Blogging for a Good Book
Have you ever been so ticked off at the characters in a book that you wanted to yank them through the print and slap them? For me, it’s usually those comedies of manners in which the whole plot could be resolved by someone taking a deep breath and speaking their mind. In A Spy Among Friends, it’s the real people with the sense of privilege and identity that assumes, against all evidence, that one of your chums couldn’t possibly betray your country.
Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Donald Maclean, and Guy Burgess all came to the highest circles of British government through the same path. After a middling Oxbridge education, a friend of Pater puts a word in the ear of a fellow Club member, and suddenly Military Intelligence or the Foreign Service has a new acolyte. Wear the club tie and handmade suits, drink heavily, and send others into harm’s way. The problem is that four of these five men had a loyalty higher than the institutions that made them. They were spies for the Soviet Union.
Kim Philby pulled off probably the greatest intelligence coup in history. Taken in total, his career as a Soviet spy spanned 30 years, enabling him to betray Republicans in Spain’s Civil War, anti-Soviet cells in Russia, military and counter-intelligence operations during World War II, anti-Nazi factions in Germany, Allied agents, and infiltrators hoping to destabilize their Eastern Bloc countries. He was also able to protect Russian spies in the West, including Burgess and Maclean, either from detection or arrest, by tipping them off. He charmed his way into the inner circles of British and American intelligence, creating a vast pipeline of secret information that flowed on a river of booze and weekend parties directly to the KGB. He didn’t do it for money, he didn’t do it for excitement—he did it for ideology.
Nicholas Elliott was perhaps Philby’s closest friend, and his greatest victim. Time after time Elliott shared operational details with Philby, then wondered why those operations spectactularly failed, with fatal consequences for the people on the ground. He couldn’t picture that Philby, whose charm and drinking ability easily elicited critical secrets from their circle, was the source of those betrayals. Elliott even subverted investigations into Philby’s background for 12 years, playing up the idea that the working class detectives from MI5 had no right to question the aristocrats of MI6. And on his word, MI6 closed ranks to protect Philby. When Philby finally defected in 1963, Nicholas Elliott was the last British intelligence agent to talk with him.
Ben Macintyre does a great job bringing that culture of entitlement to life, effortlessly capturing the atmosphere of the British Empire’s last bastion without making it seem cliche. While he occasionally talks about tradecraft and agent recruitment, his interest really lies in dissecting the old boy network. An afterword by John Le Carre, which is really a collection of snippets, shows that Nicholas Elliott seems never to have overcome that trust in connexions. Looking back at all he’d tried and failed to accomplish, it really made me want to reach into the book and slap him. I just didn’t have my white gloves on.
Check the WRL catalog for A Spy Among Friends.
I am always on the lookout for good television shows to watch with my family. A few months ago, I decided to give this Ellery Queen Mysteries series a try, and boy am I glad I did. This rare gem of a mystery show is based upon the Ellery Queen mystery stories written by Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. It has everything you could want in a great TV series: great acting, a good plot formula, interesting stories, superb sets, and of course, a fun musical theme by Elmer Bernstein that you will find yourself humming for days after watching the show.
The cast of actors is excellent. Jim Hutton is great as the eccentric mystery writer Ellery Queen, who is brought in to solve difficult murder cases by his father, Inspector Richard Queen, played very well here by David Wayne. I liked the interplay between Ellery Queen and his father as they try to solve the cases together. Part of the fun was also watching Inspector Queen put up with his son’s eccentricities as they share an apartment together in New York City. I also liked Sergeant Thomas Velie (Tom Reese), the Inspector’s right hand man, who will often assist Ellery Queen. This show has a long list of supporting actors that reads like a who’s who of famous actors in the 1970s, including Betty White, George Burns, Bob Crane, Larry Hagman, and another favorite of mine, Rene Auberjonois.
Ellery and his father are routinely hounded and challenged by two of my favorite characters, a pushy news reporter by the name of Frank Flannigan (Ken Swofford) and an amateur radio sleuth, Simon Brimmer (John Hillerman). Hillerman was my favorite actor on the show; his role as the the stuffy Brimmer, who always tries to one-up Ellery Queen by being the first person to solve the mystery on his radio show, was wonderful and brought to my mind the role he is most famous for, as the British snob Higgins in Magnum, P.I.
Set in New York City in the late 1940s, this show follows the same fun formula that made those stories so popular. Viewers are made aware that a murder is soon to be committed and they are introduced to the soon-to-be victim and the cast of possible suspects, who all have good reason for sending the victim to his or her untimely death. Once the person has been done in, Ellery Queen is brought in to help solve the murder by his long-suffering father and NYPD police Inspector, Richard Queen. Ellery finds clues that others usually miss, and right before solving the mystery, he will turn and look at the TV camera and remind viewers of the essential facts of the case, and then will challenge them to solve the crime. My favorite episode that you don’t want to miss is “The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader” with guest star Tom Bosley. Ellery becomes a suspect in the murder of a comic book publisher when he goes to protest the use of his stories in comic book form. Every episode has an opening narration, and the one for this episode is classic:
In a few minutes, this famous cartoonist will be dead. Who killed him? Was it the ambitious lettering man? The layout expert? The background artist? The figure specialist? His disillusioned secretary? Or was it someone else? Match wits with Ellery Queen, and see if you can guess who done it!
