candice Bushnell

A peak into NYC society life, written by the author of the Sex and the City novel that started it all! Different than Sex in the City because there are a variety of people here from different generations and financial backgrounds. Bushnell gives us lots of colorful characters! And her writing style makes you feel like a voyeur reading it...getting a sneak peak into everyone’s social life. Ever wonder about the rich and famous? Or the not-so rich and famous? Well, if so, this is the book for you. A fun read!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


"FEAR THE WORST" by Linwood Barclay.

Those Brits always have the best names! Anyhoo, Barclay, the #1 bestselling crime novelist in Britain, brings us his third novel.

Timothy Blake, a salesman at a Honda dealership in Connecticut, is an ordinary man. He's middle-aged, has an ex-wife who is living with a car dealer rival, and has a 17-year old daughter, Syd, who might toss him a "Good Morning" on a GOOD day.

Syd is staying with Blake for the summer and has taken a job at Just Inn Time, a local hotel. Syd fails to return home from work one evening and Blake drives to the hotel to find that no one there has ever heard of her. The nightmare begins.....

This compelling and fast paced thriller follows Blake through the fright, fantasies and rage of a parent whose child faces uncertain danger. The plot is plausible and deals with the timely social issue of human trafficking. Several subplot twists in the book that are never resolved in the end may leave the reader a bit disappointed.

All in all, a good and suspenseful read.

Monday, September 21, 2009


RELENTLESS by Dean Koontz

Bestselling novelist Cullen "Cubby" Greenwich's new book has just been reviewed by reclusive and much feared critic, Shearman Waxx. Waxx has utilized the "poison pen" on other authors who have mysteriously vanished following his negative reviews.
Cubby needs to find out more about this guy.
Oh, no, Cubby, do you REALLY need to?
With his wife Penny, a children's book illustrator, his precocious and brilliant son Milo, and dog (or is he) Lassie, Cubby embarks on a wild and horror-filled search for the relentless, sociopathic critic.
Koontz, as usual, is brilliant in shocking his readers. Verbal repartee between Cubby and Penny is delightful to read. Unfortunately, the "comic book" ending is disappointing after over 300 pages of great and evocative suspense.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Saturday, September 19, 2009


From the author of "The Tattoo Artist" this is a poignant novel of resignation, hope and resiliency.

I was captured immediately by the sparse prose in this short but unforgettable novel about two days in the lives of an elderly married couple and their dog living in the East Village of New York.

Ruth, a retired school teacher and Alex, an artist, prepare to put their fifth-floor walk-up on the market. The time has come to find a new home in a building with an elevator for them and their beloved aged dachshund, Dorothy. Due to the post-911 housing market, and an aggressive realtor, Ruth and Alex are asking a million dollars for the apartment they had purchased for five thousand dollars forty years prior.

As they get ready for an open-house, a gas tanker driven by one Abdul Pamir overturns and becomes lodged in the Midtown tunnel. Pamir runs and remains missing. Residents panic in fear that another 9/11 is occurring, and the media has a field day with non-stop television reporting on the "Danger in the Tunnel" implying imminent terrorist attacks.

In the meantime, poor Dorothy has done something to render her back legs paralyzed. In a funny, yet endearing, description, the couple place Dorothy on a bread cutting board and holding either end of the board walk gingerly down five flights of stairs and five blocks to the vet hospital.

With each chapter, the story's perspective changes from Ruth's to Alex's to Dorothy's vantage point. With hearts overturning as they await the outcome of Dorothy's needed surgery, Ruth and Alex also have to deal with the numerous quirky potential buyers who have engaged in a bidding war for their apartment while market prices fluctuate hourly as the "terrorist" remains on the loose.

The book has an abrupt ending that might be unsatisfying for some, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Posted by bp at 1:06 PM

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Restless" by William Boyd

The narrative begins the summer of 1976 when Ruth Gilmartin, a single mother living in Oxford England, discovers that her mother, Sally, is really a Russian émigrée called Eva Delectorskaya. Sally, after decades of concealing her past, but now fearing her life is in danger, reveals her recruitment and involvement in espionage work during WWII.

