Saturday, December 29, 2012

THE LEOPARD by Jo Nesbo (fic)

Ever since the Stieg Larsson series, it seems that everyone is reading Scandinavian thrillers and mysteries.  Swedish and Norwegian writers are especially popular.  In my opinion, the best of the lot is Jo Nesbo who writes about a Norwegian detective with the unusual name of Harry Hole.
I may not have enjoyed "The Leopard" as much as Nesbo's "The Snowman" or "The Redbreast," but it is still a cracking good read.  As all of Nesbo's books, it is a page turner that will keep you reading long into the night.  The "hero" of the series is Harry Hole, an alcoholic drug using detective, who is in bad shape as "The Leopard" opens.  Despite his dark and troubled persona, he is wildly attractive to women, perhaps they fancy saving Harry from his self-destructive habits. 
At any rate, in this story which opens in Hong Kong, his attractive colleague Kaja convinces Harry to return to Norway where his father is in hospital dying and to help the crime squad solve a vicious series of murders.  The killer is picking off, one by one, a group of skiers and wilderness lovers who were on holiday in an isolated mountain area, north of Oslo.  Complicating matters are the usual interoffice rivalry and politics, which are interfering with the finding of the killer. 
Harry is every boss's nightmare, as he ignores any and all authority and essentially solves his cases alone or with one or two partners whom he trusts, though never completely. The story moves from Hong Kong to Norway, to Africa and back to Europe.
Jo Nesbo is an intelligent and imaginative writer.  His books are lengthy with many red herrings and twists to keep the reader interested.  When the last page is finished, you will find yourself looking forward to Harry's next dangerous escapade.  If you haven't read any of Nesbo's books, I would recommend you begin with "The Snowman." 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

ALBION'S SEED by David Hackett Fischer (non-fic)

Having read Fischer's book on Champlain, I decided to tackle "Albion's Seed (Four British Folkways in America."  Like "Champlain's Dream," this book is well researched with many illustrations and maps.  At 948 pages, it took me most of the month to read it.  The book was written in 1988, and has received mixed reviews by historians, but generally favorable.  Despite the 24 years since it has been written, I found it fresh and interesting.  It really is a well written text and source book, and I chose to read it that way in chunks.  It is well set up for the reader who is interested in the colonial social history of the United States.
Fischer's premise is that colonial America was settled largely by immigrants from four areas of Great Britain, each area heavily influencing the values, customs and beliefs of the land where they settled, in some cases, even into modern times. 
 New England was heavily settled by Puritans from East Anglia escaping hard economic times and desiring the freedom to practice their religion away from Stewart England.
The land that made up the Southern States was settled by aristocratic cavaliers fleeing from the Cromwell's roundheads.  These aristocrats, from the southern counties of England, were proud of their ancestry and perpetrated a more defined class system than in other areas of early settlement.
A third area in the Pennsylvania and the Delaware Valley was largely settled by Quakers also seeking freedom of worship.  Under the leadership of William Penn, they brought advanced ideas of democracy, diversity and equality to their settlements.
Finally the last to arrive were the immigrants from the north of England along the Scottish border lands and Northern Ireland.  The Scots/Irish that came to America were a tough, truculent lot.  They had been involved in fierce fighting in border wars that went on for hundreds of years between the Scots and English.  Most were fleeing a hardscrabble life and settled in the mountainous regions we know as Appalachia.
Fischer is thorough in investigating all aspects of the settlers lives. Whether you agree with his thesis or not, you are sure to find this a fascinating book worth the read, especially if you love history.

Monday, December 17, 2012

GHOST LIGHT by Joseph O'Connor (fic)

John Millington Synge was and is one of Ireland's foremost playwrights.  Along with Yeats, he was a founder of the famous Abbey Theater in Dublin.  His most famous play, "Playboy of the Western World" was performed in 1907 and caused a furor at the time over its content and subject.  Molly Allgood whose stage name was Maire O'Neill, along with her sister Sara Allgood, became famous because of this production and others that followed.  "Ghost Light" is a fictionalized account of the love affair between Synge and Molly in the short time they had together.
Synge, a genius of a writer, fell in love with the much younger Molly who began acting at age 15.  Their romance was complicated by Synge's relationship with his overbearing and manipulative mother. He was brought up in a well-to-do, educated, Protestant family. His mother held the threat of his inheritance over him should he even think of marrying a Catholic actress who grew up in poverty.  Even at age 35, he was unable to emotionally separate from his mother.
Molly was the poor daughter of another strong-minded mother who loved in a crowded flat about the second hand shop that the family ran.  Seeing her older sisters success in the theater, she longed to act at an early age.  During his short life, she became muse to J M Singe and to Yeats as well.  When he received the Nobel Prize for literature, Yeats singled out the beautiful sisters, Molly and Sara, in his acceptance speech, as being an influence in the interpretation of his work.
"Ghost Light" is a love story that begins in 1952.  Having achieved great success on the stage in Ireland, England and America, she was now living out her last years in poverty in war scarred London. By then, not only was she destitute, but also an alcoholic.  The story is told through Molly's eyes as she relives her romance with Synge. After his mother's death, they became engaged, but it was cut short by his untimely death from Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 37.  The story is told in a stream of consciousness style which is not chronological.  O'Connor writes beautifully and lyrically.  Because he makes jumps in time and incidents, some may not find this novel an easy read.  I have to say, that after I became used to the rhythm and fell into the story, I did enjoy the novel.  The title refers to the custom of theaters which leaves one light always burning so past ghosts of the theater can perform.

Monday, December 10, 2012

EMMA BROWN by Clare Boylan/Charlotte Bronte (fic)

At the time of her death, Charlotte Bronte left behind an unfinished novel called "Emma Brown."  Bronte had only completed two chapters, enough to intrigue scholars and fire imaginations.  Clare Boylan took on the task of creating a story out of this fragment. 
Bronte's story began in a small girl's school run by three impoverished sisters around the year, 1853.   Even in its early stages, the story hinted at a mystery surrounding one of the pupils.  As Boylan takes up the tale she employs the mystery of the wealthy young lady to further the plot and keep the reader interested.
The story is really one of three people and how their lives become intertwined.  The young girl, Matilda Fitzgibbon, soon reveals herself to be not at all as she is first presented.  Suspense is created as we follow Matilda to London and try to unravel her mysterious antecedents.  Two residents of the small village of Deerfield also play major roles in the novel.  First is Mrs. Chalfont who likewise has an interesting back story, and the other is a Mr. Ellin with an equally alluring tale.  Mrs. Chalfont and Mr. Ellin take an interest in Matilda, and each has personal reasons for doing so, both involving unrequited love.
Once the action moves to London, the story moves into the realm of Victorian social evils and the dark business of child trafficking and prostitution.  This is where the suspense ramps up.  The notorious Newgate Prison plays its part in furthering the plot.
If you enjoy Victorian literature, you will enjoy this book.  If you are a Bronte lover, you will also enjoy this well-written and researched tale.  Boylan does an outstanding job of creating an authentic Victorian story, however I did not feel it was the voice of Charlotte Bronte who gives her characters an inner voice that more fully reveals their nature.  Nevertheless "Emma Brown" deserves to be read as a well-written Victorian novel; it just isn't Bronte's voice.  I recommend this book to all who have an interest in social history and Victorian literature.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes can convey the angst of a lifetime in an economy of words.  He is a master at revealing his characters secret selves and insecurities in short novels that another author might spend 400 pages on.  "A Sense of an Ending" won the 2011 Booker Prize, the second novel by Barnes to do so.  This thought provoking book can be read in two sittings; yet I was still thinking of the characters and their complex relationships more than a day later.
The novel begins with the friendship of four boys at their public school in England.  Like many adolescents the seemingly strong bonds that were forged in school did not last into their life beyond.  The main character, Tony, an insecure teen, grew into an insecure adult.  Tony has reached his 60s and is only now beginning to "get it" as his former girlfriend Veronica keeps reminding him.  During his university years Tony lost Veronica to Adrien, a friend he idolized in his school days.  The years go by, Tony marries Margaret, a practical woman, and has a daughter. Tony and Margaret eventually divorce.  Tony is lured back to the past by a surprising legacy and thus lies the mystery that leads to the climax of the novel.  In the end Tony does "get it" as does the reader.
This is a beautifully written novel that exposes the character and hidden feelings of one Englishman and in a broad sense reflects on the culture of his countrymen who came of age in the 60s right before the sexual revolution.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO by Boris Pasternak/WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

During the past year I have read new translations of "Dr. Zhivago" and "War and Peace."  Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a married couple, have collaborated in translating both books.  I will not presume to review such masterpieces, but if you love these two brilliant novels and have not read them in a number of years, I recommend that you delve into these new translations.  If you have never read them, you cannot do better than these interpreters.  They have faithfully and lovingly conveyed the authors works as clearly as possible for non-speaking readers of Russian literature.
This is my third reading of "War and Peace" and the second of Zhivago. I found that once again, Tolstoy had much to teach me. The humanity and lessons never lose meaning and like Shakespeare's works, I keep returning to find new bits and pieces that I may have overlooked or forgotten.  The richness of Tolstoy's words never diminishes.  His characters are always relevant, no matter that they live in the 19th century.
"Dr. Zhivago" interestingly, seemed dated to me.  I suppose this is because my first reading was done in the midst of the cold war, and as that threat has disappeared it is not of the same import to me.  Also the movie made after the book, kept interfering with my idea of the characters. I am glad I read the book the first time before the movie's release.  There were parts of the book that I found myself wandering and having to reread.  There is no doubt that this is a great work of art and is entirely reflective of the historical era in which it was written. It gives the reader a thought provoking picture of post revolutionary Russia and the dangers of collectivism and the fall of the Russian aristocracy after the Tsar's death and events leading up to the second World War.
There is still much in both novels that speaks to our modern age.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides (fic)

This is the story of three young adults attending Brown University in 1982 where the author went to school.  It is a coming of age story which begins on graduation day, gives us a glimpse of their connectedness on campus, and continues during their post graduate years.
The lives of Madeline Hanna, an aspiring writer; Leonard Bankhead, struggling with mental illness; and Mitchell Grammaticus, searching for spiritual strength are intertwined throughout the book.  This is a book that I did not enjoy, and I had difficulty being interested enough in the characters to care about them. Their backgrounds were never really revealed except in the case of Madeline whose parents play a small role. I found it particularly painful to follow Madeline's struggles with Leonard's mental illness and understand her reasons for marrying him. More than once I wanted to shake some sense into Mitchell. In the end, their lives and problems were unresolved, and though that is often the case in real life, there was still enough missing in the story to make me not recommend this book.
Eugenides also wrote "The Virgin Sucides" which I found much more interesting and "Middlesex' which won a Pulitzer Prize, but again was not a book that I enjoyed.

