Thursday, February 07, 2019

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny (2011)

Clara Morrow - one of the first characters I remember meeting in the first book of the Armand Gamache series - is finally having a major exhibit of her work in Montreal, but the joy of it is dampened by the discovery of a childhood friend murdered in Clara's garden during the party after the opening. Clara feels that the former friend has again taken the spotlight away from her. Her husband Peter is feeling great pangs of envy. There are art dealers waiting around like vultures to sign Clara as their artist. Complex sets of emotions that Gamache has to wade through to get to the truth in the deceptively quiet setting of Three Pines. Read a few months ago, so details have already faded, but glad that there are plenty more books in this series to enjoy.

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith (2004)

I read some of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by McCall Smith and thoroughly enjoyed them, but wasn't as thrilled by the couple of other books I picked up by him. A colleague suggested this series and it looks like it will be fun.

This book was written as a daily serial in a Scottish newspaper, so the chapters are nice and short. The characters start out with some of the people living at the address in the title and then branch out to the people at their jobs, their friends and family. All the places in the book are real, and even some of the characters are actual people that gave the author the right to portray them in this series. I realize I know squat about the Scots, as none of the writers or artists mentioned ring a bell. So at least I will learn something about Scotland, Edinburgh and the Scots. In this book our fictional characters go to meet Ian Rankin, a real life famous Scottish crime writer.

Pat is a young woman in her second gap year, still finding herself, who rents a room in 44 Scotland Street in an apartment inhabited by narcissistic Bruce, who works as a building inspector. Pat lands a part time job in an art gallery run by rich and feckless Matthew. Much of the story-line centers around a possibly valuable painting. Dominica is an eccentric widow, who lives at 44 S. St. and is one of the more colorful characters and has interesting friends. Six year old Bertie lives in the building with his mom Irene, who is out to make him super child. Looking at the titles in the series, looks like we will be following Bertie's development. We also meet Bruce's bosses and the boss' daughter.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes (2018)

Recommended by my audio bookstore owner, I didn't really get what I was reading until the end, when there was an explanatory note and an interview with the author. First of all, Jessica Fellowes, who worked with, I want to say uncle, Julian Fellowes and wrote companion books to the Downton Abbey series about life in those times. This is her first try at fiction, though it is based on the actual murder of  WWI nurse Florence Nightingale Shore that was never solved. It turns out that the Mitford family too is real and that the Mitford sisters were well known in the between war years and that Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) became a well know writer. Here in this book she is still a girl, just about to turn 18. I did try to figure out if Florence Nightingale Shore (I kept hearing it as Shaw) was real, as I had only heard of her famous aunt - but Florence Nightingale developed nursing in earlier wars and died in 1910. This book happens in 1920-21.

Our two main characters are Louise Cannon and Guy Sullivan, both from the working class. She is the daughter of a washerwoman whose father has died and a nasty uncle has moved in to their apartment. When he tries to use her to pay off his debts, she jumps off a train and is helped by one of the young railway security people - Gus, who regrets not having been to war because of his poor eyesight. He helps her get to an important interview. Right after that Florence Nightingale Shore, a highly respected nurse during the war, is found battered on a train and she dies a day later. Gus becomes obsessed with the murder and spends the rest of the book looking for the possible murderer., even when the case gets officially closed. He feels that if he could solve this, he could move up to a more responsible job.

Louise gets the position as helper to the nanny of the five Mitford daughters. Nancy, being the oldest, considers her a friend at times, though the difference in their status does not make that always easy. Nancy is an energetic girl who wants adventure, so when she reads about the murder, she is intrigued, pulling Louise into her musings about what could have happened.  Nancy also wants to be grown up, so she convinces Louise to accompany her to a ball that she is too young to attend. There they meet Roland, who has come back from the war and Nancy becomes quite besotted with him. Nancy and Louise find a few clues that they pass on to Gus, who likes Louise. The mystery keeps giving them excuses to write or talk and meet, though Louise can't even imagine that she could have a future with him.

We get to meet a lot of characters from all walks of life and see their joys and sorrows, but for all the times are changing. England is recovering from the war, where it lost so many of its men, but the changes in technology allow the lower classes to hope for lives better than that of their parents, and as we saw in Downton Abbey, the lives of the upper classes change too, Fellowes said in her interview that she has based her novel on a lot of real facts, for instance, she read all the descriptions of the inquiry into the murder, as reported in the papers. The Mitford sisters also wrote a lot to each other, which has provided her with enough details to intersperse with her own imagination. The servants are fictitious, but based on people in similar roles.

