Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

August 29, 2014

ComplicitJamie and his older sister Cate had a tough start in life. Their mother was just a teenager when they were born. She was raising them in a run-down basement apartment in a rough neighborhood near San Francisco when she bled to death from a gunshot wound. The orphans were adopted by the Henry’s, a wealthy couple offering them all the advantages, including but not limited to, a private school, new cars, and horseback riding lessons.

James both thrives and wilts in this environment. He’s a gifted student and talented piano player, but he finds it hard to make friends and suffers from several psychosomatic illnesses. For instance, his hands go numb when he is under stress and he has a tendency to faint under pressure.

Cate does well at first, but then grows wild as a teen. She dabbles in drugs and becomes known as the school slut. When a fire at the stable where she rides kills several horses and seriously injures her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, Cate is found responsible and sent to juvenile detention. Now Cate is out, and the first thing she does is call her brother Jamie. Jamie teeters between trying to find and meet Cate, and trying to avoid her, just hoping to hold himself together long enough to figure out how that fire really was set – and what really happened to their mother.

This is a finely crafted, dark and disturbing psychological thriller from William C. Morris Award winning author Stephanie Kuehn.

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Murphy’s Law by Rhys Bowen

August 28, 2014

Murphy's LawMurphy’s Law is the first book in the Molly Murphy mystery series. Molly Murphy, the main character in this story, is a spunky 19th-century Irish heroine. Molly always ends up in trouble no matter where she goes. She is an outspoken, strong, independent lady. She commits a murder in self-defense, so she has to leave her cherished Ireland and her identity for the unknown shores of America.

In London she meets Kathleen O’Connor. Kathleen has two small children, and tickets for a ship to America where she plans to join her husband. But because she has tuberculosis and knows that she will not be allowed on the ship, she persuades the desperate Molly to take her children to America, using her ticket and her identity on the ship. Molly agrees to this plan since she wants to be in a new place and start a new life.

The ocean trip is not comfortable, and on top of that, she has to fend off unwelcome attentions of the mean troublemaker O’Malley, who seems to have known the real Kathleen. He threatens to expose Molly’s true identity in America.

After the landing at Ellis Island, O’Malley is found stabbed to death. Police detective Daniel Sullivan questions Molly about the stabbing since several people saw Molly slap O’Malley on the ship. Molly becomes the prime suspect along with a young man whom she has befriended. She decides to investigate the murder case of O’Malley to clear herself and her friend.

Finding her way through a vivid, Tammany Hall-era New York, Molly struggles to prove her innocence, facing one dangerous situation after another. She becomes a house help for a big politician to solve the mystery. She almost gets killed after finally discovering the true identity of the murderer.

This is a historical mystery, fast paced and richly detailed. Rhys Bowen has also written some other cozy mysteries series including Constable Evan Mysteries and Royal Spyness mysteries. Constable Evan Mysteries are very similar to Hamish Macbeth mysteries written by M. C. Beaton.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

August 27, 2014

The Elegance of the HedgehogElegance of the Hedgehog was a selection for my book club. I never wanted to read this book. I felt it would be too anecdotal and not enough plot for my taste. This is what I love about book club (aside from my friends and the food)—it gets me reading books I would not normally choose to read. I decided to listen to the audio book so this review is based on that version of the book. The audiobook is delightful.

The novel takes place in a high end Paris apartment building with the narrative alternating between precociously intelligent 12-year old Paloma and Renée the grumpy concierge. We learn very quickly that these narrators are not who they seem to be. Both have an appreciation of the finer things in life. This not only includes tangible pieces of fine art but also philosophy and Japanese culture. Paloma, tired of living amongst those who will never understand her, decides to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

Renée takes pleasure in deceiving her witless employers who believe her to be a simple, pedestrian concierge. All of this changes when a mysterious Japanese gentleman, Ozu, moves in the building. He befriends Paloma whose admiration of Japanese culture breaks down any of the usual barriers she so deftly constructs. He sees through Renée’s guise and becomes determined to spend more time with her since they have so much in common. Through Ozu, Renée and Paloma discover each other and these kindred spirits existing under the same roof for years, become fast friends and allies against the gauche residents.