GEORGE NICOLAS AND WILHELM by Miranda Carter (non-fic)

In the end, what a nasty lot the House of Hanover, the Saxe Coburg Gotha group and European royals in general turned out to be.  All descendants of Victoria and Albert, all began their reigns with such hope and glory.  The royal families of Europe and Russia in the late 19th century and the early 20th were all interrelated and intermarried.  Victoria and Albert's grand idea was that by intermarrying and being related, the royals could keep balance and peace in the world.  Empire building was blatantly and crassly at its height as the triple biography unfolds.  This alone ensured economic rivalries would spell doom for the Victoria's grand plan.  As industrialization and population growth took on a demanding role in Europe, monarchies began to lose control and royals began turning into figureheads without their being aware it was happening.
Victoria was like a fat black beetle, controlling and bullying her numerous descendants into sad marriages of convenience. 
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm all had dominant father figures who marginalized their independence and maturity.  In the case of Wilhelm, it was a domineering mother and grandfather.  Wilhelm was an insecure martinet, strutting and blustering his way through the intricacies of German politics.  He was a loose cannon, whom his minders tried and failed to keep under control.  Nicholas was a frightened, weak ruler, dominated first by his father then by his wife.  George never lived up to the promise of his father, Edward VII or his grandparents.  He was thrust into a life he disliked by the the death of his brother Eddy, heir to the throne.
The most interesting character in the book was the most successful on the world stage, Edward VII, and aging roue, who was everyone's favorite uncle.  He seemed to be the only royal who was diplomatically able to charm all world leaders and smooth over gaffes made by the other family members.
Carter's account of the lives of the three Emperors is fascinating and well written.  By following her account of the events leading to World War I, one begins to understand the complexity of the causes of the Great War. The reader sees how lack of communication, one-upmanship, rivalry and even hatred amongst the royals added to the race for world dominance in England, Russia and Germany.  It is miraculous that the period of peace which began with Victoria lasted into the 20th century as over and over these countries stepped to the abyss.  If you are interested in the history of this period of time in Europe, this is an excellent book to further your understanding.  It is recommended reading.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Along with Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies," I was rooting for Tan Twan Eng's book, "The Garden of Evening Mists," to win the Booker Prize this year.  This is such a different and interesting book; it is quietly mesmerizing. 
The art of a Japanese garden is personal and private, a reflection of the inner soul of the gardener which brings a sense of spirituality and quietude to the viewer.  There is no riot of color, just the drawing on nature in its simplest form providing the solace of self-reflection in its form and discipline. 
Judge Yun Ling Teoh diagnosed with the fearful certainty of memory loss returns to a Japanese Garden in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where she spent some years after World War II recovering from her imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Japanese. This return rekindles the memories of her recovery while she is learning the art of the Japanese garden from Aritomo, the ex-gardener of the Imperial Gardens of the Japanese Emperor.  Aritomo is a fascinating and mysterious character.  He should represent all that she hates and fears from her war experiences and the loss of her sister at the hands of the Japanese.  In a strange way these two characters, so very different in their experience, are strangely alike.  Both have pasts to escape, both remain a mystery until the climax of the book.  Both communicate with others bluntly and curtly, and both find their humanity through the exacting work of maintaining the symmetry and beauty of the garden.
At the time of Teoh's return, Aritomo has long been dead.  She finds the garden in disrepair and sets about to restore it to its former glory.  At the same time, she is recording her story and Aritomo's story before all memory is gone. Aritomo was also famous for his wood block prints. An art historian arrives to catalogue and prepare a book for the publication of the prints.  His arrival brings other revelations which may surprise the reader.  There are other characters who enter the tale all having a purpose and meaning in Teoh's life. 
I highly recommend this book as an interesting story, beautifully written. The characters are interesting and well-drawn.  It is also an excellent book club pick for discussion.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

CHAMPLAIN'S DREAM by David Hackett Fischer (non-fic)

How very different our North American history would read if only France had given full support to the settlement and development of America.  One man, Samuel de Champlain, had a dream and devoted his entire life to the building of French colonial Canada. What a magnificent dream it was, and what a wonderful, informative historical look into that dream has David Fischer written.  His book is daunting in its length, over 800 pages.  I know that will put some readers off, but if you have any interest in a story that we in the United States have largely ignored in our school books, than I am sure you will enjoy this book.  The actual story takes place in some 500 pages, and the remainder of the book is source material and very interesting notes and first hand accounts from contemporaries of Champlain and past historians.  Fischer writes so well that before you know it,  you are several hundred pages into he book and completely hooked on the narrative of Champlain's adventures.
Champlain date of birth is disputed, perhaps 1570; he died in 1635.  He was born in Brouage near the coast of France.  It was a time of great turmoil between the Catholics and the Huguenots.  Champlain's family who were Protestant changed faith when it seemed expedient.  Samuel was an expert seaman having grown up in a fishing village where the men were used to long voyages for deep sea hauls.  He fought as a soldier for Henri IV (it is thought by some that he was, in fact, and illegitimate son of Henri).  He was also a talented mapmaker, an artist and a writer.  For whatever reason, Champlain was mentored by Henri, and it is in his reign that Samuel began the first of his many voyages of exploration to the new world.
Champlain's dream was to build a nation, town by town, where all religions were tolerated, where all people were accepted and Native Americans given the same status and respect as the Europeans.  He was given his most support by Henri IV.  When the throne passed to Louis XIII and his advisor, Richelieu, there was much less interest in exploring and settling America.  By that time in history, the French were embroiled in European wars and the 100 Year's War was on the horizon.  France's attitude toward the America's was very different than Spain, Britain and the Netherlands.  The French were satisfied to just reap riches from the furs the trappers returned with, and colonization was very low in importance.  In fact, the French citizens did not have the same incentives to leave their country as many of the religious dissidents in Britain had. 
Champlain soldiered on with his ideal through the two regimes.  He was able to keep small colonies going in Quebec and Trois Rivieres.  The people he attracted for the colonies came largely from Normandy and later from the northern provinces of the Loire River.  These people lived in harmony with the Algonquins, eventually intermarrying with Mohawks, Mi'maq, Huron, Montagnais, and Mohegan.  The Iroquois were the enemy, but Champlain was able to live in peace with them through his lifetime.  The real enemy were the raiders from England, Netherlands, pirates, privateers, and other Europeans who did not respect the traditions and ways of the Indians.
Encased in all this history is the story of an amazing man, who is the Father of Canada.  While much of his life is documented, it is difficult to know the personal life of Champlain.  What was he like emotionally?  He had a strange marriage to a woman much younger than he.  What was wrong in that marriage remains a closed door, but eventually his wife left him and entered a convent.  Champlain himself seems almost monk-like in his devotion to God and his ideals.
I highly recommend this book to all who love history and wish to learn a wealth of information about the settling and early days of French Canada.  How very different the philosophical and governmental history of Canada would have been if Wolfe had not defeated Montcalm in 1759 in the last of the French and Indian Wars, long after Champlain's death.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

THE BEAUTY AND THE SORROW by Peter Englund (non-fic)

"The Beauty and the Sorrow" is the most memorable book I have read this year.  Peter Englund is a Swedish writer who has gathered together memoirs, letters and diaries of a diverse group of people who lived and died during the horror that we call World War I.  Their stories are woven together by Englund 's commentary which keeps the reader aware of world events. It is interesting to see what on one day a soldier in France is doing, while a German family may be picnicking and enjoying a summer's afternoon.  Or you might see a young New Zealand soldier arriving at Gallipoli, while his counterpart on the coast of Belgium or in the mountains of Italy is writing to his girlfriend.
 Once you have immersed yourself in this book, you will not forget its characters as they do their best to retain their humanity in the most difficult of circumstances.  The people are from each side of the war: British, Russian, Australian, Italian, Brazilian, American, French, Hungarian, German and Belgian.  There are 20 of them.  Some made it through the war, some died, some disappeared, some broke down, some were wounded and lost limbs, all were brave and honest.  You see warfare in the trenches, in the air with fledgling pilots with little training; you see the dedication of the nurses, and everyday life in Germany through the eyes of a young teen.  You begin to understand the mess created in Mesopotamia which we are still enmeshed in today.  You will learn why young British adventurers would want to go to East Africa to fight the Germans over presumed riches and the challenges both faced in the tough terrain and prevalent diseases. 
Most of all you will begin to understand the complexities of World War I, and you will wonder how 20 years later we could become trapped in another War of the same magnitude. 
At the very end of the book is an envoi which will send a chill of horror through the reader who has the hindsight to know what is to follow.
I highly recommend this book, not only to those who love history, but also to those who seek an understanding of humanity.  You will not forget the people whose stories are told through their own writings.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

