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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fatal Grace

Fatal Grace (#446) is the second book in Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in the quaint town of Three Pines, Quebec.  And don't bother looking for it on a map, much as you might want to book yourself into the cozy B&B featured in these stories; even Chief Inspector Gamache can't find the town on his maps.

When a part-time resident is murdered in a clever and diabolical way right in the middle of a crowd watching a Boxing Day curling match, Gamache and his associates are recalled to Three Pines to crack the case.  No one appears to be mourning the victim, CC de Poitiers, including her husband and adolescent daughter.  The intense cold and the snow factor into the case, as do events in the past.  It's bound to affect the residents of Three Pines and Gamache himself when the murderer is finally uncovered.

Be sure to have an afghan and the hot chocolate ready when you curl up with this engrossing mystery.  Just one word of advice; make sure you've read the first book in this series, Still Life, before you pick up this story or you'll miss quite a bit of the subtext!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Great Grisby

I enjoyed reading Mikita Brottman's book of essays, The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals (#445) so much that I've already bought a copy for a friend's upcoming birthday.  And I won't be giving it back to my library group after talking about it next month!  This one is definitely finding a permanent home on my bookshelf.  Did I mention that I am not, nor have I ever been, a dog owner myself?  It's that appealing to a book lover.

Ms. Brottman's own French bulldog is the Great Grisby of the title, with a charming picture of him seated on a pedestal adorning the cover.  She has divided her book into Chapters A - Z, each essay devoted to a different dog whose name begins with the appropriate letter.  None of your super-celebrity animals are included here, but you'll recognize most of the owners: Sigmund Freud, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Richard Wagner and Bill Sikes (from Oliver Twist) among them.  That dog is just the jumping off point for many interesting and convoluted wanderings among a myriad of dog-related facts and fables, always with a meditation on the life and times of the author's own dog, Grisby.

She's also included extensive Notes, and even better, to my mind, a Bibliography which just begs to be explored further.  I'm going to have to find a Willa Cather short story I've never read, and look more closely at Edith Wharton's House of Mirth.  I also want to spend some time online to see if I can find images of the many paintings Ms. Brottman references which contain portraits of a number of the dogs included in her essays.  What a delightful prospect!  This book is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Nightingale Before Christmas

It isn't even Thanksgiving yet, and here I am reading the first Christmas mystery of the season!  Yuletide-themed books are a very hot commodity at my library, so you read them whenever they show up on your "Holds" list.  That's why I'm slightly jumping the gun on Donna Andrews' latest cozy, The Nightingale Before Christmas (#444).

This mystery is set as usual in the college town of Caerphilly, Virginia, where the Historical Society is trying a new type of fund-raising project with Meg Langslow in charge: a decorator's show house done in twelve completely Christmas-themed rooms.  Meg thinks her hands are full herding cats with all the decorators at each other's throats competing for the cash prize to their favorite charity.  That is, until she's there after hours checking that everything is in order at the house and finds the murdered body of an obnoxious decorator in his room, and the room itself vandalized.  When someone takes a couple of shots at her, it seems someone is out to get Meg and ruin the Holiday Show House.  Can Meg find the killer, repair the damage so the house can open on time, keep the peace amongst the remaining decorators and still find time to celebrate the Christmas season with her professor husband and pre-school twin boys?  And will there be an X-Box or possibly a pair of hamsters under her own Christmas tree?

You'll have to read The Nightingale Before Christmas to find out.  Light reading perfect for this time of year!

Friday, November 7, 2014

People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges

I remember hearing People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges (#443) being discussed on the media with favorable reviews, so when a chance came up to win a copy on Good Reads, I took it.  This series of essays is based on Jen Mann's very successful parenting blog posts, and after reading these often outrageous and hilarious accounts of suburban life (which you just know have to be true!)  I can see why Jen Mann has been nominated for a number of web blog awards.

I'm not the right generation to be comfortable with her casual use of swear words, but I sure can get behind her attitude on marriage and parenting.  Ms. Mann definitely has her head screwed on straight, and if her kids don't turn out to be admirable adults in their own right, it won't be her fault!  Objecting to a school bus without seatbelts for the kids?  Believing that a child's assignment should be completed by (gasp!) the child himself?!  What's unbelievable is that she and the Hubs (as she calls her husband) seem to be the only ones in the neighborhood with this attitude.  I feel for her, I really do.

Though she never once uses the term "helicopter parents", her outrageous tales of the "Mom Wars" in her Kansas City suburb will strike a chord with anyone who has ever tangled with these competitive cliques, or whose child has suffered at their or their offspring's hands.  Who knew an organized and determined group of Room Mothers could so relentlessly suck the joy out of Halloween or teacher gift-giving in the name of one-upsmanship?

