Category Archives: Book Reviews

Sharing the love of a good book.

Puzzle Me, Puzzle You

Death in the DalesMy Mom handed me my first Nancy Drew mystery when I eleven or twelve. I was immediately hooked and devoured all of the “kid” mysteries that were published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate at the time. (In addition to Nancy Drew, these included the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins among others.)

In a way, these types of books are akin to the Harry Potter series, fast reads with zigzagging plot lines that encouraged reading among the younger set.

In addition to pulling me into the world of books (from which I have yet to emerge), the Nancy Drew books introduced me to the mystery novel, and even more specifically, the subset of that genre known at the “cozy.”

To the uninitiated, it may seem strange to call novels that center around murder “cozies” but within the genre, the term is used to describe the degree of explicitness in a particular novel. In a cozy, death happens off stage, and usually to a character that nobody (including the reader) likes at all. Sex is conducted discreetly, behind (literally) closed doors, and profane language is pretty much non-existent.

In a cozy, the puzzle and the main character are front and center.

Over the years, I’ve come to call this type of novel my “schlocky books,” a term of endearment for a book that keeps me mentally engaged while not demanding too much of me emotionally. In other words, perfect to read in that twenty minutes before you fall asleep at night or on a bus or in the dentist’s office.

Which brings me around to author Frances Brody’s series of novels featuring a woman named Kate Shackleton.

Brody is British, and her books take place near her hometown of Leeds in the years following World War I. This era, long neglected by genre fiction writers, has become prime real estate in the past few years with books by Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, and others.

Brody has had a long writing career, mostly in radio, and it shows in her prose—clean and to the point. This book, A Death in the Dales, is the second novel of hers that I’ve read, the first being Death of an Avid Reader. (Yep, I was suckered in by the title.)

I was unsure, at first, whether these books were going to hold their own, mostly because the writing was deceptively simple, and I wondered if they would turn out to be too American in flavor (which I define as all plot, no character, and all boring).

I was pleasantly surprised, however, and found myself wanting to read a second as soon as I had finished the first, mostly because her minor characters are interesting, her murder victims are not stereotypes, she maintains more than one story line at a time, and her plots twist just enough to keep me guessing.

Brody mixes in interesting bits of history about Leeds, a city that she clearly loves, and I find them a good place to get lost in for the twenty minutes before I fall asleep.

Thought you might too.

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called OveLike a lot of readers I know, I have a notebook where I keep a running list of the books I’ve read. I even record the titles of the ones that fail my 30-page test. (If I don’t like a book by page 30, I close it and move onto the next one.)

I doubt that this novel—A Man Called Ove—would have made it into my reading notebook if my friend Michelle hadn’t brought it to my attention.

I mean, what can you say about a book that stars a grumpy old man who acquires an accidental family?

A lot, as it turns out.

Ove (pronounced o-vay like okay) is Norwegian, like his author, Fredrik Backman. And the writing style owes something to its land of origin.

When I was in college, I took a course in Scandinavian literature. I found it fascinating, and came away from the class with an appreciation for the beauty of spare prose. I think it’s a reflection of the climate and geography of the home of fjords, reindeer herds, and the endless varieties of frozen water.

While Ove isn’t quite as spare as some books I’ve read, Backman packs a lot into his well-chosen words. There were points when I laughed out loud, hearing my own rants against modern technology and the mindless adherence to rules coming out of Ove’s mouth.

But if ranting was the only point to this book, it would be boring. As I learned when I was a reporter, every human story has the potential to fascinate, and Ove’s story becomes fascinating, one detail at a time.

As Backman takes us deep into this man’s life, his spare prose affords us a certain distance from his main character’s tragedies while simultaneously filling our eyes with tears.

After a while, my initial annoyance with Ove gave way to a grudging respect, and then, finally, I wanted to move in next door to him and drive a Saab.

This is a wonderful read, funny, philosophical, touching. It’s a good way to pull one’s head out of the Sturm und Drang of our daily news and remember the importance of ethics and morals in our everyday lives.

Believe me, I think it will be worth your time.

