Blogging for a Good Book
August 2014 marks the centennial of the worldwide convulsion we call World War I. Many of the images we collectively identify with the war came from one region of the line: Flanders. The mud and shell holes which drowned soldiers, the devastated landscapes, the ancient towns reduced to rubble, the fruitless struggle for advances that could sometimes be measured in meters all characterized the hell which started at the North Sea and ended around the French border with Belgium.
Winston Groom, he of Forrest Gump fame, has been interested in Flanders since finding a automobile touring guide in his grandfather’s attic. In writing a history of the Ypres Salient, as the continuous four year battle was known, he has drawn on contemporary accounts, historical evaluations of the battle, and the biographies of participants from private (including Adolf Hitler) up to general. But everything seems to come back to that map of his grandfather’s.
The topography of the region was perhaps the greatest obstacle that faced both sides, but especially the British. A hill – more accurately a pile of construction rubble 60 meters high – dominated the landscape and provided an observation post for the masses of German artillery. The drainage ditches which made the pre-war farms possible were destroyed, and the heavy rains were channeled into the British trenches. Those farmlands offered little or no cover for assaults which might cover hundreds of meters into well placed German defenses. But the British held the salient as the world dissolved around them. Today, over 200,000 British cemeteries are in Flanders, and a memorial remembers 90,000 more who simply disappeared over the four years.
I became interested in reading an account of the Ypres Salient when the library added The Great War Seen from the Air, an oversized and detailed collection of aerial photographs with analysis and overlays which explain what the reader is seeing. Since I didn’t know the place names and only had a general sense of the war in Flanders, I wanted to know more about what the photographs represented. I don’t know which is worse – seeing the ground-level destruction or the panorama which puts that destruction into a larger context. I am still no closer to understanding how the soldiers and civilians on both sides could allow the futile bloodletting to continue. I do know a little more about the seeds sown by the War to End All Wars, which bloomed into the history of the 20th Century. Let’s hope that kind of madness never descends on humanity again.
Check the WRL catalogue for A Storm in Flanders
In a recent Gallup survey, 75% of the respondents said that the Bible is the inspired word of God; about half of those said it was literally the word of God. However, even the most generous estimates are that perhaps 10% of Americans report reading the Bible cover to cover. (I’d be willing to bet that some of those who said they did were violating the Eighth or Ninth Commandment.)
Regardless of your motive, reading the entire Bible (and Plotz, a nonobservant Jew, limited himself to the Old Testament) is a taxing and enlightening project. 26 books filled with the movements of a nomadic people constantly fighting with their neighbors, begetting generation after generation, and laying down precise rules about who and what could actually approach God can get pretty tiring. Besides, your Sunday School teacher or Hollywood took the important parts and left all the rest behind, right?
One of the first things Plotz discovers is that those stories aren’t quite as straightforward as most people would like to think. Two versions of the creation story? A parade of liars, cheats, dastards and worse as the Lord’s Chosen? Wrathful and genocidal zealots committing mass murder in His name? And that’s just the first book.
It gets worse as God continually writes and rewrites the Covenant, punishes the innocent and gives passes to the guilty, and accepts child sacrifice in violation of His own law. When the Israelites come into their own in Canaan, the fun really starts. Instead of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites created a land flowing with blood. (That’s according to the Bible – it’s highly unlikely that the area could have supported the hundreds of thousands of Canaanites and Israelites cited in the various stories.)
The best part of the book is that Plotz doesn’t indulge in exegesis. He’s not qualified, as he himself says. Instead, he gives a chapter-by-chapter (OK sometimes he groups chapters together when they’re related) account of the Bible as he’s reading it. His tone varies from flip to bemused to outraged to wonder-filled as he works his way through the stories, poetry, inspiration and contradictions of a book which has provided continuity to the Jewish people and has influenced Western history for 2000 years. But he also finds that knowing how the stories fit together equips him to continue a tradition of doubting and challenging a world where righteousness is no guarantee of happiness or even survival.
Check the catalog for Good Book
Martha Grimes has come a long way since she started a series of mysteries named after English pubs. Her latest Richard Jury mystery is named for a champagne bar atop a skyscraper that overlooks the London financial district. While stretching the definition of “pub,” and sporting a cover that looks like a city crime thriller, the story offers the same mix of tragic, wealthy victims and eccentric rural Brits that have made Grimes’s books so popular for years.
Quite a few characters have been introduced in the course of 23 books, and the ones who weren’t Inspector Jury’s love interest have mostly survived to feature in later books. Grimes’s latest books are like a roll call of characters, each of whom seems to have wandered in from a different genre of mystery. Richard Jury, handsome and melancholy, lives in a darker, psychological mystery series where most people die, especially women he admires, and terrible things happen to children; reluctant aristocrat Melrose Plant evokes the golden age of wealthy amateur sleuths with butlers; while the crew of hangers-on in the town of Long Piddleton and Plant’s dreadful American aunt seem like they’d be comfier in a cozy mystery with tea shops and talking cats. But Grimes throws them all together along with movie references in affectionate nods to all kinds of mysteries past.
