Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

After weeks of reading true crime books I was ready for something a little lighter. And I found it in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. The book is a light, almost gentle read. Simonson, a first time author, has a nice touch.

More than just a love story the book is about a widowed retired British Army Major who lives in a small village in the south of England. He strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Ali the owner of the local convenience store who is a widow. She is of Pakistani descent and here in lies the rub. Mrs. Ali's family would like her to retire, leave her store to her nephew and help take care of the other relatives. She is not happy with this idea. When her nephew arrives in town to help her he brings enough of his own baggage along unnecessarily complicating Mrs. Ali's life.

The Major's son, a social climbing, money hungry young man also arrives and decides he will "help" his father. Meanwhile the Major is grieving over his brother's recent death.

The story moves along, with all the characters effecting each other's lives in ways they never imagined. The book comes to a rather nice conclusion, even if everything doesn't end well for everyone. The story works on several levels. It is a nice, gentle read. It is a love story and it is a story about being true to yourself.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
By Simonson, Helen
2010-03 - Random House
9781400068937 Check Our Catalog

BookPage Notable Title

Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside is filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and contains a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of readers' own families. Their interactions are both hilarious and heartbreaking. …More

widower's tale

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The Three Weissmanns of Westport
is a delightful romp based on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Like the Austen novel, Cathleen Schine's book focuses on the lives of two very different sisters-- the passionate Miranda and the sensible Annie. Betty, their mother, is an updated Mrs. Dashwood. She is not a widow, but rather, a woman in her twilight years who has been jilted by her 78 year old husband.

This is where the action begins. Her circumstances, now reduced, force her to leave her Upper West Side apartment for a cottage in Westport. Annie, the practical library director, moves in with her mother and sister and tries to take charge of their finances. Miranda, a literary agent now without clients after a James Frey-esque scandal, is unable to live without drama. She creates more by falling in love with an actor half her age.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport is more than a light frolic or another Jane Austen spin-off. It explores the social mores that are as much a part of our society as they were in the mid-nineteenth century. By depicting three contemporary women as they struggle with issues of love and class, we see the similarities between them and the Austen heroines. Cathleen Schine's great strength is to allow us to care about her characters in all their humanity.

This is the perfect book to take on vacation. It's wonderful character development and witty language complement a funny, and ultimately, touching plot.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag

Alan Bradley has brought Flavia de Luce back in all her 11 year old splendor. This time she starts off her adventure not by finding a dead body but by finding a weeping woman in a grave yard. Flavia befriends the woman who happens to be part of a traveling puppet show and the adventure is on.

Flavia investigates the woman, her traveling companion and takes another look into the death of a young boy from years before. The story line includes all the characters from the first book, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. She continues to confound her father and torture her older sisters, one of who develops a love interest. The 11 year old also helps the police solve yet another murder. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag give more information about Flavia and her family. There is an aunt who appears and helps Flavia out with some personal advice and there is some detail about Flavia's mother.

These books are delightful reads. Somewhat different than a regular "cozy mystery" the book is told from the view point of a child. A precocious child to be sure, but still an 11 year old poison expert. They story line moves along at a leisurely pace, lulling you into the story. There are multiple plat lines going on but each blends with the other resulting in a surprising conclusion. Even Flavia is somewhat surprised by the conclusion.

If you are looking for an easy mystery that will hold you attention, give Flavia a try.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery
By Bradley, Alan
2010-03 - Delacorte Press
9780385342315 Check Our Catalog
BookPage Notable Title

From Dagger Award-winning author Bradley comes this utterly beguiling mystery starring one of fiction's most remarkable sleuths: Flavia de Luce, a dangerously brilliant eleven-year-old with a passion for chemistry and a genius for solving murders. …More

Hot New Mysteries and Thrillers!

Doors Open

Reagan Arthur Books

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Doors Open
By Rankin, Ian

BookPage Notable Title
Three friends descend upon an art auction in search of some excitement. As enterprising girlfriends, clever detectives, seductive auctioneers and a Hell's Angel named Hate enter the picture, this fast-paced story of second guesses keeps changing the picture.

Devils in Exile

Scribner Book Company

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Devils in Exile
By Hogan, Chuck

BookPage Notable Title
From the author of "The Standoff" and the award-winning "Prince of Thieves" comes another Boston-based thriller, this one involving an Iraq war veteran who gets involved with dangerous big-time drug dealers.

