A mystery within a mystery to watch for!

  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper, US release June 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: A London editor receives a mystery manuscript just as the author falls to his death. Despite her antipathy towards the author, Susan Ryeland is committed to finding the missing chapters and the real cause of Alan Conway’s death. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: London and environs
  • Time: Contemporary
  • I’m a sucker for British whodunits. Horowitz is known to PBS viewers for his teleplays, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. Magpie Murders pays homage to the great mystery writers and detectives with more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy and a great choice to take anywhere this summer.

For some reason, British murder mysteries seemed so much more civilized than their American counterparts. Even when one victim’s head is removed by the sword from the suit of armor in the manor hall – rather hard to believe. It’s the air of gentility, found more often in those who have suffered reverses than those on the rise, and generations of community connections despite differing social strata. Villages are traversed by walking or biking, and city dwellers live in lovely row houses or quaint flats. All of these elements, plus the necessary school ties, are present in Magpie Murders. Rather than feeling trite, it is entertaining to see how Horowitz manages to bring all these elements together, stringing out the clues bit by bit.

It’s not a great surprise that Alan Conway, author and murder victim, is disliked by many who know him. He is the ticket to his small publishing house’s success as both his publisher and editor realize. Just as his latest manuscript in about to be delivered, Conway comes to London for a dinner with the publisher at a private club. Unfortunately, all does not go smoothly. So after the incomplete manuscript appears and Conway dies, his editor is highly motivated to find the missing conclusion and the answers. She soon learns that Conway’s final mystery has far too many parallels with the leads she is following.

Dan, my very supportive husband, often wonders how there can still be people in Britain given the number of poisonings, falls, stabbings and hunting accidents that occur under suspicious circumstances. Somehow the bucolic settings make crime seem oh, so different, from the flashing lights and screaming sirens of American crime stories. Crime is intensely personal and localized, motives deep-seated and clear.

For fans of classic British mysteries, there is so much to like. Horowitz is reveling in each allusion he scores and inside publishing barb he plants. If you are intrigued, this is your June read.  It is coming out next week, just in time to take along wherever you go this summer.

Sharing books with Mom

Regardless of where you sit on the family tree, there is likely a mother (daughter, sister,  in-law, or you) in your life that is deserving of recognition. Just as I’ve shared suggestions of books for Dad in the past, mothers should have equal time.

For Mother’s Day, you want to give (or get) just the right thing.  One thing likely has not changed from the days when a handmade macaroni necklace was perfect – it’s the thought you put into it that counts. There are more pluses to giving books than the obvious reasons.

When you select a book you are opening a conversation. Are you giving a book you’ve enjoyed or one that reminds you of a shared experience? Is it by Mom’s favorite author or takes place in a city she loves? Whether it becomes her new favorite or not, talking books is usually interesting, often more so if you disagree about merits of a title.

Before I give some of my picks, I’d suggest you think about those titles that you’d read again, either because they entertained or informed you. They may be a perfect choice for gift giving. Please share your picks in the comments.

Here are some titles and authors my mother may see if she hasn’t already. Titles with links have my reviews:

