Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

History Makes Good Mystery   Leave a comment

Daughter of Time

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey was first published in 1951; the reprint in 1979. Yet, this gem of a mystery remains, well, timeless.

The crime and the manner of investigation are atypical. Alan Grant, of Scotland Yard, is recuperating in hospital with a broken leg. He’s bored, unhappy and not interested in reading. That is until he sees a copy of a painting of Richard III. He’s intrigued, particularly since the king’s face doesn’t mesh with the reputation of the man who killed to gain the crown. This sets Grant on a bedridden chase to learn more about Richard, whose short reign and place in history were tarnished.

Dry humor and rich narrative accompany Grant in his pursuit: was the king truly responsible for the murder of his two nephews to ensure his rise to the throne? The patient is assisted by Brent Carradine, a young researcher at the British Museum, and chronicles about English royalty of the 15th century. Even though all those involved at the time are, obviously, dead, Grant still conducts interviews: questioning his nurses and friends. They confirm Richard’s unfortunate place in history is warranted; Grant isn’t convinced.

Through  Carradine’s research, driven by Grant’s inquiries, it becomes clear Richard has been falsely maligned. In bringing history to life, the author’s description of Grant’s enthusiasm is palpable, as is his disappointment in the account rendered by historians, including Thomas More’s. The patient’s boredom converts to purpose and his recovery is almost as significant as his discoveries.

The Daughter of Time
Four Bookmarks
Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster, 1979
206 pages

While We’re on the Subject   Leave a comment

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The life phase Kiley Reid refers to in her debut novel Such a Fun Age could be one of several: mid-20s, high school, early 30s, preschool or all of the above. Each contributes to the plot. Yet this work is far more important than time frames. It’s opportune as we examine our perceptions of race and racism.

Emira Tucker is soon to be 26 and no longer eligible for coverage under her parents’ health insurance. College-educated without a clue what to do with her life, she has two part-time gigs: babysitter and typist. It’s the former that drives much of the narrative. She’s African American; Alix Chamberlain, the woman whose child she watches, isn’t. Late one Friday night, Emira is with Alix’s daughter in an upscale market when confronted by a security guard. He questions why the black woman is with a young, white a child. The exchange is recorded on a bystander’s phone. The incident has the potential to go viral, but Emira’s not interested in taking the situation further and Alix is mortified it happened at all.

Reid’s characters are smart, funny and credible. Even with her lack of ambition, Emira is likable. It’s obvious she enjoys the toddler she babysits, but as a reader I found myself wanting more her. I don’t like admitting it, this is what Alix wants, too. Alix is a character I otherwise don’t want to identify with: she’s clueless and privileged. Yet …

This is an important story told with a surprisingly light touch.

Such a Fun Age
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019
310 pages

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Will Write and Love   Leave a comment

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In Lily King’s Writers & Lovers 31-year-old Casey Peabody has been working on a novel for six years. Her mother recently died, she’s in debt and she works as server. She’s ended one relationship and soon becomes involved with two other men.

There’s no smut here. Instead, King creates intrigue and empathy for Casey, who’s kind, good with dogs and kids, and lives on the fringe of Boston’s literary society. She has writer friends, becomes involved with Oscar, an established author, and Silas, a struggling writer, all while agonizing over her own work. King’s characters are warm, likable people.

If this were a play, Casey would be upstaged by Oscar’s two young sons. He’s published, widowed and is several years older than Casey. She deliberately shares little of her writing efforts with him, but his boys are awfully cute. Then there’s Silas who’s closer to her age, teaches and writes in his spare time. Silas is initially off-putting because shortly after meeting Casey and making arrangements for a date, he leaves town for an indeterminate time. Not a great way to make a good impression; although he does return, which when things get complicated.

Casey’s deceased mother is an important character. She’s who Casey would turn to about her life’s dilemmas. Instead, Casey’s left alone to figure out things for herself. The result is a back-and-forth sideline cheering for one man than the other, all while rooting for Casey to not only finish her novel, but publish it.

