Sideshow; Sherri S. Tepper
My goodness -- this is the first time that I have stumbled over reading one of Tepper's stories. This one doesn't seem to work, and if you are not a devotee of Tepper's, then I suggest that you avoid this in favor of some of her other works. The title, closely related to the content of the book, may in fact be the best descriptor -- the book seems to be a loose collection of people and events that has a superficial coherence, but is ultimately a collection of individual entertainments. Tepper has again created a very strange world -- Elsewhere -- and a strange society. She has again created interesting and different people, but it flounders somehow. It is still interesting reading in many spots however. I think that she got concerned with trying somehow to integrate some of her earlier creations, and got this, which is less than the sum of the parts. Read it if you are a fan.
Paradise News; David Lodge
I enjoyed this novel, although it is a bit puzzling. There isn't much to it in one sense: British theologian and his father go to Hawaii to visit the old man's sister who is dying, and join a tour group to get good rates. In the Islands, the old man ends up in the hospital, and the theologian ends up in the bed of the woman who hit his dad with her car. There is a good deal about the other members of the tour, and it is not clear why that material is there (it seems like padding at times), and there is a lot about Catholicism. Certainly, as I write it, not a promising sort of thing. Yet, to my surprise, I really liked it. The people are likeable, and the whole thing is surprisingly real, except for one jarring event -- sort of like having someone win the lottery at the right moment. A pleasant surprise of a story for me.
China Lake; Anthony Hyde
This was a tremendous surprise. I spent most of my technical career in or around a subject known as infrared. I never expected to run into a novel that, in a sense, revolved around the subject. The various parts are in fact headed with technical words from the field! This book is a slightly ponderous, introspective novel of suspense that concerns a naval R&D installation, China Lake, and the famous Navy infrared-seeker, air-to-air missile, called the Sidewinder -- the current version of which is the AIM-9 series. In the book it is postulated that a missile was stolen at China Lake, and given to the Russians, who copied it exactly as their ATOLL missile. It was never determined precisely who did the deed, but it was generally accepted that an English scientist was the guilty party. The subject is reopened 25 years later, by an act of violence in the desert, and the story goes on from there. There is a very great amount of stream-of- conciousness writing. This is not a fast-moving thriller; it is a slow moving suspense story involving the solving of an old mystery. If you like the style, it is a very good yarn. By the way, it is in fact true that the Russians made the ATOLL as an exact copy of the Sidewinder, but it is not true that it was stolen from China Lake. A copy was acquired in quite a different way. All other technical comments are completely authentic -- if anyone other than me cares!
The Big Hype; Avery Corman
Corman is very good at what he does, and what he does is tell stories. In this one he tells the delightful story of Paul Brock, a very successful screen and television writer who is in the throes of earning a (good) living for his family while first finishing, then trying to publish his first novel. His publishing prospects are dismal, and then his old buddy Mel Steiner takes a hand. Mel is a very successful publicity agent and show-biz entrepreneur, and he and Paul once spent a summer singing (badly) on the summer Jewish entertainment circuit in the Catskills. Mel decides that what Paul's novel needs is a little hype, and that is best done by hyping Paul. He reaches back to the Catskills experience for his inspiration. This is a smile- and-chuckle comedy (rather than guffaws) that is a delightful take-off on the entertainment biz. I was surprised to find that the characters were really likeable, and surprisingly real for the nature of the novel. I found it a very pleasant read.
Faces in the Crowd; William Marshall
Marshall is a prolific writer of unusual mysteries. He has written about a dozen of the "Yellowthread" mysteries, laid in Hong Kong. He has written several in "The New York Detective" series, and this is one of the latter. The style in both series is the same, and hard to describe. He tells stories in a series of vivid abrupt episodes that give the impression of a surrealistic ten ring circus. There are elements of the weird, the grotesque, and at times impressions of the supernatural -- but these are all part of a completely logical -- if unusual -- set of well-told events. This series features Virgil Tillman, the detective, and his side-kick Ned Muldoon. They deal with the seamy side of New York in the 1880's -- and you can see it, hear it and smell it in these stories. The pace is frenetic; the events unfold in a bewildering way; and the reader is gripped by suspense. I suspect that these stories are not for everyone; but I think they are great. Try at least one.
Santa Fe Rules; Stuart Woods
Woods is a first class story teller. He is still good in this one, but there is something not quite right about it. I think that the situation that leads to the mystery ends up being too contrived. The reader suspects whodunit about 3/4 of the way through , but can't see how. The how is the extra complication that is needed to make it work. At least three fourths of the book is great, and the start is fantastic. The rest is not bad, it just seems like a small cheat. It is a good beach read.
Make No Bones; Aaron Elkins
A number of novels back Elkins created Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropoligist, and each novel has Oliver involved in a murder case that involves old bones. The novels are good, the plots are interesting, and Oliver is indeed a likeable person. Always an enjoyable read; this is no exception.
