Posts Tagged ‘London’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Martha S’s Picks

December 29, 2014

I enjoy reading realistic fiction, with some humor thrown in from time to time, and and occasional work of nonfiction.  These are my favorites books discovered this year, but published prior to 2014:

LookawLookaway, Lookawayay, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
Meet the Johnstons: Jerene and Duke are the heads of a socially prominent, highly dysfunctional Charlotte family. Duke is an ardent Civil War reenactor; Jerene is the manager of the Jarvis trust, her family’s collection of landscapes by minor American artists. They are the parents of Annie, an outspoken, brash real estate person on her third marriage, minister Bo, gay son Joshua who is not officially out of the closet, naïve daughter Jerrilyn. There is also Jerene’s outrageous, dissolute brother, Gaston Jarvis, who has squandered his literary talent on a series of Southern potboilers. This is a blisteringly funny satire of just about any contemporary Southern thing you can think of.  Read another review.

The PostmistressThe Postmistress by Sarah Blake
Three women’s lives intersect after Frankie Bard, a reporter from wartime London during the blitz, meets a doctor in an air raid shelter who asks her to deliver a letter to his wife in Massachusetts. The postmistress of the town in Massachusetts also has a mission from the same doctor to deliver a letter to his wife in the event of his death. This is a gripping story of the war in London, its effect on the three women and other people in the small town in Massachusetts.

The Language of FlowersThe Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
After a childhood spent in foster care, Victoria has nowhere to go and has no people in her life. Through luck she finds work in a florist’s shop and is able to expand her knowledge of the language of flowers that she has been interested in since childhood. Victoria is able to help others with her skill with flowers while she struggles with her own past.


TransatlanticTransatlantic by Colum McCann
The novel uses three events that actually happened as the basis for his novel; Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland in 1845, the 1919 flight of British aviators Alcock and Brown, and the attempts by U.S. senator George Mitchell to broker peace in Northern Ireland. One of the fictional characters, Lilly Duggan, who is first seen in the Frederick Douglass chapter boldly leaves all behind and immigrates to America, becoming the mother of a long line of descendants in America, some of whom return to Ireland in later times. Fascinating and brilliantly written.

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a brilliant, but socially awkward professor of genetics at an Australian university. Nearing his 40th birthday, he decides to find a wife and devises a questionnaire to rule out all unsuitable candidates. Soon Rosie Jarman enters the picture and Don mistakenly believes she has submitted a questionnaire and been vetted by his coworker. Rosie and Don hit it off in spite of the fact that she fails to meet some of his requirements. Rosie does not know who her biological father is, so together they embark on the Rosie Project to attempt to learn his identity. Hilarious and heartwarming events ensue.  Read another review.

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 Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

August 19, 2013

Laurel was just 16 years old when she witnessed a violent confrontation between her mother, Dorothy, and a stranger at their country home. The stranger and her mother appeared to know one another. Laurel believed she knew everything about her mother, but after this she wondered. She never asked her mother what really happened that day, and it haunted her most of her life. Now, Dorothy is in a nursing home and is in failing health. Laurel thinks she is running out of time to discover the truth. She begins to piece together the story based on what little Dorothy will tell her, and a trunk she finds in the attic full of her mother’s things.

The book jumps back and forth from Laurel’s search in the present day to Dorothy’s (Dolly’s) story of living in London during the Blitz of WWII. Dolly is just a young girl when she leaves her parents behind and moves to London. She has a boyfriend, Jimmie, but dreams of moving up in society. She’s been watching the lady across the street, Vivien, and thinks Vivien has a perfect life. Dolly desperately wants to be Vivien’s friend, and eventually she finds a way to make this happen. What happens between Dolly, Vivien, and Jimmie will answer all of Laurel’s questions.

I found the premise of Morton’s book to be fascinating, even if it wasn’t wholly original. Children often find out when they grow up that they don’t know their parents as well as they think they do. There is always that stage when you realize they had a completely different life before having children. This is probably truer during times of war. Everyone is changed by their experiences in those extreme situations. It also seems many people take the opportunity to reinvent themselves during or after a war. Fans of The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield and The Last Letter From Your Lover by JoJo Moyes, as well as Morton’s other books, will really enjoy this novel.