The show was written and produced by Richard Levinson and William Link, who emphasized non-violent shows that depended on logic and deductive reasoning rather than weapons to solve a crime. They are best known for shows like Mannix, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote. And speaking of Murder, She Wrote, there are many similarities between it and Ellery Queen Mysteries worth noting. Both have great stories and acting (Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher is a real treat) and both feature a protagonist that is a mystery author. There is even an episode of season 9 of Murder, She Wrote (“The Dead File”) where Jessica finds herself ensnared in a comic murder mystery that rivals the fun of the Ellery Queen “Comic Book Crusader” episode.
The only real crime in Ellery Queen Mysteries is that this show only lasted for one season, for a total of 22 episodes. But if you haven’t seen it yet, you are in for a real treat. Highly recommended.
Check the WRL catalog for Ellery Queen Mysteries.
Can you imagine what it’s like to die from Ebola? Do you know what filoviruses like Ebola and a sister virus, Marburg, can do to a body? If you read The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, you’ll have a vivid idea. The images will stay with you for a very long time, and you’ll have a good understanding of the horror that people in West Africa are going through right now. In a blurb, Stephen King wrote that the first chapter is “one of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my whole life.” I couldn’t agree more.
Preston brings his superb descriptive skills to this non-fiction book, part of his Dark Biology series. “Ebola Zaire attacks every organ and tissue in the human body except skeletal muscle and bone. It is a perfect parasite because it transforms virtually every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles.” If you don’t want to read more like that, you may want to avoid this book and stick with the description of Ebola on the WHO website, “…fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding (e.g. oozing from the gums, blood in the stools)….”
The Hot Zone was published in 1995 and was a #1 bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list. It is now back on some non-fiction bestseller lists, as fears may be warranted that the outbreak in West Africa is out of control; the disease has spread to thousands of people and through at least five countries.
Last month, two U. S. aid workers in Liberia who contracted Ebola were brought back to the U. S. for treatment. Everyone involved understood that Dr. Kent Brantley and his colleague Nancy Writebol were infected with Ebola, and they were “transported with appropriate infection control procedures in place to prevent the disease from being transmitted to others.” Each was transported using an Aeromedical Biological Containment System, “a sort of framed tent made of thick, clear plastic with a negative-pressure, HEPA-filtered air supply designed to keep the [airplane] cabin clear of infections.” The two were taken to the isolation unit at Emory University Hospital where patients are sealed off from anyone not wearing protective gear. Both eventually recovered.
But this wasn’t the first time the Ebola virus was in a host in the United States. The last known time, the subject of this book, was in 1989 when the virus was found in the Reston [Virginia] Primate Quarantine Unit, a now-closed building that housed research monkeys. These monkeys were imported from the Philippines. At first, no one knew why the monkeys were getting very sick and dying. The staff knew something was horribly wrong, so the on-call veterinarian, Dan Dalgard, contacted experts at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, about an hour away. The virologist at USAMRIID, Peter Jahrling, “was surprised and annoyed when, the next day, a few bits of frozen meat from Monkey O53 arrived at the Institute, brought by courier. What annoyed him was the fact that the bits of meat were wrapped in aluminum foil, like pieces of leftover hot dog. … [T]he ice around [the monkey meat] was tinged with red and had begun to melt and drip.” If either party had suspected a filovirus was in play, strict isolation precautions would have been used, but they weren’t. Anyone who had any contact with the monkeys or samples—those who fed the monkeys and cleaned the cages, the veterinarians, the courier—could have been infected with the virus.
In striking detail, Preston describes the process of, and the people involved in, the diagnosis and the eventual disposition of the 450 monkeys housed in the building. Once you start reading, you will not want to put the book down.
There are other sections in The Hot Zone besides “The Monkey House.” Part 1, “The Shadow of Mount Elgon,” describes the 1980 infection and death of a Marburg virus patient, called Charles Monet in the book, a Frenchman who lived in Kenya. He and a friend took a New Year’s Day trip to nearby Kitum Cave. Preston describes the beauty of the African land and shows how interesting the cave—in a bat-filled, petrified rain forest—must have been. About a week after the cave exploration, Monet got a headache. He spiked a fever, became nauseated, and his personality changed. I will leave it to the reader to read how his transformation continues; the text is absolutely not for the faint of heart.
Check the WRL catalog for The Hot Zone.
WRL also owns The Hot Zone as an ebook.
Lately I’ve come across a lot of books set in the Midwest. Not exactly westerns, but books that are definitely not set in metropolitan areas or exotic locales. These books tend to feature small towns, tight-knit communities, and loyal heroes and heroines. The pace is slower but the intensity is just as high, and the ways of life remind you that not everything has to be the hustle bustle, make-it-or-break-it mentality found in city life. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this type of contemporary romance, and Hope Ignites is one of my favorites.
Movie star Desiree Jenkins is coming to Hope, Oklahoma to film her new movie on the L&M Ranch. Once she sets foot on the ranch she falls in love with the remoteness of the area, the gorgeous landscape, and the feeling that she’s found a place where she belongs.
Ranch owner Logan McCormack isn’t really interested in the goings on of the film crew. He’s rented his land for them to use and wants to make sure things go smoothly, but other than that he continues on with the daily workings of his cattle ranch. When he encounters Desiree he’s intrigued, but at the same time he’s not interested in chasing a woman he knows is going to leave.
