The Yard

  4W, 4H

Grecian, Alex.,  (c.2012). The Yard. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 422 pages. $25.99.

ISBN #:  9780399149542

Reviews:      The Guardian,  New York Times

Annotation:  

It’s 1889 London. The Yard’s Murder Squad is now faced with an even more menacing threat than the Ripper; the murderer is killing detectives.

Summary:  

Inspector Detective Walter Day has just moved to London to work with the Murder Squad, a department that had been recently formed to deal with the new phenomenon of the serial killer.  Since the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper the year before, Scotland Yard has been trying to regain the trust of the population in an environment that is disease ridden, poor and dangerous.  Day is the first detective on the scene when a member of the squad is discovered in a steamer trunk at the railway station with his mouth and eyes sewn shut.  Along with Dr. Bernard Kingsley, London’s first forensic pathologist and a pioneer in his field, Day sets out to piece together the mystery before more detectives are targeted.  The plot is rounded out with a cast of characters involved in separate events but all of which help contribute to the aesthetics of  a Victorian city rife with murder, crime and an overwhelming distrust of the police.

Evaluation:

Grecian captures the gritty, dank nature of Victorian London and the detectives who were determined to try and keep order in this chaotic environment.  He successfully intertwines historical facts with colorful characters to his story. A gripping and atmospheric read, mystery and history enthusiasts will enjoy the story and look forward to more in the Walter Day series.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mystery/Historical

Readalikes:

The Alienist by Caleb Carr.  The Railway Detective by Edward Marston.

Book Discussion Questions:

What is significant about the setting for this novel?

Forensic Science was still too new to trust in solving cases.  What type of evidence did they need to rely on to solve a crime?

Grecian includes several settings in this novel.  Which did you find most intriguing?

Reasons for selection:

I discovered The Yard through the Stop Your Killing Me! newsletter  I receive monthly.   I normally stray from historical mysteries because I feel they get bogged down in the atmosphere and fall short of the plot.  I was pleasantly pleased when I read this novel to find that it was a page turner. I was intrigued by the obstacles faced in solving crimes during this post – Jack the Ripper time frame.

The Coroner’s Lunch

  4W, 4H

Cotterill, Colin, (c. 2004). The Coroner’s Lunch.  Soho Press.  257 pages , $22.95.

ISBN:  1569473765

Reviews

New York Times, Kirkus Reviews

Annotation:

Appointed as State Coroner in Communist Laos, Dr. Siri upsets the Party by taking his job seriously, solving politically sensitive murders with his unique style.

Summary:  

Seventy three year old Dr. Siri is looking forward to retirement regardless of the societal upheaval surrounding him in 1975 Communist Laos.  An apolitical, Parisian educated doctor, the Party magistrate appoints Dr. Siri to the position of state coroner knowing that he will be a good communist and tow the party line.  But Dr. Siri is not one to do much towing and finds himself butting heads with his appointees when he decides to take his job seriously and work the cases brought to him.  Along with his two assistants, Siri uncovers the secrets behind three intertwined murder plots much to the annoyance of those in charge.

1970’s Cambodia is brought to life through the sobering and sarcastic observations of Dr. Siri.  He is a realist that enjoys the beauty of his country while he puzzles over the contradictions of ruling power.  The country’s history is eloquently brought in to the story through the power of dreams which helps remind the readers that Cambodia is a country rich with cultural intent.

Evaluation:

Cotterill successfully describes an area of the world that has long been in a tug-a-war for its identity.  Dr. Siri and his colorful assistants are wonderful characters that add three dimensions to a period of time that proved to be both chaotic and predictable.  Effective sleuthing will appeal to the mystery lover and the area and political turmoil that create such vivid imagery will appeal to the history buff.  The combination is effective and makes for a perfect “cozy” read.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mystery/Cozy

Readalikes:

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri.  Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill.  Death of a Gossip by M.C. Beaton.

Book Discussion Questions:

What do we learn in the first pages about Dr. Siri?

What is Laos’s relationship to Thailand? to North Vietnam?

Does the paranormal add to to take away from your enjoyment of the story?

Reasons for selection:

Colin Cotterill was recommend to me by a friend who knew I enjoyed mysteries and stories that took place in other cultures.  Cotterill is a great find and I recommend him to many people who enjoy a light, yet intriguing read with fun, surprising characters.

The Keeper of Lost Causes

  4W, 4H

Adler-Olsen, Jussi, (c. 2011). The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Dutton.  395 pages , $28.79.