 

American Colossus

SH-American ColossusI suppose that in some alternate universe, there is a 12-step program for people like me who were history majors in college. Along with English literature and philosophy, history is considered by many to be one of the “do you want fries with that?” college majors.

But honestly, I don’t want to be cured, not when there are fascinating books such as American Colossus by H.W. Brands about.

Like every other history buff I know, I have a favorite era. For me, it’s the Gilded Age, a tidy name (from a novel co-authored by Mark Twain) for an era with shifting start and end dates. But most folks accept it as roughly the fifty-year period that begins with the end of the Civil War (1865) and ends with the beginning of World War I (1914).

I think my fascination for this period began with the works of novelist Edit Wharton. She was a prolific author, penning travel books, garden design manuals, tons of short stories (many of them of the ghostly variety), and an array of splendid novels. My favorite was and still is Age of Innocence.

Wharton was born into the upper crust of New York society so it was a world she knew well—and skewered with sometimes acid precision. I was hooked.

So when the adult ed division of Dartmouth College offered a course on the Gilded Age, I was all in. That’s how I met H.W. Brands and his well-written history of the rise of capitalism in the second half of the 19th century.

Have you ever wondered why we are still consumed with racial issues 150 years after the Civil War ended? Does the eternal dance of the two major political parties in the U.S. baffle you?

Bernie Sanders has been speaking out against income inequality since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981. His ideas have a much longer history than I’d ever known. In fact, Brands quotes from a speech given by a prominent figure in the 19th century Populist movement that could be given by Bernie today.

Would you like to know why so many New England towns have Grange Halls? The Grange movement was powerful in the late 1800s, and it still exerts a pull on American ideology today.

Why do too many Americans vote against their best self-interests by casting ballots for people and institutions that are wealthy and corrupt? It’s not a new phenomenon.

Brands’ narrative—well-written and meticulously researched—made my jaw drop more than once as I recognized the people and politics of 2017 in 1877. Many of us want to believe that we live in a democracy but Brands illuminates the history of money and the power that accompanies it in American history. I think it’s fair to say that democracy did not get the better of the argument.

Capitalism’s ascendency in the last half of the 19th century shaped the world we live in now with all of its political turmoil. Isn’t it better to try to understand than scream into the darkness?

Believe me, this is an enlightening book but beware, enlightenment can be a dangerous (and delicious) thing.

If you’ve got a history buff on your holiday gift-giving list, I recommend American Colossus highly. But be sure to read it yourself first.

 

A Book Review

SH-Guide to birdsMy husband and I once watched a documentary on the cult leader, Jim Jones, who was responsible for the deaths of 900 followers in a mass suicide/murder in Guyana in 1978.

I know, kinda grim, right? But I have a point to make so please bear with me.

Jones was all about controlling the minds of his followers, and one of his favorite methods was sleep deprivation.

In order to keep his followers in line, he ranted incessantly over loudspeakers set up throughout the camp. Believe me, no one slept and that ranting would be difficult for anyone to withstand.

Well, here’s my point—nowadays there are times when I feel like someone trapped in that camp with a “leader” who just will not shut up.

So I have become mindful about limiting my exposure to the “Incessant One.” I never listen to the news in any form, either on the radio or on television, so I never hear his voice. I turn off all my devices on the weekends because I figure the world can get along without me for that period of time.

And I read charming, thoughtful, quirky, funny, lovely books to feed my heart and soul.

All of which brings me around to this wonderful book with a funky title: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson.

Originally published in 2008, Birds is a gentle, charming, rather off-beat love story about an older gentleman (and passionate ornithologist) named Mr. Malik. He lives in Nairobi, a successful (now retired) businessman. He is a widow, and has outlived one of his two children. The surviving child, a daughter, is a lovely young woman.

For the past two years, Mr. Malik has participated in a weekly bird walk conducted at the Nairobi Ornithological Society led by a woman named Rose Mbikwa. Mr. Malik has known for a long time that he is in love with Rose, and he has made rather timid plans to invite her to accompany him to a prestigious dance event.

