Blogging for a Good Book
Summer is a great time for a good mystery book. I always look for something with a bit of action, an interesting setting, and characters with whom you enjoy spending time. This is the sort of book I like to while away a lazy summer evening or weekend. Barbara Hambly’s A Free Man of Color, the first in her Benjamin January series, certainly fits the bill here.
Hambly’s protagonist, Benjamin January, the free man of color of the title, lives in New Orleans, where he teaches music and performs with an ensemble of mixed races. January is also a doctor by training, having studied as a surgeon in Paris, where he lived prior to returning to New Orleans after the death of his wife. January is a fascinating character, thoughtful and ethical, but with an understandable anger beneath the surface. Much of the tension in the stories comes as January walks the precarious racial lines of the city in the years before the Civil War.
Hambly ably portrays life in 1830s New Orleans, showing interactions among all levels of society, especially pointing out the distinctions between white, black, and colored, and she clearly depicts how New Orleans society is changing with the arrival of increasing numbers of Americans. In this first book in a superb series, January is drawn into solving the mystery of the murder of the colored mistress of a recently deceased plantation owner.
With its mix of history, mystery, and social commentary, Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series is a great summer read.
Check the catalog for A Free Man of Color
Also available in ebook format
In one of the first posts here at BFGB, I wrote about Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding mystery series, set in 18th century London, and featuring the blind magistrate of the Bow Street Court, brother to novelist Henry Fielding. Alexander’s untimely death brought the series to an end in 2003, and so I was interested to recently come across a new series featuring Sir John in the library’s ebook collection.
Unlike the Alexander books, where Sir John Fielding is the primary character, Lake’s series focuses on John Rawlings, a young apothecary in London. In the first book in the series, Death in the Dark Walk, Rawlings initially comes under suspicion of murder when he comes across a body in the popular, and unruly, pleasure gardens at Vaux Hall. He is quickly cleared of wrongdoing though, and then assists Sir John Fielding in seeking out the actual murderer. Further titles in the series find Sir John calling on Rawlings’ assistance in a variety of cases across England.
Though lighter in tone than Bruce Alexander’s mysteries, Lake’s series is a pleasure to read, especially if you have an interest in 18th century England. The stories move easily from the upper ranks of society to the dark and seedy corners of London, and Lake has a good command of the language, social customs, and pastimes of the period. Lake introduces a number of fascinating secondary characters throughout the stories, both fictional and historical, including some romantic companions who complicate John Rawlings’ life, and make for fun reading. The characters are also developed in sometimes surprising ways over the course of the stories, which adds to the appeal of the series.
We have a number of the titles in the series in both our print and ebook collections, and you can get started here:
Check the WRL ebook collection for Deryn Lake’s John Rawlings series
Check the WRL catalog for the John Rawlings series
All readers know that there are times when it is hard to figure out what to read next. Authors and titles that appealed in the past have for some reason lost their sheen, and no longer seem of interest. These dry spells can be hard to break, and so we look for recommendations from friends, and we here at BFGB hope, from librarians. But there are also tools available to help readers find new authors and titles, based on what you have enjoyed in the past.
One set of tools that you can find at WRL is the Read On… series. In the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I am the series editor, and have written one of the titles, Read On Crime Fiction, for the series. The idea of the Read On titles is to introduce readers to a broad sampling of the best titles and authors available in a given genre or subject area and to offer new directions to explore in those areas. The books are each arranged into five chapters, each covering a major area of appeal for readers–Character, Story, Setting, Mood/Tone, and Language. Within each chapter, there are lists of titles arranged around common interests. So if you are a fan of history about medieval lives or fantasy featuring epic quests, you will find a list of titles that you might enjoy. One way to use these books is to search the index for an author that you like and then see what lists that author appears in and look for other authors in that list that will appeal.
Titles in the Read On series cover most major genres as well as several nonfiction subject areas, and WRL has these titles in the circulating collection, so you can check them out to use at your leisure to develop some lists of new authors to try. If you are in a reading rut, take a look at some of the titles below, or stop by the reference desk and ask the librarian to help you find some new books, we are always happy to talk to readers.
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Audiobooks
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Crime Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Fantasy Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Graphic Novels
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Historical Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On History
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Horror
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Life Stories
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Science Fiction
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Speculative Fiction for Teens
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Sports
- Check the WRL catalog for Read On Women’s Fiction
I have written a number of posts about collected letters, see here, here, here, here, and here. So I have an obvious affection for letter-writing, and particularly for reading letters by authors whose books I enjoy reading. I find that their letters often give insights into their fiction, even if at the same time those letters display their all too human natures.
