Friday, August 18, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

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With Magpie Murders you get two mysteries for the price of one. 

The first mystery is Magpie Murders itself, the final book in a successful series written by Alan Conway. The deaths in that story take place in the village of Saxby-on-Avon in 1955. The second mystery is the current day murder? accident? suicide? investigated by Susan Ryeland, Conway's editor. 

When Ms. Ryeland reads the as yet unpublished manuscript of Conway's book featuring his popular detective Atticus L√ľnd, she discovers the final chapters are missing. Alas! Who then, she speculates, is the murderer?

Before that question can be answered, a real dead body turns up and Ms. Ryeland is lured by her own curiosity and love of murder mysteries to investigate that death. There are clues to be found everywhere from the quintessential British village where the current day death took place to the fictional characters in Magpie Murders itself.

This was a fascinating read with many compelling characters - two books' worth - and references to Agatha Christie and other Golden Age mysteries, along with a healthy dose of word puzzles.  
I had not read anything about the book, so it all was a surprise and I hope I haven't spoiled too much for you if you decide to read it. It's a good old-fashioned puzzler with plenty of twists and turns. At 500 pages, it's a terrific book to get lost in.

I was amazed that Mr. Horowitz, who has had a hand in writing the television mysteries Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders, could keep track of all the people, places, and plot points. I kept picturing him in his office with walls covered in pink and yellow Post-it notes scribbled with character names and time lines. However he did it, it worked.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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More summer reading homework. I am working with a student who is starting her freshman year in high school and all incoming freshmen are to read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I made a small groaning sound when I discovered that the story takes place in Nazi Germany. 

Oh dear. One of my reading rules: No Books About Nazi Germany. I hate bullies. And mass murderers. But rules are meant to be broken and I agreed to help. We set up the novel noting plan just as I had with the student for Out of My Mind (I wrote about that here). 

If you don't already know, the book concerns 11-year-old Liesel who goes to live with a foster family outside of Munich at the beginning of the Nazi regime. The tale of her friendships, her hardships, her learning to read and discovering the power of words and books is written quite lyrically. The story is narrated by Death. There is the brooding tension and foreboding as the dark cloud of the Nazi horrors builds and begins to affect the lives of Liesel, her family, and neighbors.

My student and I have persevered. We have 100 pages to go. We have had some heartfelt discussions about resilience, forgiveness, the use of propaganda, and loss. 

Please. Lighten up, teachers! Next summer, I hope the students I work with are reading Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

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This is the story of two men. Both are published authors. Conner Joyce has had quite a success with his series of crime thrillers. Adam, the narrator, has published one book. They met years ago when Adam interviewed Conner for a profile published in his now-defunct literary magazine. 

This is Conner's story. But it is also Adam's. 

If I tell you too much it will spoil your surprise at the many twists and turns of the tale. Basically, a wealthy book collector, Dex Dunbar, asks Connor to write a one-off crime novel that no one else will read. It is for his private collection only. 

But things go awry. (Of course, if they didn't, there wouldn't be a story.) Conner relates his dealings with Dex over a series of months to Adam who has complications in his own life to deal with. Action takes place in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, Chicago, and New York. It is quite lively. 

The fun thing about this book is its intermingling of information about reclusive real-life authors — J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee, et al. — jabs at the academic world, and its sly look at the state or fate of modern publishing and book selling. 

I know this is a bit vague because I don't want to give too much away, but believe me, I found myself caught up in the zigzag unfolding of this entertaining literary mystery. For once, there are no bodies, only books.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

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I have a new career goal - to become a scholar recluse. I picked up the idea from reading Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart. The story takes place in China in 1708 and concerns exiled imperial librarian Li Du who now wanders the country with a handful of possessions. Known as a scholar recluse he carries a few books with him: a small collection of published travel journals to guide his paths.

Li Du stops in Dayan, a town in the wilder southern region of China, to request papers to travel to Tibet. Tulishen the magistrate who can issue the papers is not very friendly although the two men are cousins and grew up together.  

Before Li Du can go on his way, there is a murder. The magistrate reluctantly asks Li Du to stay and solve the crime. He will have to depend on his powers of observation and investigative skills. He suspects that the motive for the deaths that occur has to do with political shenanigans and past rivalries and the incursion of The West into The East.  Much of the tale revolves around the planned celebration of a coming solar eclipse that is believed to have been predicted by the Emperor (timely since we will be experiencing a similar one in a few weeks). There is also a traveling storyteller in the mix with his tales of dragons and sultans and stars and stones.

But the story is only one of the reasons I liked this book so much. The images and descriptions of the landscape, the habits, the clothing, the tea ceremonies, the books, and the buildings are enchanting. I enjoyed the mystical look at death, spirits, the skies, and reverence for ancestors.

Here is a description of the library in the magistrate's gated residence:

The stairs leading to the open doors of the library were guarded by four creatures of white marble: a lion, a dragon, a phoenix, and a tortoise. Li Du passed through the doors and into a large room furnished with bookcases that radiated from a central point like spokes on a wheel. He started down the nearest aisle. Its shelves were full of books bound in identical black silk and arranged in matching boxes like stern ranks of soldiers.....
Li Du inhaled with pleasure the scent of paper and dry cedar wood. 

How could I not enjoy a book that stars a librarian? Plus, the cover is gorgeous. I have already begun the second Li Du mystery, The White Mirror. A most worthy series indeed. 

And, I think I will make a terrific scholar recluse.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan

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I like to think of myself as a grateful person. I do try to acknowledge during the day happenings that I am thankful for - from an unusual sighting of a pair of brilliant goldfinches in my garden the other morning to the bigger things such as health, home, friends, and family that sometimes can be taken for granted.

