Blogging for a Good Book
New Orleans is the setting–graveyards, abandoned plantations, and a voodoo priestesses add to the ambiance.
Danni Cafferty’s dad has recently passed away, and Danni thinks she’s following his final instructions correctly by keeping the family’s antique and curio store open for business.
When a distraught woman comes into the store rambling about an evil statue that Danni must take away, Danni’s journey into discovering her family’s true calling begins.
Michael Quinn, a private investigator, has been tracking the statue. He thinks a string of murders and thefts is directly related to whomever last possessed it. And he hopes to find it before more blood is shed.
Michael had worked with Danni’s father on a number of supernatural cases in the past, but he has his doubts about working with Danni. Especially since it seems that Angus had not explained the full nature of his business. The two seem to have no choice but to work together when more murders are committed in the wake of the statue’s possession…
I like that Danni and Quinn don’t particularly like one another when they first meet. They have to learn to trust one another. Danni surprises both Quinn and herself when she realizes that she is able to contribute to the investigation–even without understanding what Angus’ cryptic message to “use the light” really means.
I figured out some of the key elements of the story faster than the characters did. So I’d say the plot was comfortably predictable. Stay away if you’re looking for twisty, unexpected surprises. But for a solid entertainment ride, check out this first book in the “Cafferty and Quinn” series. I’m looking forward to seeing what these two paranormal sleuths come up against next.
Check the WRL catalog for Let the Dead Sleep
Days before her wedding, Poppy Wyatt loses her engagement ring. Sometime between her girlfriends admiring the ring and passing it around.. and the luncheon programmers finishing up the raffle drawings.. and the hotel staff requiring everyone to evacuate the room for a fire drill… the heirloom ring disappeared. Not only that, but when she goes outside to get a better cell signal, someone steals her phone. Desperate to figure out what to do next, Poppy paces the hotel lobby and spies a cell phone in a trash can. What luck–the phone works! One problem solved. Sort of.
The phone belongs to Sam Roxton’s personal assistant who quit without giving notice, so when Sam calls the number and reaches Poppy, she is able to convince Sam to let her keep the phone until she finds her ring and she’ll forward all his messages.
The crazy plan works, but of course, Poppy reads all the texts that come to Sam and gets a pretty good idea of what’s going on behind the scenes in his office. Sometimes she understands what’s going on better than Sam, who is too busy to read, much less return, most texts.
And because this is a Chick Lit with romantic elements, Poppy and Sam gain insight into each other through this odd arrangement. And they like what they find!
I listened to most of this book on CD. Jayne Entwistle is the reader. I loved listening to her perky British accent–she was perfect for Poppy! It was easy to follow the narrative even with the texts and footnotes read aloud. (Yes, there are footnotes in the book. Why? Because Poppy’s self-important fiance is a scholar, and Poppy was impressed with the number of footnotes in his book.)
Personally, I never thought texts could be romantic, but I changed my mind after listening to the incredibly touching scene where Poppy and Sam are texting each other in the dark woods.
This is a light, fun, satisfying book. I highly recommend it for poolside entertainment this summer. I even enjoyed the secondary characters, even the snarky ones. And rooted for Poppy’s happily ever after with Sam right from the beginning.
Check the WRL catalog for I’ve Got Your Number
Let it Be Me is the enchanting new romance from author, Kate Noble. It tells the story of Bridget Forrester, a gifted pianist, who is, unfortunately, plagued by a terrible case of stage fright and insecurity about her abilities, and Oliver Merrick, a man with a gift for discerning people’s talents and nurturing them.
Bridget, frustrated by the roaring success of her sister’s social debut compared with her own lackluster first season, has been declared a shrew and her “character fixed as ‘unpleasant.’ And there seemed little she could do but endure it.” Until, that is, she receives a letter from the famed Italian composer, Vincenzo Carpenini, inviting her to become his student when he returns to England for an extended stay. Bridget is elated. Finally, proof of her own worth! But after finding out that Carpenini has suddenly changed his mind and no longer plans to leave Venice, she is heartbroken and humiliated.
However, not one to simply accept defeat–at least when it comes to her heart’s desire–and assisted by the convenient collapse of a tree on her family’s townhouse, Bridget manages to persuade her mother, together with her younger sister, to decamp for Venice and warmer climes. When she arrives in Venice for her long-awaited music lessons, she is stunned to discover that the composer does not remember her at all. But Oliver, Carpenini’s friend and supporter does; and since Carpenini has foolishly risked both his career and Oliver’s with a wager against the Austrian composer Klein–the new favorite of the Marchese–Bridget’s sudden appearance is well-timed.
The blossoming relationship between Bridget and Oliver is lovely to read about. As Bridget’s passion for life and love flourishes, so does her ability on the piano. Oliver is unlike any other romantic hero I’ve ever encountered. Very much a beta, he supports and encourages Bridget, and believes in her in a way no-one else has. His character has a good natured temperament and a gentle sense of humor–somewhat refreshing after the big, bad alphas, who seem to get riled up over nothing.
Noble’s writing is lyrical and filled with musical metaphors and similes. Framing the relationship in terms of music was an enjoyable novelty. I particularly liked reading a historical romance set somewhere other than Britain or America, and I’ll admit I’m partial to the romantic setting of Venice. For those seeking a well-written, touching romance with a hero and heroine worth cheering for, I highly recommend Let it Be Me.