For those reasons, among other, I have been enjoying Distant Neighbors, a collection of letters between a favorite writer of mine, Wendell Berry, and a writer with whom I am much less familiar, poet Gary Snyder. The two writers began corresponding in the 1970s, through shared connections with a San Fransisco publisher, Jack Shoemaker. Berry and Snyder shared many interests, among them poetry and language, and the early letters frequently discuss the pair’s work and the quotidian details of a writer’s life.
As the friendship quickly deepened, and Snyder came to visit the Berrys on their Kentucky farm and Berry made the trip to the Snyder family homestead in the Sierra foothills, the letters begin to expand, exploring themes that will resonate for readers of both Snyder and Berry. Community, and its central role in society, religion in its varied expressions, connections between people and the land, and the resulting sorrow with the loss of that connection are all central to the ongoing discussion that these “distant neighbors” shared.
There is some humor here and some sadness, but mostly what is delightful about this book is to see two people who share many, though by no means all, beliefs discuss their common work and thoughts in a charitable and fruitful fashion. In today’s world, where angry voices and name calling seem to have replaced discourse, this is a good reminder of how things can and should be.
Check the WRL catalog for Distant Neighbors
So (or hwaet if you prefer), you may be asking how many versions of Beowulf does one person really need to read (or review)? My answer would be at least one more. As he has been doing since his father’s death, Christopher Tolkien has brought out another previously unpublished work by his father, J. R. R. Tolkien. This time it is a translation of the great Anglo Saxon poem that J. R. R. Tolkien completed in 1926 but never thought to publish.
Tolkien’s translation is, perhaps, not as easy to read as Seamus Heaney’s more poetic version that I reviewed here. For one thing, Tolkien chose to write a prose translation rather than a metered one. The translation is by no means dry though. A scholar of Anglo Saxon, Tolkien has a feel for and a delight in the rolling rhythms of the story, and even in prose he captures that rhythm. His language and sentence structures will seem familiar in some ways to readers of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. There is a formal and almost archaic feel to some of the writing here that is mirrored in Tolkien’s own work, and he does not entirely abandon the alliterative approach that anchors Anglo Saxon poetry, viz. “great gobbets gorging down” as Grendel rends a Dane into dinner.
A welcome companion to the poem itself are excerpts from a series of lectures on Beowulf that J. R. R. Tolkien gave in the 1930s and that Christopher Tolkien has edited here as a commentary on the poem. In these lectures, the senior Tolkien discusses language, symbolism, and early poetry, helping to set his translation into time and place. Following the commentary are two short pieces that Tolkien wrote under the influence of the poem. “Sellic Spell” is a retelling of the possible mythical tale that would become Beowulf, and “The Lay of Beowulf” is Tolkien’s telling of the story in a rhymed ballad form.
Fans of Tolkien will definitely enjoy his translation of this classic poem, and readers interested in Anglo Saxon poetry will find Tolkien’s commentary of interest. While I prefer the poetic version of Beowulf created by Heaney, Tolkien’s translation is a worthy read and a fine addition to the Beowulf canon.
Check the WRL catalog for Beowulf
An evil and cruel plot involving small children. Alien animals such as the spider-like rat-snake or camel-like drom. Levitating cars. A secret underground rebellion. All these combine to make an intriguing science fiction world. Add in mystery, adventure, romance and action and Tankborn has it all.
Kayla 6982 is a GEN or Genetically Engineered Non-human who was created in a tank. She is the lowest level of the tightly controlled, rigidly stratified society on the planet Loka settled by survivors of a ravaged Earth. She grew up with an unrelated “nurture mother” and has no control over where she lives, her education, job, or life. She can be electrically reset (similar to being lobotomized) for the smallest infraction.
Despite her lowly status Kayla is happy living in the Chadi tenements with Tala, her kind but stern nurture mother and her mischievous nurture brother, Jal. But she knows her time there is short, because at the age of fifteen she will receive her Assignment which will determine her future work. Her best friend, Mishalla, has already been Assigned and they may never see each other again as GENs are not allowed to contact each other after they are Assigned. Kayla’s sket (skill set or genetically modified ability) is great arm strength, so she expects to be Assigned to manual labor.
