Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review of "The Liar in the Library: A Fethering Mystery" by Simon Brett

Jude Nicholls and Carole Seddon are friends who live next door to each other in the English seaside village of Fethering. Jude - who's a hippyish free spirit - works as a healer and Carole - who's a bit starchy - is a retired civil servant who worked for the Home Office. Jude and Carole are local amateur sleuths who enjoy solving murders and drinking glasses of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Carole also likes to spend time with her young granddaughters, Lily and Chloe.

As this 18th book in the series opens, Jude is attending an 'Author's Evening' at the Fethering Public Library. The speaker is Burton St. Clair, author of a recent bestseller called 'Stray Leaves in Autumn' - a literary romance. As it happens Jude knew the writer many years ago when he was married to her friend Megan and his name was plain old Albert Sinclair. At that time, the writer penned unsuccessful crime novels.

In the question and answer session after St. Clair's talk it's clear that some of the evening's attendees have issues with the author - either resenting his success or considering him a phony. Moreover, St. Clair is one of those guys who'll grope any woman within reach. When St. Clair offers Jude a ride home, he gets handsy.....and she slaps his face and walks off. The next day, Jude gets a visit from the local police - St. Clair was found dead in his car, which is still in the library parking lot.

It turns out St. Clair had a walnut allergy and died from anaphylactic shock. Moreover, when the police detectives speak to the writer's ex-wife Megan, she tells them that Jude had an affair with St. Clair - which broke up their marriage - and that Jude knew all about his walnut allergy. Jude denies ALL of this, but she still becomes the prime suspect for St. Clair's murder.

When Jude starts to investigate St. Clair's killing in an attempt to clear her name, she's warned off by the cops. So Jude gets Carole to take over the inquiries. Jude and Carole discuss the possible suspects (over glasses of wine) and think of several people who might have wanted to get rid of St. Clair, including: his ex-wife; his current wife; a failed science fiction writer; women he harassed; and more. In fact the sleuths discover many local people who knew St. Clair in the past, and might not have wished him well. Eventually Jude gets back on the case, and the friends work together to solve the crime.

One of the most amusing characters in the story is Professor Nessa Perks, an expert in 'golden age mysteries.' Perks believes she can solve real crimes by comparing them to her beloved vintage detective stories, and thinks the cops should solicit her help. Perks will tell anyone within earshot about her theories, which - for St. Clair's murder - include the following scenarios: WKH (wife kills husband) or MKL (mistress kills lover) or WAMKH (wife and mistress kill husband). Ha ha ha.

Another interesting character is poet Nemone Coote, who - when chatting with Jude - drops the humorous names of her self-published poems and collections, such as Divergent Parallels and A Partridge in a Parent.....none of which Jude has read (or heard of).

Several characters discuss problems associated with library funding, xenophobia among Fethering's residents, and alcohol/drug abuse - which are real life problems in many communities today. So that feels very current.

The Liar in the Library is a simple cozy with no huge complications or plot twists. Actually, it feels like the author didn't expend much energy on the book, which is a shame.....because it's been a decent series. Still, the book is okay for an afternoon's light reading, with well-known characters that are fun.

Though the book is part of a series, it can be read as a standalone with no problems.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (Simon Brett) and the publisher (Crème de la Crime; First World Publication) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of "The Accursed" by Joyce Carol Oates

This book - a (pseudo) historical, supernatural, mystery horror story - is supposedly written by M.W. van Dyck, descendant of one of the most prominent families of Princeton, New Jersey. Claiming to have access to newly decoded journals and other materials available only to himself van Dyck unspools the story of the "Crosswicks Curse" that took a horrific toll on some wealthy, influential Princeton families in 1905 and 1906.

The first conspicuous manifestation of the curse occurs when pretty, young Annabel Slade absconds from her elaborate wedding immediately after exchanging marriage vows with handsome Lieutenant Dabney Bayard. The man she runs off with, Axson Mayte, is in town (purportedly) advising Woodrow Wilson - then President of Princeton University.

As Annabel's brother Josiah Slade, a Princeton graduate who can't quite seem to find his role in life, relentlessly pursues the runaways Annabel is trapped in a filthy, hidden castle called the 'Bog Kingdom' - where she's abused, starved, impregnated, and eventually reduced to the status of a slovenly cleaning woman alongside previous Mayte victims.

Mayte has no fixed appearance, looking tall and handsome to some and ugly and toadlike to others. Thus the wily Mayte is able to appear in different guises - including François D’Apthorp and Count English von Gneist - a great favorite with the snobby ladies of Princeton. Mayte is apparently able to exert a hypnotic effect on people, manipulating their thoughts and behavior.

Mayte's most amusing incarnation occurs when he appears as Sherlock Holmes to Pearce van Dyck (the narrator's father) who's convinced that Sherlock Holmes' "cases" - which he believes are real - hold the key to the mystery of the Curse. The elder van Dyck's compulsive analysis of the Curse using Holmes' work as a guide are the funniest parts of the book.

Soon after Annabel Slade disappears her pre-teen cousins Todd and Oriana Slade are also afflicted by the Curse as are other important Princeton families. Several husbands become obsessed with the notion that their wives are committing adultery, with unfortunate consequences and a woman decides that her newborn's 'deliberate misbehavior' requires a drastic solution.

Reverend Winslow Slade, who was previously President of Princton University and Governor of New Jersey is especially disturbed by the Curse because he's grandfather to Annabel, Josiah, Todd, and Oriana, as well as friend and counselor to other afflicted families. Moreover, the Reverend has a shameful secret that's haunted him for five decades.

The book is very long, incorporating a number of historic figures. These include grossly obese (former) President Grover Cleveland, who tries to jump out a window after seeing his daughter's ghost, but he's too fat to fit (ha ha ha); Jack London, famous author of adventure stories - who flaunts his mistress at a speaking engagement, then has a pub party and gets wildly drunk; Upton Sinclair, the painfully self-conscious author of "The Jungle" (which exposes the horrific practices of the meat industry) - who neglects his family and dreams of establishing a socialist colony in New Jersey; President Teddy Roosevelt, who invites the vegetarian Sinclair to an uncomfortable meat-filled lunch; and of course Woodrow Wilson - who has a plethora of health problems and an ongoing feud with Andrew Fleming West, Dean of Princeton's Graduate School. During the story Wilson, happily married with several daughters, also becomes victim to the Curse when he's bewitched by a beautiful woman.

True to the time period, many of the characters exhibit (what would now be considered) atrocious behavior including rampant racism, sexism, opposition to women's suffrage, disdain for immigrants, disregard for the suffering of the 'lower classes', and way too high an opinion of themselves.

By the end of the book the Curse has run it's course and the reader learns what it was all about in a satisfying conclusion. For me the book was overly long and spent too much time on ancillary characters like Jack London - whose speech to a socialist group and subsequent partying seemed to go on forever; and Upton Sinclair - whose personal life and socialist musings took up too many pages. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles about a book that's well-researched, well-written, and a rollicking good story.

I'd highly recommend the book to readers who enjoy Gothic literary fiction.

Rating: 4 stars

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of "The Child" by Fiona Barton

Like many print journalists in the internet age, Kate Waters - a reporter for the 'London Daily Post' - is anxious about her employment. The paper is slated to let some reporters go, and Kate - wanting job security - needs a good story to impress her boss. Hence, when Kate learns that an infant's bones were dug up at a London excavation site, she thinks it's just the ticket. Kate proceeds to investigate the incident, with an eye to publishing the identity of the child's mother and the circumstances surrounding the burial.

Kate's initial article about the tiny corpse strikes a chord with two women, former nurse Angela Irving and book editor Emma Simmonds.

Angela Irving gave birth to a baby girl, Alice, over forty years ago - but didn't get to take the infant home. The newborn was stolen from the hospital and never found. Angela, who still hasn't recovered from the loss, thinks the unearthed baby might be her child.

Emma Simmonds grew up on the street where the baby was found, and lived there until she was sixteen. News of the uncovered newborn makes Emma very anxious, but we don't learn why until later.

Most of the story is told from three rotating points of view: Kate, Angela, and Emma.

Kate, an experienced journalist with helpful police contacts, interviews both Angela and Emma - and gets on the inside track with both of them. Thus, when the cops compare Angela's DNA with the baby's DNA, Kate is one of the first to know the results. And when Emma decides to recount her story, she tells it to the reporter. The police aren't always happy about Kate's 'interference', but she actually helps their investigation.

Kate Waters was first introduced in Fiona Barton's previous novel, 'The Widow', in which she was a VERY aggressive journalist - who'd do anything to get her story. I found Kate to be overly abrasive in that novel, and didn't like her much.

In this book Kate is STILL pushy, but demonstrates some of her softer side - both at home and at work.....where she's mentoring a young reporter named Joe. Kate remains focused on getting scoops and writing juicy articles, but shows empathy for Angela and Emma. So that's good.

In Angela's narrative, we learn about her husband Nick and their two grown children, who find it difficult to deal with Angela's unquenchable grief. Angela is desperate for closure regarding Alice - even if it means learning that the child died a long time ago.

In Emma's story, we find out that she was a troubled girl who had a turbulent relationship with her mother Jude, an attorney. Jude raised Emma alone, and though Emma asked constantly, Jude wouldn't identify the father. This had unfortunate consequences.

Things got even worse when Jude's boyfriend, Will, moved in with them. Jude was forced to choose between her man and her daughter, and she chose Will - forcing 16-year-old Emma to move out. As a result, mother and daughter didn't speak for years.

Emma is married to an 'older man' - a college professor named Paul - who's very solicitous of her welfare. Emma loves Paul, but has kept a lot of secrets from him. For her part, Jude doesn't like Paul and would like to see her daughter split up with him. In fact Jude - who recounts some sections of the book - shows herself to be a callous, selfish woman who's desperate for a man. She's also a terrible mother (IMO).

As Kate and the police pursue their inquiries, big secrets are revealed - things that eventually pull all the threads of the story together in a very satisfying way. My major qualm with the book is a plot point that stretches credibility quite a bit - more than I'm comfortable with.

Overall, I enjoyed this suspenseful, well-written book, which has compelling characters and a page-turner storyline. I highly recommend the book to mystery lovers, who'll enjoy trying to puzzle out what's going on.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Review of "Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What's She's 'Learned' " by Lena Dunham

I listened to the audio version of this book (read by the author). I picked it up from the library because I think Lena Dunham is smart and talented and I like her TV show "Girls" - which is bold and clever. That said, there were parts of the book I liked and parts I didn't. For me Dunham describes too many sexual exploits that don't provide enlightenment about anything. She seems to be a free spirit in this realm but I don't need the details - and too many of her sexual interactions go badly and provide pictures I don't need in my head.

More interesting were the descriptions of Dunham's demons. She was a troubled child, fearful of everything. She disliked sleeping alone from childhood on - which eventually led to numerous sleeping companions, platonic and otherwise. Dunham was obsessed with death and felt compelled to spread the fear to everyone. She was disorganized, hid half-finished homework under her bed, and couldn't make friends. Her parents - a loving, caring couple - took her to analysts as needed and Dunham's closest relationship as a child/young adult was apparently with a professional who helped her complete assignments and cope with her life.

In the fifth grade Dunham's problems relating to peers led to a close relationship with her male teacher - a "friendship" that got too close and became slightly inappropriate. Dunham's irate mother descended on the school to straighten out the situation. Dunham more or less ends the story there (too bad, because I was curious to know more).

At one point Dunham had insufficiently safe sex with a bisexual guy who proceeded to tell her he'd recently slept with an AIDS patient. Being a hypochondriac anyway Dunham proceeded to live her life as an "AIDS victim" for months, until she got a clean bill of health. She also describes a few anxiety-filled summers at sleepaway camps, where her biggest (maybe only) triumph was diving off a cliff with the help of a counselor. There are plenty more such stories in the book.

Interspersed with the essay portions of the book are semi-humorous 'lists' of various kinds such as: things Dunham learned from her mother; things she learned from her father; e-mails she'd write if she had the nerve; things she was afraid of; etc.

Through all the stress and anxiety and crises however, Dunham seems to have recognized her gifts and talents. After a couple of mundane jobs perfomed poorly she learned to strive for and achieve success. Even this wasn't all good however. Dunham provides a disheartening description of "Hollywood Men" that glom onto successful women to enhance themselves.

I imagine Dunham will have plenty more to say about her life in the future, which might be interesting to read about. I'm be looking out for another memoir.

Rating: 3 stars

Monday, December 4, 2017

Review of "The Chalk Man" by C.J. Tudor

The book's narrator is 42-year-old Eddie (Ed) Adams, an unmarried English teacher who still lives in his childhood home in the English village of Anderbury. Lonely and longing for company, Ed has taken in a lodger - a pretty, twentysomething called Chloe who works at an alternative clothing shop in Boscombe.

As the story opens Ed is anxiously expecting a visit from his childhood friend, Metal Mickey, whom he hasn't seen in decades. Whatever Metal Mickey can't be good.

The story alternates back and forth between events that occurred thirty years ago, in 1986 and what's happening now, in 2016.


During the summer of 1986, twelve-year-old Eddie Adams had a little gang of friends that would meet to ride their bikes, visit each other's houses, go to the playground, traipse through the woods, and so on. The group included Eddie, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and a girl called Nicky. As the novel unfolds, we learn about each of these characters - their quirks, personalities, and home lives.

When the fair came to town that summer Eddie and his pals met on a Saturday, to attend the big event. That was the day 'everything stopped being normal.' Eddie - searching the fairgrounds for his lost wallet - happened to be nearby when the Waltzer ride snapped and threw a carriage. The flying metal sheared half the face off a pretty teenage girl, and almost severed her leg. Pressed into service by Mr. Halloran - a new teacher in town - Eddie helped save the girl's leg.....and life. From that moment on Eddie thought of the mutilated teen as 'Waltzer girl', and had a lasting bond with Mr. Halloran.

When Eddie was chatting with Mr. Halloran one day, the teacher - who liked to draw with pastels - described a game he played as a youth. He and his friends made up a secret code using 'chalk men', which they employed to leave covert messages for each other - like 'meet me at the park.' Eddie and his friends thought this was a nifty idea, and invented chalk men symbols to communicate with one another. Each kid had his/her own color, to identify the message writer.

This was all good fun until the day chalk men drawn in white, which was nobody's color, led the boys to the woods. There they found the body of a dead girl, dismbembered and scattered around. An Anderbury resident was blamed for the crime, but Eddie had doubts about the person's guilt.

Skip ahead to 2016, and Metal Mickey - during his visit with Ed - says he's writing a book about the girl's murder and wants Ed to help. When Ed seems reluctant, Metal Mickey throws in the clincher - he claims to know 'who really killed the girl.'

That's the backbone of the novel, but only part of the story, since there was (and is) a lot going on in Anderbury.

In 1986, for example, drama in Anderbury included: child abuse; bullying; an accidental drowning; anti-abortion protests; an unwanted pregnancy; a man being beaten senseless; a pet tragedy; inappropriate romances; a suicide; and Eddie talking to ghosts. During that year Metal Mickey distanced himself from the gang and - later on - a car accident made the estrangement permanent.

In 2016 things are pretty quiet in Ed's life, though he drinks and smokes too much. Ed's sedate existence changes, however, when he and his friends receive envelopes containing a stick of chalk and a chalk man drawing. These mailings are followed by Metal Mickey's visit - which leads to another death.

By the end of the book, all the story's mysteries are resolved (well.....maybe not the ghosts), and Waltzer girl's story comes full circle.

The characters in the book are three-dimensional and interesting, and the story is well-crafted and engaging. There are clever surprises that aren't over-the-top, which I appreciate. (Hyperbolic revelations at the climax of thrillers seem to be very popular lately).

All in all, this is an enjoyable psychological thriller that I'd recommend to fans of the genre.

Thanks to Netgalley, the author (C.J. Tudor) and the publisher (Crown) for a copy of the book.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Review of "Take One With You" by Oak Anderson

Charlie and Sarah, two teens saddened by the loss of supportive parents and unhappy in their homes, anonymously develop a website called "Take One With You" (Towy). Towy encourages people who are going to kill themselves anyway to first kill a criminal or dreg of society who has evaded conviction (e.g. rapist, murderer, pedophile, etc.). Charlie and Sarah go so far as to publish the names of candidates to be taken out. The idea catches on and pretty soon a rash of people all over the world are 'taking one with them.' 

Unfortunately for Sarah and Charlie the Towy idea soon expands out of control and people start taking out more than 'deserving' criminals,' but the teens are powerless to stop the monster they've created. Before long a police task force is assembled to track down the creators of the website, including Detective Thane Parks and Officer Anita Hellstrom. 

In the course of the story the teens develop romantic feelings for each other as do the two cops. I thought it was unrealistic that married Officer Hellstrom would quickly fall for loutish, chauvinistic, unlikable Detective Parks who seems to view all women as sex objects - so this romance fell flat for me.

Oak Anderson does a nice job interspersing his narrative with news reports, scripts from television interviews, government records, and so on - which adds interest to the story. The author provides thumbnail sketches of 'bad guys' who deserve to die and 'good guys' who take them out which helps us understand why a website like Towy would catch on.

Overall I enjoyed the book and would probably read more from this author.

Rating: 3 stars

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review of "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

In this sci-fi book Earth is at war with the "Buggers" an insect-like alien species that has attacked Earth several times. Ender Wiggins is a brilliant six-year-old boy with a sadistic older brother Peter, a loving sister Valentine, and parents embarrassed to have three children in a society where two is the norm.

Ender is given the opportunity to attend Battle Academy, a space-based school where children are groomed to be military officers in the war against the Buggers. Though Academy students must leave Earth and their families for many years Ender decides to go. The commanders of the Academy believe Ender might be "the one" who can defeat the Buggers and purposely make his training very difficult. Even when Ender is the target of jealous bullies he is left to handle his problems by himself in the hopes of shaping Ender into a superior self-reliant officer.

Most of the book describes Ender's training at Battle Academy where combat strategies in zero gravity are learned. Ender is a good student and even helps train his friends, all of which leads to a strong militia. Any more description would contain spoilers so I'll just say the story has some interesting characters and a few surprises.

For me the repetitive scenes of battle training got a bit old but I think a lot of people would like this book. There's also a movie adaptation.

Rating: 3 stars