Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A woman ahead of her time

Being a woman of the "working class" during the early part of the 20th century was not an enviable position. There were few opportunities for advancement or recognition of special skills. That is the situation of heroine of Maisie Dobbs, a delightful book by Jacqueline Winspear, finds herself in.

Maisie is an extremely intelligent and inquisitive girl, born in 1897 to a costermonger and his wife. The job of a costermonger was strenuous and involved delivering vegetables with a horse and cart. When Maisie's mother dies, her father has no choice but to send the 13 year old girl into service. The devastated Maisie begins work as a maid at the home of the aristocratic Lady Rowan and her husband Lord Julian. Maisie gets on with the work, but is soon distracted by the well-stocked library. She decides to further her education in secret, getting up hours early in order to read on her own before starting her duties for the day. Inevitably, she is discovered. Rather than losing her position, her employers decide that she has a mind which should be developed and nurtured. She is placed under the tutelage of Maurice Blanche, a friend of the family who has wide-ranging interests.

Maisie eventually is accepted to a women's college at Cambridge, but her education is interrupted by the start of World War I. Like many other young women of her time, Maisie volunteers to be a nurse and is sent to France. While there, she experiences many horrors, but also finds love.

Jumping forward to 1929, Maisie has taken over Maurice Blanche's detective agency upon his retirement. She is called upon to investigate the possible infidelity of a young wife, but is drawn into a mystery which takes her back to her war experiences.

The events in the novel jump back and forth in time, and tantalizing hints are dropped throughout the book which are only answered at the very end of the novel. Not having read much about World War I, I found this book to be extremely enjoyable. It was also a tumultuous time in English society, as old social walls began to crumble. "Factory girls" could make a great deal of money and were suddenly a new force to be reckoned with. Females suddenly had more options in life than becoming wives or servants in rich households.

This is the first of seven novels about the exploits of Maisie Dobbs, and I'm looking forward to reading them all!

Final Verdict for Maisie Dobbs: Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating look at a forgotten time in history

Look at me, I'm so great!

That was the sentiment that I felt the book "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" by Donald Miller was trying hard to get across. Although the premise of the book is that everyone's life is a "story" with scenes that you can choose to make meaningful and interesting, it was hard for me to concentrate on that point. The vast majority of the story was about "the time my friends so and so and I climbed this mountain" or "the time my friends so and so and I went on that cross-country bike ride" or how the ex-rock star who's now a film producer absolutely BEGGED Mr. Miller to let him make a film out of one of Miller's books. It was a non-stop brag-a-thon about all his friends and the wonderful experiences he was forever having with them. Miller also threw in a section about his life-long obsession with tracking down his missing father, only to sit like a bump on a log staring into space when he finally met his father. The book is short, with several pages taken up with cartoons.There's just not much substance.

Monday, September 28, 2009

London and books and cats, oh my!

Imagine combining three of my favorite things in the whole world into a novel: London, books and cats. You'd think you'd be on to a winner, wouldn't you? All those elements come together, not entirely successfully, in the novel Death's Autograph by Marianne MacDonald.

The story concerns antiquarian bookseller Dido Hoare (one of the worst names ever in fiction) who scrapes by in her shop in London. She is divorced from her con-man husband Davey but is kept company by her cat, Mr. Spock. She also pays frequent visits to her father Barnabas, a retired Oxford professor. Things are going along as usual when one evening, Dido is startled when she notices a car following her. Not long afterward, the slimy Davey makes an appearance and attempts to worm his way back into her life and her shop. Before long, Davey and another of Dido's acquaintances end up dead, and Dido feels she is the key to the crimes. She just has no idea what the connection could be.

A hunky policeman named Paul Grant appears on the scene and gets more involved with the situation than is strictly warranted. There follows a great deal of rushing back and forth, worrying about her elderly father, and, most annoyingly of all, a lot of ignoring the advice of the police (and common sense) in putting herself in danger. There's also one situation that is blatantly obvious as it's happening, but it only occurs later on to Dido -- and you can tell the reader was supposed to be amazed and impressed when "all is revealed."

