Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace is number 2 in Louise Penny's series of detective novels. Again, set in Three Pines, Quebec, the novel centers around Detective Gamache and his team of investigators.

During a Christmas curling competition in the village CC de Poitiers, a recent resident of the village, is murdered. She was not well received by the villagers and, consequently, any number of them could have committed the murder. 

Christmas celebrations were magical in Three Pines, but when CC berated her daughter, Crie, for singing too loudly at the Christmas Eve service, the residents were outraged and angered. It was the next day that CC was electrocuted in a well-devised plan that trusted in CC's obsessive compulsive behaviour to be perfect and have things around her be perfect. 

Concurrently while investigating CC's death, Gamache was working on the death of a vagrant on the streets of Montreal. Could they possibly be connected. As he puts together the clues, he realizes just what that connection could be and it gives him a bit of insight into the identity of the murderer(s). 

Central to the story is a box found with the dead street person with the letters B, K, L. M, and C.  There was also the phrase B KLM.   The letters could stand for words or be an anagram. Once this mystery is solved, so will the connection between the homeless person and CC. 

Grace refers back to the biblical graces of faith, hope, and charity and are usually depicted as young women. However, Claire, one of the villagers who was introduced in the first novel and who has a painting studio in her house, sees them as persons who have aged and endured pain. She paints them as Em, Kaye, and Mother Bea, three elderly, but wise women of Three Pines. From there we begin to suspect from the title that one or all may be connected to the murder. 

Penny brings into the cast numerous characters that all have motive and opportunity, including Saul Petrov, a photographer with whom CC was having an affair and who was photographing CC at the time of her murder for an upcoming book. 

It is difficult to write much more without giving away the solution and remainder of the plot. Suffice it to say that Penny engages the reader way into the late evening hours and creates twists and turns along the path to the resolution. Can't wait to read #3 in the series.



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Before our trip to Australia, I tried to find a book that would give a good introduction to what we could expect to see and an insight into some of the history of the country. Having read Bill Bryson's books before, I thoroughly enjoyed his sense of humor and insight.  I would loved to have found an Edward Rutherfurd book, but no such luck. And so it was In a Sunburned Country that would fill this role. 

Reading the first chapter would scare anyone off as Bryson enumerates all the poisonous animals that one could encounter when traveling through the country side. With that admonition taken, Bryson embarks on a travelogue through the vast continent. His impressions about Australia are pretty "spot on." It was hard to imagine taking so long to travel from point A to point B until we spent hours on the coach doing it. His style, almost chatty, allowed so much information to be imparted without feeling overwhelmed. 

In addition to the travel pointers and his discoveries in each of the areas to which he traveled, Bryson interspersed a lot of history in this book. It made so much more sense to have read about the design process of the Sydney Opera House when we were taking a tour there. His amazement of the size of Uluru really hit home when we saw the huge monolith. 

One of the most well-known pieces of Australian history is the fact that the British used it as a penal colony. Bryson explains this in detail in the book. One of the lesser known facts about Australia known is the impact of the gold rush times.  As we traveled through both Australia and New Zealand, the importance of these years became more clear. So much happened here because of the gold rush, including telegraph and transportation infrastructure. Not only did the economy boom, but the way the British viewed the country also was transformed.

The description of Canberra was enticing and I am sorry we did not get to visit the capital city. Here and in other cities the description of museums are complete and give insight as to what the highlights are. With Australia being a young country, the art and artifacts, save the Aboriginal art, are fairly modern.  

Bryson is outspoken about the treatment of the Aboriginals and is so true. Although the government is trying to change the decades of mistreatment, change is hard to affect. With advances in medical support and wage and housing support, things may improve, but equality is not there yet.

The addendum on the Olympic Games was also interesting and perceptive. 

In a Sunburned Country is a great read either before you go or when you return from a trip down under or if you want an understanding of the Land of Oz.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

The Nest topped the New York Times best seller list for 11 weeks after its publication in 2016. The plot sounded intriguing and when it was a Kindle deal of the day, I purchased it. Then in July 2018, I saw it at Barnes and Noble on sale for $3.99, forgetting that I had it on my Kindle, I purchased it again. (This prompted me to enter all my Kindle books into LibraryThing). When my turn came to hostess book club, this was the book I selected. 

The premise of the novel is that the four Plumb siblings are to receive a sum of money, The Nest, that has been put in trust for them by their father. However, when Leo, the eldest, is involved in an horrendous car accident because he was high and drunk and is accompanied by a 19 year old waitress, the money is used by Francie, the mother, to pay off the legal and medical bills for the young woman. Needless to say this creates issues and conflicts for Jack, Melody, and Beatrice, the other siblings.   

