Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius J. Reilly has but a simple wish.  He just wants to improve the lives of all around him in New Orleans.  Of course, in order to do so, they must change their ways and follow his suggestions for a better life.  But, alas, Ignatius is misunderstood and ignored.  His obese presence and his superiority complex are off putting and make people flee from him.  From his mother who thinks a man of his age should be working to her friends who believe he should be put in a mental hospital, from the policeman who mistakenly tries to arrest him, to the various employers who attempt to fit him into their workforce, Ignatius is repeatedly misunderstood.

A myriad of interesting characters surround him.  There is the barmaid who wants to improve herself and become an exotic dancer in an act featuring a parrot.  There is the factory owner who doesn't want to supervise his factory but surely wasn't prepared for someone like Ignatius to come in and try to organize his workers.  A policeman who is misunderstood and forced to work undercover in a variety of disguises.  A hot dog vendor who tries to work with Ignatius and is unsure why he doesn't seem to bring in money but is out of product every day.  A socialist female friend from New York City who is concerned about Ignatius's virgin state.  A porter in the bar who is determined to change his fate.  Ignatius's mother who coddles him one day then conspires with her friends to do anything to change him.  What's a visionary to do?

John Kennedy Toole wrote this book while in the Army.  He later committed suicide and his mother began her mission of getting his book published.  She pursued her mission vigorously but unsuccessfully until the author Walker Percy read it and helped get it published in 1980.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.  The character of Ignatius J. Reilly is one that readers will not soon forget and his humorous adventures make this a uniquely American novel.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

American Woman by Susan Choi

The year is 1974 and Japanese-American Jenny Shimada is working as a restoration specialist in an old house in upstate New York.  Her work is meticulous and the elderly woman whose house it is is excited to have such beautiful work done and at such a low price.  Jenny can't complain about the pay or long hours.  She is on the run from the FBI and has been for several years.  She and her boyfriend made bombs and exploded several buildings in support of the anti-war effort for Vietnam.  He was captured and is serving a long term in federal prison.  Jenny went underground and is living a lonely life with only tenuous connections to the movement to sustain her.

Then one of her contacts insists on seeing her.  He recruits her to go help three other people in the movement who are staying in a farmhouse but cannot be seen in the nearby town.  They need someone like Jenny to act as their front, running errands while they write a book about their experiences.  Their experiences are from San Francisco where they kidnapped the wealthy daughter of a millionaire newspaper mogul.  Although the parents paid the ransom, the daughter did not return but re-emerged several months later as a willing participant in a bank robbery, having joined the terrorist organization herself.  Jenny agrees to help the three individuals, a married couple from the original group and the heiress who is now called Pauline.  She lives with the couple until an event ends their stay there then Jenny goes on the run with Pauline.  They manage to avoid the manhunt for another year until they are captured.

Readers who are older will not read far before they realize this is the story of Patty Hearst.  Her kidnapping and reemergence as a participant in the activities of the Symbionese Liberation Army were one of the major stories of the Vietnam War era.  Jenny is, in real life, Wendy Yoshimura, a Japanese-American woman born in the relocation camps of World War II who grew up to rebel against the society that could do such a thing to her family.  The women's struggle to understand each other and the gradual change in them while on the run explores all the nuances of the terrorist and anti-war experience of that time.  The story is told through Jenny's eyes and that distance gives the reader new ways to think about this story.  This book is recommended for literary and historical fiction readers.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Retribution by Val McDermid

Dr. Tony Hill's life has hit a new level of contentment.  During his hospital stay for a damaged knee, he found out one of the secrets of his life; who his father was.  More than that, he discovered that far from despising him as his mother had always said, he had left Tony his expensive house.  For the first time, Tony has a place that makes him feel safe and even loved.  More significantly, he is about to give up his job working with damaged individuals in a psychiatric hospital and move to live there.  The most important person in his life, DCI Carol Jordan, has agreed to live in the house with him as she takes up a new job there.

