Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: American Nations by Colin Woodard

Author: Colin Woodard
Publisher/Format: Viking Adult (Penguin Group), Hardcover, 384 pages
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: Cultural differences throughout North America
Genre: Historical narrative
Source:Public library ( but I'm buying my own copy).

Colin Woodard has given us a thought-provoking, deeply researched, easy to read look at the various ethno-cultural groups making up the North American continent from Canada to Mexico, from the Native Americans who were subjugated by the Spanish (or annihilated by the Anglos) to the Inuits of Canada who are enjoying a resurgence of their identity and culture.

He posits these 11 "nations" to be Yankeedom, New Netherlands, The Midlands, Tidewater, the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, New France, The First Nation, the Far West, El Norte, and the Left Coast.  For each, he introduces us to the earliest members, traces their original settlement and the subsequent expansions to other areas of the continent, their expectations, educational levels, governing style, religious and cultural influences from the "Old Country", and analyzes their influence on key historical events of the North American development  from elected officials, wars, and legislative achievements to looking at the current political gridlock occuring in the US.

His insights are exceptionally provacative and give the average reader pause to re-examine what we have been taught.  For example ....
In the end, The U.S. Constitution was the product of a messy compromise among the rival nations.  From the gentry of Tidewater and the Deep South, we received a strong president to be selected by an "electoral college" rather than elected by ordinary people.  From New Netherland we received the Bill of Rights, a set of very Dutch guarantees that individuals would have freedom of conscience, speech, religion, and assembly.  To the Midlands we owe the fact that we do not have a strong unitary state under a British-style national Parliament; they insisted on state sovereignty as insurance against Southern despots and Yankee meddling.  The Yankees ensured that small states would have an equal say in the Senate, with even the very populous state of Massachusetts frustrating Tidewater and the Deep South's desire for proportional representation in that chamber; Yankees also forced a compromise whereby slave lords would be able to count only three-fifths of their slave population when tabulating how many congressmen they would receive. pg.  148
 It's a profound book that is not a quick read; neither is it a plodding read.  He often offers us "What ifs?" that introduce stunning possibilities e.g., if South Carolina hadn't fired on Ft Sumter, the Union might have been able to negotiate a settlement, and eventually the many nations would have re-aligned themselves into several --up to four--separate confederations, or ended forming a collaboration somewhat akin to today's European Union.   To supplement several well-drawn and clearly notated maps, Woodard's style is enjoyable, clear and concise.  He gives us an especially thoughtful look at the role the Canadians and northern Mexicans have played (and continue to play) in the culture and politics of the US.  He poses questions, synthesizes the best of scholarship available at the moment to give us intelligent and interesting answers.  Never did I feel I was reading a text book, although I'd certainly hope that all US history and political science majors will be required to read this.  It is simply one of the most interesting and fascinating  books I have read this year.  It will certainly be on my Top Ten Non-Fiction list for 2011.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher/Format: MacMillan Audio 13 CDs, 16 hours, 416 pg equivalent
Narrator: David Pittu
Year of publication: 2011
Subject: literature, love, mental illness
Setting: New York, Rhode Island, Cape Cod
Genre: fiction
Source: Review audio furnished by publisher

When MacMillan first offered me this book on audio, I essentially said "No thanks, I really don't 'get' Eugenides".  I was reluctant to accept the audio book knowing that it would probably languish in the corner pile of my personal TBR mountain range, in spite of my avowed love of the audio format.  Their wise publicist, Esther Bochner,  encouraged me by saying that the audio was awesome and she thought I would enjoy it.  She was right!

Although I was a math major in college, and never have understood others' fascination with Jane Austen, etal, I was able to follow this story pretty well.  I'm sure I missed many literary allusions, but that does not spoil the story.  Set in the early 80's (just as I had finished grad school) at Brown University in Rhode Island, and then in Cape Cod and New York, the story follows the coming of age angst of Madeleine Hanna who is completing her senior thesis on the Marriage Plot theme prominent in the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.  In the meantime, she becomes involved with Leonard Bankhead, a Darwinist from the west coast, and at the same time develops an intellectual relationship with a semiotics classmate Mitchell Grammaticus who thinks that Madeleine is his destined mate.

As Mitchell travels to Europe, India and Asia between senior year and graduate school, Maddy and Leonard move to Cape Cod so he can pursue a research fellowship.  At the same time, Leonard also develops a full blown case of manic depression.

