Saturday, December 29, 2012

'The Diviners'

Imagine that it's lunch time, and you're sitting in the breakroom where you work.  Open in front of you is a book so intriguing, so spellbinding that you don't even taste the food you're putting into your mouth.

That was me, for two days.  

The spellbinding book was 'The Diviners' by Libba Bray, author of the Gemma Doyle trilogy.

It's a big book; a long story; but one well worth telling.  It's set in an age I love so dearly:  New York during the Roaring Twenties, when gin was the booze of choice (and also illegal; it was Prohibition), and Rudolph Valentino, the famous silent movie star, had just died.  It was a time of fearless young women and brash young men.  It was exciting and everything was possible...but just around the corner was the Depression.

Lively seventeen year-old Evangeline ('Evie') O'Neill, at the center of a scandal in her stodgy, boring town of Zenith, Ohio, is banished to her Uncle Will's home in New York.  Although her parents consider it a big punishment, Evie sees it as anything but:  Experiencing independence in one of the most exciting cities in the world.  But her uncle, the curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (a.k.a. 'The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies'), has no desire to show his niece around.  He is obsessed with the occult, and soon his help is required in helping catch a killer who proclaims that the end of the world is near at hand and The Beast will soon appear.

But Evie, unbeknownst to her uncle, has a special gift that could help catch the murderer.  And, as she soon discovers, there are others who are just as 'special'.  

Reading about these gifted individuals brought to mind an almost primitive version of the Justice League, but without the capes, golden lassos, and invisible airplanes.  These Jazz Babies had to rely on their gifts and wits, but were sometimes unable to save some close to them from gruesome ends.

This new book is a bit of a departure for Ms. Bray.  I found her Gemma Doyle books a bit more serious.  But 'The Diviners', despite the very dark undertone and pulse-pounding action, conveys vibrant youth and resilience during a time where 'anything goes'.  You experience the knowledge that good will always triumph over evil, that anything is possible, despite the allure of stardom, parties, and dancing.  Libba Bray is a very, very good storyteller; her characters, good and bad, are brought to vivid life.  

Although I hated that the story had to end, I realized that it really didn't...

...the set-up for the next book lingers on the brain, there to entice us.

And that is Libba Bray's special gift.

'The Diviners' is published by Little, Brown and Company.  Available in bookstores and your public library.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

'The Hour of Peril'

When it comes to non-fictional tales of war, this Book Hog generally can't get through them.  But when it comes to real-life mysteries, I squee all the way home...especially if the story is well written and holds my interest.

And so it is with Edgar award-winner Daniel Stashower's new book, 'The Hour of Peril'.  Although Mr. Stashower, author of 'The Beautiful Cigar Girl', and 'Teller of Tales', a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, knows his 'stuff' and isn't afraid to show it, I was almost afraid that he might hit a bump in the road with his newest book.

But, once again, I was wrong.  Happily wrong.

'The Hour of Peril' is the story of Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency.  I was pleased to read about Pinkerton's early life and just what influenced him to start a detective agency.  He had an eye for talent, and his employees were faithful, discreet, and good at their jobs.  

But when a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln is discovered, Pinkerton is soon embroiled in one of the most difficult cases of his career.

It is the eve of the Civil War, and Lincoln has just been elected president.  On the way to Washington D.C., a plot to assassinate him when he reaches Baltimore, Maryland is discovered.  Pinkerton warns Lincoln, who doesn't seem too concerned.  But the closer the train gets to Baltimore, the urgency becomes very apparent to the president-elect.  

Pinkerton sends not only a few good men to infiltrate the plot, but he also sends in Kate Warne, his first female detective.  When some of these detectives are at the point of having their covers blown, you sweat right along with them as they use their wits to avoid detection.  Their various methods of communication fascinated me.

But it is Lincoln who soon takes center stage.  A man of warm humor and sharp wit, he at first seems quite lackadaisical about the plot.  But Pinkerton manages to describe the danger that is just around the corner, and the president finally comes to understand that some people would rather kill him than to see the United States become a slave-free country.

'The Hour of Peril' is certainly one of the great untold stories of the Civil War era.  Pinkerton took a huge gamble (and was embroiled in a major controversy) in foiling the plot.  Such a well-written, suspenseful and educational story is being published at a very good time; 'Lincoln', the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the president, is stirring up great interest in everything Lincoln.

Although some of the book was a bit slow-moving, I stayed faithful to the storyteller and closed the book having learned a great deal about an incident of which not too many people are aware.  Thanks to Allan Pinkerton and a host of brave people, our republic avoided a major catastrophe.

'The Hour of Peril' should appeal to not only fans of Civil War history, but also mystery lovers. 

'The Hour of Peril' will be released in February 2013 by Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin's Press. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Ordinary Grace'

Extraordinary stories can be presented in the simplest of gift wrap.  Perhaps it's brown paper.  Or the Comics section from the newspaper.  A wrapping that gives the reader no indication as to what is waiting inside.

But when I hear the name William Kent Krueger, I think of Minnesota and his major protagonist Cork O'Connor.  I think about murder and intense investigation.  I visualize Mr. Krueger's spot-on descriptions of nature's beauty in small-town Minnesota.  It would be a story wrapped in intense colors.

But his new novel, 'Ordinary Grace' was not what I expected from him.  I was truly moved by the story, and memories of my own childhood came flooding back.

Written in his trademark style, the story is simply told, full of memories of a small town in the sixties, when the nation was welcoming a young president.  A time when kids could play outside after dark.  When ice cream was a reward for good behavior.  A time before the internet stole children's innocence.  

But every era has crime, and the young narrator of this story, with his younger brother, set out to discover just who murdered three people.  It's not full of guns and violence and police.  

Instead, it's full of families in crisis, the courage of finding strength in simple faith, and secrets the boys cannot possibly understand until they are hit square in the face with the knowledge.