To her surprise, Kayla is Assigned to assist an elderly high-status man, Zul. Before long, she learns that things are not what they seem. Kayla is strongly attracted to Zul’s great-grandson, handsome Devak, although she knows that romance between them is forbidden. The highborn family hide many secrets and Kayla must rethink her world and unlock the secrets because she, Mishalla, Devak, Zul and dozens of innocent children are in grave danger.
Try Tankborn if you like well-imagined dystopias featuring young protagonists like The Hunger Games or Divergent.
Check the WRL catalog for Tankborn.
Have you ever wondered why, despite putting one in your mouth every day, you don’t taste your spoon? I had never considered cutlery’s marvelous properties that mean it is simultaneously malleable in production, slow to corrode and unreactive in our acidic mouths. In fact, I had never considered the properties of the millions of unregarded everyday objects that we live in, drive on, sit on, eat and use every moment of our lives. That is where scientist Mark Miodownik comes in with this wonderful book about material science. It sounds like a dry topic and I would never have guessed that such a book could be fun, but it entertains enormously as it informs. Remember that “everything is made from something” but even Mark Miodownik couldn’t cover everything, so he has limited himself to ten substances and written a chapter named after an intrinsic quality of each, so “Trusted” for paper and “Fundamental” for concrete.
My favorite chapter has to be the one about chocolate, which is of course “The most deliciously engineered material on earth.” Beware, though: you won’t be able to read about the “wild and complex, sweet and bitter cocktail of flavors” without getting an urge for a Little Something. ( I will admit that I had to partake and “Flood [my] senses with warm, fragrant, bittersweet flavors, and ignite the pleasure centers of [my] brain.”). If chocolate is not your thing you can read Stuff Matters for the explanation of why the sky is blue on page 98 and how this relates to the “Marvelous” substance aerogel, which “is like holding a piece of the sky”.
Stuff Matters is a great book that I recommend for everyone. It is accessible enough for middle school and high school science classes, with lots for the students to learn: “The definition of the temperature of a material is, in fact, the degree to which the atoms in it are jiggling around.” It is very readable for everyone while also being accurate, up-to-date science written by a scientist. Try it if you liked the fascinating nonfiction of The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, by Margalit Fox, or the intersection of science, history and society in The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. You should also read it if you have ever been in a concrete building or wrapped a gift in paper that is strong, colorful and creasable.
Check the WRL catalog for Stuff Matters.
Above the East China Sea is a profound statement about the sorrow of war. It is both an eerie ghost story and a story about the love in families, especially between two sets of sisters, alive seventy years apart and both torn from their closest sibling by war.
Modern day Luz is a military child, stationed on Okinawa and emotionally pummeled to the point of suicide by the recent death of her sister, Codie, in Afghanistan. Her family now consists only of her and her mother, who has left on a TDY (temporary duty). Luz is alone in a new place and has no family or friends around, a very plausible illustration of how isolated military families can be.
Parallel to Luz’s story is the wrenching tale of Okinawan Tamiko, who was a teenager at the time of the World War II battle of Okinawa. In the litany of horrors of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa isn’t well known, but it killed more people than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined and caused unimaginable destruction and deprivation for the Okinawan people and the permanent destruction of their traditional Okinawan way of life.
As the book starts Tamiko seems to be a hostile, even evil, ghost bent on Luz’s destruction for her own ends, but as Luz learns more about her past and forges a connection with local Jake, the reader receives hints about the mysterious connection between Tamiko and Luz. Okinawa is portrayed in its lush tropical beauty with its proud past, uneasy relationship with Japan and current heavy U.S. military presence.
Like Sarah Bird’s other book about U.S. military family life, The Yokota Officers Club, many details of military life ring true. For example: clothes from the BX are lame (a claim my children have made all their lives), “we’re not racists, but we are rankists,” and military kids have the “CGI ability to constantly splinter and then reconstitute on a spot halfway around the world” and even the claim that “military kids enlisted at birth.” Like The Yokota Officers Club, Above the East China Sea emphasizes the importance of siblings for children who move every few years and can’t form lasting friendships — “the question that military kids hate the most…Where are you from? Where is your hometown?” Luz says, “Codie was my hometown.” She was “my sister who always took care of me” and “the only person on earth who really knew me, who would really, truly care if I vanished.”
Try Above the East China Sea if you like compelling historical novels about young women’s lives in a time of war like Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I also recommend it for people interested in the lives of contemporary military families, who may also be interested in a recent Association of Library Services to Children blog post about serving military families in the public library.