Things seem to be proceeding slowly but nicely until a rival from Mr. Malik’s high school days shows up—with plans to invite Rose to that same dance.

In order to avoid putting Rose on the spot, the two men agree to a competition for the right to ask her. Whoever spots the greatest number of birds in a week is the winner.

This book has it all, moments when I literally laughed out loud and moments when I teared up. I learned about Nairobi, about birds that I will never see but can appreciate, I came to admire the morals and ethics of Mr. Malik, and I loved meeting all his friends.

And it is very well written.

In other words, it’s exactly what I want in a book right now.

Reading A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is like floating in a warm summer sea. You will be lulled by the book’s disarmingly simple prose style, its philosophical bent, the wonderful birds, and the unexpected twists and turns of Mr. Malik’s love for a woman named Rose.

I just had to share.

Mozart’s Starling

Mozart's StarlinEven though I am a writer by trade and inclination, I am frugal with my book buying dollars. I always stop at used book sales. I borrow from the library. Sometimes I exchange books with friends (that I know will bring them back). And sometimes, I buy new.

New books are expensive, and even though I know the reasons behind their pricing, I diligently curate my new book buying habit, purchasing only “good stuff” that I’m willing to give space to on my shelves.

One of my annual delights is treating myself to a new book (okay, it’s always more than one) in the month of May.

That’s my birthday month and my favorite independent bookstore, Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, Vermont, sends me a card good for 20 percent off any book I care to order.

In April, I start making a little list of non-fiction, books I plan to use as references for my own work or explorations into areas that just interest me.

Any of you who have read my Carding novels know that I have a fascination with crows. They appeared in my first book, The Road Unsalted, and my second, Thieves of Fire. Believe it or not, for a bird that’s so ubiquitous, good, readable references for them are as scarce as…well…crow’s teeth.

So when I saw a story about a book called Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, it shot straight to the top of that little list. By conventional publishing standards, Crow Planet is an “old” book. (It was published in 2011.) So I called the book store to see if they had a copy on the shelves.

“Sorry, but we can order that for you,” the woman who answered the phone said. (Yes, I was talking to a real person, not pressing buttons in an eternal tape loop of death.)

And then that old magician, Serendipity, entered our conversation. “Have you read her latest, Mozart’s Starling?”

No.

“Oh, it’s terrific. I just finished reading it and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.”

Oh really? Tell me more.

And after she did, I reserved a copy of that book too.

So I have two recommendations for you. First is Mozart’s Starling. Haupt found her way to writing this book when she got curious about a story linking two of her life’s passions—birds and classical music, particularly Mozart. It seems that the great composer purchased a starling from a pet shop in Vienna when he heard the bird trill a passage of Mozart’s music. (Starlings, come to find out, are incredible mimics.)

Sounds straightforward, right? But there’s a strange wrinkle to this story. Mozart had not released that piece of music to the public. So how did the little bird know the tune?

Intrigued? So was Lyanda Lynn Haupt. And her curiosity led her to rescue a five-day old starling from certain death to raise in her home. (She learned the skills of avian rescue working at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee, just over the hill from where we live.)

Mozart named his bird Star. Haupt named hers Carmen.

Carmen turns out to be part curious kitten, part mischievous toddler as well as a teacher and an agile mimic. In addition to saying “Hi Carmen, c’mere” and lots of other human phrases, the bird also imitates sounds from everyday life such a creaking floor and a coffee grinder.

I have a love of books that delve into overlooked crannies of life, especially when they are by authors with the gifts of impeccable research, clear writing, and the ability to weave a narrative out of seemingly dissimilar threads. Michael Pollan did that in Botany of Desire, Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, and Malcolm Gladwell in Blink.

Haupt has these same gifts in abundance. Not only did I have the delight of vicariously living with Carmen, I learned about new research into bird song, music and the human acquisition of language. With our politics growing darker by the moment, I needed a book that reminded me of what I love most about our spinning blue planet. And living here in Vermont, I am fortunate to be surrounded by rivers and woods and hiking trails and mountains.

It was refreshing to spend time in the company of a woman who feels the same way.