Tragedy comes calling in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota.  Thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake (who suffers from a stuttering problem), find themselves pulled out of their simple boyhood and thrust into a situation they are not equipped to understand.  Their father, a Methodist minister, and their mother, brilliant, beautiful and talented, have raised their sons and their college-bound daughter in the best way they know how:  with a simple faith.  But this faith is tested when murder takes the lives of three people.  The boys find their world torn asunder, but it is only through honesty and courage that they are able to hold onto the last vestige of their precious youth.

Full of adultery, betrayal, and secrets, 'Ordinary Grace' is written in a simple style, yet the impact is enormous.    

It is that unexpected gift wrapped in the simplest of paper.

'Ordinary Grace' will be published by Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) in March 2013.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

'The Stonecutter'

It's Christmastime  and people are running hither and yon, in search of the perfect gifts.  It's party time, food time, stress time.  In my opinion, the worst of it is the music.  Don't get me wrong:  I really enjoy Christmas music, but in small doses.  If you are a retail worker, you know that Christmas music tears apart your soul to the point that you want to pull out a gun and shoot the overhead speakers.

But I have a better suggestion.  When you, long-suffering retail worker, get home, pick up a good mystery novel, settle into a comfy chair, and let a phenomenal author take care of that stress.

Camilla Läckberg, author of the Patrik Hedström mystery series ('The Ice Princess' and 'The Preacher'), brings us the third book about Patrik and Erica and the mysteries that call for their investigative skills.

Erica and Patrik are now parents to a baby girl, and although they have read various books on raising a child, they are overwhelmed with the responsibility.  Erica is suffering from postpartum depression, and Patrik is spending just a bit too much time at the police station.  But when a child is found murdered, he finds himself devoting even more time and energy to the case, which keeps him from nurturing not only his child, but also his life partner.  

Although I loved Camilla's first two books in the series, 'The Stonecutter' had me absolutely involved.  Did the rich, retired neighbor do it?  Or was it his sworn enemy?  Could it have been the mentally-challenged boy?  My mind was doing the old 'back-and-forth' as I tried to figure out who did the deed.  It kept me reading and the challenge was too good to be true.  Camilla adds a bit of backstory to this saga; the history of a horrendous woman and the man she destroys.  It all adds up...and the fun is in the guessing.  

But it is always Patrik and Erica and their delicate relationship that keeps me turning the pages.  Add a newborn and the pages turn even faster.  I appreciated the fact that Ms. Läckberg writes about postpartum depression in such a vital way; not only does Erica have to deal with it, but she also has to comfort the friend who lost her child to a murderer's rage. 

So, sit back and read.  Ignore the music, but celebrate the holiday in one of the the best ways possible:  With a good cup of tea, a soft chair, and the possibility of escape via a wonderful mystery.    

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

'The Kings and Queens of Roam'

Author Daniel Wallace first grabbed my attention when I saw the filmed version of his novel, 'Big Fish'.  Wildly imaginative and brought to the screen by the brilliant Tim Burton, I knew that I had to read the book.  

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I love fairy/folk tales, and 'Big Fish' was very satisfying and, in it's own little way, strangely weird.  And Book Hog likes nothing more than 'weird'.

Now Mr. Wallace has presented us with another great read:  'The Kings and Queens of Roam', a tale at once enchanting, and at the same time, very dark and disturbing.

Helen and Rachel McAllister are sisters who live in their crumbling family mansion in Roam, a town that was at first meant to be the center of the U.S. silk industry, but is now dying a slow death.  Helen is older and bitter and cursed with an ugly face.  Rachel is beautiful...and blind.  She depends on Helen for almost everything, and in doing so, is open to Helen's lies.  Helen convinces Rachel that the world is a dark and dangerous place and Rachel couldn't possibly live on her own.  

But Rachel makes a surprising choice that changes the perspective of both sisters.

'The Kings and Queens of Roam' is extremely clever and very inventive, filled with thoughtful ghosts who have more wisdom than the living.  It is awash in love and longing, love gone wrong, love changed in a most surprising way.  

And it will stay with you.  

With open arms, I welcome Mr. Wallace's newest addition to the world of folktales.  I thank him for keeping weird alive.

'The Kings and Queens of Roam' will be released in early May 2013, by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

'The Chalice'

On November 5, 2011, I posted a review of 'The Crown', a wonderful story written by Nancy Bilyeau.  Not only did this well-written story make me dust off my knowledge about the reign of Henry VIII, I was intrigued by the small supernatural aspect.

When the story ended, I really hoped that Ms. Bilyeau would write a follow-up to the adventures of her heroine, Joanna Stafford.  I was pleasantly surprised when it landed on my desk.

'The Chalice' takes place in 1538 England, where bloody power struggles between the Crown and Religion are still taking place.  Joanna Stafford, reluctant investigator, has found a new home now that she and her fellow nuns and brothers have been thrown out of their abbey, thanks to Henry VIII's hatred of all things Catholic.  Her life outside the abbey is full; she is the guardian to her cousin's son, and she is determined to start a new weaving business.  And, still, she is conflicted by her feelings for the sheriff Geoffrey Scovill and her close friend, Brother Edmund.  But her old enemies are back, and new ones threaten her very existence if she doesn't do what they require.

There are stronger supernatural elements in 'The Chalice'; although Joanna is reluctant to fulfill a prophecy foretold by three different seers, she realizes that the life of the king and the future of Christendom are in her hands.

'The Chalice' is full of well-researched historical details, and although it might seem a bit confusing at times, it is well worth the read.  And you just might find yourself sitting on pins-and-needles while waiting for the third book in the series.

I know I am.

'The Chalice' will be released in early March 2013 by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

'Wool Omnibus'

'Word-of-mouth', or, should I say 'Word-of-Facebook', is so very valuable when it comes to promoting movies, blogs, and books.*

Especially books.