Check the WRL catalog for Above the East China Sea.
Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s. In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we're] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.
When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.
The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.
The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.
Check the WRL catalog for The Inheritance of Beauty.
I have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.
The author Madalene Hill was the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).
Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.
Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…
Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.
Looking at the cover of The System, you see a striking image of college football – an enormous stadium filled with cheering crowds awaiting the contest to begin on that emerald green field. As you zoom in on that field, that crowd, that contest, the reality gets dirtier and dirtier, until it seems that field is the Astroturf covering the edge of an open grave. Benedict and Keteyian have climbed into that grave, and The System is the report they’ve sent back.
Football has long been the hallmark of college education in the United States. It is the rare institution of higher learning that doesn’t field a team. At the top of that pyramid, where iconic names like Notre Dame, Alabama, and Oregon reside, football is a big part of the college experience, and a successful program can seemingly make or break a school. And it shows in enrollments, donations, and construction.
Benedict and Keteyian seemingly had complete access to every aspect of the schools they covered. Meetings between coaches and players, athletic directors and boosters, students and inquisitors, victors and victims are recounted in incredible detail. And every detail seemed to come down to money.
The contrasts are staggering: a booster can give $185 million to support an entire program, but a player can be sanctioned for a $3.07 (yes, that’s three dollars and seven cents) accidental overpayment on a summer job. Coaches are routinely the highest paid state employees (even before the product endorsement deals and speaking engagements) when teachers, cops, and librarians are losing their jobs and pensions. T-shirts, jerseys, hats, and memorabilia bring millions in revenues, while student athletes supposedly earn nothing. An athlete accused of criminal activity can get legal advice from top-tier law firms, while their victims must rely on poorly paid prosecutors, and face threats and shaming for jeopardizing the program. And over it all is the mantle of the NCAA, which screams about teams offering cream cheese on bagels but misses the flagrant violations of their arcane regulations.
The authors present each chapter as a story in and of itself, but the overall narrative is connected by the story of Mike Leach, the coach who created the stellar program at Texas Tech, but was fired for his tactics in disciplining a weak player. After an extended absence from football, he was hired by Washington State University, where he once again laid the foundations of a successful program, but also underwent another abuse investigation, in which he was exonerated. From the coach recruitment process to the creation of a team, through the discovery and recruitment of players to the relationship with the school administration, readers see Leach in every aspect of his professional life. We even get a glimpse of the difficulties Leach’s wife Sharon faces as a coach’s wife.
Even for people who don’t care anything about football (and I count myself among their number), The System is a penetrating look at a dominant part of American culture. Whatever you feel about the game, you are sure to come away rethinking your position. There’s a lot that needs to be scrapped, some things that can be fixed, and some profound positives that deserve highlighting. Let’s hope real change can come from the discussion The System ought to start.
Check the WRL catalogue for The System
With a life like Allan Karlsson’s, who wouldn’t want to live to be 100 years old? Befriended by Francisco Franco and Robert Oppenheimer, creator of both the American and Soviet atomic bombs, drinking buddies with Harry S. Truman, consultant to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, and rescuer of Mao Tse-Tung’s wife, smuggled in a Russian submarine, imprisoned in both the Soviet gulag and a North Korean prison, Bali beach bum, translator for an ambassador to France… All this because Allan had that most 20th Century of skills – blowing stuff up.
Now, at the age of 100 (having blown up his home) Allan is in a nursing home. He’s not finished with life, so an hour or so before the local dignitaries are coming to begrudgingly celebrate his centenary, Allan goes AWOL. Not that he has anyplace in particular to go - although that’s never been a problem – but he doesn’t have any desire to stay. He first has to get clear of his small town, so he steals an unguarded suitcase, boards a bus, and takes off into the wilderness.
To his surprise, the suitcase is stuffed with cash belonging to a motorcycle gang. The cash greases his way from one haven to the next, usually one step ahead of the bikers, until he winds up with a string of characters, including an elephant, in his wake. One, Detective Chief Inspector Aronsson, begins the case searching for a missing old man; next it appears that the old man has been murdered by bikers, then that the old man may be a murderer himself. Across the length and breadth of Sweden the ever-increasing cast runs, until they all wind up in the same place.