LULU MEETS GOD AND DOUBTS HIM by Danielle Ganek (fic)

This book, passed on by a friend, languished at the bottom of my reading stack, until I picked it up looking for something amusing to read.  It fit the bill nicely.  "Lulu....." is a quick and entertaining rainy afternoon treat.  It is chick lit, but with a punch to it.  The author, Danielle Ganek, is active in the New York art scene and writes with an insider's knowledge.  The book does a good job of skewering certain types that people the art world: gallery owners, agents, pseudo-artists, art groupies, etc. 
The title of the novel is the name of a painting by Jeffrey Finelli, an ex-pat Italian artist who is having his first show in a Chelsea gallery in Manhattan. Unfortunately for Finelli, he expires early in the story, leaving his art to soar in value.  The story is told by Mia McMurray, one of the eye catching young women hired by art dealers to add to the ambiance of the gallery.  The book was written in 2007 when there was a lot of money available to be invested in art and avaricious collectors hover and prance through the narrative.  Mia is reminiscent of one of the characters in the current hit "Girls," though without the blatant sex of the t.v. show.  The story is at its best when satirizing the hoi-poloi.  A parallel story of Mia's and her romance with an art agent doesn't work as well and falls into the chick-lit genre.  All in all, "Lulu..." is dishy read and a good break from heavier tomes.

Monday, October 1, 2012

NO EASY DAY by Mark Owen and Kevin Maurer (non-fic)

This book has been in the news and has been widely commented on.  Most people know it is a Navy Seal's first-hand account of the killing of Osama Bin Laden.  While Mark Owen is a pen name fabricated to protect the author, the real name of the author is now a matter of public knowledge.  This information is pretty easy to find, although the anonymity was designed to protect his family. By the way, the author give no information on whether he is married or has children.  Owen does mention that these men, who appear superhuman in the book, arrive home from dangerous missions and still have lawns to take care of as well as tending to other mundane suburban tasks.
I wanted to read this book because I was interested in finding out what factors would cause a person to live such a dangerous life. The book is neatly divided into two sections.  One tells the story of Owen's background and youth growing up in Alaska.  It includes his intense training with the Navy Seal Team 6.  The other is a detailed account of the raid on the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan.  While the details of the preparation are interesting including an actual mock up of the compound in South Carolina and a kill house, the account of the mission is as exciting as an action movie.  Even though the reader knows the outcome of the mission, one is still on edge as the Seals land and begin their assault.  The details of the assault are brutal.
Having no experience with this kind of activity, the reader may find the book no more real than an action movie might be seen at the local cinema.  These kind of films abound in the States in movies and on t.v. and when you begin to realize that what seems to be fantasy in  a movie actually happened in real life, it is difficult to absorb that this mission was very very real.  That the deed was done in a little over an hour doesn't seem possible.  Even to the men involved, the idea that the mission was accomplished is real only when they are on the way back to Afghanistan with Bin Laden's body in tow.
The account is well written and dramatic.  What to make of warfare and violence of this kind is a personal response based on ones own beliefs.  I am currently reading a book on World War I and it hardly seems possible that warfare could have such differing faces.

Monday, September 17, 2012

RESTORATION by Olaf Olafsson (fic)

"Restoration" is a good early Autumn read.  The story moves along with grace and enough interest in the characters to keep the reader engaged and compelled to read on, losing track of the time.  The story takes place in the last days of the German occupation of Italy in World War II.  The allies have landed and are pushing the last of the German troops up into the hills and mountainous regions of northern Italy. 
We follow the intertwining story to two woman, Alice and Kristin, whom fate has brought together in a lovely villa in the hills of Tuscany.  Alice is the daughter of an ex pat British family who falls in love with Claudio, a man her parents deem unworthy of her.  Claudio and Alice buy a crumbling villa and turn it into a productive farm where they grow olives and grapes, employing the locals, some of whom are partisans in the struggle against Germany.  During a period of restlessness, Alice begins an affair with an old childhood friend, which has disastrous results.
Kristin, a talented restored of old master paintings is Icelandic, trained in technique in Copenhagen and Rome.  She also has a secret that emerges as the paths of the two women cross. 
The protagonist of the story is a selfish art historian named Robert Marshall who has a hold over both women, bringing harm to them through blackmail.
Italy's struggle in the war is the backdrop to the novel as it moves to a climax in the hills outside Florence in the hills towns of Tuscany.
Although the novel could easily have fallen into the realm of soap opera, Olafsson's writing is colorful and interesting enough to avoid the cliches of a romance novel.  It is an altogether interesting read for a rainy afternoon.

Friday, September 14, 2012

CALICO JOE by John Grisham (fic)

"Calico Joe" is a departure from the type of book the prolific Grisham usually writes.  It is a short easy read and can be completed in one or two sittings.  As someone who has always been a baseball fan, I picked up the book with interest. 
It is the story of a rookie, Joe Castle, who comes from Calico Rock Arkansas, thus his nick-name.  The story is told through they eyes of a young boy whose father is a failing pitcher for the New York Mets.  Paul Tracey, our narrator, has lost respect for his mean and foul mouthed father,Warren, the protagonist of the tale.  The story takes place in 1973, a hot summer when the Cubs find themselves in a race to the top of the league, driven by the talent of the young Joe Castle.  Castle in his short career racks up legendary statistics, which seem quite impossible in the real world.
The story moves along until we reach the climax when our hero faces the bully, Warren Tracey, who is pitching for the Mets on that fateful day.  You may guess how the story plays out.  Young Paul grows up, the men grow old, and the story evolves into the feel good ending the reader hopes for, but not one likely in real time.
The book is simply written, and may be enjoyed by a young baseball fan.  An easy read for a summer's afternoon. 

LUCIA by Andrea di Robilant (non-fic) (biog)

In 1787 an aristocratic ambassador to Rome from Venice, Andrea Memmo, arranged a marriage between his beautiful daughter, Lucia, and Alvise Mocenigo, a son of one of the oldest families of Venice.  So begins the enchanting and interesting history of the life of Lucia Memmo, ancestor of di Robilant.  The story of her father, Memmo, and her lovely English mother was told in the author's previous book, "A Venetian Affair."
Lucia's story is fascinating in so many ways.  The period her life covered was immensely important politically and socially.  The American Revolution had just happened, Catherine the Great had been on the throne of Russia, the French Revolution was in full swing and, eventually, Napoleon was on the rise.  Lucia was witness to so many events which were important in Italy, France and Austria during her lifetime. 
Throughout her marriage, France and Austrian were vying for supremacy in Venice.  The once proud city state, was forced to capitulate to France when Napoleon marched into northern Italy.  For a while, Alvise was an ardent supporter of the French.  When Austria marched into Italy and took over Venice, Alvise and Lucia changed allegiances and moved to Vienna to join and active government and social life.  Then Napoleon was on the rise again and again Venice changed hands.  At that time, Lucia was appointed a lady-in-waiting to the wife of Prince Eugene, Napoleon's step-son.  His base was in Milan, and Lucia had to leave her family to take up residence there.  Eventually she moved to Paris where she was a confident of Josephine, the divorced wife of Napoleon.  This was the most interesting part of the book for me.  Lucia was a prolific letter writer and diarist, and her first hand account of the the siege of Paris in 1814 is fully absorbing.
In the middle of all this history, Lucia also carried on an affair with an Austrian officer, Col. Plunkett and had a child by him.  That child, Alvisetto was accepted by her husband, Alvise, and brought up as his own.  The only child of Lucia, Alvisetto, inherited the vast Mocenigo property, and is the ancestor of di Robilant.
I highly recommend this book as an eye witness account of history, and one which is interesting and never dull.  Lucia was a grand dame in every sense of the word, a strong woman, who kept her family together, despite the constant threat of war.  The confusing history of northern Italy, which changed hands so often in this period, was made more understandable to me, having read this well-written and interesting biography.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THE SHADOW CATCHER by Marianne Wiggins (fic)

Marianne Wiggins has written several interesting books, among them "John Dollar."  This book which is not new, is stylistically very interesting.  Wiggins has made an oleo of a biography, and a memoir in a fictionalized form.  Essentially her facts are real, as she weaves the strange life of photographer Edward S. Curtis with the story of her own family, inserting herself into the book as narrator. 
The story of Edward Curtis is told from the viewpoint of his wife Clara, whom he left (along with four children) for long stretches of time, and finally forever.  Curtis's disappearing act, leaving his family to fend for itself, was pathological in its consistency.  Clara's story is a tragic one, all the more so as she was clearly an intelligent woman who could have had a career of her own.  Curtis, at one time famous for his posed and stylized photography of Native Americans, came to a sad end also.  At the height of his fame, he photographed the wedding of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, she who has coincidentally played a role in three recent books I have read.  Curtis, a man of great promise, was exposed for dressing up and posing his native subjects in situations that never happened, even in clothing that belonged to other tribes and passing his photos off as the real deal.  After his 15 minutes of fame, he faded into poverty and obscurity. 
The parallel story Wiggins tells is about her own father who left his family to follow whatever vision quest spoke to him.  Marianne, the narrator, becomes involved in a wild goose chase in Las Vegas, tracking down a man who had appropriated her father's identity and was now dying in hospital.  Along the way, she meets a number of colorful characters.  Sounds complicated?  It isn't; it somehow works itself into an interesting narrative that is mostly real and impossible to tell what is not. "The Shadow Catcher" is well-written; it has to be with such an well-woven plot.  The end of the book fell a little flat for me, but it is still worth-while read.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

WATERGATE byThomas Mallon (fic)

Thomas Mallon's book on Watergate is quite a feat.  There are so many characters, 112 in fact, that I wonder how a reader who was not alive at the time of the event, can keep them straight and find them as interesting as one who lived through that politically charged time.  As I read, each character came alive for me once again.  My memory dredged up their faces, even as they and we sat through the endless hours of the Senate investigating committee meetings.  What Mallon has done with great accuracy and imagination is make this important time in our history return again. His characters show strength, weakness and humanity in their mistakes and tragedy.  Even Alice Roosevelt Longworth (at the end of her long politically involved life) makes a number of rich and wonderful appearances and always moves the action along.  Pat Nixon, always a sympathetic character, turns out to have a secret romance.  Tricia is the reserved daughter, Julie the accessible one, her father's mainstay and support.  Nixon himself is made human, suffering with his hubris and sometimes just plain muddled. 
If you lived through this time, you will recognize the names and be charmed with their resurrection.  If you lived through this time, and have an interest in politics back in the day, you will enjoy this book. I recommend it as a fascinating read.  If the story of Watergate is unfamiliar to you, I can't think how you will manage the cast of characters. If anything can make it come alive for you, it is this book. It seems so long ago now, but it did matter, and it's mystery cast a shadow across the Presidency and politics for many years.