Damia; Anne McCaffrey
McCaffrey writes science fiction, and is one of the better yarn spinners of pleasant, warm, interesting stories, heavily involved with personalities. I thoroughly enjoy her stories; they are very undemanding, and always entertaining. A while back she wrote a good McCaffrey yarn called Rowan ,whose title is the name of the main (female) character. The Rowan is a person of strong extrasensory (psi) capabilities. In this one she combines a prequel and a sequel to Rowan, and this time it doesn't work. You have to be a McCaffrey fan (I am one) to get to the end. It is a true pot-boiler, and I think the first that I know of from this author!
Blue Bayou; Dick Lochte
Good action/suspense/detective story laid in New Orleans. The private eye works for an ex-madam who runs a detective agency. He discovers that a close friend shot himself, and refuses to believe it. He sets out to find out what happened.Interesting characters; interesting plot; fun..
The Last Detective; Peter Lovesey
Lovsey is an old pro who writes English detective stories -- usually laid in the past, often the Victorian past. However, in this very good one he is very contemporary, although Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond is the "last detective", as his boss describes him. Diamond is vastly distrustful of computers and forensic experts, and a true believer in careful old- fashioned detective work. He is faced with the death of a woman found naked in a lake -- she may or may not have drowned. Before the story is finished (he is misled because he forgets a key dictum of his), he completes most of the work that leads to the trial of one person, after which he resigns from the force (over something that he did not do!), then he realizes how to torpedo the Crown's case, and does so, and finally he solves the murder - as a civilian. Nice plot, well told in a somewhat unusual way that works.
A Double Deception; Clive Egelton
A prolific English writer of thrillers, Egelton has again crafted an interesting, puzzling, story of suspense that involves British Intelligence in the 60's. The somewhat inexperienced Intelligence protagonist gets more and more involved in the case of a young American woman who is trying to determine that a British citizen is in fact her Polish uncle who vanished in 1939. Gradually it appears that some other part of Intelligence has going an operation that overlaps the situation, and the agent's career and safety are threatened. Good as always -- of the particular type.
Play Dead; Peter Dickenson
Dickenson writes complicated and unusual stories that are usually classified as thrillers, or mysteries, or suspense stories. And they are. But they are never like other stories of the particular genre. This one is described as a novel of suspense. It is indeed. Poppy is a grandmother, serving as a Nanny for her two year old grandson whose mother is in politics. A man who has been watching her grandson is found dead and mutilated, and she is caught up in a series of personal involvements that revolve around politics, other nannies, personal relationships, possibly smuggling, and international confusion. Good example of Dickenson's yarns.
Toujours Provence; Peter Mayle
When Mayle's delightful book "A Year in Provence" became a smash hit, it was to be expected that another would appear. It has. This is it. It is nowhere near as as delightful as the first, but it is fun to read. This seems to be a series of essays that were perhaps culled out of the first draft of the first book, or were left over from the columns that he wrote for a London paper. Pleasant.
Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen; Fay Weldon
This is a series of witty, literate, and perceptive essays on the subject of writing and reading -- particularly novels -- and women in writing -- especially Jane Austen -- by a successful English novelist. The essays are cast as a set of letters to Alice, the author's imaginary niece, daughter of the author's imaginary sister Enid. In fact, if one missed the dedication page, it would be very easy to believe in the indirectly sketched Alice and Enid. Except at the end; where in a very lame 15th letter, Alice becomes suddenly and clearly a creature of imagination. This is a thoroughly delightful book despite the ending, and not the least delightful is the author's conceit of the City of Invention. Wonderful.
The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; John Dickson Carr
* Carr wrote this completely fascinating biography of the creator of "The White Company" and Sherlock Holmes in 1948. It is an "authorized" one, and it is written by someone who thoroughly liked Doyle. No matter. Doyle was a pretty likeable chap. He was a man of vast integrity, and great energy and ability. He led an adventurous life. To have the life of such an interesting person told by a writer with the vast storytelling skills of Carr, is to have a great read. Doyle did not believe in votes for women -- a strange blindness in a man who fought hard for the rights of others -- and in the last years of his life he was a vigorous and effective proponent of spiritualism. Carr makes a very persuasive case for believing that the latter was not, as is usually remarked, a sort of slide into senility. The biography is one to read.
Regeneration; Pat Barker
Barker has written a novel laid in England in 1917, and populated by a mixture of real and imaginary people. One of the real ones is the soldier and poet, Sigfried Sassoon. We meet him after he has been awarded a medal for heroism in WWI, and has publicly denounced the war as a war of aggression and conquest - - in defiance of military orders. Instead of having a court martial, he is sent Craiglockhart Hospital to be treated as a "shell shocked" casualty by Dr. William Rivers -- another real person. Craiglockhart was what we today would call a neuro-psychiatric hospital, and Rivers is a practitioner of psychoanalysis. His job is to get men well so they can return to the front. Sassoon, Rivers, and other real and fictional people are interwoven in this tale. It will remind the reader of the WWII equivalent story which I think is entitled "Col. Newman, M.D.." It is a good tale on its own however, and the people are ones that the reader comes to care about.