Interspersed with his modern-day story is Allan’s biography. For no particular reason, at the age of 34 he set off for Spain and was caught up in the Civil War. From there, he was shunted from place to place as wars and rumors of wars made him persona non grata in some places and persona most grata in others. After all, explosions are the best friends a politician ever had.
But that talent isn’t the only thing that characterizes him. In a world filled with competing -isms, Allan is devoutly apolitical and atheist. He is willing to let others talk endlessly about their beliefs, as long as they don’t try to convert him. He’s scrupulously honest about his indifference, but punctures cant when it conflicts with commonsense objectives, like blowing something up. And he can drink. Whoo, boy, can he drink.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a picaresque novel, a road story in which a relative innocent disrupts the world and creates a satirical take for readers. Some people compare it to Forrest Gump, but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. After all, Forrest was a kind of blank slate onto which people wrote their own beliefs. Allan Karlsson is his own man, blowing whichever way events take him but always living true to his code. “Never trust a man who won’t drink with you.” As a philosophy, you could do worse.
Check the WRL catalogue for The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
It was a cause celebre in France and much of the liberal Western world, a scandal that exposed cultural divisions thought to have resolved years before. It discredited a government, tarnished the honor of an entire army, and inflamed relations among already-antagonistic neighbors. It elevated some men and broke others. It brought infamy on an obscure little island off South America, and led to the creation of a new country. And it was, and is, a drama suited for a novelist such as Robert Harris. It was the Dreyfus Affair.
Harris begins his telling of the story with the degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who was convicted of espionage and treason. In it’s immediate aftermath, Georges Picquart is elevated to the decidedly sordid world of French counterespionage. Picquart’s new department had just achieved an astounding success, ferreting out Dreyfus’ plot to sell secrets to the hated Germans, and providing the evidence which convicted him. The antisemitism whipped up by leaders in all areas of French life would cool as Dreyfus was shipped off to serve his life sentence on Devil’s Island, and the Army could return to planning their next attack on Germany.
But Picquart begins uncovering inconsistencies and hidden files, and even more frightening, evidence that there is another spy in the French Army – or that the wrong man was convicted. His efforts to investigate are stymied, until it is plain that something more than a botched trial has happened. When he is disgraced and transferred to a dangerous colonial post, he becomes convinced that corruption at the heart of his beloved institution now threatens the ideals of France, and he embarks on a dangerous course.
Harris uses all of the staples of the spy thriller to unpack this story. The secret codes, forgery, surveillance, plots and counterplots, paranoia, and red herrings could easily have been created out of whole cloth. But Harris does not deviate from historical accuracy; the drama of the story stems from the inner workings of Georges Picquart’s mind and from his growing conviction that justice and balance must be restored by one courageous person. In the background is his knowledge of Alfred Dreyfus’ plight – the lone prisoner on Devil’s Island, with guards forbidden to speak to him, his tiny hut surrounded by a wall, his every letter censored or withheld at whim, the Dreyfus’ family’s unshakeable faith that his innocence will come to light – and the urgency of freeing the wrongly convicted man.
So how did the Dreyfus Affair accomplish all that I claimed in the first paragraph? It was the openly anti-Semitic fervor of the Catholic Church that led to the definitive separation of Church from the French government. The affair caused several parliamentary governments to fall, and the senior officers of the Army were forced to retire. And for one journalist covering the breaking of Alfred Dreyfus, it led to an inescapable conclusion – for Jews to be safe, they had to have their own home. Thus was born Theodor Herzl’s push for a Zionist movement, which led to the creation of Israel. All this because a few men decided that it was easier to persecute a Jew than take a few simple steps to solve a real crime.
Check the WRL catalogue for An Officer and a Spy
So, what would you give for the chance to see a dead loved one again? How about seeing them at the significant times in their lives, times you couldn’t possibly have known about? What about the chance to talk with them in their afterworld? Sixteen-year-old Zoe discovers that the price may be far more than she believed possible.
Zoe’s father died unexpectedly. Not only has she lost her beloved dad, his life insurance company has declared that he never existed (at least in their files). She and her mom are forced to move from their familiar home to a cramped urban apartment while Zoe’s mom searches for work. Zoe has a history of cutting and drug use, so her mom is always on her back.
Her sole consolation is a young man she regularly sees in her dreams. Valentine is like a brother to her, and the tree fort they hang out in is a refuge from the bizarre world beneath their feet. He listens to her, offers good advice, and is genuinely present and concerned for her. But she doesn’t have any idea if he’s real or a manifestation of something else.
