Saturday, February 29, 2020

Under A Pole Star by Stef Penney

Flora Mackie grew up as the daughter of a whaling captain.  As a single parent, he made the decision to take his daughter with him on his yearly expeditions to the North to hunt whales so Flora grew up familiar with the environment, her friends Eskimo children.  When she was an adult, her only dream was to return and do scientific work in the area as it was still mainly unexplored and not much was known about the weather and other features.

Other individuals had this same yearning.  In particular, there was a race to be the first to get to the North Pole and many expeditions were mounted to do so.  One was led by Lester Armitage, an explorer who was willing to bend any rules in order to get results.  His crew was evenly divided between those who wanted to explore uncharted territory and those interested in scientific work in the area.  Jakob de Beyn was one of the scientists, interested in the geographic information that could be gained. 

On expeditions to the North, Flora and Jakob meet.  There is an instant connection and when they both returned home, they met again and a love affair started.  Flora was married but to a man who was disabled from an accident and the affair broke off when he had a health crisis.  The two met again in later years on expeditions and the affair was reignited.  They had in common their love for the land and their dislike of Armitage who Jakob held responsible for his best friend's death. 

This novel allows the reader to go to these frigid lands without leaving the comfort of their home.  The story line goes back and forth in time, between the expeditions the two main characters went on and the final expedition in 1948 where the North Pole was finally reached.  The two main characters are interesting, especially Flora who had to fight the mores of her time and the strictures against women having control of their own lives.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Chase Darkness With Me by Billy Jensen

Billy Jensen grew up on Long Island, the only son in a family of girls.  His hero was his father who ran a painting company.  He and his father were inseparable, and what his father loved was true crime.  He liked to read crime stories in the paper and talk about them with anyone around.  Billy grew up to be a news reporter, partly due to this early exposure to his father's fascination.

Billy started as a stringer for papers, just happy to get any jobs.  But he soon turned to focusing on crimes and had an early success when a body was found under a house.  He tracked down the former owner and it turned out that man was the murderer; the body his former mistress.  After that, Billy was hooked.  But as newspaper after newspaper went under, he needed another medium to focus his work on.  That medium is the Internet.

Jensen is in the forefront of using the Internet to crowdsource information to solve murders.  He explains how he uses Facebook, for example, to get information, pictures and clues focused specifically on the audience that may have answers.  An early success was the murder of a man in the street by another man in a hoodie that concealed his features.  But Billy was able to uncover valuable information by posting a video of the crime, narrowing down on the man's hairline and distinctive gait.  He gave the information he received to the police and the man was eventually arrested.

The book focuses on several cases that Jensen was involved with.  One was a crime where four barrels were discovered in a forest, a woman and three little girls within.  Despite the best efforts of all, these women are not identified nor their killer found even as years go by.  Another was a case where a woman with a dragon tattoo on her shoulder is a suspect.  The most chilling case is that of a serial killer who Jensen helped identify.  This man's pattern was that he would target a woman with young children, kill the woman then use the child in his search for another woman, his story how lost he was to raise a child alone.  After securing the next woman and child, he would kill the child he had and start the pattern again. 

Fans of true crime will find this an invaluable book.  It talks about the DNA controversy of using familial matches to identify killers.  It gives practical advise to those interested in working on cases from their homes and how to work with the police.  It details Jansen's friendship with Michelle McNamara whose work was pivotal in catching the Golden State Killer who is yet to go on trial.  Readers will enjoy Jensen's retelling of crimes and the men and women who commit them.  This book is recommended for true crime readers.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Follow You Home by Mark Edwards

It was to be a relaxing time of travel and fun memories for Daniel and Laura.  Daniel had just sold his Internet app to a large company and is taking a break.  He and Laura decide to tour Europe before their marriage and the first few weeks are everything they had anticipated.  But trouble found them.  A foolish mistake led them to be summarily set off the train they were traveling on when they couldn't produce their tickets or passports.  They are stranded in a small rural station along with another passenger who argued on their behalf.  The station is closed so they start walking to find the nearest settlement to try to straighten out their situation.  Before they can get there, one of the most horrible events one can imagine takes place and they end up running to civilization, determined to put it out of their minds and lives.

But tragedy is not so easily avoided.  With the help of the embassy, they get back to their home in London but they are both affected by what happened.  Although they promise never to tell anyone, the stress tears them apart and soon Laura has moved out, leaving Daniel to try to pick up the pieces by himself.  Events begin to happen that show him that the trouble has followed him home and soon everyone associated with him starts to have tragedies in their own lives.  Who or what is behind the issues Daniel must face and work through?