Turns out this is going to be a series of murder mysteries, and I see that another one has already come out, so we should be seeing the Mitfords, Louise and Gus again in the future.

Monday, January 21, 2019

First Snow by Nora Roberts (2018)

It was time to read some of Roberts' oldies, just for fun:

A Will and a Way (1986)
Pandora is a jewelry artist who loved her eccentric Uncle Jolley up in the Catskills, but his last wishes are that she spend six months in his huge house with distant cousin Michael, before the two of them can inherit his millions. Michael writes TV scripts, so both can work from the Catskill house, but neither is thrilled with the idea, as they don't get along. Of course there are the outraged relatives who were left things that Jolley hoped would move them out of their  entrenched life styles. Of course Pandora and Michael do move in, enjoy Jolley's house and learn to enjoy each other, as the relatives connive to get them to break the agreement. I love the Catskills, as I spent a lot of summers there as a kid and have been returning for a week every summer for the last ten or so years.

Local Hero (1987)
Hester moves into a Manhattan apartment with her son Radley and starts a new job at a bank. She has difficulty finding a sitter, and when the neighbor Mitch offers to help watch him, she is thankful, but has a hard time understanding that he writes comic books - which Radley things is the greatest thing. Mitch falls in love with both of them and finally wins over Hester, who is reluctant to love again after a painful experience with her ex-husband.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Fallen by David Baldacci (2018)

Here's a recent Amos Decker thriller with his side-kick Alex Jamison. They are supposed to be on vacation in Baronville, a small western Pennsylvania town visiting her sister, whose daughter will be having a birthday. Out on the back deck Amos sees some flickering lights and then smoke, which starts their involvement in a multi-level mystery. First of all there are six dead people, seemingly unrelated - actually more by the time the book is done. Then there is John Baron, after whose family the town is named and his grandfather made a lot of money with mines and mills building up the town, but ended up leaving his family quite poor and the town poorer. John still lives in the falling down mansion, but is disliked by almost everyone in the town except Cindy, the barkeep and owner. There is a rumor of a treasure hidden by the original Baron. There is an opioid crisis in town, which I understand is prevalent in small towns like these - but it was the first time I've run across it as part of a plot. The town seems to be slowly recovering with some large insurance pay-outs on some of these opioid deaths. The other saving grace is a large fulfillment center, like Amazon distribution centers, that is providing jobs, but again, what kind of jobs and what do people have to do to get them and keep them?

Amos gets a bit more human in this one, as he gets clobbered on his head during an explosion and stops seeing blue when people die, has some gaps in his perfect memory, and actually shows some empathy, especially towards Alex's little niece. Somehow he remembers how to be a father and connects with her.

I always like these intricately constructed plots from Baldacci that keeps me wondering how he is going to fit this or that piece into the puzzle. I also liked the realistic view of small town America. I lived in a small town in SE Ohio for a few years - long enough to get a sense of its problems. We do have to find solutions as states and a nation, and I am afraid you can only build so many fulfillment centers, and those are not a great solution. 

Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva (2008)

#8. Never a dull moment with Gabriel Alon. I keep reading these out of order and there has often been a reference to Russia, so I imagine this is the one. Russia is post Soviet Union, as journalism is being restricted and some Russians are becoming very rich. Two journalists who try to warn Gabriel about something get killed and a third - Olga - is almost killed. Ivan Kharkov, a former KGB colonel who built a global investment empire on the rubble of the Soviet Union is also dealing in weapons that will be used against Israel, and it is important for Gabriel to stop him. Ivan's wife Elena is willing to help, but she is watched closely, so there have to be intricate situations set up to solve this. Of course there is art involved - this time a Mary Cassatt. Gabriel forges a copy for Elena, to get access to her. Most of the action takes place in Russia, France (French Riviera again, just like Belmond's Rather books) and Britain. Many of our well known characters are here, like Chiara (who is not happy when Gabriel interrupts their honeymoon for this caper) and Sarah Bancroft, who is borrowed from the CIA (oh yes, make sure all these operations include multiple foreign governments and their spy agencies) to sell the painting to Elena.

Dashing Through the Snow by Debbie Macomber (2015)

I asked for a random Christmas book and this was it. The usual planes get cancelled travel woes, where two people end up driving up together in the last rental car from San Francisco to Seattle. Ashley want to see her family for the holidays and Dash has to make an important job interview. Of course they don't get along in the beginning, but through all the adventures along the way they fall in love. She picks up a dog at a rest stop, where someone found a whole litter abandoned in the parking lot. And then there is the crazy cop who has made it his life's goal to capture a major criminal. All in all a fun read.