Publishers have taken to Facebook (and now, Pinterest) to promote titles by interacting with potential readers.  They offer 'freebies' and podcasts and author appearances at reading group gatherings.  Major publishers are great advocates of 'newbie' authors who have published their first book, or have changed genres.

But nothing can promote a book faster than word-of-mouth.  I do it all the time, via Facebook, Twitter, Book Hog, and (my favorite) while I'm browsing in a bookstore (my old bookselling skills are alive and well).  

And it was through Facebook that I learned about one of the most intriguing science fiction novels that I have ever read.  'Wool', by Hugh Howey, is (for want of a better word) unputdownable.  I was told that I would need at least a day or two to read it, but I found myself reluctant to see it end.  Whoever edited the story did a brilliant job; someone's diamond eye was focused on the details, and for that, I am very grateful.  

'Wool' is a post-apocalyptic story of life in a silo.  That's right; a silo filled with hundreds of occupants of all ages.  If an occupant says, "I want to go outside" in front of witnesses, he or she has instantly pronounced their death sentence.  Such people are called 'cleaners'; they are sent outside to clean the lenses that show the underground occupants a view of the outside.  After their chore is finished, the cleaner walks over hills toward the toxic fallen city, where they soon find their end.

Everyone in the silo knows what will happen, but they keep quiet, afraid that they might be the next sent outside.  But there are a few people who question the laws made to protect them.  One in particular, Juliette, a brilliant mechanic who has lived and worked near the bottom tiers of the silo almost all her life, is one of those who questions, and isn't afraid to find the answers.  And she is brilliant.  But what she discovers is one of the cruelest jokes of all.

This is not a typical science fiction novel.  And neither is there a sense of claustrophobia.  It is written with love for the characters, and the dialogue is short and sweet.  'Wool' is action-packed; I feverishly turned the pages and discovered dark secrets and lies right along with the beautifully-realized characters.  Surprises abound, tears were shed.

Believe me, this is an instant classic.

And I can't say enough about it.  Read 'Wool' and send the author your response.

We need to encourage this man to continue with his most brilliant career.

*Thank you, Angie, for your most brilliant recommend!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

'Kill You Twice'

Just the other day, I received a phone call from my local library, informing me that a couple books on my reserve list had finally made it into the branch.  So, I went in, and there were the books, sitting on the Hold shelf with my name in them.

And there was 'The One'.  'The One' I'd been dying to read ever since it was first published.  

'Dying' is an apt word to use when it comes to 'The One', it being 'Kill You Twice', written by the phenomenal Chelsea Cain.

I ended up borrowing five books in all that day, but Chelsea's book received my immediate attention.

I finished it in one day.  I couldn't stop turning pages, despite the fact that the dog needed a walk, and dirty laundry was calling my name.  I ignored it all and gave Chelsea's book the respect it so richly deserves.

If you have read the other books in the series, you are aware that the stories center on the strange relationship between Archie Sheridan, a Portland police detective, and Gretchen Lowell, a cool blonde serial killer and Archie's former lover.  Gretchen is clever and so very intelligent...but then, Archie knows her tactics very, very well.  Of all her victims, he was the only one who lived to tell about it.   

Although Gretchen doesn't really show up in the third ('Evil at Heart') and fourth ('The Night Season') books, her presence is felt.

But she's back in 'Kill You Twice'...and she's still a horrible, infuriating, brilliant woman, despite the fact that she's drugged and locked up in maximum security at the state mental hospital.  Gretchen has some secrets, one quite major.  And Archie, finally coming to terms with his life and growing stronger every day, knows exactly how to 'play' her for information.  Their 'cat-and-mouse' relationship is a joy to behold.  Chelsea has a knack for bringing her characters to life; burning them into our memories, making us care, despite the fact that a few of them are mentally deranged.

In 'Kill You Twice', the first murder victim is discovered at Mt. Tabor, hanging from a tree.  And next, a crispy corpse is found laying under the former 'Made in Oregon' sign (Chelsea knows her Portland!).  Could this be the work of a copycat killer?  Or has Gretchen escaped? 

Susan, the intrepid, clever reporter, is back and her investigative skills were never sharper.  I have to say that I'm very happy that Susan's hippy mother, Bliss, has a larger role in the whole plot.    

But, most of all, we are given glimpses into Gretchen's past, discoveries that are slowly peeled back like the layers of an onion.

And her secret?  I'm not talking.  That's something you'll have to discover for yourself if you can get through the violence and gore.  But if you're as big a fan as me, that's trivial.

It's the marvelous relationship between Archie and Gretchen that makes you turn the pages.

Thanks, Chelsea, for bringing her back.  She was missed, scalpel and all.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

'Homer's Odyssey'

There are times in our lives when we need something a bit unexpected.  A surprise.  A hopeful surprise.

We also need to discover that someone else, just like us, has gone through success and failure without becoming 'hardhearted' and pessimistic.  It brings us closer to the human experience and teaches us that despite life's little setbacks, we can always move on, comfortable in the knowledge that we are not alone.

There are also times when someone or something comes into our lives when we need them most; the someone or something that shields us against pessimism with their shining spirit.

That is exactly what I found while reading Gwen Cooper's incredible book, 'Homer's Odyssey'.

Homer is a cat, but not your ordinary, 'garden variety' cat (but what cat isn't unique?).  When he was a mere two weeks old, Homer was rescued and taken to a vet, who discovered that the little guy had a life-threatening eye infection.  To save his life, the vet did the only thing she could do:  She surgically removed his eyes.  The couple who had found him could not adopt him, and the vet could not find anyone who would take him in.  That is, until she called Gwen, one of her customers who had two cats.