Ruth learns that Sally had been enlisted to work as an undercover agent for the British Intelligence Services, where she was trained in various covert operations as a spy, and where the number one rule was “to trust no one”. Working in France, England and Scotland she eventually is transferred to New York, and was assigned as an undercover news reporter for the TransOceanic News Agency where she works to plant pro-British propaganda in newspapers to spur the United States government into joining the war effort. When a field operation goes wrong, Sally is forced to cover her tracks and goes into hiding. She has maintained a low profile for thirty years, but now believes she is being watched and that someone from the past has come back to silence her.

Skeptical at first, Ruth is gradually drawn into her mother’s story and sets out to hunt down Sally’s former mentor, Lucas Fromer, hoping to alleviate her mother's fears.

While Ruth’s life as a teacher of English takes a back seat to her mother’s spy tale, the author presents a vivid account of Sally’s life of ciphers and double agents, detailing the mounting tension of each mission.

Overall, “Restless” is an absorbing spy thriller set against a largely unknown episode in U.S.-British relations.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Queen of Creepy? Not So Much.

Portobello by Ruth Rendell

Ruth Rendell has the reputation, deserved I might add, for being the creepiest of crime writers. Apart from her Inspector Wexford police procedural series, she specializes in psychological suspense. She does the same under a pseudonym, Barbara Vine, but the Vines tend to be less crime and suspense oriented. As Ruth Rendell she has written some very scary stories.

However, if you prefer your thrills on the mild side, I recommend Rendell's latest, Portobello. This atypical thriller gets off to a slow start, but persistence pays. Once I got into it, I couldn't put it down. The title refers to the Portobello Road in London, the colorful shopping bazaar around which the action is centered.

Four disparate main characters come together over the loss and retrieval of an envelope in the street containing over 100 pounds. Eugene Wren, a slightly effete middle-aged art dealer, finds the money, and posts an ad to alert the owner. The ad attracts Lance, a pathetic young slacker, who hopes to con Eugene out of the money while at the same time casing his house for robbery. The real owner of the cash turns out to be Joel Roseman, a disturbed loner who becomes the patient of Eugene's girlfriend, Ella, a GP. The interactions of these four with each other and with additional eccentrics in the cast of characters makes a compelling read.

While limiting the violence (there is some), Rendell manages to create a sense of impending explosion. The ending ties up all the loose ends in a satisfying way. All in all, a good read.

Another Kellerman

The Genius by Jesse Kellerman

The 31 year old son of best selling author duo Jonathan and Faye Kellerman recently published his third novel. The Genius (2008) centers around the serial killer of young boys, but it is as much a family saga as a crime novel.

Ethan Muller, a young art dealer, discovers a massive collection of drawings by an eccentric loner who has disappeared, leaving his artwork behind. Based on the content of the drawings, it appears that the artist may have also been a serial killer. Ethan decides to investigate the unsolved crimes and finally uncovers a deeply buried family secret. Set in New York City, the story is narrated alternately by Ethan in the present and from the past using the viewpoint of various family members over four decades. The family history details the rise from poverty to great wealth and power.

Jesse Kellerman may be a better writer than either of his parents. This novel is very well done. It has poignant and poetic passages, but also a light touch. And he keeps the suspense going.

PS: Do you remember Henry Darger, an outsider artist whose Lincoln Park apartment was discovered to be filled with fantastical drawings after he died? The artist character in this story is clearly based on Darger, who, as far as I know, was not a serial killer.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Saving Paulo by David J. Walker

I LOVED this book. I couldn't put it down...literally. Walker's writing is strong and intense. His story was filled with suspense but not over dramatic. Revolving around a highly flawed main character and set in Chicago, among other locales, this book is a stand-alone thriller, but it has spurred me on to read all of the other book Walker has written, series or not. The relationship between the boy and the main character is highly believable. It never gets too sappy or mushy. And the ending is strong. I was hoping against hope that Walker wouldn't ruin the ending as many authors do by taking the "Hollywood" way out. But, the ending is as strong as the first pages. I've met Mr. Walker on a few occasions and he is, on the surface, a mild, unassuming man. But, he sure writes a WILD, FAST-PACED thriller. A GREAT thriller!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Dark Story of the Midwest

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
I won't forget this book for a long time. Libby Day escaped a massacre when she was seven years old. On the early morning of January 3, 1985 her entire family was brutally murdered as they slept at the family's failing Kansas farm. Her brother Ben, a teenage misfit at the time, was convicted of the crime and has been in prison for 24 years. Members of the Kill Cub, fans of infamous crimes, offer Libby money to recant the testimony that put Ben in jail because they believe him innocent of the crime. As Libby investigates the crime she meets her family's past and the unsavory characters who have survived it. The story alternates between the viewpoints of Libby and Ben in the present day and Ben and his murdered mother, Patty Day, on the day of the murder.