Wake Up Dead: A Thriller

2010-02 -
Henry Holt & Company

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Wake Up Dead: A Thriller
By Smith, Roger

BookPage Notable Title
An amphetamine-fueled thriller about a bombshell American widow on the run in Cape Town's violent badlands, "Wake Up Dead" confirms Smith as one of the world's best new thriller writers.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

Maybe winter is just too long around here but I find myself reading a lot of true crime books lately. The latest in the group is a little gem called The Poisoner's Handbook. The book isn't just about poisons and how they were used to speed up someones death, but it shows the progression of the forensic side of science in the United States.

The book delves into the practices of the New York City Coroner's Office in the early 20th century. It was rife with corruption, not the least bit the professionals we come to expect today. In 1918 a man named Charles Norris was appointed to head the office by a reform minded mayor. Norris was actually a trained pathologist. He had the good fortune to hire a man named Alexander Gettler. Gettler was a talented and driven chemist. The work of these two led to reforms in the FDA as well as the model for medical examiner offices throughout the country.

There are 11 chapters, one for each of 10 poisons. Carbon Monoxide rates 2 chapters. The author demonstrates the uses of the poisons through murder cases the medical examiner's office investigated. Blum not only shows how the lab solved the crime, she shows the progression of technical skill of the office. I found the book fascinating. As a big fan of CSI and Bones this book was just about perfect for me. It reads like fiction even though there is a fair amount of chemistry talk. The descriptions of the murders are not gruesome and are in fact incidental to the main story line - the detection of poison in the body and the rising professionalism of the offices of the medical examiners. Don't let the chemistry stop you. This is a very interesting book and well worth the read.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
By Blum, Deborah
2010-02 - Penguin Press
9781594202438 Check Our Catalog
BookPage Notable Title

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder. …More

A Pigeon and a Boy

CoverA Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev, is a deeply moving, multi-layered novel which interweaves two love stories and two time periods flawlessly. Like Haruku Murakami, Shalev deals with themes of alienation, the cruelties and indignities of war, and the dark side of humans that can ruin even a paradise. Although the War of Independence is the war depicted in this novel, the enemy is never mentioned by name. The enemy here is man himself, and the cruelties exacted are by the strong against the weak, regardless of the side.

The first love story occurs in the years prior to and during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. “The Girl” and “the Boy,” who have been friends since age 11, are now adolescents in love. They are both members of the Palmach—the unofficial Jewish army established to fight the British in the war. Both are trained to dispatch and care for homing pigeons, used to carry messages back and forth. But the Boy, shot during the last siege, in a final act of love, dispatches the Girl’s pigeon to carry an unusual gift to his beloved.

A parallel love story is between Yair, a tour guide for bird-watching groups, and Tirza, “a contractor who is a woman.” As Yair pieces together the story of the Girl and the Boy, his relationship with Tirza becomes more complicated. 

Shalev uses magical realism in different ways, one of which is to convey the transmigration of the soul. A beautiful image of the soul of the Boy rising to become a bird, a homing pigeon, is created. How man treats this gentle creature gives insight into his state of mind and into his fate. 

A Pigeon and a Boy won the Brenner Prize for Literature, Israel’s highest literary award. Indeed, a country forced into a state of perpetual war would especially value the grace of Shalev’s writing and the implications of this work of magical prose. Its themes resonate long after the last chapter ends.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

Fascinating New Documentary DVD

Herb & Dorothy

This fascinating glimpse into the world of art collecting acquaints viewers with Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a New York City postal worker and a librarian, respectively, who managed to leverage a limited budget into a stunning collection of contemporary works.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

If an engrossing historic saga is your cup of tea, then New York by Edward Rutherfurd will captivate you! Rutherfurd celebrates America's greatest city as he shows his extraordinary ability to combine historical research and storytelling. Cultural, social, and political upheavals are recounted through the lives of various family members that you come to know. As he recounts the intertwining fates of characters rich and poor, black and white, native-born and immigrant, Rutherfurd brings to life the momentous events that shaped New York and America and Britain's unique place in the city's history.

His research is perfect and that makes this novel even more of a find!

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich, is about a relationship where love and hate coexist. It is about an iconic marriage in which a painter sells images of his wife over the course of their lives together. His fame hinges on hers. He is possessive, domineering, and emotionally abusive. She longs to get get away from him, to take her three children and leave.