ISBN:  9780525952480

Reviews:

 Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly

Annotation:

Relegated to cold cases, Chief Detective Morck finds himself intrigued by the five year old disappearance of a prominent politician.

Summary:  

A shooting that paralyzed his partner and should have ended his career has only served to make Chief Detective Morck bitter and unmotivated, a state that is apparent to all in the precinct.  Delegated to the basement, Morck has been assigned to work on the cold cases where he can pretend to stay busy and useful.  However, his recently assigned assistant, Assad, prods him into action and together they take on a five year old case involving a missing politician.  The circumstances surrounding the disappearance are intriguing enough to make Morck shed his aura of indifference and put his detective skills to work to piece together the puzzle.

This dark and gritty narrative successfully shows the detailed workings of a cold case juxtaposed to the victim’s horrific plight and the horror endured while the detectives methodically work there way to the answer.  Interspersed with wit and colorful characterizations, Adler-Ollsen explores the dark side of human nature and leaves us wanting more out of Department Q.  This is the first book in the series.

Evaluation:

For fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Keeper of Lost Causes hits the mark.  Set in Denmark, Chief Detective Morck wants to give up on life but circumstances won’t allow him that luxury.  Partnered with the ultimate optimist, Assad, Morck finds himself fascinated with the challenges of solving a relatively recent cold case.  The story is compelling, horrific and humorous which is not an easy mix to accomplish but the author succeeds on all levels.

Genre/Subgenre:

Thriller/Psychological Suspense

Readalikes:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  Alex by Pierre LeMaitre

Book Discussion Questions:

What makes Carl Morck’s character so believable?

Describe the relationship between Morck and Assad?

Despite the horror of the crime, there is comic relief throughout the story.  How big a part in the story does it play?

Reasons for selection:

I found this in NoveList as an Author-Readalike for Stieg Larsson.  It is the first in the Dept Q series and does not disappoint.  I was hooked from the beginning and managed to get through the pretty grisly parts.

The Last Runaway

  4W, 4H audio

Chevalier, Tracy, (c. 2013). The Last Runaway.  Penguin Audio. 8 discs (10 hours) , $32.99   Read by Kate Reading.

ISBN:  9781611761412

Reviews

The Guardian, Oprah.com

Annotation:

Immigrating to America in 1850, Honor moves into pre-Civil War Ohio where she must establish roots while not losing her sense of self.

Summary:  

Honor Bright travels with her sister from England to help her get settled with her new husband in Ohio.  It’s 1850 in America and Honor, a young, quiet Quaker woman, finds herself stranded in this foreign land when her sister dies on the journey.  Befriended by a milliner, Honor’s sewing skills help Belle with her business until Honor must leave to settle with a Quaker family in the neighboring town of Faithwell.  But Belle’s brother, Donovan, has taken an interest in Hope which does not bode well for Belle’s other business, that of helping free slaves through the underground railroad.  Donovan is a slave hunter and a good one at that.  His unwanted attention raises questions in Faithwell and puts Honor in a precarious position with her new family.

But Honor is true to her faith.  She understands the danger involved yet she becomes part of the underground railroad, helping slaves on their journey to freedom.  As she tries to fit in with her American family and avoid Donovan and his baffling appeal, Honor strives to do what is best until she is pushed too far and she can no longer distinguish between right and wrong.

Evaluation:

Beautifully written, Chevalier creates a story that captures an element of american history from the perspective of a reluctant immigrant who sees America and its challenges with fresh eyes.  The struggles of the “slave issue” in the free state of Ohio are just as intense as elsewhere with Honor’s character having to battle with the moral ambiguity of helping to free innocent people and protecting her own family.  A great work of historical fiction. brought to life with the reading  by Kate Reading whose different voices, inflections and accents created a vivid picture of life in America as seen through the eyes of Chevalier’s characters.

Genre/Subgenre:

Historical Fiction

Readalikes:

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning.  The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Book Discussion Questions:

Quilting is significant to the main character.  How does it enhance the story?

Which character(s) would you have liked to see more developed?

How is Honor “flawed”?  Are there aspects about her character that you find difficult to comprehend?

Reasons for selection:

This book was chosen for one of our class’s book discussion selections.  I listened to it thinking that I might not be able to get into it by reading the print version due to the pace of the story (an assumption).  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it and found myself intrigued by the story and wondering how Chevalier was going to effectively bring all the pieces together.

The Age of Miracles

  4W, 4H

Walker, Karen Thompson, (c. 2012). The Age of Miracles.  Random House.  288 pages , $24.99.

ISBN:  9780812992977

Reviews:

New York Times,  The Washington Post

Annotation:

As the earth’s rotation slows, nothing is as it used to be.   Julia is turning 12, coping with a new world and her new self.