Desiree is a normal woman whose profession happens to be acting. Luckily she has been successful at her chosen career. She grew up as a military brat and while she loves her job, she is also looking for a place to create a home. She wants to get to know Logan as a man, as a rancher, and as a member of his community. Logan is a good man and a good boss, but not good at trusting others with his heart. He grew up on the ranch and loves it. He doesn’t see how someone that grew up around the world would be satisfied living in a small town the rest of their life. It leaves you to wonder how a relationship can develop when one person refuses to trust the other.
Luckily it is through their actions that trust begins to build. Desiree teaches Logan about acting, and he teaches her about ranching. They spend time getting to know each other and interacting with both his and her friends. They find that they like each other and must decide whether the relationship they’ve developed is worth making compromises.
If you enjoy small town romances with a little heat, try Hope Ignites.
Check the WRL catalog for Hope Ignites.
I was on the hunt for a book that was light, fun, romantic, and funny. I had seen Jill Shalvis’s books on the shelves and I knew that her books are checked out often but I had never picked one up. On a whim and seeing a cover that conveyed light and fun, I decided to give the book a try, and it was a perfect fit for my mood.
To describe veterinarian Emily Stevens as “Type A” would be a little bit of an understatement. Her whole life is scheduled and organized, and she is extremely driven. She’s completing vet school and keeping food on the table and a roof over her head, but she isn’t finding much joy or satisfaction in her personal life. Even worse, her dream internship at a fancy clinic in Los Angeles has fallen through and she’s on her way to Sunshine, Idaho to complete the terms of her scholarship. Day one in Sunshine and Emily is literally counting down the days until she can hit the highway for L.A. Can we say uptight?
Wyatt Stone loves being a veterinarian at the Belle Haven vet clinic. As a child of foreign diplomats and having been raised in multiple countries, Wyatt has found his home and he’s staying put. Sunshine is everything he’s ever wanted: a home base, a career he loves, and good friends and family. Sometimes he wishes he could find a little distance from his crazy sisters, but on the whole he’s building the life he wants. He’s missing one element of the perfect life—the perfect girl to share it with.
When Emily and Wyatt meet the fireworks fly, but Wyatt is Emily’s new boss and she doesn’t know how she’ll survive the next year. She is crazily attracted to Wyatt and can’t help but let him know it by inserting her foot into her big mouth. After all, how can she resist a man so quietly confident, strong, nice, and funny? Remembering their one-night stand at a vet conference, Emily is reminded that she knows what she is missing.
If you’re looking for something fun to read that will make you smile and laugh, this is the book for you. It has witty banter and a misfit cast of secondary characters. It is the fifth in the Animal Magnetism series, but I didn’t feel like I was missing a thing from the previous books. If you want to know more, check out Melissa’s post on the first book in the series, Animal Magnetism.
Check the WRL catalog for Then Came You.
Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods was first published in 1917 as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation and has been reprinted in numerous editions (and with slightly varying titles) in the following hundred years. This is not surprising because Buffalobird-Woman’s comments, interpretations and knowledge of organic gardening are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago.
I originally searched for this book because I had read that it was a great way to learn about organic gardening methods but I found myself fascinated by Buffalobird-Woman’s strong personality as she talked about the history of her tribe and the lives of northern Native Americans. Buffalobird-Woman, or Maxi’diwiac, was born around 1839, two years after smallpox nearly completely wiped out her tribe of Hidatsas. When she was interviewed by anthropolgist Gilbert L. Wilson in 1912, she had never learned to speak English, so her memories were translated by her son Edward Goodbird or Tsaka’kasakicand. Despite the passage of time and the distancing effect of her words being translated and transcribed by at least two other people her personal voice comes through. Even if she would have considered a wink and a nudge too bold, I can picture a twinkle in her eye as she describes the best way to fold a skin for cushioning on a hard wooden platform or talks about the cheekiness of boys as they try to steal corn or chat up girls. She is opinionated, pointing out that food preserved a different way than that used in her childhood is dirty.
The book works well for my intention of studying old-fashioned agriculture as practiced before mechanization. It turns out that Buffalobird-Woman weeded grass exactly the way I do, but worked much harder for much longer hours. She describes the entire agricultural practice from clearing the land through weeding and guarding the growing crops to harvesting and how to preserve food. She also includes recipes of the main things they made from their crops, but they mostly sound quite bland and uninteresting. Look for lots of low tech, practical ideas like spoons made from stems of squash leaves. I learned some surprising things, including that plants I thought of as South American, like maize, pumpkins, squashes, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco, were cultivated by Indians centuries before Columbus. Also that Buffalobird-Woman practiced selective breeding of sunflowers by choosing the largest heads to save the seeds from to plant next year.
The book is illustrated with the originally published diagrams and line drawings, many redrawn from sketches by Buffalobird-Woman’s son.
Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods is a great choice for readers of the difficult but inspiring lives of real women like Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth or Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It also has lots of practical information for readers interesting on authentic old-fashioned horticultural techniques such as Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene.
Check the WRL catalog for Native American Gardening: Buffalobird-Woman’s Guide to Traditional Methods
Is it possible to like a book if you don’t like the main character? Does it really count as dislike if I was intrigued by the story and compelled to know what happened next? Ladder of Years is a good book to explore these questions because I didn’t warm to the main character, Delia. She is a forty-year-old woman who feels unappreciated by her family and literally walks away from them. She makes a new life for herself in a small town, but ends up also walking away from the entanglements she makes there. The story is told through Delia’s eyes, who acts kindly towards the people she encounters but seems unaware of the effects her large acts may have on other people. She is oblivious to the fact that walking out on her husband and children, especially the son who is still living at home, will break their hearts. Does she lack the imagination or empathy to try to see the world through their eyes? She is otherwise portrayed as intelligent, so it is not clear. Her family are also to blame–it is not as if any of them tell her that their hearts are broken. With an astonishing lack of communication, once they learn she is safe, they just wait for her to come home. These are characters that I wanted to take by the shoulders and shake until their teeth rattled, so they obviously touched me.
