Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Death in Sicily: The First Three Novels in the Inspector Montalbano Series--The Shape of Water; The Terra-Cotta Dog; The Snack ThiefDeath in Sicily: The First Three Novels in the Inspector Montalbano Series--The Shape of Water; The Terra-Cotta Dog; The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I waited for the newest Donna Leon mystery, I searched for some read-alikes, and the Inspector Montalbano of Sicily series was the first suggested. Death In Sicily is actually an omnibus edition of the first three books in the series. By the time I finished the third one, I knew I was in for the long haul.

The author was a former television producer and director who worked on the Italian production of the Maigret series; he was privileged to observe the playwright who adapted the novels for the screen. It was a masterclass in storytelling, he says. Over the course of these three books, he learned character development, one of the most important things in a series: it’s not only the mystery plot, but the setting and characters that bring the stories to life—particularly necessary when death is a major theme.

Inspector Montalbano is a sensualist, delighting in the taste of wine, women, and food. He’s always trying to balance the need to maintain order without the harshness of enforcing the letter of the law. A need for justice and a tender heart don’t coexist comfortably. He’s impatient with his superiors and his staff, and it goes the other way, too. He’s in the process of possibly building a family in these first three books, something he wants and pushes away with the same amount of energy. I overlook how he thinks all the younger women are after him, since the other bits make up for it: interesting plots, village antics, quirky and sympathetic characters, lots of food—worth reading for menu ideas alone! Will Montalbano and his long-distance Livia ever commit to marriage? Will he finally go too far and actually punch one of his subordinates? Or his boss? What delicious strange delicacy will housekeeper Adelina leave for dinner next?

I enjoyed Montalbano’s Sicily as much as Brunelli’s Venice. I’m not sure I’ll ever like Montalbano as much as I do Brunelli; he’s a much cruder and more cynical guy. But he is equally as honorable in his job, and that’s his saving grace. As all mystery readers know, a simple seaside village in any country can play host to an infinite amount of murder despite its quaint atmosphere. It’s what keeps us reading.

Alas, October 2021 will be the publication of the final, 28th novel.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Flawless Firekeeper

Firekeeper's DaughterFirekeeper's Daughter by Angeline Boulley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Honestly, I think part of the huge buzz about this excellent book is that eager readers are ready to sign up for whatever comes next from this author. The story is told through the perspective of Daunis Fontaine, an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Her coming-of-age story is seamlessly woven into a masterfully plotted mystery, for a read that's satisfying on all levels. Though the book was selected for Reese Witherspoon's YA Bookclub, it has great crossover appeal for older adults: for readers of Frederick Backman’s Beartown certainly, and especially for readers who’ve enjoyed Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee, Bowen's Montana M├ętis mysteries, and Stabenow's Kate Shugak stories.
When writing about contemporary Native Americans, one must address poverty and prejudice, but this is not an "issues" book, nor is it preachy in any way. Those aren’t the basics of Native culture, they’re social influences. This book has everything in addition to poverty and prejudice: mystery, murder, sports, love, faith—and the indomitable spirit and character of the young Ojibwe woman and the community at its center. It was an honor to be invited into the heart of this community. One of the reasons I love this character so much is that she feels like a portrait of all the Native women the author has known and loved. I see in Daunis something of all the Native women I have known and loved, also.
Daunis walks between two worlds, that of her Native heritage and her white heritage, but it's a bit easier to fit in to the indigenous community; in the white world, even though her grandparents are rich, she's illegitimate. She's more accepted in the Ojibwe community, but she's not enrolled in the tribe and gets some flak there as well. She's set to go away to college but her uncle recently died and she decides to do her first year at the local community college to stay close to her fragile mom.
Her hockey star half-brother is in his senior year, and when she notices a bit too much about the new guy on the team, Daunis is recruited to an undercover investigation of a new kind of meth that's been showing up in the Upper Peninsula. Deception isn't natural to Daunis, and at first she refuses. But then tragedy strikes very close and she changes her mind. Using her science skills, her own hockey star background and her access to the community, she dances ever closer to danger.
It's such a pleasure to read a book that has such great characters, setting, and pacing. I'm hoping that this is the beginning of a series, but for whatever Angeline Boulley writes next, I'm impatiently waiting. Thank you, Ms. Boulley, for following your dream of writing. Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Book of Ana