It was love at first sight.  Homer grew into a three-pound dynamo, able to leap tall bookcases in a single bound.  He became a master fly killer (seriously).  And he saved Gwen's life.

Full of joy, optimism, and a huge amount of love, 'Homer's Odyssey' is quite unlike any other animal book I've ever read.  I laughed so hard.  But the tears...the tears really flowed when I read the chapter about 9/11 (Gwen lived close to the site of the World Trade Center).  Gwen could not get back to her beloved Homer, Vashti and Scarlett for days.  She tried everything in her power to rescue them as images of the worst possible scenarios regarding them were constantly on her mind:  What if a window had broken and Homer escaped, never to find his way back home?  What if they had run out of food and water?  What if she was never able to hold them again?  It's a tense chapter and you'll want to send a big, fat check to the ASPCA.  

The remarkable, amazing little Homer is the true centerpiece of this story, and you will cheer him on.  You will be astounded when you read about his resourceful nature.  It seems that we all need a Homer in our lives.

And you will learn that love doesn't require having a set of eyes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

'The Secret Keeper'

After I first read Kate Morton's first novel, 'The House at Riverton', I thought, "Now that was fine writing!"  Her second novel, 'The Forgotten Garden', didn't thrill me very much, but I had high hopes for her third, 'The Distant Hours', a novel that, while I found it satisfying, was a bit too long.

And now there's her fourth, 'The Secret Keeper'.  "Oh, Kate," I said to myself.  "Please get it right with this one!"

Oh, she did.  She really did.

Full of twists and turns, secrets and lies, 'The Secret Keeper' may just be her best novel to date.

It opens with a visually-stunning view of the English countryside.  Sixteen year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped a family picnic by hiding in her treehouse, dreaming of her future.  But before the afternoon is over, she is witness to a shocking crime involving her beloved mother and a dark stranger.  Fifty years later, Laurel has become a world-renown actress, and she returns to her family home to celebrate her mother's ninetieth birthday.  Realizing that her mother isn't long for this earth, Laurel gently questions her mother about that jarring past event, and in doing so, sets off to find answers.

Her mother's story begins in pre-WW2 England and through the Blitz, through to the '60's and beyond.  Laurel discovers that three strangers, Dorothy (her mother), Viven, and Jimmy, have met by chance and find their lives forever entwined.

This beautifully-realized novel, dear reader, is full of intrigue and secrets.  The lies are enormous.  And the pay-off?

I'm keeping that to myself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

'Steven Saylor, Honorary Roman'

Long, long ago, before cell phones, ipods, and personal computers were the 'norm' in every household, before cable television really came into its own, I had...public television.

If I didn't have a good book to read, I could always find something on PBS.  Be it a nature program, or science, or even political discussions, I was able to find something to stimulate my imagination.

When I discovered 'Masterpiece Theater', I was thrilled beyond words.  Finally!  A literate, well-produced series of plays based on, well, literary masterpieces.  When 'I, Claudius' premiered sometime in the late '70's, I was glued to my t.v. set every Sunday night.  It still remains my most favorite of the series.

Based on Robert Graves' classic novels, 'I, Claudius', and 'Claudius the God', the series begins in the middle of the reign of Augustus Caesar, then continues with Tiberius, Caligula (played by the incredible John Hurt), and ends with Claudius (with Nero in the wings, waiting for his stepfather to expire).  Bold, incredible, and naughty, the series gave me more than an introduction to British actors I still revere to this day; I found myself visiting the library much more often (remember:  We didn't have the internet yet), reading books about ancient Rome; Suetonius, Cicero, Pliny the Elder and the Younger, etc.  From there, I moved into Egyptian history, and then the ancient world was my oyster.

From that experience, I have always kept my eye out for any books pertaining to Rome, fiction and non-fiction.  When Steven Saylor's novel, 'Roma' appeared in my bookstore, I knew I had to read it.  And after I read it, I had to own it.  It's safe to say that I've read his wonderful novel more than once.

'Roma' begins before Rome had begun.  It was a mere backwater; swampy, muddy, with rough trails for traveling merchants.  Spanning 1,000 years, the plot revolves around the Pinarius and Potitius clans and their involvement in the founding of one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.  It ends with Octavius, better known as Augustus, Rome's first emperor.  It is a fierce novel; gritty and realistic, full of hope and heartbreak and staggering loss.  But, to me, it seems so true to life.  It's as if Mr. Saylor had actually lived-and-breathed his impeccable research.

And then came the sequel, 'Empire', an equally-believable account of life in ancient Rome from the end of the reign of Augustus up to Marcus Aurelius.  But although this novel is just as heartbreaking in spots, the madness of Tiberius, Caligula, and the others is terrifying.  Their sexual 'games' and hidden atrocities came to vivid life, and it left me feeling that I would have kept myself hidden away if I had been living in such a horrible time.

That is the power of Mr. Saylor's writing; how he kept me involved, how he made me cry, how he made me want to strike back at those who thought they were immortal and could get away with any cruelty and not think twice about what they had done.  And in the middle, our witnesses, the Pinarius males, suffer loss, escape death by the whim of a few emperors, and find themselves wealthy beyond belief.  But each man is touched by his conscience; one finds Jesus, another finds philosophers and a strange magical man.  

Now I await the third in his series.

Constantine should be quite....interesting.

If you enjoy these books, check out Steven Saylor's fantastic mystery stories about Gordianus the Finder in the 'Roma Sub Rosa' series set in ancient Rome.  The prequel to that series, 'Seven Wonders', has just been released and is well worth your time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

'The Lies of Locke Lamora'

You know how it is...

You have a stack of books; galley copies and newly-released; but none of them seem to suit your present need.  So, you go back to your favorites, those stories that had given  satisfaction so long ago.  The stories you always turn to, knowing the magic is still there.  