Summary:  

Julia lives in San Diego, California and is on the brink of becoming a teenager when something out of the ordinary starts taking place.  The earth’s rotation has started to slow down significantly.  The scientists are at a loss as to its cause and can not predict if or when the slowing will stop.  So like everyone else, they watch their days and nights get longer affecting every aspect of the human.  But Julia’s world continues to be that of an average pre-teen where she is surrounded by uncertainty with friends, family, popularity and boys.  Her environment which is changing around her just adds to the weirdness of it all.

This beautifully written coming-of-age story will capture your imagination and leave you wondering about an existence with bright nights and dark days and living life with the overriding knowledge that the future is not a guarantee.

Evaluation:

Walker defines the pre-teen part of our lives as “The Age of Miracles” and her story is a celebration of the human instinct to focus on self at this time of change even in a world that is slowly coming to an end.  The story will capture your interest from the first page and keep you hooked the entire time.  A beautifully written tale of relationships, uncertainty and inevitability as the characters cope with an ever-changing landscape while trying to keep their lives as normal as possible.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mainstream Fiction/Science Fiction

Awards:

Booklist Editor’s Choice: Adult Fiction for Young Adults 2012

School Library Journal’s Adult Books 4 Teens 2012

Readalikes:

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters.   Safekeeping by Karen Hesse.

Book Discussion Questions:

Why are “real-timers” seen as a threat?

What makes this story and premise believable/not-believable to you?

What is the rest of Seth’s story?

Reasons for selection:

This is a selection for our class book discussion groups.  I found the novel to be very thought provoking and believable as to what would take place if our world did start slowing down.

Chasing Harry Winston

Book Jacket  2W, 3H

Weisberger, Lauren, (c. 2008). Chasing Harry Winston.  Simon and Schuster. 288 pages, $23.99

ISBN  9781410407306

Reviews:
New York TimesEntertainment Weekly

Annotation:

Experiencing different levels of dissatisfaction in their love lives, three college friends decide to make life-altering changes as their 30th birthdays approach.

Summary:  

Three best friends from college make a bet  to spend the next year going against their instincts in an attempt to find true happiness in their lives.  Emmy, Leigh and Adriana, all living in Manhattan, are completely different from each other and in distinctly different circumstances.  Emmy has been dumped by her no-good boyfriend, Leigh is in  a relationship with the “perfect guy” and Adriana is challenged by the concept of monogamy.  With their 30th birthdays approaching they decide that something must be done to turn things around so a pact is made that changes the course of their lives.

As they stumble from Paris to the Hamptons and ultimately to Los Angeles, the three friends work to figure out what makes life worth living,  culminating in the final celebratory dinner to assess their past year.  Filled with romance, broken hearts and an over-the-top, sassy South American, this book will take you away in laughter if not in plot or character development.

Evaluation:

If you are a fan of Sex in the City, then you will enjoy Chasing Harry Winston as a good way to pass the time while on a flight or better yet, by the pool or beach while on your vacation.  Although the character development is relatively shallow and the plot lines predictable, the appeal is in those very features making it a great chick-lit, no-nonsense read.  For those who prefer steamy romance, this is not going to satisfy in that sense.  But, it will definitely appeal to those who enjoy fashion references, posh lifestyles and women characters who ultimately take control of their circumstances while hanging tight to their sense of self.

Genre/Subgenre:

Chick Lit

Readalikes:

Four Blondes by Candace Bushnell.  Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

 Book Discussion Questions:

Which character made the most/least growth in their year?

How were the men portrayed in this chick-lit feature?

How many of you had to Google “Harry Winston” to understand the title?

Reasons for selection:

This was mentioned in our Chick-Lit discussion group as a fun and light read.  Once an avid fan of romance, I certainly see the appeal here and can recommend it to the right people.  Even in my “romance” days, I probably would not have picked this up because, yes, I did have to Google “Harry Winston” because I’m just not that interested in high-fashion and all that it represents.

The Return Journey

  2W, 2H

Binchy, Maeve, (c. 1998). The Return Journey.  Delacourte Press. 214 pages , $18.65.

ISBN:  0385315066

Reviews:
Publishers Weekly  Vulpes Libris blog

Annotation:

In fourteen short stories, relationships unfold around what can or cannot be during different journeys.  The characters are realistically flawed yet always redeemable

Summary:  

This compilation of short stories moves between Ireland, Europe and the United States, introducing characters with different backgrounds, situations and motivations.  All the stories revolve around some aspect of travel where relationships and discoveries can either be built up or destroyed.  There is the young couple, secure in their knowledge that they are in a perfect relationship until they shop for suitcases for an upcoming journey, discovering how different they really are.  One story tells of the dedication of a property manager whose life gets happier as others’ lives spiral into slumps.