The book had the potential to be interesting, but the characters and "big mystery" just weren't all that engaging. Add to that the bizarre assertion that the term "rent boy" is of American origin (don't ask), and you're just left with a muddle of a book. This is the first in a series of 7 books, so they must improve over time.

Final Verdict for Death's Autograph: Two Gherkins, for some great scenery, but an overall weak story

Monday, September 21, 2009

Diabetics beware!

When a book spends over a year on best-seller lists, I'm always curious to find out if it is worth all the hype. A while ago, I checked out the audio book of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows to see what all the fuss was about. I can emphatically say that this is not a book that should have been made into an audio book. The story is told in the form of letters between the characters, so if you aren't paying extremely close attention ALL THE TIME, it is impossible to remember which character was writing the letter, and which character was the recipient. I had to give up on the audio book before it got very far.

We recently decided to start a book club at the library where I work, and due to its extreme popularity, we chose Guernsey as our first book. So I had to read it! I'm sorry to say that I wasn't as enthralled with it as I'd hoped to be. The main drawback is that it is just too treacly sweet for words. Every character is just too sweet, kind and accommodating for words. My teeth ached with the gooey-ness of it all.

The story mainly concerns Juliet, who earned her fame as an author of humorous newspaper columns published under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff during World War II. After the war, finding that her London flat has been bombed, er . . . flat, she grows increasingly distressed at the gray, depressed feeling in London and is floundering about for an idea for a new book. At about this time, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of the island of Guernsey. He has bought a book that previously belonged to Juliet (who apparently had the maddening habit of defacing books by writing in them and then discarding them). He wants her help in getting more books since Guernsey is still suffering from wartime deprivations.

Thus begins Juliet's correspondence with the members of the Literary Society on Guernsey. It seems that everyone on the island cannot wait to write to Juliet, and she responds in kind. Through the islanders' letters, Juliet learns about their suffering and resilience under German occupation. Eventually, Juliet decides to go to Guernsey to write a book about the people and their experiences.

I was very interested to read more about Guernsey, especially the information about the wartime occupation. It is a place you don't hear much about, so I appreciated having it brought to life. The characters, however, were basically all cardboard one-dimensional characters: the quiet, dignified farmer; the wacky woman forever brewing "potions"; the wise matriarch; and the saintly Elizabeth. There are a few "baddies," but they aren't given much space in this sunny narrative. Even the Nazi occupiers are seen sympathetically (for the most part).

Although the story could have been more gripping, perhaps if told as a straight narrative, the "sweetness and light" aspect of the characters got old quickly. I'm glad Guernsey is seeing an upswing in popularity from the book, but I just wish it had been more interesting.

Final Verdict for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting idea with a poor execution

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Harrowing story of captivity

The book Kabul 24 tells the story of eight western aid workers who were arrested in Afghanistan the month before the Sept. 11 attacks. Ostensibly arrested for attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity (by showing a DVD), the prisoners were kept in abominable conditions, interrogated repeatedly, and eventually put on trial. Their Afghan co-workers were also arrested, and were treated much worse by their captors, suffering beatings and torture. The book would be a harrowing account in the hands of more unbiased authors, but this book is so blatantly "us vs. them" that it's difficult to suspend disbelief long enough to get drawn into the story. The Christian aid workers are humble servants who only speak of their religion if asked. Their Taliban captors are illiterate, incompetent, brutal and cartoonish. While it's apparent that the aid workers suffered their captivity with grace and faith, a more balanced telling of the story would have let the reader form a more realistic opinion of the actions of both the captives and their captors. As it is, we are left to marvel at the strength of character of the captives who never lost their faith in extremely trying odds.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Detection goes to the dogs

The second book featuring the "investigative consultant" Teddy Ruzak, The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs by Richard Yancey, follows the same pattern as the first book. Teddy is still as passive and rambling as ever, Felicia is bossy and exasperated, and not a whole lot happens.

