Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Book Christmas!

Another Book Christmas!

For me: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff; Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris; Lives Like Loaded Guns - Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds...

For Dwight: Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre & Atlantic by Simon Winchester

Plus of course - gift cards for Barnes & Noble that haven't been used yet! Whee....!

I have started Loaded Guns & will soon be discussing it here.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

Ah - nothing can replace the bookstore - not even the internet in all its depth and breadth. Book stores smell good; the choices are endless, the arrangements enticing. It's like being part of a private club. Especially enticing are the bargain book tables.

At any rate, that's how I came upon this wonderful book; buy two - get one free. (Yes, I admit I'm a sucker for that selling ploy). I saw a book by a favorite author, picked up another that sounded interesting and chose this as the distant third. I'm interested in history and am acquainted with the basic facts about Theodore Roosevelt, but not his post-presidency South American exploration.

His journey on the River of Doubt was unbelievably harrowing. It was ill planned in the first place, undertaken during the rainy season and the only experienced explorers were the South American officer in charge and the 'camaradas' - or porters. Roosevelt's immediate party was composed of his son Kermit and various friends and associates who were completely unprepared for the hardships they would face.

Who knew the book would be a real 'page turner'. The author describes the environs, the dangers, the hardships of the jungle and river in great detail: man-eating fish, poisonous snakes and irritable natives armed with poison tipped arrows, to name a few - plus the ever present danger of drowning in the numerous rapids and waterfalls they encountered and even - a murder. It is amazing that most of the men survived and only with the most heroic effort. Roosevelt survived but his health was broken. He never regained his former vigor.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On Procrastination...

They called Ronald Reagan 'the great communicator. I am 'the great procrastinator. I've read many books since my last entry here - so many I've made a list. One of the more recent is....

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

No - it's not about werewolves nor is it a Gothic novel. This book won the 2009 Man Booker award and has had great critical praise. Neither factor attracted me. It was the subject matter - the reign of King Henry the VIII of England. Actually, the book is about Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Cardinal Wolsey who had the bad luck of dealing with Henry in his quest for a 'proper' annulment from Queen Katherine.

In the front of the book are several pages of formidable family trees of Brit royalty. After that 'royal' start, the book opens with bang - a graphic scene of Thomas Cromwell as a boy, being beaten by his drunken father. After that brief 'section I' - we are picked up at the start of Section II and set down in the English court some 30 or more years later. What happened in the interim is mentioned only in vague terms with no explanation of how the son of an drunken blacksmith wound up in the corridors of power.

It helps to have some knowledge and understanding of the era and since I've read reams - biographies, novels - about the reigns of Henry and his daughter Elizabeth, I had an advantage. I know the Boleyns; the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk referred to are familiar - their intrigues and aspirations. The English court of the era was pretty messy. The clergy also were very powerful and rich, plotting with the best (or worst) of the court.

All this makes the plot sound dense and inaccessible - but it's not. The reader will sort of 'live' in Cromwell's head. The sense of 'being there' - of eavesdropping - is strong. The prose is quite poetic and that's nice but I read for content. The beauty of a well turned phrase is a bonus. One 'nit' to pick. Mantel is a bit obscure when she identifies people who are conversing. I was thrown off balance any number of times by the fact that, in conversations, she uses the word 'he' instead of the speaker's name. There were times when I didn't know who was saying what and had to come to a screeching halt while I backtracked to identify the speaker.

By the way, the 'Wolf Hall' of the title is only alluded to - it is apparently the 'lair' of the Seymours, one of whom becomes the wife of Henry VIII, following Anne Boleyn. I've read that a sequel to this book is in the works in which I would guess that Wolf Hall becomes more prominent.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Cool Magazine!

If you're a bit of a nut about books - this is the mag for you - Bookmarks. Check out their website:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I read this book as I read all books – in bed just before I go to sleep. Usually I devote ½ to 1 hour to such reading. This book? Migod – I went ‘overtime’ – and when I turned out the light, thinking about it kept me awake.