What I thought was to be an artsy, disjointed book is really very heartwarming and humorous. For the audio book two readers give life to Renée and Paloma which to me, makes the characters real. So if you are on the fence about reading this book, or appreciate a really well done audio book, give this a listen!

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Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett

August 26, 2014

Amy Falls DownThe Big Event in this book happens right up front, which is a bit of a jolt. Amy Gallup is an older, moderately successful author and writing instructor, who is moderately satisfied with her dog Alphonse and her life as a hermit in her moderately comfortable suburban California home, sometimes meditating on her past and her late husband. In Chapter One, “Accident,” a misstep changes the tenor of her life. Suddenly she is in demand.

Amy’s erstwhile agent Maxine re-appears, and shrewdly starts booking Amy into interviews, discussions, and even radio talk shows. Highly opinionated and proud of it, Amy surprises everyone, including herself, by embarking on heretofore unimagined adventures.

“What did it mean that now, after all these years, she wanted to be known again?” she wonders.

Amy – or is it the author? – is literary, articulate, and cerebral. Yet I often laughed out loud at her word plays (her blog is GO AWAY), story titles taken from the day’s events (“All Buzz Aside”) , and her unplanned takedowns of narcissists (including a egomaniac radio host.)

Even though Amy Falls Down is a sequel to Jincy Willett’s mystery, Winner of the National Book Award, it is not required reading to enjoy this book.

If you like this book, you may also enjoy Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, or The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta.

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Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

August 25, 2014

Salvage the BonesIt wasn’t that the Batiste family decided to stay in their home while Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, it was that they had bigger battles consuming their lives. Every chapter moves the storm one day closer. In some chapters, the storm is not mentioned at all.

Having never recovered from the death of their mother, Esch (the narrator), her brothers and her alcoholic father live a hand to mouth existence in rural Mississippi. As the storm approaches, their lives become unraveled.

Esch, is fifteen, pregnant and alone with her secret. At a time Esch needs a mother the most, the memories of her mother fade all too quickly. She finds examples of motherhood in her brother,Skeetah and his pit bull, China, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies. Skeetah cares for China fiercely and is completely devoted to her well-being. China and Skeetah both care for the newborn pups who will be sold for dog fighting and the money used to support the Batiste family’s existence and endeavors to rise above their poverty. Esch narrates the story of her family with lush and poetic language interwoven with the classical mythology tale of Medea. Much like in mythology, all the battles, both real and emotional, are epic.

Jesmyn Ward deals in dualities making this book true to a life that is never simply black or white. The Batiste family (and their friends) live in poverty but have a richness of spirit making them resilient. Hurricane Katrina decimates the Gulf Coast, but reins in the family, forcing them to exist in one place and making them stronger. Skeetah and his pit bull, China, have a relationship built on the deepest filial love and brutally savage violence.

This 2011 National Book Award winner is a tough read. Sometimes I find a book so incredibly heart-breaking, I struggle to turn the page and consider closing the book. Ward, growing up in the rural Gulf Coast did not have a chance to turn the page either or close the book on her life. Instead, she put words to paper creating a beautiful novel, rich in hope. If you enjoy this book, I also recommend her highly acclaimed 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped.

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Little Face by Sophie Hannah

August 22, 2014

Little FaceAlice was clinically depressed and alone in the world when she met David Fancourt. David was wealthy, attractive, and gentlemanly. So what if his mother was a little controlling or his relationship with his ex-wife was especially acrimonious. So what if he preferred living in his mother’s mansion to finding a flat of their own. It was, after all, a large and meticulously maintained home. It was a terrible shock when David’s ex-wife was murdered, but David and Alice were still content together. Soon Alice was pregnant, and now they have a beautiful baby girl, Florence. Or do they? Alice walks into the nursery one morning, looks at the baby there, and is positive that it is not her Florence. How and why would someone switch babies? Is Alice playing a cruel trick on her husband, losing her mind, or just becoming aware of suspicious circumstances that have always been there, threatening to engulf her?