This story is masterfully told. The characters, especially Libby and Ben, jump to life. In addition to being a breathlessly suspenseful mystery, this novel is a fairly nuanced exploration of guilt, innocence, survival, and loss.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

When Sam Spade appears on the first pages of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, he’s depicted as not a very nice character. Hammett makes a reference to Satan, which carries through the book. Strange, that one of the most iconic and celebrated characters in private eye literature (or even throughout all of crime literature) starts as someone compared to the most evil force imaginable. After we get past that little jarring start, the book rips ahead as a fast-paced, strong example of what crime writing should be. It is a well-written, entertaining book that holds the audience’s attention from start to finish (with only a little lag in the middle…not really a lag, but more of a slowdown from the fanatic pace). Hammett’s Spade is a brutal, harsh man who does not mince words. When he encounters Miss Wonderly (who turns out to be Brigid O'Shaughnessy) at the beginning of the novel, even though he is trying to be on his best behavior, there is a brashness about the way he treats her. Maybe he knows she is up to know good…which, of course, she is. She turns out to be the femme fatale of the story and a woman who rattles Spade more than he would care to admit. In addition to O'Shaughnessy, Spade gets caught up with a series of lowlifes and other progressively shady characters as he investigates his partner’s murder. Would this book get published today…? Well, maybe by a small, artsy press that specializes in producing quality literary books more than in making money. Why? Well, The Maltese Falcon is not super violent. There is very little harsh language. There is even less sex. It is like a high-class version of what we consider crime fiction today. Does that make it bad? Of course not…on the contrary…it should make you want to read it all the more.

Monday, August 10, 2009

End of Summer Reads

There are only a few precious weeks of hammock/lemonade/beach reading left. Happily, a few recently published novels have emerged as Summer-worthy reads.

In Twenties Girl (2009) Sophie Kinsella again writes to formula, but what a winning formula. Kinsella's strong and true imagination makes even the most outlandish plot work. In this story, twenty-something Lara, a struggling businesswoman, encounters the ghost of her Great Aunt Sophie who haunts London, and particularly her niece, in search of a missing necklace. Lara and Sophie become a team, working together to find more than the necklace. Together they reconcile Sophie and her long lost love by uncovering a family secret, and resolve Lara's work and love problems. As always, the minor characters and settings are light and bright and sparkling. The contemporary London business scene comes amusingly and creepily alive when Lara and Sophie investigate a millionaire relative's coffee shop empire and learn the truth about Lara's business partner.

The worst thing about Best Friends Forever (2009) by Jennifer Weiner is its title. With a madcap Thelma and Louise-style romp as its centerpiece, the plot of Best Friends Forever is improbable, but fun. Former best friends since the age of nine, Addie and Valerie drift apart throughout high school where Addie remains an overweight outcast and Val gets in with the popular kids. The two have a permanent rift over a bad incident and meet up again on the night of their fifteen year high school reunion. Valerie thinks that she has committed a crime which leads the two to reunite for a cross country flight in an ancient station wagon, an attempted bank robbery, and a police chase. The emotional center of the novel is the character of Addie and the moving portrayal of her life long loneliness and deprivation. There is a hard core to this light and humorous story, but that doesn't make it any less fun. As a bonus, the story is set in Pleasant Ridge, Illinois, a fictitous suburb of Chicago.