I’m 78 – I remember the 60’s and the things we read about in the paper – the horrors of violence and the irrationality of separate facilities, the black children approaching the white school – their faces blank as catcalls & insults were screamed by the crowd; the whites with faces so distorted with hate that they look like caricatures. The assassinations, the random cruelty and murders – they were only a quick step away from Hitler’s treatment of the Jews.

I’m also a damn Yankee – born & bred - but I have known these women who populate this book. We all do. Today, in the schools, they’re known as the ‘mean girls’ – and when they graduate into home making & motherhood they’re known as ‘queen bees’. In the South of the 50’s and 60’s, their behavior had darker implications. They drew a curtain of gentility over the ugliness of racial relations.
Some people have criticized the author for using dialect for the black women but not for the white, however – it would have been difficult to determine who was speaking – and after all – dialect marked one of the great divides between whites and blacks at the time.

Despite the serious subject of the book, there’s plenty of humor in it and the interactions of the characters– black on black, white on white and mixing the two leads to some interesting and funny situations.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I just finished a book by Aaron Elkins and also The Help - which I loved. Reviews here soon. I just started Game Change.

My Book Reviews

Here are a list of book reviews I've written in the past for Amazon. All these books are available on Amazon (and - I assume - elsewhere, too). You may find some of them interesting.

Bowman's Store: A Journey to Myself by Joseph Bruchac

Bruchac's autobiography holds the reader's interest to the end. It's a well told story about being brought up by his grandparents and the implication that his Indian blood was something shameful. the book could be read and enjoyed by young adults, as well as their parents.

'Bowman's Store' resonated with me because of my own

history. I was told that my great-grandmother was French Canadian. I never saw a photograph of her - or even knew one existed - until a cousin showed me a picture from one of her own family albums. There is no mistaking the ethnic background of the woman with the intricately beaded collar and sober mien; no doubt about that of the unknown child at her side. This discovery came long after my mother's death. There was no one left to whom I could address my many questions - no answers to be h


At left - my Great-grandmother & unidentified child

The silence seems impenetrable. What were my great-grandmother's origins - and by extension - mine? I can't reach her. She's carefully hidden from view by the traditions of shame that were felt by later generations. The same kind of silence experienced by Joseph Bruchac.

Ghost Riders by Sharyn McCrumb

I titled this review: History, Mystery and Mysticism

McCrumb's books are noted for the blend - but in this one, history figures more prominently. As is true of most of her 'mountain books', there is a prevailing feeling of calm. Bloody killing, maiming, Civil War reinactors, history, mystery and

a ghost story - all are there, but still there is that feeling of calm inevitability. (Perhaps I'm misusing the word `mystery' since this is not a traditional mystery at all).

The front of the hard cover edition has two compelling photographs - a man and a woman - each with intense eyes. Zebulon Vance and Malinda

Blalock. They appear to be inordinately handsome people for the era. Exactly who are they and why are they pictured? These are photographs - after all - and this book is a novel, as its sub-title points out.

Do an online search on those names and find out for yourself - there is a lot of material on the two. Sharon McCrumb has taken the liberty of imagining herself into the heads of actual characters - one of whom attained a considerable

degree of prominence, but her account is faithful to the facts as presented in my online `research'.

McCrumb highlights, by inference, the feeling

s and events that led to some of the fabled mountain feuds. One can even find a parallel to the long simmering hatreds of the Middle East. It is one thing to be part of an organized army in a war won by one side and lost by the other. It's quite another to fight for a cause which makes near neighbors and relatives your enemy. The Civil War is often characterized this way - `brother against brother - North versus South' - but for some people it was more person

al than that. I really didn't know, until I read it here, that there was a strong pro-Union movement in the mountain country of Tennessee and North Carolina. For these people, `brother against brother' was not an abstract term and the hatred

engendered lived on.

I loved 'Malinda' and her matter-of-fact approach to the dreadful crises that the war brought to her life, the unique way in which she handled them. If you look at the picture of the older Malinda, holding a picture of her husband in her hand, you can see where the author got her inspiration for Malinda's character in the book. (If your copy doesn't have the photos - you can find them online in Google Images). If you're interested in history, you'll enjoy this book - but even if you're not - it will hold your attention.