Fiction mirroring life, Erdrich's marriage to Michael Dorris seems to echo in this novel. Like Gil and Irene, theirs was a marriage between artists. He became her literary agent. They ultimately separated amid allegations of child abuse. Over a year later, Dorris was found dead in a hotel room, the result of alcohol, drugs, and suffocation.

Shadow Tag is a disturbing book, made more so by its connection to reality. As always, Louise Erdrich's writing is tight and evocative.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Danerjee Divakaruni

A really thought provoking piece of fiction from this favorite author (Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart)

The story is set in an Indian Consulate, and we are briefly introduced to the various characters who are waiting for passports and visas.

An earthquake occurs, and the group of nine is trapped in the basement, unsure if and when they will be rescued. An American, Cameron, steps up as leader, and once he has done what he can in terms of first aid, welcomes the suggestion that each person tell a story about one amazing thing that has happened in their life.

Wonderful storytelling, this will appeal to fans of her previous novels, as well as those who like Jhumpa Lahiri. There is also an echo of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, with a similar themes of strangers trapped together awaiting rescue.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Alice I Have Been

Let me start by saying I almost did not finish this book. Reading it a little bit at a time, I was confused about where the book was going. The first part of the book hints at child sexual abuse. Nothing explicit is ever stated but I was getting the distinct feeling this was not the happy book about Alice Liddell's life that I was expecting.

Now, that said, I finished the book and am glad I did. The story of Alice's life is told through Alice's voice as she goes back to her childhood. She first meets Mr. Dodgson (whose pen name Lewis Carroll is more familiar) when she is a 4 year old little girl living at Oxford College. Dodgson becomes a friend of her family and he takes Alice and her sisters (Ina and Edith) on many adventures. The oldest sister, Ina has a crush on Dodgson which he doesn't reciprocate. Dodgson indulges in his hobby of photography by taking pictures of the girls, especially Alice. The relationship sours when he takes a picture of Alice dressed as a gypsy girl.

Hinted at throughout the book is some deep secret that profoundly effects Alice's life. Her relationship with her mother is always strained as is the one with her sister Ina. The secret is not revealed until the end of the story.

The book is interesting in that it chronicles Alice's life. It is definitely not the Disney version, but the story is interesting telling of what went on and how the stories of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland were created. I went and did some research into Dodgson's life as well to try and figure out exactly what was supposed to have happened.

If you are expecting a happy tale of Alice Liddell's life, this book may not suffice. But it is a well written fictionalized account and reveals the secrets of her life in a way that will make you want to keep reading.

Alice I Have Been
By Benjamin, Melanie
2010-01 - Delacorte Press
9780385344135 Check Our Catalog

In this spellbinding historical novel, readers meet the young girl whose bright spirit sends her on an unforgettable trip down the rabbit hole--and the grown woman whose story is no less enthralling. …More

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Woman Run Mad, by John L'Heureux

A Woman Run Mad is a psychological thriller--fast-paced, well-written, and character- centered. It is a novel of obsessions and deception.

The book has few characters: Quinn, an egotistical, self-deluded writer of fiction; Claire, his wife, classicist and professor of Greek tragedies; Sarah, a troubled, wealthy woman with a dark past; Angelo, admirer of Kiergegaard, guardian of Sarah; and Porter, brother of Sarah and lover of Angelo. Leopold, a troll-like little boy who lurks in hallways repeating, "I saw you," acts as the Greek chorus.

The modern drama is set against the play, Medea, thus foreshadowing a violent end. "...About the women in Euripides," Claire explains to Angelo, "they were very modern, in their way. Very independent, very neurotic. But the thing about every one of them is that they took charge of their lives, they weren't passive, they did things. Think of Medea, for instance. Even killing seemed better than not living your own life."

Ultimately, this is a gripping novel. It lends itself to many questions about the human psyche, about alienation, about love, and about "madness". The writing is taunt and controlled, thus making its ending all the more shocking. L'Heureux slowly draws the unsuspecting reader into the drama between the principal characters. Although the violence is not gratuitous, I recommend it with a cautionary note. Difficult to put down, be prepared to read it in one or two sittings.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Lunch In Paris by Elizabeth Bard - A Love Story with Recipes

This is a fun little memoir about a young American woman in Paris. Somewhat predictable, but delightful. She falls in love with a Frenchman, and learns to cook the local cuisine.

Recipes follow each chapter. I don't know what was more appetizing, the cooking or the ahhh leading up to it.