Writers & Lovers
Four+ Bookmarks
Grove Press, 2020
324 pages

Disappearing People   Leave a comment

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Julia Phillips’ descriptions of the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia as lonely and cold are vivid in her novel Disappearing Earth. The title is fitting given the geographic isolation and the way the people move in, then away from the plot.

Beginning with the abduction of two young girls, the narrative features a range of characters with strong, tenuous or nonexistent ties to the victims. What they share is the locale and an awareness of the missing girls.

The first chapter is called August. Subsequent chapters/months represent the passage of time and introduce another situation involving others. The result is a disconnect more suggestive of a short story collection than a novel since there’s often no resolution for the problems or experiences described. Issues range from a young woman in college with a manipulative boyfriend, to a lost dog, from ethnic traditions to dissolution of friendships or family estrangements. Nonetheless, most chapters are captivating. These are interesting people, and the rich writing of each situation only begs for more. The list of main characters included to keep track of who’s who helps.

The investigation of the missing girls is initially a priority for the police, but eventually loses momentum. By contrast, a young indigenous woman who previously went disappeared was barely acknowledged by authorities.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in the setting; it’s a character unto itself. The weather, the light and the landscape, which includes rocky beaches, densely-wooded forests and looming active volcanos, are austere – like its people.

Disappearing Earth
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
256 pages

Clueless but Not Hopeless   Leave a comment

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Late last year, a friend and I decided to reread Emma before seeing the most recent film version. We met twice to talk about it shortly after the movie was released, but hadn’t had a chance to see it once theatres closed in March. We’re optimistic about seeing it together – perhaps along with one of my daughters-in-law.

Among the beauties of a Jane Austen novel is the ease and comfort that accompanies revisiting it. It had been years since I’d last read Emma. The depth of the characters – or in Emma’s case her shallowness – along with the descriptive sense of place — made it fun to revisit.

Yes, Emma is intelligent, wealthy and beautiful. She’s also selfish, but has a kind heart. Thankfully, she has Mr. Knightly to try to open her eyes beyond the estate where she lives with her father. Mr. Woodhouse is a distressed man worrying about his health and attempting to project his mindset on others. Emma patiently caters to him.

Although the plot involving a free-thinking, independent young woman with friends representing different social stations and various  degrees of romance/matchmaking/unrequited love is familiar to Austen fans, Emma is simply  an enjoyable read. The 1995 film entitled Clueless is the perfect description of Emma. She is unable to correctly assess situations when it comes to relationships, whether for others or herself.

Yet, Austen ensures that Emma is an endearing character because her efforts to play a role in the happiness of others are sincere, even if misguided.

Emma
Five Bookmarks
Penguin Classics, 1996 (first published in 1815)
476 pages (includes Introduction, Chronology, Further Reading)

Too Much Not Always a Good Thing   Leave a comment

Bawdy and boastful could easily be the title of Gael Greene’s memoir Insatiable. Subtitled “Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess” only highlights my point.

When the book was published, she’d been the dining critic for New York magazine for more than 30 years. (She continued in that role another 10 years.) Greene recounts meals at once-popular restaurants in New York City, where she lived, and several in France. Along the way she dishes on the men she slept with and the chefs she knew (occasionally they were one in the same).

I finished the book only because I hoped for more about food. Sure recipes are included and she describes some meals in more detail than others, but attention is on her sexual appetite as much as her culinary one. The braggadocio simply gets old.

Greene briefly recounts her Midwestern childhood, but the memoir emphasizes her role as a restaurant critic as the impetus for creating access to travel, men and, oh yeah, meals. She was granted impressive freedom to not only review dining establishments in the Big Apple, but also elsewhere. The assumption was what was happening in the food scene in France would soon make its way to the States.

The final chapters read like a serial obituaries for the many restaurants that met their demise.

Fortunately, she included how Citymeals On Wheels came to exist. With James Beard, she co-founded the nonprofit to help feed the homebound elderly in NYC, which is still fulfilling a need.