But plans often go awry.  Carol is faced with a new serial killer in her last days at her old job.  Street prostitutes are showing up dead and it is clear their murders are the act of the same person.  As she works the case with her team, something even worse happens.

Jacko Vance was imprisoned over a decade ago for his crimes.  He had kidnapped, tortured and killed seventeen teenage girls although the case against him for those crimes was thrown out.  He had been given a life sentence for killing a police officer, a new forensic profiler working under Tony Hill who was the first to see Vance for what he was.  The world saw him as a hugely successful TV presenter who had been on his way to winning an Olympic gold medal before the accident that ruined his chances.  Once that dream was over he felt free to indulge the desires he had always harbored.

Now Vance has managed to escape custody and it is clear that the main thing on his mind is retribution against the people he holds responsible for his incarceration.  That list includes his ex-wife but also Carol Jordan and Tony Hill along with other police officers from the original case.  Can the pair find and imprison him again before he can carry out his plans?

The Tony Hill/Carol Jordan series is one of the strongest in the mystery genre.  Val McDermid has created two private individuals, both scarred by events in their background, who have found each other and are making the best of the lives they've been given.  The tension is always high and the reader must find out what happens next.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Strangler by Corey Mitchell

In the late 1990's to early 2000's, Houston, Texas had a problem.  Young girls were turning up dead.  They were found tied up with cord around their necks.  It became obvious that the cases were related and that a serial killer was in residence.

Although the cases were investigated, not much progress was made for eight years.  At that time, DNA testing turned up a suspect who confessed when brought in for interrogation.  That suspect was Anthony Allen Shore, known as Tony.  He ended up confessing to four murders, one of them a nine-year-old child.  As the investigation progressed, he also admitted to serially molesting his own two daughters as well as raping other women.

The case went to court and Tony was charged with first degree murder with the death penalty as a possible verdict.  The prosecutor was one of Houston's most well-known, Kelly Siegler.  Fans now recognize her from her TV show, Cold Justice, but back then she was known as a hard-hitting prosecutor who ran many of the departments in the district attorney's office.  Working with the police officers, Siegler put on a convincing case that ended in his verdict of guilty.

In many ways, Tony Shore was a surprising criminal.  He tested at the genius level with an IQ of 150.  He was also a musical prodigy and at one time wanted to make music his life.  But his mindset and urges led him to a marginal life with jobs such as telephone lineman or tow truck operator.  He always had the ability to charm those around him and never lacked for a woman or two in his life.  But young women were his obsession and he craved the ultimate power.

Corey Mitchell is known as one of the more prolific true crime authors.  This case is an interesting one and readers will enjoy reading about the court case and the work of Siegler and her team.  Many of Shore's family members and women who dated him were interviewed and it is interesting to see how they viewed him.  Many of the police believe that he had more than the four victims he admitted to.  Shore is still on Death Row and perhaps he will eventually answer all the police's questions about his crimes.  This book is recommended for true crime readers.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Murder At The Bus Depot by Judy Alter

When Kate Chambers inherited her grandparents' house and cafe in small town Wheeler, Texas, she left her job and came home to run the cafe.  Her grandparents raised her and her sister and it just felt like the right thing to do.  Now, a few years later, she is part of the town's power structure.  Everyone comes to the cafe and its a hub of the community.  Her sister runs the local B&B and her BIL is the mayor and owner of the hardware store.  She sees the local law enforcement daily and is in close contact with the new pastor and his wife.  Everything is just as they all like it.

But change is coming.  Little Wheeler has caught the eye of a big-time developer and his vision of what the town could be is very different from theirs.  He wants to build tons of houses to lure those who work in Dallas to live here instead.  He wants to tear down the old houses and businesses and bring in box stores and fast food restaurants.  In reality, he wants to turn Wheeler into Dallas Mini.

Kate and her friends are determined that that can't happen.  They hit on the idea of moving the old bus depot and making it a community center.  It has been abandoned for years ever since a young Wheeler wife was killed there one night.  That murder was never solved and the bus depot closed soon afterwards.  Now maybe there's a second life for the depot.