The Debutant Divorcee by Plum Sykes, a former Vogue editor, was published in 2006, and it is complete, utter, and total fluff. Set among super-rich and connected young New Yorkers it involves newly-wed Sylvie landing in a pool of divorcees frantically celebrating their freedom. They vacation in places I've never heard of and buy $20,000 bracelets on a whim. The novel satirizes the rich mommy set, predatory Euro-trash, sexy seniors after young women, and young women after even younger men. The Debutante Divorcee is like Sex and the City on steroids.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What Happens in London

Julia Quinn's books always seem to have a quirky element that makes them different. And I mean that in a good way. I'm trying to decide exactly what that is. It probably is a few different factors. She writes well, she has witty dialog between her lead characters, she lets her lovers get to know each other, and she sneaks in secondary characters that leave you wanting their story next. It sounds so easy. She makes it read so easy. But it is not. That my friends, is why her books work.

What Happens in London is her latest, and it features Olivia and Harry. Olivia is very lovely lady, but really has not found that special someone to wed. Harry meets her by chance and at first glance they do not really like each other. It probably doesn't help that he thinks she is a beautiful twit and she's heard gossip that he's killed his fiancee. And it does not help that Olivia has taken to spying on him - since he's next door - and has discovered he does have some secrets. Having your neighbor notice that you're spying does make it a bit awkward the next time you meet them at a ball.

Harry does Russian translation for the British government and ends up being assigned to watch Olivia since her latest suitor seems to be a Russian prince that the government wants to watch. Hence, he ends up meeting with Olivia more than he ever intended. Their dialog of getting to know each other and to like each other - really sets this book apart.

Filled with a mix of various quiet scenes and some hilarity - the scene of Harry's cousin enacting a Gothic novel for the Prince and the household is pretty funny - the future lovers grow to appreciate each other. And isn't that what a romance is supposed to be about? A very good read.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Crewel World: Cozies Ain't For Sissies

There are those that say certain kinds of mystery books are cozy. I think they categorize cozies, by having amateur sleuths, lovely little towns, and having folks getting murdered "off stage". So what happens when you have a series that has a little Minnesota town, the main character owns a needlework/craft shop, solves mysteries on the side, but the killings are not necessarily pretty. How's getting tossed off a balcony (Crewel Yule), cut by the throat (Cutwork), and having a knitting needle pushed into your brain (Sins and Needles)? Cozy? I think not.

Monica Ferris has created a great character in Betsy Devonshire. And she has given her a interesting group of friends and neighbors. Betsy has a talent for figuring out the little things that solve cases. And she is not so sure she likes this talent. It does bother her that some of these killers are people in the community. Folks that she knows. (Now, that is why I always find these "malice domestic" books creepier - these are not strangers doing the killing!)

She's embarked on this path by accident. She really was just intending to stay with her sister and help her in the store, while she was getting over her divorce. And then her sister was murdered. And she inherited the store and estate. So she stuck around for awhile. And got more involved with her employees and her customers.

Ferris does a nice job fleshing out the secondary characters throughout the series; it is a rare "cozy" that has a regular character that is gay. But Godwin grows and develops through the series. He becomes more than the guy who can match the right thread colors. Various members of the store's regulars - the Monday Bunch - get their own spotlight in the books in the series.

And then there is the needlework. Cozy? Maybe. It has been considered an art form for years. This series is a great way to see how Ferris mixes it in with the mystery. One book has Betsy trying to identify a certain bobbin lace pattern, the next has her researching symbols on a church tapestry. And the store is used as a place where folks in the community can gather. Actually, I wish we had a store like Crewel World locally. These books make me want to take up my cross-stitching again! So do yourself a favor - start with the first three books in order, and then you can mix them around a bit. And discover the world of Excelsior, Minnesota. A fun series.

Monica Ferris' mystery series featuring Betsy Devonshire:

Thai Die (2008)
Knitting Bones (2007)
Sins and Needles (2006)
Embroidered Truths (2005)
Crewel Yule (2004)
Cutwork (2004)
Hanging by a Thread (2003)
A Murderous Yarn (2002)
Unraveled Sleeve (2001)
A Stitch in Time (2000)
Framed in Lace (1999)
Crewel World (1999)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett captures the reader with its profiles of black household help and the white women who relinquished the care of homes and children to them in the early 1960’s in Jackson Mississippi. The novel relates story after story of both careless cruelty and careful concern in a time that is not too long gone.

