The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie

April 16, 2014

The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah CrombieThe past and the present intersect in Deborah Crombie‘s latest thriller, The Sound of Broken Glass. The Crystal Palace, once used as an exhibition hall in London, was tragically destroyed in the middle of the 19th Century and although attempts were made to rebuild it, it was never the same. Yet the area where it stood will always be called the Crystal Palace, and  it plays a role in this exciting story.

Detective Inspector Gemma James and Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid are married to each other. They need to solve their cases and still find time to raise their three children. Gemma is called in to investigate a ‘John Doe’ found in a shabby hotel room in the Crystal Palace area. Registered as Mr. Smith, he turns out to be one Vincent Arnott, a prominent London barrister. Arnott has not just been murdered, but he has been tortured before his death. As Gemma and her team try to put the few clues together, her husband, Duncan discovers that there may be a connection to a musician’s agent Tam Moran - one of the last people to see Arnott alive. The agent’s main client, guitarist Andy Monahan may also have a connection to the murder.

To complicate the case, a second body soon turns up.  It is another barrister with some of the the same telltale signs at his murder scene. It appears that Duncan and Gemma may be dealing with a serial killer.

Deborah Crombie is known for her deliciously involved detective stories and this may be one of her best. When the past and present catch up to each other, be prepared for an explosive ending! Even following the clues you may be surprised at the identity of the killer.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

April 15, 2014

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyThe Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of those terrific, but unfortunate (for adults, anyway), books that is labeled as “teen.” Most adults probably would pass this slender tome by, and that would be a sad mistake.

Chboksy’s debut novel is a cult classic as well as being critically acclaimed; no easy feat. Anyone who navigated adolescence (uh, all of us) can relate to some aspect of Charlie, an awkward wallflower and high school freshmen that no one seems to notice. The novel is written in a series of letters to a “friend,” and captures what it is like to experience everything for the first time.  It doesn’t shirk from the topics of: deep friendship, homosexuality, sex, drugs, alcoholism, theft, mental illness, sexual abuse – you name it, it’s in there, and written about in a candid, open way.

Charlie retires his wallflower status when he is befriended by high school seniors/brother and sister Patrick and Samantha. As he is brought into their inner circle of friends, Charlie learns that the people he used to admire from afar, and think had perfect lives – are just as damaged as he is. Most of the novel rings very true, and Charlie as written by Chbosky (who has said he has a lot of Charlie in him) is a delight to read. I normally don’t enjoy epistolary novels, but this one had me riveted so much that I watched the film after reading the book (hint: the book was better, but note that Chbosky also wrote the screenplay AND directed the movie). Well-drawn characters, realistic dialogue, and a plot twist at the end all make for a classic.

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Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

April 14, 2014

Dark Places by Gillian FlynnEveryone has hobbies. I enjoy reading and cooking. In Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, members of the Kill Club make murder their hobby. The Kill Club is comprised of individuals obsessed with horrific murder cases. Those obsessed with “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” reach out to Libby Day, the only surviving victim of the massacre that took the life of her two older sisters and mother. Her brother, fifteen at the time, spends his life in prison after being convicted of the brutal crimes. Members of the Kill Club obsessed with her family are also convinced that her brother Ben did not commit the crime.

Libby has spent the last 25 years “not thinking about it” which really has not worked out too well for her. Her Aunt Diane truly tried her best to help Libby, but could not handle her violent and destructive acting out. Libby was eventually sent to distant relatives until she reached adulthood. Now in her mid-thirties, she is finally running out of the money donated by those once concerned with the fate of “Orphan Day” as she was nicknamed by the media. Her desperation for money is matched by members of the Kill Club’s need for information. They want to ask her questions, buy her family souvenirs and convince her to help free her brother. Libby stands by her testimony and her survivor sense of self-preservation is fierce. She gives into their demands for information and to reconnect with her past. She finds out new things about her family and the horrible event that defines her world.

