Saturday, December 27, 2014

Alex - Pierre Lemaitre


I don't think I can say much about this book without giving away some important plot points.  

One night in Paris, a young woman named Alex is abducted on her way home from a solitary dinner.  The man who kidnapped her beats her and puts her in a cage suspended in a derelict warehouse.  She's stripped naked and starved.  There are rats.  She doesn't know why he's done this.  All he'll say is that he kidnapped her to watch her die.  But why her?

A stranger reports seeing Alex being snatched, but he doesn't know who she is and can't give the police much helpful information.  The police can't find out who she is, which makes it more difficult to find her.  By the time they find the man who's abducted her, Alex has taken things into her own hands.

This is a roller-coaster of a book that will have your sympathies shifting.  Is Alex a victim or isn't she?  It's violently graphic, but it's a gripping read.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas to All!

                                                           MERRY CHRISTMAS!


Monday, December 22, 2014

Mystery in White - J. Jefferson Farjeon

I've been reading other bloggers' posts about this book for months and now I've been reading that Mystery in White is becoming a best seller.  They had me at the cover illustration, although I downloaded Mystery in White as an e-book.  I finally read it last week and I loved it.

What could be cozier than reading about passengers on a train stuck in a terrible snowstorm?  Some of them leave the train to hike to another station.  They get lost in the storm but find a welcoming, warm, cheery house in the country.  Fires lit, kettle boiling, tea laid  -  but no one is home.

The travellers dry off, get warm, have something to eat, and wait for the owners to return.  But they don't.  There are some suspicious people among the strangers from the train and a few more people arrive later.  Then the bodies start appearing.

I liked this book a lot.  I liked the writing style, the characters, the atmosphere of the house in the snowstorm, and the plot.  The author wrote many other mysteries and I'm hoping I can track some of them down.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My New List Project

I love making lists.  It makes me feel that I'm in control of something in this chaotic world.  Or maybe I just like order.  I've been making lists of one sort or another most of my life.  Christmas lists, grocery lists, lists of errands.

When it comes to books, I've been keeping track of what I've read since 1966.  The only book on my list that year was Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which if I remember correctly, I read over the course of two summers while volunteering at the library.  I know I read more than one book that year, but that's the only one I recorded.  I recorded it in my 'Books I've Read' 3-ring binder and on a 3 x 5 card in my card catalog.  I don't remember where I kept my cards before I bought my antique oak drawers several years ago.  Probably in a cardboard box.

In 1967, I read two more by Hardy:  Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native.  I read all the well-known books by Hardy when I was in my mid-teens.  (Full disclosure, I was born in the enchanted year of 1952 AD, pre-carseats, pre-playdates, pre-every child having allergies, pre-after school activities.)  I also read Valley of the Dolls, Man-Eaters of Kumeron, Yankee Ghosts, Lizzie Borden:  The Untold Story, and several James Bond books.  

For better or worse, my parents never tried to keep me from reading anything.  I'm sure I read books that other parents would have been horrified to find in their child's possession.  Volunteering at the local library, where it was often just me and whomever was acting librarian that night, gave me access to the racier stuff they kept for adults under the desk.  But this was a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, so there was nothing to blow off your hat, maybe just Peyton Place or The Group.
I'm making quick progress because it's sort of mindless work and because I'm pretty good at data entry.  I'm good at that and can use the calculator without looking, but my skill on the piano is not what it used to be.  Too much computer and accounting work and not enough piano.  Anyway, I'm up to Janet Evanovich now and have over 600 books logged in.  But I still have a lot to go.

What makes me mad is that I know I've read books that aren't on my list or on a 3 x 5 card.  Damn it! Why wasn't I as obsessive and compulsive when I was younger as I am now?!  There are some years missing completely and some with very few books listed.  

It's rewarding to see that I've consistently increased my reading through the years.  I now average 2+ books a week, although I read several books at once so there are weeks when I don't finish anything and weeks when I finish three.  It's also interesting to see how much I read and what I read during different times of my life.  The years my mother was ill, the years with significant relationship ups and downs, the year I started a new job.

This is an interesting project for me.  I've set up the program I'm logging the books into so I can sort the records by author, title, or year.  It's fun (or embarrassing) to see how many books I've read by certain authors.  I see I'm very heavy on mystery writers, but that's not really a surprise.  I see that I read more classics when I was younger.  I think my powers of concentration were better then and I was more excited about trying to read all the 'great books'. 

It's also interesting to see how my handwriting has changed, from the full and rounded, slightly backhanded teenagerish writing to forced forward slanting script to the almost illegible half printing half cursive I use today.  There are white cards and blue cards, heavier cards and cheap cards.  There are inks of every type and several different colors.  It's personal history in a box.  And now on my laptop.

The Paper Moon - Andrea Camilleri


In The Paper Moon, a woman comes to the police to report her brother missing.  Montalbano goes to her brother's apartment with her and they find him dead, shot in the face and with his trousers 'in disarray', to put it politely.  Michela, the sister, is certain that his married mistress, Elena, did it in a jealous rage.

Montalbano interviews the beautiful and sexy Elena and falls under her spell.  Maybe.  He believes her story and thinks that someone else must have killed the man.  They discover that he, an ex-physician turned pharmaceutical rep, has been moving cocaine for one of Sicily's mob families.  The last batch he distributed for them had been fatal for several of their well-known clients.  A couple of politicians died, their causes of death hidden, of course, to protect their good names.  Surely the mob offed the man for screwing up.