My second recommendation is for shopping at independent book stores such as the one in Norwich. They are such special places and I find that staff recommendations are always worth listening to. I’m certainly glad I did on this occasion.

So, give your spirits a lift. Learn something new. Spend time with an author who’s a delight to read.

You’ve earned that, haven’t you?

 

Sunshine in Scotland

Sunshine on Scotland StreetEven though it may be hard to find on a map, you can visit Carding, Vermont any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

Today in town news, it’s a book review from Carding’s librarian, Jane Twitchell. A box of new books has just arrived for the shelves of the Frost Free Library and she can’t wait to share them with the town’s readers.

You are welcome (and encouraged) to share all the news from Carding with your friends, co-workers, and the family members that you like best. This news is guaranteed to be a good read with that first cup of tea in the morning.


Sunshine on Scotland Street
a review by Jane Twitchell

I believe that books serve purposes that are far beyond their entertainment value. They provide solace in dark hours, wit to lighten the sadder patches in life, philosophical reveries, knowledge and comfort, among other emotional necessities.

Personally, I think that Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith provides all of the above in all of his books. If I had to choose just one word to describe his work, it would be “kind.” Even his most buffoonish characters (and there are any number of those in his books) are treated with a certain respect. Yes, he seems to say, we know this person is: A. Silly or B. Awful or C. Pretentious but that doesn’t mean we must hate them or revile them. We don’t have to have dinner with them but the least we can is nod cordially on the street when we pass.

McCall Smith is an amazingly prolific author. He has a handful of stand-alone novels but I suspect that most of his fans have a favorite series that they follow avidly, either the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or Corduroy Mansions or the Isabel Dalhousie novels.

I confess to a particular fondness for the 44 Scotland Street books, a series that is focused on the fortunes and misfortunes of the tenants of a building at this address in Edinburgh, Scotland. Some of the tenants have moved out by now but McCall Smith doesn’t neglect them. There’s artist Angus Lordie and his new wife Domenica, the uncertain Pat and her former roommate Bruce (a narcissist’s narcissist), Big Lou and her coffee shop, and most of all, the always suffering but beloved Bertie who is cursed with a mother that…well…let’s just say that I hope Bertie turns 18 sometime soon so that he can escape from Irene while his good heart is still intact.

I think what I enjoy most are the largish helpings of musings and philosophizing that thread their way through these books. Let me give you a sample that struck me in Sunshine On Scotland Street. I cherish this quote because it reflects my attitude toward the place I call home.

“We have to have some meaningful sense of the local in order to understand what our shared humanity is. If you take that away from people—as is happening—then they don’t know who they are and that means they don’t care very much about others. You’ll get a crude materialism, because material is all that we will have in common. You’ll get vast, anonymous societies where we are all strangers to one another. We get much of our humanity from the local, the immediate, the small-scale. We do, you know.”

These are all delicious dips in the word pool. You can read them out of order but you’ll miss the chance to savor some of the best nuances if you don’t start from the beginning.

Come visit the library. There are lots of new books to read, some new movies, and copies of the New York Times crossword puzzle for the word-addicted among you. The Frost Free Library is open from 1p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9a.m. to 5p.m. on Saturdays. Closed on Sundays.

Comfort Books

My birthday’s coming up soon and my husband was asking me what I wanted. I didn’t have anything specific in mind so I joked: “You can take me to a bookstore and stand at the cash register to pay for everything I want.”

Oh, my sincerest wish.

He laughed and said “Why do people buy books when there are libraries?”

While I intellectually understood his question, I didn’t understand it emotionally at all, and I found myself saying: “Because they are my friends. I have books on my shelves that I know I’ll never read again (Nancy Drew mysteries come to mind) but they make me smile when I see them.”

And then there are books that I love so dearly, I re-read them as needed. Jane Austen’s Persuasion, both Winnie-the-Pooh books, Watership Down, Tolkien.

My lilacs are just starting to bloom and they reminded me of another book I need to re-read soon, The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle.

How about you? What are your comfort books?

WQ-Lilac