Ladder of Years has a cast of colorful secondary characters including three wives who leave. The characters are all a bit askew, perhaps because like real people, they are not perfect, and have realistic flaws. They become entangled with each other in various ways they don’t expect, perhaps showing that it’s impossible to go through life without entanglements.
Author Anne Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of nineteen novels. In an interview she asked rhetorically, “Aren’t human beings intriguing?” and her fascination shows in her compelling books.
Check the WRL catalog for Ladder of Years.
Everyone’s heard of the painters Matisse and Picasso, but fewer have heard of the sisters who early last century brought hundreds of their paintings to the United States and, in the 1940s, bequeathed their huge collections to the Baltimore Museum of Art. To this day the Baltimore Museum of Art has one of the world’s premier collections of modern art housed in the sisters’ three-thousand piece, three-story Cone Collection.
The Art of Acquiring is a portrait of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, who were born into a large and wealthy American family around the time of the Civil War. They never married and spent a good deal of their lives traveling to Europe, particularly Paris, and spending their inherited wealth on art. They were notable for their time for their unbending independence. Claribel trained as a doctor when such things were uncommon for women and she worked as a research scientist for a number of years. Younger sister Etta appears to have lived in her big sister’s shadow but she quietly asserted her own independence by buying paintings society considered obscene and scandalous, but are now seen as artistically important such as Henri Matisse’s 1935 “Pink Nude” (Grand nu couche). The sisters can only be described as tough and single-minded. A famous family story recounts that when Claribel became trapped in Berlin after the start of World War I, she hunkered down and waited out the war, diverting and charming visiting army officers with stashed candy.
Author Mary Gabriel spent years extensively researching the Cone sisters using letters, Etta’s diaries, Claribel’s notes, oral histories, and interviews. In the time before instant communications, people–especially rich people going on European tours–wrote lots of letters, sometimes several a day. Quotes from the letters are occasionally catty (especially when Gertrude Stein was involved), sometimes poignant, but always enlightening. The book also includes extensive notes, a bibliography and an index.
The color plates in The Art of Acquiring show some of the more significant paintings mentioned, but keep an art book or two handy to look at the other art works as they are described, both as they were created by the artists and purchased by the Cone sisters. The Art of Acquiring will be of great interest to modern art lovers and readers fascinated by the Belle Epoque of Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, with real life characters such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Matisse, Picasso and more. It is also engrossing if you like biographies of real women who went against the social mores of their times and always followed their own paths.
Check the WRL catalog for The Art of Acquiring.
Why does the name Dimity appear only in a certain sort of British cosy?* I have never met (or even heard of) a real person named Dimity but one so-named occurs in Miss Read’s Thrush Green series, the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, and Susan Wittig Albert’s series The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm). I view it as a kind of code. If I read the name Dimity then I promptly make my hot chocolate, put on my dressing gown and slippers, and curl up in my over-sized armchair for a cosy treat.
And for those readers interested in a cosy interlude The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are indeed a treat. Beatrix Potter is of course a real person and Susan Wittig Albert researched her extensively and followed her life events as they are known. Beatrix Potter really purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in England’s lovely Lake District and spent increasing amounts of time there away from the overwhelming presence of her parents. But the series is highly fictionalized even though some of it reads as a travelogue as the reader learns about charming Hawkshead, and some reads as a romance as Beatrix Potter’s affection grows for lawyer Will Heelis whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913.
On the shelves of the Williamsburg Regional Library these books have a small purple magnifying glass sticker showing that they are classified as mysteries, although nothing disturbing or gory happens. In The Tale of Hill Top Farm the mystery arises from the death of elderly local spinster Miss Tolliver. Could it possibly have been foul play and is it related to the inheritance of desirable Anvil Cottage? Beatrix Potter has a trained artist’s eye and is soon in the thick of village affairs to solve the mystery.
Fans of Beatrix Potter’s famous books will be thrilled to recognize many animal characters such as Tom Thumb mouse, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, and Kep the farm dog. Like Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s book creatures, the animal characters in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter can talk, but only to each other as the Big Folk generally don’t understand them. They also wear clothes, use furniture, and Bosworth Badger XVII is even writing a badger genealogy, but like Beatrix Potter’s animals they follow their animal natures in personality and appetite.
The books are nicely rounded out by a map, a cast of characters, a list of resources, and recipes (I highly recommend the Ginger Snaps!).
The Tale of Hill Top Farm is the first in the series that continues on with eight titles, the most recent of which, The Tale of Castle Cottage came out in 2011.
These books are great for fans of cosy British series like Miss Read.
I listened to The Tale of Hill Top Farm on audio and I can only say that narrator, Virginia Leishman, did a lovely job with just the right sort of British voice.
*And “cosy” not “cozy” is most appropriate since they are Very British.
Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm.
Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm on CD.