What really puts this book into page-turner overdrive is how Flynn alternates viewpoints each chapter between:

-extremely jaded, present day Libby,
-the confused teenager, soon to be convicted murderer Ben,
-and the worried, always at loose ends, soon to be dead mom Patty.

So you have the present day Libby trying to process the past that she refers to as “dark places” while trying to survive financially and emotionally. You also have Ben and Patty on the day leading up to and the day of the murder adding unknown facts to an infamous case. The twists and turns are reminiscent of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster from a few years ago, and the setting is very similar to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This book also examines the 80’s frenzied fear of Satan worshipers as well as today’s current obsessive rush to exonerate those wrongly convicted. Dark Places is a well-constructed, exciting and disturbing page turner.

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Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

April 11, 2014

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna TrollopeThere’s a growing trend for the estates of famous deceased authors to commission new “continuation” titles based on the settings and characters the authors created, sort of like officially sanctioned fan fiction.  One good example is The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, a new Sherlock Holmes novel approved by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate. Agatha Christie’s estate has also recently authorized more Hercule Poirot mysteries.  Publisher HarperCollins is going one step further with its Austen Project, asking some of today’s best-selling British authors to re-imagine Jane Austen’s works with close retellings of her books set in the current time period.  The first of these out of the gate is Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility.

Trollope’s book, like the classic, focuses on the three Dashwood girls, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and their mother.  Mr. Dashwood expires before the book even begins, but from a modern ailment – severe asthma – not from a hunting accident. His estate passes to his son from his first marriage, not due to entailment laws, but because he never actually legally married the girls’ mother, a modern twist. Left homeless, they snap up the offer of a cottage in the countryside free of rent from a wealthy cousin, John Middleton.  The story proceeds with the same characters and plot points as the original, but with modern “sensibilities.”

Much of the charm of Austen’s books lies in the customs and manners of the time period when they are set and her own unique style in making fun of them and her character’s many foibles.  Trollope’s book is also witty and satirical in its own way.  It’s interesting to see how much of the humor and how many of the romantic predicaments are timeless and translate well to today.

The Austen Project has scheduled all of Jane Austen’s books for this treatment.  Next up is Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, followed by Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld.

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Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

April 10, 2014

Libriomancer by Jim C. HinesWhat’s not to love in a book about magic wielding librarians versus evil vampires?! I’m a sucker for a good Urban Fantasy novel with plenty of action, and this one delivers. I also enjoy books about books and books that make me laugh out loud. It’s rare that I find a book that hits all three of these, but that’s what Jim C. Hines has done with the first book in his Magic Ex Libris series.

Isaac Vainio works as a librarian and cataloguer at the Copper River Library in Michigan. He catalogs books for the local library, but also for a magical group of libriomancers, known as the Porters. Libriomancers are people who have the magical ability to draw forth objects from inside books. This branch of magic was founded by none other than Johannes Gutenberg, the man who invented the printing press. But what happens when Gutenberg goes missing and vampires start attacking the Porters, leading to an all-out war which could expose all magic to the rest of the world?

Oh, and did I mention that are as many different types of vampires as there are authors who have written about them? Yup, because in addition to the real vampires that the folklore was based on, there are breeds with different characteristics and abilities who have come from the fictional words of authors from Bram Stoker to Stephanie Meyer. Other magical creatures from books also exist in our world, such as Lena Greenwood, a motorcycle riding dryad, who helps Isaac in his adventures battling vampires and trying to figure out what’s really going on to cause this war. Fans of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series will certainly appreciate Isaac’s witty banter and one-liners, as well as the much larger story of book based magic.