Detective Constable Simon Waterhouse and his Sergeant Charlotte “Charlie” Zailer of the Spilling Criminal Investigation Department (CID) are called in to find some answers. The story is told in chapters alternating between Alice’s viewpoint and Simon’s and Charlie’s viewpoint, so you see things through both the victim’s eyes and detectives’ eyes as the story progresses, in a uniquely suspenseful writing style.

This is the first in Sophie Hannah’s Spilling CID series of psychological mystery thrillers, set in the fictional British town of Spilling. Hannah is also the author of the upcoming book The Monogram Murders, featuring Agatha Christie’s iconic character Hercule Poirot in a new mystery authorized by the family of Agatha Christie.

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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

August 21, 2014

House of LeavesBefore we begin, I need you to imagine, as clearly as you can, the interior of a nautilus shell. You’ve probably seen one cut into a cross-section: a long spiral of rooms opening from rooms opening from rooms, onward and onward. Or, better still, think of the infinite view that comes from a mirror facing a mirror or the visual feedback of a video camera viewing its own live feed on a television screen. Bear these things in mind.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is the book I would like to tell you about. It is a novel about a scholarly discussion of a film, The Navidson Record, which is about a photojournalist’s attempts to document the sudden appearance of a dark, cold, featureless, labyrinthine complex of rooms, hallways, chambers, spiral staircases, and outright mazes (remember the nautilus?) that has appeared in his family’s house. Elderly, blind scholar Zampanò had been writing an academic critique of this film—until his death, at least. Here, then, we are presented with Zampanò ‘s manuscript of his critique of this documentary along with interviews and transcripts and editors’ remarks and documents related to the film—and now with added annotations and autobiographical footnotes by the finder of the manuscript: one, Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee and all-around unreliable narrator.

No, House of Leaves cannot be called a “simple” book—not in storyline nor in structure. Visually, too, the book is a maze, with unconventional typesetting, different fonts for different narrators, coded messages in colored words, and footnotes within footnotes. Nor is it a happy book, generally speaking (most would categorize it as horror; the author has referred to it as a love story): angry Johnny Truant writes like a refugee from Fight Club, Zampanò came to a mysterious and violent death, the explorers of the house fall victim to desperation and insanity, and the house itself growls.

It is not an easy book. It is not a simple book. But what maze should be simple? A maze without turns would in all ways always be a hallway. Be ready. But try the maze.

“Well, now, after all that thinking, wouldn’t it be fine if we could take a little trip? We will do it. I know a game we all like to play inside la casa, the house.

“We will play hide and seek.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald by Ruth Prigozy

August 20, 2014

F. Scott FitzgeraldPrigozy’s slim biography, filled with beautiful photographs of Fitzgerald and the people and places important to him, depicts a young man who was obsessed with attaining a romantic image of glamour and wealth. He grew up in Minneapolis in a Catholic family which had some wealth from the grocery store business of his mother’s Irish immigrant family. However, tales of the poor but genteel Southern heritage of his father’s family haunted young Scott, as though something beautiful and glamorous was lurking just out of his reach. His father’s failure in business and his shame at being supported by his wife’s family contributed to Scott’s own fear of failure.

Scott attended Princeton, but left without graduating and joined the army. While stationed in Montgomery, Alabama, he met Zelda Sayre at a dance at the country club. Scott went open-eyed into the relationship with this volatile and wildly popular belle, as he later explained in a letter to a friend:

. . . I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect . . . I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything. You’re still a catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.

Scott was desperate to convince Zelda to marry him, but she refused on the grounds of his limited financial prospects. Following a two-year courtship, they finally married in 1920, just one week after the publication of Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise.

