Friday, January 23, 2015

Books for the New Year

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
So far, this has been my favorite of 2015.  We first meet Stella, the rich widow of Judge Crater, in a dark bar in New York City, once a famous speakeasy of the gangster days.  In the long ago days of August, 1930, her newly-appointed New York state Superior Court judge husband got into a taxicab and was never seen again.  An enduring  mystery has always surrounded his disappearance and numerous non-fiction books have been written, speculating theories of gangsters, molls, Tammany Hall, even Governor Roosevelt's involvement.  Lawhon takes this story and creates something rather ingenious - the idea that the three women in Judge Crater's life were perhaps more intelligent than police might have suspected.  The beautiful Spanish maid, the Iowa farm-girl turned showgirl and mistress to gangsters, and the pristine socialite wife have much to tell in this fascinating story.  The novel uses time quite creatively, flipping all over the place so pay attention to both days and years.  It won't take you long to devour this fascinating book.

Accidents of Marriage by R. S. Myers
Considering much of the news this past fall on domestic violence and famous people, I was intrigued by the story line of this book.  Myers paints a picture of what could be seen as a fairly 'typical' marriage, and then twists and turns it around until one starts to wonder what is acceptable and where does one draw the line.  Maddy, a social worker and constantly harried mother of two, is married to Ben, a frustrated lawyer working in the public defender's office in Boston.  Both come into the marriage with baggage from their families and their current lives look like many young couples of today:  husband and wife sublimated to just being mom and dad; work schedules that exhaust them, leaving them no time or desire for romance; disagreements about child-rearing and household chores; and the ever-present examples of the oh-so-perfect parents who seem to do everything right.  Throw in a husband with a bad temper and an accident that changes everyone's lives, and you have a very well-written melodrama.  I thought Myers nailed the push-and-pull of today's marriages, as well as dealing with the ideas of abuse encased in love.  Solid book.

Birdman and The Treatment by Mo Hayder
If you just cannot wait until the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series starts up again (yes, they finally settled the lawsuit and three more books should be released posthumously, thank goodness) and you have exhausted Jo Nesbo and his Harry Hole series, you may want to try the Jack McCaffrey series by Mo Hayder.  Be prepared - they are graphic, gory, creepier-than-creepy murder mysteries - but if that's your 'thing' (I am an admitted addict), then these books are for you.  The main detective, Jack McCaffrey, has just been promoted to detective and brings an intriguing life story into each investigation.  His own brother was kidnapped from their London suburb and never found thirty years ago, and Jack still lives across the street from the pedophile suspected of the dastardly deed.  See...I told you it gets creepy. Each book deals with a different set of murders.  Birdman has a lovely lil serial killer who likes to sew live birds into the body cavities of his female victims - that one keeps you guessing until literally the last chapter.  The Treatment involves a different psychopath who leaves families destroyed, their new homes in ruins, and their children...well, let's just say it's not pretty.  However, Hayder can absolutely keep you guessing throughout the novel and at the same time, is a very solid British writer who creates complex and intriguing characters.  I plan to read the other six or seven books out there as well:)

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
After reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, this book was listed consistently that other people had purchased it as well.  The plot line sounded intriguing: bright young black boy in Newark, New Jersey goes to Yale.  However, the title rather gives it away and his potential heroic tale of making it out of the 'hood' goes awry.  I was drawn into the story quickly and was intrigued by Robert's young childhood - raised by a single mother with a father in prison for first-degree murder, the rotating family members in his home, the struggle to send him to private schools, the numerous adults in the educational system who gave him a helping hand, the water-polo team who gave him a family - all of these things helped to explain how Robert Peace became the poster boy for someone who made it out.  However, Jeff Hobbs, his Yale roommate, is rather too wordy for my taste; an editor who slashed and burned a bit more could have been helpful.  As we start to see Robert's life go wrong in the class-conscious, snobby world of the Ivy League, the story begins to drag.  I found myself frustrated not only with the writing style, but with Robert himself, which I think is the actual point of this book. While I was not a fan of Hobbs' writing, I do think this book has great potential as a book club book, with many different themes to discuss and probably quite a bit of contentious and intriguing possibilities for disagreement, which in my experience, can make for the best club discussions.

