The Secret Garden; Frances
A sentimental old Victorian tale, which is about a garden possessed of some special magic for two children. The tale has its own special magic. This was a re-read.
Laddie: A True Blue Story; Gene Stratton-Porter
Stratton-Porter has slipped into the ranks of unknowns, but this story deserves to be known, especially in these days of shifting values.[I think that the story is indeed autobiographical, and one of the tasks on my list of things to do, is to research the history of Stratton-Porter. It appears that "Laddie" was short for "Leander"]. Narrated in the first person by Laddie's little sister, it tells of the ebb and flow of life on the farm in the latter quarter of the 19th century, and the romance between Laddie and the daughter of a ysterious Englishman who has taken an adjoining property. Delightful. Perhaps the 50th re-read! *
Trustee From the Toolroom; Nevil
Probably the author's least known work, and easily his most charming. A really convincing, honest, feel-good story of the surprising courage and honor of a dedicated, "low-mid class" Englishman who is entrusted with a familial responsibility. To discharge it, he must travel half way around the world. He has never been outside England, and he has little money. It is one of my all-time favorites. Many times re-read.
The Magic City; Elizabeth Nesbit * (new printing) Probably became one of Nesbit's most famous books because it started the craze of "magic cities", starting with its publication 1n 1910, but it is a childhood magic fantasy in its own right. I was startled by her prescient awareness of the one inescapable condition for the use of technology -- once you use it, you have to keep on! It is the story of an unhappy little English boy who builds a little city out of household odds and ends, and then becomes an inhabitant of the city.
Disturber of the Peace:The Life of H.L. Mencken;William
Manchester, who knew Mencken in his last years as a close personal friend, writes in his usual wonderful style of the sage of Baltimore. It is a very good biography of a most unusual man. It is hard to believe that this little overweight hypochondriac -- who also had many real illnesses -- posessed the tremendous energy to accomplish what he did. Mencken was just a little early for me, so despite the fact that we overlapped in Baltimore, I had never known much about him. This book did a beautiful job of changing that situation. I actually read this because Mark thought I would enjoy it and put his copy out, enticingly, on the sofa. I bit; and he was right. More modern by far.
Raney, Clyde Edgerton;
I have a feminist friend who can't believe that I suggested she read this. It is Edgerton's first story, and a fairly slight one, and a fun story - - at least for the men I have recommended it to. Raney is the name of a young woman in the South, a smart but unsophisticated person. She is a charming person, but my friend protested that Edgerton essentially made fun of her for the entertainment of the reader. I can see how that could be perceived, but that is not how it struck me. She says it is because I'm male. See what you think. I reread this to see how it was. It was fun!
Walking Across Egypt; Clyde
The contrast with his first book [see above] is remarkable; a wonderful piece of mature storytelling; touching and comic by turns. A wonderful old woman in the south persuades a young con man to let her take care of him. Wonderful. I reread it because it is so good!
Palindrome; Stuart Woods
A different sort of mystery story, told by a very good story teller. Laid, in large part, on Cumberland Island, which I first heard of last year in Florida, in a bed & breakfast place, over coffee and rolls. A young woman, fleeing from a vicious wife-beating husband, ends up on Cumberland Island. She meets two interesting twins, and gets involved in a mystery. There is suspense, and a very unusual denouemont.
Chiefs; Stuart Woods
The Chiefs are chiefs of police, and this is a crackerjack story of serial murder, detection, small-town politics etc. This was Woods' first book, and it is a truly great yarn. LATER NOTE: Five years later, after many good stories by Woods, this is still my vote for the best!
The Seventh Commandment; Lawrence
The old story-teller has done it again, with a highly unlikely, delightful, female protagonist involved in a good story, which has a wonderful surprise twist on the last page. The woman is a somewhat pudgy, happily married, very successful, Boston insurance investigator and adjuster. Her task is to determine if a large policy should be paid out to the beneficiaries of a wealthy New York man who was murdered on the street. The story is of her investigation of the murder, and her growing love for the detective in charge of the case. Good yarn.
Mountain Laurel; Jude Deveraux
I will never admit that I have actually read this "romance"; I simply do not read such things. In fact, I read this by accident, or rather started it by accident (I got a tad mixed up on the library books I had), and kept reading a little further to see what was on just the next page. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Perhaps there is a whole worthwhile genre that I have overlooked.! (Nah)
Piece of Cake; Derek Robinson [paper]
For someone like me, who was, in 1939, the age of the characters in the novel, this is a fascinating and powerful WWII story, which the British made into an impressive TV series -- a series that did not treat all British warriors as blemish-free heros -- and which split British viewers down the middle. It tells of a squadron of Spitfire pilots in WWII, during the "phony war" period, leading up to the Battle of Britain.
