Friday, March 3, 2017

‘Further Up and Further In’: A Review of Katherine Reay’s The Brontë Plot

A young woman spends her days with beautiful things of the past and present, relishing her “book day” each Wednesday, alone in a design gallery full of antiques and rare books. But a part of her is unsettled, restless and conflicted. It takes a dashing young lawyer, his dying grandmother, and a visit to things of the past to convince her to face her own demons.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Short Forever: A Review of the Stuart Woods Novel

Stone Barrington finds himself on foreign soil in Stuart Woods’s The Short Forever (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002, $24.95 hardback), and gets tied up with smugglers and dark government agencies, while getting in touch with his old girlfriend and meeting a lovely new one in the bargain.

Friday, February 10, 2017

A Little Blood in Your Sweet Tea? A Review of Gayle Leeson's The Calamity Café

Lou Lou Holman, a bitter, chain-smoking, miserly café owner keels over in her own office. Many who knew her think the world is better off without her. But the police suspect foul play, and one of the suspects is Amy Flowers, a soon-to-be ex-employee and competitor of Lou Lou. If she is ever going to get on with her life, she’ll have to find the real killer herself.

The first book in the new Down South Café series of cozy mysteries by Gayle Leeson, The Calamity Café (New American Library, 2016, $7.99 paperback) sets the stage for the series with a murder right on the premises. Leeson is also the author of seven Embroidery Series mysteries under the name Amanda Lee. 

Amy Flowers is a culinary school graduate hoping to make her mark in her home town of Winter Garden, Virginia. Ready at last to open her own restaurant, she is leaving her waitressing job at Lou’s Joint, and boldly offers to buy it from the owner, Lou Lou Holman. Lou Lou sends her packing, but when Lou Lou’s son Pete offers to meet Amy with his “momma” to discuss the sale again, Amy finds her old boss dead.  While trying to put her business plans on track, Amy sets out to find the real killer and finds that Lou Lou’s life is more complicated than it had seemed. It involves an overprotective knife-wielding father, a couple of drug addicts, a love triangle, and an eighty-year-old unsolved bank robbery. Amy gets help from dreamy deputy sheriff Ryan, her circle of lifelong hometown friends, and a slew of local gossips, while feeding the whole town a variety of good ole home cooked delicacies.

Gayle Leeson, a native of Virginia, writes with a genuine Southern voice that gives this novel a decidedly down-home flavor. Her generous sprinkling of simile (“as pretty as a pat of butter on a stack of hot pancakes”) adds another thick folksy layer. The Southern reader will identify not only with the language, but with the small-town attitudes about societal roles, what’s right, and what’s wrong. I look forward to reading more of this series.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Review of Michael Tackett's The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams

No sport is more romantic than baseball.  The pace, rhythm, and progression of the game imitate and distill that of life itself. The Baseball Whisperer: A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, $26 Hardcover) depicts one life reflected in many, spanning a lifetime of good, accomplished around summers of college baseball among the corn fields of Clarinda, Iowa.

The subject of Michael Tackett’s new biography is Merl Eberly, who played for, coached, and managed the Clarinda A’s, a team made up of college baseball players from around the country playing in summer leagues. The A’s and other teams give these players an opportunity to compete with the best prospects in semi-professional play.  For Tackett, Merl Eberly offered much more than that. “It’s not about can we make them a better baseball player,” says Tackett, quoting Eberly. “It’s about can we make them a better person.”

Tackett is an editor and former managing editor of newspapers and national magazines, working in the Washington, DC area. The Baseball Whisperer is his first book. His measure of Merl Eberly is by the people the coach impacted during his life, and the story is told from the perspective of those people.  Eberly applied his efforts consistently over decades. His style did not change, but each summer brought new perspectives as players came and went. Tackett does a good job of capturing the character of Eberly’s work through the words of each generation’s players. Among those affected is Tackett himself, who met Eberly when Tackett’s son played for the Clarinda A’s.