Getting Life by Michael Morton
After the previous two non-fiction books on justice, or the lack there of, for young black men in America, this was a fascinating look at a court case where a thirty-three year old white man, living on the wrong side of the county line in the state of Texas, was wrongly accused, tried, and convicted of the murder of his wife.  Autobiographical, we see the entire twenty-five years that Michael Morton lived in prison, as well as his previous life with his wife.  The 'normal' marital spats that become fodder for conviction, the toll his conviction takes on his elderly parents, and the life he must make for himself in prison is quite a compelling story.  My first thought upon finishing this book is that it would be the perfect book to give someone who had to report to a penitentiary; Michael Morton does a stellar job of becoming not only the perfect prisoner, but figuring how to work the gang system, to find the perfect prison job, to get noticed by an innocence project, and to come out of prison not being destroyed by a system that is hypocritically called rehabilitation.  This is a great read for someone who is fascinated not only by the legal system and its corruption, but also by the complexity of humanity for dealing with inhumane conditions.  It is also a compelling argument against the death penalty.

Straight Man by Richard Russo
I have had dozens of people tell me to read Richard Russo, that he is a beautiful writer, having earned the multiple awards given to him.  Having found an earlier book, Bridge of Sighs, a bit of a drag, I was reluctant to try another.  The owner of the best independent book store around, Village Books, convinced me otherwise, telling me if I loved Dear Committee Members, I would like Russo's Straight Man equally; he was accurate.  The story involves another curmudgeonly old English professor, William Devereau Jr., who heads up a very contentious department at a small regional college in Pennsylvania.  Having reached the pinnacle of published author and professor at a young age, middle-aged William seems to be rather aimless, taking unprecedented joy in poking fun at his various department members, dreaming of sexual conquests of his wife (yes, his wife, not himself - hilarious), and deriving great joy in his ever-running battle with the dean about financing, while he threatens the life of the pond geese over the perceived lack of funding.  Russo nails the humor in the story, as well as the pseudo-tragic life of small town professors.  Beautifully written, it is not a fast read as one tends to savor each of Russo's sentences.  Anyone who has been involved in education or the academic life, or feels a bit cheated by their dreams in middle-age, might enjoy this book.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Yet another over-the-top, bestseller that absolutely everyone has read that sat around on my bookshelf for months, as my stubbornness to follow the crowd prevailed.  Big mistake...fabulous book.  I had heard about the premise:  super awkward Asberger-ish genetics professor named Don, looking for a wife in the attempt to have a normal life, hands out screening surveys looking for the perfect mate.  Of course in walks Rosie, everything he is not looking for - disorganized, spontaneous, perpetually late, and heaven forbid, a smoker!  As cliche as it may appear on the surface, it truly does not play out that way.  Simsion nails the voice and never loses Don's stunted, painfully awkward, complete lack of humor or social skills.  I found myself laughing out loud and cheering for these two misfits - absolutely delightful book:)

Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn
Thanks to my fellow book-aholic friend, who reads blogs and book reviews obsessively, she found this winner and passed it my way.  It has everything I love:  historical fiction taking place in Philadelphia in 1869, as it recovers from the destruction of the Civil War; haunting ghostly plot line with mediums and tales from the dead; and intriguing characters, both major and minor.  Edward Clark, newspaper reporter and long-lost son of a mysterious magician, has been given the task to sniff out the fake mediums in town who are bilking numerous people out of their fortunes, as they attempt to contact their loved ones, often lost in the war.  His first prey turns out to be Lucy Collins, a beautiful young woman with a mysterious past of her own, with absolutely no intention of losing her thriving seance business due to bad publicity.  Add in a tentative romance with a daughter of the wealthiest man in town, a murder of a legitimate ghost-seeker and a scrubwoman, a long list of potential suspects and you've got a humdinger of a story.  No bad language, little to no gore displayed about the murder victims, only chaste kisses and no sex - this is a G-rated novel that packs a great punch.  Built for a sequel, I look for Finn's next novel soon.

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