Not so fast.  Let's look at the suspects again.

I enjoy this series of Sicilian mysteries with Inspector Salvo Montalbano as the main character.  I have a picture of him in my mind, though, that doesn't seem to jibe with the way he's portrayed in the TV series (which I haven't been able to get on Netflix).  I like that he lives alone in a house on the beach, that he has a long-term, long-distance relationship with a sometimes difficult woman, Livia, that he likes to eat and his meals are often described in detail, and that he's intuitive, which all good detectives should be.  I like him so much I don't really care if there's a mystery involved, I just want to read about his life.

Philadelphia Bridge of Sighs

Philadelphia has many hidden architectural gems.  They've destroyed a lot of them in the name of progress and modernity.  But if you look down alleys at the backs of buildings and in the corners of the city that haven't yet been 'improved', sometimes you find treasure.

Inga Saffron, the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote a piece recently about an interesting structure that I don't think I knew about.  It's a Venetian Bridge of Sighs.  I've been to Venice and walked past the original several times a day for a week.  This isn't a reproduction but is a very impressive nod to the original.  

It was designed in 1912 to allow employees to move from Lit Brothers department store (itself an architectural wonder) to the Cast Iron building behind it.  You can read her article here.  You can read about and see photos of Lit Brothers here.

Lit Brothers is still mostly intact, but they're about to build a skyscraper above and behind it, with the stipulation that the bridge remains.

I wish businesses appreciated the buildings they're in and stopped putting new lower facades or entrances on them.  It destroys the architectural integrity of the building.  They look like someone in a tuxedo or gown wearing combat boots.

Here are two photos of Philadelphia's Bridge of Sighs I took on Saturday:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Murder by Request - Beverley Nichols


Beverley Nichols is known mostly for his gardening books, his books about cats, and his autobiographies.  I've read quite a few in each category and enjoyed them all.  But it was news to me when my friend Katrina at Pining for the West ( mentioned that he'd written several mysteries, too.  There appear to be five of them and Murder by Request is the last of them, published in 1960.

His sleuth is Mr. Horatio Green, retired, slightly plump, almost sixty years old, an avid gardener, and with a renowned 'keen olfactory sense'.  The latter helps him solve mysteries.  He tells one of the characters in this book that he's a retired psychiatrist, but I'm not sure if he really is or if he's just telling her that.  When he's thinking hard, he blinks rapidly.  He lives with his niece Charlotte in a cottage in Surrey, England.  Charlotte tries to protect his health by attempting to keep him away from detective work.

He's approached by Sir Owen Kent, a wealthy financier, who has been receiving notes telling him that he's going to die between December 21st and December 29th.  He wants Mr. Green to go to Harmony Hall, the Nature Cure facility he owns and where he always spends Christmas, to investigate, so Charlotte finally relents.  She's been trying to get her uncle to go there to lose some weight and improve his health.

The 'nature cure' institution is full of characters, some are patients and some are employees.  Sir Owen's sister Maisie, who was recklessly driving the car that crashed and killed his beloved daughter  is there.  His twin sister, Catharine, and her husband run the clinic.  There is the down-to-earth cook, Mrs. Dee, and two masseurs:  the Adonis-like Mr. Garth and Mr. Button, devoted to Sir Owen, having been his bat boy during the war.  Button will do anything for Sir Owen.  There's Sir Owen's secretary and mistress, Louise Delamere, and the flamboyant and annoying journalist and singer, Paul Stole.

As per the letters he's been receiving, Sir Owen is shot to death during a group television viewing he's invited everyone to.  The lights go off, bang, bang, and he's dead.  Now it's up to Mr. Green and the police to find out what happened, who did it, and why.

Nichols can't restrain himself from throwing in a few comments about cats and plants.  A key point in solving the murders involves a list of plants bought from a local nursery.

This was an entertaining book.  I liked Mr. Green and his niece and would like to read more of their adventures.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Urban Bestiary - Lyanda Lynn Haupt


Do you know the wild animals that live around you in your city or suburb?  Lyanda Lynn Haupt does.  She can help you get to know them, too, introducing you to a fascinating world.

Did you know that pigeons are the only birds in the world that drink by sucking water up, like horses, rather than dipping their beaks in water, tilting their heads back, and letting the water run down their throats?  They're also good at math.

Did you know that if you happen upon a black bear you should not say 'Go away, bad bear' (variations of which are recommended whenever you meet a wild animal, who is probably at least as startled as you are) because he / she may have been fed by idiot humans who offer donuts or sandwiches saying 'Here bear, want a sandwich?'  Bears may interpret the word 'bear' as an invitation.  They're not as stupid as some of us are. 

Did you know that in the last thirty years there have been two hundred injuries to humans by coyotes but there are 4.5 million domestic dog bites each year, eight hundred of those serious?  Each year there are dozens of fatal attacks on humans by dogs, but there are only two known human deaths by coyotes in North America.  Did you know that our government spends more money each year killing coyotes than the cost of the damage they do to livestock?

Did you know that opossums sleep up to twenty hours a day, five of those in REM sleep, which means they may dream more than humans?

I have always loved animals and been interested in learning about them.  Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, a terrific writer, and an eco-philosopher.  She and her family sleep in a tent in their backyard in the summer.  She sits quietly and watches the world around her and relates what she sees.