Check the WRL catalog for Let it Be Me
You aren’t you, you know. You are a type to be identified, evaluated, measured, sorted, and slotted in with everyone else your type. It’s just a way for businesses, political parties, and non-profits of finding the people most responsive to their message, right? But what if that type isn’t the accretion of your life’s experiences, your current situation, your relationships–in other words, you–but a deep-seated biologically programmed identity vulnerable to direct manipulation? And what if there were people dedicated to learning specific words and sounds that turn the key to your identity and make you want to obey them? Enter the poets.
Barry, whose interest in language and manipulation runs through books such as Jennifer Government and Company, takes a direct run at the topic in this complex thriller. He posits an organization dedicated to exploring ways to control the nearly 300 personality types they’ve identified. Potential students are recruited and tested, and those that pass enter a rigorous and disturbingly competitive education program on their way to analyzing personality types, running experiments on them, and providing the sanitized results to those who will use them in some kind of marketplace. Those who rise to the top of this select group become poets, able to utter a series of nonsense syllables that make the hearer suggestible. To what? In the course of the story, to involuntary sex, giving away money and cars, even committing murder and mayhem, with the implication that these are long-standing and frequently used methods that reach to all levels of society. Those poets are themselves rebranded with the names of real poets, which is why Tom Eliot and Virginia Woolf are playing cat-and-mouse from Australia to Washington, DC. Woolf is a rogue poet capable of suborning even the most experienced of the organization, and Eliot wants to stop her before she executes a horrific plan.
Barry structures the story with intertwined past-and-present narratives. We learn about street kid Emily’s recruitment and training into the organization, and the colossal mistake she makes when she’s sent to Broken Hill, Australia as punishment for another major mistake (A word of warning to the actual Broken Hill Chamber of Commerce: Barry makes it sound like the place where they recruit garbage men for the last stop on the road to the back-of-beyond; it sounds like a cool place in real life). In the present storyline, Eliot violently kidnaps an innocent man from the airport and dodges pursuers on a nonstop quest to find out why the man has been targeted by opposing poets. As the storylines begin to merge, we slowly come to understand why the factions have moved into open warfare with each other.
Barry departs from the cynical humor of his earlier work as he creates this speculative look at power and language. The real tension in his ideas is that the ongoing quest to motivate (command?) masses of people may actually succeed by reducing that mass to precisely defined individuals. If there is humor, it is found in occasional side notes from chat room comments on erroneous news stories which come off as conspiracy theories but are closer to the truth than the commenters know. He also takes those ordinary Website quizzes and polls and gives them a more sinister purpose. I’ll certainly look twice at those ‘recruiting for psychology experiments’ posters and ‘take this online quiz to discover your true self’ with a little more skepticism than I have in the past.
(Lexicon isn’t in the WRL catalog yet, but the link will be added here when the library receives it.)
I continually find myself involved in an internal argument–how can I respect and appreciate Great Britain’s contributions to the world without despising the way the Empire was actually run? While the catalogue of sins across their colonies is infamous, nowhere was their cold calculation of empire’s management more appalling than their treatment of Ireland.
As Coogan demonstrates, the potato famine presented a golden opportunity for absentee landlords to rid their land of their least important asset–the people who actually created the wealth that gave landlords status. The spectrum of methods landlords used to accomplish this depopulation ranged from ‘merciful’ to monstrous. The end results were the same: the Irish were pushed from the homes they’d built, the work that gave their lives structure, the cottage industries that added to their meager income, the churches where they worshipped, and the graveyards where their history lay.
The famine opportunity was also a chance to put in place theories by Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and Edmund Burke. From drawing room discussions, British policy makers took the idea that markets seek their own level, that poor people should just stop reproducing, that selfishness is a virtue, and that interfering in business is a crime against God. Working behind the scenes as advisors to parliamentary ministers and wealthy landowners (often the same people), they managed to implement a system that deprived the peasantry of even life’s basic necessities.
Of course, they never went to Ireland to see people dead and dying along the roadsides, or working under brutal and humiliating conditions in the workhouses, or rendered homeless by the destruction of their cottages. Those who did–especially the Society of Friends–pleaded with all levels of government and with the English population as a whole for some form of assistance. Contributions also flooded in from around the world, including $170 from the Choctaw Indians in the United States, but the scale of the disaster was so great that even the Quakers gave up their efforts when it became apparent that only funding for food, housing, and work from a willing government could end it.
Tim Pat Coogan points an especially damning finger at Sir Charles Trevelyan, a bureaucrat working for the Home Secretary and Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. His virulent anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bent combined with his adherence to Smith and Bentham enabled him to block relief supplies and use his position to steer public opinion onto his course. Under his instruction, others created workhouse and roadbuilding schemes so onerous that even those clinging to the last strand at the ends of their ropes didn’t qualify. At every turn, he frustrated even basic humanitarian acts and promoted the most monstrous of the depopulation schemes.
The end result of the famine was right in line with Trevelyan’s goals and those of whom he served. The generally accepted numbers show that between 1841 and 1852, the Irish population declined from 8.1 million to around 6.2 million. Whether from death or emigration, Ireland lost an enormous part of its population in a short period. While historians in the past have been somewhat passive in tracking causes, Tim Pat Coogan does not hesitate to search out and indict the people he places at the heart of a deliberate genocide.