Memoirs of a Medieval Woman; Louise Collis
* An irritating book about an irritating woman. Margery Kempe was an illiterate religious freak, who dictated the first biography in English, and judging from the account here, should have skipped the whole thing. She seems to have been a totally self-centered, self-righteous fanatic given to hallucinations, falling down fits, wild weeping, very loud screaming, and the ability to lecture others for hours on end about their shortcomings. She was advised to do this, and all the other things that she did by God and/or Jesus, who gave her daily -- frequently hourly -- advice. She had 14 children, and only ever mentions one. She had a husband whom she got to take a vow of chastity.(Of course with 14 kids, maybe that wasn't so dumb!) She never mentions any single thing about the historical events of the time, and although she travelled widely, was almost oblivious to her surroundings, except to explain how terrible (and wrong) most of the people were whom she met. Collis has to portray Kempe's historical surroundings by quoting other writers of the times! It is hard to understand why Collis wrote this book. At the end, she notes that Margery's tale is of "...a woman that we can understand, and with whom we can sympathize across the gap of five hundred years." Not me kiddo. The reader of this may gather that I am ticked off by the book. That is because I paid $11 for the thing, under the impression that I was getting something very different -- a view of the Medieval world by a woman who traveled it. No such luck. For $11 I got a hysterical religious nut.
The Living; Annie Dillard
A bewildering book; the first novel by Dillard. She is a marvellous writer of perceptive introspective things, and an empathic lover of nature, about which she writes almost as a poet. She has written an awful novel. It seems to have no plot, and almost no action -- except dying -- and it is populated by a bunch of random, shallow figures, with no hero or heroine. One wonders how such a good writer could produce such a terrible story. It is probably just that indeed she is not a story teller! The book is about life in the Pacific Northwest from before the Civil War to about now. It is eminently ignorable.
Compelling Evidence; Steve Martini
This is a courtroom mystery, written very well by a former trial attorney. It appears that this may be his first novel. It is a dandy one of the genre. There is a murder. The victim is the head of a prestigious law firm. His wife is accused of the murder, and she is defended by a man who was once her lover, and a former partner of the victim. It is told in the first person, and it is told very well indeed. If you like courtroom dramas, this is very worth your time, and the ending will zap you.
Sleeping Dogs William Perry
Perry is one of the better story tellers around, although he has not written all that many novels. His protagonists are on the wrong side of the law. I shall not soon forget his first: "The Butcher's Boy." The "hero" was a very experienced professional killer, a mob hit- man. I avoided the book for almost a year, feeling that a hero like that I could skip. I finally read it, and it was a jim dandy. Next was the delightful "Metzger's Dog" -- the fascinating capers of some interesting crooks. There were a few others that I cannot recall at the moment. This one is a return of the Butcher's Boy. He is wanted by the Mob (see the first book), and has been living for eight years in England, keeping a low profile. He goes to Ascot one day and is accidentally spotted by a young mafioso, who decides to gain great mob kudos by killing him. It happens the other way round, of course. The Butcher's Boy doesn't know it was pure accident that he was identified, and decides that it was planned. It seems necessary to put a stop to this, and what better way than to kill the mob boss or bosses who probably started it. So he sets out to do so. While charging around the USA doing so, he comes to the attention of the Department of Justice -- or at least one person there -- and so the cops as well as the mob are looking for him. Sounds terrible. Maybe it is. But it is a dandy thriller.
Wages of Sin; Andrew M. Greely
Father Greely has written another story in the continuing saga of his Chicago Irish clan. It is about as good -- or bad -- as most of the others, depending on your reaction to the stories. I thoroughly enjoy them, and I did this one. As always, one must put up with some hard to believe characterizations, but, as always, I did. Good story, but a little light. He has written better ones.
Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee; Virginia
Elizabeth Lee was the daughter of Preston Blair, an influential, well- off, adviser to Presidents, and the wife of Samuel Phillips Lee, an impecunious member of the Lees of Virginia, and a captain in the U.S. Navy.(The Blair house belonged to her father, the adjoining Lee house belonged to her brother-in-law). She wrote to her husband every single day that he was absent from the city, and there survive almost a thousand letters from the Civil War period. The editor has chosen about a third of these, and has presented them in this book, along with copious notes explaining referenced events and people, and a vast index that has some strange little gaps. Since the letters are almost stream of conciousness, devoid of most syntax and punctuation, and unparagraphed, the editor had quite a time -- and the reader has one too. I often read by skimming, and this book is impossible to skim. You must read every sentence. I found that to be quite a chore (although after a while the reader absorbs the style) and I am amazed that I did it at all. I am not clear why I did. The letters are really of no historical importance at all. They are a picture of the hectic life of one woman, deeply in love with her husband, and fearful for his safety, and concerned for her family and his family, and for her young son. All against the background of the war. The letters are full of vignettes of the rich and famous of the time, and of the feuds and vendettas in Washington, and politics. I found myself absorbed in the travails of Elizabeth and her family, and, near the end, almost petrified when she tells of finding a lump in her breast that she secretly fears may be cancer. It wasn't, and I really knew that because of the long life that I knew was ahead of her, but I was so caught up in her world that I was terrified with her! This is the hardest reading task that I can remember, and it was addictive -- or I would never have finished it. I am very glad that I did.