Cat's Eye; Margaret Atwood
I enjoyed this slightly strange novel, told in the first person by a woman who recounts details of her childhood. A woman friend w
ho is an Atwood fan did not. I did not enjoy Atwood's very strange "The Handmaiden", whereas my friend did. Beats me.
So Small a Carnival; Corrington
Good southern mystery story by a good pair of writers. The writers developed an interesting and clever conceit (used by others in the past) by constructing three interacting characters in their first book, telling the story in the first person of one of the characters, then writing the next two books (different stories) using the other two characters as narrators, in succession. They are good stories.(A Project Named Desire; A Civil Death)
Peeper; William Brinkley
This absolutely wonderful book, by a great story teller, is one that I rarely recommend, even to good friends. It is the story of a small town, and the situations generated by a "peeper", who peers in windows at naked women! I rarely recommend it because I am never sure how people will interpret the fact that I enjoy the story! (Bette likes it too; so there!). And the two (male) friends I have given it to liked it very much.I re-read this because I encountered it while looking for something else.
Time and Again; Jack Finney *
Martha, young daughter of old friends, has recommended two books to me. Both are great, and I owe her. This is one. A man finds a way (via U.S. Government research) to slip, at will, into the past, and live in New York of the 1880's, and return to the present at will. Finney spins good yarns, but, also, this subject fascinates me. Another that I reread.
Magic Kingdom: For sale; Terry Brooks
A delightful fantasy in which a wealthy, bored man answers a small ad and buys a really magic kingdom -- with a few small problems: he gets a run- down kingdom, a dragon on a rampage, a completely incompetent court Wizard, a malevolent witch, and a hidden agendum on the part of the seller.(There are sequels). I re-read this when it was returned to me.
Foucault's Pendulum;Umberto Eco
This big, somewhat ponderous book, is a complicated series of interlocking puzzles overlaid with a dark air of historical mystery and intrigue. I was intrigued because it hinges on the Knights Templar -- a subject that crossed my path a little while ago. I thought that the interest might be peculiar to me, but I gather that the book is a reasonably good seller. I enjoyed it.
Best Cellar; Charles Goodrum *
An atrocious pun hides a light, delightful, and literate mystery, involving libraries and library research, laid in Washington DC, and based on a little-known fact of history, associated with the library of Thomas Jefferson. DO NOT read the last page of the book before finishing the story. The author is the Library-of-Congress Goodrum, and has written several earlier novels involving the same (or related) library-related characters, and they are all great reads.(Is that really a noun?)
The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All; Allan
This is touted as a comedy. It is not! It is wryly amusing in places, touchingly amusing in others, tragic in many places (in the classical sense) and somewhat hard going. I was enthralled by it. A fine piece of serious story telling indeed.
Silence of the Lambs; ... Harris
A fascinating story of multiple murder, mental unbalance, and detective work. The murders are gruesome, the protagonist is an appealing, young, female law-enforcement officer who is somewhat out of her depth, some of the characters are completely psychotic, and the story is absolutely gripping: first rate story telling. There is a new film, based on the book, and I am told that it is as gripping, or even more so, than the book.
The Windsor Knot; Sharyn McCrumb
A very light and pleasant mystery, starring McCrumb's pleasant, young, female student of forensic anthropology. Pleasant touches for anglophiles.
Masterclass;Morris West The master storyteller once again constructs an unusual sort of morality play, laid in the world of international art. As usual, it starts simple, then becomes increasingly complicated, to the great pleasure of the reader.
The Education of a Wandering Man; Louis
No booklover should pass up reading this remarkable partial autobiography. Lamour, to his utter disgust, was always classified as a writer of westerns ( which he was, and very good westerns he wrote). He never graduated from high school, and he educated himself by reading and traveling. This absolutely wonderful story is of the books he read, when he read them, and where, and what he was doing at the time, and what he learned from the time, the place, and the book. This book starts something like this: "I was in Singapore on the date that my schoolmates graduated from high school". Lamour is very pleased (with good reason) with his accomplishments, and tends to pontificate. He's entitled! I gave it, with some misgivings, to Bette to read; she is not quite as hooked as I on books, and is really quite uninterested in westerns. She was fascinated. It is not like anything else that she, or I, have read. Mind you it is a strictly male world. My feminist friends will choke on p.97!
The Moscow Club; Joseph Finder
You've read this type of "international thriller" before. Crucial old Russian document will upset balance of power; CIA analyst, inexperienced in field work, hunted by the Russians and the USA, races around Europe eluding all the hunters with the skill of James Bond.....If you enjoy this type of yarn, this is as good as any of the type, and better than a lot.