This could have been an awful book with disparate pieces floating all over the place.  Instead, Eugenides keeps all the players and their stories tied together, interesting, and ultimately brings us to a conclusion we should have seen coming, but in my case at least, we didn't.  The references to places, music, literature, history, politics of the era made this one easy for me to relate to, but are also clear enough for younger readers to understand. 

While the setting and the plot are well developed, this is truly a character driven work.  The expansion of the three main characters is done with precision and insight.  We don't understand Maddy, because she doesn't really understand herself.  We feel great pain for Leonard's mental illness (and for Maddy's inability to deal with it).  Several times I asked myself if medical science hasn't come further along in treatment of bipolar disorder than what was portrayed in the setting 30 years ago.  Mitchell's seemingly unorganized ramble through Europe and India seems out of character with his professed desire to enter divinity school, but does give us an excellent picture of the state of his brain and his emotions.

The reader can take this at several levels:  as the plain and simple story of three mixed up college graduates with too much learning, and too little grip on the reality of adulthood and the need to settle down and take care of themselves; or one can read this as a very complex mimicry of the 19th century English novels where women and men were meant to be paired for life (at least I think that's what the Marriage Plot is - never could read Austen, nor have I ever read Eliot).  Eugenides' genius seems to be in creating a story that can be enjoyed by readers coming from either level.

I certainly enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  The audio was exceptionally well done.  David Pittu manages to give each character a distinct voice, and his clear enunciation helps us to understand at least the words if not the literary concepts presented.  I can't compare it to Eugenides' previous works, but this one is definitely a winner.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mailbox Monday - Nov 28th

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came into their house recently, but here's a warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists!

Created by Marcia at The Printed Page, Mailbox Monday, now has its own blog. Hosting duties are rotated every month.  November brings us to the wonderful community blog Wonders and Marvels edited by Holly Tucker.  This will be the host site for the month.  Be sure to stop by and discover a new and wondrous (for me anyway) addition to your blog roll and take a look at everyone's Mailbox lists. This week's list includes

Lost Trail , Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness 
by Donn Fendler

Donn Fendler's harrowing story of being lost in the Maine wilderness when he was just twelve, was made famous by the perennial best-seller, Lost on a Mountain in Maine. In Lost Trail, more than 70 years after the event, Donn tells the story of survival and rescue from his own perspective. Lost Trail is a masterfully illustrated graphic novel that tells the story of a twelve year old boyscout from a New York City suburb who climbs Maine's mile-high Mt. Katahdin and in a sudden storm is separated from his friends and family. What follows is a nine-day adventure, in which Donn, lost and alone in the Maine wilderness with bugs, bears, and only a few berries to eat, struggles for survival.
This one is sure to be a hit in our library in Maine.  The original book is one of our most circulated, even after all these years have passed.  Many thanks to Down East Books for sending a review copy.
The Partials
By Dan Wells
I don't usually read sci-fi or fantasy, so I'm not sure how this one landed in my mailbox, but one of my ardent YA readers at the library eagerly accepted my request that he read it and let me know what he thought.  I'll keep you posted.   Here's the pub blurb: 

The human race is all but extinct after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by RM, a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island while the Partials have mysteriously retreated. The threat of the Partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to RM in more than a decade. Our time is running out.
Dan Wells, acclaimed author of I Am Not a Serial Killer, takes readers on a pulse pounding journey into a world where the very concept of what it means to be human is in question—one where our humanity is both our greatest liability and our only hope for survival. 

The Trail of the Wild Rose
English garden mysteries #4
by Anthony Eglin

I haven't read 1-3 yet, but this one looks intriguing.  This gorgeous paperback was a reward for entering the giveaway on Lesa's Book Critiques, one of my all-time favorite blogs.  Many thanks Lesa for consistently great reviews and giveaways. Here's the blurb:
 The hunt for an ancient Chinese rose turns deadly in this latest English Garden Mystery featuring Dr. Lawrence Kingston.

A plant-hunting expedition haunted by tragedy leads to a perilous trail of greed, larceny, and deceit. Has Peter Mayhew, the man who plunged to his death on a mountain in China, come back to life? Which of the expedition members is hiding an explosive secret? Why are some being targeted for murder?
Ecco Press sent an ARC of this travel bonanza..London is one of my favorite cities so I'm looking forward to strolling through this one.

