Sunday, September 22, 2013

What to Keep and What to Let Go

Objects of My Affection, by Jill Smolinski

What do you do when your 19-year old son has a serious drug problem? For Lucy Bloom, the answer is simple and clear: Whatever It Takes. For Lucy, getting her son into a rehab program literally takes everything she has, including her relationship with the love of her life.

After she sells her home to pay for the rehab and her relationship ends because her partner does not want his life turned upside down by a teenage drug user, she finds herself broke and living with a friend and her family. When she is offered the job of helping an eccentric and somewhat notorious artist clean up her house, the job looks like a lifeline. Unfortunately, Marva Meier Rios is as cantankerous as she is eccentric and she blocks progress on the project at every turn.

Lucy's efforts to clear out the clutter is resisted at every turn, but Lucy is determined to finish the project. For better or worse, the job throws her back into contact with her ex-lover and in conflict with secrets Marva herself is determined to preserve.

And then Lucy's son leaves rehab and demands that she pay for treatment at Betty Ford and Lucy's plans for a rosy future for herself and her rehabilitated son collapse again.

In a strange way, this is a kind of "coming of age" story. Lucy has to give up her fantasy future with her son and come to terms with the boundaries between her life and his. It is a deep challenge many parents have to face and, perhaps, especially wrenching for a single parent.

This is a good story, well written and well told. I especially liked the parallel between the things -- and people -- we hang on to and the ones we finally have to let go.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Last Lion: A Three Volume Biography of Winston Churchill

Visions of Glory: 1874 to 1932 (992 pages)
Alone: 1932 to 1940 (800 pages)
Defender of the Realm: 1940 to 1965 (1232 pages)

If you're interested in history and politics, The Last Lion, a three volume biography of Winston Churchill is a must read. Can you imagine an author with the audacity to create a fictional character who was a member of Queen Victoria's Calvary in the Boer War, a major leader in the WWI and, finally, Prime Minister of England in WWII, standing alone against Hitler for two long years?

Sometimes, truth is grander than fiction because those are the barest bones of Winston Churchill's story, and still, author William Manchester has so much more to tell. Churchill was above all else, a wordsmith who left behind volumes of writing including a stints as a war correspondent, a columnist, and an author of books. In addition, he wrote out all of his speeches to parliament both as a member and as Prime Minister. And he wrote letters – tons of letters.

The result is that we have a record of his thoughts, concerns, insights, ideas, flights of fancy and more, often in his own words and just as often in the words of others through diaries, letters, and commentary. Manchester seems to have sorted through it all and gives the reader a masterful picture of Churchill as a warrior, an artist, and a leader. The author shows us a giant of a man who was seriously flawed, frequently frustrated, and determined beyond belief.

This is a great biography of a man who quite literally changed the course of the world at a critical time and one not to be missed. I confess, though, I did not read it. I listened to it from an audio version downloaded from the library and it's a strategy I highly recommend.

For one thing, downloading books from the library is free and convenient. For another, I was able to enjoy the book while I walked my dog, did dishes, waited in line at the bank, and a thousand other things. Otherwise, I would still be plodding through the nearly three thousand pages. It's a daunting task.

Finally, the first two volumes were written by Manchester who died before he completed the third volume. The final book was completed by Paul Reid. Manchester's volume two was published in 1989 and the last volume was published near the end of 2012. It is my hope that the availability of an audio version will make the book more assessible.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dodger -- A Reluctant Hero

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Audio book narrated by Stephen Briggs

Dodger is a seventeen year old lad living in London in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. He makes his living as a “tosher” (one who scavenges in the sewers for anything of value that may be found there – usually coins and jewelry) and occasionally as a thief.

Dodger’s generally satisfactory life is given an unexpected jolt when he impulsively rescues a young woman who is being beaten in an alley by two men. The young lady who calls herself Simplicity ironically turns Dodger’s life to unexpected complications.

Dodger’s adventures take him from the underbelly of Victorian England and to the highest levels of society as he tries to keep Simplicity safe from those who would harm her.

Along the way, he makes friends with Charles Dickens, apprehends the notoriously mad Sweeney Todd, dines at the home of Angela Burdett-Coutts, the richest woman in the world, and negotiates with Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of England.

Author Terry Pratchett is an expert at creating eccentric characters, delightfully flawed heroes and heroines, and wildly entertaining plots. For Dodger, he has delved into the history of London and presents a picture of life there in the mid 1830s.

This book is listed as appropriate for readers 13 and up, but adults should not overlook this charming novel. If you have a ‘tweener who has not yet discovered the joy of reading books for pleasure, consider downloading the audio version of this book on your MP3 player.  Narrator Stephen Briggs artfully brings the book to life.

This book is especially good for boys. Although girls will enjoy it, you might consider The Wee Free Men or A Hatful of Sky also by Terry Pratchett, also narrated by Stephen Briggs, and featuring a young witch named Tiffany Aiken.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

In an Alternate Universe...

