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Monday, November 28, 2016

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead's novel The Underground Railroad (#614) has generated a lot of buzz and admiration.  Permit me to be politically incorrect and say that I did not like this book.  It's a quasi-fantasy since in this book the underground railroad is a glorified secret subway system built across the South.  The plot seems to jump forward and backward in historical time to suit the points the author wishes to make.  There are, of course, countless gruesome atrocities described here.  In light of the rest of the book, are they exaggerated?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Different characters are given their own sections of the novel, explaining their motivations for their actions in the main plot: the plight of Cora, the runaway slave who killed a white boy in making her escape from a Georgia plantation.  The device was distracting and interrupted the flow of the action. I wanted to know what happened to Cora, one of the few characters I could care about.

Just when it seems that Cora has found a refuge where she can safely settle down, something happens to destroy her peace of mind.  Ridgeway, a persistent slave hunter hired by her owner repeatedly catches up with her and twice heads back to the plantation to return her.  It made me distrust the end of the book when she has yet again appeared to gain her freedom.  It all felt very circular; the story really never went anywhere.  It's probably meant to be a metaphor for a slave's life.  If that is pointless, as far as I'm concerned, so was reading this book.

Breaking Creed

In Breaking Creed (#613) author Alex Kava reunites FBI forensic specialist Maggie O'Dell with Ryder Creed and his multi-purpose service dogs in pursuit of a drug cartel enforcer fond of using creepy-crawlies in his work.  As if drug trafficking and child trafficking aren't loathsome enough on their own!

Ryder becomes a target when he's called in by the Coast Guard to investigate a fishing boat they've been monitoring for suspected drug cargoes.  What Grace, his fifteen pound terrier, finds aboard surprises everyone.  Hidden under a ton of fish is a concealed compartment holding five kidnapped children.  The cartel is apparently branching out.  It doesn't help that on a routine patrol of Pensacola Airport with his drug-sniffing dog one of the cartel's teen-aged mules uses Ryder as her escape route.  Now the cartel has twice the reason to target Ryder and Grace.

Maggie O'Dell becomes involved when her boss at the FBI sends her on a wild goose chase to inspect a body pulled from the Potomac.  When she and the medical examiner come across some unusual findings on the body on the riverbank, she immediately suspects the death is drug-related.  Her boss publicly discounts the idea, but Maggie is persistent in following up her leads  until both she and Ryder find themselves on the same case in Alabama.  As they come closer to identifying the elusive Iceman both Maggie and Ryder are clearly on his hit list.  With the cartel's money and manpower, will either be able to survive long enough to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice?

A great page-turning crime series.  Start at the beginning if you can, but you can easily pick up this series and go backwards and forwards without missing too much.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Lily and the Octopus

Lily and the Octopus (#612) author Steven Rowley's debut work, is not your usual dog story.  Lily is the narrator's beloved daschund.  He suddenly notices after he returns from a trip that Lily is suddenly sporting an octopus on her head!  Of course, it's not really an octopus, but it's best to let Ted tell the story his own way.

Even though this is a work of fiction, I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't a memoir, it felt so real and the emotions so strong and true.  Believe the cover blurb that says "Powerful enough to make you reach for the box of tissues".  I certainly did!

I've never read anything quite like this book, but if you've ever had an animal in your life - or even if you haven't - don't miss this book.  It's something special.

A Christmas Message

Every year, I look forward to Anne Perry's annual Christmas novella.  Each year it features a different mystery, often with characters drawn from her other books, but always with a strong redemptive tone. This year's offering, A Christmas Message (#611), follows through with that tradition.

Readers of her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries will be familiar with Lady Vespasia Cummings Gould now married to Thomas' former boss, Victor Narraway, late of Special Services.  Narraway has gifted his wife with a Christmas time trip to Jerusalem, a part of the world she has never seen.  The British have built a railroad connecting the coastal city of Jaffa with Jerusalem, but there is only one train a day each way.  While waiting for their train the next day, Lady Vespasia and her husband enjoy a pleasant meal at their inn with a fellow traveler, only to find him brutally murdered later that evening.  Victor finds a mysterious scrap of an undecipherable document in his pocket with a note from their dinner companion asking them to deliver it to a certain address on the Via Dolorosa by Christmas Eve.

Neither of them could have anticipated the danger that will follow them, nor the way the journey forces them to confront their own beliefs.  Which journey will shake them to their core more strongly?  The physical dangers they face, or the metaphorical ones?

This novella is probably the most metaphorical work of Ms. Perry that I have read; it poses many of the biggest questions in life and makes the reader pause to consider one's own beliefs and values. A novel approach to theology in action.

In Such Good Company

If you're a Carol Burnett fan, you will undoubtedly enjoy her newest book In Such Good Company (#610) reminiscing about The Carol Burnett Show, which ran for eleven years.  If you were a regular viewer of the program, you'll remember many of the anecdotes she relates about sketches and guest stars and regulars Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway. with glimpses of what was going on behind the scenes.

This book is a fast and easy stroll down Memory Lane, as well as an enjoyable one.  Who could ever forget the iconic Went With the Wind sketch with the infamous curtain rod dress?  Ms. Burnett reveals details of what led to one of the funniest moments on TV.