The Old Contemptibles; Martha Grimes
Another of her British mysteries equipped with the title of a pub, and involving her CID man, Supt. Jury, and Melville Plant, an Earl who doesn't want to be one. These books are very uneven. In this one at least, she has skipped the grating "amusement" provided by Plant's aunt. In fact, this is better than her last several, and is a pleasant read despite a certain unevenness. It has what is, for this series and this author, a shocking end.
Heartshot;Steven Havill [paper]
A mystery laid in New Mexico, involving a 60 yr old, overweight, and out-of-condition undersheriff who is insecure in his job. The problem is murder and drugs. It is lightweight, somewhat obvious, pleasant read.
Dark Star; Alan Furst
I'm not sure what to call this dark novel, about which I am ambivalent. It is certainly an espionage yarn, but it isn't quite like any I've read. Only LeCarré comes to mind, although I do not think Furst is as good. It starts in 1937, and accompanies a Russian Jew, a journalist, through his assumption into a Russian intelligence network in the time preceding and during WWII. It is a detailed look at the kind of operations and tradecraft that went on; and connects several different political groups in Russia and Germany. It is not quite gripping as a story, but it is informative. Try it.
The Cavalier Case;Antonia Fraser
A "Jemima Shore" mystery. Jemima, British TV producer and amateur detective, tackles some murders committed by a ghost. An enjoyable mystery, as one has come to expect from this writer.
The Edge of Light; Joan Wolf
A thoroughly enjoyable historical romance; the third of a trilogy on the kings of Britain. This concerns Alfred the Great; the only British king to have that suffix. Alfred, the king of Wessex, who kept the Danes out of Wessex, and laid the basis for getting them out of Britain, also translated what he considered to be important books from Latin into Saxon! (these days one says Anglo-Saxon). And he arranged for the books to be distributed! [What I have often wondered was: who in the world could read Saxon -- if they couldn't read Latin!] Wolf's imagination does very well by this improbable man, and creates [with almost zero historical guidance] a fascinating, delightful, and admirable persona for his wife. Good read.
The Astronomer's Universe:Stars, Galaxies, and Cosmos;Herbert
An old friend of mine has taken on an ambitious task, which has been well executed. In fact, there is too much material for this length of book, but by and large Friedman handles it well. It is a nice picture of the modern world of astronomy, with a series of sketches of the history of various areas. There is considerable discussion about Friedman's specialties and his activities in those areas. That is certainly understandable, although some of it might have been skipped.
Killer Diller;Clyde Edgerton
Continuing the concept of "Walking Across Egypt", Edgerton again creates some of the world's losers, and lets them win a few things here and there, with humor, and a little pathos. A delightful story, which will have you cheering on the band at the end of the book. The characters from "Walking Across Egypt" appear again in this. The book is, however, in a slightly more serious and less humorous vein than the earlier work.
The Suspense is Killing Me;Thomas Maxwell
It would be hard to think of another book for which the title so aptly describes the condition of the reader. This is a mystery story, murder story, suspense story, and quest, all told with Maxwell's flair for such things. One of the best pieces of storytelling that you will find around. If you are familiar with Maxwell's earlier stories, know that this is not as gritty as his earlier ones.
Crimes of the City;Robert Rosenberg
An unusual and good police procedural. Unusual because it is set in contemporary Jerusalem, and is a fictionalized version of a real double murder. The Israeli police must solve the murders, and several possibly related crimes, against a tense background of politics and bureaucratic infighting. The author knows the scene, and his detective is appealing.
Murder Saves Face; Haughton Murphy
Murphy, a lawyer, created a septuagenarian lawyer -- Reuben Frost --as an amateur detective, and this is his sixth novel about Frost. This one is tedious to get into, and not all that interesting anyway. Some of his other tales were pretty good; I don't like this one. I have a prediction about this series. In the early books Frost developed a close friendship with a police lieutenant -- an interesting character in his own right. At some point in the series, the policeman quit to become -- are you ready? -- a lawyer. In this book, the author is badly handicapped by the absence of any good police connection (a lame one is improvised). I predict that Frost will develop another close friend in the police; otherwise the series will go nowhere.
Blood is Thicker; Ann Fallon [paper]
The murder is on a farm in Ireland, and the one who has to straighten it out is a Dublin solicitor. This is an interesting, and somewhat different tale, and well worth reading. A tiny picture of a few of the facets of Irish village life, but mostly a good unraveling of a strange situation.
A Fool For Murder; Marion Babson [paper]
This is a delightful murder mystery, full of interesting characters, sly humor, an unusual plot, and told in an inimitable British style by a very experienced writer of British mysteries. I think the ending is surprising; perhaps you will figure it out before the conclusion. Read it.