Check the WRL catalog for The Famine Plot
For one brief shining moment, the Internet showed its possibilities. Then some shark-livered varmints screwed it up. Somewhere along the line some crazy learned HTML and it was off to the races with conspiracy theories (There’s a special place in Internet hell where the souls of people who used spam to spread their conspiracy theories will reside. Dial-up is only the beginning of their torment). A tool meant to disseminate knowledge became a loudspeaker to spout misinformation and shout facts down. What used to be some nutjob on the corner muttering and passing out mimeographed sheets took on the air of authority, and a chorus spread across the land: ”I read it on the Internet.”
Based on his own conversion experience, Loren Collins decided to walk out of the mudpit of one particular argument to examine the short supply of critical thinking skills. By looking in detail at a select few Internet memes, he distills the methodology of online “discussions” to illustrate the many paths people take to passionately uphold their beliefs in spite of evidence that they are wrong:
- Denialism – It didn’t happen because I want it to not have happened.
- Conspiracy theory – It happened, but not the way everybody else thinks it happened, and only I know the truth.
- Rumor – It happened! It really happened! I know somebody whose sister had a friend…
- Quotations – This famous person said it perfectly, and it just so happens to apply.
- Hoaxes – You’re never going to believe what happened!
- Pseudoscience – It happens, but not when anybody can actually study it.
- Pseudohistory - This person says it happened, and I believe him even if so-called historians don’t
- Pseudolaw – I happen to have read the Constitution, and the Supreme Court is wrong.
As a librarian, I like to think of myself as a dispassionate consumer of information with the ability to analyze and spot the kinds of fallacies Collins describes. I am certain that in my professional life I provide patrons with their requests even when I believe those materials are patently poor sources of information. But I utilize selective news and information sources to check when I hear a fact too good to be true or too inflammatory to be tolerated (I hope I’m wary enough to take their information with a grain of salt). And even though it never does any good, I still don’t let my wingnut uncle get away with his stunts over the Thanksgiving turkey. After all, Josh Billings said, “The trouble with people is not that they don’t know but that they know so much that ain’t so.”
Maybe I better stick with “Ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is power. You’ve got a choice to make.”
Check the WRL catalog for Bullspotting
Stalina–a strange name until you learn that she’s a Russian Jew born to a poet at the height of Stalin’s paranoia toward Jews. Perhaps her parents thought she’d be protected–after all, who would want to arrest, imprison, or execute someone named after their beloved leader? Even that magic totem doesn’t fully protect her family from tiny divisions of power and influence that rendered the idea of Soviet equality a joke.
When glasnost and perestroika open Russia to the West, Stalina leaves as soon as she can, walking out of her job as a scientist creating scents that cover up the odor of nerve gas, packing a suitcase full of Russian-made bras (expatriate women can’t get any that suit their particular needs) and heading to the United States. A childhood friend has promised her a place to live and a job–a chance to leave her gray life behind and start afresh.
Her job is at the Liberty Motel, a hot sheet hotel that originally catered to weary long-distance truckers but is now a rendezvous for illicit love affairs. That’s fine with Stalina, interested only in hard work to earn a paycheck; when you must change sheets every hour or so, you really earn that money.
Stalina wants to put a twist in the business. With the owner’s grudging permission and a few bucks, she begins transforming those drab anonymous rooms into fantasies: a beachside cabana, a theme park, a gazebo in a rainstorm. Word about the rooms begins to spread; repeat customers want to try the different themes, and business skyrockets. What she doesn’t know is that there is significant competition in the short-stay industry and her success translates to trouble for the Liberty Motel.
Stalina is the ordinary person at the center of an odd world, one which most people don’t know exists. From the businesslike owner to the couple carrying on a long-term affair, Stalina engages with people who ordinarily shun or fear such contact. Stalina is an innocent in many ways with those who want to take advantage of her. As Russians have through the centuries, she endures good and bad with equanimity.
Emily Rubin taught an oral history class in Brighton Beach, a Mecca for Russian emigres, garnering much insight into Stalina’s voice from her students. Her real talent lies in making this woman into a singular and memorable character in a singular and memorable read.
Check the WRL catalog for Stalina
One pleasure derived from characters and settings in the universe of noir mysteries is the sense that the protagonist sinks farther into his darkness than most people are ever forced to descend. Even if not of his own volition, being pressed reluctantly into his id makes returning to the proximity of the light possible, and hints that some will never resort to their darkness, and can live comfortably in their happy places.
Meet Bernie Gunther; an old-school private eye in 1936′s Berlin, he’s surrounded by people wholeheartedly, even joyously, wallowing in the darkest places of their souls. How’s a fedora-wearing gumshoe supposed to knock off bad guys, bed and discard dames, and squint through cigarette smoke at “good guys” who are worse than himself?
Kerr’s first Bernie Gunther mystery, March Violets, contains the ugliness of anti-Semitism, Nazi Party infighting, and concentration camps (KZ’s in the parlance). Much of his business is searching for ‘U-boats’–people who have disappeared, possibly into a KZ, or into canals as unidentifiable corpses. The so-called ‘German desire for order’ is in full flower, and the black Mercedes are waiting for any who question, challenge, or stand up to it. As a former policeman with a high-profile career and a veteran of World War I, Gunther can get away with it to some degree, but even he feels constrained to salute Hitler when parades pass.
