Monday, November 29, 2010

Fiction and Funeral Homes

Funeral Homes and mortuaries figure prominently in these two thrillers. In the first, John Wayne Cleaver grows up in a house attached to the family funeral home and assists in embalming bodies. In the second, a funeral home director is paid lots of money to store remains in his mortuary’s freezer in preparation for a catastrophic hurricane.

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

John Wayne Cleaver knows that one wrong move will put him over the edge and transform him into the monstrous serial killer he knows is lurking inside him. But this 15-year old sociopath has rules; rules that will prevent him from becoming a killer. Unfortunately it looks like his hometown has become home to a serial killer and now John has to decide what to do… Hunt the hunter? Or join in on the fun?

While identifying with a sociopath is not something most people can do, you can completely identify with the teen angst John encounters while battling his inner demons. He is a likeable character with a unique and interesting voice. This fast paced story takes twists and turns that I certainly didn’t see coming and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel that was recently released,
Mr. Monster.

Damaged by Alex Kava

A large fishing cooler is found in the waters of the Gulf filled with carefully wrapped human remains. It is obvious that the remains belong to at least two different people since three hands are found in the cooler. Is it a serial killer? Or something even more devious? Time is not on the side of the good guys as a Cat 5 hurricane is headed their way.

I’m a big fan of FBI Agent Maggie O’Dell who returns in Alex Kava’s latest. Kava is great at taking topics in the news and making it into a great thriller. This one is no exception.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name…

…couldn’t possibly be much more exciting!

Juliet by Anne Fortier

I was expecting a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story with a touch of romance and (hopefully) a happy ending. And yes, I did get that from Fortier’s debut novel, but I also got a whole lot of action and suspense. I read somewhere that this was the “thinking woman’s Da Vinci Code” and I couldn’t agree more.

Julie Jacobs heads to Italy after the reading of her aunt’s will to open her late mother’s safety deposit box. So starts the hunt for the treasure! It turns out that Romeo and Juliet was based on actual star-crossed lovers from Siena, and that Julie is a descendant of the real Juliet. (Shakespeare made-up the Verona part plus quite a few other details.)

If you want an edge of your seat story with a lot of history, puzzles and a touch of romance, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Small Town Life

Fragile by Lisa Unger

One of the great things about living in a small town is that everyone knows everyone else. One of the worst things about living in a small town is that everyone knows everyone else. That is the case with The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York, about a hundred miles from the city. It’s hard to grow up and be a different person when everyone knows you as the person you were in high school. Were you a jock? A goth? A nerd? And if you try to grow out of your high school self, can you ever do that in your home town?

This is a suspenseful story about life in a small town and the secrets that can hide even there. When a young girl goes missing it looks like history could be repeating itself. The tranquil safe life that has been cultured in The Hallows suddenly shows itself for being extremely fragile.

Friday, November 12, 2010

History Books

Some of the librarians at the Bridgewater Library decided to read some non-fiction this month that fell into the categories of history and biography. Maybe you'll find something in this list that will interest you too.

This could be labeled "The smart-aleck guide to American history" and not be too far off. An example that sums up the book, and that I am totally not using just to fill up space: "But as the central catastrophe of American history, [the Civil War] still inspires debate: could the North and South have worked out some kind of compromise? And could the South have won with a different strategy? (Basically, no.)" The book is divided into sections each focusing on an era of American history, most covering 20-30 years (the first, however, covered close to 25,000). Each section starts with a timeline giving important dates in that era, and ends with a "by the numbers" summation that gives important quantitative facts on the era (ex.: 11,000: number of prostitutes in NYC in 1839; 50,000: number of prostitutes in NYC in 1850; 78: bushels of wheat shipped east by Chicago in 1838; 2,000,000: bushels of wheat shipped east by Chicago in 1848). Further sections include "Lies your teacher told you", correcting commonly-held erroneous beliefs; "Trendspotting", the major fads of the era; and "Made in the USA", the major products of the time. Recommended for people willing to have their beliefs challenged and enjoy a rather snarky sense of humor.

North of the Rariton Lotts: A History of the Martinsville, New Jersey Area by Members of the Martinsville Historical Committee of the Martinsville Community Center; edited by Edward J. Maas

Blurbed by Jane

The title of this book refers to the “Rariton River lotts” which were laid out in 1682 by the General Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey. They comprised six tracts of land of approximately 877 acres each and stretched from the north side of the river from Bound Brook to Raritan. The book is fascinating for residents of Bridgewater, as well as anyone interested in New Jersey history, because it covers the early industries of the area, families, houses, the American Revolution and the Middlebrook encampment, schools, churches, the Great Fire of 1923 which destroyed a large portion of Martinsville, and recent history up to 1975. Maps and interesting photographs, some of which are quite old, are included.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre

Blurbed by Yvonne

Operation Mincemeat reads like a cheesy spy thriller. Think James Bond. Since Q was based on a real person, and so was M, both people that worked for British Intelligence and talked about in this book, it is amazing to know that Graham Greene and other novelists worked there as well. Until you read about the plans that they came up with. They wanted to BE James Bond and tried to make him reality. The book focuses mainly on one mission – getting a dead body with important misleading documents on his person into the hands of the Nazis. Basically we wanted them to think the Allied troops were focused on invading Sardinia and not Sicily. This is how it worked.