The movie reference in this case is obviously Hitchcock’s dizzy thriller Vertigo. For an old friend, Jury agrees to look into a very cold case: seventeen years ago, the friend’s beloved wife “fell” down a stone stairway, or so the police concluded at the time. It does seem suspicious that her death mirrored an even earlier tragedy, when a bossy, unpopular child at a birthday party “fell” into an empty pool on the same grounds. And while Jury is mulling over these incidents, a woman “falls” from a tower in the surprisingly crime-ridden environs of Long Piddleton, involving Melrose Plant and the usual suspects who hang out at the local pub. Jury and Sgt. Wiggins trace the survivors of the fatal party, and a depressing lot they are. But are they murderers?
Check the WRL catalog for Vertigo 42.
Izzy Goodnight’s father was the author of a beloved series of children’s stories set in a fictional medieval kingdom. But since her father died, leaving nothing but debts, Izzy’s real life is no fairy tale. Her purse is empty when she receives notice of a surprising bequest: her godfather appears to have left her a castle. And when she arrives to take stock of the new real estate, uneasily situated in the middle of nowhere, her ownership of the castle comes as a surprise to the duke who is already living there.
A scarred, snarling misanthrope with his own problems, Ransom William Dacre Vane doesn’t remember selling the castle at any point, and he’s unwilling to move out, as he needs a cold, bat-infested castle for brooding purposes. You can’t properly hate mankind in a rose cottage, can you? Not one to back down, Izzy strikes a deal with the duke: he will pay her to act as his clerk; she will sort through his piles of unopened correspondence in hopes of settling the legal status of the castle. Her duke-infested castle.
This lighthearted romance is roughly based on the story of “Beauty and the Beast.” That’s never been one of my favorite fairy tales, as it requires the hero to waste so much time insisting he’s a monster— so I was actually pretty relieved when the LARPers showed up. Yes, I picked this title out of a stack of historical romances because it contains 19th-century cosplay, a band of fannish role players who are starstruck to meet the Izzy Goodnight of the Goodnight Tales and who spend their spare time re-enacting medieval romances.
Written in a breezy, conversational style, this is a romance for pure escapism. All the gothic elements, the isolated castle, the bats, and the apparently brutish lead— so brooding!— are played for laughs and to surprisingly sweet effect. There’s a sneaky undercurrent of modern references, too (“The threat is coming from inside the castle”), that let you know this story is all in good fun.
Check the WRL catalog for Romancing the Duke.
Art, theft, and con artists in love are an irresistible combination in this contemporary romance classic. Whip-crack dialogue and lots of old movie quotes evoke the great screwball comedy duos of the screen.
They meet in the closet while burgling a house: Davy Dempsey, a (reformed?) con man introduced in Welcome to Temptation, is trying to steal three million back from a gold-digging ex who has moved on to her next victim, an art collector. Tilda Goodnight is trying to steal back her own painting so that the world won’t learn that the respected Goodnight art gallery has been trafficking in forgeries.
I’d forgotten how crowded this book is when I revisited it on my recent romance binge. On top of the cast of dozens, some have double identities and others have multiple nicknames, depending on which movie they happen to be quoting at the time. Fast-paced and funny, it’s one of those comedy romances in which you never know who will come through the door next— the con man, the hit man, the gold digger, the FBI? “It’s like the clown car at the circus,” someone remarks during the whirlwind conclusion, but it all ends in a happily ever after with character reveals that would make Shakespeare proud.
Crusie’s titles stand out from a crowd of romances because of the truths underneath the silliness: women trying on different roles, trying to be all things to all people, and losing track of which is the “real” self in the end. Tilda, a gifted painter, has been supporting her family with knockoff Impressionist murals for so long, she’s come to hate her art— and Davy can give Tilda her art back, not just in literal paintings, stolen or conned from their original owners, but in the joy of painting again in her own style. And while Davy and Tilda’s hot-and-cold affair is in the spotlight, there are satisfying moments of revelation for all three generations of Goodnight women. Happy endings are not only for the young and cute! Mother Gwen, whose long-repressed anger comes out in subversive cross-stitch and patchwork quilts with teeth motifs, gets a new beginning out of the plot as well.
For other romantic crime capers, Melissa recommends The Spellman Files. Or, there’s the stylish 1960s film, How to Steal a Million, in which Peter O’Toole, Audrey Hepburn, and Hepburn’s Givenchy and Cartier wardrobe also find true love in a closet, while conspiring to steal a forged sculpture. While Dempsey and Goodnight are more down-to-earth than O’Toole and Hepburn— aren’t we all— the aura of witty, screwball fun is the same.
Check the WRL catalog for Faking It.
Go ahead, watch How to Steal a Million, too.
“She imagined the conversation as a prime coach-and-four. She imagined it racing along a road at top speed, the wheels glinting in the sunlight. And then she imagined driving it straight into a hedge.”
Jane Fairfield has the opposite problem of many romantic heroines: she has too much money (a hundred thousand a year!) and too many suitors (who are after her money), and it’s very important to her that she not get married. Marriage would take her away from her sister, who suffers doubly from seizures and from the torturous attempts at a “cure” forced upon her by their uncle.