While skipping school and mindlessly wandering through San Francisco, she winds up in front of an old record store specializing in punk music on vinyl. But the weird store owner has another room, one only certain people can see. Inside the room are discs that have captured the lives and souls of the dead. Zoe gets a taste of her father’s life, but she’ll have to pay with something more precious and talismanic if she wants more. When she decides she won’t pay and is cut off, she must summon her wits and her courage to find a path to the underworld.
But that underworld is a hellish landscape, a purgatory without hope of either redemption or judgment. Zoe has to negotiate her way through a bizarre parody of a city, evading vengeful spirits whipped up by hatred of the living, and searching for an exit known only to ones who would kill her, or worse.
Kadrey has created a resourceful, determined young woman who is surprised by her own strength, and set her in an eerie world filled with disturbing imagery. The tone reminded me of two other books reviewed here on BFGB – John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things and Robert Olen Butler’s Hell. Unlike the latter though, I would feel comfortable suggesting this to older teens. Most of all, it reminded me of the classic Greek stories of Orpheus and Odysseus’ journeys, and indeed the book has many subtle allusions to Greek myth. This is definitely a dark book with some heavy themes, but a good read.
Check the WRL catalogue for Dead Set
I’ve been looking a long time for someone who approached that special place Travis McGee holds in my heart. John D. MacDonald’s boat bum blasted his way through 21 colorfully-titled stories, taking down bad guys, healing broken women, and judging the modern world through his uniquely moral lens. Timothy Hallinan’s first Junior Bender mystery raises the faint hope that Travis’ successor is alive and well and living in Los Angeles.
Some differences: Trav, off the grid before anyone else had even heard of the term, only went outside the law on one of his salvage missions. Sex, surprisingly delicately described but still steamy, was a big part of his life, though he managed to hold deeper relationships at arm’s length. And his cases were always capped with detailed, though not graphic, violence. Plus, he lived in Florida.
On the other hand, Junior is a career burglar, proud of his spotless record and skill at breaking into any target. Since he lives on the wrong side of the law, he maintains an extensive network of crooks who can supply him or take things off his hands as needed. There are beautiful women around Junior, but he still longs for his former wife and wants to maintain his close relationship with his young daughter. And while Junior is capable of violence, he does his best to minimize it. Like McGee, Junior lives off the grid, but doesn’t have so much as a boat slip, moving through seedy motels and paying cash for everything. And Los Angeles is his beat.
In Trashed, Junior takes a commission to steal a painting. While the job hardly goes smoothly, it gets worse when he escapes. Junior, it seems, has been set up. He’s got two options: let the high-res video of his activities get to the victim, a man known for feeding enemies to his Rottweilers, or take on a quick undercover job for a Mob kingpin. If he fails, it’s a tossup whether the Mob or the Rottweiler guy gets him first. So he takes on the quick job of investigating the crew of an “adult film” to find the saboteur costing the producers tens of thousands of dollars a day.
Tens of thousands a day for a porn movie? This one has a special twist, because it’s going to star an American sweetheart who has fallen on hard times. Child actress Thistle Downing, whose incredible acting skill made her a fortune, lost it all to litigious family, corrupt accountants and lawyers, and a spectacularly bad business decision. Somewhere along the way, Thistle started snorting, popping, injecting, and swallowing every mood-altering substance she could find. Now, at age 22, she’s unemployable, living in a dump and trying to score day to day. Maybe it was one of those days when the producers got her to sign an ironclad contract to do a trilogy of hardcore movies in exchange for a small advance. But someone is taking increasingly desperate measures to stop her. Will it go as far as murder, or will Junior somehow keep her alive? And for what – the ultimate humiliation and the payday that will put her on a slab?
As in any good mystery, Junior must sort through a variety of supporting characters to find out who is on Thistle’s side, how to protect her, and how keep himself alive at the same time. Hallinan navigates him through the web and to a final resolution that puts both Junior and Thistle in front of a camera. Along the way, Junior covers the city of LA from the depths of Hollywood Boulevard to a surprising site atop Mulholland Drive, observing the range of humanity that peoples the city of a million dreams. If he isn’t quite as philosophical as Travis, it’s because the pacing of this story doesn’t give him quite as much leisure to think. He is more thoughtful than Poke Rafferty, Hallinan’s expat American travel writer, but then Hallinan is more thoughtful than most of the mystery writers who can write this kind of fast-paced story.
