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 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!

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Power of Reading: Earth Day, Sports, Mueller.

In 1962 Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was published. Her book detailing the poisonous effects of pesticides on our natural world ignited public concern and helped launched an environmental movement that led to Earth Day and legislative efforts at stopping the polluting and poisoning of our world.

Decades later, pesticides are, sadly, still a problem (e.g., Pesticides Are Harming Bees in Literally Every Way Possible, by Liza Gross, Wired, 1/24/2019). But think about the work and courage behind Rachel Carson's book and its impact on all who read it; where might we be now if she hadn't acted?

The power and influence of books is amazing, and that power is influential not just in the broad world with works like Silent Spring or, say, the Mueller Report ("[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President [Trump] clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment." Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, Vol. II, p. 182). Books connect with individuals, too. For example, this interesting story came from soccer star Abby Wambach in an interview that appeared in the NYT Book Review yesterday:
I never read as a child. I was confident on the field, but I was lost in the classroom . . . Although, it is true that I found my way to soccer because of a book. My sister Beth told my mom she wanted to learn to play soccer so my mom went to the library and checked out a book called "How to Play Soccer." Our family read it, signed us all up for teams, and I scored 27 goals in my first three games. I guess I do owe it all to books.
The New York Times Book Review, p. 7, April 21, 2019.

What a great story: Mom gets a library book and the potential for her daughter's fabulous career is unlocked.

Reading and writing are powerful tools. Enjoy the magic!

Monday, March 18, 2019

New Louise Penny Book Coming in Late Summer

Mark you calendars fans of Chief Inspector Gamache (that includes me): A new book in this series will be published in August. The novel is called A Better Man and will be released August 27, perfect for Labor Day weekend reading.