Three strong women are the backbones of the novel. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is home from college without a marriage proposal and hopes to be a writer. Coping with the loss of her own son, Aibileen is a black maid who is raising her seventeenth white child. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend who has no trouble saying what she feels and therefore is searching for a new job. Skeeter decides to write a series of interviews of black maids and entangles Aibileen and Minny in her work. The author draws the reader in with careful characterization. These three women have flaws but this only increases their believability and humanity.

The author writes from her experience since she was cherished by a black housekeeper, Demetrie, after her mother deserted the family. Born and raised in Jackson, Stockett loves her home state with true grit. She has lived this life and authenticity shines throughout its pages.

There is so much to this book to reflect upon. Book discussion groups will dissect it with piercing analysis. First of course is the civil rights movement that provides the core of the novel. It’s all here - separate toilets, lunch room sit-ins, King’s march on Washington and the murder of Medgar Evans. What mothers want from their daughters and what daughters really need is prominent. Skeeter is tall and has frizzy hair and her mother frets and worries that she will never have a ring on her finger. Body image, the need for the approval of men and the southern belle mentality of women all are present. The men adore their woman and are courteous and respectful but are easily manipulated. Lots of good old boy hunting trips keep the men sane.

Differences in the friendship of silver spoon white woman and the church going black women also become apparent. The white women have so much time to plot against one another with full radiant smiles. Cooking and cleaning is too much for them and the reader becomes exhausted just reading about the daily chores of the household help. The setting is southern and vivid descriptions of pies, cakes and fried chicken are present in mouth watering glory. The black maids seem to be there for one another and the warmth of their relationships lessens the tense tone. Amid the seriousness of the novel hopeful optimism prevails. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are strong and smart women but they are also capable of providing light moments and laughter.

I confidently recommend this inviting historical fiction novel for its thoughtful portrayal of the triumph of heart over hate.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

A wonderful new thriller by a debut author who has a background in both literature and Germany history. Well-written and filled with real characters of the time, Cantrell’s book is set in 1930s Berlin at the beginning of the rise of Hitler’s power. Her main character, Hannah Vogel, is a reporter who writes for a Berlin newspaper under a male alias. At the beginning of the story, Hannah finds out her brother has been murdered, but no one else seems to know this…everyone else (expect for the murderer, of course) just assumes he’s missing. Her brother is a nightclub performer in one of Berlin’s more famous gay clubs…this is 1930s Berlin after-all…rich with a very flamboyant side. Hannah takes it upon herself to do the digging into his “disappearance” and soon finds herself in danger…especially since her brother had personal ties to the Nazi Party. An excellent thriller that remains strong to the very end. Hopefully, Cantrell will keep writing…maybe even making Hannah Vogel a continuing character.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Murder in the Marais

Cara Black starts off her series with lead character Aimee Leduc in the book Murder in the Marais. What starts out as a simple and overpaid job of hunting down a encripted website, ends up becoming a case of murder. Aimee finds the body and sets in motion an investigation that goes all the way up to the top level of French politics.

The Marais is the traditionally Jewish section of Paris. And this is where the French Jews were rounded up during the occupation. Memories are long for injustices, and Aimee finds she is sifting through the history of the occupation in order to find out who would want an elderly Jewish woman murdered and who wants her to stop investigating.

This is a fast paced story but Black gives the reader enough time to get to know Aimee and her unusal background. Black hints at the fact that Aimee has secrets of her own that will be revealed in later books. Aimee is a tough character who has been trained by her recently deceased father in the art of detection. And it does not take the reader long to admire her tenacity and skill at going undercover to figure out the case. I'm looking forward to reading the next one in the series. A good mystery and a very good read.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg

Berg’s latest is a great, strong piece on not only loss, but on coming to terms with oneself. We meet the main character, Helen, months after she has lost her husband of many years from a sudden heart attack. Her daughter Tessa is on her own and Helen has to find a way to come to terms with being alone. I found the way Berg constructed Helen to be very believable of what a recent widow might go through. I didn’t think Helen’s reactions were too over the top or corny. This is a good summer beach read…it’s short, well-written and uncomplicated.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes

One of the more delightful surprises in fiction in recent years, this Keyes book was a beach read that turned out to be a little more than that. I’ve read quite a few of Keyes books before but this one is probably my favorite of hers…it’s fresh and engaging and simply delightful. Told from the POV of three London ladies: 1. Gemma, who has a neurotic mother and is still mourning the loss of her stolen-out-from-under-her-by-her-best-friend boyfriend…2. Lily, who is the best friend who stole Gemma’s boyfriend…and 3. Jojo, a literary agent who ends up representing both Gemma and Lily. I loved the way Keyes weaved all three stories together…yet giving each of the 3 enough space for us to get to know them all. Even though each change of character is marked with the ladies’ name before the chapter, towards the end, we knew each of the three enough to know whose part we were reading. A great way to tell a fun, entertaining story!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

A chance encounter with a book by Charles Lamb, leads to a inquiring letter written to an author, who just happens to be looking for her next project, and her curiosity leads her to the island of Guernsey in the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have written a book that is full of characters that we want to get to know - right away- and the format that the authors use - personal letters between characters - gives us the opportunity to be eager (and inquisitive) for the next missive.
Their letters give us the chance to examine the relationship between the characters, as it grows from being formal strangers, and moves to becoming beloved friends. They contain a lot of the minutia of life, and give the reader a bit of the background of the main writer - Juliet and what her life has been like during the war. All of the characters are experiencing the recovery of Great Britain from the war, but those on Guernsey have a special reason to be grateful after the sorrowful years of occupation.
The Literary society came about because of a special pig dinner. Special because it was being hidden from the Nazis. And as the islanders bonded over dinner and being in trouble, the society grew to be more than just a group of people talking about books. And one person, Elizabeth, seems to be the catalyst that brings them all together. When Juliet learns about their stories, she wants more than ever to bring their tale to light in a book because she is falling in love with the island too.
Filled with war stories, book references, British slang, and good humor, the authors have a definitely created a great story to tell. If you don't like the style of the book - personal letters - you might have trouble with it. But I think it is splendid! A very good read.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Border Songs by Jim Lynch

I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book which is being released in June. And, wow! I loved this book! Jim Lynch's descriptions of landscape and nature are pure poetry! If you have read Cormac McCarthy's books, the scenes describing the nature of the landscape and the wildlife reminded me of his books.

Set at the border of Washington State and Canada, this book is poetry blended with quirky characters right out of the movie "Fargo." The main character is a bird-watching, bird-calling, dyslexic giant of a man named Brandon who is pushed into the Border Patrol by his cow-farmer father who needs Brandon to make money. And, oh, yeah! Brandon paints birds and portraits of the people he captures crossing the border! Intrigued? Hopefully, because this book is a jewel of a read! Brandon is a natural-born farmer forced into a career he excels at but is not passionate about.

Other characters in this book include Brandon's father who has across-the-border arguments with his Canadian pot-smoking retired professor who lives behind the farm (and, oh, yeah, the professor spends his time recreating inventions such as Edison's light bulb); Sophie, the masseuse who "heals" people from both sides of the border and is chronicling everyones' lives; Madeline, the pot-smoking professor's daughter; and the list goes on and on.

What is so amazing about this book is how it seamlessly blends the quirky, hilarious moments with the touching, thoughtful, and sorrowful moments. If this intrigues you - definitely get on the waiting list for this book! It is a wonderful read!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

When the dead body of a stranger lies in the garden of an disheveled ancient family home, what's an eleven year old girl with a passion for chemistry (and a unnatural knowledge of poisons) supposed to do? Solve the mystery of course. Welcome to Flavia's world.

Flavia de Luce is 11 going on 40. She's the neglected youngest daughter of an absent minded stamp collector in Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. With her trusty bicycle Gladys, Flavia is determined to solve this crime. When her father is charged with the murder, it becomes even more important. She doesn't realize that the investigation will lead her to finding out more about her father's past.

Bradley does an excellent job showing us an eccentric dysfunctional family and manages to make it seem "normal" to Flavia. And when her older sisters lock her up in a closet or tell her she was really brought home as a baby from a store, she does what any normal youngest child does. She takes revenge. She just does it a little differently, with poison ivy in a lipstick.