Ruzak still doesn't have his Private Investigator's licence, having failed his first attempt at taking the test. He doesn't seem entirely motivated to study for another go-round, so when an official tells him he must close his office until he obtains a license, Ruzak isn't too bothered. In the midst of closing up his office, he looks outside and sees the body of a homeless man in the alley. This is the same homeless man that Ruzak gave money and a stained hat to the previous day. Other people will inexplicably tussle over that old, shapeless, used hat later in the book.

The police seem to have little interest in the case, but for some reason Ruzak decides that he is going to offer a $25,000 reward in order to solve it. Remember, he is out of a job for the foreseeable future, so just why he should invest money in the case is not really clear. He has plenty of time on his hands, though, so he is able to come up with some leads that the police have overlooked.

In the meantime, he gains an aggressive semi-girlfriend, but he's unable to either commit to a relationship or tell her he's not interested. She works at the animal shelter, and shows up on his doorstep one day with a dog (even though he's not allowed to have dogs in his apartment). Aside from all the wishy-washy lack of action, Ruzak also spends a great deal of the novel rambling about the existence of God. It's all very tiresome.

There are some interesting descriptions of Knoxville, and I could vividly imagine where everything was taking place -- there just wasn't much of anything else to hold my interest. An overall rating of "meh." At least the chapters are short. There was even a blank page inserted between chapters with the date the "supposed" action was taking place. All the better to pad the pages of the book without actually having to have any action or plot.

Final Verdict for The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs: One Gherkin, for being a continuation of a not very interesting series

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Knoxville Mystery

A few days ago I started wondering if there had ever been a mystery series set in Knoxville -- sort of a Stephanie Plum of the Scruffy Little City. Lo and behold, such a thing does exist! In The Highly Effective Detective by Richard Yancy, we meet Teddy Ruzak, a bored night security guard who decides to use the money he inherits after his mother's death to start a detective agency right in downtown Knoxville. We hear about his walking around on Church Ave. and Gay Street, about driving along Kingston Pike and Pellissippi Parkway, and about scarfing Krispy Kreme donuts when the "hot" sign is lit. Yep, describes Knoxville to a T (although there was a distressing lack of emphasis on the color orange in the book).


When Teddy opens his detective agency, he asks the waitress at his favorite diner to become his secretary. This is just one in the long line of mistakes that he makes, for she begins to charge office furniture and even her wardrobe to the rapidly dwindling business account. Teddy, however, has been too beaten down by life to protest much of anything, so his effectiveness as a detective is questionable (get it?).

His first, and only, case in this novel concerns an elderly man who witnessed an SUV drive over a bunch of baby geese. The man was so incensed that he decided to hire a private detective to track down the goose killer. Just what was to be done if and when this happened was left somewhat vague. However, in attempting to figure out what had happened with the baby geese, Teddy stumbles onto an even bigger crime, this one involving an abduction and possible murder.

The chapters are amazingly short, generally in the 2 1/2 page range, although there are a few multi-page whopper chapters included. I liked the story better as it went on, but at the beginning the narration was rather slow and choppy. Still, there aren't that many books set in Knoxville, so I'll be reading the follow-up to see what new adventures Ruzak can find in town!

Final Verdict for The Highly Effective Detective: Two Gherkins, for a great setting but generally unsympathetic characters and not much action


Sunday, September 6, 2009

What is a mouldwarp, anyway?

Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is unwillingly thrown into another adventure involving the court of King Henry VIII in C.J. Sansom's third book of the series, Sovereign. In this outing, Shardlake and his trusty companion Jack Barak are in York with "the progress," a visit by the King and his enormous entourage to northern England. The northern part of England had been threatening rebellion for some time, and the king's visit was meant to reinforce his authority over the territory. In addition to the regal show of force, Henry plans to demonstrate his benevolence by agreeing to hear disputes filed by parties in the city. This is where the lawyers come in, as they are the ones who will actually review and decide the cases after the king has "ceremoniously" agreed to look at them.