Digital Print by Sallie Naatz Bailey

An Isolated Incident by Susan R. Sloan

The surprise was not the killers's identity - I knew/suspected who the murderer was in this fine story right from the beginning, based on the description of the victim's feelings in the first chapter. (I'm not usually that good at figuring out solutions in mysteries, either).

What was surprising was the way the story appeared to be a standard, well-written mystery - very straight-forward... until the last few chapters when the lives of the leading characters unraveled and changed drastically. Even though I was sure I knew who the killer was - the ending was so oblique and so dark that I was taken off-guard. In fact, my initial reaction was - "Huh"? I turned out the light - and started to go to sleep when the meaning hit me! Migod! I did NOT go to sleep right away - and books seldom affect me that way. After the shock wore off, I kept thinking - 'Yeah - but the DNA will tell the truth - won't it'...........?

A mystery that makes you think & feel? What's this??

Reading this over, it looks like I've written a mystery right here, in my effort to not divulge too much - but hey - aren't reviews supposed to pique your interest?

Total Recall (A V.I. Warshawski Novel) by Sara Paretsky

I've read all of Paretsky's books and am a long time admirer. This is up to her usual standard. Her plotting and her characters are carefully conceived, the setting well realized. Viva Paretsky! Now if she would only turn these mysteries out with greater frequency....

Isle of Dogs by Patricia Cornwell

I've read most of Patricia Cornwell's books and find her a compelling writer. I started this book and couldn't finish it - and I seldom give up. Some professional reviewers have given positive reviews of this book. I can't help thinking that it's out of respect for the author.

I've not been able to put down some of her other books. Despite that, I've often wished she could 'lighten up' a bit. The angst and paranoia of her lead characters becomes a bit wearying at times. (Surely there must be a ray of light somewhere in their lifes). However, this book is not the way to go. The humor sounds forced and false. It doesn't flow naturally nor does the plot hold the interest.

In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead by James Lee Burke

This is the first of Burke's books that I read - and what drew me was the title! While browsing one day, I spotted "In the Electric Mist with the Confederate Dead". Good grief - any author who would think up such a title had to be an 'original'. The book lived up to expectations. It was intriguing, original with an almost poetic turn of phrase. I mean - this guy is good. Don't be turned off by the esoteric words in this review - Burke knows how to grab you by the throat! A good read!

Cold Flat Junction by Martha Grimes

I've read Grimes before and find her non-Jury books have many of the qualities of fantasy. It seems most evident in this one. First, we have a precocious & engaging twelve year old girl - Emma - with a very active imagination. She constantly builds a colorful & active daydream world - and she's well aware that these are day dreams - a world she constructs as she would have her real world if she had a choice. As the book progresses, it's as though the it IS her daydream. Consider - a twelve year old girl who is left alone, in charge of the day to day operation of a country hotel, who takes taxis & trains as most twelve year olds ride a bike, who 'interviews' adults in a most mature way and is awarded the attention and respect normally reserved by adults FOR adults.

There is an unreal, dreamy quality to the described background scenes though the characters peopling these scenes are well realized - it's almost as though they move against a surreal background. The climactic scenes read like a young girl's fantasy - triumphantly unbelievable. Trust me - I WAS Emma, with that same active imagination at that age and the ability to construct elaborate, ongoing adventures for myself while well aware that they were indeed my own construction.

I agree with [those] who comment that the story line is slight - it's the way it's told that holds your interest. It's an unusual book. I'd like to hear what the author has to say about it.

Acts of Malice by Perri O'Shaughnessy

This book is my introduction to "O'Shaugnessy" and it's a winner. I read a lot of mysteries - some of which I never finish - why bother. This one held my attention all the way through. The authors' 'sense of place' is remarkable. The reader 'sees' the Lake Tahoe locale. It's well written and plotted though the reader also sees what's coming. In this sense, it's more a tale of suspense than mystery. Despite this, the finale was particularly gripping.