To further the goal of remaining single at all costs, Jane pretends to look for a husband but presents herself as a tactless nitwit, a social bull in a china shop, and she tops off the performance with the most tasteless, over-the-top gowns she can get away with in a ballroom (“nothing says lace like…. more lace”).
Oliver Marshall, the illegitimate son of a duke, has parliamentary ambitions. Moving between his working-class background and the upper crust set he’s hoping to impress, Marshall is doing his best to blend in with society, while Jane is flying in the face of it. Of course they are meant to be together. Unfortunately, Marshall’s mentor wants a favor in exchange for delivering a bloc of votes in Parliament: publicly humiliate that appalling woman, Jane Fairfield.
Part of a series of loosely-connected novels, this historical romance features not just a duo but an ensemble of strong characters— an aspiring suffragette, an Indian law student, an agoraphobic aunt, lady geneticists!— each with a compelling subplot. Jane, with her tasteless wardrobe and outrageous opinions, is a refreshing and entertaining heroine. The 1860s setting provides all manner of external conflicts in society: class issues, the debate over natural selection, and the vote for women, to name a few. The interpersonal conflicts are handled not just with empathy, but sensibly, with characters having rational conversations with one another and helping one another towards their goals. Nobody gets rescued; instead, with help, everyone rescues themselves. Full of quotable lines, this is a fun, redemptive romance that will have you cheering for, well, everybody.
The Brothers Sinister series can certainly be read out of order, as I’ve been doing, but if you like to take things in order, start with The Duchess War.
Check the WRL catalog for The Heiress Effect.
WRL also owns the ebook.
It’s always exciting to discover that an author has returned to a series you thought had been abandoned. While browsing the stacks, I recently came across a new-to-me installment in the adventures of Sir Robert Carey, sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier and crime solver.
These historical mysteries are set in the 1590s in Carlisle, on the border between England and Scotland, a frontier where blood feuds and cattle raids are what pass for law and order. Carey, taking advantage of his position as Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cousin, finagles a position as Deputy Warden of the West Marches to escape his many creditors and to be near his unlucky lady love, unhappily married to another man. When last seen, our hero and his trusty henchman, Sergeant Henry Dodd, had narrowly escaped torture and death at the hands of an enemy ranked high in Elizabeth’s court.
Picking up where she left off more than a decade ago, Chisholm has relocated her characters from the wild borderlands of northern England to the city of London. Carey is charged with looking into a botched execution in which the wrong man appears to have been hanged, drawn, and quartered. Meanwhile Sgt. Dodd, far from the kinsmen who might help him wreak revenge, decides to pursue city justice against their new enemy. While dubious that anything can be done with warrants and writs on paper, he hires the last lawyer in London willing to do business with them. It’s bad enough that their enemy can buy or terrorize anyone into silence, and that their lawyer seems to have his own agenda, but things really begin to look worrisome when their lines of inquiry point back to Carey’s own mother… a cheerful Cornish lady with her own letters of marque.
P. F. Chisholm is a pen name for Patricia Finney, who also writes sixteenth-century espionage thrillers. The mysteries have a lighter, more humorous tone, but in all of her novels she revels in the details of dress and weaponry that make the setting come alive, plus enough dialect and slang to make the glossary at the back a welcome appendix. Chisholm’s London is boisterous, smelly, and violent. Dodd’s sardonic view of the soft, decadent southerners and his daydreams of leading a great raid on the banks of London lighten the atmosphere; in fact, it isn’t fair to call Dodd the henchman in this one, he’s really the star.
If you’re new to Chisholm’s mysteries, don’t start here; there’s too much back story. Pick up the first book in the series, A Famine of Horses and carry on from there.
Check the WRL catalog for A Murder of Crows.
If you discovered movies as I did, coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, then you probably also had a love/hate relationship with Siskel and Ebert. Delivered from a darkened theater balcony, first on PBS and then in syndication, their television reviews brought us news of the latest films, but both critics could infuriate us with a snarky comment or an inappropriate thumbs up or thumbs down. While other great film journalists had come before them, Siskel and Ebert brought criticism into the mainstream of American culture.
As a young film buff, I was never a huge fan of the reviews, but over the years, I couldn’t help but come to respect the two, both because they were passionate advocates for film and because both battled premature health problems nobly before succumbing to too early deaths in 1999 (Siskel) and 2013 (Ebert). Before his death, Ebert wrote a memoir, Life Itself, which is destined to become a classic of the form.
Life Itself follows Ebert from his youth in the 40s and 50s, through his rise in the world of Chicago journalism, into his battles against alcoholism, his surprising journey into television and fame in the film world, the blossoming of a late-life marriage, and his struggles with the cancer that took first his jaw and ability to speak, and ultimately his life.
This is a book that even those who don’t care much about film will find worthwhile. Ebert approached life with self-effacing humor and a healthy sense of his own good fortune. Running in circles of big egos and beautiful people, Ebert was full of a sense of his own abilities, but also with a sense of humor about his own shortcomings. He was a regular guy with a great journalistic talent who made the most of the opportunities life gave him, and over the course of his autobiography, you’ll come to appreciate his quirky outlook, his work ethic, and the way in which he learns from his experience. Life Itself is full of charming diversions: Ebert isn’t afraid to spend a few pages describing the merits of his favorite fast food restaurants or London streets. He weaves other familiar names into his narrative but always in a bemused way that can’t help but make you grin. His descriptions of the most important relationships in his life —his difficult mother, his rivalry with and deep respect for Siskel, and his connection and love with wife Chaz Hammelsmith — are each moving in a different way.