Here are the voices of London - rich and poor, native and immigrant, women and men (and a Sarah who used to be a George) – witnessed by Craig Taylor, an acclaimed Canadian journalist, playwright and writer, who has lived in the city for ten years, exploring its hidden corners and listening to its residents. From the woman who is the voice of the London Underground to the man who plants the trees along Oxford Street; from a Muslim currency trader to a Guardsman at Buckingham Palace; from the marriage registrar at Westminster Town Hall to the director of the biggest Bethnal Green funeral parlour – together, these voices and many more, paint a vivid, epic and wholly fresh portrait of Twenty-First Century London.
I also received an E book from the Member Giveaway program on LT.
Irreparable Harm
by Mellissa Miller

There's a smartphone app capable of crashing a commercial jet. And it's for sale to the highest bidder. Attorney Sasha McCandless is closing in on the prize: After eight years of long hours, she's about to make partner at a prestigious law firm. All she has to do is keep her head down and her billable hours up. Then a plane operated by her client slams into the side of a mountain, killing everyone aboard. She gears up for the inevitable civil lawsuits. But, as Sasha digs into the case, she learns the crash was no accident. She joins forces with a federal air marshal and they race to prevent another crash. People close to the matter start to turn up dead. And Sasha's next on the list. She'll need to rely on her legal training and Krav Maga training in equal measure to stop a madman and save herself.

I'm always interested in strong female protagonists, so this one is definitely worth a look.  Thanks to the author Melissa Miller for making the review copy available.

What's in your mailbox this week? 
Edited 2:58pm Monday to correct inaccurate sourcing on "Trail of the Wild Rose".

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mini-Reviews: Cozies in Audios

Earlier this summer, I stacked up some audios to listen to as part of my cozy-readathon. Here are two that were enjoyable enough to while away an afternoon at the beach, but which I wouldn't run right out to buy. As you can see, my reactions to them were quite different.

Title: Maybe This Time
Author: Jennifer Crusie
Publisher/Format: Brilliance Audio, 10 hrs, 58 min, 352 pg equivalent
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Subject: Rescuing Orphans
Setting: Southern Ohio
Genre: Chick lit, light mystery
Source: public library download

My sister-in-law has been bugging me again...she got me to read one of Cruzie's book this summer- Bet Me- which I enjoyed. This one? Well I don't normally get into the para-normal, and although I have enjoyed some lightly haunted ghost stories (Charlaine Harris e.g.) but this one got a little bit deeper than I normally would read.

By the time I realized this was as ghostie as it was, I was hooked on the romance and the rest of the story, so I soldiered through. I was surprised that at the end I could say I really enjoyed it, although I hope the rest of her stories aren't quite so weird. I really don't want to spoil the story, but will say it's vintage chick-lit on steroids: divorced strong female in love-hate relationship with ex-spouse (drop dead perfect gorgeous stud), interesting side kicks, heart-pulling orphans, Victorian haunted houses, nasty housekeeper, imperious mom-in-law, ditzy relatives, other very stereotypical ghost busting personalities, etc etc etc. Fun fun fun, in spite of my normal aversions to ghosties. Worth checking out.

Title: Silver Girl
Author: Elin Hilderbrand
Publisher/Format: Hachette Audio, 14.5 hrs, 416 pg equivalent
Narrators: Janet Metzger and Marianne Fraulo
Year of publication 2011
Subject: life after bankruptcy
Setting: New York, Nantucket
Genre: fiction
Source: publisher provided review copy

I got this one in audio from Hachette to do a review. Good thing I read Stephanie Madoff's memoir first! This thinly veiled fictionalized account of that woman's ordeal really stretches the disclaimer " of fiction....any resemblance to real people purely coincidental....yada yada yada"  As pure beach read chick lit, it was a "meah" an audio, it was OK.

It's basically the samo samo story of rich girl married to crook, has to find her way in life when there is no money, no home, no friends, etc. By moving the scene of the trauma to Nantucket, Hilderbrand is able to create a lone remaining friend who takes in the poor about to starve spouse, create an interesting diversion of the friend's romance, and let us play voyeur as we watch them reconstruct their traumatically scarred lifes. As a story, it was just short of "Oh puhleez....can't you write anything original"? As relaxation, it was OK, but nothing to rush out and get.  Glad I read the real story first.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mailbox Monday - Nov 14

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came into their house recently, but here's a warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists!

Created by Marcia at The Printed Page, Mailbox Monday, now has its own blog. Hosting duties are rotated every month.  November brings us to the wonderful community blog Wonders and Marvels edited by Holly Tucker.  This will be the host site for the month.  Be sure to stop by and discover a new and wondrous (for me anyway) addition to your blog roll and take a look at everyone's Mailbox lists.  This week's list is short by oh so sweet....