In Such Good Company did make me nostalgic for the days when such high quality entertainment was a staple on TV, minus the guns, gore, sex and crude language that's so prevalent in most shows today.  I suppose we'll never see those days again, but it is comforting to know that you can still enjoy Miss Burnett's unique brand of humor,song and dance on DVD and YouTube...

I'm so glad we had this time together In Such Good Company!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Precious and Grace

If you're a fan of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, you'll recognize the title of his latest novel, Precious and Grace (#609) as the first names of the two principal characters in these delightful mysteries.

Maa Precious Ramotswe set up her agency several years ago now, and is enjoying a small amount of success based on her reputation for honesty and integrity.  Maa Grace Makutsi has in the meantime promoted herself all the way up to Co-Director from her original position as Precious' only employee. She is a force of nature that not even the patient Precious can always deal with!  In fact, she wonders if she might be being edged out of her own office sometimes...

Take for instance, the case of a young Canadian woman who has contacted the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency to help her find the house in Botswana where she was born and raised, and to locate the woman who was her nurse during those years.  When Precious arrives back at her office to find Susan Peters already discussing her particulars with Grace Makutsi behind Precious' own desk, she is uncomfortable with the way Grace is handling things.  Can she stop Grace from jumping to the wrong conclusion, and perhaps persuade Susan that there might be things in one's past it is best to leave alone?

But Grace isn't the only employee causing problems at the Agency.  Charlie, her junior detective, has acquired a stray dog.  His heart is in the right place, but how to find the right place for a dog named Zebra?  And meek little Mr. Polopetsi has unintentionally gotten himself mixed up with a con artist who will soon ruin his life, as well as those of his friends he has unwittingly drawn into the scam if the crook is not stopped.  How can Maa Ramotswe untangle this intricate web?

Precious Ramotswe does indeed find a way to deal with all these issues.  In this series, it's not the mystery itself that is the most important point; it's how Precious arrives at the solution with her unique blend of warmth, common sense, understanding of people and her belief in their intrinsic good that set these stories so far apart from common run.  Botswana itself is just as much a character in these books as Precious, Grace, Charlie and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Precious' husband.  Reading these books is like wrapping the warmth of the African sun around you as you live temporarily in that world.  Life offers us many lessons.  This is a good place to find a few to live by.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit

What a beguiling tale A Most Extraordinary Pursuit (#608) is!  Juliana Gray's first book concerning the exploits of Miss Emmeline Truelove has everything: wit, humor, exotic locales, an intrepid and thoroughly British heroine in service to His Grace, the Duke of Olympia, and yes, a dash of romance and a bit of ...something else..

To clarify, Miss Truelove's employer, the Duke of Olympia, has expired unexpectedly in the trout stream on his estate.  He and the current Duchess, an American, have no children, so the title will fall to a nephew.  The problem is that no one has been able to reach Maximilian Haywood at the archaeological dig on Crete where he was last known to be working in 1906.  In fact, no one's seen him for several months.  The Duchess dispatches Miss Truelove to find the heir and bring him home to England as soon as possible.  His Grace's private steam yacht is put at her disposal to aid in her search in the Mediterranean, along with Lord Silverton, a handsome rogue and a totally unwanted impediment as far as Emmeline Truelove is concerned.  She prides herself on her quiet efficiency.

As soon as the pair arrive in Crete, they are attacked and followed as they try to retrace Haywood's steps.  The mystery seems tied to the myths of Minoan Culture documented on the walls of the Palace at Knossos currently being excavated.  Why was Haywood lured there in the first place, and what do the assailants want with Truelove and Silverton?  Will Truelove succumb to the charms of the dashing Marquess of Silverton?

You'll just have to read A Most Extraordinary Pursuit to find out, and I hope you enjoy the journey half as much as I did!

Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace (#607) by William Krueger is anything but an ordinary coming-of-age story.  Told from the perspective of an adult Frankie Drum, it looks back over forty years to the pivotal summer of 1961, when he was thirteen and there were five deaths in the town of New Bremen, Minnesota.

Since Frankie's father was the Methodist minister in town, Frankie was used to his father's involvement when a death occurred.  What was different that summer was the impact each of those
deaths had on his own life, and how profoundly changed he emerged from those exposures.  In fact, in some ways, it seems a miracle that Frankie himself survived that summer.

His mother makes no secret of the fact she despises her husband's occupation.  His older sister Ariel is enormously gifted as a musician and her mother's favorite.  His younger brother Jake, is Frankie's shadow and a stutterer. Frankie in the middle walks to the beat of a different drummer and is constantly landing in hot water. But the seemingly accidental  death of a boy his own age forces him to question his own beliefs and to look with fresh eyes at those around him.

There are mysteries wrapped up in this summer tale and Frankie becomes the catalyst for unraveling many of the tangled threads.  Yet seeing Frank begin to appreciate the "ordinary grace" in his own life and how it works in the lives of those around him is what makes this story compulsively readable.  Of course, you want to find out the answers to the mysteries as well  These are but two of the reasons to pick up Ordinary Grace and be transported to another time and place. Highly recommended.