REVELATIONS by Elaine Pagels (non-fic)

 I have found Elaine Pagels writing an interesting introduction to a subject I know little about.  Pagels is a well known and respected Biblical scholar. She introduces us to The Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos which is filled with violence and damnation.  I was interested to know the history behind such warnings of approaching apocalypse.  In this respect Pagel's book does not disappoint.  Her writing is somewhat dry, and I might have enjoyed the book more if the historical background and characters were fleshed out and made more human and interesting. 
John of Patmos was writing some time after the Jewish war with Rome when the great temple was destroyed.  He fled to the island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey.  What surprised me was the amount of bickering amongst the early Christians.  I did not know there were so many off-shoots and interpretations of the teachings of the early church fathers.  John (who was not one of the original apostles) was angry at the gentile converts, mainly those followers of Paul of Tarsus, who seemed to be able to coexist with the Romans.  John's brand of Christianity strictly followed Jewish dietary rules and dogma.  There was so much anger in this man and his writing.  The actual book of Revelation would rival a modern video game for the violence of its imagery. 
It turns out there are many Books of Revelation, a number found at Nag Hammadi in the Egyptian desert in1945, along with the Gnostic Gospels (which is a fascinating story itself).  How this particular book of John's became appended to the Bible forms a major thesis of the book.  It all comes down to politics and the power of early bishops and their jockeying for supremacy and wealth in the ancient world.  So it is a story not unlike today's:  politics, politics, politics.

Monday, August 27, 2012

THE TIME in BETWEEN by Maria Duenas (fic)

The time in between refers to those years in Spain between the Civil War and World War II.  The action takes place in Madrid, Spanish Morocco and Lisbon. The author, Maria Duenas, is a professor at the University of Murcia in Spain, and she put a tremendous amount of research into this novel.  Although the main characters are fictitious, Duenas makes many historical characters come to life in a fascinating account during a troubled time in Spain.  Much of the book takes place in Morocco and adds to the flavor of intrigue.  I kept expecting Humphrey Bogart with a cigarette in the side of his mouth to come around the next corner, or perhaps a Graham Greene character.
The story is told in the first person by a young seamstress named Sira Quiroga.  I had to suspend reality to believe that this young naive girl could become the sophisticated spy working for British intelligence that she becomes by the middle of the novel.  Once the reader lets this go, the story progresses nicely. It picks up pace and becomes an interesting page turner full of action and suspense.  As I got into the meat of the book, I really began to enjoy it.  I liked reading about a different part of Morocco than I have been to, and it sent me to the maps and Internet to find out more of the Spanish protectorate and how it fit into the civil war and World War II. By the end of the book, I could hardly put it down. 
"The Time in Between" has been translated from the Spanish.  It was a best seller in Europe and has enjoyed success in the States as well.  This novel won't disappoint; it will introduce you to a noir world of spies and exotic climes.  The plot resolves itself nicely, though still leaving an opening for a sequel should the author be so inclined.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

WITHOUT A MAP by Meredith Hall (non-fic)

"Without a Map" like my last read was published in 2008.  Some portions of this poignant memoir had been published in several magazines.  Hall's story is heartbreaking, but also the story of a strong woman who meets life head-on.  Meredith was a child of the sixties.  With no sexual experience, she became pregnant at age 16.  Still a naive child, she faced abandonment from the father of the child and the rejection of her parents, family and friends with incredible bravery.  This painfully sad ordeal leaves her scarred and forms the way she deals with the rest of her life. 
Meredith's tale begins in Hampton, New Hampshire.  Any New Englander who has been to Hampton Beach will recognize the landmarks.  Working through a tough relationship and a series of dangerous adventures, she eventually becomes a vagabond and wanderer through the world.  She finally finds her center and returns to her family. Hall has an immense capacity for forgiveness and compassion.  She manages to finish her education at Bowdoin College, and now teaches at the University of New Hampshire.  Beside all this, she has an emotional reunion with her lost child and takes in a dying man, making his last days happy ones.
I found Hall's story brave and affecting.  There were parts that brought tears to my eyes.  How cold and rigid were the mores of the sixties when compared to the way unwed mothers are accepted today.  While I was touched by Hall's story, I did not like the style of her writing with the time frame jumping forward and backward.  I recommend this book as a look at a time past and a story of a young girl's struggle to understand herself and the world around her. It is a good choice for a reading group.

THE SENATOR'S WIFE by Sue Miler (fic)

"The Senator's Wife" was written in 2008, and this being an election year, I thought it might be a good choice to read.  As I began reading and was introduced to the young couple, Nathan and Meri, at the center of the story, I presumed that somehow Nathan, a college professor was going to go into politics, and the story would be about Meri's adjustment.  I soon found that the character in the title was their next door neighbor, Delia Naughton, whose husband, Ted is the Senator in question.  Ted Naughton is what has become a stereotypical philandering politician. He is a brilliant man, and he and Delia have been living apart for a number of years.  At one time Bill Clinton might come to mind, but if anyone has been following the television series, "Political Animals," the ex-President in that show might be a more apropos model.  Delia just can't quit her man.  When a stroke fells Ted, Delia, at last has him to herself. 
Meanwhile next door, Meri who had landed herself an exciting new job as an interviewer and researcher for a public radio program, becomes pregnant.  Her struggles with motherhood, reflect Delia's own with her now handicapped husband. The women become dependent on each other and forge a bond which is at the heart of the novel, and their relationship forms the direction of the story.  Meri betrays Delia's trust in an emotional scene which is the climax of the book. 
Sue Miller's strength lies in reaching the emotional lives of her characters.  At times the book dragged, but taken as a whole, I found it a satisfying read and a character study of two outwardly independent women.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

MIDNIGHT IN PEKING by Paul French (non-fic)

It is 1937 in the Imperial City of Peking.  It is a city of louche westerners living out the last days of the empire, a diplomatic outpost, a city of poor White Russian refugees, and a city about to be invaded by the Japanese. Peking, rife with opium dens, widespread depravity, and the Forbidden City hidden behind thick walls, is dying itself.   One winter night an English school girl named Pamela Werner goes missing, and her horribly mutilated body is discovered beneath the Fox Gate on the edge of the badlands.   Why she was there and how she met her fated end is a mystery that two detectives, one English and one Chinese set out to solve.  As Japanese troops tighten their hold on the city, the detectives are bound by time to discover what person, or persons would commit such a monstrous crime.
The historian Paul French, an expert on Chinese history, keeps the reader enthralled as the story unfolds.  He makes this story interesting much as the writer Eric Larson does in his books.  From his research, he discovers the true story of Pamela Werner's tragic young life, and solves the mystery at the heart of the murder, answers which have lay hidden and forgotten until modern day. This is a story that is as interesting and frightening as any fictional mystery story, only it is true and doubly horrifying for being so.  Recommended as a realistic picture of the final days of Peking before the rise of the communist state.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE STARBOARD SEA by Amber Dermont (fic)

"The Starboard Sea" is a wonderful first novel for Amber Dermont.  It is the story of privilege, sorrow, pain, joy, love and a spot on first person narrative about life at a New England seaside prep school.  Above all it is a book about the healing found in the  joy of sailing.  For a female author to get into the head of an eighteen year old boy is surely difficult, yet Dermont does so with ease, his voice and pain so real. The year is 1988; her main character is a fully believable New York teen, Jason Prosper.  Jason has changed schools, and as he enters his senior year, he is deeply scarred by the suicide of his best friend and sailing partner, for which he feels he is responsible. 
Jason's new school is Bellingham Academy, school know for its sailing skill.  A few pages into the description of the school and I was convinced the setting of the fictional school was based on Tabor Academy which borders Sippican Harbor in Marion, Massachusetts.  I was even more convinced with the mention of New Bedford; the description of the harbor in Marion is one I know so well, having sailing out of there for 25 years.  Dermont knows her sailing terms and how to handle a boat. To have description so real, including a memorable hurricane, adds to the believability of the book. 
Jason finds solace and begins to find himself through a relationship with Aiden, a troubled girl who responds to Jason's kindness and attention.
Bellingham is filled with damaged teens from dysfunctional wealthy families. The least believable characters are the completely detached faculty, who develop no relationship with their angst-filled wards. 
"The Starboard Sea" is a beautifully written narrative of troubled teens, some who are destined to heal, despite the adults at the periphery of their lives, and others to go through a life devoid of meaning.  One can almost see the handwriting on the wall.  I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout (fic)

It is the decade of the 1950s, and we are introduced to the inhabitants of the very old Yankee town of Annett, Maine through the eyes of their young minister, Tyler Caskey.  Elizabeth Strout has written about a small New England town before in her Orange Prize novel "Amy and Isabelle."  This time she tells a beautifully lyrical and sad story of a congregation unable to find the warmth to help their minister through the most difficult loss of his young wife. 
Tyler is left with two young daughters; one, five year old Katherine is bereft at the loss of her mother and has no one to turn to, as her father is consumed by his own grief.  Katherine's isolation is one of the saddest things in the book.  As the book begins with the death of Lauren, the reader is gradually given the details of how Tyler and Lauren met and fell in love, she from a wealthy Boston family, he from a poor and plain living Maine family.  Their backgrounds couldn't be more different: Lauren was vivacious and free, Tyler was serious and introverted.  Yet their marriage was a good one.  Tyler's journey with grief and his eventual finding his center again occupies the main story of the novel.  The various members of his congregation enter in and out revealing their own tragedies, one of the most important being Connie Hatch, Caskey's housekeeper.  This is a story of sober, plain people unable to reveal their feelings and communicate with each other.  It is told in a careful and understanding voice.  This is a good book for a book club discussion.

THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WHICHER by Kate Summerscale (non-fic)

If you enjoy Victorian mysteries, you are sure to enjoy this true accounting of a murder in the small Wiltshire town of Road Hill.  Kate Summerscale has meticulously delved into what caused a sensation and public outcry in all of England in 1860.  She uses original sources and accounts of the characters involved in the horrific and brutal murder of a three year old boy, Saville Kent. 

The Kents were an upper middle class family living in the manufacturing town of Road.  Their home was rather grand, and they were not particularly liked by the townsfolk, many of whom worked at the mill in which Samuel Kent was a sales representative.  One night in the summer of 1860, young Saville was taken from his nursery crib and brutally murdered, and his body was dumped in the servants' privy. As was often the case in these days, the local authorities, further muddied the mystery, by not taking care to investigate carefully.  Eventually Jonathan Whicher was called in from Scotland Yard.  London "Bobbies" not many years before, had come into existence; and it was only in the mid-1850s that detectives were added to the force.  Whicher was the best of the best.  His fame in solving difficult cases was an inspiration for Dickens in "The Mystery of Edmund Drood," as well as Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone."  Some even said he was the forerunner of the fictional Sherlock Holmes.

How Whicher solved this case, and his eventual fall from grace, form the basis of the book.  Just as the press today forms public opinion, in the summer of 1860 and through some years following, most people in England had an opinion of who the murder was.

Kate Summerscale does an excellent job of creating the mood and background of the villagers and the Kent family, which had its own dark secrets; these eventually come out as events unfold. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel (fic)

"Bring Up the Bodies" is a sequel to "Wolf Hall" Mantel's 2009 Mann Booker Prize winner.   It is possible to read it as an individual book, but it is much more interesting to read "Wolf Hall" first if one hasn't done so.  So, if you are familiar with the first book, you know this is about Thomas Cromwell, a nefarious villain in the reign of Henry VIII.  Cromwell has oft been presented as a sort of Iago figure encouraging and enabling Henry's excesses, but Mantel is having none of that.  Instead she has masterfully created a believable character and given the reader a study of the effects of power on the morality of a rising political star.
 Both stories are told from Cromwell's point of view.  He is a more likable character in the first book.  By the second book, he is deeply involved in the political intrigues of Henry's court.  Cromwell's nemesis in the first book is Thomas More, in this book, it is Anne Boleyn.  The title refers to the four men who were accused of having relations with Anne and subsequently, along with her, executed.  It is likely they were framed to allow the king to make a match with Jane Seymour. 
While stories about the Tudors are popular in the romance and bodice-ripper genre, Mantel's Tudor world is all about the powers behind the throne and the politics of an era that was just coming out of the medieval age.  I highly recommend both of these books which, although fiction, will give the reader an intelligent grasp of court politics in a dangerous age.

GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn (fic)

"Gone Girl" came out with great acclaim as the summer book.  As such it is thoroughly enjoyable thriller, just the kind of page turner one wants to take along on vacation.  Flynn has the knack of writing a story with many plot twists and red herrings to keep the reader on his or her toes. 
Nick and Amy Dunne are a healthily beautiful couple, both capable of turning heads.  They were leading a successful life in New York City, he a competent magazine writer, she also involved in writing a column.  Their story is told in alternating voices, and before long the reader realizes that neither is to be trusted, and he/ she must unravel the mystery of who is telling the truth. Neither of these characters is endearing, and it is a credit to the author that the reader keeps hoping that one of them will come clean as the story progresses. 
Both Nick and Amy lost their New York jobs and in the hope of making a positive change moved to a home on the Mississippi River in North Carthage, Missouri  (a town that has seen better days)  where Nick grew up.  It turns out that Amy has a decent trust fund, and Nick and his twin sister decide to open up a bar in town. 
Amy mysteriously disappears one day, and the pace picks up as the story continues to be told in both voices.  There are a number of surprises for the reader before the book ends.  The ending itself wasn't completely satisfying to me, but you must make up your own mind about that.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson (non-fic)

You may know Erik Larson from his best seller "The Devil and White City."  As a witness to history, this book is even better.  William Dodd, a Chicago academic, was tapped by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 to be the Ambassador to Germany.  Dodd, a dry, forthright, honest (seemingly unimaginative) man was way way down the list of Roosevelt's choices.  Dodd and his family go to Germany, and he serves for the five years of Hitler's rise to power.  Through Dodd and his his daughter Martha we see the inevitable outcome of Hitler's demagoguery.  Martha is the most interesting character in the book.  How she evolved from such staid and conservative parents is a study in itself.  She was a liberated woman well before the term was invented.  She conducted herself like a daughter of the 1960s when sexual freedom was considered a right.  Among her lovers were Carl Sandberg, Thomas Wolfe, Rudolf Diels, Boris Winogradov (a committed communist), not to mention a number of others she was somewhat involved with.  Oh, and did I mention, she had a soon to be divorced husband back in the States.  Because of Martha's social contacts, along with her father's diplomatic contacts, and their copious correspondence and diaries, we are the richer in being able to see through this window into the past.  If only, if only we would learn from the past.  Over and over, world shattering events that touch us all, march along gaining strength, while most of us stand by mutely until it is too late.  This is a wonderful book to set one thinking.  It is so well written that it reads like a novel full of suspense and horror seen through first hand accounts.  I highly recommend "The Garden of Beasts," it is an excellent choice for a book group.  There is copious material for many good discussions.

MAINE by J.Courtney Sullivan (fic)

"Maine" is a decent summer read, a book to be taken to the beach, while keeping one eye on the kids.  Sullivan writes about the Kellaher women, a Boston Irish family.  There is a familiar feel to books about the Boson Irish.  There is usually a priest involved, strong women, men conducting shady business on the side, the good cop, the bad cop, the detective, etc.  Despite this formular, "Maine" is largely concerned with four women of different generations.  The matriarch is Alice, and she is a complex bitter character, who becomes interesting in her intereactions with the family.  Her daughter Kathleen who has a wealth of baggage of her own, Ann Marie who is up-tight and terrified of making a wrong move (her fantasies are amusingly naive), and Maggie, a grandaughter, round off the main characters.  The action takes place at the family summer home on the coast of Maine where the women come together.  While their dislike for each other is blatantly presented in on-going family quarrling, there is the deeper bond of family responsibility and bonds forged through years of closeness that are not easily broken.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


What a book!  If you have read David Mitchell before, you know you are in for some masterful writing.  His most noticed book was "Cloud Atlas" which is very different from "Autumns of JDZ."  Mitchell is not an easy or effortless read.  There is a lot to think about in his work, and in this novel in particular, you will have to pay attention to the dialogue so as not to miss its richness and meaning. 
The book is set in the self-isolated country of Japan in 1799-1800.  Most of the action takes place on the man-made island of Dejima, and in Nagasaki which is largely closed to foreigners.  The Dutch East India Company has the sole trading rights here, and they operate like a small independent nation, being cut off themselves from the rest of the world and more or less imprisoned on Dejima.  Our hero is a De Zoet a clerk who is serving time with the company while waiting to be granted the hand in marriage of his Dutch love.  Jacob's history is immensely interesting and his adventures at this outpost are one thread of the story.  In the part of the book taking place on Dejima, I was plunged into a Bruegel painting full of color, humanity, perfidy, vulgarity and injustice.
The second thread of the story centers on Miss Aibagawa a highly educated Japanese woman who has shown such promise in midwifery, that she has been allowed to enter Dejima to study medicine under the Dutch physician stationed there.  When the reader steps onto the mainland, he or she enters into the world of Samurais and line and brush drawings. 
The book's climax is precipitated by the arrival of a British warship, intent on opening up Japan to its own imperial ambitions.  Here the reader is placed on board in a setting familiar to those who are fans of Patrick O'Brian's sea sagas.
Mitchell skillfully weaves the stories of Miss Aibaganwa and Jacob de Zoet together in a tale of unrequited love and adventure.
I loved this book and highly recommend it to any who are willing to invest their time to following its winding path.

Monday, June 11, 2012

ALICE by Stacy A. Cordery (biog.)