Try Ebert’s book and you too will end up with a greater respect for an unusual man and for Life Itself.
Check the WRL catalog for Life Itself
Or try Life Itself as an audiobook on CD
Williamsburg resident Will McIntosh is on his way to the a-list of science fiction writers, and Love Minus Eighty is a great entry point to his work.
The title refers to the temperature at which “bridesicles” are kept. In the horrifying, but believable, dystopian future McIntosh imagines, the most desirable women are put on ice at the time of their deaths. It’s possible to revive them, but only the wealthiest individuals can afford the expensive procedures required to bring themselves or someone else back to life. So the women are kept in stasis, revived only briefly by a wealthy client who pulls them into brief consciousness for a speed date in which the woman must make a big impression if she hopes to rejoin the living.
We begin the story with Mira, a woman with a lesbian partner who may still be living, forced to pretend to like the creepy but wealthy men who occasionally come to visit. But her poignant tale is an aperitif to the larger story, which follows several characters whose lives have converged. Rob is a musician whose climb into the wealthy world of the haves ends suddenly. In this future, instead of reality television, people follow the “celebrities” of their choice directly through electronic means, and Rob’s girlfriend dumps him viciously and dramatically in a move calculated to gain more followers. Distraught, Rob runs over a jogger. So begins a downward cycle that he decides he can only stop by working a grueling manual job sorting old electronic components until he can save up enough money to thaw Winter out for long enough to apologize to her. When he does, there’s an odd, awkward connection, and Rob begins saving for another encounter. There’s also Veronika, a virtual dating coach who follows her clients electronically, telling them what to say in real time to make themselves more attractive to others. The irony is that Veronika’s love-life is non-existent, consisting almost entirely of fantasies about Nathan, another virtual coach who views her more as a friend and colleague.
The plot is hard to explain briefly, but easy to follow in the book, as McIntosh finds many plausible ways to keep a great set of characters bouncing off of each other in an ever-deepening sequence of plot twists. McIntosh takes our current world, with the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, our obsession with superficial digital culture, and our technological leaps that are often not grounded in adequate forethought or morals, and follows this thread to its “logical” conclusion. The result is terrifying, but only because it is so plausible. When he stirs in some unlikely heroes and a romance blossoming amid the rubble, you’ve got a captivating novel.
If you like this, consider going on to his other novels, Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, and Defenders. In a world of speculative fiction series, McIntosh has written stand-alone novels to date, but with movie options on a couple of his books and his creative mind, he’s an author you’re sure to hear more about in the future.
Check the WRL catalog for Love Minus Eighty
As I channel surfed one night, I passed by this year’s NBA draft on ESPN. I stopped and watched a while, feeling a new curiosity and empathy about the lives of the young men in the spotlight. That was because a few weeks earlier, I had read Foul Trouble, a young adult novel by John Feinstein that should be required reading for any basketball fan.
Foul Trouble is the story of Terrell Jamerson, a late-blooming high school phenom headed into his final season. The narrator is Danny Wilcox, Terrell’s best friend, and a pretty fine player himself. As the point guard who feeds Terrell passes and the son of the coach who is trying to protect the somewhat naive Terrell from the scavengers that would like to attach themselves to his rising star, Danny feels a lot of responsibility for his friend’s success. It’s a big burden to add to his own hopes of a scholarship at a smaller school, and Danny has a quick wit and a quicker temper, which means his attempts at protection often end in confrontation.
The book follows the pair through a gauntlet of crooked summer camps, self-serving media outlets, arrogant competitors, corrupt athletic gear salesmen, out-of-control boosters, and most of all, a series of recruiters and coaches who each have a different way of circumventing the rules that are supposed to govern the passage of a high school star into the college ranks. Feinstein clearly knows this turf, and by the time he’s done with his tale, the reader has a new appreciation for just how much pressure can be put on a top recruit. Along the way there are gifts, girls, faux friends galore, families ruined by greed, and all matter of temptations that Danny and Terrell must navigate.
Sports fans will love this story, but even if you’re only a casual fan like me, the drama of the novel will keep you turning pages quickly. When you’re done, head for almost any of Feinstein’s nonfiction sports titles. They’re plentiful, covering many different sports, but with special focus on golf, baseball, and basketball. He’s a dependable writer, and you’re unlikely to go wrong, no matter which of his titles you select.
Check the WRL catalog for Foul Trouble
Or try Foul Trouble as an ebook
Ensign Andrew Dahl is excited to be assigned to the starship Intrepid, but on his first away mission on an alien world, he discovers that his posting won’t be just glamor and adventure. In fact, given the strange behavior of the ship’s captain, science officer, and few others, he and his fellow new recruits will be lucky if they survive at all.
Yes, this is the story of classic Star Trek told from the perspective of one of the ill-fated red-shirted crew. The names of Kirk, Spock, and their colleagues have been changed, but any reader who knows anything about science fiction television will recognize that Scalzi has made a novel of the old joke that series fans make about anyone in a red shirt being unlikely to survive the episode.