Ever wonder what might have happened if Lincoln had not been assassinated?  Stephen L. Carter has.  In his book, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, he has turned casual wondering into intriguing speculation and created a taut, gripping, and rather fantastic historical mystery story.

In this story, Lincoln survived the assassination attempt at Ford's Theater.  His Vice President, Andrew Johnson, did not. Instead of being viewed as a benevolent father leading the nation through a healing process, Lincoln is viewed as a tyrant selling out the Northern victory to accommodate the defeated South.  Now, Lincoln is facing impeachment charges brought against him by the United States Senate.

The central figure in this story is Abigail Canner, a well-educated young black woman.  Determined to overcome the two strikes against her, Abigail's great ambition is to become a lawyer.  She is hired as a clerk in a Washington law firm that just happens to be defending President Lincoln in his impeachment trial.

When Lincoln's lead defense attorney is found murdered in the company of a black woman assumed to be a prostitute, Abigail is thrust into the heart of the mystery where she pursues threads of an ever deepening plot that seem to lead back to members of her own family.

In the telling of his story, Carter provides insights into political tactics and the destructiveness of hardened political positions, the status of women, a different perspective on the struggles of African-Americans, and a different perspective of a critical time in our nation's history.

As it turns out, Carter has a lot to teach us, but his saving grace is that he never forgets his story.  The little lessons along the way always support the story and stay in the background  there for you if you care to see them.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book and a compelling mystery.  The history and the cultural lessons are a nice bonus offered without being intrusive.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Do You Believe Everyone Has One Special "Other"?

Thanks for the Memories
by Cecelia Ahern

If it is true that we each have some perfect partner "out there" waiting to be found, I suppose we must also believe in a benevolent Universe somehow conspiring to bring us together.

That is, sort of, the premise of this book by Cecelia Ahern.  Justin Hitchcock is a recently divorced father who has moved from Chicago to London to be closer to his young adult daughter. As a guest lecturer in Dublin, he meets Sara, a doctor who is recruiting blood donors.

In an effort to continue their relationship, he agrees to donate even though he really hates needles and generally all things medical.

Joyce Conroy is a Dublin real estate agent whose life is falling apart.  In an effort to save their marriage, she and her husband have become pregnant, but  she falls down the stairs in her home. She loses the baby and nearly loses her life.  She also loses a lot of blood and requires a massive transfusion.

That's the set-up.  After the incident, Joyce is plagued by strange memories, unusual knowledge, and bizarre dreams about people she does not know.  Circumstances throw the couple together, but misunderstanding, ego, insecurities, and stubbornness keep them from connecting.

Getting to the inevitable conclusion is a long and drawn out affair.  Thank goodness, the story is told with plenty of humor and amusing situations!  They are the salvation of this book.

In the end, Thanks for the Memories is a light and enjoyable book with interesting characters and a satisfying resolution.  This is the kind of book to take on a long trip.  It will keep you pleasantly entertained between flights.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Everybody Really Does Have a Story

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

On the rugged west coast of Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a large, old stone house is given new life when Irish ex-patriot Chicky Starr and the aging Miss Queenie collaborate to turn the old house into a restful holiday retreat.  As is Binchy's trademark, the book brings together a delightful cast of characters -- each one with a story.

With each character, the reader gets a glimpse into an ordinary life with all its ups and downs, frustrations and victories, sorrows and joys.  All too often, the thing we think will bring joy brings defeat and more than we realize, our defeats can often bring our greatest joys.  Binchy's great gift was that she knew this truth and she knew how to share it.

In her later books, Binchy used re-used many characters and locations.  Each book stood alone but minor characters from one book reappeared as main characters in a later book.  With great skill, she wove characters and plot lines  in and out from one book to the next.  For a reader, it was great fun.  (My favorite was Evening Class and I think that was my introduction to this writer.)

In the grand scheme of things, A Week in Winter is probably not as strong as her other works.  Binchy died in July, 2012, and this book was published posthumously.  She can be forgiven if it lacks some of the cohesion and careful plotting that made her previous work sparkle.

It is, nevertheless, a very good book and I enjoyed reading it.  If you are a Maeve Binchy fan, you will enjoy it.  If you are not a fan, you can become one.   The great thing about writers is that they leave their legacy for us to enjoy when they are gone.  Just begin with one of her other books.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Life Is Like a Bottle of Vodka!

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

  • Jonas Jonasson

  • This book is an international best seller and I put off reading it because I expected some cross between The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sachs) and Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom).  It was neither.

  • Allan Karlsson, the 100 year old man, is the ultimate opportunist in the very best sense of the word.  He is a simple man, open to everything life puts in front of him.  Like other reviewers, I could not help thinking of Forrest Gump as I read of his encounters with virtually every leader of the late 20th century including Truman, Stalin, Mao, Nixon, and others.