The Tôkaidô Road: A Novel of Feudal Japan; Lucia St. Clair Robson
Wow! Robson has gone back to the true story of the 47 rônin in eighteenth century Japan, and their vengeance in redeeming the honor of their lord, Asano, of the Akô clan (they then committed seppuku, and their hilltop graves are, today, a shrine). One might wonder how she could possibly create this hefty, different novel about such a well-told and often- told event, but she does neatly by giving Lord Asano a daughter (history is not clear whether he really had one), establishing a mission of vengeance for her, requiring that in order to accomplish the mission she needs to travel the Tôkaidô road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto in order to meet the erstwhile head of her dead father's martial retainers. Lady Asano is high born (albeit to an "outside" wife), well educated, and trained to deadly proficiency as a female samurai, but she and her mother have been ruined financially by the death of her father, and she knows almost nothing of the common world and people of Japan - - she has never even handled money! She gives up her temporary employment as a courtesan (she had to make a living somehow!), takes off on her journey, hunted by enemies, and by the feudal equivalent of a Japanese private eye! The book is the story of that journey. It is an exciting, touching, shocking, tragic, disturbing, funny, and very sentimental story of adventure, quest and love, laid in an alien culture that unfolds in marvelous detail. It is a real romance -- in Voltaire's sense. Cat (Lady Asano's nickname as a courtesan, and the one used in the story) has obstacle after obstacle to overcome. It is a quest-story of a high order, despite a high level of improbability at times. This is easily the most enjoyable novel that I have read for several years; the only other that comes to mind (that evoked similar feelings) is that wonderful science fiction novel by Silverberg:"Lord Valentine's Castle". The two have many of the same elements. What I don't know is what I find so satisfying in these stories -- besides the good storytelling! [NOTE ADDED LATER: I am fascinated by reactions to this story. Roughly half those who have read it because of my enthusiasm think I have lost any critical faculties that I might have ever had. They stumble trying to find a way to tell me politely that they did not care for the book. The other half were as entranced as I; my daughter berated me for giving her the book at a hectic time in her professional life -- she kept staying up much too late in order to read it.]
The Other Side of Death; Judith VanGieson
This is a murder mystery that is subtitled "A Novel of Suspense", which it isn't really, except insofar as mysteries are. The story is average, a light read, and laid in New Mexico. The most interesting thing is the female attorney who tells the story in the first person. She is appealing.
Blood on the Bayou; D. J. Donaldson
A murder mystery and a novel of suspense! This is a good yarn, laid in New Orleans, and featuring two interesting characters. One is the coroner, and he is interesting and competent, albeit just a little precious. The other is a female psychologist, his assistant. The problem is to find a modern version of a werewolf! It will hold your attention.
Deception; Philip Roth
It is probably a failing on my part, but I never quite connect with Roth. This novel is a collection of excerpts of conversations between two married people who are involved in adultery with each other. It does manage to give pictures of the two, but it seems to me that the effort is not worth it. I didn't find the characters that interesting.
Gringos; Charles Portis
Years ago Charles Portis became immortal by writing that wonderful yarn "True Grit". He wrote several later books that were eminently forgettable. This is his latest venture. To some degree it is an interesting portrait of life in "Margaritaville" -- the Yucatan peninsula in this case. The gringos involved are leading pointless, and slightly hopeless lives (but that is not acknowledged). The story is told in the first person by one of them, a "salvage" operator, who gradually becomes someone that the reader enjoys knowing. There develops an intriguing quest/adventure that is related to a gathering of hippies (this is in the late 60's or early 70's) at an ancient ruin, for an expected mystical event. It gradually becomes an interesting adventure laid in an unattractive milieu. I enjoyed it.
Furnished For Murder; Richard Barth
A different sort of murder mystery; light reading. The protagonist is a furniture salesman who plays chess; the victim is his child's piano teacher; the detective (and fellow chess player) is an older Russian emigré who used to be a cop in Russia. The final scary chase is through a furniture warehouse!
The McGuffin; Stanley Elkin
Elkin is a very highly respected and much honored prolific author. I did not like this book, although that is probably more a problem with me than the author. The central character is a political figure, The Commissioner of Streets, and the time elapsed in the novel is about four days. In this period the man's life becomes topsy-turvey, and he realizes that he is becoming old, obsolete, confused about himself and others, and relatively helpless. That is no situation to provide entertainment for an aging male reader! In one way, it is reminiscent of "Death of a Salesman". I didn't enjoy that either.
Flying Hero Class; Thomas Keneally
A while back, Keneally, a prolific Australian author wrote, "The Playmaker," which I thoroughly enjoyed. This one is less to my taste. The protagonist is a white man who is the manager of a successful, touring, aboriginal dance troupe. The story takes place on an airplane which is hauling the manager, his wife, and the troupe; the plane is hijacked by Arab terrorists. There are flashbacks to lay background. It may be that I have become an anticipatory Pollyanna, and expect good in everything; at any rate, it seems to me that no one wins in this story. In addition, the hijacking is to me a distressing event. In all, a well-told story with which I was not at all comfortable.