But there’s a deeper wrinkle here. Scalzi takes readers down a metafictional rabbit hole as his characters discover that their lives are based on a television program, and sadly, that it’s not even a particularly well-executed show. They find a way to Earth, where they meet their exact likenesses, the actors in the series . (One hilarious aside describes the disturbing activities of the narcissistic Chekhov equivalent and his actor doppelganger.) Can they end the show without ending themselves? Or is there a way to make life safe for the redshirts? You’ll have to read Scalzi’s book to find out. But that’s not a difficult task: even when it gets philosphical, this is light, funny, frothy reading. You’ll have gulped down the book before you know it.
Check the WRL catalog for Redshirts
Nearing its first decade in print, Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers is a nonfiction classic that will be read for many years to come. That’s because Kurson finds an elegant way to combine so many subjects of interest: the exciting adventure of deep-sea diving, the poignant war history of the German U-boat submarines, the detective story of how the divers figured out which wreck they were exploring, and the interesting character portraits of the divers involved, some who sacrificed relationships and even their lives in the pursuit of their obsession.
The story began in 1991, when a boatful of recreational divers explored a new wreck and discovered something that wasn’t supposed to be off the coast of New Jersey, a U-boat. Even that first dive seemed to be shrouded by bad luck and mystery, with the death of one diver, but two men in particular, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, began a six-year adventure as they tried to identify what they found.
The diving scenes are spectacularly exciting in Kurson’s tale, but he finds a way to make the library work that the two men did just as riveting. Both the U.S. and German governments still classified some of the information they needed, and many documents that Kurson found turned out to be inaccurate historical cover-ups that had to be disproved before the hunt could progress.
Adding one more fascinating level to the tale, Kurson recreates the last days of the men aboard the submarine, following them from their selection into the U-boat corps (at a time in the war when such duty was nearly the equivalent of a death sentence), researching journals and interviewing family members to discover their decidedly non-fanatical political beliefs, then telling the tale of their last farewell from families and what can be recreated of their final journey. This is a marvelous blend of diving ethics, deep sea adventure (and sometimes terror), strong personalities in clash, and historical mystery that should please almost any reader.
Check the WRL catalog for Shadow Divers
Or listen to Shadow Divers as an audiobook on compact disc
WRL also has Shadow Divers in ebook and audio ebook formats
Just moments after I literally turned to my husband and whined, “This book is beginning to feel like a Lifetime movie,” the next page I read included these thoughts from the character Sarah St. John: “Makes me think of those movies on Lifetime… ” Even the author knows what she’s done! Still, I could not put the book down and truly wanted to know how everything would turn out, just like when I’ve found myself settling onto the couch to sit through one of those afternoon family films, intensified around some very focused topic like a teenaged girl with an abusive boyfriend. I very much enjoy Kaui Hart Hemmings’ style—The Descendants is one of the most entertaining novels that I had read in ages, with unforgettable characters and highly amusing dialogue, and I just prayed that it was not a one-hit wonder. I feel that Hemmings still has a lot of great storytelling in her! The theme, characters, their dialogue, and the setup for The Possibilities all had potential for achieving the same greatness, but, unfortunately, fell a little short of my expectations for this new novel.
I do not regret reading it, however, because sometimes I can truly relate to the Lifetime movie-type themes. In fact, anyone who has grieved when a loved one dies young knows the life-changing nature of such an event. We are invited into the mind of a grieving mother whose only child, Cully, dies in a tragic accident in Breckenridge, Colorado at the age of 22. We get inside Sarah’s head, all of the uncomfortable thoughts and judgments of others that bubble up in the wake of tragedy, how her life can never really be the same again, ever. She’ll probably even have to entirely change her career, since the tourist-industry television program she co-hosts in her resort hometown now feels so incredibly shallow. Grief removes one’s facade, the games we allow ourselves to play in order to get by, and suddenly every single aspect of our lives begins to filter through a new lens attached to us by the loss. Others certainly mean well, but they just can’t imagine how their words and behavior affect the one reeling in emotional stress. Sometimes, it’s the unspoken feeling that your grief trumps the heartbreak of a friend’s divorce or a young person’s seemingly trivial frustrations, and the occasional mistake made in actually mouthing your unacceptable thoughts out loud. You eventually feel guilty for withholding your friendliness, denying others their needs, and perhaps holding on to your grief far too long.
Something at the root of this story really strikes a chord about today’s society, single mothers, and the choices regarding pregnancy out of wedlock, as Sarah contemplates her past and deals with a new crisis brought on by the appearance of Kit, a young woman who knew Cully in the months before his tragic death. The main characters go on a journey together, a theme Kaui Hart Hemmings seems to like as a vehicle for bringing everything in a story to its ultimate truth and crux. The Possibilities was a book I had highly anticipated, and I will definitely be on the lookout for Hemmings’ next book.
Check the WRL catalog for The Possibilities.