But old wounds never quite heal.  Soon there are rumors about the old case and old hard feelings show up again.  Soon there is even a new murder at the moved structure and Kate is right in the midst of everything.  She and her lawyer boyfriend solved other murder cases in the past and it looks like they need to step in and help with this one.  Can Kate and her crew find the answers the town needs?

This is the fourth novel in the Blue Plate Cafe series.  Alter has written about small town life in a believable fashion and the reader doesn't have to make wild leaps of faith to follow the action.  Each step seems logical to follow on that which has gone before and she captures the spirit of a small town where everyone knows everyone and what they are going through and how to help.  This book is recommended for cozy murder mystery readers.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mistress Of The Art Of Death by Ariana Franklin

In medieval Cambridge, children are being kidnapped and killed in horrific ways.  So far four children have met this fate and the town is up in arms.  Their first and only suspects are the town's Jewish members who have been taken into the local castle where they are living under the sheriff's protection.  Henry II is not pleased with this state of affairs.  Not only does he believe in the law, he also is not happy with how the Jews are being treated as he collects a large amount of taxes from them.  He decides something must be done and writes his cousin who is the King of Sicily, where medicine is known to be at its strongest.

He asks for a master of death, someone who can look at a dead body, perform an autopsy and determine how someone has died.  The person selected is the brightest student at the medical college but her name is Adelia and she is a mistress rather than master of death.  That opens her to charges of witchcraft as women are not supposed to have anything to do with medicine except perhaps childbirth.  Can she function in England with its superstitions as she does in enlightened Sicily? 

Adelia arrives in Cambridge along with her Arabic manservant and a Jewish crime investigator, Simon.  As they travel, they make friends with the local prior who Adelia saves from a deadly disease but the local nuns are not friends as their head is using the bones of the first murdered child as their newest money-making scheme and the murders only increase their notoriety.  There are various returning Crusaders in the town and it becomes clear early in the investigation that being on a Crusade is one of the killer's characteristics.  One of the King's tax inspectors, Sir Rowley Picot, is in town also and it is unclear if he is on their side or if he is a suspect.  As the investigation continues, so do the crimes.  As the murders get closer and closer to Adelia and her group, can they discover the person committing the murders before they are killed themselves?

Ariana Franklin has written an entertaining historical mystery that will keep readers turning pages until the climatic end.  She gives an interesting perspective into the rise of forensic knowledge and how it helps in solving crimes.  Adelia is an interesting character who defies the expectations of her time to be able to work on the things that are important to her.  This is the first novel in a series and readers will be anxious to read more of Adelia's adventures going forth.  This book is recommended for readers of historical mysteries.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

When Evil Calls Your Name by John Nicholl

Cynthia's life started well.  She loved school and happily went off to university to study the law.  There she met her first love and soon they were living together and talking about marriage.  But tragedy struck.  On the weekend they went so he could meet her family, he was struck while running in a hit and run accident that took his life.  Cynthia was shocked and stunned by grief.  Her family did what they could but she couldn't find her motivation to go back and take up her life.

That is, until she met Dr. David Galbraith.  They met at the funeral and he explained that he was one of her boyfriend's professors in the field of social work and child psychology.  He was very kind and helpful and before Cynthia knew it, she had agreed to go back to school and to change her major to the one Dr. Galbraith instructed.  He arranged everything, her classes, her living arrangements, her food and rent.  Soon he was the most important person in her life.

Now, six years later, Cynthia is in prison for twenty years for murder.  She doesn't understand how she got there and her counselor suggests that she write a journal of her life.  As she does, the reader starts to understand along with her how she got there and how her life turned into such a nightmare.

