Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dig Deep: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Reviewed by Jeanne

Recently, I read a question posted online that asked readers which they preferred, a writer or a storyteller. I didn’t respond, but if I had, I would have said that it depended: if I wanted to escape for a couple of hours, give me a storyteller who would make the time fly by. If I were on a desert island and had but one book, I think I’d prefer a writer, one whose phrases would make me stop and ponder or delight me with wordplay.

For me, The Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie fulfills both requirements. This first novel by Alan Bradley has memorable characters, an intriguing plot and a fine way with a phrase. I found myself chortling over line after line, hoping that I would remember to use some of these at some point in the future. Perhaps I should have taken notes.

The story is narrated by Flavia de Luce, a precocious eleven year old with a passion for chemistry, especially poisons. She has two insufferable older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, and an emotionally distant father who spends his days with his stamp collection. They live in Buckshaw, an aging manor house in a village in 1950s England where things are not so much dull as ordinary. The first hint that something is amiss is the discovery of a dead bird on the doorstep, a postage stamp stuck on its bill.

The next morning, Flavia arises early and slips out to the garden only to find a man dying amid the cucumber vines.

Flavia is thrilled.

So begins one of the freshest, wittiest mysteries I’ve read in quite some time. While some reviewers have complained that Flavia is far too sophisticated for a child, I found her to be a delight. She has an impressive vocabulary and wide knowledge of literature and music, but she reacts as a child. Certain subtleties elude her, such as the nuances of romance. She concocts elaborate plots to extract revenge on Feely and Daffy, goes for long and glorious rides on Gladys (her bicycle), and pokes her nose into everybody’s business. She’s a British version of Harriet the Spy, albeit with murder. I don’t know that I’d like Flavia for a relative or a neighbor, but I certainly enjoyed her antics from afar, and I have no doubt she would object to the word “antics.” Most of the other characters are seen through Flavia’s filter, but the author still gives them the room to surprise his heroine. There is also a definite old- fashioned feel to the series; I actually would have thought earlier than the 50s if the author hadn’t given some dates to the contrary.

I hated to see this romp come to its exciting end, and am awaiting my turn to read the sequel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (F BRA Main).

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Snakes alive: Awakening by S. J. Bolton

Awakening by S. J. Bolton (F BOL Main)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Clara Benning is a veterinary surgeon specializing in wildlife rehabilitation in a small English village, a position she chose, in part, because it allows her minimal contact with people.Clara was horribly injured as a child and those physical scars have made her reluctant to expose herself to the stares and comments people are prone to make. Besides, she likes animals of all sorts, and working with wildlife means she doesn’t often have to deal with any owners:only the animal itself.Her reclusive ways don’t endear her to the villagers but she’s known to be very good at her work and very knowledgeable--which is why she gets the call that changes her life.

With the exception of the adder, most British snakes are quite harmless to humans.That fact is lost on the hysterical mother who calls Clara. She only knows that there is a snake in her daughter’s crib. Clara rushes over, expecting to find a grass or garter snake, but realizes to her horror that it is indeed an adder lying on the infant’s chest. Using all her skills, she tries to extricate the snake before the baby can be harmed.

This turns out to be just the beginning. A man dies, apparently from snakebite, but the amount of venom is more than one snake could possibly produce. A deadly taipan— a snake native to Australia and New Guinea—shows up in the village. It isn’t long before both Clara and the authorities realize that something very unnatural is going on, and that there must be a human hand behind some of these “accidents.”

The difference is that the police think that hand might belong to Clara.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bolton’s first book, Sacrifice, and Awakening was just as exciting. She has the knack of creating memorable characters as well as supplying the reader with a great deal of factual information without lecturing. In this book, she brings in a lot of snake lore as well as Roman customs and –amazingly enough!—information about the snake-handling churches in America.(Clara is the daughter of an Anglican bishop and so is conversant with the relevant scripture.) Her settings are wonderfully realized:I could almost smell the damp and feel the chill of the stone in the house. Her prose is clear and clean, and she uses both character and place to ratchet up the tension.

A colleague was disturbed by the revelation as to how Clara came to be disfigured as a baby.I was so anxious to find out how the story turned out that I confess I skimmed over that section but as I recall the violence was strongly implied rather than graphic.

There are some injuries to animals in the book, something else I usually find off-putting, but Bolton handles it sensitively. The underlying respect and love that Clara has for her charges helped in that respect.The enthusiasm of a globe-trotting herpetologist for all things serpentine felt genuine, although I still don’t want my own snake, thank you very much.

However, I do want another book by S. J. Bolton. Her next one is entitled Blood Harvest and is scheduled for June, 2010.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Did Somebody Say Doughnuts??!