Marianne, The Magus, and the Manticore; Sheri S.Tepper
Tepper is a prolific writer of fantasy, and a good story teller. I have been reading her "True Game" series, and enjoying the stories. This is another fantasy, not part of the series. The heroine is Marianne, a young woman who is living in modern times, whose parents are dead, and who, although rich, has to depend on her half brother for allocation of her money. Gradually, Tepper leads the reader into a fantasy that involves an attempt by a strange woman (the Madam), and Marianne's half brother (Harvey) to kill or remove Marianne, and the attempt by the magus -- yes, magic is involved -- to prevent this. Marianne is banished to a strange, alternative world, which has all the characteristics of nightmares, and in which the terrifying power is the Manticore (a transformed Harvey as it happens).(It might be noted that the medieval world believed the manticore was the devil!) Marianne is a tough young lady however, and she gradually starts to unravel this nightmare world. She is helped by the magus, who appears in the world as another three-element creature from the imaginary bestiary: a Chimera (classically spelled chimaera). They attack the Manticore, and escape from the alternate world - but not together. The last chapter seems to invoke alternative realities, because the magus, who loves Marianne, finds her parents alive, her half- brother crippled. The end is a tad confusing, but upbeat for a happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed the story. Tepper is a good story teller.
Marianne, the Madam, and the Momentary Gods; Sheri S. Tepper
As you might expect, a sequel (and, in fact, a partial prequel) to Tepper's earlier book about Marianne. (Note the different syncopation in the two titles!) This time we meet Marianne again: when she is three days old -- and remembers most of the life she is to lead! The last book had alternative realities, this has alternative time lines as well. We learn the answer to the puzzle of why, at the end of the first book, (Marianne, the Magus, and the Manticore), the magus finds Marianne's dead parents alive. This is a rexamination of the people and events of the first book, with the newly introduced "Momentary Gods" talking about quarks, and other elements of quantum physics -- that have nothing to do with the story! It is really a lot of fun. Again Marianne is trapped in a nightmare world. Again, the magus has to arrive to help. This time he arrives as Prince Charming - via a wash machine. Chapters 13 through 16 are a hilarious account of the bedraggled Prince with a rusty sword, and a bunch of momentary gods (who are absolutely delightful constructs), going through a Keystone-Cops routine saving Marianne. Marianne is thoroughly in charge however, and a force to be reckoned with. At the very end, after she is married to the magus, Tepper notes that the new husband examines his bride "warily". As well he might! There are parts of this book that Lewis Carroll would have read with great pleasure. Chunks of it are blood relatives of "Through the Looking Glass", with at least one piece from "Alice in Wonderland".
The Gate to Women's Country; Sheri S. Tepper
Tepper has exited a bunch of very good fantasy yarns, to an attempt at science fiction; and she does a job here that is as good, or better, than she has done in the other genre. This is a really good yarn of the post-apocalypse type. It is set on earth a long time after civilization has been pretty much demolished by war. Women are now in charge of civilization; the posessors of what technical knowledge remains. Each city (town) is named for a woman, and is run by a council of women. By and large, the function of men is to be defenders -- warriors -- and impregnators of the women. (There is some vagueness about what is to be defended against) The culture that has evolved requires women to give up their sons to the warrior class, who live outside the towns. The kids can, however, decide to not be warriors, and return to live in the towns as servitors to the women -- and thus be considered as cowards by the true warriors. This is all prescribed by ritual. Tepper constructs a believable culture, populated by believable people, and gradually unfolds a wonderful mystery that surrounds the culture. It is a neat story, and truly a science-fiction yarn instead of fantasy. Tepper is good.[Note added: this has led to a question about what I see as the difference between the two genres, and a subsequent confusion. I have always sort of thought that if the story involved magic, it was fantasy; science fiction contains nothing that is not a "reasonable" extrapolation of science. My critic has noted that this is fraught with problems, and she is right, and I am not about to try to resolve the whole matter here. But THIS story is science fiction!
