Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"The Laws of Murder" by Charles Finch

Author Charles Finch is now deep into his Charles Lenox series set in the middle of 1800's England.  They are probably classified as "cozy" mysteries but that doesn't mean they are without a great deal of substance.  

I  have to share the following thoughtful quote from the latest in the series called The Laws of Murder:

"It was funny how change came in life---usually not in great calamitous bursts but in the gentle onward motion of the years, half visible, mostly unconsidered from day to day.  Marriage, children:  They were like a series of ships out upon the sea as you stood upon the dock, moving so slowing toward you that they never seemed as if they would arrive.  Except that then they were there all at once, huge and close, pausing for a moment and then sailing on toward the next person."

Charles Finch's protagonist, Charles Lenox, is of the upper-crust in Victorian England when gentlemen of his standing are not supposed to work.  He becomes an amateur detective and is quite good at it.  He's intelligent, determined and decent.  The series is fresh and rich in historical information.  You will feel yourself walking the gas lit streets of Victorian London right along side Charles.

This series is my favorite along with the Louise Penny Armand Gamache mystery series set in modern day Canada. The first in the Charles Lenox series is A Beautiful Blue Death.  If you love the TV PBS series Downton Abbey, the Queen's corgis, Sherlock Holmes and all things English check out this series!  You will not be disappointed. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, the author of the highly successful The Secret Life of Bees is at it again.  She faltered a bit with The Mermaid Chair which didn't garner fantastic reviews.  But The Invention of Wings is, in the opinion of some of our book club members, even better than The Secret Life of Bees.

Sue Monk Kidd is a former nurse who gained some amount of fame as a contributing editor and writer for the Christian faith-based magazine Guideposts. She explores themes of feminist theology and contemplative Christianity in her writings.  Now with her fiction she has gained a loyal following due to her beautiful writing and historical themes.

The Invention of Wings is a fictionalized account of the life of 19th century abolitionist, writer and women's rights crusader Sarah Moore Grimke and her sister Angelina.  The book goes back and forth between Sarah's life of privilege and the family's house slave, Handful (not a real person).  Both characters are well drawn but Handful's story of the punishing brutality of slavery gains the most sympathy.

The book is set in Charleston which is an interesting aspect.  The author paints a clear picture of what life must have been like for city slaves versus the more well known lives of plantation slaves.  Much of the story involves events that make true the saying "truth is stranger than fiction".  The Invention of Wings is a historical novel that is engrossing, edifying and promotes discussion.  

If the reader wants to try another Sue Monk Kidd book with the intriguing title of Traveling With Pomegranates read this memoir written with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor.  It is an account of "their travels through Greece, Turkey and France at at time when each was on a quest to redefine herself and rediscover one another".  Sue Monk Kidd is such a thoughtful and insightful author that it would be interesting to learn more about her.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Ordinary Grace" is Far From Ordinary

The explanation of the title of William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace is hidden deep within the novel.  It's slow getting there but so well worth the effort.  

This novel evokes a Minnesota summer of 1961.  The reader will be immersed in the feel of long ago days when children could stay out until dusk and a summer day never seemed to end.

"It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms.  Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder."  Frank Drum, then a young boy, tells the story of that fateful summer from his perspective forty years later.  He says "I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer.  About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God."

Beautifully written with sentences that you wish you could remember, this novel won the 2014 Edgar award.  This is one of those books that seems the less said the better.  It is almost summer now, the perfect time to start a haunting, unforgettable story about ordinary grace. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Orphan versus The Little People

It seems that there are so many historical novels lately about real people, especially wives.  We've had one of Frank Lloyd Wright's wives (Loving Frank),  Charles Lindbergh's wife (The Aviator's Wife), F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife (Z), one of Hemingway's wives (The Paris Wife), Edgar Allan Poe's wife (Mrs. Poe), even Benedict Arnold's wife (The Traitor's Wife) as well as Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.  I'm not sure how that last one got in on this craze but it did.

I do know I'm getting tired of reading novels about real people.  Charles Lindbergh's wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, for example, was an acclaimed writer and won numerous honors and awards for her work.  Her Gift From The Sea was the number one non-fiction book in 1955.  Maybe it would be well to promote some non-fiction books, biographies and autobiographies about some of these same people.  That would make for a richer and more in depth experience.

Our book clubs recently read Orphan Train:  A Novel by Christina Baker Kline and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb:  A Novel by Melanie Benjamin (who is also the author of The Aviator's Wife). The contrast is stark.   