North of Hope; Jon Hassler
Hassler is an academic, and a well known writer. He has written an interesting story of the intertwined lives of a Catholic priest and a woman that he fell in love with when they were teenagers. No, this is not an illicit love affair; there is love, but it is not an affair! Hope is a place-name in Minnesota, and the title would seem descriptive: north of Hope is a cold dreary world, and to some degree that describes a number of the lives. The woman in the story has a tragic life, and poor marriages, with unfortunate consequences. It is not fun, although it is interesting and well told, and, in the end, love has helped a modern female Job -- with the help of the priest.
Couples; John Updike
I hadn't read anything by Updike for a long time, and I chanced upon this 1968 book. It is a 60's book about the relationships of the members of about ten married couples in the small New England town of Tarbox. It is a sort of upscale "Peyton Place," with no particular plot, told by a master writer. The relationships involved are sexual, the atmosphere is the permissive one of the sixties, and Updike, a poet at heart, fills the book with his brilliant descriptive prose, and his unerring ear for conversation. The characters are generally believable, and invoke the reader's sympathy. The story seems slightly out-of-date, but oh how well it is told!
Healthy Pleasures; Robert Ornstein &
The book is of the self-help variety, and created a favorable but unusual impression on me. It struck me that the book was somehow "gentle." That is in contrast to most self-help books, which are dogmatically strident. The authors argue that pleasure is, literally, healthful, is worth achieving, and is somehow usually felt to be achieved only with a guilty feeling, or to be avoided. They point out various pleasures that are easily achieved, and encourage their readers to attempt them. A pleasant, enlightening, persuasive, and potentially far-reaching book.
Kiss Me Once; William Maxwell
The jacket describes this as a gritty story, and that is a very apt description. It takes place during WWII, and involves the narrator, a professional football player, who has a relatively new wife who is detained in Germany; a major gangster and his mistress (with whom the narrator becomes involved); and a bent detective who is on the take -- but it is not quite clear who is paying. It is a hard, sometimes brutal story, told in a spell- binding way by a very good story teller.
Battleground; W.E.B. Griffin
Volume 4 in Griffin's saga of the marines in WWII. He has three sagas. One is the "Brotherhood of War" set, a story of the Army from WWII to Vietnam; another is the "Badge of Honor" series, about the Philadelphia police; and the third is this series "The Corps", about the marines. Griffin is a VERY good story teller, and these are all good stories, but they are of a restricted genre which might be dubbed "The Brotherhood of Men in Uniformed Organizations." In a sense, all the series are alike, implying that all uniformed male organizations with a mission of "salvation through war" are essentially the same. If you like any one of the books in any one of the series you will like them all. I like them all -- very much. I have become attached to the characters, and in fact I reread the books from time to time.
Phantom Leader; Mark Berent
This author, a former fighter pilot who flew in S.E. Asia, is doing for the Air Force in the Viet-Nam war what Griffin has been doing for the Army and Marines in other conflicts. This is the third in his saga. In fact the series is very similar to the various series written by Griffin; not unexpected, since they are all about young males in uniform fighting various wars as well as various bureaucracies. It is a good series, although this volume is deeply immersed in the arcane efforts of an intense air war, and the writer is determined to get you involved in all the details of air operations. The story telling is good.
Moscow Magician; John Moody
Moody worked for UPI and Time in the Eastern Block, and acquired a knowledge of contemporary life there, which he uses in detail in this story. It is of Viktor Nikolaich, the "Magician", who can fix anything or procure any items for people in Moscow. He crosses a colonel in the KGB, and has to leave his wife and daughter, and flee to Poland. He is helped and accompanied by an old Jew -- who has been killing KGB personnel -- and is pursued by the colonel, who has siezed his wife and daughter. A dark picture of suspense and terror, and a grim look at life in the area, but a good story with an acceptable semi-happy ending.
A Different Drummer; Clive Egelton
Egelton is a British writer of thrillers, and this is a spy thriller. It is also a good story. Mind you, it is in a sense a standard plot: because of a British intelligence mole, intelligence data are compromised, and several branches of government attempt to discover the perpetrators, and to cover up the problem. It is the slightly shady, fairly twisted, somewhat murky intelligence story we have come to enjoy; Egelton tells it well.
Out There; Howard Blum
A former New York Times journalist, and author of a couple of other well received books which were the result of investigative journalism, Blum has turned his investigations to the Pentagon's purported secret work on flying saucers. It is the most remarkable collection of tripe that I have read for a long time. Blum weaves a fantasy. My guess is that he was the victim of a reasonably detailed hoax; or else he has flipped completely. It is a fantasy well told -- just don't start to believe any of it!