Raising the Stones; Sheri S. Tepper
This is Tepper's third science fiction novel, following "Grass". It is not a sequel, although Marjorie Westriding makes a guest appearance as a phophetess who appeared (with her Fox, it seems) 1000 years before the time of this yarn, and who left pearls of wisdom that have been steadily misinterpreted over the years. Tepper again builds up a story from lots of bits and pieces of cultures and people, and it takes a while for the pieces to come together. I think it is somewhat more complicated than was "Grass", and somewhat more diffuse. I enjoyed it, but not as much as "Grass". This time we are mainly in Hobbs Land, an agricultural community populated by individuals from various other planets and cultures. One woman is from Voorstad, a vicious culture of misogynists, and has come to Hobbs Land with her son. We follow her and her son, the topman in one of the communes, as Voorstad sets out to get her back. As the action develops, slightly disjointedly, the children in Hobbs Land begin to re-establish the old gods of the planet. Or possibly, THE old God -- that appears to be a filiamentary mycelium -- that gradually takes over the planetary inhabitants, and begins to abolish emotions that lead to cruelty and war. A major gadget is the Doors that were the invention of the Arbai culture that we met as a vanished culture on Grass. There are a number of interesting cultural, ethical, and religious questions that are raised here, and not necessarily answered.
The Last Virginia Gentleman; Michael Kilian
Kilian is a Virginian, a columnist, and the author of half a dozen novels. This is an interesting thriller about two worlds: one the political world of Washington and the White House, and the other the moneyed world of the Virginia horse country. One set of protagonists is Robert Moody, White House Chief of Staff, and his estranged daughter; another set is comprised of David Showers and friends. Showers is an unmonied horseman, member of the horse set. The plot revolves around an imposter horse, and activities of organized crime. An interesting thriller.
The Jewel That Was Ours; Colin Dexter
The latest of Dexter's Inspector Morse, British murder mysteries. Morse is an insufferably literate cop who gets involved with complicated mysteries, and with the help of his long-suffering sergeant, Lewis, solves them. The reader usually does not have enough clues to solve them, but that doesn't matter, because Morse does, and the stories are fun to read. This one involves a tour of the Oxford area, and the involvement of the American tourists and tour staff with murder and theft.The whole plot is somewhat complicated, but reasonable, although it has been used before -- at least in main outline. The chapters are headed with quotations from eclectic sources, and the text is studded with literary quotations, all of which are known to Morse.
The Resurrection Man; Charlotte
This is another in the series that Macleod has written about her characters,Sarah Kelling, and her husband,Max Bittersohn. This has most of the strange Boston characters, and more of the funny pointed observations about the people and mores of old Boston families, and for a while it is pretty good. Then Macleod loses track, and after floundering around, provides a wholly unbelievable solution. This is a poor example of the series. (This from a fanatic devotee of the early ones! Read the early ones for really good story telling. Skip this one.
Death Benefits; Michael A. Kahn
This is Kahn's second novel about lawyer Rachel Gold, and it is a good story. Gold is retained by a law firm to represent the wife of one of the partners, who committed suicide. The problem to be worked is one of establishing that the suicide was of unsound mind, and thus the accidental death benefits clause in his insurance would be in effect -- we are talking millions here. Digging into the mysterious actions of the dead man, Gold gets involved in several mysteries, and into the middle of a search for a very valuable gold artifact. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, with two quibbles. One there is something a little wrong about the characterization of Gold. I don't know what it is, and I would be interested in getting a woman's opinion on this. Second, and possibly related to it, is a strangeness to the friendship of Gold with her not too likeable partner Benny Goldberg. I will not comment on the smart-assed literary pun that constitutes the first three words of chapter 1.
Marimba; Richard Hoyt
Marimba is the slang term in Miami for the ubiquitous cocaine trade, and the marimba "players" are marimbeiros. This is a gritty, and at times almost revolting thriller about the trade, and the attempts to stop it. It is actually a very good yarn, but is is truly of the hard-nosed school. The hero is slightly James-Bond- flavored, but it is handled well. Very good, but not for everyone.
For the Sake of Elena; Elizabeth George
Another in the great series of contempory English Scotland Yard novels starring Inspector (Viscount) Lynley, and his trusty lower-class sergeant Barbara Havers. If you know , or if you don't know the series, you will enjoy this. You will enjoy it more if you have read the others, because the familiar characters are still developing -- within themselves and in their relationship with others. The action is laid in Cambridge, where a young female university student is bludgeoned to death. Lynley volunteers to go up from London's CID to investigate, because Lady Helen Clyde is visiting there with her sister, and Lynley wishes to marry Lady Helen -- she doesn't reciprocate. The crime and the personal stories proceed apace to the reader's great satisfaction. At the end, both Lynley and Lady Helen have changed, and she accepts his love. I suddenly realized that the novel was producing the same emotions as those induced in me by Dorothy Sayers' best Peter Wimsey novel "Gaudy Night". The latter was laid in Oxford, not Cambridge, but this reader found the ending very similar in content. Impressive.
Rising Sun; Michael Crichton
This is the book that has ticked off a number of people who see it as "Japanese bashing". Which it may be; the problem is that I'm not sure what that is, and I'm probably a bad one to decide. I have thoroughly disliked the Japanese for fifty years. Perhaps it follows that I enjoyed the book. Actually, it is a very-well-told tolerable detective story, with a great deal of information about Japanese thought, habits, and mores, as well as some anti-Japanese homilies dealing with the Japanese winning the world economic war, and buying the USA. As far as I can tell, all the statements about the Japanese are in fact correct, including their fanatic racism! Although the detective story is an interesting one, it is fairly slight and somewhat high- tech. The characters are more interesting: the first person detective narrator, and his temporary partner, an occidental man who is very knowledgeable about Japanese culture and ways. Well worth reading.