Insatiable
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Warner Books, 2006
368 pages, including index

Laying Past Lives to Rest   Leave a comment

The Burial Society

The title of The Burial Society by Nina Sadowsky is a bit misleading. It’s not the dead who are laid to rest, but the past identities of those who need rescuing from abusive or dangerous situations. Catherine, a narrator, oversees everything necessary in creating an unofficial witness protection service. Although it’s never clearly stated, the implication is that most of those she helps are women.

In the midst of assisting a Russian model begin a new life away from the grip of her rich, sadistic husband, Catherine faces reminders of one of her covert endeavors gone wrong.

Chapters alternate  between Catherine’s first person voice to an omniscient narrator detailing the activities of Natalie Burrows, her brother Jake and Uncle Frank. The siblings’ father has just been murdered, and their mother disappeared several years ago, independent of the Burial Society. Catherine is certain an uncharacteristic lack of judgment on her part is responsible for the woman’s death.

Set mostly in Paris, the action involves Catherine not only ensuring the Russian model is safe, but that Natalie and Jake are, too. It’s the latter that takes the narrator out of her comfort zone.

Confident, clever and apparently wealthy, Catherine is almost like a female James Bond with plenty of sophisticated tricks and technology at hand to accomplish her tasks. The author creates s sense of urgency and uncertainty in Catherine’s ability to assist the Burrows without revealing her clandestine operation. The result is a briskly-paced mystery with a lot to be solved.

The Burial Society
Four Bookmarks
Ballantine Books, 2018
319 pages

Rugged Relationships   Leave a comment

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The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney has been on my nightstand for years; I’ve lost track of how many. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.

The author evokes the loneliness and bitter cold of Canada’s Northern Territory in the late 1860s. Alternating between the first person voice of Mrs. Ross and that of an omniscient narrator, the scene is set to unravel the mystery behind the brutal murder of a French trapper found in his cabin. Mrs. Ross is the first to discover the body and the first to wonder about the absence of her teenage son, Francis.

The small settlement, rich with gossip, lacks law enforcement, which results in the arrival of Hudson’s Bay Company representatives to investigate. An assortment of characters, from refined gentry to trappers and Indians, among others, figure into the story.

Family histories (and secrets), personal backgrounds, Native American relations with settlers, the stark landscape and unconditional love are given equal weight throughout the narrative. Although Mrs. Ross is the character with whom the reader becomes most familiar, her first name is never revealed. She does not believe Francis is capable of murder, and she has little faith that those searching for him will give him the benefit of innocent until proven guilty.

Thus, she sets out on her own search with the help of William Parker, a half-breed previously held custody on suspicion of his role in the murder.
Doubt and faith vie as the prominent sentiments in this fast-paced whodunit adventure.

The Tenderness of the Wolves
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2006
371 pages (plus summary and Discussion Points)

Jacques Pepin’s Many Kitchens   Leave a comment

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Jacques Pepin practically grew up in kitchens, which he chronicles in The Apprentice – a memoir with recipes. Born in southern France, he was a child during World War II when the scarcity of food was at its height. He learned to scavenge and worked on a farm before his mother opened a village restaurant when the war ended. This led to several apprenticeships, essentially trial and error experiences, before moving to Paris as a young adult.

Pepin’s writing voice is strong and vivid; the only thing missing is his French accent. His narrative reveals his work ethic, determination and a sense of fun. He goes from a lowly kitchen boy whose first assignment was nothing more than a prank to becoming the personal chef of President Charles de Gaulle – all before making a name for himself in the United States.

His move the New York City was both an adventure (meant to last a year or two at the most) and a leap of faith. Pepin spoke no English. Still, he becomes friends with fellow foodies – long before the term was conceived. Accounts of his friendships with Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard, among others, are peppered throughout like perfect seasonings to enhance but not overwhelm. Descriptions of meals add further appeal.

It’s fascinating to see his career evolve from cooking to teaching cooking techniques (and more) to authoring cookbooks and hosting television programs. Pepin shares his emotions, his appreciation of well-prepared food and the value he places on family and friends.

The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen
A Memoir with Recipes
Four Bookmarks
A Rux Martin Book, 2003
318 pages with index