Friday, February 28, 2020

A New Challenge: Reading all the Edgar Nominees for Best Novel before April 30, 2020

The Edgar Awards will be presented this year on April 30. My favorite category is the award for Best Novel. Typically, all the books that are nominated for an Edgar in this category are enjoyable to mystery fans, but of course there can only be one winner. So, in the manner of the Academy Awards for movies, I'm going to read all five nominees before April 30 in an effort to anticipate who that winner might be.

Reading all five books within this timeline is a bit easier for me as I've already read two: Peter Heller's The River and Elly Griffiths's The Stranger Diaries. The remaining three are Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland, Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham, and Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee.

Smoke and Ashes is the third book in a series. Although I am a wee bit disappointed that I won't be reading these books in order, sometimes sacrifices must be made.

If you've read any of these books, or are up for joining me in reading all five by April 30, give a shout out in the comments.

Relaxing when you should be reading: A Dramatization.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Epidemics! Pandemics! Read all about it!

Looking for another topic of concern that can race through your brain at three in the morning, robbing you of sleep and roiling your stomach? Well, with the spread of coronavirus, the loud and angry voices of the anti-science crowd, a President and Republican Party that don't believe in government and public health, it seems like a pretty good time to get worried about a global pandemic.

And while worrying is a given in this day-and-age, there are also smart and interesting books that help us understand what is going on with respect to global health threats. Here are a few titles that have been recommended to me on the topic of viruses - where it goes and how it flows - and the biology and politics of it all.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen: Author David Quammen tackles the subject of the movement of viruses from wildlife to humans.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry. Mr. Barry looks at how biology and politics combined to result in the 1918 Influenza.

Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola, and Beyond by Sonia Shah. Sonia Shah examines the dangers of pathogens by examining the spread of cholera.

And on the fiction side of things:

Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel: In this novel, a virus takes off, an apocalypse occurs, and the world as we know it falls apart.

The Earth Abides by George R. Stuart: Originally published in 1949, this classic novel is about a global pandemic that wipes out all most all of humankind. How will the few survivors fare?

And from the fiction that I have read and highly recommend:

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: A flu pandemic wipes out a man's family. With his dog by his side, he seeks to find what is left in the world. I love this novel. You might, too. If you've read The Dog Stars, share your thoughts about the book in the comment section. If you haven't read it, please try it out.

Global pandemic, illustrated.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Put the American West in Your TBR Pile: An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson and Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

I'm behind on reading Craig Johnson's mystery series featuring Walt Longmire. I recently finished An Obvious Fact featuring the Wyoming sheriff and his good friend Henry Standing Bear. It was an entertaining story with the wit and action we expect in this series. But still out there to be read are The Western Star (2017), Depth of Winter (2018), Land of Wolves (2019). Boy-howdy! Some good options ahead for books.

Another interesting series set in the west came to my attention recently when I read Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson. This time the action is set during the California gold rush. I have no idea how this YA book ended up in my to-be-read pile, but I'm so glad it did; it was very engaging.

The protagonist in Walk on Earth a Stranger is a young woman, Leah, who can sense where gold is located - whether it is in someone's pocket or a nugget in a stream. This is a useful, and dangerous, talent. After a horrible disaster hits her family, she disguises herself as a young man and joins a wagon train traveling to California. There are lots of adventures - most of them dangerous - along the way. How Leah manages to survive is exciting to read. This is the first book in a series and I am looking forward to reading more of the Gold Seer Trilogy, including Like a River Glorious and Into the Bright Unknown.

There is a lot of reading pleasure in a good series of books. If you've taken a flyer on something off the latest bestseller list and find that it just isn't clicking, turning to an enjoyable series is a great option. And there is lots of entertainment in the Craig Johnson series, or with Rae Carson if you are interested in YA reads. Read on!

An Arizona sunset to inspire your reading.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Four (and more) for February 2020

On the road into 2020.

Sometime at the end of 2019, I saw an interview with NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers in which Rogers said that he was setting a resolution to read more books in 2020. 'Hell fire,' I thought, 'If a busy guy like the Green Bay Packers star is setting an intention to read more, than I can set an intention to read more - and blog about it.'

So, let's go!

Four books have caught my attention for February 2020. The first is The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. I'm a fan of Larson, starting with the first of his books that I read, The Devil in the White City (nonfiction account of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and a serial killer at large).

In his new book, Larson looks at Winston Churchill and London during the blitz, the bombing campaign waged against England by Hitler. Having just finished reading A Woman of No Importance, I'm in the mood for another nonfiction read about World War II. Stories of real people acting heroically are inspiring. (Actually, I may do this book as an audio book. Is that cutting corners? Nah.)

Second on my list for February is Weather by Jenny Offill. Based upon the summaries of the plot, I'm anticipating that this novel is one that is read more for the unique literary experience than for the hard-charging plot. The story is about a librarian named Lizzie. Lizzie's mentor, Sylvia, is a national expert on climate change. Sylvia is fed up with her fans and wants Lizzie to take over answering her mail. Lizzie does so. According to Kirkus Reviews, the ensuing "tension between mundane daily concerns and looming apocalypse, the "weather" of our days both real and metaphorical, is perfectly captured in Offill's brief, elegant paragraphs, filled with insight and humor."

On third base, as it were, is The Cactus League by Emily Nemens. Set in Arizona during spring training, this novel is about a baseball team and its star outfielder, handsome and talented Jason Goodyear - who is falling apart. I'm a baseball fan and since players will soon start reporting, this book sounds like it may be a good warm-up to the season.