Eberly used the entire town (all 5,000 residents) as his coaching staff. Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who played in Clarinda, called them “people of the land.” Eberly’s players, thirty-six of whom would later play in the major leagues, worked manual labor jobs during the day, played baseball at night, and lived with local families. He did not allow drinking, required haircuts, and kept a curfew. He once sent six starting players packing for lack of commitment. Using these methods, Merl Eberly became a legend in the coaching community. A network of college coaches formed as word spread of how a summer in Clarinda could improve a player’s attitude and ability. Those coaches sent Eberly their best prospects, and Eberly and Clarinda made them better players and better people. Merl’s wife Pat was just as involved in the team as he was, and together they impacted hundreds of players over several decades.

The Baseball Whisperer is a great baseball team story, made up of many individual stories. It is a story about how one person can better many lives by doing something for sake of those changes, for the love of the game and the players. Merl Eberly was never paid money for his work for the Clarinda A’s. He was paid in the love of those he affected, and in his pride in their accomplishments. That is a story worth reading.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Smooth Read: A Review of Stuart Woods's Smooth Operator

If you love fast-paced joyride reads, you may well set a speed-reading record with Smooth Operator (Putnam, 2016, $28 Hardcover), the new thriller from the author of thirty-nine Stone Barrington novels, Stuart Woods. It is that hard to put down, and moves quickly with short chapters and snappy dialogue.

Stuart Woods is massively successful (at least thirty-nine consecutive best-sellers), massively prolific (five novels released this year), and gets help on Smooth Operator from veteran mystery writer Parnell Hall, whose out-of-print novels are now finding new life as eBooks. Woods is the author of several series of novels, with characters crossing over between the series.

In Smooth Operator, Teddy Fay, a character well-known to Woods readers, is given center stage for the first time, perhaps the start of a new series for Woods. Fay is a former CIA insider, a man of many disguises, and the capacity for the cold-blooded dispatch of bad guys who get in his way. He has assumed a new identity with a clean slate, though hardly a low-profile one, as a Hollywood movie producer. Called into service by Barrington, to whom he owes a favor, Fay finds himself entangled in a conspiracy wrapped in a terror plot and involving kidnapping and assassinations. He gets help from some great new characters. Millie is a young assistant working in the White House, whose skills, savvy, and persuasive guile make her almost as useful as Fay himself. Kevin is a hacker dragged out of his basement by Millie’s irresistible charms to hack into Washington’s most important computers and the cell phones of all the key players. In addition to Stone Barrington, familiar characters from other Woods novels also make appearances.

With Stuart Woods, you expect a fast-paced thriller with high-profile intrigue that you really do not want to stop and think about. Smooth Operator does not disappoint, and provides just enough conspiratorial puzzlement to keep you guessing until the end.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Nosy Novel: A Review of Kathleen Tessaro's The Perfume Collector

If you have been following my reviews, which mirror almost exactly the contents of my reading list, you may have noticed that I have been reading a number of books written by women, and that appeal mostly to women. I have also recently read a book I despise (not this one -- the review will almost certainly appear here at some point). My stack of books to read includes works of philosophy, neuroscience, thrillers, a bible, and my beloved Southern literature. Some people just read what they like: romances, detective stories, mechanics manuals. But I take to heart the advice of William Faulkner, which I found on the cover of The Reivers: “Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If not, throw it out the window.” Thus, here is my review of another feminine novel.

Suppose you are in an unhappy marriage and oppressed by a social system that limits your ability to do anything of your own will. Out of the blue, you receive an inheritance from an unknown person in a different country. The terms of the will require your physical presence, so you go. And in going, you find a part of yourself that you never knew existed. This is the premise of The Perfume Collector, a novel by Kathleen Tessaro.

The Perfume Collector (HarperCollins, 2013, 456 pages, $24.99 hardback), now a best seller, is the fifth novel from Kathleen Tessaro. Her sixth and latest book is Rare Objects.