As a fan of Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, James Lee Burke on the heavy side and Sue Grafton, Robert Parker, James Crais on the more flip side, I found the romantic involvement of the characters perhaps too prominent but as it turned out - it was quite integral to the plot. (We mystery readers tend to be picky-picky about the genre).

I would recommend this book - this 'writer', (two writers, actually - sisters who are probably well attuned to each other) to other mystery fans. I haven't yet read another of this series but I've already picked up a couple. Stay tuned.

Dead Sand (Lewis Cole Mystery Series) by Brendan Dubois

"Dead Sand" is the first book by Dubois that I've read but it won't be the last. What a treat to stumble across a new-to-me mystery writer who is literate & conjures such believable characters, peopling a well-plotted book.

The author creates a real sense of place - a term much bandied about & often not really true. This one 'puts you there'. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Hail & Farewell

Robert Parker, author of the Spenser series, died this week at the age of 77. He will be missed by all mystery aficionados.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Some years ago the city of New York - and most of the reading public - was astonished by the details surrounding the deaths of two reclusive brothers who lived in a deteriorating mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue. I remember reading the stories and pictures about the mystery of their lives. Despite a fortune and the social milieu into which they were born the two, upon the death of their parents, became gradually ever more reclusive and eccentric.

Over the years, the strange story has been told, retold - often fictionalized - in books, articles and TV. Much has been fictionalized in ‘Homer & Langley’ but the basic facts of the Collyer story remain. The author attempts to reconstruct the blind and dependent Homer’s passivity and acceptance of his brother’s increasingly bizarre behavior by inhabiting his head. He becomes the character, describing in a very matter of fact way, the downward spiral of their lives, the increasing isolation of both. While Homer questions some aspects of his brother's actions, he accepts and often approves of them. Events that could be termed dramatic are recounted in the same calm and passive voice. At some point, the reader too inhabits Homer’s mind as the book spirals into a claustrophobic ending.

H & L held my attention till the end and led me to check the story on Wikipedia. There you will read details of the Collyers’ life that are even more bizarre than those in the book. It’s obvious that many more books & screenplays can work off their true story.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An interesting thought. When I was a child, my mother had 3 phrases she used fairly consistently - You've always got your nose in a book, You don't hear a word I say when you've got your nose in a book (heh-heh) and the real coup de gras was ... it's a waste of money - buying you a book - yuu read it in one day! Can you even imagine today's mother saying that?

And add this - in 10th grade English at Nottingham High School (Syracuse NY) we were assigned to read a chapter a day in The Crisis - a book about the Civil War. I loved that book and proceeded to read the whole thing. Alas - the weekly quiz betrayed me. The teacher was really quite annoyed and told me that I was not to 'read ahead' - just that chapter per week. I solved the problem by finishing the book & going back to review the damn weekly chapter the day before the quiz.

Can you imagine an English teacher saying that today? Ha! And what was it with English teacher's names. The Crisis teacher was Theodosia Moran. My next year's English teacher was Frederica Smith. She & I got along famously because she knew I loved reading - & also writing term papers!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas brought a deluge of books. I scored big with B & N bargain books. I got The Help; Alice Munro's-The View From Castle Rock; Christina Kline's- The Way Life Should Be; Lauren Groff's- The Monsters of Templeton; E.L. Doctorow's- Homer & Langley. I got 3 paperbacks - all mysteries - Aaron Elkins, Ruth Rendell & Deborah Crombie.

Dwight got the bio of Andrew Jackson, plus Too Big to Fail (about the economy - not GM) & Richard Dawkins The Greatest Show On Earth - The Evidence for Evolution. And he still has his B&N card to spend!

Interesting - the number of authors incorporating fact into fiction these days. Doctorow has apparently been doing it for ages & this is true of Munro's book as well. It's nothing new though - Alan Eckert - did it with his American History novels for many years. He called them 'narrative history' and they had volumes of foot notes which were worth reading by themselves!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

This was a book lovers Christmas - I think about 12-13 between the 2 of us. As I finish them you'll see comments here - slowly because I read magazines & the computer during the day - and books at night before I turn out the light.