From Barnes and Noble, in their Free Books Friday program for NOOK owners, I was able to nab
The Journey Home by Michael Baron.

Joseph, a man in his late thirties, awakens disoriented and uneasy in a place he doesn't recognize. Several people are near him when he opens his eyes, all strangers. All of them seem perfectly friendly, but none of them can explain to him how he got there....Joseph doesn't know where he is and he has no way to contact his wife, who he is sure is worried sick over him.
Antoinette is an elderly woman in an assisted living facility. She’s spent the last six years there since her husband died, and ...her son comes to visit often. But in recent months, she’s had a tougher and tougher time leaving her room. Her friends seem different to her and the world seems increasingly confusing.
Warren, Antoinette’s son, is a man in his early forties going through the toughest year of his life. His marriage ended, he lost his job, and in the past few months, his mother has gone from hale to increasingly hazy. Having trouble finding work, he spends more and more time by his mother’s bedside. Joseph, Antoinette, and Warren are three people on different searches for home. How they find it, and how they connect with one another at this critical stage in each of their lives, is the foundation for a profound and deeply moving story.

I was lucky enough to be selected by the Early Reviewers program of to receive this brand new memoir. As you know, memoirs are one of my favorite genres, and I've always admired and respected Justice Stevens, so I'm putting this one at the top of the TBR queue.

 FIVE CHIEFS  by John Paul Stevens

When he resigned last June, Justice Stevens was the third longest serving Justice in American history (1975-2010)--only Justice William O. Douglas, whom Stevens succeeded, and Stephen Field have served on the Court for a longer time.
In Five Chiefs, Justice Stevens captures the inner workings of the Supreme Court via his personal experiences with the five Chief Justices--Fred Vinson, Earl Warren, Warren Burger, William Rehnquist, and John Roberts--that he interacted with. He reminisces of being a law clerk during Vinson's tenure; a practicing lawyer for Warren; a circuit judge and junior justice for Burger; a contemporary colleague of Rehnquist; and a colleague of current Chief Justice John Roberts. Along the way, he will discuss his views of some the most significant cases that have been decided by the Court from Vinson, who became Chief Justice in 1946 when Truman was President, to Roberts, who became Chief Justice in 2005.
Packed with interesting anecdotes and stories about the Court, Five Chiefs is an unprecedented and historically significant look at the highest court in the United States.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Weekend Cooking -Remembering the Nonas

Beth Fish Reads sponsors this weekly meme where we foodies can chat about cookbooks, cooking gadgets, recipes, or anything else gustatory. Be sure to stop over there to find other terrific weekend cooking posts.

Smart cooks realize that the easiest cookbook to use is the Yellow Pages and the handiest appliance in the kitchen is the telephone. ~ Miss Piggy

If you don't do Yellow Pages, phones or Take-Out Taxi, you can still rely on your Nona. One of my fondest memories is having my grandmother pull a fresh fig off the tree, break it open, and stuff the inside out fruit dripping with sweetness and juice into my mouth, and then show me how to lick my chin to catch it all. So I don't think she would have thought much of Miss Piggy's philosophy.To my grandmother, food was life.  Not just the preparation and serving, but the growing, harvesting, preserving, and to a lesser extent the shopping, kept her going.  In fact, although I have fond memories of rolling, squeezing, peeling, chopping, cutting, tasting, picking from the garden. I don't think I ever went shopping with her until I was in my late 20's when  my sister brought her for a visit from Baltimore to Long Beach California where we were living.  We were having good some Navy friends to dinner and Nona wanted to make gnocchi.  Off we went to shop.  She made little turned up nose faces at much of the produce, and almost all of the meats, but we managed to get enough decent (but certainly not perfect) ingredients.

So I really appreciated the sentiment and story in this memoir cum cookbook celebrating food as a way of life.  The residents of the town of Campodimele Italy, a small town in the mountains between Naples and Rome, are noted for their longevity.  Tracey Lawson, an English teacher who had been living in Tuscany heard of the village and set out to learn more.  As she says on the back cover:
I came to Campodimele hoping I might learn how to live longer, but discovered something much more important -- how to live well.
 For over three years, she visited with the residents, was allowed into their pastures, their gardens, their vineyards, their olive orchards, their kitchens, their cantina, and their hearts.  By observing, then working as she was instructed, she was able to see the value in living off the land, eating seasonally, but still preserving the bounty for times when fresh was not available.  She pressed olive oil, made sausage, shelled beans, picked various greens, made goat cheeses, rolled pastas, and climbed mountain roads with 80 and 90 years old residents to tend the goats, pick the olives, and call the hens home at night to roost.