Beardream by Will Hobbs (1997)

Just picked up a random kids book from our shelves and it turned out to be an Ute story that I hadn't heard. Actually, I recognize quite a lot of the European based tales,but less of those coming from the Native Americans. This is one of those dreaming stories - and I know that dreams were/are very important in this culture. But somehow this was such a likable tale, where a little boy - Short Tail goes up the mountain to wake up the Great Bear, as he has overslept though spring had arrived. Short Tail falls asleep and dreams that he wakes the big old bear who takes him to a gathering of the bears dancing to celebrate the end of winter. Short Tail goes back and teaches his people how to do the dance, so they too can celebrate the end of winter and the awakening of the bears. Just so moving.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Northwoods Reader by Cully Gage (1977)

Professor Van Riper here at Western Michigan University wrote a series of books as Cully Gage about northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula, where he grew up. I checked out the book from the library with the cover you see here, and as far as I can tell, this 1977 edition is the first edition. I was hoping to put these stories into our institutional repository, but it turns out that new editions of this and his other volumes are still selling today.

Though fictionalized, you can tell this characters were based on real people he met in his childhood and is such a wonderful storyteller. He treats all with respect, be it an enthusiastic young English teacher that tries to bring culture to the town or the town drunk. You see the hard life led by people who had to contend with long winters. You see the variety of settlers - Finns, Danes, Irish, French, Native Americans, etc. The introduction of one of his stories explains a lot:

"It always seemed that our town had more than its share of assorted nuts, eccentrics and madmen, but perhaps the impression stemmed only from their greater visibility. In our little village, everyone knew everyone else and everything about everyone else and about everything that had ever happened to them back through at least three generations."

Just so I don't forget, the stories were about:
  • Big Finn farmer Jaako who falls in love and courts French store clerk Josette, who dreams of something more than hard work on a farm
  • Chivaree - a custom of people greeting a newlywed couple's first night with a lot of noise and the man has to pay to make it stop - this is what they did to an older couple that got together.
  • Flame Symphony - Quiet Elly and bright Carl both did not fit in, but found each other. He created flame symphonies out of different types of wood
  • Whitewater Pete - an old logger that befriended our author as a kid
  • Reformation of Billy Bones - the town drunk that stayed sober for a while
  • Bats - this was funny, as I read this about a day after we found a bat in our office and it scared a few of my colleagues enough to have them huddle in a closed office. All the myths about bats came out in this story.
  • Mrs. Murphy Gets a Bath - another crazy inhabitant never bathed and lived with her livestock. Cully's dad is a doctor and gets her to a hospital to be washed up while the town fixes and cleans her house.
  • U.P. Bakkaball - a winter game with no rules
  • Civilization Comes to Our Town - this it the story about the schoolteacher who tried to bring culture to the town
  • Redhanded - no one local ever stole, but an outsider did start stealing from them and how they dealt with him
  • Old Napoleon - this is about a huge buck that Cully's dad promises to get every hunting season. This is the only story that comes out of Cully's childhood and has him bring his own son out to hunt and has his dad get to 94 years
  • The Paddygog - the blacksmith who celebrated St. Patrick's Day
  • The Prophet - Pierre was French Canadian and huge, so that some called him Paul Bunyan. He was good at predicting weather and other things. One year he promised a long hard winter into June. It started hard, then got nice ane everybody planted their gardens just to have them killed in the June snows.
  • King of the Poachers - Laf poached animals way beyond the allotted limits, but he provided a lot of people with food too
  • Valentine's Day- how Cully gets two shy people together
  • Grampa - Grampa was Cully's friend and taught him a lot of things, especially to enjoy life - he just turned meek when back with the family where mean Grandma bossed him around
  • Old Blue Balls - There were two sides of town and the kids always fought. Old Man Donegal was a strict superintendent that seemed to always be able to get the best of the kids, but one time they got him, but also ended the feud between the uptown and downtown kids
  • Ominum Aurem - great story about a hermit miner that would come to town a couple of times a year. He got along with Cully's dad, as they both loved Latin.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell (2017)

The 2018 Caldecott Medal winner was just one of those 5 minute reads that makes you say "Awwwwwwww." A little girl gets lost in the snow and finds a wolf puppy. She returns him to his mother and the wolf pack helps her family find her in return. Just a delightful picture book.