Gunther has a reputation for discretion, so when the daughter and son-in-law of a millionaire industrialist are murdered, their safe burgled, and house destroyed by arson, he’s a natural choice to take on the investigation. Since it’s a PI mystery, he’s blocked at every turn, his motives are questioned, and he’s threatened by mugs and thugs of every stripe. He’s brought before the highest Nazi officials (including Goering, who envies Gunther’s supposed cinema noir lifestyle) as his search gets close to sensitive areas with implications for the Party. The end stage of the investigation puts him in the worst circumstance I’ve ever read in a mystery novel, one so unexpected that both Bernie’s body and soul are put into peril.
Kerr captures the look and feel of Berlin–the shops and restaurants on the streets, the trams and cars, the vibrant clubs where decadent jazz hasn’t been completely eliminated. Add the background of ubiquitous swastikas and street-corner boxes selling newspapers with vile caricatures of Jews and you’ve got a fair glimpse at the “garden of beasts,” keying in on “March Violets” who joined the Nazi Party after it came to power in 1933 and used it both to promote themselves and to wield the power of the State against their enemies.
Kerr’s writing has been favorably compared to Raymond Chandler’s, and I mostly agree. The way I read it, Sam Spade could probably look around and see some decent people trying to live ordinary lives. Bernie Gunther has no such consolation.
Check the WRL catalog for March Violets
In her review of the Civil Wars’ CD Barton Hollow, Charlotte discussed her susceptibility to earworms—“those catchy snatches of melody that get stuck in your head for hours on end, sometimes for days.” Last fall, I encountered an earworm in the song “Lights Out, Words Gone,” the second single off of A Different Kind of Fix, the third album from British quartet Bombay Bicycle Club. I stumbled upon the song while driving home from work one night and instantly loved it, but, much to my chagrin, the announcer never gave the name of the song or the artist. This song, with its lovely, haunting intro and gently brooding lyrics, was stuck in my head for weeks until I was able to identify the group and check out the album.
Since the release of their debut album in 2009, Bombay Bicycle Club have received numerous accolades in England, including Best New Band at the 2010 New Musical Express Awards, and their second album Flaws was nominated for the Ivor Novello Award for Best Album. In addition, the group performed during the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony concert in Hyde Park.
I discovered Bombay Bicycle Club through “Lights Out, Words Gone,” and was happy to find that the rest of A Different Kind of Fix lived up to the promise of that single. It’s a tightly-focused collection of guitar-driven rock that’s quite catchy and very accessible. Along with “Lights Out, Words Gone,” standout tracks include “Your Eyes,” “Bad Timing,” and the irresistibly jaunty “Shuffle.”
Fans of alternative rock groups such as Phoenix and Two Door Cinema Club who are looking for something new might want to check out Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix.
Check the WRL catalog for A Different Kind of Fix.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden
A few months before the headlines were filled with news of North Korea’s military actions and potential nuclear threats, I came across this intriguing book. Being an avid fan of old war movies, I thought this might be a book about POWs and the Korean War. When most people think about labor camps, political prisoners, and the atrocities reported, they picture the German death camps and POW camps during WWI, WWII, the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. It only took reading the jacket notes inside the front cover to realize this was a modern day story of a young man born in a North Korean political prison camp in 1982.
Blaine Harden, serving as the East Asia Bureau Chief of the Washington Post, tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a boy subjected to unfathomable physical and emotional torture, his extraordinary escape at age 23, and Shin’s current struggle to survive in the outside world. This intriguing story gives the reader insight into the secretive world of the most repressive totalitarian state still in existence today.
As I read Shin’s story and watched current news events in North Korea, it made his harrowing experience come to life, albeit gruesome at times. It was emotionally painful to realize that these types of atrocities continue to this day. Detailed accounts of torture, brainwashing by way of isolation from civilization, and the teaching of young minds to be snitches to protect their own lives. Families were simply forced to be in competition for food. Shin was made to witness the killing of his mother and brother to show him what happens to those who even speak of escaping. Being raised with such a lack of human affection made these horrifying situations more bearable at the time but has caused great difficulties in his current life.
Generations of families were held in the camps for the crimes of distant relatives to ensure that descendants would not rise up against the government. Shin is the only known person born in the camps who is also known to have escaped. His story will not only open your eyes to the struggle of one young man but also to the struggle of over 200,000 people still being held in the camps to this day. Although the camps have been aerially photographed and documented, the North Korean government continues to deny their existence. In an interview Shin was quoted as saying “I am evolving from being an animal.”
Check the WRL catalog for Escape from Camp 14.
It’s also available as a CD audiobook, read by the author.
“How well do you know the people who raised you?”
Journalist Michele Norris presents this question to the reader in the epilogue of her book The Grace of Silence: A Memoir. In her work—as much an investigation of the painful historical realities of race in America as a memoir—Norris reaches deep into the depths of her own family history and illuminates this country’s racial past along the way.
Originally intent on writing a book about the “hidden conversation” on race taking place in a supposedly “postracial” America in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the Presidency, Norris changed course when she discovered that the conversation on race within her own African American family had not been honest. She discovered two family secrets: her maternal Grandmother Ione had been a traveling “Aunt Jemima” in the Midwest, and her father Belvin Norris had been shot in the leg by a white police officer in Birmingham shortly after his discharge from the Navy at the conclusion of World War II. Uncovering these secrets shakes Norris’s sense of her identity: “These revelations suggest to me that in certain ways I’ve never had a full understanding of my parents or of the formation of my own racial identity.” The majority of the book is devoted to discovering who her parents really are and, by extension, who she herself is. Why did her parents intentionally keep these secrets from her?