  • Told in flashbacks, his adventures take him around the globe from Paris to Tibet to the Philippines.  Intertwined with all that, his current adventure begins with his leap out the window followed by the theft of a gangster's suitcase full of money.  He hooks up with a hot dog vendor, makes friends with an elephant and...well, you have to read the book.

  • This is a witty, funny romp that is a joy to read.  Once you start, you really can't put it down.  Do yourself a favor and start today!
  • Friday, March 1, 2013

    The Big Exit: An Excellent Second Novel

    The Big Exit by David Carnoy

    David Carnoy has done two extraordinary things.  The first extraordinary thing he did was write a very good, complex, and entertaining mystery called Knife Music. The second extraordinary thing he did was follow up that novel with an even better one called The Big Exit.

    Too many good first novels are followed by disappointing second novels that read like "first tries" hauled out of some dusty file and spruced up to meet some new demand.  In The Big Exit, all the things that made Knife Music a good read are back and Carnoy does a better job with each element.

    The characters are well-drawn and interesting.  Richie Forman is a recently released parolee who earns a living of sorts by impersonating Frank Sinatra.  Beth Hill, his former fiancee, is now married to Richie's ex-friend, a man Richie believes framed him for the crime that sent him to prison.  Carolyn Dupuy, the prosecutor at Richie's trial, is now Beth's attorney, and Hank Madden is back as the investigating officer.

    As the story opens, Mark, the ex-friend, is found in his garage horribly hacked to death and Richie quickly becomes the prime suspect.

    What follows is a plot full of surprises and terrific twists.  Twice, I thought I had cleverly spotted the hidden clue to the real killer's identity only to be sent  scuttling in an entirely different direction.

    If you missed Knife Music, I suggest you read that one first because this is a series that could become seriously addicting.  And, remember to come back and read The Big Exit.  It is an excellent second novel.

    Monday, January 28, 2013

    What Would You Do If...

    Defending Jacob by William Landay

    Imagine this.  You are a successful prosecuter, happily married, and the father of a smart, handsome, 14 year old son.  And then, one day, you go out on a call that turns out to be the murder of a student at your son's school.  It's tragic and as both a father and a prosecuter, you want to handle this case.  And then, it turns out that the only real suspect is your son.

    In this book, author William Landay has taken a step beyond just telling a great story.  Half the fun of this book is how the story is told.  Landay masterfully develops the story in a way that makes the reader feel the pain of the main character, Andy Barber, as his career crashes, his marriage disintegrates, his finances are ravaged, and his deepest secrets are revealed.

    This is a difficult book to review because I do not want to give away any of the good stuff.  For me, an important part of the "good stuff" is in the telling.

    Here is one thing I can tell you.  I read a lot of mysteries and if you are a mystery lover, this is a book you simply must read.

    Have you read it already?  Leave a comment telling us what you thought of it!

    Friday, January 18, 2013

    Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

    If you are a fan of historical mysteries, you will love Malice of Fortune.  It is set in 16th century Italy against a backdrop of political intrigue and war.

    Pope Alexander's son, Juan has been assassinated and the pope, one of the infamous Borgias, is holding the son of Damiata hostage.  To get him back, Damiata must solve the mystery of Juan's murder.  For assistance, she has none other than Niccolo Machiavelli who is in the process of pondering why men do what they do and Leonardo Da Vinci who is taking detailed observation to dizzying new heights.

    One of the things that makes this book so intriguing is that it is based on historical fact.  The records show that the main characters were where the book puts them and doing the things the book shows.  Machiavelli was a minor diplomat involve peripherally in sensitive negotiations and Da Vinci was a military engineer working for the charismatic Duke Valentino, Cesare Borgia who is the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander.

    This is a complex and well written book rich in both historical background and strong character development.  On top of that, it puts a new spin on The Prince, written later by Machavelli.

    This is a great book for a cold winter's evening!

    Friday, January 11, 2013

    What happens when passions run so high that common sense and civil discourse are impossible?

    In The Submission, author Amy Waldman takes on that question.  A memorial to the victims of a terrorist attack in New York is being planned 10 years after the incident.  A jury reviews anonymous submissions for the design and chooses a winner.  When it is revealed that the winning designer is a Muslim American, passions erupt fueled by an aggressive press.

    In the hullabaloo that follows, civility and common sense are lost, vision wavers, positions change, intentions are swamped in chaos.

    Waldman tells her story through specific characters including members jury, representatives of the victim families, reporters, political leaders, political activists, and the designer.  Everyone has an agenda and everyone weighs in.

    In the end...well, you have to read it for yourself to see how it ends.

    As I read this book, the tragedy of Sandy Hook happened and quickly propelled us into a discussion of guns and gun control and that discussion has become wildly overheated.  This book tells a good story and offers a valuable warning.  We all need to pay attention to how we are manipulated, to who is pulling the strings, and to what we have to gain or lose.  Most of all, we all need to dial it down a notch.