Haupt urges us to observe the natural world around us in our urban or suburban lives, not only to learn more about the fellow creatures who share it with us, but because connection to nature is essential to our health and mental well-being.  It can also teach us how small things have a huge impact, showing us the interrelatedness of all things.  It is truly the butterfly effect.  We like to separate ourselves from nature, but when it comes down to it, we're all animals.

This book is filled with facts and personal observations about some of the most common urban / suburban animals and birds.  There's even a section about trees and the comfort and inspiration many of us get from them.

I loved this book for many reasons.  I hope you love it, too.

Later:  For Stephanie  -  Haupt writes about keeping journals and says she likes to use Noodler's brown ink!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Murder at Sissingham Hall - Clara Benson

This author has occasionally come up in Kindle Daily Deals.  I had never heard of her and thought, for no particular reason, that she was a modern author writing of a different time period, the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

I can't find a Wikipedia entry for Clara Benson, but there is a web site ( for her and her books.  It says she was born in 1890, in England I assume, and wrote several mysteries as a hobby when she was a young woman but never attempted to published them.  After her death in 1965, her family found the books and is now publishing them.  There seem to be six, with a seventh on the way.  Based on word and phrase usage, some people think that Clara Benson is a contemporary writer.  Either way, I enjoyed The Murder at Sissingham Hall and plan to read others in the series.

Charles Knox has returned from eight years in South Africa.  His old friend Bobs Buckley (no, I did  not misspell 'Bobs'), heir to a vast fortune and member of one of England's oldest and most distinguished families, meets him at the pier.  Before he knows what's happening, Bobs and his sister Sylvia whisk Charles off to a house party at Sissingham Hall.  Sissingham is the home of Charles's ex-fiancee Rosamund and her wealthy, older husband, Sir Neville Strickland.  Charles is still in love with Rosamund.

Shortly after arriving, Sir Neville is found dead in his study.  It appears that he had been drinking and fell against the mantelpiece, striking his head and killing himself.  But appearances aren't always what they seem.  One of the other guests, Rosamund's cousin, Mrs. Angela Marchmont, notices  things that don't jibe with an accidental death.  The doctor has questions, too.

Soon there is a full scale investigation.  Everyone must stay at Sissingham while the detective is at work.  The guests do their own amateur investigating.  One of the guests who stood to inherit a tidy sum of money from Sir Neville is arrested.  His wife is then found almost dead from an overdose of sleeping medication.  Still, something doesn't feel right.

Mrs. Marchmont figures it all out and tells the detective her theory.  They're just in time to prevent another murder.

From the descriptions of the other books in the series, it appears that Mrs. Angela Marchmont is the recurring detective, solving mysteries she encounters as she travels around.  Charles Knox narrates the story and Mrs. Marchmont doesn't seem to be a fully developed character, peripheral for most of the book.  It will be interesting to see if she evolves as the series continues.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Gun Seller - Hugh Laurie


I've adored Hugh Laurie for ages.  I loved him in Black Adder, in Jeeves & Wooster, in movies, and I'm sure I'd love him in the TV show House, but I'm a borderline hypochondriac and can't watch any hospital / doctor show without coming down with the virus, bacterial infection, tumor, or broken bones of the week.  Laurie is multitalented  -  an actor, a musician, a writer  -  and well-educated.  A delight.

The Gun Seller is laced with glib dialog and amusing innuendo.  Very droll, sophisticated, funny.  Thomas Lang, the protagonist, fancies himself a James Bond type.  Beautiful women, good whisky, motorcycles.  But I had a difficult time following the story.  Lang is ex-military and a freelance body guard who's asked to assassinate a wealthy businessman.  He gets involved in a plot to start a war to sell weapons so some people can make a fortune.

He also falls in love with Sarah Woolf, the daughter of one of the alleged gun sellers.  But, as it turns out, her father is trying to stop the war.  Lang infiltrates a terrorist group that's funded by the people trying to start a war.  I think he does this on behalf of the British government and the CIA.

Another woman, Ronnie, seems more promising as an aide and a romantic partner.  She's delighted to help Lang with some of his reconnaissance and helps him out of a few tight situations.  She likes the excitement and I like Ronnie.  Lang ends up on the roof of the American embassy in Casablanca with the terrorists.  The terrorists think they're waiting for a helicopter to take them to the place of their choice after winning a hostage situation.  Lang thinks they're going to be obliterated by a new powerfully destructive war helicopter, one of the weapons the group of warmongers is hoping to sell.

Hugh, it's not you.  It's me.  I've never understood spy novels.  John le Carre, Eric Ambler, anything about the Cold War  -  not for me.  I can never be sure who's who or why anyone is doing anything.  I'm just a simple hypochondriac.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Gladys Mitchell!

Just a quick one for any Gladys Mitchell fans out there.

Today's Kindle Daily Deal features fifteen Gladys Mitchell mysteries for $1.99 each.  That's amazing.

Mitchell's books are hard to find in the US and any book at $1.99 is a steal.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Turtle (A Box Turtle?)

This is a post apropos of nothing.  One of my grandnieces will be two on Sunday.  I bought her a few things (books, Solmate mismatched socks, and a Jellycat stuffed hedgehog) and dug out a box to ship them to Manhattan in.  While my back was turned, Turtle decided she liked her new house.  I thought I might have to ship her off to NY with the gifts, but she finally got tired of the box and I grabbed it and packed it and took it off to the post office.

What Books Did I Buy in Boston?

As mentioned in my previous post, we were in Boston this past week.  Within a few blocks of the condo we rent at 21 Beacon Street, the old Bellevue Hotel, there are three wonderful used book shops:  Commonwealth Books has two shops only a few blocks apart and Brattle Book Shop, 'one of America's oldest and largest antiquarian bookstores'.