Her month by month description of food, recipes and traditions brought back many memories of the Italian kitchen of my Nona, and gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the hows and whys of many of the foods.  It held a few surprises.  The inhabitants of Campodimele, who regularly live well into their 90's, use very little salt, but are very generous with peperoncino, a red chili pepper they grow, dry and sprinkle liberally on everything.  I don't remember that ingredient in my grandmother's repertoire, (although my mother assures me that the shaker of red pepper flakes was ALWAYS on Nona's table) and she did love her salt.  It's a perfect example of regional differences.  Each area used what grew well there and was readily available.

Subtitled The Lifestyle of Longevity in Campodimele, Italy, it's a treasure of a book - particularly if you love Italian food, have an Italian ancestor, or just want to learn, as Lawson says, "to live well."  It's yummy, it's interesting, and it's a definite plus for your food collection.  Even if you don't want to try the recipes, the philosophy of living off the land, living simply, and looking at your food as an enjoyable gift will light up your reading and eating day.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Turning the Tide by Ed Offley

Author: Ed Offley
Narrator: James Adams
Publisher/Format: High Bridge Company; Audio, Unabridged; 17.25 hours
Year of publication:  2011
Subject: WWII - Battle of the Atlantic
Setting: North Atlantic Ocean
Genre: Naval History
Source:  Publisher review copy furnished through Early Review program at

I actually received this book last July - just before the Independence Day holiday. It took quite a while to finish it. As I review this, I need to separate the format from the content. As you know, I normally LOVE audio books, and was delighted to receive the audio from the Early Review program.

BUT...................this is a book that has to be read in hard copy to be fully appreciated. The narrator, James Adams does a yeoman job of getting through this tome but it simply is not a book well suited to audio. There are hundreds of alpha-numeric designations and numerical descriptors that do not lend themselves to oral recitation. For example, at the beginning of chapter 6, pg. 107 of the print copy, we see:
Three weeks earlier, U-653 had damaged the 9,382-ton Dutch Madoera, a straggler from westbound Convoy ON166, and just four days before it had dispatched the drifting 7,176-ton American freighter Thomas Hooker, which had been abandoned by its crew after suffering major structural failures during the previous week.
Try reading this aloud (Pay close attention to every syllable and you'll get an idea of how cumbersome this is to the ear):
Three weeks earlier, U -six-five-three had just damaged the nine thousand three hundred eighty two ton .....a straggler from westbound Convoy O- N-one-six-six, and just fours days .....the drifting seven thousand one hundred seventy six ton......yada yada yada.  
There are literally three to ten such sentences on every one of the 392 pages of the print edition.  Trying to follow the story from the audio was painful....there was simply no way one could track who was doing what to whom without resorting to pencil and paper.  After the first of 13 discs, I gave up and went hunting for the book.  I finally located the one copy in the State of Maine system, and had it sent from a community college library to mine here on the coast.

I then was able to listen to the audio, but had the book at hand to supplement the story with all the enlightening illustrations, maps, charts, glossaries, Convoy lists, etc. It's a wonderful wonderful history of one of the most important battles of World War II, and the audio simply does not do it justice.  Our ears and brains just don't register that kind of data without having to stop and make mental notes.  Audio books should tell a story in a continuous flow so that the listener/ear-reader can follow along seamlessly.  Listening to this was like driving along a turnpike that had speed bumps every 1/2 mile.  You never get up to speed, and you're constantly off on the shoulder to check the map and make sure you know where you are.

Enough about the audio.  The book itself, as I mentioned above, is incredibly well-researched, coherently written, elegantly edited (I didn't see a misspelled word or dangling participle anyplace!), has ample supplemental material enhancing the text, and should stand as one of the best naval history books of World War II.  While the author has a limited scope (the time frame is quite short: the first six months of 1943), he gives us both the Allied and German perspectives on what was happening, who was involved, what lessons were learned, and how it impacted the rest of the war.  It was fascinating, and surprisingly easy to follow in print.  Our eyes and brains seem to have been conditioned to grasp "Convoy ON166" as a single reading bullet vice the seven syllables we had to absorb in the audio.  The charts, maps and pictures added so much- giving us faces to go with names, outlines to go with ship shapes, and places to imagine.

I'm thinking alot today about my father who served in the Merchant Marine during WWII, my father-in-law who marched with Patton through Sicily and Italy (and who probably depended heavily on these convoys being able to get across the Atlantic), my several uncles who served in various branches and those of my generation who served during subsequent wartimes.  Preserving and telling their stories is one of the best ways we can honor them.  I'm so glad I was able to finish this book (it takes a long time) in time to feature it for Veteran's Day today.