This very satisfying debut fiction from a seasoned food writer was delightful to listen to on audiobook CD. Julia Whelan got most of the parts spot on, and even though deepening her voice for the male characters is a bit comical, the lively reading of Ruth Reichl’s intriguing tale and multifarious characters kept my daughter and me engaged thoroughly. She and I enjoy sharing many of the same books, especially adult titles that also hold appeal for teens. In fact, I would not be surprised to see Delicious! turning up among YALSA’s 2015 Alex Award nominees for books published in 2014—I hope, I hope!
Billie Breslin, also known as Wilhelmina to the Fontanari family, where Sal calls her Willie, feels fortunate to have landed a competitive position at Delicious magazine (obviously inspired by Gourmet, which discontinued in 2009 and was last headed by Ruth Reichl as editor). It doesn’t take long for Billie’s extraordinary palate to be recognized; she has the uncanny talent for detecting even the most obscure ingredients and flavors and has a knack for suggesting the precise tweak needed to perfect a recipe. Yet, she adamantly claims that she is definitely no cook! Her new friends in New York soon suspect she’s harboring some darkly saddening secret, however. Meanwhile, she’s determined to work her way into food writing, which she quickly and very cleverly accomplishes.
Delicious magazine closes down, but Billie is retained to handle customer service matters, working solo in the Timbers mansion, where she stumbles upon a secret room. Mysteriously secreted letters slowly reveal the details of a World War II correspondence between a 12-year-old girl interested in cooking and Chef James Beard when he was on staff at the magazine. We’re also provided with letters written in the present, diary-like words Billie addresses to her older sister. This partially epistolary read brings the reader deeper into the thoughts of our leading lady. The plot revolves around Billie’s collaboration with Sammy and Mitch to preserve the historic letters and library before it’s too late.
Some of the most remarkable characters in Reichl’s very clever and page-turning tale are those who are not actually in this story but mentioned in the letters and by the characters, the librarians who organized the forbidden library and the legendary James Beard. Along the way, readers will learn fascinating details about war-time prejudices and the history of culinary challenges during rationing. Readers will even be taken on an architectural history tour of New York and learn historical tidbits about the Underground Railroad. Delicious! is delightful, and it is so pleasing to see one of America’s food-writing favorites succeed as a novelist too.
Check the WRL catalog for Delicious!
Or check out the audiobook, read by Julia Whelan.
Frances Mayes nurtures a sense of home wherever she travels and writes, frequently envisioning herself buying the rented house and settling in even while just visiting. Literal homes seem to blend and expand with a myriad of temporary residences as she reflects upon flavors, tastes, scents, scenes, poetry, cultures, and histories. She and husband Ed explore a rich variety of exotic as well as ordinary destinations, sweeping a wide radius from their Tuscan epicenter through a European, Mediterranean, Asian, and African playground.
Everything I pick up seems to lure me away. … A desire to go runs through me equally with an intense desire to stay at home.
The memoir hints that this year’s travel in the world is a means for Frances and husband Ed to escape the dust and chaos of the ongoing contracted work at their perpetually-being-restored ancient Tuscan home named Bramasole. Or maybe it’s the growing sense of danger, with the possibility of random violence invading their domicile in northern California that pushes them away from home.
I didn’t know how deeply refreshing the landscape could be. The place does seem familiar, perhaps at a genetic level, but in a a nourishing way. Or maybe I’m just familiar with these friends, and when one is at home with friends, the surrounding world becomes friendly, too.
Whether traveling with newly made friends or rendezvousing with dear old friends, Mayes reflects on their friendships and fond memories, predicting potential relationships with new acquaintances or expressing relief that she won’t have to sit next to such boors as some of the cruise ship passengers at each meal. I found her most humorous when describing the absurdities of cruise ships and their tendency to transform passengers into cattle, driven through crowded tourist traps. Mayes’ first choice for travel is definitely not the cruise, preferring to rent homes and literally plant roots for a while in one village.
My early impressions of A Year in the World were tainted by my annoyance with what seemed constant obsession with food, especially meat and meat by-products, all forms of dairy and excessive indulgence in pastries on the part of Ed. I could assume he is quite rotund, despite his apparent energy and enthusiasm for daily excursions, even long strenuous walks in extreme heat such as their daily hikes to see the architectural and earthly wonders along Turkey’s Lycian coast. Could they possibly eat such meals while at home and shouldn’t they be more cautious with regard to health? My perspective did begin to soften once I reached the chapter on the British Isles—as they romped through English garden after English garden, I became so interested in garden tours. I love, and now wish to adopt, their habit of taking notes for use in the improvement of their home veggie, fruit, and flower growing techniques and varieties of plants. She describes serendipitous moments, such as finally coming across roses similar to a mystery species thriving in their Tuscany garden that was inherited after 30 years of neglect.
The book comprises about a dozen or so travel essays. Each may be dipped into separately or in sequence, yet it’s not the type of book you’ll read straight through. I started it months ago and picked the book up for just a chapter or two at a time, escaping to fascinating travel spots such as Andalucia, Scotland, and Mani. Mayes’ brief yet insightful reviews of books she travels with tempt me to add her inspired selections to my personal reading list. You may find it surprising that the title belies the format; you’ll seldom be aware of the month or year of her travels, and it’s never clear whether each of these trips occurred within a single year. That doesn’t matter, since you will be mesmerized by the poetic and lyrical way in which she transports you to a place and a moment, enveloping you in her experiences.