Not Exactly A Brahmin; Susan Dunlap
A police murder mystery told in the first person by a female detective on the San Francisco police force. It is a pleasant read, with an engaging detective. A key murder clue is a tad obvious, but what the heck.
The Laughing Sutra; Mark Salzman
Mark Salzman is a very interesting young man. He is a scholar of Chinese, an expert in Chinese martial arts, and has lived in China. He also wrote a book about episodes in his life, and it was made into a movie in China with the author in the leading role! This is his second book, and it is not clear exactly what it is. It is certainly a fantasy about a young Chinese who travels to America in modern times, to retrieve one of the Buhddist sutras -- the"laughing sutra" -- for the old monk who adopted him. He is accompanied by "Colonel Sun", a mighty warrior who knows nothing about the modern world. That, it develops, is because he is about 3000 years old, and essentially a fairy tale character! In fact, he is the Monkey King (Sun Wu Kung), and the current story is essentially a revised version of the ancient tale of the journey of the monk Hsüan-tang and the Monkey- King. The book is partly a morality play, and partly a fairy tale. The story telling seems to me to be somewhat amateurish. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed reading it; it was fun.
Two Girls, Fat and Thin; Mary Gatskill
Not my cup of tea. The developing relationship between two almost abnormal women, with their histories told alternately in flashbacks. They had unpleasant childhoods, and are having unpleasant adulthoods. Surprisingly, one can develop sympathy for the characters, but the gritty story left me chilled. Perhaps I only want happy stories these days! This is not a light summer read.
An Owl Too Many; Charlotte Macleod
Mcleod is the prolific author of two series of off- beat mystery stories. This one is in the series associated with Balaclava Agricultural College, and her sleuth is one of the professors. The characters are eccentric to say the least, and the story is, like the others in the series, almost a pastiche. One cannot take the characters or the plot seriously, and the humor is broad indeed. Still, it is a reasonable, light summer read. Mcleod's other series is a really delightful set of mysteries set in Boston, with a charming female protagonist that the reader will find to be an interesting person. That series is worth reading in toto, and the new reader is advised to read them in the order written. I believe the first was "The Family Vault."
An Occasion of Sin; Andrew M. Greeley
The latest in Father Greeley's account of the doings of Irish priests and families in Chicago. Recently I read a critic's review of one of Greeley's books; it was dismissed with the sneering description "another potboiler." That may well be apt, but I certainly enjoy most of his stories. Perhaps it is that my mother was an Irish Catholic! Perhaps it is that I enjoy Father Greeley's withering analysis of the Church administrative heirarchy, and his clear-eyed view of much of its clergy -- he must be a great ulcer-irritant for the Church! Or perhaps it is his palatable lectures (disguised) on his theology. Mostly it is an interest in his characters and the story. This one is the first person account of the investigations of a priest assigned to determine the suitability, for possible sainthood, of a martyred American Cardinal who, after his death, seems to have wrought a miracle. The priest disliked the Cardinal, whom he had known fairly well, and dislikes the job, but he goes to work to uncover the Cardinal's past. I think it is a good story.
China Boy; Gus Lee (Augustus Samuel Mein-Sun
A powerful and moving book that is something of a puzzle. It is touted as a novel, and there is a publisher's note that says all characters are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously -- an unusual statement. In fact it appears to me that a lot of the book is autobiographical -- as indicated by the dedication, the acknowledgements, and the story in the book. It is hard to believe that in a first book, with the background indicated in the short flyleaf biography, this author could so vividly describe the events without having experienced them. If this is all fiction, the author is one of the best imaginative storytellers that I have had the pleasure to read. It is the story of a Chinese child growing up in a black San Francisco slum, losing his mother, acquiring a caucasian stepmother who mistreats him physically and emotionally, and being taunted about his poor English, eyesight, and physique by the black kids who beat him up regularly. Don't be turned off by this grim sounding outline; it is quite remarkable how the author relates all these events without producing a litany of sorrow; he is a master of the wry touch, and unexpected humerous similes that ease the real pain of the events. True, I was distressed at times -- too much empathy with the child -- and was nearly moved to tears at two points. It is a gripping, touching, and powerful book. It is also a variation of "The Karate Kid" -- except that the redeeming conflict here is boxing, and the redeemers are an unusual collection of males at the local Y.M.C.A.! The final battle will have you breathing hard. Do not miss this beautifully told, ultimately triumphant story of rites of passage of a boy in a male world in the fifties.
The Novel; James A. Michner
I read the first chapter; I thought it was awful -- lots of talking to the reader about arcane details of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Just as I had expected. I browsed the last few pages to see what the story was, and couldn't quite figure it out. With a little irritation I started to skim through the book to at least see what it was about, and I got hooked on the second chapter. I read the book. I enjoyed it -- to my surprise. It is certainly not a deep novel, but it has entertaining and interesting characters, and although it has a share of preaching, it is a good story -- or series of stories. In a strange way it is somewhat like that wonderful first book of his: "Tales of the South Pacific." Not as good, but worth reading.