The novel is narrated by an omniscient third person. In this way, the reader is able to see events from different points of view, one of the strongest qualities of the book. Each of the protagonists has counted on The Nest for a purpose - Jack to pay off a summer home, Melody to finance her twin daughters' college fund and Beatrice to regain the relationship that she had with her brother. None of the characters are particularly endearing as they seem self-centered and unable to put their own needs aside for others. The novel weaves the story around those relationships and a number of sub-plots - the coming out of one of Melody's daughters, the recovery of a valuable copy of Rodin's The Kiss from the rubble of the World Trade Center, and the renewal of an affair between Leo and Stephanie, his sister, Bea's publisher. 

The culmination of all the drama occurs the night of Melody's 40th birthday. This was the date by which Leo had promised to come up with a plan of distributing the remainder of The Nest to his siblings. The evening is marked by a storm of enormous proportions, meteorological, corporal, and psychological. 

Although the reviews in the book club discussion ranged from I loved it to I found it disturbing because of the sex and language, I felt that it was an excellent read. The character development was superb, despite finding them likeable, and the writing style sophisticated. I await Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's next novel and also the casting for the movie that has been picked up by Amazon.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Still Life by Louise Penny

When three of my friends, two librarians and one lawyer, posted on Facebook that they had attended a book lecture by Louise Penny, I figured that I was missing something. And so, I borrowed the first of her Inspector Gamache novels and read away. Yes, I was definitely missing something, a page turner and absolutely delightful read. 

The action takes place in Three Pines, what seems to be a quaint Quebec village. The town is shocked by the death of one of its most upstanding and lovely residents, Jane Neal. Her body was found in the woods with an arrow piercing her heart by Ben Hadley. For most of the residents, it appeared to be a hunting accident, but the team of investigators led by Armand Gamache doesn't buy into that theory. Jane has just had a painting accepted into the opening of the Arts Williamsburg. Fair Day is a depiction of the annual fair and includes portraits of the villagers. Clara Morrow, Jane's best friend, also reveals that the painted was finished just about the time of another villager, Timmer's death. Add another cause for Gamache's suspicion.  

At this point, no one is about to be left out of the questioning and when Matthew Croft seems anxious during his interview, Gamache and his second in command, Jean Guy Beauvoir, decide to search the Croft home. In the basement they find an arrowhead with Jane's blood and a bow that was about to be burned in the furnace. The Croft's son, Phillip, becomes the leading suspect until his father confesses. But the story doesn't fit and Gamache refuses to arrest him, an action that has him removed from the case. 

Enter Yolande, Jane's money hungry niece. Yolande feels that she is the rightful heir to the home and Jane's belongings and moves right in. There is something quite fishy about this and effort is expended on finding the will that would prove this. Unfortunately, for Yolande, Jane's will was changed and now the house becomes open to the investigating team. They find the reason that no one was ever able to pass from the kitchen into the living area of the house while Jane was alive. It is there that the clue to the real murderer is found. 

This was a fascinating who dun it book and I believe that I have found an author who will help fill the void left by P.D.James in my quest for good mysteries. Penny is a cerebral writer and if her subsequent books are half as good as Still Life, I will be content. She is popular, placing a hold for the next in the series of 16 so far, yields an 8 week wait.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Be Careful What You Wish For by Jeffrey Archer

The fourth installment of the Clifton Chronicles, Be Careful What You Wish For, picks up right at the end of #3. It resolves the cliffhanger, which I had suspected all along. The continuing narrative takes the readers into the 1960s as the Cliftons and Barringers expand families and their shipping business.

Although wary of committing to the building of a luxury liner due to the increased efficiency and popularity of the airline business, the company does enter into contracts for the construction of one in Ireland. As one can imagine that process is fraught with delays and sabotage instigated by one Juan Pedro and Diego. Much of the novel deals with the machinations of stock trading that leads to the composition and recomposition of the Board of Directors. 

In another parallel story, Jessica, Emma and Harry's adopted daughter is accepted to the Slade School of Art. She meets and falls in love with Clive Bingham. The two announce their engagement and both families are exceedingly happy. However, enter Lady Virginia Fenwick, a friend of Clive's mother, who manages to poison the occasion. Her revelation of Jessica's parentage brings on dire and tragic consequences. 

To reveal much more of the plot would lead to major spoilers. As is typical of Archer, the novel ends with another cliffhanger. The Barrington ocean liner, Buckingham, is about to begin her maiden voyage when the party is infiltrated by IRA terrorists. As the bomb explodes, the novel ends. Archer's next book in the series will illuminate what actually happened. 