Alice Longworth Roosevelt was the first super-star celebrity in the modern sense to live in the White House.  Her every move and fashion choice was followed avidly by the press and most Americans who couldn't get enough of her.  Her mother, Alice Lee of Chestnut Hill died giving birth to Alice.  Her father Theodore Roosevelt, was so bereft, he disappeared from her life for three years.  Her aunt Bye doted on her and then turned her over to her father and his new bride, Edith.  From that point on, Alice's life was formed and dominated by politics.  She also had to share her father with his second family, although she was close to them all throughout her life.  Alice was a rebellious teen who lived her life in the spotlight.  Her diary entries at this time are touching as she tries to find herself.  She mistakenly thought her happiness would lie in a marriage to the older Nicolas Longworth, a leading Congressman, who became Speaker of the House.  He was a womanizer and alcoholic, and her happier times were away from him.  She had a daughter by William Borah, a senator from Idaho. 
Alice was a brilliant woman with little formal education.  She was an autodidact, with an interest in everything modern and forward thinking. She was a superb raconteur. She was a prime mover in politics throughout her life.  She was always true to her father's progressive ideas.  It is an interesting sidelight to read about the Republican party and what it stood for under Teddy Roosevelt, and how it has changed into the conservative party of today.  Despite being a loyal Republican, Alice was not beyond crossing party lines, as she did to support the Kennedys and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, as she felt their philosophy was closer to her father's. 
Another interesting section of the book centers on her relationship with the other Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor.  There was no love lost between these two branches of the family. 
Stacy Cordery has written of a fascinating and vibrant woman who dominated the news and politics for her 96 years.  It is recommended reading.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A LONELY DEATH by Charles Todd (fic/mys)

Who doesn't like a good British mystery for a lazy summer's read?  This one takes place in the small English town (of course) in Sussex near Hastings and Battle. This is an area I know quite well having relatives there.  Apparently the Charles Todd, the nom de plume of a mother/son writing team, knows the area also.  Charles and Caroline Todd have written an excellent series of mystery books which take place just after WWI.  I have read one other of their books, also as well-written as this.  The Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge returns from a horrific French battlefield experience, shell-shocked, a former name for what we now call PTS.  He is healing from a depression caused by his war experiences, and is asked to take on a case in the town of Eastfield.  It seems that a number of returned veterans of the Great War have been mysteriously murdered, each garroted.  Pieces of Rutledge's own experiences are revealed as he tries to track the murderer down before another takes place.  If you enjoy a good mystery story, I recommend that your try some of this series.  "A Lonely Death" will make you forget that t.v. program you mean to watch.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

LIFE ALONG THE SILK ROAD by Susan Whitfield (non-fic)

In her book Susan Whitfield has pulled back the curtain to allow us to experience everyday life amongst the people of the silk road in the late 10th century.  She has gathered information from original sources and presented a study of ten individuals who lived in the lands intersected by the silk road.  Akin to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," but true, her characters come alive for us in ways that almost seem to belong to our modern world.  We meet Uighurs, Turkic peoples, Tibetans, Arabs and Chinese as they make their way from ancient Samarkand through the mountains and Gobi Desert to Chang'an in China.  We meet people as diverse as royalty, merchants, monks, nuns, merchants, artists and courtesans.  Each character has a fascinating story.  The tales encompass greed, marriage customs, war, riches, survival struggles and the tenacity of the human character.  The book includes a good map to help us place the route.  It can be used to compare the lands to their modern counterparts.  Like today, these ancient kingdoms were always at war, vying for riches, and their people victims of raids and invasions.
Susan Whitfield runs the International Dunhuang Project which provides Internet access to original pre-eleventh century silk road manuscripts and sources.  If you have any interest in this era this book is a fascinating and interesting read.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

THE LONDON TRAIN by Tessa Hadley (fic.)

Tessa Hadley is adept at writing about the inner lives of her characters.  All the time I was reading "The London Train," I felt these people are alive with real feelings.  What they grapple with is real; they could be people we know.  There are two main characters whose inner lives are quite different.  They live in Wales and meet on the London train, and the train continues to provide a connecting thread throughout the novel.  The first character we meet is Paul who dominates the first half to the book.  A writer, he strikes me as one who has not yet (in middle age) been able to shed his free and easy 1970's London mode of life.  Married twice and cavalier in his sexuality, he is a contrast to Cora, who dominates the second half of the novel.  Cora is thoughtful and pensive, and her affair with Paul has been meaningful and life-changing.  Both characters are married, both have recently lost a mother with whom they were close, and both are only children.  Paul has three children. The oldest daughter has fled to London, pregnant, to live with her lover and his sister in a run-down council flat. Paul's interaction with his daughter helps us to understand his character.
 Cora's steady phlegmatic husband who is a civil servant, turns out to have issues of his own which bring the story to a climax. There are a number of realistic minor characters who also flow in and out of the story.  Tessa Hadley who is primarily a short story writer, has structured the novel like two short stories intertwined and acting on each other to move the action forward. She is a rich writer who will catch you in the world of her characters right to the end.  I recommend this book as a thoughtful read and a good choice for a book club discussion.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

IMPERIUM by Robert Harris (fic)

What I enjoy most about a Robert Harris novel is that he has done his homework, and I can be fairly sure that the facts that he presents are correct.  One of his more famous novel is "Enigma" about undercover work in WWII.  "Ghostwriter was set on an island like Martha's Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast.  "Pompeii" an excellent read about the fated city and volcano Vesuvius is equally entertaining.  The novel "Imperium" is about the early life of the great Roman orator Cicero.  It takes place in the years 79-70 BC when Cicero was a rising star in Roman politics.  Democracy was at its best during this time in Rome's imperial history.  The story is narrated by Tiro, Cicero's slave scribe who eventually outlived him and was given his freedom.  As an aside, Tiro invented a type of shorthand that proved a precursor of the modern type.  This was the time of the powerful military leaders Pompey and Crassus.  Julius Caesar is a rising star and plays only a small role in the book.  Tiro chronicles Cicero's rise from a man of modest background, to the most popular orator and lawyer in Rome, to finally the supreme achievement of Roman Consul.  The author writes in a straightforward plain manner and is not big on style.  It reads much like a biography and a primer on the history of Rome during this period.  While I became engrossed in the historical aspects of the novel, and it led me to do some further research, it is definitely not a page turner.  It is more of a contemplative read.  Harris followed this book up with "Conspirata" which follows  Cicero's further history and the rise of Marc Antony who eventually has Cicero murdered.

Monday, April 30, 2012

THE PATRICK MELROSE NOVELS BY Edward St. Aubyn (fic.) 680 pp

This book with 680 pages is not as daunting as it appears.  It is actually a compendium of four novels which can be read separately. It contains, "Never Mind," "Bad News, "Some Hope," and "Mother's Milk."  The last title was short listed for the Booker Prize.  I read it some years ago, and was delighted that the novels were now collected in one book.  They should be read sequentially.  Now that I have read the others, I more fully comprehended the Patrick Melrose of "Mother's Milk."  There is now a fifth and final novel to complete the cycle called, "At Last."
St. Aubyn is an incredibly good writer, and you will not come away disappointed.  The books are based on his own life and sad childhood.  The early books, chronicling the abuse by his psychotically monstrous father and Patrick's heavy drug use and addiction to heroin, are not pleasant reading.  In the final two novels, one gets the sense of Patrick's coming to terms (if that is possible) with his hideous past and moving on to a better place.  This seems only possible with the death of his parents.  The British upper class are presented as a pretty pathetic lot with more money than brains, but with weapons of words at their disposal that can wound, demolish and put away handily any poor soul who happens to step into their world uninvited.  There is a funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) scene of a party in  "Some Hope" attended by Princess Margaret.  St. Aubyn puts her under the microscope for our enjoyment and horror.  I highly recommend these books, but not for the squeamish.

RODIN'S DEBUTANTE by Ward Just (fic.)

Ward Just's narrative is stylistically reminiscent of books written in the decades between the World Wars.  It is perfectly suited for the story he tells in "Rodin's Debutante."  The story opens around World War I, though this doesn't figure in novel.  The setting is small town,rural Illinois. The local "lord of the manor" Tommy Ogden, a cynical world weary man, whose only passion is hunting, is introduced to us, briefly in his youth and then in adulthood.  In order to spite his wife, he founds a boy's school, based on eastern prep schools.  He funds the school but takes no part in the running of the institution.  A sculpture of a young girl which stands in the school's library, threads its way through the tale.
The real story begins with a student at the school, Lee Goodell.  Lee is the son of a local judge and most of the novel tells of his coming of age.  Despite his father wanting him to carry on the family tradition of the study of law, Lee becomes a sculptor and the story tells of his passage through school, his dream like meeting with the aged Tommy Ogden, and finally his life in a downtrodden neighborhood in Chicago.  The book completes a circle as the final chapter ends back at Ogden Hall. 
Ward Just writes with quiet elegance.  If you like an old-fashioned book, you will enjoy this read.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

PRIME GREEN: REMEMBERING THE SIXTIES by Robert Stone (non-fic) 229pp

I picked up this book on the sale table in the Harvard Coop.  Robert Stone is a fine and excellent writer.  As the title declares, it is a memoir of Stone's adventures in the famous decade, and as you may imagine, Stone samples the sixties drug culture and meets the stoned and famous along the way.  The names are all there, Ken Kesey, Kerouac, Alpert, etc.  He begins his story in the late fifties when he was in the Navy patrolling the seas around Australia.  There he finds love, spends some time in Vietnam as a journalist, eventually moves back to the States, marries, lives in New Orleans, and travels across the country to New York.  Maybe I am just sixtied-out, but my interest flagged early on.  In the past ten years or so there have been many interesting memoirs of this time period, and having survived the decade myself, I find I am getting bored with reading about it.  If you don't know a lot about this time, Stone's book can give a perspective from one who was an older participant in the counterculture. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