Sometimes, I'll pick up a Twain, or a Spencer Quinn, or an Austen.  Or maybe I'll try to finish 'Ulysses', or give Dorothy Parker's short stories another go.  There are times when I need a bit of history, or a biography.  

But a few days ago, I needed some fantasy...but not *cough cough* 'Fifty Shades of Boredom'.  I scanned the shelves and my hand landed on Scott Lynch's magnificent debut novel, 'The Lies of Locke Lamora'.  When I first read it in galley form, I was instantly taken with The Gentlemen Bastards, the gang of thieves that ran clever, clever scams.  But I wasn't prepared for the heartbreak.  I was astounded, to say the least.  I even shed a few tears.

The action is relentless, the evil is pure.  And the heart of the 'Thorn of Camorr' is tender, yet unforgiving when tragedy strikes.

The city is reminiscent of Venice, as are the clothes and manners of the nobility and merchants.  But those who came before left behind magnificent towers made of Elderglass, a material that pulsates with energetic beauty and color.

An orphan raised by a blind priest, Locke is taught everything he needs to know in order to become a successful thief.  And Camorr has never seen a more brilliant, innovative trickster.

With a scam in place, Locke and his cohorts are soon led into a scheme so diabolical, so evil, that it is up to them to save Camorr. 

So, on this rainy day in Oregon, I finished rereading the adventures of Locke and Jean, The Gray King, and the unsuspecting nobility of the city of Camorr.

Lynch's debut is brilliant, and I was overjoyed to read the second book ('Red Seas Under Red Skies') in this projected seven-book series.

If it's a rainy day in your corner of the world, pick up a treasured book.  Read it and experience the magic...all over again. 

I did.  And I think I'll have another.

Friday, September 28, 2012

'Gone Girl'

It takes a brilliant mind to come up with a story that, on the surface, seems so simple.  So 'cut-and-dried'.  

What really pulls me into mystery stories is the fact that I actually get to exercise my mind.  Did he/she do it?  Or was it the butler in the bathroom with the butterknife?  Most of the time, we find that we are wrong.  Dead wrong.  We can read all the Sherlock Holmes mysteries that we want, thinking we'll have a 'heads up' when we explore contemporary suspense thrillers, but...

...we'll be dead wrong.

Gillian Flynn is one of many mystery writers who has a huge fan base.  I've enjoyed her previous stories; 'Sharp Objects' is a particular favorite; so when I heard that her new novel, 'Gone Girl' had been released, I was eager to partake of the mystery meal.  I was even more eager when I learned that it was garnering very positive reviews.  Then it appeared on bestseller lists.

I'll admit it:  I am proud of Gillian.  I've been an advocate of her books for a long time, finding great pleasure in putting her books in customer's hands.  Gillian has one of those brilliant minds.  And she's clever, to boot.

'Gone Girl' opens with a typical scene:  In North Carthage, Missouri, Nick and Amy Dunne are preparing to celebrate their five-year wedding anniversary.  Presents are wrapped, reservations are made.  A mysterious silver gift box sits hidden in Amy's closet.  Nick begins work at the bar he and his twin sister, Margo, own...until he receives a phone call from a neighbor with the news that Nick's front door is open and his wife is gone.  

It doesn't help that Nick has daydreamed about the slope and shape of Amy's head.  And Amy's diary reveals a perfectionist who would drive anyone totally crazy.  After the police are informed, Nick demonstrates inappropriate behavior and each lie makes you wonder if he had anything to do with Amy's disappearance.

Did he do it?  And if not, just where is Amy?

Flynn has written a story full of her trademark clever dialogue, and she leads readers in so many directions, making us suspect anyone and no one.  But, like a magician, her sleight-of-hand keeps us from noticing what's really happening.  The suspense doesn't let up, and you might find yourself finishing the story within a day.  Because it's good.  Very, very good.  

Once you discover the mystery of 'Gone Girl', you'll wonder just how well you know the one you love.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

'The Uninvited Guests'

Rare is the original story that comes into my life in the midst of time-worn tales of divorce, reconciliation, fantasy, sisterhood, and foreign intrigue.

Even rarer is the story that puts me in a comfortable setting, leading me along, until, like a kidnapper, it throws a cloth bag over my head, only to reveal its true self when the bag is lifted.  But because I had become so well-adjusted, the changes were subtle.

And that was a mistake.  A big mistake.

In Sadie Jones' new novel, 'The Uninvited Guests', you are at once pulled into the Edwardian setting; the wealthy family, their romantic longings, their selfishness.  And there is their ramshackle manor, Sterne.  There is societal humor and angst.  It has an 'Upstairs-Downstairs' type of feel; you can almost smell the food, hear the tinkle of wine goblets, and delight in the shallow desperation of each character.

But there are secrets, and they are doozies.

On a Spring day in 1912 in the countryside of Edwardian England, Emerald Torrington is preparing for her twentieth birthday party.  She has invited two dear childhood friends, and a neighboring young, wealthy landowner to the festivities.  The housekeeper and her helper are busy in the kitchen, baking a special cake and cooking delicacies.  Charlotte, Emerald's somewhat selfish mother, is in her bedroom, saying goodbye to her second husband, Edward, who is traveling to town to secure funds in order to prevent financial disaster.  Emerald and her brother, Clovis, engage in sparkling repartee (most of the barbs aimed at their stepfather), while their little sister, Imogene (a.k.a. 'Smudge'), has taken to her sickbed while preparing her Great Undertaking.

But then tragedy strikes, which turns the party on its ears.  A few miles away, a railroad accident occurs, which forces the Sterne household to take in the survivors.  And with them arrives a man ready to unveil a secret which could destroy the Torrington family.

As I said, this story will sneak up on you.  Athough it isn't 'Downton Abbey', the feeling is much the same.  But here's the thing:  It is purely original.  

