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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Under a Swedish Mystery Spell   Leave a comment

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Swedish author Lars Kepler is actually the husband and wife team of Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril. It’s complicated. Nonetheless, Kepler’s The Hypnotist is a 500-page avalanche of a mystery. It quickly builds momentum from one dark crime to another only slowing its pace in the final pages.

The novel spans two weeks just before Christmas. Readers come to know and appreciate detective Joona Linna’s attention to detail and unwavering confidence in his ability to solve criminal cases. Dr. Eric Maria Bark, his wife, Simone, their son, Benjamin, are the good guys with Joona and a few others.

The short chapters, each identified by day and time, enhance the tempo. The story flows effortlessly from the first crime involving the murder of three family members; the seeming lone survivor is the son found at the scene covered in blood with life-threatening injuries Despite a promise made years earlier in which he vowed to never again use hypnosis on a patient, Eric is convinced it is the only way to help the injured boy.

Meanwhile, Benjamin is kidnapped and Eric must look to his past to find a connection.

Eric and Simone are flawed characters, which only enhances the novel’s appeal. Who wants to read about the perfect couple or family? Benjamin’s serious medical condition heightens the tension the longer he is held captive.

The prospect of reading a 500-page book may be daunting, but once started it’s difficult to put down. The lure of multiple mysteries and their resolutions is thrilling.

The Hypnotist
Four Bookmarks
Picador, 2009
503 pages

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Yours and Theirs   Leave a comment

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Before We Were Yours is a heart-wrenching story with its foundation in truth told as a work of fiction.

Lisa Wingate’s tale follows two women during two different time periods; it doesn’t take long to suspect the narratives will eventually intersect. The question is when and how, which is all it takes to make this a difficult book to put down.

Fact: Georgia Tann ran the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Tann kidnapped and sold children in the name of adoption.

Fiction: The five Foss siblings are removed by force from their family’s Mississippi River boat and taken to the Children’s Home. Their names are changed, and, except for Rill and Fern Foss, the siblings are separated. Rill Foss, who become May Crandall, recounts the past. Avery Stafford a young, professional woman, provides the present day voice after a chance encounter leads her to learn more about her grandmother, Judy Stafford’s, past.

Alternating voices provide vivid images of the abuse endured by the wards of the Tann’s employees with Avery’s quest to answer questions she had never before considered. Set in Tennessee and South Carolina, Wingate’s ear for colloquialisms is true without being demeaning or exaggerated. Her descriptions of the once-happy Foss family and the elite Staffords are engaging.

The only false note,  perhaps because it is too predictable, lies in the relationship Avery establishes with Trent, a handsome young widower. His grandfather knew May and Judy; Avery and Trent want to know why. So does the reader!

Before We Were Yours
Four Bookmarks
Ballantine Books, 2017
342 pages

Sitting in Awe, Not in Judgement   1 comment

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I read Tattoos on the Heart several years ago. Gregory Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries (HBI) in Los Angeles, wrote about his experiences working with gang members. Each chapter left me in tears at the heartfelt stories Boyle shared of those attempting and often overcoming daunting challenges of their life circumstances and poor choices.

Barking to the Choir, Boyle’s new book, is more introspective. It has plenty of heartbreaking vignettes of homies facing incredible odds, but its pull on the heartstrings is looser. In both books an abundance of joy fills most pages even in the direst situations; but this time Boyle’s messages about hope and acceptance are tempered with his interpretation of understanding God’s word. This isn’t a bad thing.

Simple acts of kindness, not just from Boyle, but among the marginalized he writes about are moving. Major leaps of faith, again, not just from the author, but among those populating his world are thought-provoking. I’m left to consider blessings in my own life and the positive choices I’ve been able to make because of the family environment I had.

Father Boyle injects a healthy amount of humor while recounting events of those who pass through HBI’s doors. He isn’t preaching, or barking, but he certainly leaves the reader with much to consider. Two ideas, in particular, in the book resonate with me: awe and judgement. The former is what we should aspire to in our interactions with others; the latter is, unfortunately, more prevailing.

Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2017
210 pages

The Intersection of Fate, Life and Death   Leave a comment

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Fate and the power of suggestion collide in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. It’s 1969 and it’s in the midst of summer’s heat and doldrums when siblings Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon Gold need a distraction. They seek out a woman known to foretell the exact date on which one will die. The children are 13, 11, 9 and 7, respectively. This seemingly-innocent adventure profoundly and ultimately affects each of their lives.

The narrative then jumps to the late 1970s. Each chapter focuses on one of the Golds, their interactions with each other, the choices they make and how that long-ago visit to the psychic is embedded in their lives.