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Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

June 10, 2013

Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck is about events that mainly took place during the late Victorian era and during the reign of Edward VII.  It was a time of great progress, great superstition, and great wonders: spiritualism gained in popularity, magicians were celebrated entertainers, and scientists, researchers, and inventors could be major celebrities.  The German Max Planck originated the quantum theory, another German, Albert Einstein, launched the theory of relativity, and an Italian-Irish young man, Guglielmo Marconi, sent wireless signals across the Atlantic – something science at the time claimed to be impossible (due to the curved shape of the planet).

Science and magic were not always distinctly separated. Magic could contain scientific elements and science could seem magical. And while magicians might use scientific advancements to trick the crowds, the progress of science was so rapid that scientific claims sometimes were viewed as little more than magic tricks.  Some colleagues ridiculed Einstein for his theories and Marconi’s claims were often doubted.  The opposition remained fierce no matter what the young inventor did; no PR stunt or demonstration seemed to be able to do away with the negative criticism of the non-believers.

But opposition died down after his invention, the wireless Marconi system, in the most spectacular and public way had been part of a manhunt that reached from Europe to North America. The wanted man was a Dr. Crippen, a mild-mannered American gentleman living in London, who had (so it was believed anyway) committed the most grisly crime imaginable.

In Thunderstruck, the author tells the story of Marconi and Crippen, and how the two – so to speak – came to meet. Larson’s book can be described (and perhaps dismissed) as creative non-fiction as he actually manipulates the reader. Sometimes, for example, it seems as if he is writing about concurrent events when, in fact, they are separated by several years. But is the research solid? Yes, it is. And is it a good read? Oh, yes.

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Inside the Victorian Home : a Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England by Judith Flanders

April 9, 2013

This book is delightful! It is one of those books you want to tell people about constantly but worry that they will roll their eyes after the sixth or seventh Victorian life fun fact. But it is packed with interesting tidbits at every turn of the page and you cannot help but be aghast at some of the details. I would give you some examples, but I really cannot spoil your fun and probably you would not believe me anyway.

Flanders wonderfully constructs the book around each room in the Victorian home. She describes the home in detail, the expectations set forth by Mrs. Panton and Mrs. Beeton (the Martha Stewarts of their time) and the reality. She illustrates with excerpts from literature of the time as well as letters and diary entries. The book describes mostly upper middle class Londoners but does occasionally discuss the serving class and the truly wealthy.

Flanders discusses the Victorian life by going past the physical aspects of the room but what actually went on in the room and how that was informed by Victorian society (or vice versa).  For example, the chapter on the Nursery discusses the Victorian view of children and parenthood. The chapter on the Dining Room includes information on Victorian cooking, or overcooking, as it were. The chapter on the Sick Room discusses the Victorian views on health, illness and death (including the various stages of mourning).

Okay, okay I cannot contain myself any longer! I will not give you any Victorian fun facts but I will let you know that these questions are answered in the pages of this awesome book:

-What common childhood ailment was actually a measurable cause of death for infants?

-What common home decoration was extremely toxic?

-How long was the recommended boiling time for macaroni? a>30 minutes b> up to 1 hour c>up to 1 hour and 45 minutes

So check it out! You will be amazed we are all still alive and you will wonder what our ancestors will think of our everyday life.
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Good Bait by John Harvey

March 6, 2013

John Harvey’s new novel is a fast paced story about two parallel cases, both related to a vast criminal underworld in London.  The main story is Chief Inspector Karen Shields’ investigation into the death of a young immigrant found in a frozen pond on Hampstead Heath.    The more Shields looks into the case, the more complicated it becomes.   Another murder in the same area seems to involve some of the same people, and Shields is suddenly called to the office of superior officer to discuss the crimes with a major task force.  Shields and her team can’t determine if the young man’s murder is related to the suddenly escalating violent incidents between rival gangs in the neighborhood, or if there is a more personal element.