Brattle is where most of my library was purchased.  In the 1980s, we lived on Beacon Hill and I worked at One Financial Center.  I walked past Brattle on my way to and from work and to and from lunch, so I had lots of time to browse and buy.  In those days, they had gorgeous sale books for $1 each.  I bought a set of Robert Louis Stevenson, lots of Everyman's editions of the classics, Oxford Classics, and tons of other interesting books.

I was building a library based on classics, with the assistance of Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan.  I used his book as a guide to the best of the best, sort of like the Harvard Classics, which I also have.  I wrote to him when he was quite elderly and treasure the letter he wrote back.  Not a lot of authors or celebrities, and he was one of those in his day, do that.  He's the writer Anne Fadiman's father.

This time, most of the books that came home with me came from Commonwealth Books.  They are better arranged than Brattle's books, and I have to confess that I'm appalled that Brattle now puts price  stickers on their books.  Shame on any bookseller who puts anything sticky on a book!  A light penciled price inside the front cover is the only acceptable method.

So, without further ado, here are the books I bought, with one exception.  Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life was given to me by my friend Jenny, a veterinarian, artist, and writer.  We often give each other books.

The two Angela Thirkell books, Miss Bunting and Close Quarters, and the Beverley Nichols mystery all came from Brattle.  The others are from Commonwealth.  There are three Nancy Drew books, so I now have all but three of the original (not first editions) thirty-four books.  There are also a couple of mysteries by Patricia Wentworth, a couple by Patricia Moyes, and two more Phoebe Atwood Taylor Asey Mayo Cape Cod mysteries.  

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have books to read!

Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair

This past week, Jack and I were in Boston.  It just so happened that while we were there, the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair was also there.  I used to go to this all the time when we lived in Boston.  I had friends who worked at Brattle Book Shop and often manned their both at the fair.

The fair seemed smaller this year, but there were still 140 dealers, enough to keep anyone occupied for an afternoon or more.  There were dealers from all over the country and from England, Russia, Germany, France, Canada, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark.  Books and manuscripts ranged from children's books, books from the Aldine press, mysteries, letters, modern first editions, and just about anything made of paper.

Coincidentally, I started reading Castle Richmond by Anthony Trollope a few weeks ago and one of the items for sale was a page from that book in the author's hand!  I forget how much they were asking for it, but too much for my pocketbook.  Besides, I've decided I don't want the responsibility for caring for important or valuable things.  I have my pretty books that I've collected over the years, most not worth more than $20 each at the most, and we can live together happily.

Another thing I like about the fair is all the free book catalogs.  Here's a sample of my collection from the show.  It's fun to look at the descriptions, to see what makes a book or a manuscript important and what the seller deems the value to be.

I think I may subscribe to the magazine in the first photo, Fine Books & Collections.  It's hard to find good magazines about books, especially old books.  This is a glossy magazine with photos and  articles about old books and manuscripts.  They're offering a one year subscription (4 issues) for $19.98 and a two year subscription (8 issues) for $28.80.  Seems like a good deal to me.  Their web site is:  WWW.FINEBOOKSMAGAZINE.COM.

Hint:  I was given or offered free passes to the fair at two used book stores.  I was buying books at each shop and accepted one free pass to the fair.  I imagine this would happen in any city, but it saved me $10.00  -  which I promptly used to purchase a book!

I had fun visiting almost every booth, but I didn't see anything I couldn't live without.  I did find out that my Baedeker travel guides are worth more than I thought they were and that my A & C Black travel books may not be worth as much as they were a few years ago.  I also think I have a first edition of a Hemingway, but the dust jacket is chipped and worn, so it may not be worth enough to buy that condo we looked at in Boston!

Black Widower - Patricia Moyes


Tampica is a fictional Caribbean island, newly independent from Great Britain.  At the new nation's  first reception in Washington, DC, the wife of the new ambassador kills herself after getting drunk and making a fool of herself.  Or did she?

After questions about her death arise, the ambassador is eager to find out what happened and to close the case.  They don't want the DC police to be involved and they don't have their own crack detectives to ship up from the islands, so they decide it would be proper to have someone from Scotland Yard investigate.  They ask for Inspector Henry Tibbett.

As Inspector Tibbett looks into the woman's death, he discovers that despite her sexually casual and fairly alcoholic past, she had been on her best behavior that night.  She was not drunk, she was drugged.  And she did not shoot herself, she was shot.  Now all he has to do is discover who did it.

This involves a trip to Tampica.  He and his wife spend a few days in the sun and the surf, allegedly on vacation, while he talks to locals and discretely gathers information.  They must rush back to DC when he realizes that their hostess there is in grave danger from the killer.  The killer has killed the ambassador's wife and an employee at the embassy and is about to strike again.

No, I'm not going to tell you who did it!  What would be the point of reading the book then?  It's a fairly short book, just a little over 200 pages, so if it sounds interesting, read it yourself!

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Canterville Ghost - Oscar Wilde


The American Minister to the Court of St. James, Hiram B. Otis, buys Canterville Chase, despite the presence of a ghost.  He and his family are Americans and don't believe in things like ghosts.  Besides, Americans were carting off all the good European stuff to America (so says Wilde), so if there were such a thing as a ghost, they would have imported one by now.  

