Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
The Scent of Rain and Lightning was my first introduction to author Nancy Pickard. I originally read a review that places this in the “mystery” category. It is that, but it’s also more, and was very hard to put down since it keeps you guessing to the very end.
Jody Linder has grown up in the small plains town of Rose, Kansas, and one hot summer afternoon is puzzled and alarmed to look out her window and see three of her uncles approaching the house. They definitely have a purpose, and that is to tell Jody that Billy Crosby, the man who was convicted of murdering her father 23 years earlier is being released from prison. Not only that, Crosby will be returning to town, since his wife and son Collin, now a lawyer, live in Rose. At the same time that Jody’s father was murdered, her mother disappeared, but was never found, and was presumed dead.
Jody has always been surrounded by the love and prestige of the Lindner family in the community, especially since her parents were gone. So when questions begin to surface about the reliability of the information she has always been given about the terrible events 23 years earlier, she begins to investigate on her own. She also becomes reacquainted with the convicted man’s son, with whom she has always felt, even unwillingly, an invisible bond.
Characters in this story are strong and well defined. Another strength is the portrayal of the town and the community- it’s so well drawn that you feel as if you could go there and would recognize and know many of the residents and the places mentioned. The author lives in Kansas, so maybe that’s partly why. I’ll be searching out more titles by Nancy Pickard!
The Scent of Rain and Lightning
Sally Spencer’s latest mystery The Ring of Death blew me away! I had no idea who the suspect was until he was revealed. Nor, had I guessed what the ring of death was until D.C.I. Monika Panaitowski walked into it. Sally Spencer did a fantastic job of attaching readers to her British character, DCI Charlie Woodend and now, Monika is following in her beloved boss’s footsteps. In The Ring of Death Monika often asked herself “what would Charlie do?” But, in spite of the twist and turns, oppositions and supporters Monika proved herself to be a topnotch investigator.
I can't wait for Sally Spencer's next DCI Monika Paniatowsky Mystery! The Echoes of the Dead is due out this spring!
The Ring of Death
NoveList, a database of fiction authors, titles, book group discussion ideas, and read-alikes, gave me the suggestion to read Chris Bohjalian's novel The Double Bind. I had just completed Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse and wanted to find something similar in psychological thrill and storyline. The description sounded intriguing enough: Working at a homeless shelter, student Laurel Estabrook encounters Bobbie Crocker, a man with a history of mental illness and a box of secret photos, but when Bobbie dies suddenly, Laurel embarks on an obsessive search for the truth behind the photos. Then, when I found the story was an extension of the tragedy of Jay Gatsy, Myrtle and George Wilson, Daisy and Tom Buchanan and their lives, I was unsure. I love The Great Gatsby so much that I thought any iteration or abandonment of the original dreams and disasters in the story would be an abhoration.
And, often as I read, I kept feeling this way. It seemed like the author was just trying too hard to force a story of a child of Daisy's who becomes homeless leaving behind a legacy of incriminating photos. Then, I would read a section which gave insight into the psyche of the homeless or schizophrenic. Somehow, I kept reading, and by the last three or four pages, I was ready to skim over parts of the book again looking for the clues I might have missed in my earlier distraction.
The Double Bind
Yup. And, it appears, for a thirteen-year-old middle school 8th grader, a darn good one. Theo’s family are all lawyers. His Dad, real estate things. His Mom, abuse cases. His Uncle Ike, disbarred but doing income tax things. Theo’s classmates and schoolmates ask him questions about their brother’s getting arrested for marijuana, about which parent should a child live within a divorce case, about what can be done with an illegal immigrant who…
OOPS! I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot of John Grisham’s newest thriller titled Theodore Boone Kid Lawyer. Theo lives in a small town with many “real” lawyers, including his family as described above. He even fancies himself as an attorney, sort of. And, then, the unlikely happens. A murder is committed, and the defendant is being tried by a local judge, who just happens to be Theo’s friend. At least, as much of a friend as a sitting judge can be to a kid in the 8th grade. Theo’s favorite class in school is Government, and he finagles seats for his classmates so that they can attend the opening day of this murder trial. And, the excitement begins.