So, I was interested in attending an event Thursday evening with Janice Kaplan author of The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. She was here at the behest of the same organization that brought Peter Walsh, declutterer extraordinaire, to Louisville a few months ago. (I wrote about that lively presentation here.)

There was a huge crowd - maybe 500 or more - in attendance. I guess lots of folks wanted a gratitude fix. Ms. Kaplan is a journalist, former editor of Parade magazine, a television producer, and author. She was an entertaining presenter but as you can see from the photo below it was difficult to catch her not moving!

As she tells it, she decided one New Year's Eve (the book was published in 2015) that she would spend the upcoming year making it a point to be grateful for her abundant life and look on the bright side of whatever happened. She knew that the trick to accomplishing this would be less about the events and more about her attitude toward those events.

Let me be clear. I have not read this book. But I do love a story like this where the author tries out something on herself and shares what she learned over the course of the experiment. Ms. Kaplan wasn't selling and autographing books after the presentation, but I do have it on reserve at the library. (I think I am 10th in line!)

But it wasn't about her spending the year saying thank you to everyone. She questioned physicians and psychologists, CEOs and celebrities, and combined their take on gratitude along with what she was learning from her own observations.

She claims we are wired to look at the negative - back in the day it probably saved our ancestors' lives to identify the one poisonous berry among the ones that wouldn't kill them. But, it is in our power to make gratitude a part of our life. To decide on our attitude and take the positive high road.

I am a little confused, though, as I think being grateful and having a positive outlook on life are two different things, although certainly intertwined.

She closed with a quote from Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast:

It is not happiness that makes us grateful, 
but gratefulness that makes us happy.

One of Ms. Kaplan's suggestions is to keep a gratitude journal and write down one, two, five things that you are grateful for each day. Have you ever kept a gratitude journal? A couple of months ago I bought the one pictured below at a thrift shop. It sits empty still. But it is very attractive.

How do you practice gratitude? Do you think being grateful and having a positive outlook are the same thing? Chime in.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Calamity in Kent by John Rowland

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This week I am recuperating in Broadgate, a pleasant little seaside resort town in Kent. OK. Not really. But, I am doing the next best thing and reading a tale about a young journalist who is recovering in the south of England after surgery. 

It is June. Jimmy London takes his morning stroll along the boardwalk before breakfast at Mrs. Cecil's boarding house. But one morning calamity strikes and he comes across a murder scene. You have most likely heard of the locked room mystery? Well, this is a locked lift puzzle. 

The operator of the lift (elevator to those of us in America) that takes bathers from the boardwalk down the cliff to the beach has opened the cage for the day and discovered the body of a man. With a knife in his back. The operator swears he locked the lift doors the night before and the locks had not been tampered with. 

Jimmy is young and ambitious and sees this as his opportunity to wrangle a job with The Daily Wire, a Fleet Street paper. He is the man on the spot. And, as luck would have it, his friend from Scotland Yard, Inspector Shelley is also visiting the town. He asks Jimmy to do some side investigating thinking that people might be more apt to share information with a journalist than the police. 

Jimmy will get his scoop and Shelley will get his murderer.

That's the plan anyway in Calamity in Kent another of those wonderful books from the British Library Crime Classics series (here and here).

This is the second one written by John Rowland that I have read that features Inspector Shelley. The other was Murder in the Museum that I didn't write about here. It was a good one, too.

I love that in the day, recovering souls were sent off to the seaside to rest and relax. I wish someone would send me. I also have a fondness for mysteries set in this time (before a bunch of technology) and place - England, of course.

Merry reading.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

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Who doesn't want to be The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules? I certainly don't want my epitaph to read She Always Followed Directions, so a book about a group of pensioners who break out of their austere-to-the-bone retirement home and take up a life of crime had a certain appeal.

The action takes place in modern Stockholm where Martha, Christina, Anna-Greta, Brains, and Rake are all longtime friends and sang together as members of a choral group, The Vocal Chord. When they first moved into Diamond House Retirement Home the food was delicious, there were plenty of outings, and everyone was happy. But then the director Ingmar Mattson and Nurse Barbara (who soon became his mistress) started rationing the number of cups of coffee the residents could have in a day, took away the pastries, and began handing out little red pills that made them all lethargic.

Martha has had enough. She proposes that they quit taking those little red pills and start building up their physical stamina in the gym (they had to sneak in as even that was off limits now). Then, under her leadership, the gang — The League of Pensioners — comes up with a plan to rob the rich to help out the elderly.

This involves much planning, quite a few twists and turns, a couple of first-time-to-crime mistakes, more than a few glasses of champagne, a trip to Helsinki, and eventually prison terms for all which lead to only more adventures in crime.

This tale should be a movie. It is sort of Ocean's Eleven meets The Golden Girls. I can see Judi Dench as the ringleader with Betty White and Cloris Leachman as the other two females. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine would be perfect as Brains and Rake.

I enjoyed this madcap caper but will have to say that it ran on a bit long (400 pages). As it is translated from the original Swedish, its prose doesn't exactly wax poetic. Something always gets lost in translation. But the chapters are short, the action moves along, and the characters ring true. 

Besides the fun that the author has writing her characters in and out of crime caper corners, she also takes a stab at the attitudes toward and treatment of older citizens. 

There are two more in this series by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg: The Little Old Lady Who Struck Lucky Again finds the gang in Las Vegas, and The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly takes the group to sunny St. Tropez.

Believe me, if I ever decide to take up a life of crime, this series will serve as my procedure manual.