Honest Illusions; Norah Roberts
It seems that Roberts is a writer of Romance. I was not aware of that, and read this book for a while before I realized it fell into that genre. In fact I sort of enjoyed it; it falls into the category of what I call a good book for the beach. It is a tad different, and a tad preposterous. We meet an abused boy, who is taken into the "family" of a carnival magician -- who happens to own the carnival. The boy finds a warm, loving family, and begins to learn the magic biz. The magician's young daughter teaches him his first card trick. It is a bit later that he starts to learn the magician's other business -- stealing jewels. The magician, the magician's woman friend, the chauffeur, and the house factotum and cook in their New Orleans house, are all thieves -- big time! Of course they steal only from the very rich. And they give money to the poor. And they have warm hearts. You gotta believe these crooks are NICE people. The daughter and the boy grow up together, she becomes a thief too, she falls in love with the boy -- but best you read it yourself. If Romance is your cup of tea.
The Killer Angels; Michael Shaara
This is the third time in about twenty years that I have read this novel about the battle at Gettysburg. It gets better each time. The novel covers the three days at Gettysburg, and the crucial day before. Again, I was enthralled as my heros: John Buford, Lawrence Chamberlain, and James Longstreet, played through their roles as envisioned by the author -- who is a story teller of world class. Insofar as I can tell the novel rings true. This is war in all its stupidity, glory, tragedy, blood & gore. It is almost hypnotic in its intensity. Because of this book, I have visited the battlefield twice. No other account of the battle has ever made an equal impression on me. Be aware that the author has accepted Longstreet's view that the Confederate loss was due to Lee's mistakes. The novel is powerfully persuasive in that regard. The description of Pickett's charge is almost overwhelming. If you do not know this book -- read it by all means.
The Bridges of Madison County; Robert James Waller
This small book was universally panned by critics, and has become a best-seller; it is frequently called a "cult" book -- I suspect by the critics, who can probably see no other reason for its appeal. In fact it is a nicely told, sentimental, poignant love story of the type in Coward's wonderful "Brief Encounter". The time, place, culture, and people are different, but the attraction is the same. Robert Kincaid, peripatetic photographer on assignment in Iowa, meets Francesca Johnson, at her farm, when her husband and children are away. I enjoyed it -- to my surprise, and I think to the vast surprise of my wife.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story; John Berendt
The subtitle:"A Savannah Story" tells it all. Berendt, a New Yorker, spent much of eight years in Savannah, and has written an engrossing, funny (almost belly-laugh funny at times), serious, and perceptive book about real people, and events, related (sometimes only peripherally) to a famous 1981 shooting, and the subsequent murder trial(s) of the man who did the killing. It is a spellbinding book, populated with as strange a set of fascinating kooks as you will ever encounter. My favorite character (not a kook however) is the shrewd old black man who walks an imaginary dog - Patrick. The reader may be excused if, at first, she is convinced that everybody in Savannah is really weird. That, in fact, may be the case, but I suspect that Berendt has culled these people from the many individuals that he encountered in eight years, and has strung them together around the tale of the shooting. I am told, by one of the last *real* Southern Gentlemen, that although the book was almost required reading in Savannah, many Savannahites(?) regret extending Southern courtesy, hospitality, and introductions-to- friends to Berendt. It may not be a good repayment.
Material Witness; Robert K. Tanenbaum
* This is the latest in a running series of nifty crime stories that involve two New York prosecutors. The author has a collaborator whom he has acknowledged in previous books, but in this book the acknowledgement gives the collaborator credit for the manuscript! So it is not clear who wrote it. The series is one of off-beat judicial/police procedurals. You need have read none of the others to enjoy this; but, in fact, this is probably the best, and most interesting of the lot - albeit it somewhat less believable than the others. The two protagonists are married in this book, and the woman, an assistant DA, is very close to term in her first pregnancy. That does not keep her from getting actively involved in the case of a murdered basketball player. Her husband, an assistant DA, and former basketball player, takes up the game again. The mother-to-be has her labor induced in a very scary way! I found this a good piece of story telling. Even if this is your first encounter with these people, I will bet that you like them a lot. And I'll BET you look for the earlier stories! [They are, in order: No Lesser Plea, Depraved Indifference; Immoral Certainty; & Reversible Error.]
The Beekeeper's Apprentice; or On the Segregation of the Queen; Laurie
If you really like Sherlock Holmes, you should read this charming book. A 15 year old, American, orphan girl, living in Suffolk, England, in Victorian times, finds her neighbor to be Sherlock Holmes (now retired to beekeeping as Holmes afficianados will recall). She has a blazing intellect, and amateur deductive powers on a par with Holmes. She becomes his apprentice. There are the required mysteries; but the story is also about a girl growing up, and it is a good one.
