Blogging for a Good Book
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.
Check the WRL catalog for Paris
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.
Check the WRL catalog for To Serve Them All My Days
Read the ebook of To Serve Them All My Days
What are books all about? No, not the plots, but the culture of books and readers. Are the books we choose a shortcut to our identities via our fantasies and fears? Are they instruments to demonstrate our superiority or to hide our inferiority, raise our children by, choose our friends with? If anyone’s qualified to take on these questions, it’s reader / blogger / tech geek / woman-about-town Lauren Leto.
In a series of short essays, Leto writes about testing new romantic prospects by taking them to bookstores, or by starting a conversation, and laments that the growth of e-readers makes it impossible to cover-snoop. (Barry and I used to do that at airports to pick out the librarians. Not for romance, mind you, but to see if 50 Shades of Grey went with the shoes.) Where you read what you read is another clue, as are the books and tchotchkes you’ve got on your bookshelf. And how you handle challenges from readers you don’t know – lie about reading the book? make a snarky comment dismissing the author as a hack? try one-upping the person until one or the other reveals themselves as a reading fraud? – is as important as the literary quality of your actual reading.
Leto’s writing is fresh, funny, and insightful. She is unabashed about her enjoyment of fun books, but maintains focus on the kinds of books that people who talk about books talk about. Along the way, we get some great ideas for our personal reading lists, and quite a few cutting one liners about both literary wunderkind and bestselling popular authors. (The whole book is copyrighted, but if you memorize a few and trot them out at your next dinner party, Leto probably won’t catch you. Any fair use attorneys out there?) There are entries that can make you puff your chest out one second and ponder the hole in your soul the next if you don’t follow Betty Rosenberg’s First Law of Reading, and secretly cheer when you don’t follow Orr’s Corollary to the First Law. Best of all, there’s a clarion call to change the reader’s mascot from the lowly worm to a higher form of life.
Like most collections of comic essays, these are best taken in chunks to maximize the laugh value. Some are short enough that you can read several at one sitting; others long enough that you can read comfortably at one sitting. Either way you take it, Leto’s reading life is mirrored by everyone who comes across this blog. Read it and have a blast.
It’s the dream of a lifetime for so many – pick some wonderfully historic city or region and move there for an extended time. Live elbow to elbow with the locals, find the hidden restaurants and best shops and become one with the people who lived there since the city was founded. Learn the byways and hidden jewels and play host to the friends who visit you bearing their not-so-secret envy.
That’s what Polly Coles thought she was headed for when she and her partner packed up their four children and moved from England to Venice. Ahhh, Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, hub of world trade, cosmopolitan, her ancient canals filled with … human and animal waste, garbage, enormous cruise ships, and lollygagging tourists taking all the seats on the vaporetti. A city not designed for moving your household unless you have both Atlas and Charles Atlas to carry your valuables. And when the seasonal high tides (the acqua alta) come in, your wellies had better come over your knees or you’ll be slopping through who knows what.
Perhaps worst of all is the attitude of the Venetians. There is a definite pecking order, starting with the people whose families have lived there for hundreds of years, to the newcomers who’ve only been there around a hundred years, to the people who live there but weren’t born there. Bottom of the heap, of course, are those who are only visiting for a few hours. On the other hand, there is an egalitarianism within the city itself – rich or poor, you have to walk the streets to get anywhere, and the woman in the subdued colors next to you might be a Baroness. (When you go out to the Lido, where all Venetians holiday, it’s another story. A beachfront capanna goes for around $20,000 for the season, or you can go in with your neighbors for around $7000. And the beachgoers know exactly where everyone belongs.)
There are also other currents in the social stream, including the foreign workers who commute from the mainland to the beggars who crouch humbly on the pavement and wait for alms. Coles makes an effort to understand these people, and does a wonderful job portraying the tragedies and small victories of their lives. She also delves into the culture of the common spaces, precious in a place that can’t grow outward or upward, and to the fabulous interiors hidden behind fortress-like walls and doors. And forget Carnival. Real Venetians have a much more varied festival season to mark the long history of the city, including a thanksgiving for deliverance from the Black Plague which killed 50,000 people.
There are some shortcomings: Coles frequently talks about the Venetian dialect, which is different enough from “standard” Italian to make it difficult for non-natives, but she never really explains the difference. She also repeats some of the regular complaints about tourists, which can start to grate on the reader. But her strengths shine through, from her description of the obstinate bureaucracies to some beautiful descriptions of the setting and the residents. She also follows the debate about who is a “real” Venetian, and comes to an insightful answer. Still, it makes me rethink wanting to go to a place that has become a caricature of itself, at least until I can worry about where to hang my laundry.
Check the WRL catalogue for The Politics of Washing
It’s a little known fact, but the vocalist for one of the big-name bands out there also has the greatest chops as a legal novelist. And with Limitations, which the New York Times Magazine graciously published in serial form, he shows that he can even take on the novella as a frame for his characters and settings.
Limitations brings readers back to Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County, which has been likened to Chicago, but with a smaller-town feel. It also revisits two earlier characters – attorney George Mason (Personal Injuries) and Chief Judge Rusty Sabich (Presumed Innocent, Innocent). Mason is now a judge on the Court of Appeals and is discovering that wisdom does not come with age and experience.
He’s also discovering that the black robe does not render him immune to the outside world: his wife and valued counselor of more than thirty years is under brutal therapy for cancer, he’s facing a tough re-election, and someone is sending death threats to his office and home computers. Mason wants to be frank with Patrice about his legal and political dilemma, but also wants to withhold from her messages he thinks are from a crank. Can he tell the complete truth about one and deceive her about the other?
The case he and two other appellate judges are facing is also brutal – an African-American teen was viciously raped by four white fellow students. One recorded the whole scene, but none of the people he showed it to reported anything for several years; the girl, who had been unconscious during the attack, didn’t fully understand or acknowledge the rape until the police showed her the tape. Four years after the crime, the rapists are tried and found guilty, but are appealing because the statute of limitations has passed. Or has it? That’s the question Mason must face.
There’s a more profoundly personal element to his dilemma, something that hearkens back to his own confused and frightened youth, and he believes he must reconcile that memory before he can proceed to make his judgment. But the death threats become increasingly specific, and may be coming from a powerful underground figure with the power to carry them out.
Turow explores the various shades of Limitations through one man’s life and work without drawing a giant arrow to each one. And while the story comes to a resolution, it isn’t limited to a neat wrap-up. It isn’t as involved as some of his longer books, but is a satisfying read nonetheless.
Check the WRL catalog for Limitations
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.