Mark Edwards has written a traveler's tale that will strike fear into the reader.  The scariest part of Daniel's ordeal is that he doesn't know where the calamities are coming from but he realizes that every person he tries to talk to about his troubles is being put in danger themselves.  That leaves him alone and trying to solve mysteries on his own.  He is determined to find out what is going on and get back with Laura but will he be able to do so without even worse events happening?  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

They met on what was the worst days for each of them.  Their first meeting was on a beach in Nigeria and ended with Little Bee's sister being killed by mercenaries.  Their second meeting was two years later when Little Bee was released from a British Immigration Detention center and arrived at Sarah's house on the day her husband, Andrew, was to be buried. 

Both women are reeling from the fates life has handed them.  Little Bee just wants a place where she can feel safe and her dream had been to find Sarah and Andrew.  Sarah is trying to understand the loss of her husband and find a way to move forward raising her young son, Charlie.  She finds it difficult to grieve as her marriage had been falling apart since that day in Nigeria and she is involved with another man, Lawrence. 

Both women are looking for a way to move forward.  Will that way be together or will each of them move on separately?

Chris Cleve has written a novel with characters that won't be easily forgotten.  He explores the themes of what we might owe to strangers in difficult situations and that of family, either blood related or chosen.  The two women must make choices that are not readily apparent in order to have lives that work for them as they move on from the horrors of their pasts.  While there are horrors to be escaped, there is also hope for what a future might be if they can figure out their next steps.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard

The year is 1840 and the location is Springfield, Illinois.  Mary Todd is the belle of the town, a debutante who is considered the most prestigious catch in the city.  Abraham Lincoln is a poor man who rides the circuit as a lawyer, away for weeks at a time and deficient in social skills.  His best friend is Joshua Speed, the owner of the local mercantile store and his roommate.  Joshua is everything Lincoln is not; handsome, witty and skilled in all the social graces.  Yet the two men form a friendship that makes the hostesses of the town never invite one without the other, the two complementing each other so well that they almost seem to have an act.

No one would expect Lincoln and Mary to become a pair, least of all Mary.  She is initially put off by him as are many by his lack of conventional looks and awkwardness but she discovers that under his exterior lies an interesting man who she just can't seem to forget.  Her sister, with whom she is living while she finds a husband, is appalled that Mary might consider Lincoln to be a suitor even though he is a law partner of her own husband.  Yet there is something about Lincoln that makes Mary unable to forget him and look at more socially suitable men.

As time goes on, tension springs up between Joshua and Abraham as Abraham becomes more involved with Mary.  There is almost a jealousy that Joshua has for anyone else in Lincoln's life.  Although it is never spoken, it becomes clear that the friendship may mean more to Joshua than it considered acceptable.  What will become of this trio of individuals?

Louis Bayard has written a tale of the early years of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd that will keep the reader compulsively turning the pages.  We know of Mary Todd Lincoln only in her latter years, when she is half mad with grief for her children.  Almost no one knows anything about Joshua Speed and his pivotal role in Lincoln's evolution from a backwoods lawyer to a man who can lead a nation in its most perilous times.  The writing is delicious and this reader finished the book only to vow to read all of Bayard's titles that I haven't yet read.  He has always been one of my favorite authors and this book is proof of why.  This book is recommended for readers of historical and literary fiction.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers has very little in her life.  She has her job at Scotland Yard and she has a few friends.  One is Inspector Thomas Lynley and then there are her neighbors.  Taymullah Azhar is a research scientist, a Muslim working and living in London.  His ten year old daughter, Hadiyyah, is someone Barbara cherishes and she has become friends with the father as well.

Now Hadiyyah is gone.  Azhar had a relationship with an English woman named Angelina who is Hadiyyah's mother although the two never married.  Now Angelina has taken Hadiyyah and disappeared.  Azhar is desolate and begs Barbara to help him find his daughter.  Barbara is only too glad to help although it puts her tenuous job at Scotland Yard in more danger as she spends time on the search instead of putting her nose to the grindstone on her assignments.  With the help of a private detective, they discover Angelina has a new man and he has taken her and Hadiyyah to Italy.  Then the worst happens. 

Angelina shows up in London, shouting at Azhar to give her their daughter.  Since Azhar doesn't have her, it is plain that something has happened and someone else has Hadiyyah.  Although Barbara wants to go to Italy to help find the girl, her superior at the Yard absolutely refuses although Lynley is sent as the British representative to help the Italian police as he can.  Can the girl be found?

This is the eighteenth Inspector Lynley novel and is a bit of a departure as it focuses more on Detective Havers than on Lynley.  Havers's tendency to cut corners and do what she thinks is best instead of strictly following orders has her job on the line with a new Chief Inspector and this disruption couldn't have come at a worse time for her professionally.  She tries everything she can to find the little girl she has come to love even if it means sacrificing her own career and friendships.  This book is recommended to readers of mystery fiction.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The 7 1/2 Deaths Of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

He wakes up in the forest, disoriented.  But he doesn't have time to figure things out as he sees a fleeing figure and someone chasing the woman who is running for her life.  As he stumbles away, he realizes he doesn't even know who he is.  After running for help, he comes upon a huge country house and bursts in only to find that no one really believes him.  But he does get a name for who he is although it doesn't seem right.

