Book Review – When

A Review by Catherine H. Armstrong

One of my favorite things as a reader is an author who is versatile.  There’s nothing more fun than having a favorite author and then discovering that the author not only writes things that you enjoy as an adult, but books that can be enjoyed by your children as well.  Such is the case with Victoria Laurie.

Laurie is the prolific author of the Psychic Eye series starring Abbie Cooper, and the Ghost Hunter series starring M.J. Holliday, both of which are adult mystery/thrillers that I’ve enjoyed reading over the years.  A few years ago, I was thrilled to notice that Laurie had published a trilogy of juvenile fiction books –  The Oracles of Delphi Keep – that would appeal to young readers like my 10 year old son and his cousin.  It was so much fun to be able to share an author I enjoyed so much with the little ones in my life, and now the only thing that was lacking was a YA novel that would appeal to my 18 year old daughter.

20338342Well, Laurie is back again with her newest novel, When, set to be released in early 2015, and this time she’s set her sights on yet another generation of readers:  The YA readers.  To my complete delight, Laurie has outdone herself and may well have released her best novel to date.  I simply cannot wait to share this book with my daughter and all of her friends!

When tells the story of a young woman with the ability to see the death date of any person, alive or deceased.  This unique talent brings more misery than joy, and she becomes somewhat of an outcast at her school as those who know of her talent think she’s either lying or a freak.

To help make ends meet and to support her mother’s alcohol habit, Maddie Fynn charges clients to read their death dates. Life moves along smoothly for Maddie until she predicts the death date the following week of a client’s son, and the client sees the prediction as a threat more than a warning of what’s to come.  When Maddie’s ominous warnings are ignored and the teenage boy is found brutally murdered, Maddie and her friend Arnold suddenly find themselves the focus of an FBI murder investigation.

This book far surpassed my expectations.  It was fast-paced and nothing short of fabulous.  More than a few times, I found myself holding my breath in anticipation of what would happen next, and hoping against hope that Maddie and Arnold would be vindicated.

Maybe the best part of this book was with the “big reveal” – that moment when the real bad guy of the story is revealed to the reader.  Many times this “big reveal” is nothing more than a copout and makes no sense.  Not so with When.  As the story unfolds, the reader starts to suspect several different characters; but the one character that crossed my mind as a possibility was quickly and completely discarded.  Imagine my surprise when I realized who the culprit was AND his reasonings made complete sense!  No copout there!  Laurie had created the perfect villain, and not only was it unexpected, but his motives were reasonable and made perfect sense!  Score one for Victoria Laurie!

I heard recently that this book has already been optioned for a television series, and I’m thrilled to hear this!  I can completely see Maddie Fynn as the heroine of a long-running television series that would appeal to both teen and adult audiences alike.

Alexander McCall Smith
What WH Auden can do for you
2013 by Princeton University Press 137 p. Part of Writers on Writers (I previously reviewed the Dirda On Conan Doyle. Now I must look up CK Williams On Whitman.)
This book is a a personal enthusiasm or appreciation for the English poet. This contains 12 short essays/chapters, not a critique of the poet, but more a way to link poetry to everyday life. AMS is no literary slouch and a prolific writer of popular mysteries. Any talk or lecture is worth driving 100 miles out of your way. I have even contemplated plane tickets home to Edinburgh to hear him. I love that his “worms” aren’t catchy songs hummed repeatedly but lines of poetry that appear in his everyday life. More often than not Auden. This is also an introduction to Auden, which will make you recognize how much of his work is actually already in your everyday life. “The Funeral Blues” recited in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the poem “September 1, 1939″ which was faxed around the world after 9/11, quotes in any number of mysteries (see Poetic Justice by Amanda Cross and of course all the Sunday Philosophy Club books by AMS).
This book has a conversational writing style and feels like an intimate chat, not a lecture. I felt that this book was equally about AMS as we learn many of his thoughts and private details. It gives you a chance to explore Auden’s poetry; while it has only a few of his better known stanzas, lines of his poems, they may trigger your own memories or send you in search of his poetry. I expect more people will be reading poetry and Auden simply because AMS has written this book.
“There may be no book on the mothers of poets, or artists in general, but it might one day be written and would be, I think, an enlightening read.” AMS writes about the moment that Auden died and his emptiness of loss was exactly my feelings this summer with the death of Jean Redpath. “One has lost a friend one never really had a chance to have.” Years aren’t enough.
I loved learning that there is an Edinburgh fellowship set up by AMS in the name of Isabel Dalhousie, who often quotes Auden as she is a devotee of his work. Not surprisingly Edward Mendelsohn was the first speaker.

Recommend Reading
Selected works / collected poems of WA Auden (Ed. Edward Mendelsohn)
Early Auden (1981), Later Auden (1999) by Edward Mendelsohn, friend and current literary executor of Auden’s works.

Winter is coming!