Note also that if you want are interested in more books with a baseball hook, check out The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Also, author Steve Hamilton has a good mystery series featuring Alex McKnight, a former minor league baseball player and former Detroit cop, who moves to Michigan's Upper Peninsula where he occasionally works as a private eye and always finds trouble. This is a very entertaining series; I suggest reading the books in order, starting with A Cold Day in Paradise which won Hamilton both an Edgar and Shamus award.

Moving along from baseball, the last book in this list of four for February is The Man in the Red Coat by Julian Barnes. This historical biography interests me a great deal because I'm a huge fan of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925). One of Sargent's most famous portraits is of Samuel-Jean Pozzi, entitled Dr. Pozzi at Home. The huge painting (about 80" by 40"), is a dramatic, full length portrait in which Pozzi appears standing in a red dressing gown. In The Man in the Red Coat, Barnes writes about Pozzi's life in Paris during the period at the end of the 1800s to before the beginning of World War I, know as the Belle Époque or beautiful era. John Singer Sargent fans may also enjoy reading Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis, which is another nonfiction read about Sargent and one of his most famous, and at the time scandalous, portraits.

To conclude, if Aaron Rodgers and I were chatting right now, here is what I'd recommend to him for February reading: 1) A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton (good entertainment), 2) The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (engaging nonfiction), and 3) The Cactus League by Emily Nemens (new fiction for 2020).

For me, I'm starting with The Man in the Red Coat.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Recommended Reading: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance is Sonia Purnell's biography of Virginia Hall, an American who was an extraordinary spy in Vichy France for Britain, and then later for the US, during World War II. Purnell tells Hall's story with verve, suspense, and in detail that is engaging.

During the war, Hall built a network in France that provided information and resources needed to construct an effective resistance to the Germans and their collaborators and also provided critical intelligence to Britain and the US. Everything she accomplished was done while living with unrelenting tension, danger, and even maddening, bureaucratic nonsense. In addition to learning about Hall's story, which is fascinating, reading about the horrifying acts committed during the war is again shocking and an important reminder that today we cannot take our rights for granted.

This true story of the enormous influence exerted by one woman with tremendous personal courage is a great book to read in these times.

Be inspired. Check out A Woman of No Importance.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Three Evangelists Books by Fred Vargas

French author Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, who uses the pen name Fred Vargas, has been writing novels since the 1990s, but her work is new to me. During the many, many, many rainy days of April, I worked my way through a series of her books: The Three Evangelists, Dog Will Have His Day, and The Accordionist. I began with The Accordionist, the third book of this particular series, because it was shorted listed for the 2018 CWA International Dagger Award. That recognition from the Crime Writers Association was warranted as The Accordionist was a highly entertaining read.

Like all the books in this series, The Accordionist is set in Paris. Two women are murdered. The police suspect a young man, an accordionist named Clément, who was seen outside their respective apartments prior to the killings. Clément flees to the only person he knows in Paris, old Marthe, who for a time was a mother figure in his turbulent childhood. Marthe, a former prostitute, in turn calls upon her friend for help, ex-special investigator Louis Kehlweiler. And so the investigation begins.

Kehlweiler seeks assistance on the case from three friends, history scholars who share a home. These three are the evangelists first introduced in book one, The Three Evangelists (and which won the 2006 CWA International Dagger Award). Reading these books in order is not absolutely necessary, but it will help make more sense out of The Accordionist  and the relationship between all the characters.

This is an interesting series of mysteries, with The Accordionist being the best of the bunch, in my opinion. The books have somewhat of a gritty atmosphere, the characters are unique and the stories are engaging with unforeseen twists and turns. Perfect reading for rainy days.

Monday, May 6, 2019

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley (The Flavia de Luce Mysteries)

Are you a fan of the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley? The series started out with a bang with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009). Since then it's been a mixed bag for me, some enjoyable and some not as much. Despite this inconsistency, I persist with this series.

These books are set in 1950s England.  Flavia, the pre-teen protagonist, is a budding scientist living in a crumbling family estate with her two older sisters and widowed father. Flavia's mad chemistry skills and flare for detection get her involved in solving the various murders that occur in her village of Bishop's Lacey. The vibe in the books is, on the one hand, familiar for fans of Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes and, on the other hand, fresh with these characters and their interest in science, literature and music.

The most recent addition to the series is The Golden Tresses of the Dead, and it is an entertaining book. In this outing, the game is afoot when a finger is found in a wedding cake - much to the bride's horror. With good atmosphere and lots of twists and turns, this is a fun read. Fans of Flavia should greatly enjoy it.

Because so much has changed in Flavia's life over the course of this series, readers new to it would, I think, be wise to start from the beginning. Have a book-reading binge! As Ben Dolnick wrote in the NYT recently:

[T]he mind — for all its endless rationalizations and solemn prohibitions — is in fact a ceaseless pleasure hound. Once I’m actually enjoying a book, it really does feel as if the pages are turning themselves; I find myself reading in all the little pockets of time that were once reserved for the serious business of checking to see if my dishwasher pods have shipped.

And pleasure is, after all — once I scrape away the layers of self-image and pretentiousness — the reason that I read. When I’ve found the right book, and I’m reading it the right way, reading is fun — head-tingling, goosebump-raising fun. It’s a vivid and continuous dream that is somehow both directed from without and cast from within, and I get to be awake for it. Netflix can wait.
Ben Dolnick, The New York Times, May 4, 2019

Check out Flavia. Binge on some books and enjoy!