Maeve Binchy, known for her heartwarming stories, manages to fold fourteen separate scenarios into one volume.  The characters’ motivations develop quickly moving the each story quickly to its end.  And not all the endings are completely predictable, just as life is never completely predictable.

Evaluation:

This is a quick and light read for those that enjoy short stories and leisurely paced writing.  Although some of the scenarios are dated and admittedly, slightly annoying, Binchy has produced an enjoyable series of stories where women and men must question their motivations and ultimately live with the consequences.

Genre/Sub genre:

Mainstream Fiction/Short stories

Readalikes:

Snow Angels by Fern Michaels. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver.

Book Discussion Questions:

Which was your favorite story and why?

Besides travel, did you notice any other common themes throughout the stories?

Why do you think the action of taking a journey can be symptomatic of the health of a relationship?

Reasons for selection:

I found this book by just browsing through the stacks at one of the library branches where I was killing time  in between meetings.  I hadn’t read much of Maeve Binchy and I normally do not seek out short stories so I thought I’d give the compilation a try.  I found myself enjoying the vignettes of life portrayed in each scenario and the endings that always left the reader wondering about the character’s next steps.

Quesadillas

  3W, 3H

Villalobos, Juan Pablo, (c. 2012). Quesadillas.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 168 pages, $14.99 (pbk)

ISBN  978-0-374-53395-3

Reviews:

New York Times, The Guardian

Annotation:

Orestes, one of seven children in 1980’s Mexico, tells of his adventures as he escapes the boredom and upheaval of a fraudulent society.

Summary:  

In the Jalisco region of Mexico in the 1980’s, thirteen year old Orestes, or Oreo, grew up in a large family surrounded by political fraud, political upheaval, out of control inflation and rich Polish neighbors.  His father, a high school teacher, was a “professional insulter” who shouted at the television whenever any politicians were attempting to make a point and his mother dutifully fed the seven children, constantly grilling quesadillas for the family meals.  Oreo is an opportunist that knows that life is not dished out with equal fairness.  He was “well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas (his) mother served at home.” (p. 9)

Oreo steals from his rich neighbor to embark on a journey where with the help of a “red-buttoned clicker”, he is able to support himself and relish the independence of not being the second oldest or part of a large family.  But he decides to go back where he must own up to his wrong-doings and suffer the consequences for stealing by working for the neighbor.  Oreo’s adventures are punctuated with sadness, sarcasm and a bit of awe for the audacity of existence that was seen as normal life in Mexico.

Evaluation:

This story takes off with a bang and never stops.  Thoroughly enjoyable if you like satire with a punch.  Villalobos does not hold back when it comes to recalling life in Mexico where the distinction between the poor, poorer and very poor were not that different from the middle class.  Oreo is a typical thirteen year old who enjoys poetry (thanks to his father the teacher), is not a push over (thanks to his oldest brother) and sees his surroundings as nothing more than a never-ending bad joke and landscape of survival where you can not ignore the opportunities.  If you enjoy Christopher Moore you will definitely enjoy Villalobos.

Genre/Subgenre:

Satire

Readalikes:

Modelo Antiguo by Luis Enduardo Reyes.  Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Book Discussion Questions:

Villalobos uses quesadillas both literally and figuratively.  How does he work both into Oreo’s story?

Which is your favorite sub-character and why?

Why do you think Villalobos chose cow semination as the Pole’s profession that Oreo has to learn?

Reasons for selection:

I found this selection on the Shelf Awareness newsletter and thought I’d give it a try.  I enjoy humor, especially satire, and have not read many stories based in Mexico.  Villalobos is a great find and I look forward to reading his other works.

Favorite line:

“After paying the bill, my father showed me the total on the receipt;  it had seven figures.  He told me I was going to pay him back this amount, that I would have to find myself a job….Since he didn’t mention indexing the balance for inflation, it was a steal.  All I had to do was wait a couple of weeks for the currency to be devalued 8,000 per cent and I’d pay him back.” (p.99)

Dream Boy

Book Jacket 3W, 3H  (audio)

Grimsley, Jim, (c. 1995).  Dream Boy.  Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 195 pages, $15.49

ISBN  9780684829920

Reviews:
NPR – You must read this, Publishers Weekly

Annotation:

A tale of first love between two teenage boys in the rural south encompassing the pain, confusion and joy of a budding, yet forbidden romance.