A rabbit wearing a blue waist coat is a familiar icon of childhood, but adults usually assume Peter Rabbit’s antics don’t have much bearing on reality. Beatrix Potter was a naturalist at heart so her animals often act their natural way (apart from speaking in the manner of citizens of an English country village and wearing clothes). In many cases they are also pictured in real places that Beatrix Potter knew and loved–her own lands and gardens.
Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life explains how that came about. The book starts with a biography, telling of her privileged, but perhaps lonely, childhood full of pet hedgehogs, country visits and drawings of fungi. Her overbearing parents didn’t want her to marry but she was finally able to wriggle out from under their thumbs by the age of nearly 40 by becoming engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, but her fiance died soon after of leukemia. She always took solace in nature so the great success of her children’s books meant that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in England’s lovely Lake District. She was only able to live there part time for many years but gardened and farmed enthusiastically. She kept on buying land until at her death at the age of seventy-seven, she left over four thousand acres to the British National Trust. Her house and garden at Hill Top Farm still belong to the National Trust and can be visited by tourists.
If you love Peter Rabbit and his friends try Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life to see their real homes and haunts. Keep copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other famous works handy because it uses quotes from Beatrix Potter’s actual letters, her drawings, (both her sketches and her finished book illustrations), historical photos, and beautiful modern photos of the places she wrote about, making the book a delight even if you only have time to browse through and look at the pictures. I loved seeing a sketch or watercolor of a real place and then to see Peter Rabbit or Tabitha Twitchit standing in the picture.
For garden lovers, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life doesn’t have much practical advice, so it is best as a wintertime curl-up-by-the-fire and dream book. It includes sections on her garden through the seasons, how to visit all the gardens she knew and created throughout her life and and a list of plants she mentioned or drew. It is essential reading for established Beatrix Potter fans who have already consumed her biographies Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature by Linda Lear or The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane; or her book of art, Beatrix Potter’s Art: Paintings and Drawings by Anne Stevenson Hobbs; or the series of cozy mysteries featuring her life and haunts by Susan Wittig Albert starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm (more about these tomorrow).
As Beatrix said in a letter, “The best thing about sharing plants is that they always bring the giver to mind,” and the best thing about reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is that her story will always bring to mind her enduring animal characters, her brave life, and the beauty and solace of gardening, especially in the real Lake District.
Check the WRL catalog for Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.
Olivia Taylor-Jones grew up in a privileged family. She attends the right type of charity functions, works as a volunteer at a shelter, and is engaged to be married to a handsome, proper CEO with political ambitions. Her life couldn’t be more perfect, until everything falls apart.
Reporters uncover that she was adopted and her birth parents are serving time for several heinous murders. Everyone has heard of the serial killers Pamela and Todd Larsen. Olivia just had no idea that she was their daughter.
The scandal and zealous publicity hounds are a bit too much for her adopted mother and fiance – so Olivia flees. At first she tries to find an apartment in Chicago, but because of her reluctance to tap into her mother’s money, she has very limited resources. After a particularly unsettling experience in a cheap, but unsafe, neighborhood she takes the advice of an older man and heads to Cainsville, a small town just outside of the city.
Cainsville is an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past. And Olivia feels strangely connected to the place. She lands a job as a waitress at the local diner and begins a rocky relationship with her birth mother’s lawyer, Gabriel Walsh. Walsh would like Olivia to help mend his professional relationship with Pamela Larsen – and Olivia wants to meet Pamela to find out about her past.
In the course of investigating her parents’ alleged crimes, Olivia stumbles upon the truth about one of the murders. Poking around in the past puts Olivia and Gabriel in danger – but also brings the two unlikely partners closer.
I appreciated that this one murder mystery was solved and I wasn’t left completely hanging at the end, though I know the story has many other issues to resolve. I’ll keep reading the series because I care about the characters and love the hints about there being something more than what meets the eye.
If you are just now starting the series — lucky you! — the second book just came out. Visions provides additional material as to what is so special about Cainsville’s residents.
Check the WRL catalog for Omens
Check the WRL catalog for Visions
Here’s another fantastic book I read based on my colleague Nancy’s suggestion. Like her last recommendation, The Supreme’s at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, this one takes a look at friendships and race relations in the South.
Starla Claudelle is an impetuous, spunky 9-year-old kid who learns a lot about the world during a two-week adventure in the summer of 1963.
Her mother moved to Nashville to be a country music star when Starla was just 3 years old. She has vague memories of a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, and her most prized possession is a demo record her mama sent her a few years ago.
Starla rarely sees her dad who works on an oil rig in Biloxi. She is growing up under the care of her grandmother, Mamie, who doesn’t have a lot of patience with Starla. Maybe Mamie is just worried that Starla won’t grow up into a proper young lady without the restrictions and high demands, or maybe she’s just got a mean streak…
After losing the privilege of attending her favorite holiday festivities because she was defending a younger girl against a bully, Starla decides to sneak out for the 4th-of-July parade and get her share of candy. When she is caught by one of Mamie’s friends, Starla reasons that she might as well run away to Nashville and live with her famous mother instead of staying in Cayuga Springs and being sent to reform school.
There aren’t many cars on the road on the holiday, and Starla is beginning to rethink her impulsive action when a black woman pulls up and offers her a ride. You know from the start that Eula doesn’t believe Starla’s story about why she’s on the road alone, but Eula takes her home anyway and eventually helps her get to Nashville to find her mother.
Through the course of the story Starla learns about kindness and meanness, justice and injustice, truth and lies. And the reader learns it, too, through her eyes.