Check the WRL catalogue for Crashed
Another post-WWI mystery series! This is the first entry featuring Jack Haldean, late of the Royal Flying Corps and a successful writer of mysteries. It’s pretty lighthearted compared to, say, Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge mysteries or even Elizabeth Speller’s Lawrence Bartram series; in fact it’s almost a cozy and certainly of the English “country-house” style, in which there is a relatively small domestic circle of suspects. They all do share the need for the hero to look back to the darker days of WWI in order to solve a crime, however.
In terms of optimistic tone and relatively angst-free protagonist outlook, this is more like Charles Finch’s Charles Lenox series. Jack Haldean has the war injury but also quite a sunny outlook on life—he’s glad the war is over and is basking in the normalcy and relative peace of a 1922 Sussex country village fete on a glorious summer day. His mood is jarred somewhat when he bumps into an inebriated and much disliked former military comrade, who is writing a book about his war service, in particular a specific incident during the Battle of the Somme which destroyed careers and created heroes. He vaguely intimates to Haldean that the event was not what it seemed—and soon after is shot dead in one of the fete tents in something of a “locked-room” conundrum.
Suspects abound as it turns out that the dead man was possibly a blackmailer. Even Jack’s family members with whom he is staying in the country are not completely immune from suspicion. It becomes apparent to Jack, however, that something in the victim’s WWI service is the key, and he uses his military connections to get the bottom of it.
Jack enjoys an amicable relationship with the police; the very competent Superintendent Ashley welcomes his amateur assistance gladly, especially as it pertains to the military angle. It’s a bit refreshing to be spared the friction among bumbling police and smarty-pants amateurs which is frequently encountered in mystery stories.
Gordon-Smith is effective at conveying the atmosphere of rural post-war England and class and social conventions of the period. This book has something of the feel of Golden Age mysteries written by Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham; the reader can almost be convinced that the mystery was written during the 1920s rather than just taking place in them!
I enjoyed this atmospheric and lighthearted “manor house” mystery, and I’m looking forward to savoring the next entries in the series (7 more at this writing).
I have been a fan of Anna Godbersen’s books since she first published. Her descriptions of life in New York were amazing, and she is a graduate of Barnard College, as am I, which made me enjoy her work more than ever. When my husband brought me her latest book, I was looking for more about life in New York City more than a century ago. Boy was I wrong! The Blonde is something else entirely. This is a story set in time I remember well.
We meet a struggling Marilyn Monroe, who was a constant figure in the news and pretty much a part of the lives of movie goers and news features. She was a beautiful woman, an unhappy woman with multiple marriages and a drug problem, and someone who was a lost soul. The book shares that, but it also shares something else. In general, we also knew that Senator and later President John F. Kennedy was something of a philanderer. But this book ties Marilyn Monroe not only to his philandering, but also to the assassination of Kennedy. I had seen television shows that included Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK, but I was probably too young to connect all the dots.
Almost everyone of school age and older remembers where they were when the news of the JFK assassination spread. People were glued to the television, watching the swearing in of President Johnson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. The funeral was on all televisions. What followed were investigations which somehow never seemed to completely explain what really happened.
Anna Godbersen has created her own theory. Not only is it plausible, but it is told beautifully. Sometimes the real story is, in fact, stranger than fiction. If for no other reason, read The Blonde just to enjoy a mesmerizing story that will leave you wondering.
Check the WRL catalog for The Blonde.
An unmarried woman with a teenage daughter lands a job at the local community college and moves back into her childhood home. Her parents are on an extended sabbatical, so the woman, Georgia Thackery, and daughter Madison are alone in the house… except for Sid the skeleton. Sid is an actual skeleton who just happens to be alive. He walks, talks and has a fondness for corny jokes and bone-related expletives such as, “Oh, coccyx.” This is the unusual premise of Leigh Perry’s new cozy mystery novel, the first in a proposed series.
Sid has been Georgia’s friend for about 30 years, ever since he followed her home from a carnival where he’d been a featured attraction in the haunted house ride. Her miraculously tolerant family let Sid stay and kept him a secret from the outside world for all that time. Madison knows nothing about Sid, and he wants to keep it that way for reasons that he won’t explain. Things go along swimmingly for the weird trio until Sid spots a familiar face that he can’t quite identify at a Manga convention. Yes, the skeleton does go outside, either in disguise or disarticulated in a suitcase. The sighting spurs Georgia and Sid to investigate his life as a human and they soon discover that he was murdered and that the killer is still alive and willing to kill again.