Most jarring about these revelations, for Norris, is that they are incongruous with her conception of her parents. Norris writes of her father: “how could a man who always observed stop signs, a man who always filed his taxes early and preached that jaywalking proved a weakness of character have been involved in an altercation with Alabama policemen? . . . Why would he impart life lessons to us about looking the other way, turning the other cheek, respecting those who lived across the color line in spite of insults hurled our way, when he himself had not?”
What Norris discovers along the way in her journey to answer these questions is surprising, revealing, uncomfortable, and thought-provoking for both her and the reader. I found myself getting emotional at times while reading the book. My eyes watered when Norris described brutal attacks on African American World War II veterans and their families. I found myself groaning inside when a relative of one of the officers involved in the shooting of Belvin Norris remarked to the author, “I don’t have anything against [African Americans], only the ones who are snooty or trying to prove themselves,” and then referenced President Obama as an example. But that’s what this book does. It hits you in the gut. I suspect that no matter your racial or cultural background, this book will “ping” your emotions in many different ways.
While this is not an “easy” book—as it challenges you emotionally and makes you think about certain ugly truths that some would rather not acknowledge—it has its moments of levity. You will smile wryly at the ingenious ways in which Norris’s mother foils the attempts of her neighbors to sell their houses and flee the neighborhood after the Norris family integrates it. You will also be touched by the loving relationship Norris has with her father. In a sense, this book is an extended love letter to her father. Even while championing an open dialogue about race, Michele Norris appreciates that her father early-on made the decision to remain silent as part of a strategy to ensure that his children would not be hindered by bitterness and acrimony in their struggle to achieve.
When I read the premise of the book, I was immediately drawn to it. I, too, am African American. I am familiar with the silences surrounding family secrets dealing with race. As a result, I found myself constantly comparing the strategies adopted by Norris’s family in dealing with racism to those of my own family. Norris’s mother and father concerned themselves with trying to be “model minorities.” My mother, a single parent and Black Power activist, made a different choice and took a different route in raising her children. My mother, just like her father, taught us that we should be angry about racism. This anger provides the fuel for my activism. Norris’s book exposes a particular truth, that we, as African Americans, have adopted multiple and varying strategies for navigating within a racially hostile world.
In the end, Norris suggests that we can come to a fuller understanding of who we are individually and as a nation by being more open about race. One thing Norris discovers is that white families also have their racial secrets and silences. Most of the families of the police officers involved in her father’s shooting either had no clue of their family member’s involvement in the shooting, or the family members did not want to talk about the incident.
How many of our families, regardless of our racial or cultural backgrounds, harbor secrets relative to race? What do these silences tell us about the state of race in America? Norris’s work, The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, is a call to all of us to sit down and ask questions. If we are to truly move racially forward as a nation, we must hear our family stories. We must question our elders, and we must listen to not just what is said, but what is not said.
Check the WRL catalog for The Grace of Silence.
It’s also available as a CD audiobook, read by the author.
John Boyne is best known for The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a morality tale set in a concentration camp that was made into an award-winning film in 2008. Although that book was written for children, seven of his nine novels are for adults, including his newest, The Absolutist, published in 2012.
The Absolutist is also a morality tale, but most of its action takes place in a different kind of hell-hole of man’s devising—the trench warfare of World War I, where soldiers rotted and were maimed both physically and emotionally and died brutally and senselessly. The main characters are Tristan Sadler and Will Bancroft, English teenagers, who meet in boot camp in England and are sent to France as infantrymen to fight in the trenches. The book chronicles what happens to them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Like most good books that deal with soldiers and war, The Absolutist is not a war story, but rather a study of and meditation on what war does to average people who are thrust into an inhuman and insane environment and how they cope to make sense of their situation, come to terms with it (if possible), and survive (if possible). The war setting serves as the backdrop to deal with issues of physical and moral bravery, moral cowardice, ethical dilemmas, self-deception, self-knowledge, and knowledge of others.
In just over 300 beautifully written pages the author concerns himself with some of the great human issues and poses questions as to what it means to be a fully functional human (in the best sense of the word) in an inhuman and insane world and also in the real (normal) world.
Check the WRL catalog for The Absolutist.
This provocative novel narrates a gripping story of white masters and their slave mistresses during the early 1800s prior to the Civil War. The four main characters are from separate southern plantations, but Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu vacation with their white masters in a free-state resort in Xenia, Ohio each summer. Over the course of several summers, the group forms a complex sisterly bond, based on both mutual need and mutual distrust. While we do read of events on the plantation on which Lizzie, Phillip and Drayle, their master, live; the novel mostly focuses on their collective Ohio experiences. There the women struggle to balance their longing for freedom with both the subtle and blatant ways slavery debases them. Though the work is entirely fiction, the resort’s site is historically accurate. According to the historical research I found, rumors of white masters with slave concubines gradually caused the resort’s decline and closing. In 1856, the resort was purchased by the Methodist Episcopal Church to become a school for free blacks. Later, it became the site for Wilberforce University, which continues to this day serving as an institution of higher learning.