For that alone, I thank Sadie Jones... kidnapper.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Although Book Hog doesn't usually review Young Adult titles (don't get me wrong; I have quite a few of them on my bookshelves), I recently finished a YA book that is worth your attention.

Once again, I read this book in under a day.  It's that good.

Fast-paced and with such well-developed characters, 'Crewel', by Gennifer Albin, drew me in and didn't let me go.  

Based on the myth of the Fates, three women who control destiny, this novel is narrated by Adelice, herself destined to become a Spinster, a female weaver who has the talent to manipulate the strands of time and place.  Although her parents try to teach her to hide her skill, it is soon discovered via mandatory testing, and Adelice is taken to the Tower, where she will spend her life weaving the threads of destiny.

But simmering under the government control is discontent and outrage, which are cleverly hidden from those in power.  It is in the Tower where Adelice finds her enemies, discovers allies...and finds the one who will stand by her side.

Gennifer Albin has truly spun a clever tale which will leave you hungry for more.

But don't just take my word for it:  Check out my friend Michelle's blog, at a later date for a more in-depth review.

'Crewel' will be released by Farrar Straus Giroux in mid-October 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

'The Key'

There are those of us who unashamedly adore religious conspiracy stories.  'The DaVinci Code' may not have been the first book published dealing with 'all things hidden', but it certainly fed our appetites, merely for its subject matter.  Jesus married?  And the father of a child?  Why not, I say.  Dan Brown wrote a delicious story that left me hungry for more.

I found quite a few written in the same vein.  Some were so-so; most were extraordinary.  I took to the internet and library, and studied.  Of course, the truth didn't quite quench my thirst.  I found I wanted more religious mysteries.  The more fictiony, the better.  More relics!  More blasphemy!  More women standing up and defeating religious misogyny!  More 'good vs. evil'!

When I read 'Sanctus', by Simon Toyne (Book Hog October 2011), I was mesmerized by the group of monks bound and determined to keep their astonishing sacrament hidden.  But then, along comes a woman, and their whole world in the secretive Citadel is almost blown to hell.  Go, women!

When I finished reading the last page, I was delighted to learn that Mr. Toyne would be continuing the adventures of the mad monks.  I couldn't wait to read it.

Just one year later, I opened 'The Key', and I was lost for a day and a half.  The laundry could wait.  My husband could feed the cats.  I had the sequel I'd been dying to read.

And it was worth it.

Courageous journalist, Liv Adamsen, having escaped from the Citadel, is now isolated in a hospital, where she has lost most of her memory of that horrific time.  Despite that fact,  something stirs within her, bringing with it strange dreams and whispering voices.  But when others hear of this, they know exactly what it means, and are bound and determined to silence her.  A desert mercenary, known as 'The Ghost', knows that Liv holds the key to a very powerful secret.  The monks, now suffering from a brutal plague, want her returned.  And the only man she trusts, her beloved Gabriel, does his utmost to rescue her from danger.  Together, they race against time to reach the cradle of civilization in order to fulfill a prophecy of the 'end times'.

It was good to become acquainted with Liv and Gabriel once again.  The villains pursuing them were merciless and contained no warmth, which is how a good villain should be portrayed, in Book Hog's opinion.  Surprises abound, the action is relentless, and some people are not who they appear to be.

And when you finish this well-written story, I hope that you will share my theory.

Let's hope it plays out in book number three.

Laundry be damned!

Monday, August 27, 2012

'The Night Circus'

"There are many kinds of magic, after all"

It is during times like these when we all need some sort of escape.  Be it via a vacation, or a hike, or even listening to music, we need to leave behind those things which cause us stress.  

I escape into stories.  And the one I have just finished reading led me far, far away from stress and politics and financial worries.  It gently took me by the hand and led me down a path filled with brilliant imagery.  

'The Night Circus', by Erin Morgenstern, is the object of my affection.  It has been reviewed extensively; either loved or disliked by its critics, it is, for me, one of the most original stories I've encountered in a long, long time.  

Magical, delicate, a swirl of colors.  Characters that challenge you.  Characters with whom you fall in love.  A 'game' that has no purpose and no clear end in sight.  

This story is magic, plain and simple.  No parlor tricks; no 'smoke and mirrors'.  Ironically, it is full of real illusion.

The two unwilling pawns in the game are Celia, a brilliant illusionist, and Marco, one of the caretakers of Le Cirque des Rêves.  But neither are aware that they are adversaries in an ages-old game set forth by two men:  Celia's father and 'the man in the grey suit'.

As a 'stage' for the competition, Le Cirque des Rêves is born, but it is not one full of clowns, bearded ladies, and carnival games.  This is a circus ablaze with color and texture, each tent housing scenes and illusions that touch the hearts of each visitor.  You will meet Bailey; the twins, Widget and Poppet; the clockmaker, Herr Thiessen; and Chandresh Lefèvre, Marco's 'employer'.   

But if I could say more, I would.  This beautiful and well-written story must be read and savored and passed on to someone who needs a bit of magic right now.  I will visit 'The Night Circus' again, perhaps many times, and go away even more enchanted...

...after the sun sets, and the marvelous clock engages my imagination while I consider just what tent I'll visit next time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

'Imperfect Bliss'

Oh, Jane Austen!  Contemporary authors and filmmakers are having a blast with your delicious stories.

And, dear Jane, yet another has hit store shelves and e-readers, delighting another generation of fans...and bringing them back to your original source.

'Imperfect Bliss', by Susan Fales-Hill, is a delightful retelling of Austen's story, 'Pride and Prejudice'.  Set in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Harold and Forsythia Harcourt, a mixed-race couple, are raising four marriage-eligible daughters.  Forsythia has named her daughters after Windsor royals in hopes that each one would find her own true prince.  But beautiful Diana has entered herself in a new reality tv series, 'The Virgin', and her mother couldn't be happier.  Not only will the show bring the family attention, but Forsythia has her moment to shine.  Recently divorced Elizabeth (a.k.a. Bliss) and her young daughter live with her parents, and Bliss wants no part of the madness as she pursues a PhD.  But when she meets the handsome producer, she is drawn into the romance and drama of the whole event.