From then on, Fitzgerald’s life reeled from the mad drunken parties that Zelda enjoyed, to occasional sober periods when he wrote stories and novels to recoup some of the money they spent so lavishly. Despite the success of his writings, financial and emotional difficulties continued to plague him. Beginning in 1930, Zelda was in and out of mental institutions, while Scott struggled to pay for their daughter Scottie’s expensive schooling and Zelda’s hospitalizations.

Throughout Fitzgerald’s short life—he died of a heart attack at age 44—he always seemed to be reaching for something that eluded him, perhaps because it was impossible to attain. He wanted the moment of fulfillment to last forever. The peak of his life, the only time he seemed to have grasped this golden dream, was just after the publication of his first novel, when Zelda finally agreed to marry him. One of his short stories describes a time “when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment.” This quest for what Prigozy calls “the mythology of success” is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s life and work.

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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

August 19, 2014

Marvel Comics: The Untold StoryFace front true believers! How did Marvel Comics go from being a small, struggling company in the early 1960s to a Hollywood mainstay and multibillion dollar business? How did Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and a handful of other writers and artists, almost single-handedly create so many iconic characters, such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers? How did the company go from the dizzying highs of the comic book boom in the late 80s and early 90s to declaring bankruptcy a few years later, only to emerge as the biggest name in film making a few years after that, dominating the box office with hits like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Sean Howe’s engaging, exhaustive and exhilarating Marvel Comics: The Untold Story traces the history of one of the most important and dominant pop culture institutions of the last 60 years.

Starting with the company’s humble beginnings, Howe traces both the creative history of Marvel, from their emergence in the “Silver Age” of superhero comics in the early 1960s and then follows a group of misfits, burnouts and geniuses as they engaged the drug counter culture with the “cosmic” comics of the late 60s and early 70s, and then responded to a more jaded society with the rise of vigilantes and anti-heroes like the Punisher and Wolverine in the mid-70s and the 1980s. At the same time, the book also chronicles the business side of the comics industry, a history of boom and bust, and a seemingly never ending battle between the artists and the executives over who owns the artists’ work, intellectual property, and even the physical drawings created for the comic books. This divide is most memorably portrayed in the heart-breaking split between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a creative partnership on par with Lennon and McCartney or Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese that deteriorated into bitterness, threats of violence and years of lawsuits.

Filled with amazing characters (both real and fictional) and unforgettable personalities, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is great, regardless of if you’re an experienced comic reader, a fan of the movies, or simply interested in a fascinating story told well. Excelsior!

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The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

August 18, 2014

The Razor's EdgeThe Razor’s Edge (1944) is one of those classic books I never read. All I knew was that Bill Murray was roasted for his role as young Larry in the 1984 film. (Turns out there was a 1946 version , too, with Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, and Elsa Lanchester.) The title alone, from the book’s epigraph, is more perplexing than beguiling.

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over
Thus the wise say the past to Salvation is hard.

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers of the day. He had commercial success with his novels, short stories, plays and films, and his masterpiece Of Human Bondage had been published in 1915. He had served in World War I as one of the British “Literary Ambulance Drivers”, and then as a spy. This experience supplied some background for his character Larry, a young man who had been a WWI aviator. When Larry returns to Chicago from the Great War, he is congenial enough, yet somewhat aimless. “I don’t know my purpose yet,” he replies to inquiries about his prospects. When offered a job as a broker in Chicago, however, he declines. His fiancé Isabel tells him “A man must work, Larry. It’s a matter of self-respect.” But Larry decides to go to Paris: “I think there I may be able to see my way before me.”

The Razor’s Edge was one of the first popular American novels to explore Eastern cultures, following the Transcendalists, and followed by the Beats in the 1950s. Maugham had visited an ashram in India, and talked with a well-known Hindu guru there. Larry tramps around Europe and India and absorbs much from fellow travelers and gurus, from the meaning of success, to the question of evil, to reincarnation, to the infinite.

If you have been asked, “What’s the use of knowledge if you’re not going to do anything with it?”, or can identify with the response, “Can anything in the world be more practical than to learn how to live to best advantage?”, read The Razor’s Edge.

If you like this book, you may also enjoy Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, or Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

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