Check the WRL catalog for A Year in the World.
WRL also owns this title as an e-book.
More than any other parenting book that I read and used while raising my now teens and young adults, this classic title made the most impact on my family’s life. Because of communication techniques learned from John Gray, my children commonly ask, “Mom, what may I do to help you?” Better yet, I often return home to find delightedly that the dishes are washed, the laundry done and put away, and the floors vacuumed or swept without even having asked the children to do it! They have learned to observe what needs to be done and to proceed to take ownership of the task. A household then becomes more efficient much in the same way a business may foster efficiency through employee ownership. Furthermore, I have found that my children love to be of service to other individuals and organizations without expectation of rewards or reciprocation, just for the joy of giving their time and effort for the benefit of others.
Something very significant in child rearing can be achieved simply by respecting kids’ opinions and viewpoints in the manner you would like to be treated, accepting who and what they truly are, listening to them well, and regarding them as innately benevolent beings who want to behave well and do the right things in a positive atmosphere. Most people realize that negative parenting can harm kids and may only achieve temporary control over children who learn to anticipate the age of 18 with a vengeance so that they can finally live the life they want! On the other hand, Children are from Heaven helps parents guide children toward a better quality of life and healthy relationships through encouragement, clearly described expectations, and positive statements that never shame, order, or demand in unreasonable tones. Children just cannot bear yelling without slipping toward rebellion. They’d truly rather be in your good graces.
A great example of how Gray’s book can help parents to elicit cooperation from their kids: “Ask but do not order.” This translates to avoiding a command such as “Don’t leave that there” by replacing it with a more positive request such as “Let’s now put our things away. Would you please put that away?” Instead of demanding, “Stop talking,” to gently say, “Let’s be quiet and listen to your mother. Please stop talking,” elicits a more enduring and peaceful compliance. Little by little, this style of communication becomes highly effective. Gradually, you discover that you no longer have to ask for good behavior as often; you simply witness it in action and will be praising your amazing children frequently! You find that this sort of gentle guidance works to develop children who begin to think on their own about how to live more peacefully and helpfully without waiting to do what they are told.
John Gray, a very experienced family counselor, happened to become a father and shares examples from the challenges of raising his children. The lovingly effective communication techniques he applies to parenting utilize much of the same psychology found in his bestselling marriage and relationship book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. In fact, using some of the advice I read in Children are from Heaven proved quite effective in improving communication with my spouse too! There are a few tricks found here that really work well when you have a “honey-do” list and want life-changing results. I am confident that this parenting book can help you to realize the great joys of parental involvement and to enjoy a higher quality relationship with your precious children.
Check the WRL catalog for Children are from Heaven.
This novel in verse reads smoothly like prose but with an economy of words that reveal only enough detail to get you into the moments, thoughts, and emotions of the narrator’s present predicaments. Memoir-like, it is so sincere that I couldn’t imagine it not having come from the author’s true life. The author indeed experienced challenges similar to those of the book’s main character, a teen girl named Lupita living in a Texas border town.
In fact, I read it under the impression that it was a factual memoir and didn’t even realize that I was reading poetic verse, probably because I first encountered the book in e-book format. I skipped performing the rituals of reading a printed book jacket, back cover, and title page, plus flipping pages to determine what the book might have in store for me if I were to invest my time in it. Even if I noticed that the book was written in verse when I checked it out to my e-reader, I had forgotten that detail by the time I began reading, and verse doesn’t necessarily appear as such when displayed digitally. Instantly, I got hooked into the voice and story of Lupita, and I became just as eager as she was to investigate household clues, trying to learn Mami’s secret. Once known, she becomes Mami’s ally and finds herself in a family role requiring maturity beyond her age, overwhelmed with yet responsible for the welfare of her seven younger siblings while Mami and Papi struggle with the crisis.
Reading Under the Mesquite provides an authentic internal view of an ambitious and promising young girl’s family life on the edge of poverty and along the blurred ethnic and physical lines bordering Mexico and Texas, USA. A glossary of Spanish words in the back of the book provides guidance to pronunciation, cultural references, and usage. This novel is highly recommended for adults, teens, and mature younger children interested in the family lives and struggles of Latino Americans.
Check the WRL catalog for Under the Mesquite.
Or check out the ebook.
A chance encounter between a British writer and a French antiques dealer leads to an exploration of authenticity in both art and relationships in Iranian director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami’s marvelous 2010 film Certified Copy.
James Miller (William Shimell) is a British author who is visiting Tuscany as part of a promotional tour for his latest book, Certified Copy. In his book, Miller argues that, in art, reproductions are just as valid as the original work because it “leads us to the original and in this way certifies its value.” He believes this approach could lead to an understanding of life as well as art.
Shortly after the lecture begins, an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) arrives accompanied by her teenage son. Her son is restless and keeps distracting her until she finally decides to leave, but not before giving her number and address to Miller’s translator. Although the dealer disagrees with many of the points Miller makes in his book, she is eager to meet him and has purchased several copies of the book for him to sign.