They become believers after they move in to Canterville Chase.  Sir Simon Canterville killed his wife three hundred years ago and disappeared nine years later.  A blood stain on the sitting-room floor cannot be permanently eradicated.  One of the Otis sons removes it with Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover, much to the dismay of the Canterville ghost, who has to reapply the stain every time it's cleaned off.  They leave oil out for the ghost to lubricate his chains so they don't clank so much.
The ghost does his best to frighten the Otis's, but the Otis twins succeed in frightening him more.  Poor old ghost!  

When the Otis's daughter, Virginia, finds him looking morose and tired, the ghost finally tell's her his woes.  He admits he killed his wife, he says he's sorry, but he can't be dead, something he longs for, until his body is buried.  Virginia agrees to pray for his sins to be forgiven and to help him to eternal rest.  The ghost takes her to the secret room where his skeleton is chained to the wall.  In revenge for killing his wife, he was left there to starve to death.

Virginia is missing while she's away with the ghost.  Her family is frantic, thinking she's been stolen by Gypsies or tramps.  Or drowned in the carp pond.  She reappears holding a small box of jewels that the ghost has given her for helping him.  She tells the ghost's tale to her family and shows them  the secret room and the skeleton.  A few days later, the skeleton is buried with ceremony under the almond tree, under the silver moon, where the ghost will find peace at last in death.

This is a lovely, sweet, funny short story or novella.  I read it on my Kindle as a Project Gutenberg download.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

We'll Always Have Paris - Jennifer Coburn


This is the second memoir I've read recently that deals with motherhood and children.  Odd, since I'm not a mother and have never had the desire to be one.  I chose the previous one, The Dog Stays in the Picture, because I thought it was about a dog.  It was, but it was also about a family and a mother and her looming empty nest.  I chose this one because it's a travel narrative, as well as a memoir about a father who died too young, the daughter who misses him, and her determination to create wonderful memories with her own daughter.

Coburn's father, Shelly Coburn, was a musician who had a hit song called Only A Fool.  He was the arty type, hard to pin down, but smart and philosophical.  He was often away playing gigs, and he and the author's mother divorced after only a few years.  He smoked a lot, both cigarettes and grass, and died of lung cancer at forty-nine.  Coburn has unresolved issues with her father.  She's convinced that she will die young, too, and she wants her daughter to have great memories of their time together.

Her husband has a one-man law practice in San Diego and she's a writer.  They don't have a lot of money, but she saves to take their daughter, Katie, to Paris when Katie is eight.  Her husband stays home to keep the income flow steady.  Coburn is also neurotic.  Maybe almost as neurotic as I am.  She gets sick on the flight over and Katie has to comfort her as she vomits in their hotel room.  What has she done?!  She doesn't speak French, so how can she safely shepherd her little girl around Paris?  They manage quite well.

This is not their only trip.  Over the course of the next eight years, they return to Europe, seeing Italy, Amsterdam, and Paris again.  Katie is an observant and bright girl.  I enjoyed her easy attitude and her comments on the places they visited, their experiences, and the people they met.  She teaches her mother a lot of things.

There are flashbacks to the author's childhood with her mother and father, two very different people.  I wondered why they ever married.  Thirty years after her father's death, she still needs things from him.  Or she thinks she does.  But does she really only need to forgive herself, as her husband and daughter and mother all tell her?

I enjoyed the book.  It's a decent combination of family dynamics and travel narrative.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Discovery of Witches - Deborah Harkness


   I really think I'm hopeless at blog design!  I got the last book photo in the right place, but I can't seem to move this one from the far left.  Oh, well, a little variety is nice, yes? 

This is not the sort of book I read, ever.  But I bought it in one of the Kindle Daily Deals quite a long time ago.  I got the second one, too.  Everyone was reading this at one point, and another blogger just posted that she'd read the first two since the third is coming out shortly (or may be out now).  A couple of weeks before Halloween, I felt like reading a spooky book and I chose this one.  It's about 580 pages, but it goes quickly.

Diana Bishop is an historian and a witch, descended from generations of witches.  She, however, does not want to use her witchy powers and has resisted all her life.  Every now and then she  uses them for little things.  While doing research at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Matthew de Clermont, a vampire, sees her use witchcraft to move a book from a top shelf to her hand.

A manuscript referred to as Ashmole 782 is something that all the witches and vampires and demons have been seeking, and Diana has just unintentionally temporarily broken the spell that was put on it.  Everyone wants to know how she did it.  The powers of witches have been diminishing through the years.  Diana has powers far greater than any other witches.  Her parents had them, too, and witches killed them to try to find the source of their power.  Now everyone is after Diana to find out why she's so powerful.

She and Matthew fall in love.  But it's against the rules for any creature (vampire, witch, or demon) to mate with / love a different kind of creature.  Matthew and Diana defy the rules.  They go to Matthew's mother's castle in France to elude the creatures hunting for Diana.  As a vampire, Matthew's mother doesn't like witches, but she comes to accept that Diana is important to Matthew.  She even comes to like her and protect her.

The story moves to New York state, where Diana's aunts, Sarah and Emily, live.  They raised her after her parents were killed.  They're witches, too, and live in a house that is, well, let's say it's animated.  It has a mind of its own, it knows when company is coming and creates new rooms for the guests.  It shows displeasure by slamming doors, or acceptance by opening them.  It creaks and groans.

A war between the vampires, the witches, and the demons is brewing.  Matthew calls the Knights of Lazarus to arms.  Others are on their side, too, demons and witches and vampires who want to love whomever they choose.  This could get interesting with all the occult powers flying around!