TITANIC First Accounts: Tim Maltin ed. (non-fic) 375 pp

I saved the last 5 pages of this book to finish today, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, April 15th, 1912.  Everyone knows the tragic story of the Titanic.  No need to go into it here as there have been legions of books, accounts and even movies and documentaries, all playing on the tragedy of hubris.  There are many educated guesses as to who was at fault, much going over of the lives lost and the discrepancies between those saved from first class and those lost in steerage class.  This book, "Titanic," is a first hand account containing transcripts from the two court inquiries in England and in the United States, both within the month following the disaster.  The book also includes firsthand accounts by Lawrence Beesley, Margaret (the Unsinkable Molly) Brown, and many others of the survivors.  Reading firsthand accounts is always fascinating and important, because there is so much false information floating around based on romanticized fiction and movies.  Parts of the book are repetitious because there might be several different accounts from people in the same lifeboats.  Still, the voices are different, and sometimes the information.  It gives one an idea of how courts have to sift through differing accounts to arrive at the truth.  One immutable truth, however, is the bravery of both those who went down with the ship and those among the saved who lost loved one while experiencing the perils of the sea in subzero temperatures. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O'Farrell (fic) 245 pp

Iris Lockart runs a vintage clothing shop in Edinburgh.  She has a complicated relationship with her step-brother Alex.  She is trying to sort out her feelings toward Alex and Luke with whom she is having an affair, when into her life walks Esme Lennox, a grand-aunt who she never knew existed.  Esme has been imprisoned in a draconian mental institution for 61 years. That institution is now being closed down. Unbeknown to Alex, she was given power of attorney for Esme when Alex's grandmother (Esme's sister) becomes incapacitated by Alzheimer's. The novel goes back and forth between Esme's story from the 1930s and Alex's in today's world. Esme's story unfolds in the random thoughts floating through both her mind and her sister's.  The reader gradually becomes aware that a dark family secret, stretching back to India where the sister's story begins, is about to unfold.  The tragedy at the center of the novel is the incarceration for life of a young high-spirited girl who most likely today would be diagnosed with Asberger's syndrome or maybe, bi-polar disorder.  O'Farrell an excellent Scottish writer, brings this story to life. I highly recommend this book and believe it would offer a rich topic for discussion is a reading group.

Monday, April 2, 2012

LONDONERS by Craig Taylor (non-fic) 412pp.

This is a compilation of first-hand accounts of the great city of London by residents and visitors collected by the author through hundreds of interviews.  Some are interesting, some not so much.  Having resided in London for four wonderful years, I wish the author had also recorded the years of the memories. I could then picture styles, popular culture, etc.  I borrowed this book from a friend so I read it at one go over several days.  I would have preferred, and recommend reading it piecemeal; maybe, leaving it on a nightstand or coffee table and picking it up form time to time.  I found myself wishing for the end about half way through.  I would not have felt that way if I read it in an occasional manner.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING by Kate Pullinger (fic) 250 pp DOWN THE NILE: Along in a fisherman's skiff by Rosemary Mahoney (non-fic)

Imagine yourself as a Victorian woman, dressed in voluminous layers of clothing and trussed up with corsets and heavy stockings.  Now imagine the unforgiving heat of Egypt.  Why, oh why, would you ever contemplate what can only be a gruelling trip up the Nile?  Apparently many did! Victorian men and women in search of better health, (in the case of Lucie Duff Gordon who had tuberculosis), the romance of the ancient land, and hoping to find adventure, battled the discomfort of extreme heat while stubbornly maintaining the habits of their own culture. Kate Pullinger has written a descriptive and fascinating book based on the true life adventures of Lucie Duff Gordon (who wrote her own book, "Letters from Egypt") and her ladies' maid Sally Naldrett.  The story centers on Sally, a spinster of 30, who tends to the tubercular Lucie as they float in their hired dahabieh up the Nile from Cairo to Luxor where they settle for two years and adapt to native life.  Sally in her new found freedom enters into an erotic relationship with Omar who has been hired as a guide and attendant to the ladies.  Her subsequent adventures form the center of this gripping tale.  Pullinger's research is meticulous in following the real story of these interesting woman and their Victorian lives.  I highly recommend this book, which would also be an interesting choice for a book club read.

In contrast to our Victorian adventure, read Rosemary Mahoney's modern-day account of her travels in the opposite direction, downriver from Aswan to Cairo.  Her difficulty in travelling as a single woman, and even more of a struggle to obtain a boat makes equally fascinating reading.  Her uncomfortable skiff, battles against the current and difficulty with the sexual overtures of modern Egyptian men who are baffled by a woman who is rowing alone the Nile, keep one in suspense.  Is Rosemary even more of an anomaly than her Victorian counterparts?  This is another highly recommendable book which would make a good book club choice.

Friday, March 30, 2012

TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN, The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton by Sara Wheeler (Bio) 292pp

Sara Wheeler is an beautiful writer and she gorgeously captures the essence of East Africa in this biography of Denys Finch Hatton. Among other things, Finch Hatton was the life love of Karen Blixen who imortalized him in her book "Out of Africa."  A movie was later made from Blixen's book.  Finch Hatton born of British aristocracy was a romantic hero of the World War I era.  His life was one of adventure and privledge, although as the younger son without a title, he had little money himself.  He was facinated by the wild beauty of Africa, and though he occasionally mixed with the infamous Happy Valley set, most of his time was spent hunting and photographing wild animals.  I highly recommend this book for its depiction of Early imperial Kenya and the colonial society that took this rich land without conscience.  Wheeler also gives us an insight into Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham, two famous woman who fell in love with Hatton.  Other fine books to compliment this one are:  "Straight On Till Morning," a biography of Beryl Markham by Mary Lovell, Markham's own autobiograpy, "West With the Night," and Karen Blixen's  "Out of Africa," which is a more romantized version of the hard scrabble life on an African farm.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

BRIDGE OF SIGHS by Richard Russo (fic) 528pp.

I have not read Russo's more famous book, "Empire Falls" for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I found this very long subsequent book written in 2007 to be disappointing.  Apparently Russo is a master at depicting small town life, to the point that it is smothering.  This very long book centers around a small New York town, once prosperous for its mills which polluted the river running through the town.  The narrator, Lou Lynch and his life from childhood through age 60, guides us as we read his narrative.  Lou is a plain man with a plain story; his wife like his mother before her is the guiding light for Lou.  The family owns a small chain of Mom and Pop grocery stores that have managed to survive despite the mega grocery chains that surround the town.  The rebel in the story is his friend Bobby Marconi who with no lead up suddenly sometime after high school, finds he possesses great artistic talent. 
I stayed with the story to the end, sometimes interested, more often wondering where it was going.  The author seemed to feel this way as well as the final chapters seemed to hurry toward an unsatisfying ending.

Friday, March 9, 2012

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand (biog)

"Unbroken" has been on the best seller list for some time, so I am a bit late in my review.  The title is perfect.  If you haven't heard the story of Louie Zamperini, and even if you have, but have not read the book, I recommend that you do.  How can a person go through so much and still fight to live?  Zamperini is a complete example of the "greatest generation," those who lived through the depression followed by the brutal World War II.  Louie was tough from the time he was born.  His character development is a fascinating story in itself.  How he transformed himself from a bad boy to a world champion runner is told in the early part of the book.  His capture by the Japanese, after enduring a record survival time lost in the vast Pacific, is heartbreaking.  The degradation and torture endured by Louie and his fellow prisoners is painful to read.   The incredible will of the human spirit and what the body can endure defies belief.  This is not an easy book to read, yet the promise of the final survival leaves many lessons to ponder both about man's inhumanity to man and the strength of character of those who endured. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

LEGACY by Susan Kay

Susan Kay is a winner of the Georgette Heyer historical fiction award and she is an above average writer of historical romances.  "Legacy" is a long account of the reign of Elizabeth I with an emphasis on the psychological relationships she had with her male courtiers.  I am always leery of writers of historical fiction with a romantic emphasis putting their own word into historical characters mouths.  Kay is no exception.  My readings of Elizabeth lead me to believe she is a much more sympathetic and brilliant woman than Kay makes her out to be.  Kay also is touch on the Cecils, father and son.  In reality they also are more sympathetic characters.  In the same vein, brilliant men like Leicester, Raleigh, Walsingham and Hatton are presented as love-struck caricatures who act as willing puppets to the Queen.  An accurate account of Elizabeth's relationship with her advisers can be found in the non-fiction book, "All the Queen's Men" by Neville Williams.
    If you are looking for a well-written diversion and are willing to overlook accuracy in character development, you may well choose to read this book.  As far as the historical framework goes, the author presents an accurate historical rendering of events in Elizabeth's reign.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Mimi Alford writes about a time in her life that I found sad and brought back that era when young woman were naive and idealistic.  The way John Kennedy and the first family really lived was so very different from the way he was presented to the American public.  I remember how we idolized our young president.  Those of us who were teens in that era, all wanted to go into the Peace Corps.  Kennedy and the energy that surrounded him inspired us in a way that was lost for all time as the Viet Nam war overtook our lives and left us disillusioned.
Mimi Alford was part of that generation.  What she exposes to us is the extent to which reality differed from her schoolgirl dreams.  The book is simply written and even boring at times.  There was so much happening politically and globally that she never touches on.  Rather we are witness to assignations and the degrading treatment given to this teenager who so passively gives in to the appetites of a powerful and flawed man.  If you were alive during Kennedy's presidency,  you may read this with sadness at the slimy truth behind the glamorous facade.