In the Kingdom of Ice

Hampton Sides 2014

Subtitle : The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.
Review by Helen McIver

I opened Kingdom of Ice and could not believe seeing the Bradford painting I had raved about viewing at MMAM this summer: Icebergs in the Arctic, 1882. It was a remarkable faceplate, but the original was so much more sublime. This book concerns a US naval voyage undertaken in 1879 by Cpt George DeLong to get to the North Pole. People were obsessed with finding the North Pole, the last unmapped unknown of the globe, with the seemingly insurmountable fortress of ice rimming the arctic seas. He had had previous arctic experience, having rescued members of the Polaris in 1873, off Greenland. He caught arctic fever (pagophile, ice loving) and prepared meticulously and arduously for this expedition. His wife was an avid supporter and considered joining the voyage. The first third of the book explores the people, politics, and the scientific times (1874-1879), intriguing characters/vignettes from the generous funder, James Gordon Bennett Jr, eccentric wealthy owner of the NY Herald who was looking for another sensational story to sell newspapers, after his previous success with dispatching Stanley to find Dr Livingston in Africa, to German mapmaker Petermann, and the arc lamp inventions of Thomas Edison.

The expedition started from San Francisco July 8, 1879 north for a voyage through the Bering straits, to an expected open, warm polar sea. This was a late start, further delayed searching for another missing explorer. Boats are seldom renamed: Jeannette was previously, perhaps more appropriately, the HMS Pandora. They were soon trapped in the ice and spent two years being moved at will (see maps!). Eventually, hull was breached and quickly sank, leaving the crew of 32 men in 3 open boats, 1000 miles north of Siberia. Theirs was a march across frozen seas against terrible odds, with staggering commradarie. The last third of the book concerns the search by George Melville who searched for survivors. His rescue efforts were immensely satisfying, haunting and fascinating. It will take some time to warm the bone deep chill of the hellish Arctic.

There are very good photos and drawings, although I wished for more to illustrate this incredible voyage. This was well researched and very educational about the era and ideas, providing nuanced profiles of major players, while propelling the story energetically along. The letters and journal entries of Emma DeLong contributed greatly to the poignant story. There are also so many other stories contained in this book, notably, John Muir who was haunted by the St Lawrence Island deaths of 1000 natives through starvation and whisky (The extinction of the walrus the previous decade by the whaling industry, noting that the American presence was a disaster and the entire wilderness ecosystem was vulnerable.)

If you have read Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, read on.
If you liked Jennifer Niven’s books on the 1913 polar voyage of the Karluk, read on.
Don’t forget Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea or Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance.
This would be a perfect Christmas gift for your nonfiction reader (9 editions already)
4.5 stars

Love, Actually… Eventually!

Trapped at the Altar by Jane Feather
3.5 stars Read as a NetGalley arc, as background for other period historical romances.
Jane Feather (née Robotham) is a best selling British American author of historical romance with over 45 novels, translated into many languages. Trapped at the Altar is the start of a new series (her books are often grouped in trilogies). Many of her protagonists are interesting intelligent females, with strong, dominant but caring males. Here we have Ariadne Daunt, granddaughter and heiress to a Catholic fortune and Ivor Chalfont, heir to a Protestant fortune. They shared a childhood in which she was a willful spoiled girl, living in a secluded valley away from the political intrigues of Royal court. With her grandfathers death, her independent life is wrenched away and she is forced to marry Ivor. He has always loved her and is hoping she will move past her youthful infatuation (a poet). Prepare to be charmed. Although you have to put up with a great deal of spoiled child who remains self entered until nearly the last page.
If you are a Feather fan, you will enjoy this book, as her characters are complex, and historical details (late 1600 England of Charles II) include court intrigue and religious drama. There is little humour and some sensual romance, with gritty everyday life. Infused with misunderstandings, realistic struggles of the time period (which also conflicts with Ari’s silliness). I had a harder than usual time liking the heroine which decreased my enjoyment of the book and hope it is not just feeling my age (ancient compared with the immediacy of youth, anger, mistrust, love, life and death).
The ending is rushed, but redeems much of the story.
The cover draws you in, but it was hard to get past the protagonist’s selfishness.
Perhaps it is more realistic than most romance readers want too.
Also I couldn’t tell the characters of the next book.

Christmas past and present

Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past
Sharyn McCrumb
A Ballad Novella (160pgs) published Sept 2014
Review by Helen McIver