That the site eventually becomes a school serves as an ironic counterpoint to one of the plot’s main topics—can Lizzy convince her master to educate and free their son. The novel’s main focus is Lizzy, Drayle and his childless wife, Fran. The author describes Lizzy’s “seduction” and builds with how she and others on the plantation all confront the many conflicts which ensue. But the novel mostly details how each of the women in Wench suffer emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their “owners.” Each finds herself gradually and systematically worn down, able to escape only in dreams of freedom—her own and her children’s. Although each woman has a unique relationship with her respective master, Lizzy, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu constantly carry the common bond of slavery and mistreatment. In spite of the seeming benefits over all the other slaves at their home plantations, each still finds herself trapped—sometimes in snares of her own making. The novel vividly depicts the heart-wrenching decisions, emotional turmoil and tragic pain each woman must endure as she struggles to save herself physically, spiritually and emotionally. Not only must each bear terrible ordeals, she must also walk a fine line because harsh consequences always follow if she fails to please her master. The women exist in perpetual turmoil. The fact that they summer in a free state puts freedom within each woman’s grasp. The central question becomes should she seize it or submit?
Perkins-Valdez uses such riveting and poetic language in telling her story, that, in spite of shocking and difficult passages, the reader learns to find sympathy where it is least expected. Unlike any other novel I’ve read about this period, never before have I found myself drawn into the minds of the characters caught in this life. Indeed, many times I wanted to look away. Parts of the novel were too raw and real. Yet Perkins-Valdez kept me engaged because she presents real people ensnared in unspeakable tragedy. Because the characters are so believable, we care about what happens and read on.
The novel explores several complex relationships. For me, the most complex was the relationship that gradually develops between Lizzy and her master’s wife, Fran. Not only is it unexpected, but it is key to understanding the novel’s climax. As the plot progresses, Lizzie’s indecisiveness becomes central to understanding the novel. The author lets us suffer along with Lizzy’s ambivalence about what action to take because it is fundamental to her character’s predicament. Just as she had to face what to do early in the novel, when confronted with knowledge of a planned run away, Lizzy’s trap is always her never changing reality. Is her chief duty to herself or to her children? We understand and sympathize with this inner battle because the author succeeds in making her character authentic.
The very reality of the characters makes the novel hard to put down. Rarely does a novel capture one’s attention the way Wench does. After starting, I found any excuse possible to find time to read. I felt conflicted about it, too, because the novel covers such an ugly chapter in our history. Yet the author takes such care in telling the stories of these four slave women that you find yourself longing to know what becomes of Lizzie, Sugar, Reenie and Mawu. The novel’s strongest element for me was that while the white master’s actions were unspeakably cruel, the women always handled themselves with a grace and dignity beyond imagining. At the end one is both shocked and relieved, but also longing still to know the rest of these absorbing stories. In a postscript at the novel’s conclusion, the author says she doesn’t plan a sequel. Instead, she invites readers to imagine the war gradually coming and with it a fuller promise of freedom for both the women and their children. I see her point, but found these stories too compelling to end here. If you read Wench, I think you will agree.
Check out the WRL catalog for Wench.
Or try it on CD audiobook.
Do you re-read books? I am an avid re-reader, although I know that some people think that this is a waste of time when there are so many new books to explore. But I find that going back to books I have read once can offer new insights into a familiar story or simply the comfort of spending time with characters that you like.
That being said, quest novels do not seem to automatically lend themselves to re-reading. You already know that the heroes manage to get the ring to the fire, or find the hidden sword, and that all is set more or less right at the end. But even here, in the world of fantastic fiction, there are stories that bear a second or third or fourth reading. In many cases, what draws me back to fantasy titles is sheer pleasure in the use of language, especially in tales of high fantasy, with their reverberations of Mallory and faint echoes of Beowulf and the Norse sagas.
The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison is a fantasy classic that always seems to have something new to offer. Originally written in 1922, The Worm Ouroboros shares some characters with Eddison’s later Zimiamvian trilogy. Here, Eddison tells the tale of the bloody war between the Lords of Demonland, led by the masterful Lord Juss, and the witches, led by two crafty and treacherous kings, each named Gorice. Eddison’s tale set the standard for many of the high fantasy tales that were to follow. He deftly mixes swordplay, massive battles, magic, a perilous quest, politics and statecraft, and betrayal and revenge into a forceful story that is filled with lavish descriptions and lush language. It is the prose that brings me back to Eddison, a chance to enjoy long, luxuriant sentences filled with old-fashioned phrases and words. This is a story that would benefit from being read aloud. In mythology, Ouroboros was depicted as a snake or dragon swallowing its own tail, a symbol of the cyclical nature of life. The close of Eddison’s saga finds the Demon lords downcast at their enemies’ defeat. Life is not worth living without a foe to fight against. But like the snake that gives the book its title, the Demon lords’ story ends where it began, with the arrival of an emissary from the witch court, demanding fealty.
We have Eddison’s wonderful story only in ebook form, for iPad, NOOK, Android tablet, or PC. So if you have a mobile device:
Check the WRL catalog for The Worm Ouroboros
I am a great fan of crime fiction set in other countries. In addition to a good mystery, these stories also provide a window into new parts of the world. You learn about customs, traditions, food and arts, and more in the context of a crime investigation. Barbara Nadel is my latest find in this genre (thanks, Penelope), and she ranks up there with Donna Leon, Magdalene Nabb, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and George Simenon in my pantheon of international crime fiction authors.