Sure, it's 'chick lit', but it's quite charming and literate.  The characters are unforgettable, even when you know how things will turn out.

'Imperfect Bliss' is a sweet distraction from all the weighty tomes that will be heading our way this Fall.

So sit back and enjoy yourself...

...and I'm sure you'll find the original Austen calling your name.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

'The Sherlockian'

It never fails...

While picking up a reserved book from the library, I always take the time to check the stacks; see if I've missed something.  A hidden gem, perhaps.

And I usually find one, one that is better than the book I had originally reserved.

'The Sherlockian', by Graham Moore, is my newest 'find'.  I've always been intrigued by the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and now that Sherlock has moved into the 21st century (courtesy of Stephen Moffat, he of the wonderful 'Doctor Who' reboot), I have spent wonderful days rereading the adventures written so many years ago.

When I found 'The Sherlockian' on the shelf, I swear it was calling to me.  The cover art isn't that exceptional.  I had never heard of the author, and I hadn't heard any 'word-of-mouth', the best indication that a story is worth my perusal.  I just found a simple, buff-colored hard cover, beckoning to me with that one word:  Sherlockian.  The power of that simple word was enough to hook me.

The story begins in present day, and Harold White is being inducted into the prestigious Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars.  A preeminent Holme's scholar claims to have found the missing grail of everything Sherlockian:  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's missing diary.  But before it's discoverer can reveal the diary to the society, he is found murdered in his hotel room.  And the game is afoot...with Harold leading the way.

Then the story takes a turn to the past.  We find that Doyle has killed off Sherlock Holmes, and the public outcry is enormous, some people even labeling Doyle an assassin.  Sir Arthur is tired of the detective, and wants to write something different. But when a tragic, bloody mystery surfaces, Doyle is pulled into it, kicking and screaming.  With the aid of his friend, Bram Stoker, they go about investigating the murder of three young suffragettes.

A treat of mystery, intrigue, and mistaken identities, each chapter switches from present to past, a useful device that kept me on my toes while I tried to solve both mysteries.  The wonderful swirl of both eras converge into a satisfying dénouement.

As Sherlock Holmes said, "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact"

Sunday, August 5, 2012

'The Woman Who Died a Lot'

This has been a Summer of sensational stories.  

And now that Jasper Fforde has presented us with his newest book, 'The Woman Who Died a Lot', I can die happy.  Or at least walk into Autumn with a spring in my step.

In one of the most unusual series I have ever read (and come to love), Jasper's literary detective, Thursday Next, is back.  But the years (and various adventures) have caught up with my favorite heroine, and as the story opens, she is in semi-retirement following an assassination attempt ('One of Our Thursdays is Missing').  Not as physically agile as she once was, she can no longer go after the bad guys in her usual way.  But her mind, thank the deity, is still sharp and clever.  Now living with her husband, Landon, and their children, in Swindon, Thursday is offered the job of chief librarian at the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso's Drink Not Included Library.

But her children are a great part of the story, and their problems are pressing.  Friday, her eldest, is faced with a dilemma that could ruin not only his life, but the entire world.  And Tuesday, her brilliant daughter, is trying to perfect the Anti-Smite shield, a device that will thwart an angry diety's plans to destroy downtown Swindon.

Jack Schitt, Goliath's villain supreme, is back, and interested in worthless 13th century codices.  Speaking of Goliath, it, too, is back with a vengeance and bent on owning the world.  Add synthetic Thursdays, 100 percent library budget cuts, and the problem with Jenny, and you have a wonderful addition to an exceptional series.

Fforde's writing is just as sharp and witty as ever, and his love of books still permeates each chapter.  I'm so very glad to learn more about Friday and Tuesday.  And the bond between Landon and Thursday is as strong as ever.   But I did miss Thursday's adventures in Bookworld.  Perhaps Fforde will return us to that literary land in his eighth book, 'Dark Reading Matter' (publication date not yet established).

If you haven't read this series, by all means, do so!  Begin with the incredible 'The Eyre Affair'.  You won't be sorry.

And as a side note to all librarians, Jasper's dedication will make your heart swell.

'The Woman Who Died a Lot' will be published in October 2012 by Viking Books.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

'Truth in Advertising'

Back in the eighties, I watched the film, 'Mr. Mom', starring one of my favorite actors at the time, Michael Keaton.  When Keaton's character loses his job at a car company, his wife takes a job at an advertising firm.  Left at home to care for the house and kids, he grows jealous of his wife's new life of creating successful ads, going on business trips, and 'bringing home the bacon'.  I found it somewhat odd that she had moved up so rapidly at the ad agency; it seemed to be too...easy.

A couple of decades later, the wonderful series, 'Mad Men', appeared, and it is set in the 'swinging sixties', an era of smoking indoors, consuming vast quantities of booze while at work, play, and home, and serious feminist issues.  It's an intriguing show, but I have to admit that I'm in love with Jon Hamm, the star of the series.  Sure, his character is a pig, but he's a hardworking pig.  The viewer is treated to the mean inner workings of an ad agency, and it leaves one exhausted.  But the only reason I'll sit through the Superbowl is to watch the fantastic commercials and applaud the creative teams who come up with such interesting ideas.

When 'Truth in Advertising', the first novel by John Kenney, landed in my lap, I wondered if it would be a gritty exposé of the advertising world.  Upon learning that Kenney had worked as a copywriter for about seventeen years, I decided to give his book a try.  Experience makes all the difference when it comes to writing a story based on an author's former 'day job'.

