Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book falls on a Wednesday this Week

 

We apologize for the irregular blogs of late and are trying to get back on track! Here’s Jack’s review of 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall-Smith

 

I’m a huge fan of McCall-Smith, ever since I began devouring his No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. But he has a number of others that deserve attention, including Corduroy Gardens and the Scotland Street one.

 

I should explain right away that I lived most of my life within 30 minutes’ drive of the center of Edinburgh, where this series is set, so I’m very familiar with Scotland Street and the surrounding Georgian part of the city. McCall-Smith captures not only the geography beautifully, but its character through the residents, from the rugby following upper middle class to the quirky academics, the hard working cafe owner and the inimitable and much put-upon child of a demanding liberal-minded mother.

 

This series started as a serial in one of Scotland’s national newspapers and quickly built a devoted following. So much so that McCall-Smith was persuaded (by them) to turn it into a real book and then to publish two more follow-ups.

 

The one I’ve just finished re-reading is the second book (although I have read them all), and I was once again captivated by his ability to get right inside the mind of his characters – not just their surface characteristics, what they say and do, but what lies behind them; the professional or cultural world they inhabit. This might seem like a recipe for boredom, but he is such a wonderful observer of human nature and has such a way with words that it never is. Of course he lives in the Edinburgh Georgian ‘new town’ of which he writes and in many ways is just setting down what he lives and experiences every day.

 

Finally – just like in the Corduroy Gardens series this one has a dog as one of its main characters and I absolutely love how (in both cases) McCall Smith relates to his readers the world from the dog’s point of view. Anyone who has ever been owned by a dog will get it!

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The Monday Book: Death with all the Trimmings by Lucy Burdette

burdetteLucy mailed this book to me so I could blog it. I like cozy mysteries, and this one is food-based. It is set in Key West with her recurring detective Haley Snow, a food writer. Hayley has been assigned to interview Edel Waugh, chef/owner of Key West’s hottest new restaurant. But off the record, Edel reveals someone’s sabotaging her kitchen and asks Hayley to investigate.

It all goes downhill from there, with some funny bits about ex-husbands and love interests. This is a great beach read, seeing as it takes place over Christmas and at a beach. The dialogue is quick, the action straightforward and the humor cute. If you happen to be a foodie (I’m not) you will have extra special fun with some of the humor and descriptions. Since I was reading it on a plane while starving over their $8 cheese plate (two slices of cheddar and half an apple) some of the funnier bits may have been lost on me.

Context is everything.

Death with All the Trimmings is part of a series, and since there is some character development based on prior relationships, you may want to start at the beginning. Check out Lucy’s web page for the books in order: http://www.cozy-mystery.com/Lucy-Burdette.html

And have fun!

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The Monday Book: A SMALL FURRY PRAYER by Steve Kotler

I got this book because my agent recommended it. (We have somewhat similar reading tastes.)

Kotler fell in love with a woman who rescued dogs, and he liked dogs, so he became a dog rescuer. And dog philosopher, because this book is chock full of ethnographic and philosophical divergences into how dogs see the world, and how humans think dogs see the world. Those were pretty interesting.

The story is less a story than journalism, because Kotler is a research journalist. If you’re looking for “this puppy was SOOOOOO cute,” this isn’t the rescue book you’re looking for. It’s got a lot of depth to its analysis of why people rescue, but even more on why dogs (and all animals) matter. When you get to the part about Kotler getting in the cage with a mountain lion, you know you’ve having fun.

I wouldn’t say this is a book only animal lovers will love. Actually, Kotler’s love for his wife, which drove him to move to New Mexico and run a household dog rescue, is the unexamined force behind all the research he does into why dogs matter. And his observations of what it takes out of her to do this work are very astute. I’d almost recommend this book as a spousal manual for those who love rescuers, rather than rescuers themselves.

Still, it’s a wide ranging read, and New Mexico itself is an interesting (perhaps hysterical) character in the plot overall. The plumber won’t come on Thursday because the earth energy forces are bad. That kind of thing.

I was entertained, informed, and moved by this book – a rare triple crown. If you’re driven by stories, maybe this won’t interest you so much, but if you like journalistic storytelling, you’re gonna love it.

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The Monday Book: Hot Cripple by Hogan Gorman

This book is hysterical. It’s a righteous indictment of today’s fragmented health care system AND our “buy your way out of justice” justice system. But it’s also so very, very funny.

Hogan Gorman is a model who get hit by a car. And her life goes to hell in a handbasket. And she pretty much swears her way through it. One of my favorite parts was when she lists the best eight swear phrases to deal with excruciating pain, in descending order.

