Friday, April 4, 2014

January & February Books I Loved

BELLMAN AND BLACK/Diane Setterfield
The follow-up novel to her stunning debut (THE THIRTEENTH TALE), Setterfield's hero, William Bellman, encounters a rook as a boy and is haunted all his life by what happened that day. It's very much a storytelling kind of novel, written as though someone were relating the Victorian tale to you around a fire. William loses his mother, falls in love, has a family, succeeds in business, and then makes a dark bargain as he teeters on the edge of destruction. Though it didn't quite measure up to my adoration of THE THIRTEENTH TALE, it is a wonderfully atmospheric story.

From her wildly popular website of the same name, Allie Brosh has put together a series of her posts with their accompanying cartoons in a book. There is the wonderfully descriptive essays on depression, but also memories of her childhood (CAKE!), being lost in the woods with her mother, and a continuing reference to the not-so-bright dogs that have come into her life. If you are a little bit twisted (or love someone who is), this will make you laugh, cry, and be glad that you're not the only oddball in the world.

The latest in the Flavia de Luce mystery series is full of many things I can't talk about for fear of spoiling what has come before. Take my advice, and pick up the first (THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE) and get to know 11-year-old Flavia, who loves chemistry and poisons, and her family living in a falling-down aristocratic estate in 1950's Britain. Flavia solves crimes, but she's also trying to figure out who she is and where she fits and she is the most cold-blooded genius who is still a little girl that you will ever find.

THE STRANGER/Camilla Lackberg
From the Swedish mystery series, in this book Lackberg examines the pressures of a reality-show exploiting its members and ties it in with the mysterious car-crash death of a local woman. Patrik Hedstrom is convinced the woman was murdered and slowly finds other victims in similar circumstances across the years. With flashback sections that slowly bring comprehension to the present case, this series is my favorite of the current Scandinavian crop.

HOTHOUSE/Boris Kachka
An intriguing account of the rise of literary publisher Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux. The publishing home of twenty-five Nobel prize winners, the company was a collection of brilliant businessmen, talented editors, sexual shenanigans, and literary superstars like Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen. If I weren't a writer with a New York publishers, I probably would have found this less enthralling, but it is a peek behind the ivory tower image some readers have of literary publishers.

An account of the current state of foster care in the U.S. is necessarily often depressing, but I found hope in the individual stories. Beam goes in-depth with families who range from trying to adopt their first child out of foster care to a teenagers who are aging out of the system and are woefully unprepared. It gives me faith in the future to know there are those who are willing to love the most difficult children and hang in there even when all evidence points to no good outcome.

The third in the House of Niccolo series finds newly-widowed Nicolas and his private army forcibly headed to Cyprus and the vicious war between James and his half-sister Carlotta for the throne. Nicolas, naturally, is always a step ahead of those who would use him (and sometimes two steps ahead of the reader) but the clever conspiracies are only half the fun. The other half is the characters and the emotional depth Dunnett can express in the most restrained manner.

A "finally-got-around-to" book for me, Eugenides' debut novel (published by the aforementioned Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux) is about the five daughters of the Lisbon family and their slow descent into epic tragedy begun when the first sister throws herself out a window. The narrator is the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who are fascinated by the girls. Not an easy book, and no happy endings, but I am glad I finally read it.

Maggie Hope is finally in Germany, parachuted in for a short and specific undercover mission during WWII. But her spymasters have a particular reason for sending her on this mission, and when Maggie finds a way into Berlin society, she seizes the opportunity to gather information for bother her country and her own peace of mind.

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