  • Helen Simonson’s  The Summer Before the War or Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Two novels of English small town life with endearing characters, the first WWI-era and the second contemporary.
  • The Girls of Atomic City is a fascinating look at the integral secret role women played in the development of the atomic bomb. Oak Ridge was created almost overnight from nothing and was at the forefront of research (and social engineering) during the latter days of WWII. By Denise Kiernan.
  • Geraldine Brooks really does have something for every Mom! My favorites are Year of Wonders, a fictional account of a real community that isolated itself during the plague, and Foreign Correspondence, her memoir of her beginnings as an Australian schoolgirl whose pen pals set the stage for her career as a journalist and author. March and People of the Book are also great choices!
  • Israeli novels in translation are a favorite of mine. Three picks are The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, a novel about the high personal price of life in the intelligence service, and The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron, a contemporary story of the complexities and absurdities of life in an Israeli settlement. Lastly, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi is a novel about life in Palestine/Israel at the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State told in the rare voices of generations of a Sephardi family. This view has made it a huge bestseller in Israel. My review will appear soon.
  • Three very different historical fiction stories of strong women are The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes (19th/21st century), The Pearl that Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (20th/21st century), and The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (18th century).
  • Start her on Louise Penny’s Three Pines/Inspector Gamache mysteries and she will have books to keep her busy for months. A Great Reckoning was just released in paperback, or start at the beginning with Still Life. Rich characters that deal with life’s big issues in a setting you wish you could visit. There are many reasons her fan base is so loyal.
  • Perla, Carolina deRobertis’s magical novel about seeking identity during Argentina’s “Dirty War” will send her searching for information about the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the women who demonstrated and sought out information about their children and grandchildren “disappeared” by the government.
  • For something totally unexpected, share one of these stories about the American West immediately after the Civil War. News of the World is a beautiful small book by Paulette Jiles about a newsreader and a young girl rescued from Indian captors. EpitaphMary Doria Russell’s novel about the legendary Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, has just been optioned for a movie. I’d stand in line to see either on the screen.
  • Speaking of the screen, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Smoot and The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman are wonderful nonfiction titles have been adapted recently.
  • I love Venice and I’m a sucker for detective stories. Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti keeps me coming back to explore that wondrous city. There are now 26 titles in the series. While the principals have aged some since the beginning, it is not critical to read them in order.
  • If you, or the mother in your life, enjoys short stories, travel, and mysteries, check out the Akashic Noir series of titles. There are books for cities from Baltimore to Belfast to Beirut and beyond, each with stories written by local authors.
  • Finally, some “drop everything and read” titles that are perfect for getting away. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a new gem, based in part on the life of the top female advertising copywriter in the first half of the 20th century. The Truth According to Us is Annie Barrow’s story of long-held family secrets wrapped up with lots of information about the National Writer’s Project which employed writers to tell the histories of small-town America during the Depression. Before Me Before You, Jojo Moyes penned The Girl You Left Behind, a novel of life in the French countryside during WWI, a painting, and questions of its ownership almost a century later.

This lengthy listing barely touches on the possibilities. I specifically avoided WWII/Holocaust historical fiction. There are many, many wonderful and well-promoted books in this genre. Cookbooks and food memoirs with rich stories would be great for foodies but they are specific to individual tastes (excuse the pun!) Short story collections are making a big comeback, as are narrative nonfiction titles. While a few biographies or memoirs have been included, an entire list could be made of this genre. Still looking for something else? There are many recommendations on the website.

Reading local, Cape Cod style

  • UnknownThe Widow’s War by Sally Gunning (William Morrow, 2007)
  • In 40 words or less: Lyddie Berry, widowed after a whaling mishap, asserts her rights to one-third of her husband’s estate. Though legal, this decision has harsh consequences within her family and community. Gunning provides a detailed portrayal of the difficult life in mid-eighteenth century Cape Cod.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Satucket, MA
  • Time: 1760s
  • Read this to see the hardships of life in colonial America and the tremendous strictures of the society.IMG_4340

On my recent vacation to Cape Cod and the Berkshires, I visited Eight Cousins bookshop in Falmouth. As is my custom, I asked the bookseller for suggestions on a fiction title by a local author with a local feel. Her recommendation of The Widow’s War was right on target. Sally Gunning’s love for the Cape and its history comes through from page one. What differs in this novel from many others is the focus on the legally subservient role of women in the colonies and the prejudice against Indians living among the settlers.

Lyddie Berry is a strong woman who has run a household for months at a time while her husband, Edward, was at sea. Theirs was a loving relationship despite the strains of multiple miscarriages and the deaths of all but one of their children in infancy. Mehitable, their daughter, recently married a respected widower in the community and was establishing her own household.

When whales are spotted in the bay, the ships leave in a flurry and all the men return safely except for Edward. Their neighbor and friend, Sam Cowett, an Indian, makes every effort to save him but is unsuccessful. Now the Widow Berry, Lyddie is forced to recast her life.


Edward’s will provided for Lyddie as best possible at that time. The home and all properties go to the nearest male relative, Mehitable’s husband Mr. Clarke, with Lyddie to be given life tenancy to a third of the home plus support to come from the proceeds of the legacy. Edward’s solicitor, Mr. Freeman was a fierce advocate for Lyddie’s rights which Mr. Clarke sought to subvert. To support herself, Lyddie  nursed Sam Cowett’s ailing wife and served as his housekeeper for a period after her death. As an Indian, Sam was an outsider in the community and her alignment with him damages Lyddie’s reputation. Day to day survival overtakes her observance of the Sabbath which further estranges her.

The strengths of this novel are the detailed descriptions of daily life and the societal hierarchy within the community. Using the conflicts within the Berry/Clarke family as the background, the roles of wives, mothers and widows are clear.  Gunning carefully portrays the shrinking of the Indian presence in the local area as the consequence of selling land for supplies. Sam Cowett remained the lone reminder of the Indian landholders and his friendship/partnership with Edward Berry a thorn in the side of the community.