Death of a Partner; Janet Neel
A while back Neel created two intriguing people, John McLeish and Francesca Wilson in an absolutely wonderful novel:"Death's Bright Angel." It was a mystery story in which McLeish was a Scotland Yard detective. She followed it with "Death on Site," another very good mystery which involved the same two in a developing and complicated relationship. This is the third, and although a good read, is less satisfactory to me than the others; I'm not sure why. If you are not familiar with this author, then it is best by far to start with the first of the series. And you will be unable to keep from continuing on!
The latest of his 87th precinct police procedurals, and what one has come to expect from this expert craftsman in his long series about the cops in the 87th. You can read it with interest if you have never read any of the others. If you know the series, then you will find familiar friends competently working their way through a series of cases, and through various personal crises of their own. Good as always.
The Man Who Would be F. Scott Fitzgerald; David Handler
This seems to be the third of Handler's mysteries featuring Stewart Hoag and his basset hound. Hoag is an interesting character, a once- well-known novelist turned ghost writer and amateur detective. Handler could have skipped the hound, which is added as a gimmick. The story is a good one, told in the first person, and involves problems that develop as the protagonist sets out to ghost-write memoirs for an author who seems to have developed writer's block. It deals with the alien world of authors and publishers, and with a couple of murders. Good beach reading.
84, Charing Cross Road; Helene Hanff (paper)
This book, it says, was copyrighted in 1970, and published by Avon in 1974. I picked it up in the library by complete chance. I had never seen it before, and I had never heard of it, and I find that almost unbelievable because it is about books, seems to have been a best seller, and was made into a movie! It is a short ninety- seven pages of sheer delight. It is a copy of letters exchanged from 1949 to 1969 by the author and a bookstore in London. A little blurb on the front cover describes it perfectly: "the...chronicle of a 20-year transatlantic love-affair by mail." It is the love of books, and the touching love of people -- the author and the charming people associated with the bookstore. It is the most unlikely delight that you will find in a long time; do not miss it.
Sweetwater Ranch; Geoffrey Norman
This is a sort of standard-situation mystery: tough ex-felon and Vietnam-vet with heart of gold, and a free- spirited lady friend, lives alone with dog in a big house he is restoring, and works for righteous, crusading, crusty lawyer as a private eye. In this one he is attempting to find a missing child, and clear a bad-boys- camp operator of the charge of child abuse. It is, in fact a good summer read, even though the character seems very familiar if not stereotyped.
The Music Room; Dennis McFarland
A hypnotically strange novel told in the first person by a man whose younger brother has just committed suicide. He moves through the story oscillating between the past and the present, trying to understand how this could have happened. His parents were alcoholics -- his mother is still alive, and still an alcoholic -- and the past and present are blurred. One has the feeling that the man is indeed in a state of emotional shock, and the reader is eerily drawn into his state. It is not a pleasant story, but it is emotionally gripping, and it ends on a small note of hope.
SIRO; Edward Ignatious
A good yarn about the CIA and the middle east, ten years or so ago. The central character is a competent young woman who is new to the Agency, and who innocently becomes part of what develops into an increasingly rogue operation run by an old-timer in the Agency. It is a very plausible and realistic story, with plausible and interesting characters, and it is well told. It beats the usual run of CIA stories by a good measure.
The Piranhas; Harold Robbins
This book is divided into thirds. The first and last are in the first person, narrated by the same character; the middle is in the third person. It is a gripping if somewhat violent story that roars along in the first person narrative, and falls flat in the middle, in a major dislocation of the flow of the story. The central character is part of a Mafia family, is rich in his own right, is not in the family business, but is still part of the family. I cannot imagine how as good a storyteller as Robbins, could make such a mistake in the structure of a good yarn.
Book Case; Stephan Greenleaf
A literate mystery that is compelling, written by an author who meticulously structures his language. The first-person narrator is a private detective, hired by a publisher to determine who is the mysterious author of the manuscript of an incomplete, but powerful, novel left at his office. As the story develops, what at first seems a relatively simple mystery expands to reveal layer after layer of additional, interlocking mysteries. Fascinating.
The Covenant of the Flame; David Morrell
This is another of Morrell's stories of a mysterious, ancient, world- wide conspiracy (usually religious) discovered by some appealing protagonist who tries to unravel the mystery while being hunted by the conspirators. In this case it is an ancient Mithraic sect that has survived and turned into a group of rabid environmental terrorists -- sort of a really nasty Monkeywrench Gang. They are opposed by an equally rabid group of Catholic priests who are a secret group of the still alive and flourishing Inquisition -- which is however flourishing undercover. No, I am not making this up. Morrell did. This is really a book of fantasy. It is not one that held my interest; I skipped through to the end.