I loved the way the reader, Amy Rubinate, handled the narration of the audiobook. I particularly enjoyed Eula’s voice – soothing and calm. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say, especially after hearing Starla go on about something she was upset about. Rubinate received AudioFile’s Golden Earphones Award for her work on this book.
When I got nervous that Starla was going to get in a heap of trouble, what Starla referred to as getting a “red rage,” I had to turn off the CD and pick up the book. It sounds silly, but I cared about the characters too much to listen to something bad happen to her or Eula. And no, I won’t spoil the story by telling you whether my fears were unfounded.
I’d recommend this one to book groups looking for a something like The Help or as Nancy suggested, The Sweet By and By. There is a lot to discuss about friendship, family and racial tensions. A reading group guide is available online at the publisher’s website.
Check the WRL catalog for Whistling Past the Graveyard
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of Whistling Past the Graveyard
Modern day teen Amy Gumm is having a tough time at home and at school. Her day gets worse when a tornado barrels through her Kansas trailer park home and deposits her in the land of Oz. Amy quickly finds out this isn’t the Oz of the storybooks. What was beautiful and magical is dull and dead.
Like Dorothy, Amy wanders the countryside looking for a way home. Along the way she makes a few friends. But instead of watching out for wicked witches, Amy and her companions are on the lookout for the Tin Woodman and his soldiers.
Dorothy came back from Kansas many years ago and something has gone very, very wrong.
The Tin Woodman is now the Grand Inquisitor of Oz. You can get arrested (or worse) for sass, for not smiling, for lack of loyalty… As Amy comes quickly to realize, all of Oz is subject to Dorothy’s bizarre and selfish whims.
The Scarecrow and Lion aren’t much better. Scarecrow used his brains for horrible experiments which make the machine-human hybrids of the Woodman’s army. The Lion attacks villages and kills innocent people. He is fearless – and completely lacking compassion. And Glinda the Good is actually an evil slave-driver who makes the Munchkins mine for magic!
All is not without hope. There is an underground movement to remove Dorothy from power. The formerly wicked witches want Amy’s help. They spring her from prison and begin training her in magic and combat techniques so she can play her part in freeing Oz from the tyranny.
This debut novel certainly gives a unique and dark twist to the Wizard of Oz story. The tale itself follows a familiar story arc of a strong, female teen relying on herself to overcome obstacles (think Hunger Games, Divergent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – but the similarities and differences with the familiar children’s story makes this new YA book a very interesting read.
Dorothy Must Die ends with plenty of questions still needing to be answered. A sequel is expected in March. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Oz.
Check the WRL catalog for Dorothy Must Die
Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) enjoys a thriving career, including the recent publication of a well-received book called Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life. One of her patients is a compulsive gambler named Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein). During a therapy session, a distraught Billy confides in Margaret that he owes $25,000 to a shady gambler named Mike. He doesn’t have the money and his life is in danger if he doesn’t repay Mike by the following evening. When Margaret tries to reassure Billy that his life is not in danger, he pulls out a gun and tells her that suicide may be his only way out of the problem. She successfully calms Billy and takes the gun from him.
Later that evening while reviewing her notes on Billy’s situation, she finds a reference to Mike and the place where Billy lost the money: the House of Games. Determined to help her patient, Margaret goes to the House of Games looking for Mike (Joe Mantegna). She confronts him about Billy’s debt and learns that he only owed Mike $800, not $25,000 as originally claimed. Mike makes Margaret an offer: in exchange for helping him win a poker game, he’ll forgive Billy’s debt. Although the poker game is exposed as nothing more than a clever ruse, Mike keeps his word and forgives the debt, and Margaret finds herself intrigued by Mike and his shadowy world of deceptions and con games.
Her evening with Mike sparks an idea for another book, and several nights later she tracks him down and asks if she could watch how he operates. He agrees, and takes her along as he pulls several small cons, all the while explaining to her how confidence games work. She also finds herself falling in love with Mike, seduced by his charm and his insight into why people fall for his cons. Margaret’s whirlwind affair with Mike culminates in a complex confidence game involving a briefcase containing $80,000 borrowed from the mob. Will she risk her professional reputation and her life to protect the man she’s grown to love?
I enjoyed House of Games for the same reason I enjoyed Nine Queens, Fabián Bielinsky’s excellent 2000 film about a pair of con artists trying to sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps. I know an elaborate trick lies at the heart of the story, but the pleasure of watching the film comes from seeing how the trick was constructed and executed. Mamet’s clever and fast-paced screenplay pulls the viewer along for the ride as Margaret finds herself caught up in a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control. The lead performances are particularly strong and credible. Joe Mantegna’s smooth talking Mike is charming, but unapologetic about his life as a con man. Lindsay Crouse’s character is a bit more complex. Dr. Margaret Ford is a caring psychiatrist who wants to help people; however, her experience with Mike leads to subtle changes to the way she regards herself and her profession. Without giving too much away, I suggest that viewers pay careful attention to Margaret’s clothing and demeanor in the scenes at the beginning and end of the movie where she is approached by fans of her book.
Tightly constructed and well-paced, House of Games is a fine mystery and fascinating character study.