We will probably end up buying the print edition of this one for our personal library.  It's a tremendous reference book if you have any interest in this battle at all.  Offley certainly has given us the definitive work on the subject.  I just wish that James Adams' wonderful narrating voice hadn't been so wasted. I'm giving this one 4 1/2 stars as a print book, 1 1/2 as an audio.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Two More British mystery series

Author: Jacqueline Winspear
Publisher Format: Penguin, Paperback (2005), 336 pages
Subject: unorthodox detective work
Setting: London and environs, post WWI
Series: Maisie Dobbs
Genre: private investigator mystery
Source: public library

In this second book in the very popular Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie has been hired to find the "missing" daughter of a wealthy business man.  This is evidently not the first time the 30 year old woman has chosen to remove herself from her father's overbearing household, but as Maisie begins tracking down her whereabouts, she becomes aware of several other mysterious deaths of women who were at one time or another connected to Maisie's missing lady.  Maisie is convinced that all the deaths are somehow connected and that her client's daughter might well be in danger.  When she finally tracks her down, it takes all her powers of persuasion to get her cooperation.  In the meantime, Maisie is confronted with her assistant Billy's increasingly aberrant mood swings and she embarks on a mission to fix that problem at the same time as she's looking for the missing heiress.

Once again, Maisie's powers of reasoning, ability to think analytically, and sense of daring-do and fair play---all qualities not normally expected in a woman of the 1930's--give us a plot worth solving, characters worth following and a story that makes the reader thirsty for more.


Author: Deborah Crombie
Publisher/Format: Avon , Mass Market Paperback (2004), 288 pages
Subject: crime solving
Setting: London and environs
Series: Duncan Kinkaid/Gemma James Novels
Genre: police procedural detective
Source: Public library

This series has been around for awhile. I read the first one over five years ago, and always wanted to follow up with another to see if the series turned out to be as enjoyable as it promised to be. When I went looking for an audio of this second in the series, it was SO OLD, it was only available in cassette format. I had to hunt up an old, but still working walkman to play the tapes! I couldn't even listen in the pool.  Oh Well....

In spite of those drawbacks, I'm definitely going to keep on reading more in this series.  Superintendant Duncan Kinkaid of Scotland Yard, finds himself not only grieving the unexpectedly early death of his downstairs neighbor (she had been terminally ill but did not seem that close to death), but then drawn into an official investigation of her death when it is determined that she perhaps had some assistance to her end.   Kinkaid asks Inspector Gemma James (divorced mom with the normal child-care, more-bills-than-money problems) to help him on the case.

I really like the relationship developing between Kinkaid and James.  It promises to continue to bloom in future volumes of the series (there are now 14 of them).  The setting is nothing special, but Crombie's plot and character development are exceptional.  There were at least 4 good solid suspects in this one, and it wasn't until near the end that I began to see a narrowing down of the field.   Definitely worth a look if this is a genre you enjoy or a genre you'd like to try.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast

Author: Bill Richardson
Publisher Format: St. Martin's Griffin (1997), 152 pages
Subject:  life as we wish it could be
Setting: Pacific Northwest island, small town inn
Genre: short essay, memoir
Source: public library I keep smacking myself to refrain from describing this as a "sweet little book." OK--I said it. It is a calming, soothing, elegant, portrayal of the life of twin brothers who, now in their late middle years, have turned the family house where they grew up into a bibliophile's retreat. There is no TV, there are no nearby restaurants, there is little to do except show up, eat good food, and read good books.

No the BBB&B (as they call it) is not in heaven, but it sure sounds pretty close to it to me. There is a resident cat Waffles, whose naming story begins the telling of the tales. There is an articulate swearing parrot in residence named Mrs. Rochester, whose appearances throughout the book add just the right touch of colorful zest. The brothers themselves, Hector and Virgil, give us their birth history (including their conception under the oil pan of a truck), and a portrait of their unmarried (and never married) mother who raised them with a love of books that has never left them. The twins give us reading lists of favorites, among them: "Virgil's List of Books for when you're feeling low" and Hector's "List of Favourite Authors for the Bath."

In the story "Love and Skincare" we meet Altona Winkler, the local Avon lady, newspaper reporter, and novelist wannabe whom Hector describes thus: " association with Altona Winkler..has gone on for a long time now. It suits us both.It is relaxed and casual. Comfortable. In one way or another, we tend to each other's needs."