The Clifton Chronicles is an addictive series that keeps the reader engrossed. Is it sometimes predictable? Yes. Is the action sometimes unrealistic? Yes. But the enjoyment is still there and I anxiously await the time when I can get back to the series. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Sins of the Father and Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer

SPOILERS FOR THE SERIES BELOW

The next two books in the Clifton Chronicles by Jeffrey Archer were fairly quick reads because of Archer's writing and the fact that I couldn't make our book club for two months. 

Harry Clifton has joined the British Navy and after his ship sinks, he assumes the identity of Tom Bradshaw. As a result, he is sent to prison to serve Bradshaw's term for desertion. Emma Barrington, believes that he is still alive, having read The Diary of a Convict that was published by another inmate in his name. She sets out to find Harry. In the mean time,  Hugo Barrington, possibly Harry's real father, fathers another child by Olga. Hugo refuses to admit to it and Olga murders him and then commits suicide, leaving the daughter as an orphan. As a result of Hugh's death, Giles and Hugo were both contenders to inherit the Barrington estate and title. The novel ends with the judge pondering which of the men is the true heir.


Best Kept Secret opens with the judge's decision that Harry is not Hugo's son. Giles is the
rightful heir and that leaves Harry free to marry Emma. Emma is determined to track down the child of Olga and Hugo. Meanwhile, Lady Barrington changes her will  to only recognize Emma and her sister, Grace. Giles is omitted from the will because of his marriage to Lady Virginia. This sets up one series of revenge moves. 

Sebastian becomes involved with one of the most sinister figures in all of literature - Don Pedro, the father of his best friend at Cambridge. He is unknowingly enlisted to help smuggle counterfeit money into England from Argentina. The plot is foiled and Don Pedro seeks his revenge against the Cliftons and Barringtons. The novel ends with a tragic car accident in which Sebastian is killed, or is he?

I love books in series like this. Although sometimes predictable, it is definitely entertaining. There are three more installments and it will be interesting to see how far Archer takes the revenge theme.


Monday, February 18, 2019

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is my first experience with a Moshfegh novel and it was definitely that - an experience. It is hard to categorize this book as to whether it was funny, depressing, or puzzling. The premise is that the narrator opts to take a year off life and hibernate while filling her body with drugs and television, and old movies. 

Set in 2000, the narrator has worked at a gallery but was fired because of sleeping on the job. She has two friends, Reva a classmate from Columbia and Trevor, a boyfriend from college who are a part of her solitary life. While at Columbia she is orphaned when her parents die within months of each other, causing anguish and despair. The most despicable character in the novel is Dr. Tuttle, her psychiatrist. At many points did I want to slap this woman for feeding the narrator a pharmacological diet of nothing but pills without any regard for interaction or what they would do to a person. But as a result of her parents' deaths, there is an unspecified amount of money and wealth to enable her to not work and have an apartment in NYC. 

As the reader is privy to her year of hibernation, it triggers almost a feeling of pity for the young woman. Reva tries to reason with her, but as a person dealing with her own issues, bulimia, her credibility loses some validity. As the two drive to attend Reva's mother's funeral, their relationship seems to strengthen and the then crumble. At unexpected turns she shows up in the narrator's apartment. She appears one day, depressed, that she she had broken up with her boyfriend, who was also her boss and was consequently being transferred to a new department located in the World Trade Center. (Just a bit of foreshadowing. On another occasion raids the medicine chest to take all of the pills. Upon waking up from a blackout period, the narrator rushes to Reva's where she, indeed, finds the pills. This solidifies her plan of hibernation for four months. 

There is no reason to reveal the ending. That is left for the reader to discover. Moshfegh is a master of language and developing the characters through their voices and the narrator's reaction to their conversations and descriptions. It will be an interesting lecture at the Ten Literary Evenings on 18 February when Moshfegh speaks about her books.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

One of the great things about book clubs is that you read books that, maybe, you wouldn't have otherwise chosen to read. I wasn't quite sure how The Last Days of Night was going to be when I first looked at it. But, again, what a great read. 

It begins in 1888, the time that electricity was first becoming commercialized. It chronicles the fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse as they struggled to gain the upper hand in the production and selling of the commodity and the accoutrements that went with it. This story is told through the eyes of the young lawyer, Paul Cravath, who is hired by Westinghouse to fight for his patents. The 312 lawsuits were filed because Edison invented a light bulb and received a patent for it. Westinghouse followed with a better bulb, and filed for a patent. However, Edison contended that Westinghouse's bulb violated the patents that he had filed. Edison demanded one billion dollars in damages and Cravath needed to prove that Westinghouse's bulb was better and different and didn't infringe on the patents that Edison held. 