The fortune teller, along with Eddie O’Donoghue, a police officer turned FBI agent, are characters who move in and out of the story through often unlikely scenarios. They alternately represent good and evil. Their presence is unnerving if only because they’re initially perceived as simply passing through. Yet, it becomes clear that the author doesn’t want the reader to relegate them to cameo appearances.

The Immortalists
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s sons, 201
346 pages

Food, Families and Fate   Leave a comment

The Comfort Food Diaries

Emily Nunn knows food. She wrote about it as a staff writer for The New Yorker and Chicago Tribune, among other publications. She also knows heartbreak and self-damaging behavior, which she shares in The Comfort Food Diaries.

A description of her seemingly-ideal life in Chicago where she lives with her boyfriend, dubbed “the engineer” and his lovely daughter, “the princess,” fades quickly. After Nunn learns that her brother has committed suicide she begins her own self-destructive tailspin through alcoholism and ending the romantic relationship.

Nunn reveals her backstory as she seeks to find balance in her life. The loss of her brother, her parents’ dysfunctional marriage – and ultimate divorce – her relationship with other siblings, relatives and friends fill the pages. At the suggestion of a friend, she embarks on a “comfort food tour.”

The direction of this tour is different than what I anticipated. Rather than a road trip around different parts of the country in search of consolation fare, Nunn sojourns to the places of her past and the role of food in her past and present. This isn’t a one-food-fits-all look at comfort, it is only about Nunn and her perceptions.

My family, for example, has dishes deemed “classics” in lieu of comfort foods. Not because they are universal, instead because they’re unique to us. Nunn, with her family and friends, has her own.

In addition to narrating her quest, Nunn shares recipes with her memories and new experiences. Her writing style is conversational and honest. She also knows how to whet the appetite.

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2017
310 pages

Emerging from the Hills   Leave a comment

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Hicks, rubes, country bumpkins and hillbillies all conjure the same image: poor and uneducated. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, subtitled: “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” examines the consequences of the often unbroken cycle of poverty. The poor have fewer choices and those available are not always the smartest or best options.

Vance, a self-identified hillbilly and Yale Law School alum, describes his damaged upbringing in Ohio and his family’s strong ties to the Appalachia region of Kentucky poignantly and, occasionally, humorously. There’s no sugar coating.

Vance is quick to note that his background is not unique. Single parents, drug addiction, low-paying wages, unemployment and teen pregnancy are among the detrimental factors faced by many, including the author’s mother. Vance credits his grandparents, with whom he lived for much of his childhood, for instilling a sense that life could offer more.

Although he didn’t initially embrace the idea, a stint in the Marines after graduating from high school and his grandparents’ efforts, eventually Vance recognizes the value of education as a means of changing his life’s direction. Being aware of not wanting to replicate his mother’s behavior also helped.

The fact that he’s a successful lawyer and is happily married does set him apart, though, from those he grew up around. A few family members provide exceptions, but not many. Interspersing statistics with his own experiences, Vance notes that the region and the cyclical existence of its inhabitants make it difficult to merge into a more positive lifestyle.

Hillbilly Elegy
Four Bookmarks
Harper/Collins, 2016
261 pages

Wine Tales   Leave a comment

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When I was a kid, my grandparents lived in Napa. I dreaded the inevitable drives with my parents through the valley to the small, mostly-family-run wineries. Curvy and narrow roads and not being old enough to even sip wine further contributed to my discomfort.

The roads remain narrow, but seem to wind less; my grandparents aren’t alive, and now there are more wineries than I could have ever imagined. Several years ago, my husband and I discovered HALL Wines, so I looked forward to reading A Perfect Score by Craig and Kathryn Hall.

The co-proprietors of HALL and WALT Wines are relative newcomers to the industry; they didn’t launch their first wines until 1995. Although, Kathryn grew up on her parents’ vineyard in Mendocino County (California); Craig, on the other hand, admits to once having little knowledge of wines.

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This is several stories woven into one: How the couple met, came to purchase property in the Napa and Sonoma valleys and ultimately how one of their wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon, earned 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., in 2013.

The Halls had their share of setbacks, but their apparent optimistic dispositions and a lot of good luck served them well. The book addresses life in Napa Valley, the camaraderie among vintners, the concerns of neighbors regarding the Halls’ construction plans, the philanthropy of winemakers, the caliber of the Hall staff and more.

This is a quick, fun read and made me want to open a bottle of HALL wine.

A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st Century Winery
Three Bookmarks
Center Street, 2016
207 pages