Guests come toting bags of books to be read, or find an appealing volume in the BB's library. Breakfast is served by the brothers every morning, but guests, who are given the run of the kitchen, are responsible for fixing their own lunch and dinner. Lasting friendships are formed, and guests are encouraged to leave their thoughts in the guest book. In between vignettes from Hector and Virgil, we are treated to stories written by various temporary residents, some of whom have been returning for years.

Virgil, who took up playing the bassoon several years ago, shuts himself in a closet to practice under the watchful eyes and ears of Mrs. Rochester. He also can recite from memory hundreds of poems he learned as a child, including the poetry of the town's now long dead reigning poet Solomon Solomon. This talent is especially well regarded since the local newspaper where the poems were published never kept an archives, and old copies don't seem to exist anymore. Speaking of his poetry reciting prowess Virgil says "I love the phrase learning by heart, especially when it is applied to poetry, because it seems such a perfect description of the process of memorizing words that have been carefully chosen and weighed and handled. The heart, I think, which is the home of all things rhythmic, is where learned poems go to live."

This small easy-to-read tome is easy to love.  It gives us literature, poetry, enchanting vignettes of life and makes us want to find this real  Shangri-la in the Pacific Northwest.  When I find it, I probably won't tell though. I want the whole place to myself.

Though written almost twenty years ago to collect stories recounted on the Canadian radio by author and raconteur Bill Richardson, this is a timeless piece of writing.  Do try to find a copy and make it your own.  My thanks to my friends on LibraryThing for pointing me in this direction.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: The End of Normal by Stephanie Madoff Mack

Author: Stephanie Madoff Mack with Tamara Jones
Narrated by the author
Publisher/Format: Penguin Audio, 2011,6 hr, 42 min
Subject: betrayal, suicide, coping with grief
Setting: New York, Greenwich CT, Nantucket
Genre: Memoir
Source: audio download from the Publisher Penguin audio

Stephanie Madoff Mack had it all: homes in Soho, Greenwich and Nantucket, a doorman, a dog walker, reliable childcare for her two beautiful children, a handsome rich husband who adored her, a famous even wealthier father-in-law, luxury cars, nice clothes.  Then in December 2008, her father-in-law Bernard Madoff, confessed to his two sons that his entire life and business was a giant lie.  The rest is history.  Thousands of people lost millions of dollars from "investing" with Bernie Madoff, including Stephanie Madoff's own step-father.

Over night all members of the Madoff family became pariahs, hounded by the FBI, the SEC, and the media.  Mark and Andrew, Bernie's two sons, were the ones who turned their father in to the FBI, but no one would believe that the sons had not been involved in the fraud.  As lawsuits piled up, and bankrupcy loomed, Mark and Stephanie faced total isolation, and became estranged from the rest of the family who refused to sever relations with Bernie.  Mark spiraled down into a deep depression and attempted suicide. After his failed attempt, he went into counseling and seemed to be recovering.

Two years to the day from his father's arrest, Mark hanged himself in the Soho loft, while his wife and daughter were in DisneyWorld, and his son slept in the next room. His final texts, sent on December 11, 2010, at 4:14 a.m., while Stephanie slept, simply said: Please send someone to take care of Nick and I Love You.  Suddenly Stephanie's life was totally upside down. Now she not only had no money, no job, and myriad legal problems, but she had no husband, and her children had no father.

I was hesitant to listen to this in audio, although it is a format I really enjoy, because the author reads this herself.  I thought it might be self-serving, or whiny, but it's not.  It's a straight forward account of a young woman's change in circumstances and how she is dealing with the problem.  Oh. Yes. there is certainly some rancor toward her mother and father -in law. There is certainly still an unsteady relationship with Mark's brother Andrew.  And yes at times it is difficult to feel sorry for someone who still has a dogwalker, nice cars, a doorman, and several houses.  But she is very clear that all that privilege does not make up for being deprived of Mark's presence.  She tells her story, from the beginning of her relationship with Mark, to their early days together, meeting the senior Madoffs, their wedding, early days of marriage and pregnancy and parenthood.

She is bluntly honest about the trauma and terror of the days following finding out about the Ponzi scheme, and her anguish as she watched the agony her husband and brother-in-law went through trying to convince the world that they were not involved.  Her animosity toward her mother-in-law Ruth Madoff is especially well documented.  She relates her panic at receiving those last two text messages from her husband, her frantic efforts to get her step-father to gain access to the apartment home to check on her son, and the subsequent flight home and how she had to explain to her 4 year old daughter that "daddy had a boo boo in his brain, and it made him die, and now he's in the sky and you can talk to him anytime you want.  He can't come home but he's there for you anytime you want to talk to him."