Author John Grisham’s titles for adults are known for their intrigue and suspense, a fact that has made him a #1 international best-selling author. He is certainly the master of the legal thriller. When I heard that he had written a book for younger readers (and I’d say late elementary age through middle school), I thought, “yeah, right”. John Grisham can’t write a book for children! Well, friends, guess what? He can, and he has.
Theodore Boone Kid Lawyer is for kids and it is every bit as exciting as the author’s adult novels. I started this book yesterday, and finished it today…it kept me guessing and kept me turning pages as I read (almost skimmed some parts, I was so interested) what certainly could become a best-seller for children, and maybe even an award winner!
Thanks, John Grisham! But, you didn’t finish the story. A sequel maybe?
Theodore Boone Kid Lawyer
I’ve just finished reading Bryan Gruley’s newest mystery and I’m still shivering with cold! All the folks from Starvation Lake are back in this new book, still playing hockey, still making ends meet in small-town Michigan, still getting out the news whether it’s in the weekly paper or around Audrey’s diner tables.
The Hanging Tree hits bookstore shelves August 3, but if you wait a few days you can meet the author and buy your book in person. Bryan Gruley will be in Kalamazoo on Saturday, August 7, 2:00 p.m. at the Central Library to give us the backstory behind these two terrific mysteries.
When he’s not writing about Starvation Lake, Bryan Gruley is the Chicago bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal; he’s also a former reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Don’t miss this chance to meet Brian, buy a book from our good friends at Michigan News Agency, and hear all about our new friends in Starvation.
The Hanging Tree
Suppose an uncle who supposedly died in the London Blitz appeared out of nowhere, and told you he had been locked inside an Irish prison for the last 30 years, for a crime he didn’t commit? That’s the beginning of this thriller by British author Robert Goddard, and in Goddard’s world, there are unforseen twists and turns aplenty.
The story begins in 1976, when young Stephen Swan’s 68 year old uncle Eldritch shows up in England, claiming to have been wrongly accused of spying. Now ill, Eldritch persuades Stephen to try and help him track down a missing Picasso painting, worth an untold fortune to the family who owned it prior to World War II. The story alternates between Stephen’s narration in 1976, and Eldritch’s story, set in the 1940’s, when he was a cocky young man involved in profitable but somewhat shady activities. Secrets buried in the past are affecting current generations, and Eldritch hopes to right old wrongs.
This story of espionage and suspense kept me guessing until the final pages. Give Goddard a try if you like well written historical mysteries, with plenty of action and atmosphere.
A Long Time Coming: a novel
I hope I look this good when I am 80! The character I’m referring to is Nancy Drew, who made her debut in 1930, at the tender age of 16 years. Nancy Drew lived “the life” in Midwestern River Heights, a town I always thought might be a Chicago suburb, but I have no proof that it could be. Nancy had it all: an understanding father who gave her free rein, a dashing blue convertible roadster (this morphed into a Mustang-type car in later editions, and then into a hybrid in very recent updates), a housekeeper who was a great cook and who took the best of care of Nancy and her widowed father, lawyer Carson Drew, and two friends, cousins Bess Marvin and Georgia (George) Fayne who supported Nancy in all of her adventures. Speaking of Nancy’s friends, I remember a very early story where Nancy visited her friend Helen Corning, at a lake resort/campground/association type place. There was a definite suggestion of affluence in these stories. There was also the element of boyfriends for each of the girls.
I always thought that the “author” of the Nancy Drew books was Carolyn Keene... a single, female type person with a wonderful gift for writing. As an adult, I learned that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym, often for a team of ghostwriters employed by the actual creator of the series, Edward Stratemeyer. It seems that Stratemeyer himself wrote outlines and plot summaries for the stories, and then found writers to complete the stories, for a one-time fee of $50-$250. All copyright remained with the syndicate. Stratemeyer also owned the pseudonyms.
I began reading Nancy Drew after I finished the Bobbsey Twins (also a creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate). I would get the books as gifts, and devour them quickly, and often. I would trade with girl friends so that I didn’t have to wait for the next occasion to get another book. So, I was about in third or fourth grade, and was already an avid library user. But, I couldn’t find my newest favorite books at the library! An article I read by Meghan O’Rourke in an issue of The New Yorker from 2004 said that “the Stratemeyer Syndicate came under attack from educators and librarians from the start.” The article continues with calling series published by the Syndicate “tawdry, sensationalist work taking children away from books of moral or instructional value.” I knew that my teachers didn’t allow me to do required book reports on Nancy Drew titles, but sure didn’t understand why.