Whether your interest is in colonial America, whaling in Cape Cod, feminism in early America or just a good story, The Widow’s War holds its own.

Book snobbery – can’t we just get along?

Fair warning: I’m on my soapbox this afternoon.

In today’s Washington Post (8/6/16) (here), Sophie McManus came out, guns drawn, against readers of “beach reads.” In no uncertain terms, she paints the readers as sexist and vapid.  Through three-quarters of the column, she screeches about the unsuitability of their choices, because “these women” are a monolith. If one reads to the end, she raises the lack of diversity among editorial staffs and the importance of reading among African-American women. Now, having never heard of Ms. McManus, I felt obligated to do a little research before questioning her conclusion.

According to Ron Charles of The Washington Post, in reviewing her novel The Unfortunates on June 16, 2016, Ms. McManus graduated from Vassar and Sarah Lawrence and is the daughter of the editor in chief of Time Warner. Her novel, reviewed in all the “right” places, is about the ultra-rich and apparently is, in part, a social satire. I only wish her Book World piece was satire.

As a reader, professional book group facilitator, and blogger, much of my time is spent talking with people about what they read and why. Just like the teacher you wish you or your child had, I wouldn’t dream of criticizing someone’s choice of book or genre because they are reading. Reading is the enemy of ignorance.

When I speak with readers I try to erase the notion of “guilty pleasures” in reading. Who is anyone to criticize a social worker who deals with abused children from choosing to read fantasy for escape? And the person who spends day after day caring for a chronically ill relative may choose a “beach read” since there is no vacation on the horizon. Or, it could be the friend who called the article to my attention – a parent, leading volunteer in her community, and a practicing audiologist with a doctorate. People read for many reasons: to escape, to armchair travel, to learn an unfamiliar topic, to be entertained, to be part of a reading community. There are many reasons and they may change with one’s age and stage of life.

The women on that beach may be attorneys or wait staff, Uber drivers or teachers just looking to carve out that rare time away.  These same women may be in the book group Ms. McManus wishes would read her book but the group may choose narrative nonfiction, memoirs, classics or even other literary fiction. Let them read what they want when they want!

Isn’t there far too much divisiveness everywhere we turn? What is the upside to criticizing what writers write and readers buy? The assumption that all women who may read a “beach read” are so foolish they can’t see it isn’t real life nor anything one should aspire to is condescending. It would be tempting to say, given Ms. McManus’s background and comments, that maybe she should get a better sense of how the other 99% live and read. And if she hasn’t anything useful to say, maybe she’d best say nothing.


Three summer short takes

I’ve been savoring my reading time this summer. With all my book groups on hiatus until September, it feels like an “all you can read buffet.” Since reading isn’t all I do, please accept this group of “In A Nutshell” assessments, with a few extra words thrown in. Some full-length reviews are coming soon!

  • Unknown-8The Book That Matters Most by Ann Hood (W. W. Norton & Co, August 2016) (Advance copy)
  • In 40+ words or less: After the end of her marriage, Ava is encouraged to join a book group of disparate members. Monthly, one member leads the discussion on his/her most meaningful book. As Ava tries to restart her life, her daughter Maggie is in Paris engaging in destructive behavior, deceiving her family in the process.  Hood’s novel focuses on the importance of family, friendship, and love in creating a meaningful life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Providence and Paris
  • Time: Now
  • Read this for a novel about the resilience of the parent/child relationship, even when all seems lost.  The book club and the choice of discussion titles are key to Ava’s re-emergence and provide a vital plot twist.
  • Unknown-1A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan (Simon & Schuster, 2015)
  • In 40+ words or less: When her husband must make a career change, Alice steps up moving to an edgy book-related start-up. Exhilarating at first, Alice discovers it’s not as advertised and far from family-friendly. Everyone – her husband, children, and parents – need her so something’s got to give.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York metro area
  • Time: Now
  • Pick this up for a modern family story with some great bookish quirks.
  • Unknown-2Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (Penguin, 2013)
  • In 40+ words or less: A young woman, desperate for a job, becomes the personal companion for a high-flying young businessman profoundly injured in an accident. Opposites in temperament, interests, and world views, they transform each others’ lives.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Great Britain
  • Time: Now
  • There’s a reason so many people have read it. May not stand the test of time but well worth an evening or two. A better choice than the movie. Jojo Moyes tells a good story.