The Crown of Columbus; Michael Dorris &
This is a wonderful novel. It shouldn't be -- it is written jointly, and is told as first person narratives that mostly alternate between the two main characters. Such books are generally episodic and disjointed. This one is beautifully structured, but you may appreciate that fact only as it ends. I guarantee you that the first tiny chapter is a grabber. The book relates the relationship between two vastly dissimilar academics. The woman is an unmarried mother of a rebellious male teenager, and as we meet her she is about forty,in her ninth month of pregnancy, and has broken up with the father. She is also a large part Navajo, and lives with her Indian grandmother. The father is a scholar at the same university, and is a fairly stuffy, opinionated, private person, completely unskilled in interpersonal interactions. This certainly sounds like an unpromising set of characters -- but don't believe it. You will be enthralled by them! The book is also an account of historical research in libraries (part of its appeal to me I suspect), a quest, and a dangerous adventure. Beautiful storytelling of an engrossing story. Read it.
The Diary of H.L. Mencken; Charles A. Fecher
Mark had this home from the library, and I read it. It is not a book for a casual read. In fact, unless one has read of Mencken's life, one will not fully appreciate this. It is a carefully selected one-third of the diary that Mencken left with the Enoch Pratt Free Library; not to be opened until 25 years after his death. It has caused a recent furor because it is purported to reveal that Mencken was an anti-semite. The current editor states that as a fact -- revealed by the diary. I am not a great fancier of Mencken -- who never really was an "American" (although born and bred in Baltimore, he notes in this book that he always was essentially a foreigner. He was)-- but I cannot buy the current politically correct statement by the editor. I don't think the diary bears it out, despite phraseology about Jews that is jarring to contemporary ears. Mencken hated every class -- not just Jews -- and was friends with members of every class -- especially Jews! It is very strange to realize, as one reads the 1941-1945 entries, that World War II was essentially outside of any contact with Mencken. He mentions this fact twice. There are minor comments about the war, otherwise one would never know there had been such a thing. Most of the comments are related to his pathological hatred of Roosevelt, which was related to Mencken's hatred of the U.S. involvement in the war. I must say that in the midst of feeling sorry for poor Mencken's distorted views, I ran across his description of WWII in a phrase that continues to haunt me: "...the great effort to save humanity and ruin the United States."
First Class Murder; Elliott Roosevelt
Another murder mystery in which Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt acts as detective. A pleasant read. Part of the attraction of this series is that each is a period piece, and one meets major political characters of the day, watches world events take place -- with a foreknowledge of what will happen in history. This murder is on the Normandy, outbound from France to the United States. Included in the cast of characters in this 1939 piece is a young Jack Kennedy!
In the Men's House; Cpt. Carol Barkalow,
with Andrea Raab.
This is a two part, well ghosted, and interesting sort of book. It is the story of Barkalow's experience as one of the first group --119 --of females enrolled in West Point, and graduated in the class of 1980. It is also the story of her Army experiences after that. The West Point time is the first part of the book, and to me it is surprisingly drab. It doesn't seem to have the zip that the second half has. It is a methodical account of her trials and tribulations, aggravated by her being female. The second part is far more interesting, and provides some worthwhile insights on attitudes -- and realities -- of women in the Army.
The Serpent Amongst the Lilies; P.C. Doherty
Doherty is a scholar, and a specialist in medieval studies; he invokes his knowledge in writing medieval mysteries that are delightful to read. The first person narrator of this relatively short story of Joan of Arc is a rogue, and a secret agent sent by Cardinal Beaufort, in England, to find out if the Maid is an agent of the Devil or of God. He attaches himself to her retinue, and through his eyes and narration we see the lifting of the siege of Orleans, the victory at Paty, and the subsequent betrayal and trial of the Maid. Fascinating account. There is a fair amount of outlining of history before the story starts, but if your history of medieval France and England is as far behind you as mine is, you will welcome the scene-setting. The characters are well drawn and believable, the history is accurate (it seems to me), and you may even think that you know the end. You may be surprised. Good story.
Tehanu:The Last Book of Earthsea; Ursula K. LeGuin
This is certainly the fourth book of Earthsea; I doubt very much that it is the last. Several years ago LeGuin wove that remarkable and wonderful fantasy trilogy known collectively as Earthsea: A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; and The Farthest Shore. This continues the story, which I shall not attempt to outline here. LeGuin is a wonder at spinning a story and weaving a tale; she is perhaps the best writer of fantasy in the business. If you don't know her writing, don't start with this book. Start at the beginning of Earthsea -- you will not be able to stop. Then try her other works