OK, the premise is so dopey it shouldn’t work, but it actually does. Sid and Georgia are both likeable, and the mystery is decently plotted with a plausible series of clues leading to the denouement. There are even a few smartly placed red herrings to keep you guessing along the way. No explanation is given for how this living skeleton came to be but, so what, just go with it and enjoy the ride. The humor is gentle with no offensive language, sex, or gore, so it’s a mystery that can be enjoyed by all ages. I particularly liked the pet dog who keeps trying to make a snack out of Sid’s leg bone. The book would be a nice choice for a Halloween film on the Hallmark Channel.
I call novels of this kind “airplane books” because they are good for long flights. They don’t require a lot of concentration, but the stories are diverting enough to distract you from the screaming toddler four rows back. The author, Leigh Perry (a pseudonym for Toni L.P. Kelner, an award-winning mystery author), has written a lightweight but engaging yarn and I look forward to the next book in the series.
Check the WRL catalog for A Skeleton in the Family.
Room 1219: the Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal that Changed Hollywood, by Greg Merritt
On Labor Day in the year 1921, at a bootleg booze-infused party in San Francisco, movie star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle followed a woman named Virginia Rappe into the bedroom of room 1219 at the St. Francis Hotel and locked the door behind them. Four days later Rappe died in agony, Arbuckle was arrested and charged with manslaughter and the motion picture industry was engulfed in a major scandal. In the nonfiction book Room 1219, author Greg Merritt delves into this tawdry tale and tries to determine exactly what took place behind that locked door.
Rappe died of peritonitis caused by a rupture in the bladder, but what caused the rupture? Some of the party-goers blamed Arbuckle, but he repeatedly asserted that he had done nothing wrong. The prosecution was hampered by a lack of hard evidence and the witnesses were shady to say the least, so it took three fractious trials, two of which resulted in hung juries, before a verdict was reached.
The jury had spoken but the press and public had already made their determination. The tabloid nature of the crime led to overwhelming and appallingly sleazy publicity. All involved were irrevocably slandered. The movie industry was threatened with boycotts and censorship laws. To salvage their business, the studios tried to appease the public by hiring a censorship czar named Will Hays whose job it was to ensure the “moral purity” of Hollywood films. To show they meant business, Arbuckle was sacrificed. His films were pulled from theaters and he was forbidden to work on screen ever again. He spent the final years of his short life trying to regain his lost stardom.
This is an interesting bit of Hollywood history, and author Greg Merritt has done a nice job in bringing it to life in a book that is abundantly researched and decidedly fair and unbiased to everyone involved in the case. Beyond the incident itself and its aftermath, he also gives us detailed bios of Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe and many of the other players in the saga, along with some interesting sidelights on the history of the film industry. As to what really happened in room 1219, Merritt speculates and it sounds plausible, but there are only two people who know for sure and they are long gone. I’d recommend this for people interested in the history of cinema or true crime.
Check the WRL catalog for Room 1219.
To be fair, I was not a major fan of Meryl Streep. I know there were many who would disagree with me, but it wasn’t until Out of Africa that I was hooked. And I’ll admit that my original attraction to that movie was Robert Redford. But as I grew up, I really learned to appreciate her talent and flexibility, and I became a fan. I came across Plenty and decided to watch, and I am glad I did. She did an amazing acting job in this film.
The movie starts when she, as a young girl, is part of the Resistance in World War II. After the war, she becomes enmeshed in English politics and the good life, but something is missing. Her attempts to have a child out of wedlock fail. Her relationships with men are not easy. Ultimately she marries well, but is still dissatisfied. In some ways she is a victim of her time. During the war, women assumed new roles, but after the war they were expected to revert to pre-war roles. It was not a happy transition for many. Her attempts slowly lead her into behaviors that are not yet acceptable in society. This leads into a stronger descent to mental illness, or at least what the prim and proper consider mental illness.
This is not a happy movie and does not have a happy ending. However, I think it is a realistic view that portrays how many women felt in the times. The whole cast is amazing; every character does a superb job of acting. Plenty, in many ways, shows the real beginning of the women’s movement and foreshadows the future when women will take control of their lives. It is a bit of history we generally ignore, but our lives today were certainly changed by the characters in this film.
Check the WRL catalog for Plenty.