QUEEN OF FASHION What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber

    Caroline Weber's book is a delightful, yet sad look at the life of Marie Antoinette. Ms. Weber is a terrific writer, turning facts into the most interesting look into the live of an 18th century fashionista.  I was particularly interested in reading about Marie A.  because I had just finished the book on Catherine the Great of Russia.  Like Catherine, Marie was shipped of from her native Austria (daughter of the powerful personality Marie Theresa) to marry an immature young prince.  Unfortunately for both princesses, their husbands proved inadequate in every way leaving these teenagers lonely and unprepared to navigate the dangerous royal court filled with intrigue and danger.  How they handled this challenge led to the glory and power on one, Catherine and the degradation and pitiful end of the other, Marie.
     Unlike Catherine who turned to intellectual pursuits and assimilation into Russian life, Marie remained aloof from the French culture and surround herself with pleasure loving friends.  All her energy was spent on clothes, pleasure and good times with her fickle friends.  This book is a fascinating look into how to dance one's way to the guillotine and the saddest of all endings.  I highly recommend it; it would make a good choice for a reading-group discussion.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Books to consider 2/20/12

"The Patrick Melrose Novels" by Edward St. Aubyn (Fic)
"Restoration"  by Olaf Olafson (fic)
"The Tell Tale Brain" by V.S. Ramachandran (non-fic)

What I am reading now:
"Once Upon A Secret" by Mimi Alford (non-fic)
"Legacy" by Susan Kay (fic)
"Queen of Fashion" by Caroline Weber (non-fic)
"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand (non-fic)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

DARKSIDE by Belinda Bauer (fic/mys)

If you enjoy mystery novels, this is an excellent choice.  Belinda Bauer has set her story in Shipcott, a small English Village.  At the center of the story is the town's only policeman, Jonas Holly who grew up in the village.  He is married to Lucy who is crippled by MS and is housebound.  A single murder brings in detective and forensic scientists from the local district.  This sets up a conflict between Jonas and the acerbic and sarcastic detective Marvel.  One murder is followed by several others and the mystery deepens.  The story soon becomes dark and creepy.  As the reader is drawn in, and begins to suspect the murderer, suspense builds to a horrific climax.  I recommend this book;  you will find it hard to put down.   

Books to consider 2/13/12

"Queen Elizabeth in the Garden" by Trex Martyn  (non-fic)
"Cosmos" by Witold Grombrowicz  (fic/mys)
"The Tigress of Forli"  by Elizabeth Lev (non-fic)

What I am reading this week: 
"Once Upon A Secret" by Mimi Alford (non-fic)
"Legacy" by Susan Kay (fic)
"Queen of Fashion" by Caroline Weber (non-fic)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

ENVIOUS MOON by Thomas Christopher Greene

This book has been sitting on my reading pile for a while and when I picked it up, I saw that the setting is Galilee, R.I., an area that I know quite well.  It is the story of obsessive love between two scarred teenagers, from two different social groups.  I found the story somewhat unrealistic, but I kept reading like one does with a summer read. I couldn't find anything in the male character's development to cause him to act so recklessly. The girl's fascination with him was easier to believe.  Because the writing is fairly simple, it is a quick read, and you will finish it in a day or two.  It is a diverting story for a winter day at home or a summer day at the beach.  I can't think why the author uses a few real place names and makes up names for other obvious places in New England, especially the island which could be Block Island or Jamestown. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

CATHERINE THE GREAT by Robert K. Massie (bio)

Sophia a young girl of minor German nobility was brought to Russia to marry the chosen heir of the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great. When she was baptized in the Orthodox church, leaving her Lutheran religion behind, her name was changed. Both Catherine and her husband Peter III were completely naive and never consummated their marriage.  Peter was socially retarded and after many unhappy years of marriage, Catherine fell into an affair with a courtier, Saltykov.  This was the beginning of Catherine's asserting herself, eventually becoming the Catherine of history books.  The story of her rise to the throne, her numerous affairs, her love of learning, art and music is fascinating reading.  Massie makes it all real.  Catherine lived at a time of great world upheavals and war.  It was the age of revolutions throughout Europe and the New World.  It was a time when rulers were deposed, exiled and beheaded.  She corresponded with the greatest thinkers of her time, and brought great art and learning to the vast Russian land.  She was the true spiritual heir of Peter the Great.  This book is fabulous.  It reads like and interesting novel, and if all you imagined of Catherine is that she was an oversexed oversized woman, you need to read this to fully understand her place in the great history of Russia, and the world.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Books to consider 2/5/12

"Venice: Pure City" by Peter Ackroyd (non-fic)
"Ghost Light" by Joseph O'Connor (fic)
"A Burial at Sea"   by Charles Finch (fic)

For Downton Abbey Fans: 
"The World of Downton Abbey"  by Jessica Fellowes
"Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey" by the Countess of Carnarvon
"Below Stairs" by Margaret Powell

What I am reading this week:
"What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution" by Caroline Weber (non-fic)
"Darkside" by Belinda Bauer (fic)
"Legacy" by Susan Kay (fic)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Books to consider: week of 1/30/12

"Wanted Women" (Non-fic) by Deborah Scroggins
"Behind the Beautiful Forever" (Non-fic) by Katherine Boo
"New York Diaries" (Non-fic)  by Theresa Carpenter

What I am reading now:   "Catherine the Great" by Paul Massie
                                          "Envious Moon" by Thomas Greene
                                           "Darkside"  by Belinda Bauer

Friday, January 27, 2012

SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray (fic.)

"Skippy Dies" which was up for consideration for this years Mann-Booker Prize is a dark, somewhat satirical novel which takes place at a boys' school in Dublin named Seabrook College.  It is the story of 14 year old boys, a mixture of day and boarding at school run by the Paraclete fathers.  Having worked with and around 14 year old students at a day/boarding school, and liking Irish humor with its dark undertones, I was drawn to this novel.  It ran a bit too long, but these boys with their fantasies of drugs, sex, and rock and roll were spot on.  The Skippy at its center is Daniel Juster who, no surprise, given the title, dies as the book opens.  From thence, we go backwards to events leading up to the death.  Who can fathom the minds of 14 year old boys??  Bodily function humor, no idea of what girls are really like, it is all here, a bit of Irish history thrown in as well.  Parallel to Skippy's sad story is an equally sad history teacher named Howard, who cannot seem to break from the school and move on from his old-boy past.  One keeps hoping for Howard to develop some backbone, hoping for that happy ending.  The novel also accurately portrays the complicated relationship between boys and the priests who dominate them, along with the problem the clergy has had with pedophiles and sweeping the ugliness under the table.  The book is well written but a tad too long, nevertheless a good read.

PS  For those who enjoyed the book "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," there is a movie in the works starring Kate Winslet (who else but...).

Monday, January 23, 2012

Books to consider this week: 1/23/12

"The Forgotten Garden" by Kate Morton
"The Quality of Mercy"  by Barry Unsworth
"The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey

Friday, January 20, 2012

LOVE AGAIN by Doris Lessing (fiction)

Doris Lessing is one of the great writers, born in 1919.  She grew up in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and now lives in London.  If you have never read any of her books, there are wonderful choices out there, fiction, non-fiction and short stories.  I was excited to find "Love Again" especially since the jacket cover told me it dealt with middle-aged love, young love, and old love.  The story revolves around a repertory acting group who are presenting a play in France and England about Julie Vallon, a Martinique quadroon. She was the daughter of a slave, living in the 19th century, who left home with her soldier lover to settle in France. There she writes music and lives the life of an artist. The story mirrors Julie's life and loves with the modern romances of the acting company.  The plot sounded interesting, but the novel proved not one of Lessing's best.  If you are not familiar with Doris Lessing's writing, but would like to read polished writing, choose one of her older novels.

WE HAD IT SO GOOD by Linda Grant (fiction)

I picked up Linda Grant's novel because the setting was Oxford and London in the late 1960s right up to the present time.  I was living in London during the same period of time and the main characters are my age.  I was not disappointed!  It was a delight to revisit those carefree idealistic, yet troubled times and measure my experiences against the characters of the novel.  The novel follows an American at Oxford who becomes entangled with a group of louche Brits and follows their lives, loves, friends, children, struggles and successes to our present time.  Grant's characters are realistic and the reader really cares about them.  Bill Clinton even makes an appearance as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Grant begins her chapters with the musings of the different characters and sometimes it takes a few paragraphs to determine who is talking to the reader.  I enjoyed the book immensely and highly recommend it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Books to check out/ 1/16/12

"To End All Wars"  by Adam Hochschild
"The London Train" by Tessa Hadley

What I am reading now:  "Catherine the Great"  by Robert Massie
                                         "Skippy Dies" by Paul MurraWy
                                         "We Had It So Good"  by Linda Grant

Thursday, January 12, 2012


If you are a fan of P.D. James and a fan of Jane Austin, you can't miss with this book.  James has the period prose down pat, and it is fun to meet up again with Elizabeth, Darcy, the Bennetts, and the odious Wickham.  Keeping in mind that James who was born in 1920, stylistically is still writing circles around younger mystery writers, sit back and enjoy these old friends again like familiar neighbors.  The actual mystery is not very challenging, and you will probably figure out the plot, but the enjoyment is in the bringing the characters back to life, and entering a romantic period of time where the reader can luxuriate in the fashion and manners when gentlemen and ladies did not stray from values and mores set down by the laws of social intercourse.  Not particularly thought provoking or profound, but absolutely fun.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Some new books for this week

"The Trinity Six" by Charles Cumming
"Believing the Lie" by Elizabeth George
"How It All Begins" by Penelope Lively
"The Leopard" by Jo Nesbo

What I am reading now:  "Catherine the Great" by Robert Massie
                                         "Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
                                          "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murrey