The next day, Miller visits the dealer at her shop and they spend the afternoon driving through the countryside, visiting museums and debating the importance of authenticity in art. At a local café, Miller steps out to take a call, and the café’s owner mistakes Miller for the dealer’s husband. The dealer doesn’t correct the owner, and tells her that they’ve been married for 15 years. When Miller returns to the café, the dealer tells him the café owner thinks they’re married and at this point the nature of their conversation shifts. Miller and the dealer begin to relate to each other as if they have truly been married for 15 years: they discuss her son as if he is their son, and they begin to share memories and grievances. He even begins conversing with her in French instead of English. The reality of their relationship gradually becomes ambiguous, and the viewer is left to wonder if they really are a couple or simply two people copying the behavior of a long-married couple.
Certified Copy reminded me of director Richard Linklater’s series of films featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In Linklater’s films as well as Certified Copy, you’re following the development of a relationship, and all of the action and dialogue serves to move the relationship forward. Unlike the relationship between Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) in the Linklater films, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing an authentic relationship unfold or one that was a reproduction of a 15-year marriage, but the ambiguity was quite effective in that it mirrors the philosophy of life and art Miller discusses in his lecture. Juliette Binoche’s character is also somewhat ambiguous; although her profession is discussed at length, her character’s name is never mentioned.
The film is beautifully acted. Shimell is a British opera singer in his first film role and he’s a terrific foil for Binoche, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1996 film The English Patient. They’re together in nearly every scene, and their chemistry makes the relationship between their characters engaging and convincing.
Playful and thoughtful, Certified Copy is a clever mediation on the nature of art and relationships. The film is in English, French, and Italian with English subtitles.
Check the WRL catalog for Certified Copy
Is reading in the summer any different than reading at other times of the year? So far, my summer reading has been a variety of old and new books ranging from fast-paced crime novels to history nonfiction to longer classics that require more attention (e.g. James Joyce’s Ulysses). In thinking about it, this is actually my usual mix of reading any time of year. Maybe it is just the idea of taking more time to read in the summer when the days are long and there is perhaps a summer vacation in store.
A good mystery series is always a welcome summer read. One of my favorite discoveries this summer has been M. J. Trow’s historical crime novels featuring playwright Christopher Marlowe. The series is a delightful blend of spy novel, Marlowe was involved in the shadowy world of Elizabethan espionage working for Sir Francis Walsingham, and mystery.
Trow has a great sense of place, capturing life in the Elizabethan period without overloading the reader with extraneous details. In particular, and of particular appeal to me, is setting of the stories in the world of the Elizabethan theater. As a fan of Edward Marston’s Nicholas Bracewell series, I found much to enjoy in Trow’s rendering of the competition between playwrights and in the daily lives of the actors, including a rather awkward young man named Shakespeare, just up from the country and finding his place in the London theater world.
The plots are well-crafted and the mystery will keep you reading, but it is the characters who seem the most interesting to me. The only hard part is knowing that Marlowe, who is an appealing if roguish and somewhat self-centered fellow, will meet his end in a tavern brawl (or so it is said) only a few years down the road.
If you like well-researched and carefully written historical fiction or are just looking for a good mystery series this summer, give M. J. Trow’s Marlowe series a try.
Check the WRL catalog for Dark Entry
Or try the series in ebook
On March 30, 1938, two women left their hotel in El Paso, Texas and drove out of town towards Dallas. Hazel Frome and her beautiful 23-year-old daughter Nancy were wealthy socialites from Berkeley, California on a road trip east to visit relatives. The following afternoon, their brand new Packard automobile was found abandoned by the side of the road.
Three days later, the women themselves were located. They were face down in a sandy culvert 60 miles from where their car had been found. They’d been shot in the back of the head execution style, and both showed signs of torture. The investigation into this unusual murder case is detailed in a terrific new True Crime book, Fetch the Devil: The Sierra Diablo Murders and Nazi Espionage in America by Clint Richmond.
Leading the criminal investigation was Chris Fox, the Sheriff of El Paso County. Sheriff Fox was confronted with a puzzling case rife with anomalies. The prevailing theory of a simple robbery gone bad, didn’t mesh with the fact that the women had been held and tortured for two days and expensive diamond jewelry was left behind on the bodies.
It was also strange that Hazel’s husband Weston Frome, upon being notified about the abandoned car, insisted that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped and murdered before there was any evidence that such a crime had occurred. He only reluctantly cooperated with the police during the investigation.
But perhaps the strangest facet of the case involved the ammunition used in the murders. In the middle of America’s Chihuahuan Desert, two society women had been killed with a specialized type of bullet made only in Germany for the specific use of high ranking members of the Nazi party.
Beset by contradictory witness accounts, jurisdictional in-fighting among the various investigative agencies, and stonewalling superiors in the government, Sheriff Fox pressed on, and the book becomes a real page-turner as he collects evidence and sorts through leads that hint at the involvement of some European career criminals and a cabal of international spies.
The author, Clint Richmond, does a fine job in relating this interesting bit of criminal history in a book that is clearly written, fast-paced and crowded with colorful characters. I would recommend it for anyone interested in True Crime or tales of espionage.
Check the WRL catalog for Fetch the Devil