It feels like Christmas whenever McCrumb writes about Miz Bonesteel. I look forward to her books and any mention of her in the other McCrumb Ballad mysteries which are rich with Appalachian folklore and tradition. Part of it is the welcoming Scottish roots (hello the house, the comforts of so many Scottish customs and phrases). Some of it is the deep affection and respect I feel for Nora Bonesteel (and yes even after so many years, I would never be so forward as to address her as Nora). This time her story was tinged with more than a little melancholy as Miz Bonesteel is getting older and I worry about what will become of her, and if the Sight will be lost with her passing. She is a tough intriguing character and represents so much history and tradition, never more apparent than in this book where the second homeowners are transforming the landscape.
There are two parallel stories in this novella, each with favourite characters on this Christmas Eve. Sheriff Spencer Atwood and deputy Joe LeDoone are heading to the holler to bring in a man who dented the Mercedes of a senator. The senator won’t be getting their vote. even after the tables are turned and they have become angels. You will be charmed.
And then Miz Bonesteel visits the old Honeycutt house where a spirit is disrupting Christmas. An artificial Florida tree seems even more hideous and incongruent in the restored house. But Nora Bonesteel wanders into the past and understands. You will need a box of tissues.
This is a wonderful holiday book and a lovely addition to her ballad stories. A perfect gift for McCrumb fans. Please don’t label this a Christian novel or southern writer, either. I wouldn’t have read it. It is instead a gentle story, with depth of time and place about the meaning of Christmas and traditional historical values. And there are timeless messages for any season regarding those chestnut trees: what will be missing from our children’s environment and traditions? I hate starting Christmas early, but I couldn’t wait any longer to read and wasn’t disappointed (except for its length). But then I never want her books to end.
Received as a NetGalley ARC
4.5 stars (only because it’s short!)
NB
If you missed her full length historical novel King’s Mountain, don’t hesitate to get this. It is also a Ballad novel, but occurs solely during the Revolutionary War. I was astonished how little I knew of the mountain men and this battle that Jefferson said was the turning point of the war. For those of you missing Jaime Fraser and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, this is a real piece of history complete with Scotsmen on both sides.
And in writing this review I discovered that Nora Bonesteel is based on a real person! (Charlotte Ross) (and that the Sight was usually only discussed by women).

Quotes
I swear that part of the country is only in the map two days a week.
Miz Bonesteel was known to have the greenest thumb in the community. People said she could grow roses in the middle of the interstate….
She is as independent as a hog on ice.
He gave the benefit of the doubt to no one.
No good deed goes unpunished. (This seems more ominous than usual)
The wind feels like a chainsaw. (And it’s only 38F??!)

Believe the (Im)possible!

The Fourteenth Goldfish
Jennifer L. Holm

210 pages random house for young readers
Good for YA 8-12/14 year olds (gr 5-7)
Adults will find this fun to read too, perhaps even reading the story out loud together (I would love to be the grandfather’s humorous voice. Make sure you have Wikipedia handy or several books to look up parallel stories.) There are good discussion points in each chapter, including adapt and change, poignant passages, heartfelt family issues: adult parent/ child, grandfather/father and daughter, mother and daughter.
Some school issues are addressed too – appearances are not everything, learn to look beneath the surface, become friends, build confidence.
11 year old Ellie Cruz is a smart little girl, starting middle school but struggling with too many changes. She is quite perceptive, interestingly especially concerning her mother. Then Grandad comes back as a teenager, to live with them; he was a famous scientist but his fountain of youth experiment worked too well on him. This book beautifully addresses family issues, as the author is an adept pro. I will be looking for more of her books.
I had no doubt Ellie would mature to a lovely, interesting (and one hopes scientific) adult. She has learned that life is about passion, interests and talents and good humor throughout helps. Science is presented in everyday light: Chemistry in cooking physics in relationships, astronomy in life. Science doesn’t have all the answers and there are consequences that need to be thought out. This is entertaining and educational (I loved the future research section).

Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.
Jonas Salk (would that we all lived by this message)

Good for chapter books
Good as step to graphic books
Good for grandparents to purchase!

4.5 stars
Digital ARC from NetGalley (thank you!)

Fall into a Good Book!

David Liss
Day of Atonement 2014
I look forward to reading the books of David Liss – I learn a great deal about an historical period and savor the rich detail and tapestry of his plots. Often I met old friends, and greatly enjoyed finding Benjamin Weaver as the formative mentor to Sebastian Foxx. For ten years Sebastian learns his trade of thief taker/bounty hunter, while the desire for justice and retribution hone his skills. He abruptly departs London for Lisbon in 1755 seeking revenge for the deaths of his parents and the profound loss of his love/youth/innocence. He understands the game and the stakes and is a dangerous match for the Inquisition. Although that makes it sound quite melodramatic, and indeed this would work on the big screen, with fast action, danger, natural disasters, love, betrayal and redemption. The great earthquake which leveled Lisbon (and killed 90,000 people) provides a convenient escape, but adds another historical element.

I was exhausted when I finished breathtaking read. I lived through atrocities, bore the weight of judgment, and travelled both in time and culture. Many passages were underlined highlighting gems of wonderful writing and human moments.
It has humor which lighten some of the despair and betrayal and make it all too real, a story you are experiencing not just reading.

I closed the book with a sigh and a sense of well done. Well written, well researched, well developed characters. A most enjoyable read, as expected given his other similar novels, usually classified as historical mystery or historical thrillers (he does have one contemporary thriller Ethical Assassin). Don’t miss any of them; start with A Conspiracy of Paper, which won the 2001 Edgar for best first novel. I might even try his comic books.

4.5 stars
Digital ARC from NetGalley (thank you!)