This is the second novel in the Dr. David Galbraith series and a more controlling, evil character would be hard to imagine.  The author, John Nicholl, was a police officer and a child protection social worker.  His background makes him the perfect person to write about this character.  The reader is drawn into Cynthia's dark world and sees it constricting week after week as her dependence on Galbraith grows.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Woman In The Window by A.J. Finn

Dr. Anna Fox has not left her house in almost a year.  She has gone from being a strong, confident woman who worked as a child psychologist to a nervous, anxiety-wrecked woman who can't make herself open the door and go outside.  She has gone from a woman with a loving marriage and a child to one who doesn't live with her family anymore and talks to them occasionally.  Anna spends her days playing online chess, talking on the agoraphobic message forums, watching old movies and drinking way too much wine.

Her other past time is watching her neighbors from her window.  She knows their schedules, who is having an affair and whose children are growing up and headed off to college.  When a new family moves in across from her, she is fascinated by them.  There is a father, mother and one teenage son.  She meets the son who is shy but charming, then the mother.  Both seem a bit reserved and perhaps a bit afraid of the father whom Anna suspects of being controlling.  Then one night Anna looks out at their house and sees something she should not have and it changes everything.  No one believes her as her insecurities and general strangeness are well-known but she knows what she saw.  Can she make someone believe her before it all ends in tragedy?

This is a debut novel and it has arrived with a huge splash.  It has already been bought and is being developed as a major motion picture.  It is being published in more than thirty languages and has garnered great reviews.  It is reminiscent of the best Hitchcock movies; a twisty psychological story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers

In this extensive anthology edited by Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Penguin Classics has collected some of the most extensive writings of African American women writers around the time of the Civil War.  This is a huge achievement as these authors have been often ignored and lost in time.  This new collection brings them together and makes their voice heard so that modern readers can experience some of the things that made up their lives.

There are poems, speeches, excerpts from novels and letters to the editor and opinion pieces.  They speak of the daily injustices these women experienced.  Banned from learning while slaves, they were then mocked for ignorance.  Their families torn asunder by cruel owners that broke the family ties by selling some member many miles away and raped by owners who regarded sex as another perk of ownership, they are then reviled for promiscuity and lack of family feeling.

Yet there is so much hope in these writings.  Hope as they document the achievements of those of their race.  Hope that they can band together and help others be educated and break out of the mire of poverty.  Hope that one day they will be recognized for their worth as individuals not just as oddities who have managed to rise above their circumstances. 

Hollis Robbins is the Director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University and Chair of the Humanities Department at the Peabody Institute.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.  Together they have collected and made available the work of writers such as Sojourner Truth, Hannah Crafts/Bond, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, Julia Collins, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Fanny M. Jackson Coppin.  It is an important and eye-opening work that shows the range of interests and causes that inspired these women.  This book is recommended for history and feminist readers.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

What do you do when your life is a dilemma?  That's Annie's life.  She can either stay with her mother through the abuse or turn her in.  Many children face that problem but Annie's problem is compounded.  For her mother doesn't just abuse her.  She abuses and then kills small children and has killed nine so far.  When things get so bad that Annie just can't stand it anymore, she goes to the police and the country is shocked to find out about the cold-hearted murderer who has lived among them.

Now Annie has a new life, or at least that's what they tell her.  She is in the foster system and staying with a social worker, his wife and daughter.  Her name is now Millie and she goes to a new school with new kids and no one except her foster parents and the school head know her story.  She is getting ready to testify against her mother and then it will all be over.  Or will it? 

Can Millie actually say the words that will send her mother to prison forever?  Can she ever fit in anywhere with her warped background?  Her foster sister is one of the most popular girls at the new school and she takes an instant dislike to Millie.  As everyone turns against her and the pressure of the impending trial mounts, will Millie survive?

Ali Land has written a tense narrative of how those around evil are tainted by it.  Millie tries to overcome her background but it seems everything is against her and it would be very easy to fall into the coping mechanisms her mother taught her.  Land has the background necessary to write about Millie.  She worked for over a decade in children's mental health jobs in England and Australia.  This is her debut novel and it has won multiple prizes.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.