Nadel’s stories are set in contemporary Istanbul, and feature Turkish Police Inspector Çetin Ikmen and his assistant Mehmet Suleyman. Ikmen is a wonderful creation, with his wife and eight children (and one on the way), his ever-present bottle of brandy, and his thoughtful approach to crime solving. Nadel has also created a host of other appealing characters, including Ikmen’s long-suffering wife Fatma, the other members of the police squad, and of course those people caught up in the criminal investigation.
The story begins with the discovery, by an unknown character, of the body of an old Jewish man in the seedy Balat section of Istanbul. Far from the tourist attractions Balat houses what remains of Istanbul’s Jewish population, as well as those down on their luck. Ikmen’s investigation into the crime takes him deep into the past, as long-buried violence resurfaces, and Ikmen and his team try to unravel a complicated and tangled set of threads.
Nadel has an obvious affection for and a clear understanding of Istanbul and its people, and she captures the city’s bright light and its dark shadows in this complex and twisting story. Belshazzar’s Daughter is a fine start to an excellent series that should appeal to fans of international crime novels.
Check the WRL catalog for Belshazzar’s Daughter
It has been a while since I have found a fantasy novel that really drew me in, so I was quite pleased to discover Helen Wecker’s debut novel, which deftly blends elements from Jewish and Arab folktales into a more than satisfying read.
In 1899, a ship arrives in New York City’s harbor carrying immigrants from Europe. Not unusual for the 1890s. What makes this an uncommon arrival is the presence on the ship of a woman made of clay, a golem, created to be the obedient wife of Otto Rotfeld, a Jewish immigrant from Prussia. But Rotfeld dies as the ship is crossing the Atlantic, freeing the golem from his control, but leaving her doubly adrift. Not only is she a stranger in a strange land, but as a golem, she exists to serve, and she no longer has a master. When the ship arrives, the golem leaps into the harbor and makes her way to shore to avoid a confrontation with the immigration service. She arrives in the city soaking wet and knowing no one.
At the same time, a Syrian tinsmith named Arbeely, living in New York’s Little Syria, begins work repairing a copper flask brought to him by a local baker. When he touches his soldering iron to the flask, Arbeely finds himself blasted through the air, and discovers a naked man lying on the floor of the shop. It is a jinni, trapped in the flask for some thousand years.
From this fascinating beginning, Wecker weaves a complicated tale as the golem and the jinni must learn to live as humans in that most complex of cities. The golem, given the name Chava by a rabbi who recognizes her as a supernatural being and befriends her, and the jinni, whom Arbeely dubs Ahmad, and who reluctantly begins working with Arbeely, eventually meet and slowly develop a friendship. Wecker tells a moving story of two beings who share not only the challenges of being immigrants but also a further isolation from normal society. Their growing friendship and the lives of the people they meet in the Jewish and Syrian neighborhoods of New York make for a delightful story.
But more than friendship binds the two, as the reader and the pair discover. The lives of both the jinni and the golem are bound to the life of a malevolent spirit who created the golem and who imprisoned the jinni in the flask. This spirit, appearing variously as a dissolute rabbi, a Syrian wizard, and a recent immigrant to New York, seeks to control the lives of Chava and Ahmad. Only by facing together the danger that confronts them can the golem and the jinni achieve surcease of sorrow.
Check the WRL catalog for The Golem and the Jinni
Spring is winding down in the tidewater region, and for the last 35 or so years one the harbingers of the season for me has the arrival of migrant birds to the area over the course of the spring. After a winter diet of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, juncos, titmice and chickadees (all fine birds mind you), it is exciting to start to see some of the summer residents arriving or to see the more northerly birds passing though on their way to New England and Canada. The Williamsburg area has lots of places to see birds, many of which are listed in the Williamsburg Bird Club’s Hotspots list. The Bird Club has also been a strong supporter of the library, donating funds to purchase new titles for our bird watching collection.
WRL’s collection of birding materials has something for everyone from the beginner to the long-time birder. Books on calls, on identifying specific species, and on the history of birding can all be found, as well as titles on birding in Virginia and in Williamsburg.
One of the best titles for those interested in taking up bird watching is David Sibley’s Birding Basics. Here, Sibley walks the new birder through the things needed to get started—how to look at birds so that you start to recognize patterns, what sort of optical equipment is best for birding, how to make the best use of field guides, and where to go for more in-depth reading on species. The book is filled with Sibley’s illustrations (he is a superb artist) that illuminate his points and make clear identifying marks and patterns to look for. Armed with this text anyone will be a better birder, and if you want to get an idea of what all those birds around you are, Sibley’s Birding Basics should be your go-to book.
Check the WRL catalog for Sibley’s Birding Basics
Edward Marston is a prolific writer of excellent historical mysteries. He is equally at home in the Elizabethan theater or in Restoration London. I was delighted to recently discover a more recent series by Marston set in the rapidly expanding world of the railways in 1850s England. Marston excels at capturing the feel of a place and time as well as at crafting an intriguing mystery. This series shows him at his best.