Melon and friend are very excited about the new book club at Main! 
Especially Melon, since he heard that Blackbird Bakery doughnuts are involved.
“The Nevermore Book Club” will meet every Tuesday at the Bristol Public Library in the Frances E. Kegley Conference Room from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning Tuesday, July 20th.

The book club will be hosted by BPL Executive Director, Jud Barry. "This informal, bring your lunch discussion will highlight new additions to our collection," says Barry. "But the main idea is just to get together and talk about books and reading for the fun of it. And doughnuts."

Blackbird Bakery, of downtown Bristol, is partnering with the library to promote reading and book discussion.  They will be providing desserts. The library will provide free coffee and cold drinks are available in the gift shop for $1. No registration is required.

And did we mention doughnuts from  Blackbird Bakery?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me A Match!

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart
Reviewed by Doris

Julia Stuart’s The Matchmaker of Perigord, a first novel by Julia Stuart is a very different read for me. Did I enjoy it? Not at first. Did I learn from it? Yes, but I am not sure I wanted to learn these things. Was it entertaining? Yes, in a very “French farce” way. Would I recommend it to my friends? Mmmmm, now there’s the rub.

The ugly little French village of Amour sur Belle has thirty three citizens, all of whom seem to be very quirky. Actually, quirky doesn’t do them justice. The characters in Sarah Addison Allen’s books are quirky. The residents of Amour sur Belle are more Southern Gothic goes Continental, or they could quite possibility be the cast of a Moliere play. There is Guillaume the barber whose clientele is getting bald so he opens a matchmaking business called Heart’s Desire. There’s Yves the dentist whose hands are referred to as the long, white instruments of torture and who is as stingy as he can be. There’s Stephan the baker who is always covered in flour. There are the two old women who have a decades’ old feud. One threatens the other with an eel. The other throws rotten tomatoes at the eel bearer. There is the breathtakingly beautiful midwife who thinks she is very ugly. There’s the man who smells like goat, a variety of other villagers, and a communal shower in the village square. Besides having to use the shower by council decree because the water reservoir is very low, what do all these eccentrics have in common? They are all looking for love.

As Guillaume goes about the business of matching couples, there are all the makings of a French farce. Mistaken identities, false clues, old hidden secrets, mini-tornadoes that act as the deus ex machina to resolve questions all pile on top of each other to make the book both amusing and exasperating at the same time. Ultimately, couples are sorted out happily, and Guillaume is reunited with his one true love who lives in a falling down chateau with what are thought to be extinct molds growing on the walls.

I think Julia Stuart read A Year in Provence and decided to poke fun at the Francophiles who live and breathe anything French. She has thoroughly covered the French fascination with food by exotic meals consisting of delights like sliced calf’s muzzle, black radish jam, pickled artichokes, a cassoulet that has been cooking on the stove for many decades (this was the part I did not want to know!), and other unlikely and very “peu attrayante” combinations of foods. She has each meal accompanied by the perfect wine, and she has the baker turn out the flakiest of pastries and most scrumptious of cakes. After mincing her way through the food, she takes on the belief that all French are very romantic. And, in many small ways and with one major romantic maneuver from Guillaume to profess his love for Emilie, the eccentrics of Amour sur Belle are shown to be true romantics.

I struggled through the first several chapters of the book. Until the farce elements really kick in and the characters become more familiar—helped by the fact that the same identifying phrases are repeated over and over—I kept asking myself why I was reading this book. Then, as I became attached to the characters and I wanted to see if the romantic entanglements worked out, I began to enjoy the humor and the nonsense. So, while it may not be my usual fare, I am glad I read the book to the lovely, sweet ending. As for recommending it to my friends, C’est la vie!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Oscar the End of Life Cat

Making Rounds with Oscar by David Dosa (362.1767 DOS Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

Not too long ago, the news services and internet sites were all agog over “Oscar the Death Cat.”According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, this cat seemed to know which patients were near death and would sit with them until they passed.The article claimed that in some cases the cat’s prediction was more accurate than the doctor’s assessment of how long a patient would live.

Dr. David Dosa wrote the original article which he has now expanded into a book.He is a physician and researcher who specializes in the needs of the elderly. His work often takes him to Steere House, a nursing and rehabilitation center with a large number of older patients, many of whom have various forms of dementia. The staff tries to keep them as comfortable and content as possible.To this end, Steere House has cats to make the patients feel more at home. One cat, Oscar, isn’t exactly a lap cat: he’s independent, permitting petting on his own terms, and not overly affectionate. He swats Dr. Dosa when he tries to pet him and isn’t particularly sociable with patients.

Yet according to the staff, he keeps a vigil over the dying by lying next to them, purring.He seems driven to do this, pacing outside doors, anxious to get in and to do his duty. Some who have experienced such a scenario believe that Oscar is bringing comfort not only to the patient but also to the soon to be bereaved.