Summary:  

Nathan, an intelligent sophomore, begins his school year in a new town at a new school.  This is nothing new for him since his family moves around the rural south a lot.  This time they get to live in the country next to a family whose son, Roy, is two years older than Nathan, plays baseball and drives the school bus.  Roy and Nathan discover that their attraction for each other is both beautiful and exciting yet they know they must keep it a secret.

Through the overhanging cloud of Nathan’s abusive father and Roy’s misunderstandings and denial, Grimsley captures the awe of first love and the natural relationship that grows from those feelings.  Yet society doesn’t see things so clearly and  both Nathan and Roy must figure out if they can hold on to each other.

Evaluation:

Grimsley writes beautifully and pulls the reader into the story immediately.  The tone of the work is lyrical and skillfully portrays the intimate thoughts and actions of a sensitive boy that has to deal with a lot of ugliness in his world.  Roy’s character clearly exemplifies the typical high school boy who fears the feelings that come so naturally to him when he meets Nathan.  The story has two definite settings with pacing to match.  The first 100 pages exemplifies the title and seems almost dream-like in its telling.  The second half of the novel, which takes place during a camping trip, becomes taught with tension, mystery and violence leaving the reader a bit befuddled by the ending.

Genre/Subgenre:

GLBTQ/Romance

Awards:

Stonewall Book Awards:  Barbara Gittings Literature Award

Readalikes:

 A House Is Not A Home by James Earl Hardy Mark by Lonnie Coleman.

Book Discussion Questions:

How does the title capture the tone of the story?

Do you think the characters are believable in their actions and reactions?

There’s a definite split in the narrative.  Was this essential for the story’s outcome?

Reasons for selection:

I am new to the GLBTQ genre so need to catch up to understand what is good and not-so-good in these stories and the issues that appeal to the genre’s fans.  Grimsley’s novel struck me as a good place to start.  It is beautifully written and deals with two social situations that are polar opposites of each other but that many tend to be view in the same light; a tragic display of society’s fear of differences.

Frozen In Time

   3W, 3H  (audio)

Zuckoff, Mitchell, (c. 2013). Frozen In Time.  Harper Collins Publisher. 8 discs (9 hours), $34.19.  Read by Mitchell Zuckoff.

ISBN  978-0-0622-8344-3

Reviews:

Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor

Annotation:

A true-life adventure about a WW II cargo plane that crashed into the Greenland ice cap and the rescue attempts that stranded the crewmen for 148 days.

Summary:  

In November of 1942, a cargo plane crashed into the Greenland ice cap trapping the survivors in Arctic Winter conditions surrounded by innumerable fissures overlaid with precarious ice bridges.  Many were killed on impact, one fell through an ice bridge never to be seen again and yet another watched as his feet turned black from frostbite. Zuckoff’s gripping tale, written from historical documents and interviews with those who were part of the efforts, captures the heroic efforts and frustrations surrounding this event that gripped the nation for a short period of time but then was forgotten.

Zuckhoff, a successful journalist with a previous published success, joins the 2012 expedition undertaken to recover the cargo plane and the remains of the crew that still lay under ice 70 years later.  His personal adventure is intertwined with the events of the original crash which generated two rescue attempts; the first attempt crashed with all nine crew members surviving and the second attempt simply vanished.

Evaluation:

Zuckhoff writes with a clean style, clearly describing both the harsh landscape and the important technical details involved in both the early rescue attempts and then the current day recovery mission.  The introduction explains how he found this story by searching through World War II era newspapers to find reports of incidents that captured the headlines but then faded away.  He successfully brings his words to life (he is also the reader for the audiobook) and it is apparent the passion he feels for those that survived and those that tragically died.  With so many heroic tales generated from the war, it is always a wonder that the drama behind such a situation has only recently been dug up and shared with the world.

Genre/Subgenre:

Non-Fiction/Historical

Awards:

School Library Journal’s Adult Books 4 Teens – 2013

Readalikes:

Vanished by Wil S. Hylton.  Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado.

Book Discussion Questions:

How did the intertwining of past and present work to make the story more (or less) appealing?

What do you think of the story?  Were there parts that slowed down the momentum?

Did Zuckoff effectively remove himself from the narrative even though he was a part of it?

Reasons for selection:

I need to expand my very limited knowledge of readable non-fiction and I thought this would be a good place to start.  Although it is highly rated and I do enjoy tales about World War II, I just could not get into the story.  That’s not to say that it won’t be a great read for those history and airplane buffs.  Personally, I need more character building and less technical description.