I have always said that if I hadn’t read series books (Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames [not a Stratemeyer series]) that I wouldn’t be the reader that I am today. I see these books as stepping stones to more sophisticated literature…and I’ve read them all from Treasure Island to Tom Sawyer to Gulliver’s Travels to... I could go on and on. I’ve read biographies, and loved them. I’ve read romances, mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy (Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was wonderful)… I’ve read Newbery Award winners and nonfiction and...
Nancy Drew titles have been updated, and modernized and have had mentions of racism/sexism removed. Why have they survived? Back to Meghan O’Rourke’s article, it’s because of the re-writes, and because “as Nancy has aged, children’s book publishing has become more sensitive to psychological issues”, and Nancy now “acknowledges her flaws, and shows herself to be a more inclusive soul than the old Nancy.”
I sure wouldn’t hesitate to re-read these books, even now. And, to me, it would be a good way of saying to Nancy Drew and friends, “Happy Birthday”!
It is always gratifying to emerse oneself into a totally alien culture and become so absorbed into that world that one feels that one could navigate with ease any twists and turns that might come up while one is there. That is the feeling that I get when I read the wonderful series of mysteries by the British author Barbara Nadel featuring Turkist police inspector Cetin Ikmen. I know in the back of my mind that I would be completely out of my element in the palaces and the back alleys of Istanbul, but Nadel paints such a complete picture of these places that I feel that I would be right at home, and her policeman is such an ethical and competent detective that I feel that I would love to bump into him and have a conversation about his latest case or his large family (9 children) or his Albanian mother who is reputed to have had magical powers which Ikmen has inherited, or any number of topics about which he is knowledgeable.
The Ikmen series runs to at least 9 titles and I am sure there are more to come. They are in cronological order but it is possible to wade in anywhere and navigate the story without getting lost and wishing that you could have read the series in order.
A particularily delightful story which shows off all the talents of Cetin Ikmen is Death by Design. The action takes place in both Istanbul, Turkey and London, England. The plot involves the smuggling and enslaving of illegal aliens to work in nightmarish conditions producing counterfeit goods. The descriptions of the conditions of these illegal workplaces and of the efforts to close them down are some of the most compelling fictional narratives that I have read in a long time.
When I look for "something to read" I want a character and a setting that I would like to spend a good deal of time with. Nadel's Inspector Ikmen series meets that standard in every way.
Death by Design
Three compelling but unrelated stories unfurl in alternating chapters. The deftly drawn characters of Await Your Reply share just one common thread—the absence of any attachment to their personal histories. Gradually, the author injects a smattering of clues, subtle and easily overlooked, and eventually weaves a stunning web of connections between these people and their unraveling lives.
Dan Chaon employs several creative devices to render his writing unique, but time is the premiere trickster. Jumbled sequences bring to mind the dazzling film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the artful Memento, both of which whipsaw the viewer's sense of logic. But this literary telling progresses smoothly and most often masquerades as linear. A puzzling story whose ending happens before its beginning is bound to test the readers’ wit!
This is a "genre-bending" novel about the fragile nature of identity, an expose of technology’s ruinous potential, a masterful, if sobering, treatment of alienation, and a picture of the horrors that can befall people who lose their grounding---by chance or by choice.
Dan Chaon says his inspiration sprang from some favorite classics read in childhood, including some with a supernatural bent. I believe this chilling, contemporary spin on timeless themes is remarkable and fresh.
If you read this book, I’ll await your reply. It cries out to be discussed!
Await Your Reply
In Stillwater, Mississippi, the much beloved Reverend Lee Barker has been missing for 19 years. Some people say he just got in his car and drove away. But most of the townspeople suspect that his widow and stepchildren murdered him and buried his body somewhere on the farm. Why would they suspect Grace? She would have only been 13 years old! How could she have had anything to do with it? They also suspect his gold digging widow, who, after all, was not good enough for the righteous reverend. And then there was Clay, the rebellious teenager, who now carries a big gun and waves a big fist trying to keep people from digging up the past.
Well, I don’t want to give too much away! Dead Silence is the first book in Brenda Novak’s trilogy. Dead Giveaway and Dead Right completes the series.