First of all, I laughed my ass off.  Honestly.  Kenney's main character, Fin Dolan, works for a Madison Avenue ad agency, and his inner voice is sharp, sardonic and downright hilarious.  Not long before the story begins, Fin has cancelled his wedding, and now, a few days before Christmas, he's forced to cancel a vacation in order to come up with a diaper ad which will air during the Superbowl.

But this story isn't all laughs.  Fin grew up in a home with an abusive father, who later abandoned the family.  And now that father is ill and alone.  Despite the fact that he has siblings, Fin is the only one who visits his father, and while doing so, mulls over his past lies and mistakes and the choices he has made. 

Like I said, you'll laugh out loud.  Kenney has a real talent for making his characters come alive, but his true gift is getting to the heart of Fin Dolan; what makes him tick, why he lies.  

'Truth in Advertising' is poignant and moving, wicked and funny.

And that's the truth.

'Truth in Advertising' will be released in early January 2013 by Touchstone Books, a division of Simon & Schuster

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

'Mean Girls at Work'

When I first entered the workforce many years ago, I was confronted by many women who did not have my best interests at heart.  A few were part of a clique; they would whisper when I walked by, or demean me in snarky tones.  Some were jealous, a few were controlling.  I ran into many gossips, while others took credit for some of my ideas.  Quite a few were 'talkers' (and, sad to say, I'm part of that group).

Sure, it was confusing, but it made me remember my high school years, when I was first exposed to such women.  But in school, as in my work life, I've learned to ignore the taunts and control (but it can be tempting to listen to the gossip, as long as it's not about a coworker).  I've found some very dear friends who not only lifted my spirits, but also gave me a chance to help them shine.

Women are confronted by 'mean girls' in the work world each and every day, and the youngest members are confused about who can and cannot be trusted.  'Mean Girls at Work', the new book by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster (a book I wish had been around when I first started working), offers a wonderful map that navigates newbies through the tumultuous, yet rewarding, world of the professional work place.  The book is written in a concise manner, and although it appears to be a 'quick read', it contains valuable solutions which will stay with you whether you are new to the work place, or a seasoned veteran.  Both authors know what they're writing about.*

The 'mean girls' described in the book are broken down into sections; 'Meanest of the Mean', 'Very Mean', 'Passively Mean', 'Doesn't Mean to be Mean', etc.  The authors describe particular situations (i.e., the aforementioned cliques) and what not to do in regards to a reaction.  They then offer suggestions as to what to do; one of the best suggestions they offer to dispel anger is exercise, breathing, or any diversion.  By keeping one's mind off the anger, one is able to come up with a logical solution.

Keeping our cool and maintaining a professional attitude is something all of us need to remember.  Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't nurture friendships.

We just need to learn how to weed-out the Mean Girls.  And thanks to Katherine and Kathi, it is now that much easier to maintain our professional integrity.

*Katherine Crowley is a Harvard-trained psychotherapist, and Kathi Elster is a management consultant and executive coach.  Together, they run K Squared Enterprises, a training firm that helps clients manage difficult situations in the workplace.  'Mean Girls at Work' will be published by McGraw Hill in November 2012.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

'Driving the Saudis'

We live in a time when a mere one hundred dollars is very precious, indeed.  Some of us consider long and hard just how we'll spend it.  Food?  Rent?  Gasoline?

There is a group of fortunate people who don't have to worry about such trivial things.  In fact, gasoline is what enables them to come to the United States and spend spend spend more than just that precious one hundred dollars.  They spend thousands of dollars on shoes and toiletries and undergarments, each and every day.  The clerks in the high-end boutiques must be slobbering the moment they see those women walking down the street...while their limousines slowly follow them. 

They are the Saudi women.  

In a country where they are considered low class, where they have to cover up completely when they go out in public, where they absolutely cannot be seen in public in the company of a man who isn't a family member, they find escape in the United States.  Here, they can go without the covering, they can wear whatever they please (the younger generation takes full advantage of that), and spend until there is nothing left to buy.  Some of the young girls are so spoiled and demanding that I wanted to slap them.  

Sadly, they can't buy freedom, which we have in vast amounts.  Sure, we may be struggling with money, we may dream of dropping thousands of dollars on frivolous items.  Hell, we can't even afford gasoline for our vehicles.  But we have something those women do not have:  Freedom.  And how sweet it is.

'Driving the Saudis', written by Jayne Amelia Larson, gives us a peek inside the world of the Saudi women when they visit the United States; namely, Beverly Hills, California, land of sunshine, relaxation, and Rodeo Drive.  Jayne was a struggling actress, and to make ends meet, she was hired to be a personal chauffeur for them.  She'd heard tales of the Saudi's generous tips, so she spent weeks driving them, being at their beck-and-call at all hours of the day and night.  When the women arrived with forty servants and millions in cash, Jayne soon realized that she got more than she bargained for.  When she writes about her adventures driving the hairdresser, I wanted to slap him, too.

Occupying four luxury hotels, the family's opulent lifestyle afforded them huge shopping sprees.  The only female driver, Jayne soon became a confidant to a few of the servants.  She also gives us a startling insight into the habits and eccentricities of the younger royal females:  the forced marriages, the luxury to slap hundred-dollar bills down on the counter of a grocery store...and not go back for the change.  We are given a peek at one of the few royal women that earned my regard; I felt her despair at the thought of marrying a man she didn't love (and if that wasn't bad enough, he was old), when all she really wanted to do was stay in the United States to attend college.

The stories are bizarre, the contradictions and prejudices are many.  It's a tale for our time; how massive amounts of wealth can corrupt and spoil us.  But, most of all, it's about what we would do for money.

When I fill my gas tank now, I consider that lifestyle.  I remember the shopping sprees that Jayne has so vividly described.

And then I decide that the next car I buy will be an electric one.

Driving the Saudis will be released in October 2012 by the Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster