Monday, November 30, 2015

The Visitors

I am woefully behind on posting books that I have read, but need to get this one back to the library pronto so will start here. This is the BBC (Biblioholics Book Club) selection for December by Sally Beauman (journalist and author of Rebecca's Tale). It is a historical novel for the most part, although part of it is also set in more contemporary times. The major historical focus of the book is the period around the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923. Just prior to that, our narrator, Lucy, is taken as a young girl to Egypt by a governess, following the death of her mother. She herself is still recovering from the typhoid fever that was fatal to her mother. There she meets Frances, daughter of the American archaeologist Herbert Winlock, and, though somewhat younger than Lucy, the girls form a deep friendship that lasts until Frances's untimely death in her early 20's from TB.
This is a very detailed and gritty portrayal of the major players working in the Valley of the Kings in that decade, notably Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon from England and the archaeologsits from the Met in New York. There were rumors of some shady activities surrounding the opening of Tut's tomb and these were later borne out by documentary evidence in letters and diaries.
The other significant settings and events are a few chapters detailing the death of Frances who disappeared from Lucy's life for a couple of years while she was secreted away in Saranac Lake, NY, a haven for those suffering from TB. The cold clean air was thought to be restorative and shortly before she dies, she contacts Lucy and asks her to come. People hid the fact that someone had TB since it was contagious and carried social stigma. Lucy was able to reconnect with her friend for her few last weeks.
Then there is the contemporary setting of Lucy's house in London, where she is recalling all these events at the prompting of Mr. Fong, who is making a documentary about the discovery of Tut's tomb. Lucy is now in her 90's. She is still friends with one other woman she met as a girl in Egypt, Rose. Rose's younger brother Peter briefly became Lucy's lover at the beginning of WWII before he he was killed, and their baby died. So there are a lot of ghosts in Lucy's life.
The settings are colorfully portrayed and Beauman has scoured historical documents to make the historical people and events as accurate as possible. However, I find Lucy to be a less than compelling character and the book felt slow at times. Nevertheless, I learned a lot--about the discovery of Tut's tomb and the role of Lake Saranac--and that is always satisfying.
See this somewhat more cogent and pointed review in The Guardian or this one from Kirkus

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

This account of the Dust Bowl epoch in the southern great plains by Timothy Egan certainly does make clear what a horrendous loss of lives and property occurred in the "dirty thirties." Tim Egan recently gave an "Author! Author!" talk here in Bend (through our public library) to discuss his book about Edward Curtis. Because his talk was focused on that book, he did not answer questions about his other works. I recently read and posted on Breaking Blue, another historical narrative.
I grew up in Oklahoma until I was 15 so had certainly heard about the Dust Bowl and the migration of "Okies" to California. Egan attempted to personalize these events by interviewing survivors, drawing from diaries, newspaper accounts, and government documentation. The scale of the disaster, caused largely by human behavior really was staggering--millions of tons of dust was blown away. In the process, people died of "dust pneumonia," lost their crops, livestock, land, and way of life. Egan does a good job of painting the plains as the home of bison and Indians, with grasslands that held down the dirt for thousands of years of human habitation. But then came the wholesale slaughter of the bison to deprive the natives of their food source, followed by ranchers who fenced the land, and finally--fatally--by farmers who tore up the grass to plant wheat. So that when the drought came, as they historically always do, and the crops died, there was nothing holding the earth in place. Even when people could get small crops to grow, the hordes of grasshoppers ate everything down to the ground.
The facts and figures are consistently astounding. And a few characters emerge as memorable. But largely I found this book tried to do too much, talk to too many people, and portray too many stories to make it a compelling read. It felt choppy and slow, with frequent shifts in the locale and time frame of the narrative. Egan may well have had his journalistic reasons for such choices, but I have not enjoyed reading his books, unlike those of Erik Larson, who does basically the same genre. Nevertheless, Egan won a National Book Award (2006) for this tome, so it's just my opinion. More detail and positive reviews at Kirkus and the New York Times.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Fifth Witness

I really like this series by Michael Connelly featuring itinerant lawyer, Mickey Haller (aka The Lincoln Lawyer). Fifth Witness is the 4th major book for this character series--there are posts for 4 other books in the series (Lincoln Lawyer, The Brass VerdictThe Reversal, The Gods of Guilt). Crime has been slow during the Great Recession (as it came to be known) and Mickey has put himself in the business of helping those whose homes are being foreclosed. There are plenty of clients, some more legitimately victims than others, and then there is Lisa. She is always inserting herself in Mickey's efforts to keep the bank from foreclosing on the house where she is living with her son. When the head of the mortgage department at the bank is murdered, Lisa is arrested. Mickey is convinced that she is being railroaded by the police department, and also that the whole thing may have been a set up by the CEO of the company that contracts with the bank to do foreclosures. It appears he has ties to organized crime and does not want that disclosed in an upcoming merger with a public company that will bring him millions of dollars. There is the usual push to get his client off with whatever strategies work--discrediting witnesses, creating a "straw man" to put reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors, and always trying to stay at least one step ahead of the prosecution. Mickey and ex-wife Maggie continue to dance an approach-avoidance two-step that is complicated by their mutual love for teenage daughter., Hayley. Maggie, as a prosecutor for the county, still considers Mickey's tactics reprehensible. Even his new associate, fresh out of a department store law program, has her doubts. But Mickey wears his blinders so he can live with himself and defend his clients to the best of his ability. In this case, the enemies may be much closer than he thinks.

The Screaming Staircase

Now there's a title that makes you want to run right out and read the book, right?! This is another fun YA book from Jonathan Stroud. I read the Bartimaeus Trilogy a long time back so when I saw this new series--Lockwood & Co-- in e-book format, I grabbed it.
The Problems have come to England--an excess of ghosts of varying levels of malevolence generally causing the shape of life to change. No one goes out after dark--except the children who are still able to sense the ghosts by sound or sight. They are on the defensive front line and Lucy Carlyle, having left her small village agency which just lost 3 agents, has come to London and joined Lockwood & Co. This is London's smallest ghost fighting group--only Lockwood, George, and now Lucy--and the only one without an adult supervisor. They are getting on OK until they accidentally burn down a house while fighting a surprisingly strong ghost. They are being sued and stand to lose the entire business until a new client makes them an offer they can't refuse.
But the murder they uncovered in the fire-related haunting has sinister ties to this new client, whose motives may not be simply to rid his country estate of terrifying spirits. These books are just a kick to read if you enjoy YA and the supernatural. Dive in, and don't forget your rapier, salt bombs and chains to keep the ghosts from getting too close! The e-book also provided a glossary of ghost types and the weapons used to fight them :-)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ming Tea Murder

I really love this "Tea Shop Mystery" series by Laura Childs. They are like English cozies set in modern day Charleston, S. Carolina. Childs does such a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of the city, which operates in many ways like a village with gossip and deceit and...of course, murder most foul. This time  the murder occurs at the museum where Theodosia's boyfriend Max is the Publicity Director. It is an invitation only gala to celebrate the museum's purchase of a genuine Chinese tea house from Shanghai, which was purchased in large part through the donations of one particular board member, Roger Webster. He is also the murder victim. In between trying to solve the murder and run her tea shop, Theo is also running in a 5K with her mixed breed dog, Earl Grey, taking over the chairwoman's duties a big Halloween party in the historic district to help out the victim's widow, Charlotte, and setting up a booth at the charity craft market to help out the local service dog organization. Oh, yes and tea shop is hosting several themed "tea's" to celebrate the Halloween holidays and a funeral luncheon.
To complicate matters even more, Max gets fired from his job--the sleazy museum director needs a scapegoat, apparently. On the other hand, perhaps those who seem to be in Max's camp aren't exactly to be trusted either.
Lots of tasty meals are served up at Indigo Tea Shop, all accompanied by tasty tea's, with recipes offered at the end of the book. These books are such a treat on so many levels, and there are a hefty number of them to choose from...this is the 16th in the series! See also my posts on Blood Orange Brewing and Oolong Dead.

Two for Sorrow

This is actually the 3rd in the Josephine Tey series by Nicola Upson, but our library let me down by not having the 2nd in the series, Angel with Two Faces. I am having a bit of a time trying to figure out how to use my iPad mini to write and post this blog, but here goes. BTW there is already a post for the first book by Upson, An Expert in Murder.
Josephine is back in London staying quietly at her professional women's club, The Cowdray, while she does research for a new book based on the true life criminals Amelia Sach and Annie Walters. Nicola Upson has done her research on the crimes and has her writer protagonist do the same.  There are a few "draft" chapters of the book interspersed with chapters in which the characters are developed and the plot moved forward. In the book,  Josephine is able to actually interview some people who were involved in various ways with the two women before they were executed in 1903 and, it turns out, she actually went to school with the daughter of Amelia Sach without having known it at the time. In fact, the book relies perhaps a bit too much on several of the characters having connections to the crime Josephine is writing about and so bringing the old crimes and the new ones together. People have changed their identities to protect themselves from the harassment that followed publicity about the murders of babies and the eventual double hanging of the two women. And there are some other surprises about who people really are.
Friend Archie gets involved initially because there have been some minor thefts and some poison pen letters sent to members of the Cowdray Club. But then, one of the seamstresses working for the Motley sisters is murdered in a most gruesome fashion and the message sent by the method suggests she was talking too much. She had also been a former petty thief jailed at the same place the baby farmers had been imprisoned, Holloway Gaol. The Motley sisters have agreed to outfit the Board of the Cowdray Club for a benefit gala so they move into the club to complete the final work, having been barred from the site of the murder, their work rooms.
There are developments along a romantic line as well. Marta resurfaces with a surprising revelation and Archie is pushed into saying things that also rock the boat for Josephine. The characters in these books are complex and there are not necessarily happy endings or tidy solutions to the problems presented by messy human relationships. But they are very well wrought, capturing the essence of post WWI London, and I will undoubtedly finish out the series.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Breaking Blue

Author Timothy Egan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and has also written several prize-winning non-fiction books, as well as several works of fiction. He will be the first author to visit Bend as part of the library's "Author! Author!" series. Here he provides a narrative account of an investigation into the oldest open murder case in the state of Washington, that of Newport town marshall George Conniff, which took place in 1935. The current Sheriff of Pend Oreille county, Tony Bamonte, while writing a history of the county's law enforcement for his master's thesis, uncovers evidence about Conniff's murder by black-market butter thieves that suggests Spokane policemen were involved, and covered up for the killers.
When Bamonte sought their help with his investigation into the cold case, Spokane PD were non-responsive and uncooperative; they wanted nothing to do with a "do-gooder" cop who is willing to go against the brotherhood (even though he was investigating the death of a law enforcement officer) and bring bad publicity to the Spokane police department in the process. But Tony is dogged and tracks down the few remaining witnesses, the murderer himself, and--amazingly--the lethal weapon, which had been thrown into the Spokane River over 50 years ago. His obsession brings closure to the children of George Conniff, even though he fails to get an indictment against the murderer, former Spokane detective Clyde Ralstin. However, it costs him his marriage of 25 years, and his job.
Evocative descriptions of Depression-era Spokane and eastern Washington, and of the dying towns of more current day eastern Washington as the mining, timber, and cement industries fade away.  This is true crime clothed in a readable story that fleshes out characters, motives and settings. If you enjoy the work of Erik Larson, are a true crime aficionado and/ or are a local history buff, you will enjoy this book. Additional reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, New York Times.