I enjoyed the book despite my trepidation.  I've never read any of the contemporary vampire or witch books, only the classics like Dracula and a few others.  It's adventure, it's romance. 

This is clearly the first of a trilogy because it ends with Matthew and Diana timewalking back into the 1590s to escape the witch hunt and to find witches who still had great powers and could teach Diana how to use hers.  At the end of the book  -  they're just gone.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Destroyer Angel - Nevada Barr


Nevada Barr doesn't churn out Anna Pigeon books fast enough for me.  However, I missed this newest one, the 18th in the series, when it first came out.  Anna Pigeon is aging but is back in top form.  I race through these books.  If I'm ever lost in the woods, I want Anna with me.  Wait, with Anna with me, I'd never get lost in the woods!

Anna Pigeon is an independent woman married to an ex-sheriff Episcopalian priest.  She's not much of a God person.  They have a mutually respectful and understanding relationship and are crazy in love.  They don't agree on a lot of things, but they agree to disagree.  Anna is the kind of woman who needs solitude and is regenerated by her connection with nature.  She has been a National Park Service ranger for years and has been stationed in parks from Colorado to Key West to Michigan and more, spending a great deal of time fighting forest fires, trying to teach people how to behave in our national forests, and rescuing people who don't listen to her.  There is a progression to this series, so it's nice if you can read them in order but it's not necessary.

A group of women and girls  -  two mothers, one a paraplegic, and their teenage daughters  -  and Anna go off on a camping trip in Minnesota.  They also have Wily, an older family dog.  The paraplegic is trying out a new rugged terrain wheelchair that one of the other women invented.  The inventor is along to assess its success.  While Anna is off on a solitary canoe ride, four men appear in the camp and take the women hostage.  The dog is kicked to the side when he tries to protect them.

Anna hears the screams of the women and returns to suss out the situation.  She's left her gun back home, but she always has her instincts and her nature skills with her.  The men start marching the group to a rendezvous at an air strip in the woods.  They are kidnapping the inventor and her daughter because she has millions of dollars.  Later, it seems the leader of the group has a more personal interest in her.

It's touch and go for a while, with Anna trailing the kidnappers and their hostages.  The men are mostly city men, not used to trekking through the woods.  They also don't know Anna is out there and will do whatever she has to to rescue the women.  I love that she always knows what to do and does it.  She pushes herself far beyond what most of us could do, both physically and mentally.

From page one, this is an exciting book.  I was rude to my husband ('can't you see I'm trying to read?!') because all I wanted to do was finish the book.  Except now I have to wait for another couple of years for the next one.  At least I hope there will be a next one.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Dog Stays in the Picture - Susan Morse

The author of this book is going to be at my fantastic local independent bookstore, Head House Books, in Philadelphia, on Wednesday (Nov. 5th), and after reading the book, I'm looking forward to the event.

The author was an actress until she retired to raise her three children with actor David Morse.  I didn't recognize him by name, but I recognized his face after Googling him.  You probably will, too.  They've been married for over thirty years, unusual in the film / TV industry.  Most of the time, she's stayed home with the kids and he's been away on location filming.  They moved to Philadelphia after surviving the terrible California earthquake in 1994.

The children are either off at college (the girl) or about to go (the twin boys).  Freedom looms for the couple.  Susan will now be able to join her husband on location and they can rekindle their romance.  Until she decides to adopt an ex-racing greyhound with issues.

Racing greyhounds have never known family life or domesticity.  They've spent their lives in a crate or chasing a mechanical rabbit around a track.  Their professional lives are short.  They have a lot to learn when they're adopted into a family.  Fortunately, they're smart, sensitive dogs (which makes the thought of how they've been treated at race tracks deplorable).  Some things Lilly learns quickly.  But she immediately attaches herself to Susan as her rescuer and savior.  She's extremely anxious if Susan's not with her  -  all the time.  This is a problem.  She also doesn't seem to like men, although that's not surprising considering that during her professional life, she was probably handled only by men.  They don't have a pleasant association for her.

The book relates the problems with Lilly, how they were resolved, and how they affected the lives of everyone in the family.  It's a funny, honest book about a family that's not quite like other families but that has all the same problems.  There are some stories about celebrities.  There are stories about mysterious illnesses.  College applications must be filed before the midnight deadline, but the fax machine isn't working.

It doesn't end with the dog's death, which made it much more fun than a book like Marley and Me, which I have not read and will not read.  Over the past eight years, I've held six of my darling pets in my arms while they peacefully left this life.  That's too many too often and  I don't want to read about anyone else's pet grief.  That's not cathartic for me.  I'll continue to struggle with my PTSD, dreading our last remaining cat's death.

We've shared our life with three Irish Wolfhounds, sighthounds, like greyhounds, and they seem to share some of the characteristics of greyhounds.  Wolfhounds aren't used for commercial racing, so they tend to have better lives than greyhounds.  But they often have difficulty with stairs (you try going up and down stairs on your hands and knees!), they need to have their food and water elevated for better digestion, and they are huge lazy slugs most of the time.  But they're gorgeous when they run.  They are the sweetest dogs on earth, but have been known to knock people over when they lean against them, and ours have always befriended our numerous cats and kittens.