Dr. Dosa becomes intrigued and sets out to interview staff and families of those Oscar attended. There are some theories, some interesting stories—such as what happened once when two patients were dying at the same time—but the focus of the book subtly shifts from the mystery of Oscar to a bit of a meditation about the end of life. He describes the various patients and their families. Some are adult children, trying to balance care of their own families with caring for their parents; some are elderly spouses struggling to meet the needs of an impaired partner. Dr. Dosa presents a sympathetic portrait of all concerned, but gently raises questions about what we expect and what we should expect about end of life care. He doesn’t lecture or judge, but he does make you think.

At the same time, Dr. Dosa examines the human/animal bond. Many nursing homes and other care facilities have found that having an animal around is comforting to patients.There are many theories as to why this is so. Perhaps it’s because an animal makes the facility seem less institutional and less impersonal; perhaps it’s because an animal doesn’t ask any questions or make any complicated demands, or maybe evokes memories of earlier times. Whatever the reasons, most people do seem to respond positively.

Part of the book’s effectiveness is that Dr. Dosa discusses his own feelings. He’s relatively young, but already experiencing a few health problems. He’s beginning to think about what he wants for himself when the time comes. He made me think about what I want, too. A patron who read the book said she was inspired to go ahead and take some action to ensure that her wishes are carried out.

That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for a slim little book.

Much to my surprise, I finished the book with a positive outlook. I’d met a lot of good people: staff, patients, caregivers. I’d met one amazing cat, Oscar. I’d faced what could have been a big, scary, depressing subject and come away feeling empowered.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an aged relative—or to anyone who aspires to become a senior citizen at some point.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dead in the Water by Meredith Cole

Dead in the Water by Meredith Cole (F COL Main)
Reviewed by Jeanne

Lydia McKenzie, detective agency receptionist by day, artist by night, returns in Dead in the Water. Lydia’s new project involves photographing the “ladies of the evening,” showing the toll that life on the streets takes on these women. One woman, Glenda, leaves a message that she needs to talk to Lydia. Thinking that Glenda just wants to borrow money again, Lydia fails to return the call—something she regrets when Glenda turns up dead. Given Glenda’s occupation, Lydia’s not sure the police will give the case the attention it deserves, despite assurances from Detective Romero that he’s doing a thorough investigation. Lydia’s guilt over that unreturned phone call leads her to try to solve the case herself, despite warnings from new boyfriend Jack. Her employers at the detective agency are equally unhappy about her foray into sleuthing but when they’re forced to use Lydia as an agent themselves in order to get the goods on their cousin’s (possibly) philandering husband, they really can’t say much.

The characters are enjoyable. Lydia is an artist with a social conscience, which is how she ends up in these situations. She longs to right wrongs through her art or, barring that, then by investigation. (In the previous book, Posed for Murder, she was using her photographs to bring attention to unsolved murders of young women.) She’s young and a bit na├»ve, but her motives are honorable and her outrage is genuine. Cole does a good job of countering some of Lydia’s arguments with other points of view, giving a sense of dialog to some thorny issues. Also, while the topic is gritty—the sex trade—it’s handled in, shall we say, a family friendly way: ideas not specific acts. It’s thoughtful, not sensational. There are a lot of shades of gray here, with no easy answers.

I was glad to see the D’Angelos back, Mama and sons, as well as Detective Romero and Lydia’s best friend, Georgia. New characters were also well done; one especially is close to my heart. (I’ll give you a hint: he has four feet, whiskers and shares the name of a certain ring-tailed feline of my acquaintance.) I thought the relationship with Jack was handled well, very believable. Jack himself is a more realistic than some fictional beaus, with strengths and weaknesses. There were other standout characters as well: Emmanuel, the cabbie who wants to be a detective, was a nice addition. Young and eager, he’s ready for the adventure he’s seen in movies. Candi, another of Lydia’s models, is upscale, more elegant Lady Chablis.

The writing was a bit more relaxed this time, though the sense of place remained strong. Lydia loves her New York neighborhood, which has more of a community feel rather than the impersonal big city. The sense of food and drink is strong too, especially Mama’s creations! Lydia is a clothes horse on a budget, but Cole is adept at suggesting a style without the name dropping I find annoying. (My objection is based more on the transitory nature of most of the brands and designers. I imagine future readers requiring pages of footnotes detailing the significance of this or that brand.) In fact, that’s one of Cole’s strengths for me: her ability to describe a scene so that I “see” it without bogging down in detail, a snapshot in words, that is entirely appropriate for a photographer heroine.

One thing that I must mention is the way the book’s cover and the opening sentences dovetail. The combination dragged me straight into the story. I’ve never seen it done more chillingly. Very impressive.

While the two books stand alone, if you're like me and like to read series in order, start with Posed for Murder (F COL Main). I look forward to the next book in the series!