The Book of LongingsThe Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What better time to engage with the roots of Christian faith than the days before Easter, I thought. I could write five pages and do a weekend retreat on this book; it might engage you or enrage you—possibly both. I knew, with Kidd, I wasn’t going to get a fundamentalist approach; if you come from that background, like me, you’ll find plenty of triggers, in addition to a meticulously researched, brilliantly imagined adventure story.
It’s soon evident that The Book of Longings could be the title of a scroll found in a cave: Ana, the main character, is the privileged daughter of the head assistant of Herod Antipas. He’s allowed his daughter to read and write; she has all the skills of a scribe. She also has mystical experiences and a hunger for God. She becomes a woman at fourteen and loses her favored child status. She’s betrothed to a friend of her father, inspected in a public market. That horrible day, she has an encounter with Jesus. Their eyes meet across the crowd—you know how that part of the story goes. The Jesus that Ana encounters is a human Jesus, a carpenter and odd-jobber struggling to support his family after his father Joseph’s death. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever see him again, but it’s love at first sight. Ana has an older, adopted brother; his name is Judas, and he’s an agitator, a man fighting against Roman rule. Ana, Judas, and Jesus intersect, and Jesus does marry Ana. These are the years before the Baptist, before the dove.
The plot is contrived, but masterfully so. Many Bible parables are woven throughout this book, with the rest of Jesus’ story. It made me check my Nag Hammadi & encyclopedia of religious history, too.
Here are some of the themes: women in religion and history; spirit of the law and letter of the law; privilege and poverty; social justice versus status quo. In the relationship between Ana & Jesus there are echoes of Heloise & Abelard, Romeo & Juliet, Clare & Francis, Martha & Mary.
In the end, the most shocking thing about this book is that it is the book of Ana, and not the book of Jesus. Nevertheless, it was a good preparation for Easter, for it celebrates the ever-present God of Love and Wisdom.

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

An Inspiration in Desolation

A Desolation Called Peace (Teixcalaan, #2)A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Of course you must read the previous book first. If you are a fan of intellectual space opera, you'll enjoy it. Also plenty of action. And you need to be able to enjoy a diverse culture with plenty of queer folk. If you have ever fallen in love with a "savage" culture because of poetry, you will especially enjoy these books. Enjoyed the homage to graphic novels in this one, that was fun.
I almost never give five stars after the first book in a series, because the novelty of the world-building is part of that 5th star, for me. After reading almost everything in SFF (started with my dad's 1950s mags in the 70s, went backwards & forwards), it takes a lot to get that 5th star. But this one delivers the same amazement, a perfect balance of art & craft. Brava!

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

HumansHumans by Brandon Stanton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that I wish I could give to each of my friends and family. My heart has been touched, I’ve laughed, I’ve cried at the 400 or so amazing, tender stories presented here. Some folks might remember the work of Studs Terkel, an oral historian whose books of interviews with ordinary people telling of the Depression of the 1930s, on soldiering in our wars, and on working life were excerpted in Readers Digest and hit the bestseller lists in the 1970s-90s. These snapshots of regular people going about their lives and the words that accompany them are the closest thing I’ve seen to another body of work that celebrates our common humanity.
Brandon started out telling the stories of people he met on the streets of New York City, and then was able to travel around the world to over forty different countries. His work’s been such a hit because it’s both surprising and comforting to enter the lives of strangers. Stylish people who are deserts inside, homeless people whose hopes rise high: no matter people’s faces, no matter their ages, no matter the country they’re in—no matter what people seem to be like from the outside, our insides are all the same: various degrees of love, fear, judgement, wonder, grief, certainty, hope, despair, confusion.
Some of the stories I relate to so much; some make me sad or angry, others make me grateful for my own road taken. People talk about their pets, their relationships—or lack thereof—their joys, their sorrows; their childhoods, children, parents, schools, jobs; their opportunities and life losses. In this wide world, we’re each alone—and yet we’re all connected through shared experiences, through shared stories. All the friends we’ve known were just faces to us once, until we knew their stories. It’s curiously joyful—at the end of this awful year, in the season of love and new beginnings—to acknowledge that despite all the beliefs that divide us, we all have more in common than we fear in this fraught and changing world.
The coffee-table size book is good to be dipped into at random, savored in pieces or gulped wholesale, however you care to; it’s just a bit heavy for arthritic hands. It’s on sale at many retailers and I highly recommend this glimpse into the common soul of humanity.