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A group of reporters gather in a lavish wedding hall, waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for the reception. Yoshiko Iwabuchi (Kyōko Kagawa), the daughter of Public Corporation Vice President Iwabuchi (Masayuki Mori), has married Kôichi Nishi (Toshiro Mifune), her father’s trusted secretary. Despite the happy occasion, there are a few signs that this is not the typical society wedding: Wada (Kamatari Fujiwara), the master of ceremony, is arrested on bribery charges; the bride’s brother delivers a curious and threatening wedding toast; and an elaborate wedding cake hints at a sinister event. In some films, this scene might be the backdrop to a big and dramatic climax; however, in The Bad Sleep Well, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Hamlet-inspired film from 1960, the wedding is the prelude to a story of obsession and tragedy.
Nishi is a promising young businessman whose quick ascent through the ranks of Public Corporation is driven by the desire to avenge the death of his father, Furuya, five years earlier. At the time, Furuya was assistant chief at Public Corporation when Vice President Iwabuchi and two of his trusted associates – administrative officer Moriyama and contract officer Shirai – were implicated in a bribery and kickback scandal. Before charges could be filed, Furuya committed suicide by jumping out of a window on the seventh floor of an office building. Furuya’s death brought the investigation to a close, but the bribery and kickbacks continued. Nishi was Furuya’s illegitimate son, and before his death Furuya attempted to reconcile with him. Nishi wants revenge for his father’s death, but he also wants to expose the culture of corruption he believes led to his father’s suicide.
After switching identities with a childhood friend, Nishi secures a job at Public Corporation and eventually marries Yoshiko. Following their marriage, Nishi’s plan for revenge seems to fall into place. Wada and Miura, the company’s accountant, are questioned by police regarding the allegations of bribery. Like Furuya, Miura commits suicide after he’s released by the police; however, Nishi prevents Wada from jumping into a volcano by convincing him to help bring his superiors to justice. Working together, Nishi and Wada then set a trap to frame contract officer Shirai for theft. As his plans come to fruition, Nishi realizes he has fallen in love with Yoshiko, setting the stage for a series of events that put Nishi and Wada’s lives in danger.
The Bad Sleep Well is not the only Shakespeare-inspired film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Throne of Blood, a retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan, was released in 1957, and in 1985 he directed the King Lear-inspired Ran, which won the Academy Award for costume design. Unlike Throne of Blood and Ran, which are epic in tone and scope, The Bad Sleep Well has a more intimate setting, taking place in the well-appointed homes and boardrooms of corporate leaders.
I especially enjoyed the pacing of the film and Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Nishi. The opening wedding sequence was a brilliant way to establish the film’s tone and introduce the major characters. The film proceeds at a methodical pace as Kurosawa gradually ratchets up the tension, building to a surprising and tragic turn of events. As Nishi, the great actor Toshiro Mifune brings the right amount of intensity and compassion; his drive for revenge tempered by his growing feelings for his wife.
The Bad Sleep Well is a dramatic, emotionally dynamic film that will appeal to fans of Shakespeare and Kurosawa. It is in Japanese with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for The Bad Sleep Well
The end of summer seems a good time to pull out some old favorite titles and enjoy a last indulgence in pleasure reading before the busy-ness of Fall picks up. On a windy day, what could be better than a novel of nautical adventure? While I enjoy Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series about which Charlotte has written so well, I think that my favorite 19th century sailing novels are those of Alexander Kent.
Kent’s series chronicles the rise of Richard Bolitho through the ranks of the British navy beginning during the American Revolution and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars. Like O’Brian, Kent has a deep understanding of the art of sailing and of late 18th and early 19th century naval customs and traditions, and his books are richly descriptive without being dry. Kent also gives an interesting picture of all the behind-the-scenes trades that are essential to a successful voyage: ropemaking, supplying ship’s stores, and so on.
These are character-driven stories, and Bolitho is always at the center. Over the course of his career (and the series) Bolitho often finds himself challenged by orders that conflict with his sense of honor. This conflict between following one’s duty or one’s moral code is a central theme here. The secondary characters, from newly minted sailors to the lords of the Admiralty, are all equally well-drawn. Kent’s ear for dialog shines through.
The pace here is a bit faster than that of the Aubrey and Maturin books, and Kent offers readers a thrilling blend of naval detail and action. The series should be read more or less in order to get the full story, so start with Midshipman Bolitho, the first in the series.
Check the WRL catalog for Midshipman Bolitho
Read the series in ebook format, starting with a 3-in-1 collection The Complete Midshipman Bolitho
Loving historical mysteries as I do, I was surprised to find that I had not written about Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series before (well, I mentioned him in this review of Lindsey Davis’s Falco series). While I like the Lindsey Davis books quite a lot for their humor and wit and a well-crafted noirish feel to the mystery, Saylor’s novels are, I think, richer and perhaps more accurately capture life and culture in early Rome.
The series lead is Gordianus the Finder, a sometime investigator in the later days of the Roman Republic. In many of the stories, Gordianus finds himself delving into the crimes that result from the struggle for power among the Roman elites. These books will interest anyone who delights in tales of political intrigue and backroom manoeuvrings. Throughout the series, Gordianus encounters historical figures — Cicero, Catalina, Caesar — and he frequently finds himself working for the state, occasionally against his better judgement.
Saylor’s mysteries venture into the darker side of human nature where Gordianus finds his sense of honor and ethics sometimes at odds with the wishes of his clients. Saylor has a firm foundation in Roman history and uses that knowledge to create a believable and realistic sense of place. The private lives of Romans of high and low birth come to life here, and the novels are an excellent introduction to the history of the end days of the Republic.