There are so many dogs (and cats and rabbits and other animals) in need of permanent loving homes.  I'm delighted to see many adopted greyhounds in my neighborhood in Philadelphia (but I don't think I've seen Lilly).  You might just want to adopt one of these beautiful dogs yourself!  (The Greyhound Project)

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin

I almost never read contemporary fiction, except for mysteries, but occasionally I do.  Another blogger posted favorably about this book about a bookstore owner and it's only a bit over 250 pages, so I thought I'd give it a try.  I'm glad I did.

A. J. Fikry and his wife Nicole open a bookstore on a fictional island called Alice, off the coast of Massachusetts.  (If you've been reading me for any length of time, you'll recall that I lived most of my life in Massachusetts and know and miss the area.  Every Memorial Day for many years, I was on Nantucket for the Figawi sailboat race that Jack was sailing in.)  But, back to the book.

A. J.'s wife has died in a car crash and he's drinking himself into an early grave.  He's never really connected with anyone but her.  He's surly with everyone, including customers at Island Books.    Besides all that, his almost priceless copy of Poe's Tamerlane, bought in a box of books for $5.00 at an estate sale, has been stolen.

What is there to live for?  Certainly not the baby that someone leaves in his bookstore.  He doesn't want a baby, knows nothing about them.  There's a note saying that the little girl's name is Maya, she's 25 months old, the mother can't take care of her, and she wants her to grow up to be a reader.  The body of a young woman washes up on the shore a few days later.

A. J. takes the baby to the police station but then decides to take care of her himself until Child Services can pick her up.  Over the weekend, the little girl endears herself to him.  The mother wanted Maya to grow up with A. J., so he adopts her.  He resorts to Google and his sister-in-law to find out what to feed her, how to change her, how to give her a bath without seeming to be a pervert, and all those little things that a parent must know.

Each chapter starts with A. J.'s pick of a short story, a very short synopsis of the story, and his reasons for choosing it for Maya.  In clumsier hands, this might seem gimmicky, but I think it works here.  It's not clear why he's doing this until near the end.

Maya loves books and she grows up reading her way from board books to young adult books to  literature.  A. J. falls in love with goofy Amelia (Amy) Loman, the sales rep for a publishing company he is rude to when she replaces the previous sales rep who has died.  A. J. is feeling that too many people in his life have died and he's not happy about that.  Lambiase, the local police chief, becomes a reader after he starts hanging around the bookstore to make sure A. J. and Maya are doing okay.  He even starts a book club for fellow officers and other safety personnel.

I was reading along happily until I ran into a looming tragedy.  It was of the sort that almost made me stop reading, but I read on.  I'm glad I did.  Like the chapter beginnings with short story recommendations, the tragedy was handled well.  It came but was not belabored, it was over, and the book went on to end satisfactorily.

There are some side stories, with characters who changed and grew but who remained very human.  I smiled while reading.  A. J. is a grumpy but ultimately likable  guy.  Maya changes him and he, of course, gives Maya exactly what her mother had hoped he would.

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

A few months ago, a few of us decided to read Rebecca together.  Katrina has just posted her thoughts on the book, and there may be a few more posts.  Keep your eyes open.

I think this was only the second time I've read Rebecca.  I know I read it as a teenager and that's the only time I see any mention of it in my records.  I've seen the movie several times.

The unnamed narrator is companion to the social climber Mrs. Van Hopper when she meets the older Max de Winter in Monte Carlo.  She and de Winter enjoy each other's company and de Winter asks her to marry him to keep her from leaving with Mrs. Van Hopper.  de Winter makes the very young girl feel grown up and she makes him happy.  His wife, Rebecca, is dead, drowned in a sailing accident a year before.

I felt uneasy about the relationship when de Winter casually proposed during breakfast.  It seemed almost brutal.  He then tells her that there will be no church wedding because, she must remember, he's already had a church wedding.  Well, fine, but how about her?  She is a young girl with dreams and fantasies of romance.  He tells her she can call him Maxim, as his family does, although Rebecca called him the more intimate Max.  He also drives too close to a cliff edge in Monte Carlo and frightens her.  These should have been red flags, but she's young and naive.

Things start to unravel when they return to Manderley.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is just this side of openly hostile to her, undermining her shaky confidence.  The girl starts to become obsessed with the dead Rebecca, the woman with whom she cannot compete, the woman who will never grow old, whose legacy as a beautiful enchantress will endure.  She's convinced that de Winter still loves Rebecca.  She starts acting like a child, accidentally breaking a china cupid (one of Rebecca's wedding gifts) with a painting book (one of her wedding gifts) and then hiding the broken pieces in drawer.  She's easily intimidated by de Winter and Mrs. Danvers and everyone else.

As it turns out, Rebecca is not what some people thought and de Winter is not still in love with her.  It's a completely different situation that becomes apparent toward the end of the book.  When the truth is revealed, it brings the narrator and de Winter together.

I liked this book much better than Jamaica Inn.  Katrina has mentioned that the writing is more polished and I agree.  The characters seem more fully developed and the suspense grows and grows.

Manderley was a real house in Cornwall called Menabilly.  du Maurier rented the house and lived there for more than twenty years.  According to the introduction in the edition I read, du Maurier was 30 when she wrote Rebecca.  Her husband was in the military and they were stationed in Egypt, which du Maurier hated, homesick for Cornwall and disliking the social duties of a military wife.  Jamaica Inn had almost been a bestseller, but she thought Rebecca was gloomy and that the ending was too grim.  Her publishers promoted it as a Gothic novel and it's never been out of print.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Silent Traveller in Boston - Chiang Yee

Another bad cover photo.  I promise I'll do better.  In my defense, this is an old, well-worn, plastic-covered library book.  That's Park Street Church and a corner of Boston Common on the cover.