As the day progresses, he finds out the rules.  This is the Hardcastle ancestral home and the daughter of the house will be murdered that night at a dinner and dance.  He needs to find out who will do the murder.  To do so, he will go from host to host, waking up as each of them until he manages to put the clues together.  He finally finds his name, Adrian Bishop, but Adrian's essence is not available as takes on the thoughts and emotions of each of his hosts.

What a collection of hosts they are.  There is the coward, the blackmailer, the rapist, the massively obese businessman, the lawyer, the policeman.  Each has a piece of the puzzle but can Adrian extract what each man knows and put it together?  Just to make things more difficult, there are those fighting him to be the first to uncover the mystery and there are those who would kill him to prevent him winning.  There are the Hardcastles, whose plan of a dinner and dance is less to celebrate their daughter than to remind her of the day her brother was killed years before, a death they blame on her.  There are those who profess to be his allies, but can he trust them?

Turton has written a debut mystery that is full of twists and turns.  The reader starts out as confused as Adrian and only slowly starts to understand what is going on as the clues he gets are given to them as well.  This serves to underscore the confusion Adrian experiences and the various explanations come to the reader as much as a surprise as they do to Adrian. Underneath the surface, the tension steadily mounts and the ending is climatic and unexpected.   This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

They find each other in hardship and begin a relationship that lasts the rest of their days.  Thomas McNulty has come to America as his family flees the famine in Ireland.  The journey is horrendous and Thomas is the only survivor in his family.  John Cole has a similar story, fleeing an unhappy family that is destroyed by poverty.  The two swear loyalty to each other and set out to find a way to survive.

Their first job is out West where they dress as women to provide some solace to the rough life that miners endure.  The men know the boys are not women but the chance to hold someone dressed in lovely clothes and dance for a while provides an escape from their brutal existence.  Thomas finds he enjoys dressing as a woman and the finery and comfort of being seen as a woman.

Their next job is as soldiers and their assignment is fighting the Indians still in the territory.  John Cole, in particular, is a sharpshooter and the two men spend several years fighting for their major for whom they would do anything.  After this assignment, they drift north and become players in a troupe in a bar where again Thomas recreates his role as a woman.

But history waits on no man and the two are swept up in the Civil War and then, when captured, in Andersonsville Prison.  Released, they end up going to Tennessee to help out a former friend from their regiment on his farm.  With them is the daughter they have adopted, an Indian girl who was the sole survivor of a massacre of her tribe by the Army.  When her life is threatened, a situation is put into motion that will threaten everything the two have managed to create.

Sebastian Barry has written a history of the American West that shows how difficult the life was and what men would do in order to survive.  The two men's relationship is the only stable thing in a life that could change overnight and where violence could arise quickly out of nowhere.  They fight not only on the field but to carve out a place where they can feel safe and have a family and the love every human needs.  This novel was nominated for the Booker Prize and is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Normal People by Sally Rooney

They should never have been friends.  Connell is popular at school, a jock, smart and in the top circle socially.  Marianne is totally unpopular, the girl everyone talks about and makes fun of.  She can be found by herself reading a book and ignoring everyone who makes her life uncomfortable.  She is acknowledged as the smartest person in the class and wealthy but that doesn't give her any status.  The two develop a relationship outside of school and even there it shouldn't have happened.  Connell's mother cleans house for Marianne's family.  The two ignore each other at school but soon they develop a sexual relationship outside the prying eyes of their classmates.  It continues until close to the end of high school when Connell does an unforgivable thing to Marianne.

Cut to college.  Both end up at Trinity College in Dublin.  There the roles are reversed.  Marianne has an active social life and is doing great in school.  Her life is the one she has dreamed of living as she always knew better things were waiting once she got away from the small town she grew up in.  Connell is not as lucky.  The traits that made him popular in high school don't seem to count for much at Trinity and he finds it difficult to make connections.  He ends up at a party and finds his host is dating Marianne.  They reconnect and end up living together but at the end of the year a conversation that is misconstrued by each leads to the end of their time together.

As the months and then years go by, Marianne and Connell's relationship endures although in various forms.  They see each other through other relationships but there is a draw to each other that pulls them together time after time.  Will this be an enduring relationship and are they even right for each other?