I had heard of Jim Hines from reading about his blog posts addressing the misogynistic depiction of women on Sci-Fi & Fantasy book covers. Jim brought attention to this issue in a rather ingenious and funny manner – he posed in the same outfits and positions that the women on the book covers did. He’s even followed it up with several other “cover poses” including some with other authors and has raised money for charity. I’m so glad I finally picked up one of Jim Hines’ novels and will definitely be reading the sequel, Codex Born.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

April 9, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryI’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for any book that involves a quest or a pilgrimage. There’s something about the quest that fascinates me. For one, the quest is usually out of character, which means the protagonist is out of his/her comfort zone, which might not always be fun but definitely makes for a good story. Being out of one’s comfort zone also means growth and reflection, which means that usually I learn about myself alongside the main character. This is all very true with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. With Harold, Rachel Joyce delivers all the stuff I love in a quest book, in a charming way.

When Harold receives a letter in the mail, it’s a pretty normal day in his not-very-exciting, post-retirement life. The letter is from Queenie Hennessy, a person who Harold has not seen in 20 years. She’s writing with sad news – she has cancer and wants to wish him well. Harold writes back the obligatory letter and sets out to mail it, but when he reaches the postbox, he feels somehow that his letter is inadequate. Being at a loss as to what he might do differently, he decides to walk to the next postbox and consider his options. Then he walks to the next postbox, and the next one. When he stops at a gas station for something to eat, he talks to the attendant about Queenie, and is overcome with the feeling that, if he can just keep walking, Queenie will be alright.

Because Harold was not planning to walk 500 kilometers when he left the house, he left his cell phone at home. Wearing boat shoes and a windbreaker, he’s not dressed for a trek. His wife, when he calls her, thinks he’s gone mad – and in a way, he has. But it’s the kind of madness that changes your life – and the lives of those around you – for the better. Harold and his wife will both be different when the journey is done, and that is a good thing.

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Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

April 8, 2014

Flight Behavior by Barbara KingsolverDellarobia is a young housewife living on a struggling family farm in the mountains of Tennessee. She is sneaking away for an illicit affair when she stumbles across an incredible sight. Millions of Monarch butterflies have set down in a field on their land. Dellarobia is so moved by the sight she convinces her husband and father-in-law to put on hold their plan to sell logging rights to raise cash.

When word spreads, the butterflies become a worldwide sensation and focus for controversy. Visitors from all over arrive to see the wonder. Environmentalists mount campaigns to save the butterflies. The local church believes it is a sign from God. Scientists argue over climate change. News crews keep showing up on Dellarobia’s doorstep.

For Dellarobia, it means a glimpse of life outside her small world. In high school she was considered bright and had planned for college when she discovered she was pregnant. Since then she has grown stagnant living in her home town. Now, she goes to work for the scientists who have arrived to study the butterflies and she becomes wrapped up in their work. When they tell her that they will only be there for a few short months she is devastated.

Kingsolver’s novel is wonderfully written and is an insightful study of different worlds colliding. One of my favorite scenes is when an environmental activist tries to get Dellarobia to join the fight “to save the planet”. His list of things people can do to help aren’t remotely relevant to her life. Save electricity by turning off the computer? She doesn’t have one. Bring your own cup to Starbucks? There isn’t one, and they couldn’t afford it anyway. Recycle? Her husband’s truck is on its third engine and they never buy new clothes. The man becomes discouraged and leaves without talking to anyone else in the town. It is hard to reconcile that there are so many in this country living such different lives than what we think of as normal, but Kingsolver does a good job of making everyone in the book realistic and sympathetic. And by the end you are really hoping for a new life for both Dellarobia and the butterflies.

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Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart

April 7, 2014

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Moving to another country is somewhat like being born anew – the immigrant can still function, but there are many new impressions and a lot to learn. Gary Shteyngart was born as Igor Shteyngart in Leningrad (now [again] St. Petersburg) in an empire that no longer exists, the Soviet Union. As a seven-year-old child he moved to the United States of America with his parents, and they ended up in Queens, New York. The Shteyngarts were part of a deal between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. America sent grain to the Soviets who in return sent parts of its Jewish population to the U.S., a country young Igor viewed as the enemy.