I'm excited that this is to be a series. There are too many de Luce family secrets that have been hinted at and need to be uncovered. As a reader, I am looking forward to seeing Flavia and her sisters growing up in this odd environment. Perfect for traditional mystery fans.

Friday, May 22, 2009


The Family Man by Elinor Lipman (2009)

Here is a great beach read: a light, and bright, and sparkling comedy of manners with little profanity and no graphic sex. Here is the story: A buttoned-up, divorced gay man meets up with his former step-daughter Thalia, an aspiring actress, and falls in love, in a familial way. To further the plot, he meets the true love of his life (Todd) and reconnects with his wacky ex, Thalia's mother Denise. The story is mainly about Thalia's adventures as the faux fiance of a D-list actor who is trying to improve his image. Denise's ongoing feud with her daughter and step-sons and Todd's belated coming out to his mother round out the action.

Lipman writes chick lit in the same way as Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lipman is gently satirical and sometimes subtly cruel in her examination of contemporary customs and mores. Her novels usually have serious intent hidden under frothy skirts. The underlying theme of this novel is prostitution. This theme is multiply manifest running from Denise's penchant for marital infidelity with rich men, through Thalia's slutty hook-ups and her willingness to sell herself for a mention on Page Six, to the way Todd uses his personality to sell housewares at retail. Every one is for sale in one way or another. And like Austen's as well, this story has the kind of ending where everything finds its proper place and order reigns.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Searching for Rumpelstiltskin

As a child library patron, and a good reader, I found my sweet spot when I saw the colorful Andrew Lang fairy book series on the shelves. Lang, who died in 1912, was a serious author and literary scholar. He collected hundreds of folk and fairy tales from around the world and published them in a series of 10 or so well-written and well-edited books named after colors: The Green Fairy Book, The Violet Fairy Book, etc.

Since discovering Lang, and later Anderson and the Grimm Brothers, I have loved fairy tales and to this day, as an aged woman, I love them still. I especially relish re-told fairy tales where the imagination of a present day fantasy writer intersects with the magic of a well-worn tale to produce a story that resonates with the past and speaks to us in the present.

Rumpelstiltskin is a story that always stuck with me. It's creepy, scary, and features the heroine's breath-stealing last minute escape from doom. Also, as an avid knitter I have lately been fascinated by the spinning, yarny aspects of the story as well.

In The Crimson Thread, published in 2008, Suzanne Weyn delivers a non-magical version of the story, but retains a flavor of magic in the character of Ray Stalls (Rumpelstiltskin) and his prodigious tailoring ability. Set in New York city at the end of the 19th century, the story centers on Bertie Miller, a young Irish immigrant to the United States and a talented dressmaker. She finds her way into the rag trade on her own ability, but requires the secret help of Ray Stalls to keep her position as chief designer and dressmaker for a fashion house that sets the trends of the day. Married to the boss's son, Bertie also needs Ray's protection when her marriage turns sour. While the story is naturalistic, I can't figure out how Ray turned one yard of crimson thread into eye-dazzling embellishments that made ladies of fashion mad for the dresses he sewed. A bit of magic after all.

In A Curse as Dark as Gold, also published in 2008 by Elizabeth C. Bunce, dark magic pervades the textile mill currently run by nineteen year old Charlotte Miller who inherits the factory from her late father. Brave, hard-driving Charlotte will forfeit her beloved baby son to a spinning ghoul unless she can lift the curse that has doomed her family's mill for many years. This is a strongly suspenseful and well-researched story that provides a glimpse into the workings of a late 18th century textile mill. Bunce, a first time novelist, won the 2009 William C. Morris YA Debut award for this book.

In Spinners, 2001, Donna Jo Napoli and Richard Tchen create a stark retelling of Rumpelstiltskin in the tragic story of a spindler who cripples himself spinning straw into gold for the woman he loves. Following the outline of the original story, the girl marries a rich man, but the child she bears is the spindler's daughter. The subsequent life of the crippled spindler is so loveless and lonely that he later tries to find a child that will belong to him and fill the void in his life. This story is non-magical and grimmer than Grimm, but it is also a moving tale of loneliness and valor

The strangest, most magical, and best of these stories is The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, published in 2006. Like Spinners, it is told from the viewpoint of Rumpelstiltskin, creating sympathy for the man who is blighted in all ways. In The Witch's Boy a goblin-foundling called Lump is raised by a loving witch. Raised in Faeryland, when he later encounters the cruelty of the human world his heart turns to stone and he seeks a child to make him human. Along the way, Lump meets characters from many familiar legends and tales. My favorite character is Falance, the witch's familiar who is sometimes a graceful magician and wily card shark and sometimes a cat.