Not for the faint of heart, and not a “happy ending” book, if foul language bothers you, don’t read it. But this book is so very, very funny, and her crises are so very normal that you can’t help but feel like you’re there with her as she realizes she can’t get off the toilet, is going to eat nothing but rice and ketchup for three days, and meets a succession of civic employees ranging mostly from bad to worse.

This book is hysterical. An enthusiastic two crutches up.

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The Monday Book: NO I DON’T WANT TO JOIN A BOOK CLUB by Virginia Ironside

I found this at one of the Philly bookstores I visited and loved the title. The novel is about a woman turning sixty with some enthusiasm, dealing with all the things that turning sixty entails.

She is a sassy curmudgeon, the protagonist, with a lot of common sense and a few blind spots. I always say character drives plot, so this book has a great plot. It is written in diary form, which is not my favorite kind of book but does let the writer get in all sorts of silliness for extra laughs.

It’s a gentle read, kind of  haha-ouch stuff if you’re someone headed toward those years, probably a haha, I remember that if it’s behind you. There’s something affirming about finding you’re not alone in the things that happen to us all, yes?

This isn’t a book for everyone; it’s a gentle, light-hearted story, kind of “aga saga for the senior set” or for those who just love character-driven books. Because Marie (the diary writer) really is a character. If this book were food, it would be pudding in a cloud, vitamin-fortified, because there are just enough “stop and think” moments in the fun romp to add savory to the sweetness.

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The Monday Book: WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

wolf hallThis book caused quite a stir when it came out, and has recently been made into a Masterpiece Theater mini-series, so probably most of you have already heard of it. I’m a sucker for historic fiction, but too often that means a thinly veiled bodice ripper in the hands of lesser artists.

Not here. This is a tough, sardonic, wickedly funny underneath and terrifyingly brutal on the top portrayal of one of the most confusing and dangerous times in political history. You weren’t going to get killed in the breakdown of government, but BY the crazy, inhumane government itself.

Hmm, maybe that’s why we in the early 2000s are so fascinated by King Henry’s court, when two almost equally powerful factions were smashing into each other trying to reign, with the end result that no one knew at any time what was right and wrong to be doing in the eyes of the law, or whether they were going to go to work tomorrow.

This book uses sarcastic wit, historic accuracy, and the filling in of a few personalities, to present a novel without heroes, from a time period that might have been the same. Everyone believed in something, but nobody believed in the same thing–unless the king wanted them to, in which case they either did believe it, or died in some horrible way. Ho hum…. The genius of the writing is how well Mantel makes then feel like now: the animals are going extinct; modern times are too fast to keep up with, now the printing press has been invented; the rulers are fickle; the parliament can’t get anything done. Etc.

Mantel’s good at description, and I’m not such a fan of dense descriptive books when it comes to room settings or wooded copses, but she does make you feel as though you are there. And when she gets to describing the tensions in the room at any given meeting, suddenly less is more. She conveys so much through dialogue, you wonder how she manages to write up settings so descriptively well. Usually a writer is better at one than the other, but she’s great at both.

Two hats in the air for WOLF HALL. If you like historic fiction, you’ll love it. If you like politics, you’ll love it. It’s kind of a THRONE OF CARDS game. :] (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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The Monday Book Review

The Monday book guest review by Jack

Although I do read the occasional novel, my preference leans towards biography or history. So today’s book is Total War by Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint.

You might wonder what a Quaker is doing reading books about war, but it’s really to try to understand why these terrible things happen.

This is a weighty book in a number of senses. It deals with the 2nd World War, but starts from well before with historical background around the world. It examines the political pressures and options, not just in the main protagonist countries, but also in places that aren’t usually given much attention – such as China, India and The Balkans etc.

I quite like the fact the book has a good deal of opinion in it as well as straightforward facts. I’ve always held to the frequently expressed phrase “history is written by the winners” and most other books I’ve read about WW2 pretty much exemplify that (maybe because most were written shortly afterwards). So it was refreshing to find detailed accounts of the attitudes, points of view and shifting pressures, not only in Britain, The US, France and Germany, but also in Japan, China, India, Poland, Hungary and The Balkans.

While there is personal opinion here, it didn’t strike me as polemical or partisan. For instance I was pretty much unaware that for many Asian and Pacific countries the war really became a choice between which empires to be part of and where there was an emerging independence movement where their best option lay. Even in Europe there were groups and recently established countries that had the same difficult choices to make.

This is a big book, but highly readable . I learned a lot from it!

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