Many Americans, not the least children, considered the Soviet Union a potentially lethal adversary, and growing up in the land of the free was not easy for a “Socialist” boy with a heavy accent. In Leningrad, young Shteyngart had been exposed to such phrases as “Lenin will live forever!,” and “1959 – Soviet space rocket reaches the surface of the moon,” but when he leaves the U.S.S.R., he learns that the nation is a military dictatorship that uses oppression, propaganda, and lies to keep its population in check.

Despite, or because of, their background, the Shteyngarts are quite naïve when they begin their lives in the U.S.A. When they receive a letter that says “Mr. S. Shitgart [sic!], you have already won $10,000,000.00!!!,” they believe what they hear. ”We cannot imagine that they would lie to our faces […] here in America.” But it is, alas, a lie, which the family finds out “quickly and brutally.” And as the immigrants adapt to life in the U.S. problems do not vanish. Old (Soviet) problems are simply replaced by new (American) difficulties. However, some challenges are internal rather than external and the Shteyngarts are like all other humans – they cannot run away from themselves. What they can do, however, is to understand who they are, and how they became that way.

Little Failure is an investigation of a family and its misadventures and adventures, written by an author whose fiction and nonfiction are closely related to each other.

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Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

April 4, 2014

Howard's End by E.M. ForsterBeing a Jane Austen fanatic, I often see similarities between her novels and whatever I’m reading. In the case of Howards End, that’s especially easy to do. Just like Sense and Sensibility, this book features two sisters of different temperaments. Margaret is the more practical one, while her younger sister Helen is the flighty, romantic one. Margaret and Helen are rich Londoners, living off investments made with inherited money. Their lives become intertwined with those of the Wilcoxes. This family is also rich, but Henry Wilcox and his sons are businessmen. They drive the economy that makes the sisters’ lifestyle possible. A third family is composed of Leonard Bast and his wife. Leonard is a clerk, a member of the working class who is striving desperately to make it into the middle class.

The Howards End of the title is the name of the country home of the Wilcox family. The house and the large elm tree in the yard are symbols of the connection between nature and human beings. Mrs. Wilcox grew up there and only she really appreciates the house, and the importance of connections. Her husband and children just don’t get it. Mr. Wilcox and his oldest son Charles deal with the world by taking emotion out of the equation and breaking problems into small pieces, never allowing themselves to see how their actions might adversely affect others. Here’s Forster’s description of their relationship:

“Charles and his father sometimes disagreed. But they always parted with an increased regard for one another, and each desired no doughtier comrade when it was necessary to voyage for a little past the emotions. So the sailors of Ulysses voyaged past the Sirens, having first stopped one another’s ears with wool. “

When the Wilcoxes become involved with Margaret and Helen, who try to help the Basts, then problems arise and complications multiply. Published in 1910, Howards End is a classic tale of Edwardian England, but the problems and issues wrestled with in its pages are relevant to America today.

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The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life by Tory Johnson

April 3, 2014

The Shift by Tory JohnsonThe subtitle of this book is, “How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life,” but this is not a “diet” book. This is one woman’s narrative on how she shifted her entire life, her way of eating, and her place in the world, all in one year. Oh, and by the way, lost the 70 pounds that had dogged her for 40 years.

Tory Johnson is a successful media presence, who has a longstanding gig with the “Good Morning America” show with features on how to save money finding bargains and using coupons. It was suggested to her by a supervisor at the show that Tory begin paying more attention to “flattering” on-camera clothing, that she wasn’t looking as “photogenic” as she could, and maybe a wardrobe change was needed. Feeling the pressure as the main income provider of her family of two teens and husband, Tory took the criticism to convey that she needed to lose weight to keep her job. The book is then her realizations of how she need to not “lose weight,” but shift her entire outlook on food, exercise, and the how she views her body. The fact that she lost 70 pounds is commendable, but how the author shifts her brain is more exciting than how she changed her body. Her writing is solid, and many women will relate to desire to make positive changes in health and career. This is an interesting memoir that resonates.

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