The other case is an unofficial one.  Detective Trevor Cordon has come to London from Cornwall out of a sense of guilt.  Maxine, a woman he had arrested many times, asked for his help locating her daughter, Letitia.  Cordon had tried to help Letitia out in the past by giving her a job, but tells Maxine there is nothing he can do this time.  So Maxine goes to London herself.  Now Cordon hears Maxine was killed by a train and no one knows whether she fell, was pushed, or committed suicide.  Cordon decides to track down Letitia and make sure she is okay.  The trouble is he is not the only person looking for her.  Cordon’s case will eventually cross with Shields’ investigation in an unexpected way.

I enjoyed this book, although at times it was difficult to keep the characters straight.  But this actually makes it seem more realistic since the real world is rarely as neat as detective novels.  Also, Harvey is good at the details of police organizations and investigations and his characters are as interesting as the plot lines. What makes a woman born in Jamaica become an officer in the British police force?  Why would Cordon feel ties to this particular child, and not the children of other folks he has run across in the course of his job?  Fans of Harvey’s other series’ will enjoy this new book, as will fans of British mysteries.

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The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

June 1, 2012

This debut novel opens with a woman standing in a park in the rain at night surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves — and she has no memory of who she is. She finds a letter in her pocket which begins “The body you are wearing used to be mine.” How can you resist an opening scene like that one? I certainly couldn’t when I discovered this book just after it came out earlier this year. I’ve since recommended it to several co-workers and friends and now I’m passing this great book on to you.

The woman with amnesia in the park is Myfanwy Thomas (pronounced like Tiffany), and it turns out that she is an agent for Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service. The operative words there are ‘supernatural’ and ‘secret’ because the stuff this agency deals with is way out there beyond just vampires and werewolves — and it is very, very secret. Her position is called a Rook, and it turns out the agency, called the Checquy, is based on the pieces in the game of chess (yeah, it’s as complicated as it sounds).

The letter Myfanwy found directs her to an apartment where there is a warm shower, clean clothes and a comfy bed. Further letters explain who she is, more about her super secret job, and the fact that someone within the Checquy is a traitor and trying to kill her. One of the letters also lets her know that she has a choice, she can try to resume her dangerous life in a secret government organization, or she can simply walk away and flee the country with a vast sum of money in a secret bank account.

Myfanwy decides to stay and try to determine who the traitor is. But, she must do this while re-learning everything about herself and the Checquy. She doesn’t even remember how she takes her tea, let alone all of the inner workings of this very strange agency. She also soon discovers that many of the agents working for the Checquy, including herself, have special abilities (think of the mutants from the X-Men). Her work-mates include one person with four bodies, an aristocratic woman who can enter anyone’s dreams, a man whose skin oozes toxins depending on his mood, and the most attractive vampire one can imagine.  So, yeah, dealing with a house full of sentient purple slime is all in a day’s work for Rook Thomas.

Daniel O’Malley has written one heck of a debut novel that is full of wit as well as suspense and fantastic supernatural action. There’s so much more to this novel than I was able to describe in this blog post! Even if you’re not normally a “Fantasy reader” but you enjoy a good suspense and espionage story, give this one a try. And, if you are a Fantasy reader, what are you waiting for? Click that link below and get reading! It’s also available as an audio book, read by Susan Duerden.

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Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham

May 25, 2012

Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin thinks his life is hard, but manageable. He’s separated from the wife he still loves, Julianne, but has hopes of reconciliation. He has two daughters he adores, Emma and Charlie, and he’s made sure he’s part of their everyday life. He’s still coming to terms with his Parkinson’s disease, but with medication, it seems controllable.

Then Charlie’s best friend, Sienna Hegarty, turns up at his family’s front door covered in blood and Joe O’Loughlin realizes just how much harder life can be. Sienna’s father, former police officer Ray Hegarty, has been murdered, and Sienna is the prime suspect. O’Loughlin’s professional instincts tell him she’s innocent, but when he comes to her aid he finds the situation more complicated than he realized. The people he’s dealing with are dangerous and soon Joe is fighting to protect not just Sienna, but himself and his family from enemies who seem to be coming at him from all sides.