British socialite Grace Munroe almost simultaneously discovers her inheritance from an unknown woman in France, and an apparent infidelity in her husband. Both are good reasons for her to leave town for a while. In Paris, she is befriended by Edouard Tissot, the attorney handling the estate of her benefactor, Eva d’Orsey. Though Tissot is eager to complete the transaction, Grace insists on knowing more, and her journey becomes an investigation into the past of Eva and those who knew her. What she finds not only enlightens her, but transforms her as well.

Set in France, England, and New York, The Perfume Collector takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, and sweeps through the life of Eva d’Orsey, from her girlhood as a maidservant, when she is introduced to the perfumers, through her wild youth and wartime compromises, to her end and legacy. Sometimes a flashback structure can be confusing, but here it makes sense and intensifies the suspense. Tessaro is amazing in her ability to portray people and feelings, but especially in her description of scent:
“The layers of fragrance that unfolded were soft at first, darkly sensual layers of wild violet, amber, cedar, and bark . . . dry mossy woodland smells which then, very gradually, stealthily, gave way to raw musky richness; they had an intensity, a slightly damp, earthy density that was mesmerizing . . . and there was something else there too . . . sharp, almost acrid, yet hauntingly familiar . . .
‘I never thought I’d say this,’ Mallory frowned, ‘but I think there’s something almost obscene about it.’ She lifted the bottle to her nose and inhaled. ‘Then again, it’s rather more-ish, isn’t it? How much is it?’” (elipses in original)
Of course, perfume is important to the story, and scents trigger the turns in its plot. So descriptions like the one above add to the richness of this novel.
A story of nostalgia, romance, loss, and transformation, The Perfume Collector is an excellent novel worth reading. Women may especially enjoy it, but I recommend it to male and female writers keen on Faulkner’s advice, as well as people with interesting noses!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Ice and Bone by Monte Francis

Meaning is found in understanding the un-understandable. Amid daily reports of the worst events in our society, we may feel tempted to just tune out. But now and again it is useful to venture deep into a story. Deep enough that it takes a thread of violence in all of its revolting detail, and instead of leaving the sensational facts to rot before our eyes, goes further, behind the cold facts to the passion, the heartbreak, and the brutal tragedy from its inception in the dark mind of a tortured soul. Ice and Bone (Wildblue press, Denver, 2016, $16.99 Paperback) is such a story. 

Monte Francis, also the author of By Their Father’s Hand: The True Story of the Wesson Family Massacre (Harper, 2007) and numerous radio and television stories, is not merely a hard-boiled journalist wielding facts. He knows how to tell a story. His research and interviews were extensive in preparation for this book, including interviews with victim families and friends, associates and family of the serial killer Josh Wade, FBI and police investigators, attorneys, and even correspondence with Wade himself. Francis weaves all of this information into a chronologically coherent and riveting tale.

The first two parts of the book outline the two murders for which Josh Wade was tried. In the first, Della Brown, an Alaskan Native, intoxicated, was brutally raped, tortured, and murdered. The details are gruesome. The killer bragged about the acts, saying they were motivated by his hatred of Natives. Despite this, prosecutors could not get a conviction of Wade of any crime except tampering with evidence. In Part Two, two years after his release, Wade kills and possibly assaulted sexually a white woman, petite psychiatric nurse Mindy Schloss. Francis outlines the series of events leading to Wade’s capture and conviction for the murder of Schloss, and how this eventually brought closure in the case of Della Brown.

Several murders of Native Alaskan women remain unsolved, some of which are attributed to Wade by the FBI. He admitted to murdering three men after he was sentenced to life in prison. The author also introduces speculation that there may be other murders, even dating back to Wade’s teenage years.

Certainly it is important that this story be told from the point of view of the victims, their families, and the community that was affected by the killer for many years. But Francis skillfully brings out a larger issue without ever addressing it directly. By the time Wade committed the murders described in Ice and Bone, he had been in mental institutions several times. He had been incarcerated and released. He had dealt in drugs and abused children. In spite of the terrible guilt of this man, society shares in it. Perhaps these crimes could not have been prevented. But being able to read a book such as Ice and Bone stimulates thought about the nature of abuse and mental illness, and our common responsibility to find ways to address them.  Now and again, we should do just that.