Marston’s protagonist is Inspector Robert Colbeck of Scotland Yard, soon to be dubbed “The Railway Detective” for his work solving the theft of a large gold shipment as well as letters from the London to Birmingham mail train. While the mystery is interesting, and Marston puts in enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing, it is the interplay between the characters that is most appealing. Colbeck faces resentment from the local police and the railroad security staff who fear a loss of power when Scotland Yard takes over. He also is continually at odds with his rather officious superior officer, who resents Colbeck’s fame. In this first novel in the series, the attack on the mail train brings the daughter of the engineer to Colbeck’s attention, offering an interesting twist to the story, and insights into the role of women in mid-Victorian London.
One of Marston’s great strengths is his ability to bring a past time to life. The early days of the railways were exciting times for many, especially the engineers seeking to control nature as they laid track and created bridges and tunnels. Marston conveys this excitement to the reader just as he conveys the harsh conditions of the navvies who built the railways. Moving easily from high society to the hovels of the railway gangs, Marston’s ear for colloquial speech and eye for detail add to the realism of the story.
As the series goes on, the characters evolve in intriguing, and not always expected, ways, and new characters are introduced to keep things fresh. This is one of the best historical series I have come across recently.
Check the WRL catalog for The Railway Detective
Also available in ebook form
I typically choose beach reads in the fall or wintertime. As temperatures drop below 50°F, cover images with hammocks and cerulean blue seas become irresistible and I pick them up for escape purposes, to tide me over until I can reach a beach in a warmer clime. It’s like a chocolate indulgence or an extravagant café selection — a little me-time fantasy. Ocean Beach fit the bill this time.
The author’s work caught my eye months ago when this sequel to Ten Beach Road came out so I’ve had it on my to-read list ever since (and enjoyed Ocean Beach without having read the first book in the Beach series). Since then, I’ve learned that Wax was once honored with the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion Award for her debut romance 7 Days and 7 Nights in 2003. Now I’ve just learned that Wendy Wax has joined the Downton Abbey craze — using her fandom as the source of inspiration for her latest novel, While We Were Watching Downton Abbey
The scenario of Ocean Beach made me recall the 80′s television sitcom Designing Women. A group of women friends, assembled in Wax’s typical ensemble-cast style, are collaborating on the renovation of an historic Art Deco home in the dreamy vicinity of Miami’s South Beach. This project shows the promise of promoting the future success of their fledgling enterprise owing to the fact that their remodeling project is to be featured on a reality television show called Do Over. However, they had not anticipated that such notoriety might stem from a camera focused much more on their private lives than their skills with refinishing and refurbishing old houses so they are soon wishing their dirty laundry wasn’t about to be broadcast for all to see.
Ocean Beach readers will find a little romance, troubling pasts and deeply hidden secrets, a bit of amateur detective work, and more than a few strained domestic relationships in this lively, dramatic novel. Fans of chick lit and romance are sure to enjoy turning its pages, preferably while relaxing on a sun-kissed beach.
Check the WRL catalog for Ocean Beach
If you’re interested in starting with Wendy Wax’s earlier books, try The Accidental Bestseller.
Subtitled “A portrait of American food — before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional, and traditional–from the lost WPA files,” you must at least read the extremely interesting Introduction to this treasure mine sampled from what remains in the archives of America Eats, five dusty boxes of manuscript copy on onionskin. Here Kurlansky showcases the best of what he uncovered, just as writer Merle Colby had hoped when writing the final report before the unedited, unpublished manuscripts were tucked away in the 1940s: “Here and there in America some talented boy or girl will stumble on some of this material, take fire from it, and turn it to creative use.”
The entries are informative and amusing excerpts from food writing and recipes gathered regionally for a federally funded writing project that employed out-of-work writers. When spending priorities changed after Pearl Harbor, the unfinished project materials were abruptly preserved in the Library of Congress, and we can thank Kurlansky for digging out its most fascinating gems for our enlightenment.
Among the southern and eastern sections where I focused my perusal, I really got a kick out of the anecdotes and details on preparing such delicacies as squirrel, [o]possum, chittelins, and corn pone, how the hush puppy got its name & why some forms of cornbread were once much lower in status. Of course, Virginians will find some definitive yet highly opinionated historical notes on the famed Brunswick Stew.
The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was a government agency that sprung up as one of many efforts to alleviate poverty in 1930s America. Some WPA projects designed programs according to individual skill, field of study or expertise. Remarkably, these included plans for the fields of art, music, drama, and literature. The Federal Writers’ Project commissioned writers to research, write, edit, and publish works and series on particular topics, usually with American themes or interests in mind; writers employed included Zora Neale Hurston and Eudora Welty. Following the successful production of numerous travel guidebooks, the concept for America Eats provided a means for capturing the distinct regional and cultural uniqueness of food and how it was prepared, served, and eaten in an America on the cusp of immense change. America’s culinary differences were destined to be homogenized through the diverse means that food production would soon become so heavily industrialized and globalized.
If you’re one of the many readers eagerly devouring information on real food, whole foods, traditional foods, or even paleolithic foods, in what seems like a mass revolution against modern food (in which I’m still trying to figure out what works best for my lifestyle), you’ll find much to inform and inspire you in Kurlansky’s book. Some will reminisce; others will find a lot of eye-opening and useful knowledge about the way we once were; all we be entertained.
Check the WRL catalog for The Food of a Younger Land
I read the title in the e-book version.