Just filter out the four-letter words, and sit back and enjoy this book.  Jen Mann has a lot of wisdom and common sense to share in her entertaining essays.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Unwilling Accomplice

I've been meaning to read one of Charles Todd's mystery series about a World War I nurse, Bess Crawford, for awhile.  Winning a copy of his latest, An Unwilling Accomplice (#442) on Good Reads gave me the perfect opportunity.  It did not disappoint, and I'm happy to say, you don't have to have read the previous entries in this series to easily get right into the plot.

In this outing, Bess has been requested by the War Office to accompany a wounded soldier to Buckingham Palace to receive a medal from the King.  She's puzzled, because to her knowledge, she has never met this soldier before.  All goes well until the next morning when Sergeant Wilkins is due to return to his hospital in Shrewsbury.  He has vanished, leaving behind only a pile of discarded bandages and his wheelchair.  Bess and the orderly assigned to bring Wilkins back search for him until it becomes evident he does not want to be found.  Bess Crawford, unfortunately, is the one called on the carpet to answer to charges of negligence.  She is determined to clear her name and get to the bottom of Wilkin's disappearance, especially when Scotland Yard announces that he has murdered another soldier in a remote country village.  With the aid of Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, Bess puts her own life at risk to solve the mystery.

Charles Todd (actually a mother and son writing team!) does an excellent job recreating the atmosphere of rural England weary of the War, and the everyday deprivations it has brought in its wake.  The close knit society of the rural area where Bess and Simon stand out as strangers make their task doubly difficult.  As they gradually unravel the puzzle, it's more layered than they could possibly have imagined, which makes for a very satisfying yet plausible mystery.  I know that I'll be hunting down the previous books in this series to catch up on Bess and Simon's back stories, and I look forward to reading the Inspector Rutledge book (also by Charles Todd) which has been languishing on my shelf.  Good motivation to move it towards the top of my list!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Treacherous Beauty - Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America

Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case's biography Treacherous Beauty - Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America (#441) was just the antidote I needed after reading Alison Pataki's poisonous portrayal of Peggy Shippen in The Traitor's Wife.  Honestly, that novel left such a bad taste in my mouth about Peggy Shippen, I had to read a non-fiction source (and Treacherous Beauty is the sole existing biography of this fascinating woman) to help me gain a truer and more accurate picture of her.

Readers, don't even bother with The Traitor's Wife.  In it, Peggy Shippen is vilified as an emotionally and physically abusive virago with nothing in her favor but her beautiful face and figure.  Peggy Shippen was many things, according to her biographers in this entertaining volume, but not a cruel or capricious character.  She may, in fact, have been the actual brains behind the plot to hand over West Point to the British to bring an end to the American Revolution.  She certainly was intelligent enough to save herself and her infant son when Benedict Arnold took off for the safety of the British lines, leaving her behind in a borrowed house with George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton due for breakfast at any moment.  The whole story is fascinating, and the reader can understand some of what motivated her actions, even if you cannot sympathize or support them.

And just what did happen to Peggy, Benedict Arnold and their children after they threw in their lot with the British?  It seems that Arnold continued to make one bad decision after another, leaving Peggy to pick up the pieces after him in a never-ending downward financial spiral.  What does emerge from this is a portrait of an amazingly devoted wife and mother and resourceful woman.  In other words, despite her delicate appearance, Peggy Shippen Arnold was a survivor, and her story is well worth reading.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Ruins of Lace

I think historical fiction is my favorite genre because a good writer can take you to a different time and place in his or her writing.  Ideally, you'll learn something interesting enough to send you off on a different exploration of non-fiction sources to learn more about a particular person, place, period or culture.  Iris Anthony is such a writer with her novel The Ruins of Lace (#440).

The threads that tie this plot together are lace smuggling in seventeenth century France.  King Louis XIII had passed strict sumptuary laws, forbidding the wearing or importing of lace, principally from Flanders.  The object was to keep the money in France, and the people in their God-ordained roles.  Since almost everyone flouted the law, smuggling of lace became a thriving business.  This novel tells the story of one piece of lace from seven different vantage points, including one of the thousands of dogs employed to carry the contraband undetected across the border.   As beautiful as the finished product was, the corruption that ruined peoples' lives was ugly and evil.  The characters in this book are so different, and so unique in their relationship to one particular length of lace that they view it either as their salvation or their ruin.  The plot ran faster and faster towards its climax so that I literally could not put it down towards the end.

I could not help but think after reading this book that it would make perfect grand opera with its dramatic ending.  (Of course, there is no fat lady to sing at the end.)  It does make you ponder, though; do we make the right choices in our own lives?  Several of the characters were left with distressing consequences and that moral ambiguity.  A fast and interesting read, but one that can also make you stop and think.  Can you ask for anything more?