Shardlake and Barak soon discover that there are still many in northern England who would like to see the king overthrown and the country returned to the Catholic faith. One of Shardlake's other duties while in York involves looking after the health of a conspirator who is currently imprisoned and charged with treason. The authorities want to make sure the man reaches London in one piece, where he can be properly tortured into revealing the names of other conspirators.

Naturally, several mysterious deaths occur which place Shardlake in danger on several levels. He comes across a dying man who whispers information that seems to indicate that the king is not of royal blood. While attempting to sort out what that information could mean, Shardlake is the victim of numerous attempts on his life. At the same time, powerful men surrounding the king have their own agendas and reasons for wanting to keep information hidden. Unfortunately for him, Shardlake also stumbles onto a secret about the young queen, Catherine Howard, which also has disastrous consequences for him.

There are numerous people mentioned that require frequent visits to Wikipedia in order to find out what happened to everyone: the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Culpepper, Lady Rochford , Thomas Cranmer, Richard Rich, Francis Dereham, etc. I am really enjoying this series, and will be sad to finish the next and so far last book in the series. Hopefully, C.J. Sansom is hard at work on the fifth book!

Final Verdict for Sovereign: Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling look back at a fascinating time in history

Friday, September 4, 2009

Not a tasty morsel

The book Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All by Christina Thompson promised (I thought) to explore the Maori people of New Zealand from their first contacts with Europeans to the present day. I think I would have enjoyed this book more if I had been more aware of what it's actually about. From the title and the artwork on the cover, I had expected the book to be about New Zealand, its history, and the Maori culture. There was some mention of these things, but mostly, it was about the author, her marriage, her career crises, her family history, etc. I also found the book to be somewhat repetitive, with the author constantly referring to the clash of differing cultures when the Maori and European explorers met for the first time.

I was extremely surprised to read in the first couple of chapters how the author met her future husband, who is a Maori. She was studying in Australia and went to New Zealand on a break. While killing time before her flight back to Australia, she wandered into a pub. She exchanged a few sentences with a stranger, missed her flight, and at the end of the evening took him up on his suggestion to "come with us." A few chapters later, she is bemoaning her husband's irresponsibility. Pot. Kettle. Black.

Then we are treated to chapter after chapter of the couple's moves back and forth across continents, her acceptance of short-term fellowship positions, money and lack of possession problems, moving in with family members, and so on. I really wanted to read more about New Zealand and less about the author's lack of direction in her personal life.

There are some interesting facts about the Maori and English descriptions of early encounters with them. The author does also mention the lingering effects of racism and colonization which continue to limit the Maoris in terms of opportunities for advancement. Overall, however, these observations were overshadowed by too much personal information.

Final Verdict for Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: Two Gherkins, for too little information about New Zealand and too much about the author's personal problems

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Everybody Loves George!

It seems as if people who are successful in one career often think they will be equally successful in another. I'm sure we all remember Michael Jordan's baseball career, Eddie Murphy's album, and Madonna's films. It is rare when a celebrity is able to cross over into another field, but George Foreman has. After his boxing career slowed down, he branched out into a new career doing endorsements. Of course, his most famous endorsement was of the George Foreman grill. Part of what makes him such a successful pitchman is not only his likability, but his focus and determination to succeed. In his book Knockout Entrepreneur, Foreman takes the lessons he's learned throughout life and uses them to show how anyone can be successful in their own "ring" in life. This is no "get rich quick manual;" Foreman consistently emphasizes that hard work, persistence and dedication are crucial elements in any plan for success. He also stresses the link between job satisfaction and family life. Sprinkled throughout the book are "Georgisms," his words of advice to help achieve success. Each chapter in the book ends with "Knockout Ideas to Stimulate Success" which summarize his advice. Inspirational reading!