The author, Chiang Yee (1903-1977), was an admired Chinese author, poet, and artist.  He illustrated this book with his own watercolors and black and white drawings.  He left China, and his wife and children, to attend the London School of Economics.  While in the US, he taught at Columbia and Harvard.  He went back to China two years before he died.

Chiang Yee travelled while in England and wrote several books as The Silent Traveller.  He also came to the United States and wrote books about New York, Boston, and San Francisco.  The Boston book was the one that interested me because I lived most of my life in or around Boston.  He lived on Beacon Hill, at 69 Pinckney Street;  I lived a few blocks away at 25 Revere Street a couple of decades later.  It was interesting to note the differences between Boston in 1959, or thereabouts, and Boston from 1971 on.

I recognized most of the places he wrote about:  Boston Public Garden, Boston Common, The Union Oyster House, the Museum of Fine Arts, Church of the Advent (where they still ring changes, as in the Dorothy Sayers book The Nine Tailors, hard to find churches in the US that still do this).  I was puzzled when we wrote of Fenway Court until I realized he meant the wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by The Fens.

The Silent Traveller strayed outside the city limits, too.  He visited Nahant (where I lived for a few years) and Marblehead (where I lived for six months), Rockport, Salem, Concord (canoeing on the river, where we used to canoe), Plymouth (near which we lived, too).  He went to hear the Boston Pops at the Hatch Shell, beside the Charles River, conducted by the great Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Symphony (where I tended bar one night).

In addition to places, he wrote about the people of Boston.  Who they are and who they were.  I must admit that he socialized mostly with 'proper Bostonians', not with the working classes.  Boston is the site of many 'firsts', so he admired Bostonians for their ingenuity.  He admired the New England work ethic and ability to adapt without giving in, and the determination to be free.  Chiang Yee explored the history of Boston, the Pilgrims, and science and literature in Boston, Cambridge, and the surrounding areas.  He admired Bostonians and he proclaimed Beacon Hill the most livable place he'd ever been to.

There were times when he went off on a related tangent, comparing China and Boston in both political and social ways.  There are several pages on the Chinese porcelain trade and how porcelain was made in China, on dragons and unicorns (there's a unicorn, for Scotland, on the top of the Old State House in Boston, as well as the British lion), and on Confucianism and Taoism.

It was fun for me to follow the author to places I know well and to discover a few new ones.  We'll be back in Boston in a few weeks, so I have a list of addresses and things I want to see.  But it's sad for me, too, because I love Boston and I miss the many friends we left there when we decided to  move closer to my family.

But I want to be able to see my family whenever I want without planning a twelve or sixteen  hour roundtrip.  My oldest niece just made Halloween costumes for my three grandnieces.  One of the 2-year-olds wanted to be a butterfly, so my niece made her wings.  When her mother put them on her, she thought the wings were broken because she couldn't fly.  I wouldn't want to miss a sweet moment like that.

Damage - Felix Francis

This isn't a very clear photo of the book I just finished, but it will have to do.  I have a problem with glare.  My solution is to hold the flash closed to eliminate the glare from the flash.  But that keeps the camera from focusing properly.  I think there must be a way to shut the flash off, but I don't have the patience to read the manual.

I loved the old Dick Francis books, the very first books.  When he deviated from books centered on horses, I kept reading, but not so enthusiastically.  I understand that Dick's son, Felix, collaborated on several of Dick's last books and he's now taken over the franchise.  I think he's doing okay, but I think  the older books are better.

In Damage, Jeff Hinkley is an investigator for the British Horseracing Authority.  He's dealing with his beloved older sister's cancer and trying to decide if he really wants to marry his live-in girlfriend.  In the midst of all this personal angst, someone is trying to damage British horse racing, trying to shake the betting public's confidence in the integrity of the sport.

Jockeys and other racetrack personnel get poisoned, all the winners in one race are doped without their owners' knowledge, fireworks explode at a jump, causing mayhem and the death of one of the horses.  I had the misfortune of seeing the death of a horse at Cheltenham Race Days and it pretty much ruined the 'sport' for me.  The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) receive a message extorting money to cease the disruptions.  The BHA ask Jeff to go into deeper cover to ferret out the person behind it all.

There's a bit of slack in the middle of the book, as far as I'm concerned, and there are loose strings left at the end.  There is an exciting bit in the last few pages when Jeff, his girlfriend, and another BHA investigator follow the offender and unmask him, literally.  There is an, uh, smashing end in store for the perpetrator.  But then the book just ends.  Maybe there was a publishing deadline to keep, but I think the ending was too abrupt, leaving too many questions.

Now I get to tell you that I love the old Francis books, just as I used to like Westerns on TV or in movies.  But with maturity and knowledge comes the realization that things are not always what they seem.

Race horses (and other horses used for competition) are bred with the hope that they'll be winners.  If they're not, or if they stop winning, they're discarded, usually shipped to Mexico or Canada to a horrible death in a slaughterhouse.  We closed all the US equine slaugherhouses (you can't kill a horse the same way you kill a steer because their anatomy is different, and killing a steer is wrong, too), a very good thing, but the law still allows us to ship them to other countries for slaughter.  There's a bill in Congress to close this loophole, but it languishes year after year.  (Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act S. 541 / H.R. 1094)  Horses of every kind, including pets who go to auction and are bought by 'killers', face a similar end because they're expensive to keep.