In the Hands of Providence: Joshua Chamberlain & the American Civil
War; Alice Rains Trulock;
1992; The University of North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill; 569 p
An impressive, minutely researched, well written biography of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Maine professor of English, who was, arguably, the most impressive soldier that America has ever produced -- as well as being one of the nicest people you will ever read about: a compassionate man of principle, integrity, and honor. Chamberlain's men essentially won the battle of Gettysburg by an attack that preserved Round Top for the Union. (without detracting in the least from Chamberlain and his 20th Maine, it must be observed, as Chamberlain related after the war, that they were there, in the right place, on the high ground, because his commanding officer, Col. Strong Vincent, saw the situation, and made an instant command decision to send Chamberlain there.) Chamberlain was the officer designated by Grant to oversee the surrender of Lee at Appomatox, and was responsible for that wonderful moment when the Union troops, in ranks arrayed, by order of a bugle call presented a military salute of honor to the defeated Confederate troops as they trooped by in surrender. A really class act that made him one of my few heros -- even before I learned (in this book) of all the other remarkable things that this Medal-of-Honor winner did in his career.
Park Lane South, Queens; Mary Anne Kelly
This is a different, and engrossing story. I started to use the adjectives "mystery" and "murder", and they would have been correct; but the story is more than that. It is the story of Claire, a photographer, who has returned to her mother, father, and siblings, in Queens, after years abroad; of her family, a large, diverse, Irish one; of her struggles to adapt to her new location, and her family; and the impact on her, and her family, of the killings of children in nearby woods. It is NOT your usual murder/mystery story. It is a good story.
Foxglove; Mary Anne Kelly
A sequel to "Park Lane South" (see above). Just as fascinating as the first, and a great sequel -- most sequels are NOT! Read the first one first.
Fine Lines; Jim Lehrer
This is the sixth "mystery" novel that Lehrer has written about "One Eyed Mack," the Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma. It is not quite as good as some of the others. Lehrer has wicked comments about politicians in these gently satiric novels, but he likes Mack. And you will too -- regardless of which of the books you start with. I suggest "Kick the Can", the first one. Some of the earlier ones compete for best, but they are all worth reading.
Miami, It's Murder; Edna Buchanan
Buchanan was (maybe still is) a famous police-beat reporter in Miami. One novel ago she created an alter- ego: Cuban-American Britt Montero, a police-beat reporter in Miami (where else?), and wrote a good mystery story starring Montero. This is her second, and it is a good one, although the reader will probably see the ending before Britt does.
Bad Love; Jonathan Kellerman
Kellerman, a former child psychologist, keeps writing spell-binding mystery/suspense novels starring Alex Delaware -- a child psychologist of course. His stories are super-suspenseful, well-told yarns about the twisted minds of some really shocking evil-doers, and about the complex interactions of normal people, and about how the two worlds interact. Always powerful, compelling novels. Sometimes very disturbing. This one is all of the above.
On Dangerous Ground; Jack Higgins
Every thriller that Higgens has written has been a best seller; and I expect this one will be the same. It is a good read, but not as quite as good as some of his others. It is another adventure starring Sean Dillon, an over- achieving former terrorist, now working for Brigadier Charles Ferguson, whose job it is to do secret stuff for the Prime Minister of England. Higgens, no mean over-achiever himself, tells great yarns, and one suspects that super- hero Dillon may be a bit of Higgins' secret fantasy. Very good one of the standard thriller type.
The Monkey King; Timothy Mo
This is Timothy Mo's first book -- a prestigious prize winner (two, actually). In keeping with my routine avoidance of prize winning books, I skipped this one in the early eighties. For complicated reasons -- including the machinations of the fabled BUT REAL Library Angel -- I finally picked this up to read. It is a portrait of life in Hong Kong and the Territories in the early fifties. The life is not that of English or American characters; it is that of Wallace Nolasco ( from Macao, and thus "Portugese" by name, lineage, and Hong Kong classification, but with generations of female orientals in the blood line); his wife May Ling; and his father-in- law's household where Wallace and his wife live. As I was reading this I suddenly found myself wondering why on earth I was reading about the daily travails of people who were speaking fractured English, living in a 40- years-ago culture completely foreign to me, with a male protagonist who was at the bottom of the pecking order in the household! I persisted -- and I'm glad I did. Gradually the strange customs grew on me, the people became real, and Wallace, like the legendary Chinese Monkey King, Sun Wu Kung, manages to extricate himself from trouble and come out on top. I found it a delightful story -- after a while! My good wife did not like it; noting it was unlike any other story she had ever read.
Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery; by CLASSICAL
KIDS [a compact disk] *
This is a story -- but not a book! It is a CD: 06847-8423-2, on the CLASSICAL KID's label. It is also available as a tape. By chance I heard this on a local classical radio program, and I was enthralled. I immediately went out and bought it (for our newest granddaughter to hear, some years in the future). It is a beautifully presented, charming, sentimental fantasy, mostly narrated in the first person, but with the other characters speaking; and the tale is masterfully interwoven with the wonderful music of Vivaldi. Against the musical background of the initial adagio of "Spring" from The Four Seasons concertos, the story begins with an adult woman recalling her arrival in Venice, alone, as a young girl. I guarantee the listener will be hooked within two minutes, and brought up with a shock when the gondolier comments on the young girl's destination. (The real person, Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest, was in fact at the destination that the narrator in the story was headed for). The fantasy is certainly not without weakness in the plot, and improbabilities in the action, and the ending becomes clear early to the adult listener; but that did seem to matter much to this adult -- and I suspect it will not matter at all for any young female who is fortunate enough to hear it. I THINK she should be about 8/9/10 ? -- I really do not know. A parent should listen and decide. But get it for her to hear -- and I'll bet it will be more than once. With luck, she'll come to love Vivaldi -- which is the whole idea of CLASSICAL KIDS! [there are other wonderful titles too e.g. Beethoven Lives Upstairs, Mr. Bach Comes to Call.]
The Hubble Wars; Astrophysics Meets Astropolitics in the Two-Billion-Dollar
Struggle Over the Hubble Space Telescope;
Eric J. Chaisson
Chaisson has an appointment at Tufts in Physics, Astronomy, and Education (it is the latter that is dear to his heart), was part of the Space Telescope Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, and kept detailed notes of his involvement with the Hubble project. This book is an interesting one, but the reader will not be surprised at feeling that it is an "I told you so" recreation of how the author was right, and many other scientists and NASA were wrong; how most scientists were right, and engineers were wrong, except for some scientists who were as wrong as the engineers (the latter scientists were not, of course, at the Space Institute, because all of the latter were almost always right); how the media were mostly wrong when they maligned the science, but mostly right when they maligned NASA; how the Hubble telescope really was able to do marvelous scientific things that NASA did not understand for a long time, and which the media never did understand. It is a highly self- serving book. Much of it may be objectively correct, but the holier-than- them attitude predisposes the reader to be skeptical. And when I read an incorrect analysis of why taking pictures of the earth from space gives better resolution than taking pictures of space from earth (atmospheric optics used to be my business at one time)-- I became even more uncertain . However, his technical analysis of why NASA should not be allowed to build the space station is right-on, according to my prejudiced point of view; but it takes him until the last page to realize that the Hubble telescope and the Space Station are really public works projects -- a matter-of-fact point of view shockingly revealed to him by the pragmatic Barbara Mikulski! Contrast this book with Smith's account of the project. And by the way: Hubble cost a LOT more than two billion!
The Good Companions; J.B.
Amazing. In 74 years, after reading thousands of books, I had never read anything by Priestly (this Priestly). Then, through the usual mysterious workings of the Library Angel, I picked up this 1929 tale, and read it. And enjoyed it very much. It has several appeals to this old man: it is a sentimental tale of people breaking out of stultifying life patterns; it has a high nostalgia level; it is about the establishment of what one modern manager has called a "hunting team" - a group (about ten people) with an established goal, whose members trust and depend on each other, and who work fiercely toward the goal; it involves very nice people; and it has a happy ending. What else could I ask for? The Good Companions is in fact a group of English players (musical; actually pierrots), and the story tells of how the group came to be, who was involved, and what the group did. It is a leisurely, meandering tale about people -- with little plot; all the better to read slowly and enjoy. I did.
The Sword of Shannara; Terry Brooks
At the end of the seventies, Brooks quit his mundane way of earning a living, and took to writing fantasy. This was his first book. It is a sword- and- sorcery fantasy, set in the distant future on Earth. Actually the time and location have nothing (much) to do with the matter. The world is (de rigour) medieval in nature, populated by men (and women), elves, dwarves, gnomes, Druids, sorcery, and EVIL. The book is a quest tale: a small group of uncertain stalwarts, is convinced (coerced?) by a mighty wizard to undertake a dangerous quest to find a lost magical sword, and use it to conquer a terrible collection of evil creatures by destroying the EVIL honcho. If they are not successful, Evil will conquer the world. This of course is your standard sword-and-sorcery quest yarn. As you might expect, the little band of amateurs is successful. This story led to the next: The Elfstones of Shannara, and then The Wishsong of Shannara. The story is basically the same in each, albeit the time is a little later in each, the characters are different (but related), and the EVIL is different. Evil seems to be really hard to stamp out in these tales as, in fact, it is today! Later, Brooks wrote another trilogy, collectively known as The Heritage of Shannara. These stories are essentially the same as the first trio -- except each of these focuses on a different questor, all working at the same time to get a crucial piece of the magical solution needed to exterminate the current Evil. Brooks is a GOOD story teller. It is just that after a while the reader gets somewhat numbed by the repetition. The genre is simply too limited. Mind you, I like this stuff, and I have read all of the six books. But you really can overdose on the stuff. If you read them -- SPREAD IT OUT!