Robotham’s writing is outstanding, particularly the scenes where O’Loughlin interviews clients and/or suspects. It is so good it pulled me through some very tough scenes. The people Joe is fighting are ruthless and they hurt anyone in their way, including (maybe even especially) the most defenseless among us, children. But Robotham made me care about the characters and I needed to know what happened to them. I needed to find out if Joe could persevere and save Sienna.

This is the fourth book in the award winning Joe O’Loughlin series (after Suspect, Lost, and Shatter). I usually read series in order, but I broke my own rule and read this book first because the reviews, both print and word of mouth, have been so good. I’m glad I did. Now I have the first three books to look forward to reading this summer.

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Muppet Sherlock Holmes by Patrick Storck

May 22, 2012

Since today is the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I thought it would be a good time to review a comic book adaptation of his work with this graphic novel by The Muppets. Our Book-a-Day blog has reviewed some of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books before and we have also reviewed some Muppets books before — so, much like Reese’s peanut butter cups, here are two great things that go great together. In true Muppet fashion, they have put their own humorous spin on one of Doyle’s most famous lines: “Once you eliminate the rational, whatever remains, no matter how absurd, must be the Muppets.”

This graphic novel collects four of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories with Gonzo the Great as the world’s greatest detective and Fozzie Bear as his loyal companion, Dr. Watson, who narrates the stories. Inspector Lestrade is played by Kermit the Frog, and many of the large cast of Muppet characters also make appearances throughout the stories. The first story is The Speckled Band, a classic locked room mystery, which even contains a 19th century version of the Veterinarian’s Hospital sketch from The Muppet Show. The second story to be re-told by Gonzo and crew is A Scandal in Bohemia featuring Miss Piggy as the intriguing Irene Adler — who was always referred to as the woman by Holmes. And, just as he did in the first season of The Muppet Show, Gonzo (Holmes) falls madly for Miss Piggy (Adler). The third story is The Red-Headed League in which shady goings on lead Holmes, Watson and Lestrade to don red wigs and take up menial clerical jobs with the league to try and deduce why their client, Mr. Wilson, is paid so handsomely for work that keeps him away from his shop during the day. The final tale is The Musgrave Ritual about an old aristocratic family legend which just may turn out to be some sort of treasure map. This version, however, concludes the final story with an abbreviated version of the events which occurred at Reichenbach falls (in the original Doyle story The Final Problem) with Holmes/Gonzo facing down his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty (played by Uncle Deadly).  The writers did an excellent job of re-telling these tales as faithfully as possible, while also putting the unique “Muppety” spin on them at the same time.

For you more serious Sherlock Holmes fans (who should still totally give this graphic novel a try), you can find many different collections of Doyle’s stories and novels in our catalog.

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P.S. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shares his birthday with my wife, so Happy Birthday my love!

Not All Tarts Are Apple by Pip Granger

May 21, 2012

Rosie is a young girl being raised by her Aunt and Uncle in Soho, London in the 1950’s. Uncle Bert and Aunt Maggie run the local cafe, where the entire neighborhood comes to gossip and exchange news. Suddenly, Rosie discovers that the lady who shows up to say hello every few months is actually her real mother. Rosie only knows her as “The Perfumed Lady”, and is surprised to learn that she is a “tart.” Rosie isn’t sure what that means, only that it sounds bad when her classmates yells it at her. It makes her so mad that she hits the girl and her Aunt and Uncle are called in to speak to the headmistress.

After this incident, Aunt Maggie and Uncle Bert decide that they need to change Rosie’s living arrangement into a permanent adoption. When word gets around the neighborhood about Rosie parentage, though, some shady characters become very interested in her. What is it about her mother’s background that draws them near? Rosie safe little world seems to be bigger and scarier than she ever imagined.

The mystery in this book is not traditional, but neither is anything else about it. The neighbors who are Rosie’s friends include a shady lawyer, a couple of prostitutes, a card shark, and some petty thieves, along with the neighborhood bobby. All of this is natural to Rosie because it is the only world she has ever known. Granger is very good at writing from the point of view of a little girl. Rosie never seems to know more than a child would understand at her age. And Granger describes Soho of the 1950’s with such loving detail that it really makes you wish you could visit not just the place, but the time period. I highly recommend this book for fellow Anglophiles.

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