One appealing feature of this series is the way that Saylor’s characters age in a realistic fashion. In so many mystery series, the passing years have little affect on the main characters, but in the 30 or so years covered in the series, Gordianus experiences the inevitable changes that come with age.
If you like historical fiction or well-crafted mysteries, this is a series not to be missed.
Check the WRL catalog for Roman Blood
Did you ever pick a book up off of your parents’ bookshelves and find yourself wondering about their reading interests? It happened to me when sometime in my early teens I pulled down a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories and started to browse around. I was horrified. There were hitchhikers killing old ladies, grandfathers killing granddaughters, salesmen stealing hearts and prosthetic legs. Was this what my mother was reading? Well, it was, and as I grew older, I came more and more to appreciate what she found in these stories, and what I missed in my earlier reading of O’Connor.
Faith is a serious business, and it has serious implications for those who profess their beliefs. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, both short stories and novels, is all an exploration of the way our beliefs shape our actions, for better, and for worse. In the darkest or most grotesque parts of these stories, I think that O’Connor is asking her readers to consider how the actions that might appall us seem perfectly reasonable to those who are taking them. These characters, like Martin Luther, “kann nicht anders.” They can only hope, again like Luther, that God will help them.
The stories also are about grace, and I think that this is the part that I missed when first reading them. It is through the presence of grace that a sense of redemption can be found in O’Connor’s work. For O’Connor, and her characters, grace is simply there; it is not to be earned or merited. So she calls us to live our lives open to the experience of that grace. My mother was right (as always): these are great stories that challenge us to look into our own lives and see where our beliefs are leading us, and also to be open to the daily grace that pervades the world.
Check the WRL catalog for The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
If you enjoy sprawling stories that cover several centuries of history, you are probably already familiar with Edward Rutherfurd. He came to prominence with his first novel, Sarum, which tells the story of the land and the people of the Salisbury Plain in England over a period of about 10,000 years. He followed up that success with books set in Russia, London, Ireland, and New York, all in the same pattern. Rutherfurd uses the specific — stories of individual lives — to draw a picture of the whole; his books, as in yesterday’s post, are mosaics.
Character is at the heart of Rutherfurd’s novels, and Paris is no exception. Here, he follows the lives of four French families from the 1200s through the 1960s. He uses the ebb and flow of their personal and professional lives to track the life of the city, and does so in an eminently readable fashion. As in all his novels, Rutherfurd creates characters from all classes of society, allowing him to move smoothly from the lives and homes of courtiers and nobles to those of merchants and artists to the Paris underworld and its denizens.
Paris itself is a character here too, and the city comes to life in Rutherfurd’s telling. His attention to detail is always just right. There are no unnecessary facts cluttering up the story just to show the author’s erudition. Whether it is Paris during the two World Wars or in the reign of the Sun King, Rutherfurd creates a compelling and memorable portrait of a lively and engaging city. The fictional and historical characters blend easily together, and Rutherfurd creates dialog that rings true regardless of the time period.
Readers who like family sagas will find a great deal to enjoy here, as will fans of history, and lovers of Paris. If you cannot get away to the City of Light anytime soon, you could do worse than letting Edward Rutherfurd take you there in his book.
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Or try the ebook version of Paris
Over the past few years, I have spent a lot of time reading both fiction and nonfiction set in the early 20th century, from just prior to WW I and the years immediately following the war up to the start of WW II. There is something about that time period that I find particularly compelling. Part of it is, no doubt, trying to comprehend the horrors of the war itself and the effect that it had on individuals and on the world. In R. F. Delderfield’s great academic novel, we see how a man, scarred by his service in the British Army in the fields of France, attempts to recover through his work as a teacher, just as his country attempts a similar recovery from its devastating losses.
We first meet David Powlett-Jones, shell-shocked and still recovering from injuries suffered when an explosion buried him alive, as he catches a train into the English countryside to apply for a position at Bamfylde School. Powlett-Jones has been brought back to a semblance of health, mental and physical, by a Scottish neurologist, who encourages him to consider becoming a schoolmaster, “imparting to successive generations of the young such knowledge as a man accumulated through books, experience, and contemplation.” Although the war interrupted his education, Powlett-Jones is taken on an instructor, and the novel chronicles his rise through the school to headmaster.
I love this book for the small portraits that Delderfield paints of the schoolmasters, students, and country folk in the neighborhood of Bamfylde. In a paragraph or two or three, each person is limned with compassion and a recognition that all of us have our strengths and weaknesses. Delderfield’s mastery is in building his lengthy story — 598 pages — with a multitude of smaller pieces. As with a mosaic, you can take as much delight in studying the tesserae as in looking at the whole.
Delderfield also excels at writing about the English countryside, for which he has a clear and deep affection. Here is a description of Powlett-Jones’s approach to Bamfylde:
Already the hedgerows were starred with campion and primrose, with dog violets showing among the thistles and higher up, where the rhododendrons tailed off on the edge of a little birch wood, the green spires of bluebell were pushing through a sea of rusty bracken.
Yes, I am easily won over by lists of flora, fauna, or geologic formations.
Delderfield does not shy away from difficult situations, and Powlett-Jones experiences triumphs and sorrows as he and the school navigate the turbulent years from 1918 to the beginning of the Second World War. But through all of these ups and downs Powlett-Jones emerges as a compassionate and thoughtful teacher, the sort we would all hope for at the beginning of a new school year.
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Read the ebook of To Serve Them All My Days