All of the books discussed above can be found in the Young Adult section of the library except for The Witch's Boy which is in Youth Services. All are eminently suited for adults.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Perfect Poison

The Arcane Society continues in Amanda Quick's The Perfect Poison. Quick (who is Jayne Ann Krentz) has written her sixth book in the series - the third historical one. And much to this reader's joy - she keeps the excitement in the series. (Can I tell you how many times books within a long series, have clunkers through out because the author can not keep up the quality?) Finally Quick brings us Colin's story. Colin Jones' talent is a difficult one - he has a talent for strategy and making connections. He sees the patterns in his head and connects the dots so that the Society and his new project, Jones and Company can figure out what is going on in the battle for the founder's formula. He doesn't have Miss Lucinda Bromley in his pattern however.

Lucinda has a talent for botany - more specifically figuring out what botanic ingredients have been combined to create potions for good or for evil. She's been helping a member of Scotland Yard, with various cases that involve poisons and she discovers that one of the ingredients she has figured out was stolen from her greenhouse. She decides to enlist Jones and Company to find out who the thief is and where is her plant. She also has a bit of a reputation - she is rumored to have poisoned her fiance, and wants things handled as quickly as possible. When they meet - they end up surprising each other - with their talents and intelligence. And when Colin figures out her thief is connected to his quest - the hunt is on.

Quick once again gives us great characters, with pithy dialogue and a roller coaster ride of a plot. And she brings us an excellent subplot of an Arcane Society matchmaker in action. (It would be fun to have her again in another book!) Along the way she manages to deftly fill in more details about the Jones family, the Arcane Society, their history, and their members' talents. I can hardly wait for the next installment! A very good read!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Murder on the Eiffel Tower

Murder On the Eiffel Tower by Claude Izner is a wonderful book that combines history and mystery to produce a fun work of fiction. We are immersed from the beginning in the 1889 World Exposition in Paris. The entire city is focused on the new Eiffel Tower and the exposition. The joy and the excitement of going up to the viewing platforms has visitors in a frenzy. And when someone is murdered on the platform, the case makes front page news. But who would murder a maiden aunt taking her niece and nephews on an outing? Victor Legris, a young bookseller, is on the platform with newspaper friends when this happens and wants to find the culprit. And when more people start dying after visiting the viewing platforms and the exposition, he is determined to solve the case - even as his friends are turning into suspects.

The author (really a pen name for two lady booksellers in modern France) brings to life the Paris of the time, and Victor's occupations as bookseller and book critic. Victor is a compelling character who is trying to be modern but finds he is more conservative than he thinks he is. With a cast of interesting secondary characters, the story allows us a brief glimpse into their world. And we had a wonderful time. A very fun read.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Gallows View by Peter Robinson

A sharp, methodical mystery from Canadian writer Peter Robinson. This is his first mystery featuring English cop Alan Banks…who has subsequently become a continuing character of Robinson’s. Set in Yorkshire, Banks recently made the move from London to the North of England…and is still getting used to small-town ways. Robinson does a great job of setting Banks up as a character we want to get to know better. We feel comfortable with this man and like him…because he’s human. He has flaws, bad habits and is not always Super Cop. This book deals with two crimes…one involving a peeping tom and one involving a murder. Robinson does a great job of letting Banks unfold both cases. A superb mystery with a fascinating new police character!

On the Ropes by Tom Schreck

This is a great, funny mystery, ala Hiaasen. Schreck has a strong writing style, a knack for developing fresh, fun characters and a witty, droll sense of humor that compliments the darkness of the subject matter (in this case child porn and a child sex ring). His main character, Duffy Dombrowski, is a rude, crude, messy social worker/amateur sleuth who is someone you want to keep reading about. I hope this series continues and continues....