She ends by reading from the first paragraphs of Mark's unfinished book that he had begun writing before his death.  He wanted desperately to vindicate himself, to recapture the respect he felt he'd earned by all his hard work, and that he'd lost because of his father's transgressions.  Her heart-felt passion is at once emotional and composed.  No matter whether the reader believes that the sons were involved or not, and no matter what other financial tragedies that Bernie Madoff unleashed on the world, this story is a compelling personal one that presents a story needing to be told.

Penguin sums it up in their press release: "Stephanie Madoff Mack has written this at once searing and poignant memoir in order to tell her husband’s story—for him, for their children, and for the world."  It works especially well in the audio format.  Ms. Madoff gives us just enough  emotion to be able to understand her feelings, without having to wallow in them.

About the Author
Stephanie Madoff Mack is the widow of Mark Madoff, whom she married in 2004. She worked at George magazine and for the fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez, and since 2007 has been pursuing a master’s degree as a Child Life Specialist and working at Mount Sinai Hospital. She lives in New York City with her two children.

My thanks to Penguin Audio for making this available for review.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: An Impartial Witness by Charles Todd

Author:Charles Todd
Publisher Format: BBC Audiobooks, America: 10 hrs, 55 min

Narrator: Rosalyn Landor

Subject: crime solving
Setting: England/France WW I
Series: Bess Crawford mysteries
Genre: amateur sleuth  detective story
Source: public library audio download

For the past two or three weeks, I've been indulging myself with some great relaxing British mysteries on audio.  One of my latest discoveries, Charles Todd is actually a pseudo name for a mother-son writing duo Caroline and Charles Todd. Many are familiar with their popular Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries (also on my TBR list) but we tend to hear less about the delightful adventures of World War I nurse Bess Crawford - an amateur sleuth who seems to spend as much time getting into other's mysterious challenges as she does nursing.  These books have much in common with the Maisie Dobbs books (I'll be reviewing one of those later this week) but  there is enough difference that the reader does not become confused about the two - even if you are reading one of each at the same time.  I think Maisie is better, but these are satisfactory also.

Bess Crawford, daughter of a British Army officer, was raised in India, is well-educated and quite independent for her times.  Todd gives us interesting period looks at army field hospitals, early 20th century transportation choices, changing class structures and strictures,  and the women's suffrage movement (a peripheral but still strong influence to the story).

In this story, Bess is witness to an encounter she considers a crucial piece in solving the mystery of a young woman's death.  She is quite convinced of her insights, and goes to great lengths to push the authorities to see things her way.  At the same time, the reader is given to ponder whether Bess is becoming too personally involved with several of the main characters.

This is a good solid mystery with a few twists and red herrings.  It is also one that has an ending that could be seen as leaving us hanging.  A nice pleasant, nothing to write home about, read it and go on to the next one mystery.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Salon - Home for awhile

Ah............a Sunday at home, with nothing scheduled but the rising of the sun and the tide and the moon, a chill in the air, a pile of good books to read, and an extra hour in which to enjoy it all!

What a difference from last weekend when we got to see several (like at least 12) inches of snow in the western lake region of Maine where we spent a wonderful evening with more old friends. Our hostess and Mr. Tutu actually went to grade and high school together in California, and we now find we end up living only 2 hours apart in Maine! I wonder if that's what Mr. Disney had in mind with his "small world" theme? We also got to visit with other mutual Navy friends whom we hadn't seen in years (they moved to Maine the same year we did, but GOSH, when you're 2 hours apart!!!!)

The snow added just the perfect touch to some already picture perfect scenery, including having to drive through the covered bridge as we drove home.  It was spectacular - snow on the ground, autumn leaves still on the trees, and the sun shining down. When you combine that with good friends, you have a perfect weekend.

Now though we're perfectly happy to kick back and relax at home.  The Christmas Bazaars are starting up here in town, and the wood piles are growing every day.  Since I'm ONLY about 8-10 reviews behind, I've got my work cut out for me, not to mention a pretty meaty book to read for book club in 10 days.

Stay tuned for an avalanche of reviews coming the rest of the month, and get your holiday reading ready.  I know I always have a couple of TBRs tucked away for holidays, and they're not that far off.  In the meantime, stay warm, stay dry, happy reading, and THINK SNOW.