Sally Rooney has written a very readable novel about modern romance.  There are lots of other people at the periphery of Connell and Marianne's relationship and sometimes they seem to be more important to the two than their love for each other.  There is a casualness to love in this novel that is probably more realistic than the mantra of the one true love many readers were brought up to believe but it is a bleaker life than a relationship that puts the other first forever.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and also for parents that need to understand what love is like for their children in today's world.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Hawkweed Prophecy by Irena Brignull

They should never even have met, let alone become friends.  Poppy Hooper has been an outcast her entire life.  She is shunned at school and her academic life has consisted of being cast out of one school after another.  Her mother is in a psychiatric hospital lost in delusions while her father insists everything is fine.  She and her father have just moved to another new town and the pattern is playing itself out again.  She has no friends at school where everyone thinks she is weird.

Ember Hawkweed would have done great at the school.  She is the blonde hair, blue eyed girl everyone wants to be friends with.  But she doesn't go to school.  Instead she lives in a witches' coven deep in the woods and meeting or talking to 'chaff' as normal people are called is forbidden.  Ember is the worst witch in the coven, barely able to do anything magical.  It's a strange situation for a Hawksweed when prophecy insists one of her name will be the next witch queen.

When the two girls meet, they are drawn to each other and soon a strong friendship is formed.  Ember wants to hear all about chaff life with boys and pretty clothes and rock music.  Poppy is fascinated with anything magic and lives for the ancient books Ember sneaks out for her to study.  Soon Poppy is consumed by the magic and finds a talent and strength in herself she never suspected.

Leo lives on the streets.  He ran away from home and the hulking stepfather and stepbrothers who delighted in making his life a misery.  He meets Poppy and is instantly attracted to her and she to him.  But when he meets Ember, she is also attracted to Leo and now he must decide which girl to pursue, knowing that he will probably end their friendship.

This is the first in the Hawksweek series.  The secret of these girls is slowly revealed but the reader will suspect the truth before the reveal.  It is a story of teenage alienation and the strong instant friendships that are formed during the young adult years along with the thrill of first loves.  This book is recommended for young adult readers.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Booksie's Shelves, February 2, 2020

A supplementary edition of Booksie's Shelves.  Yesterday was our local library book sale.  That's always a dilemma for me.  Looking anywhere in my house, the stacks and stacks of books and overflowing bookshelves make it clear I definitely don't need any more books.  But, books on sale are hard to resist and I didn't.  Here's what I bought:

1.  Dismantled, Jennifer McMahon, suspense
2.  Merivel, Rose Tremain, historical fiction
3.  San Miguel, T. C. Boyle, literary fiction
4.  Damnation Street, Andrew Klaven, suspense
5.  Hostage, Robert Crais, suspense
6.  Even Dogs In The Wild, Ian Rankin, police procedural
7.  Bone Rattler, Eliot Pattison, historical mystery
8.  The Last Child, John Hart, suspense
9.  The Royal Family, William Vollmann, literary fiction
10.  Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Said To Tell You She's Sorry, literary fiction
11.  Alan Bradley, The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches, mystery
12.  Alan Bradley, I Am Half-Sick Of Shadows, mystery
13.  Foul Matter, Martha Grimes, mystery
14.  Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri, anthology
15.  No Mark Upon Her, Deborah Crombie, mystery
16.  Room, Emma Donoghue, literary fiction
17.  Blue Labyrinth, Preston & Child, mystery
18.  Blue Shoe, Anne Lamott, literary fiction
19.  Nothing But The Truth, John Lescroart, mystery
20.  Hard Evidence, John Lescroart, mystery
21.  Dr. Death, Jonathan Kellerman, mystery
22.  Feast Day Of Fools, James Lee Burke, mystery

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Aaron is still figuring out this whole adult life thing.  He works at his family's vanity publishing house where they specialize in a series called The Beginner's Guide to various things like parenting, job performance, buying a house, making a will, etc.  Aaron has a limp and an arm that doesn't work as well as the other and has spent his life fending off well wishers who want to mother him.  He knows he can take care of himself and is not interested in being treated like a child.  When he falls in love, it's with Dorothy who is a no nonsense doctor a few years older than him who never tries to manage him unlike his older sister.

But things aren't going well.  Dorothy was killed a year ago in a freak house accident when a tree falls on the house and the roof collapses.  Aaron has had to move back in with his sister while his house is being renovated by a team of workers.  Oh, and he has started seeing Dorothy occasionally and hears her talking to him in his mind.  It's not constant but it happens frequently enough that he's pretty sure it's the real deal.  Can Aaron move forward to a new life after his rough start?

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors and reading a book by her is like coming home and settling into your favorite chair with a box of candy and a good read.  She gently leads the reader to life lessons that you realize you always knew but maybe had forgotten in the rush of daily life.  Aaron is another likeable character who just needs some time to figure things out and the reader will be cheering for him to do so.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.