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Cooking Your Way To A Better Life?

Miss Cecily's Recipes for Exceptional LadiesMiss Cecily's Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reader, I skimmed back through the book to find the most intriguing recipe titles; then I glanced at the back of the book, to find them there as well. If you’re intrigued by the following, you’re going to enjoy the book, I’ll venture.
“Tea for a Crotchety Aunt”, “Breakfast with a Hangover”, “Dinner for a Charming Stranger”—recipes with advice for food, life, and love.
When I picked up the book, I was expecting a feel-good story about a woman who starts volunteering at an old-folks’ home, and figures out her life thanks to advice from a crotchety old lady with a heart of gold. What I got was a story with more depth, about an intergenerational friendship that made me laugh and cry.
Kate is a modern British woman, working an ok job in marketing at a food emporium and trying to bring an ok boyfriend up to scratch so she can start married life. On her fortieth birthday, she and Nick are on vacation in France when he admits, no, he doesn’t want to move in together after all, and Kate has to move back in with her mother temporarily since she’d already given up her flat share. Seeing her floundering in chaos, Kate’s friend talks her into volunteering as a way to get out of her head. Unfortunately, the kitten socializing program is full, so that leaves the care home.
Cecily is 97, and she’s been waiting to die for years. She’s impatient, sad, and angry. She can’t enjoy her books any longer, and reading was the only thing that made her life bearable. She’s forgotten more about food than any of the other ladies ever knew, and she’s not impressed with Kate’s first efforts at the cooking demo. One thing age can bring is honesty over social convention; despite a rocky start Cecily and Kate talk about the reality of their lives and friendship develops, giving two lonely people the opportunity to move on from fed up with life to feeding the soul.
It’s a perfect read for this holiday season, when friends and family remain physically distant to protect the vulnerable; there’s always comfort food, but sometimes we need to reach out in new ways to learn new recipes for life and love.

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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Recipe For Danger

Miss Graham's Cold War CookbookMiss Graham's Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is getting quite the checkouts at the library, deservedly so. Rees based her spy novel on the possibilities and silences of her own family history, and takes us back to the beginnings of the Cold War: Germany, 1946.
Edith Graham has been more lucky than plucky in life, but that’s all about to change. As modern world wars chewed up the available able-bodied men, necessity opened opportunities for women to do more. Edith spent the war teaching in Coventry; she applies to go to Germany, to help re-establish schools after the war. Her sneaky cousin recruits her to try to find someone they knew before the war; it turns out he was a member of the Nazi High Command.
She’s led to assume that von Stavenow is to be punished, but she finds out that there’s a competition between the governments of Britain, the USA, and Russia to simply recruit the Nazi top brass and scientists to work for them. The Nazis, of course, would love to be whisked off to new lives and new identities instead of be jailed or suffer alongside their countrymen, starving in the rubble and devastation.
Edith’s friends think that those who risked and lost their lives in the war deserve to see the work of the Nazis buried rather than continuing in other countries; they ask her to work for them as well. They’re also trying to find an internal traitor in the War Office and evidence is disappearing in the postwar “cleanup”. Edith is drawn in because of her idealism and her connections, and it’s her idea to send messages through recipes on postcards, using a popular cookbook as the code. What she’s really trying to figure out, though, is how can people you love and share good times with go home and torture other people?
Rees doesn’t gloss over the privations and atrocities of wartime, nor the dangers of spying. She’s not shy depicting the difference between those who want justice, those who want payback, and those who just want to continue living the high life, either.
The Cold War is the war I grew up with: Britain and the USA against Russia; posturing and propaganda on the surface, proxy wars in Asia, South America, and the Middle East. Like Edith, I’m forced to admit that war continues.

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