Mrs. Tom Thumb is a fictionalized version of the life of  Lavinia Warren, a little person who married Charles Stratton, made famous by P.T. Barnum as General Tom Thumb.  The two little people made front page headlines when they married in 1863 and created a sensation wherever they went when they toured.  There apparently is very little information surviving about the life of Lavinia so maybe this is why the book is repetitious and boring.  Overall, our readers did not enjoy it and many didn't finish. We did comment that the best thing about this selection was to learn more about P.T. Barnum who was actually the most compelling character in the book.
General and Mrs. Tom Thumb
Orphan Train: A Novel is based on actual events but the characters are fictional.  Orphan trains operated from 1853 through the early 1900s.  There were at least 30,000 homeless children in New York City in the 1850s and the idea came about to take these children by train across the country and place them in homes for the hope of a better life.  Approximately 120,000 children were relocated to 45 states as well as Canada and Mexico.  

The fictional Orphan Train is a wonderful read about two very different women.  Vivian is 91 and lives a quiet life in a beautiful old mansion in Maine.  The almost 18 year old Molly is a troubled girl soon to be leaving the child welfare system without any direction or purpose.  Molly comes to stay with Vivian and learns that even though age separates them the two are very much alike.

The publisher says this is "a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are".  Orphan Train is worthy of your time.  You will learn a little bit of history that is unknown to many as well as get to know two characters that will stay with you for a long time.  
It is amazing how good writing and richly drawn characters can elevate a book from just so-so to wonderful.  Check out Orphan Train: A Novel today!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Me Before You" by JoJo Moyes, Best Book Club Selection!

Me Before You by British author and journalist JoJo Moyes is one of the best if not the best book club selection we've ever had.  Two book clubs have read it and all members simply loved this novel.  

JoJo Moyes is one of the few authors to twice win The Romantic Novel of the Year Award.  Besides Me Before You, The Last Letter From Your Lover (which is one of the two winning titles) and The Girl You Left Behind are all receiving great feedback.  Romance novels are not the forte of our book clubs but it seems Ms. Moyes has been practicing the art of writing since her decision to write full time in 2002.  She now cannot be classified as just a romance novelist.  Practice has made perfect.

Me Before You is the story of Lou Clark, a working class young woman who, desperate to make money for her family and hindered by inertia, takes a temporary job as assistant to wealthy, bitter quadriplegic, Will Traynor. That doesn't sound like the makings of a funny, poignant story full of witty dialog, thought-provoking subjects and ultimately an unforgettable love story but it is.  This is one of those books where you feel you are walking right alongside the characters and are sad to close the last page.  The story of Lou and Will will stick with you long after you've finished their story.  Run, not walk, to your local library and checkout Me Before You.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jeffrey Archer's The Clifton Chronicles

Englishman Jeffrey Archer has created quite a resume in his 73 years:  former member of the House of Lords, graduate of Oxford, prison inmate, playwright, author.  He also almost went bankrupt even though he has sold over 250 million copies of his numerous novels.  Readers of a certain age will remember him for the wildly popular Kane and Abel.  Archer said he came up with the idea of the Clifton Chronicles when he was working on a 30th edition of Kane and Abel

He is now working his way through his five part Clifton Chronicles.  The first one, Only Time Will Tell, was this month's book club selection.  The setting is England in 1920 through the start of World War II.  The finale of the series will end in 2020 so this is a very ambitious undertaking. 

Only Time Will Tell, follows Harry Clifton, a poor son of a dockworker who gets an unexpected chance to attend an exclusive boys' school where he makes lifelong friends and learns the truth (?) about his father. The mystery is building in this saga that the titles hint at:  Sins of the Father (#2), Best Kept Secret (#3) and the March 11th release of No. 4 Be Careful What You Wish For.

Archer has said that Harry is loosely based upon his own life. "I was brought up in the West Country (southwest England) with a mother who had a very hard time because my father died young...".  The mysterious figure of Harry's mentor, Old Jack Tar (a favorite character in Only Time Will Tell), is based on a real person, a decorated British army officer.

Jeffrey Archer's own life may be the most interesting read of all.  From a Reuters interview, when Only Time Will Tell was first published, Archer had this to say about his worldwide popularity:  "I got a young kid with a stack of books tapping on my window as I was driving slowly into Mumbai.  I put the window down and the young man said "Would you like the latest Jeffrey Archer?" and I said "I am the latest Jeffrey Archer!".  

First Installment

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dennis Lehane's "The Given Day"


Crime writer Dennis Lehane's ambitious 2008 novel The Given Day may not be for every book club due to its length (it's over 700 pages long) but it certainly is worthwhile whether you read it for a club or just for your own pleasure.  It takes place in Boston which is the setting for other Lehane novels including the acclaimed Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.  It features Danny Coughlin, an Irish police officer who gets involved with the 1919 police strike.  Babe Ruth and other historical figures weave seamlessly throughout the book.  It's the story of two families, one white and the other black, as they struggle to find a place in a quickly changing world after World War I.  Lehane "unflinchingly captures the political and social unrest of a nation caught at the crossroads between past and future".  

The Given Day makes an excellent addition to your reading list if your interest has been piqued about the early 20th century.  While the lords and servants of Downton Abbey are coming to terms with the new century, the people of Boston and other big cities in America were also struggling to make their way during the time between the two great wars.