Enter Nikola Tesla, a genius, who was determined to make his own statement with AC electricity and its superiority for wide range use in electrifying the country.  What results is a novel of intrigue, high powered machinations, criminal activity, and a bit of romance. The characters are real but fictionalized in the daily comings and goings. Moore includes at the conclusion of the book a detailed listing of what is real and what isn't. 

 Cravath meets and becomes infatuated with the Metropolitan Opera singer, Agnes Huntington. He co-opts her to aid him in protecting Tesla whose life, he fears, may be in danger. Another historical figure who is prominently featured in the novel is J.P. Morgan who shows what the power of money can do. 

The novel is beautifully written and fascinating with all the geniuses springing to life within the fabric of the individual personalities. Moore describes Tesla as the visionary, interested in dreaming up inventions; Edison as the showman, interested in the performance; Westinghouse, the produce who wanted inventions crafted and produced to be the best. As Moore delves into the personality of the men, the reader is enlightened to see how they lived and worked.  The inventiveness and creativity of the mind brings it home that we need to foster intellectual curiosity. 

 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

 There are some books that will stand the test of time as being a true classic. An
American Marriage might just be one of those books. It has gained critical acclaim from all reviewers and was one of President Obama's summer reads of 2018. 

Told from the perspective of the protagonists, it is the story of Roy and Celestial, a black couple in Atlanta, who are well-educated and and financially in good standing. On a trip to visit his mother the couple opt to stay in a motel rather than at his mother's home. The decision has dire consequences for he is accused of raping another guest at the hotel. He is arrested and sent to jail despite being innocent. Much of the novel is recounted in the form of letters between Celestial and Roy while he is in prison. Through those very personal missives the reader is given insight into the early days of the relationship and then to how each deals with his imprisonment. During that time period Celestial's Uncle Banks, a lawyer, works endlessly to prove Roy's innocence. 

In addition the narration by Celestial and Roy, there are chapters devoted to Andre Tucker, a childhood friend of Celestial's. He does not hide the fact that he has always been in love with her since their prom date. She never shared those feelings and he has respected her for that. As a stalwart companion during the time Roy is in jail, the two rekindle a friendship and more. Other strong characters in the book are Roy's parents, Roy Senior and Olive, and Celestial's parents. Franklin and Delano Davenport. Each weighs in on the tragic situation as well as how they first viewed the couple. 

Without giving away most of the plot, suffice it to say that a tangled web is woven among the three. This was a wonderful read, tho so disturbing to think of how race plays such a part in the judgment that members of a jury can put forth. In some respects it reminded me of the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, that was written 60 years before. Has all that much really changed in America? With themes as racism and class, the influence of fathers in our lives, and the strengths and weaknesses of a marital state there is much to be digested in the reading of An American Marriage. 


Probably one of the best lectures I have ever heard was given by Tayari Jones on 19 November 2018 as a part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures series. She was candid, articulate and made the voices and narration of her novel come alive. The book was wonderful and so was she.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The hostess for the December book club meeting usually picks a lighter book because we are all caught up in the holiday preparations. The Rosie Project was definitely a light read with servings of hilarity, hubris, insights into the world of autism.

Don Tillman is a professor of genetics in Melbourne, Australia, who has decided that he would like to be married. Hence, he and his best friend Gene devise the Wife Project, composing a questionnaire to filter out or in good candidates. With all his idiosyncrasies, due in part to being on the autism spectrum, it is virtually impossible. He goes to a speed dating event where he meets a few women, but none to measure up to his requirements of a non-smoker, non-drinker, acceptable BMI, and good looking.  But then he meets Rosie Jarman, whom he believes was sent to him by Gene. But actually, she was a doctoral student who was doing a study on the relationship of testicle size and monogamy. He makes reservations at a very upscale restaurant, but then gets into a wrestling match with the owner when he doesn't comply with the dress code of wearing a jacket. The incident leads to a dinner at Don's house and the reader senses a connection that will develop. 

Rosie shares with Don her desire to know who her biological father is. The Wife Project then becomes the Father project and the two embark on a quest to match her DNA with numbers of paternal candidates. This leads to a number of comical adventures and even a trip from Melbourne to New York. In the identity of her father is revealed and Don and Rosie come to an agreement about their on and off relationship. 

Despite the humorous under and overtones of the novel, there are some serious themes that permeate the fabric of the book. Both Don and Rosie have had to overcome adversity in their lives. He has had to try to overcome the traits that Asberger's has dealt and she life without her mother who was killed in a car accident when she was young. Overriding all the action is the search for love and the sacrifice to achieve a fulfilling life. When Don agrees to put aside some of his obsessive traits like the Standardized Meal System and his beloved T-shirts, one knows that he is serious about changing his way of life to be attractive to Rosie.

It was a delightful read, seemingly light, but with some serious issues and topics that become apparent to the reader as the book ends.