There are pages on the debate on what should be in the dead man’s pockets that are amazing – the thought and detail behind this mission is mind boggling. And absurd. Because for something so intricately thought out, there were a few things they forgot to think about at all…

There are great tidbits on other things going on in the espionage world. Like how the Nazis thought the English had hundreds of spies, but in reality a number of them were made up and run by “handlers” so it seemed like the spies were EVERYWHERE.

Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss

Blurbed by Kay

The setting is New York City in the 1880’s – America’s Gilded Age. The storyline is a secret marriage between a well-known white geologist and a black woman born a slave in 1861. The twist is that that Clarence King passed as black across the color line and maintained two separate lives- one as a white scientist with famous wealthy friends and the other as a black man pretending to be a light-skinned Pullman porter. He deceived his wife and children about his true identity until his death in 1901.

This is a fascinating and well-documented biography of both Clarence King and his wife, Ada Copeland. The book paints the racial prejudices and injustices of that time. Interracial marriage was taboo and even illegal in some states. A detailed account of Clarence King’s life and a sketchy outline of Ada Copeland‘s life weave an interesting chronicle of the time and strange portrait of a man tied to social conventions.

A Patriot's History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen
Blurbed by Chris (Full disclosure: blurb writer is a liberal.)

This weighty tome is not afraid to ask the hard questions: "America: greatest country in the world, or greatest country in the world EVER?" Unabashedly conservative (Schweikart would later distill the basic concepts of the book into "48 Liberal Lies about American History"), the book is written as a direct rebuttal to the liberal, blame-America-first textbooks that have come into vogue in recent years. Like their liberal rivals, Schweikart and Allen relentlessly cherry-pick data to prove their own stated bias and handwave issues that go against it; unlike their rivals, however, many of their conclusions are peppered with ad hominem attacks on said authors. (An example: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is given half a paragraph; the rest of the page and most of the next are a screed against "liberal historians"* who focus on this misstep as evidence of America's misguided ideals).

Recommended if you are a staunch conservative; not really recommended to non-conservatives, unless you don't mind reading about "how the liberals got it wrong" every three pages.

*This is, in fact, written in the book

A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell

Blurbed by Brendan

This is the story of America as experienced and witnessed by the people at the lower echelons of society, detailing the realities of slavery, the abundance of drinking and debauchery in Colonial Philadelphia and other cities, the difficult assimilation of various ethnic groups into the mainstream, the negative connotations of jazz and dance, and much more. Much like Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Russell’s work refutes schoolbook myths, telling what really happened at the Boston Massacre, for example. Chapters on the Irish, African-Americans, the Jews, and the Italians will change the way you think about the history of our nation.

One might not agree with all of the author’s assertions but there is plenty here to consider. The book is well researched and chock full of interesting stories and analysis.

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush

Blurbed by Jane

In this well-written book, Laura Bush describes growing up as an only child in Midland, Texas, a hot, dusty, but friendly, small town. After college, she became an elementary school teacher in inner-city schools and later a librarian. Her descriptions of university life, student unrest, and the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1960s will resonate with many baby boomers.

The book is not overly political, but rather tells Mrs. Bush’s story and her reactions to the many events she witnessed as First Lady of Texas and First Lady of the United States. She also includes many interesting and sometimes humorous anecdotes.

Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

Blurbed by Ken

In December of 1776, much of New Jersey was occupied by the preeminent military power of the day. As British and Hessian troops were setting up winter quarters in towns, such as Brunswick, Princeton, and Trenton, the American forces were still smarting from devastating defeats on Long Island and in Manhattan. Simply put, the rebellion was near collapse and needed something to breathe life back into it. That “something” started with Washington crossing the Delaware. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer recounts the military history of the New York and New Jersey campaigns, culminating with the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. Fischer’s comprehensive analysis looks at each participating army, its leadership, living conditions, attitudes and values, and specific movements. He also shows the impact of each event on the American cause and British resolve.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What is Friendship?

If you’re a fan of mysteries, or just a well-written story, look no further than this one.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

This is the story of a missing girl and the man accused of killing her in the minds of the townspeople in rural Mississippi. Larry Ott has proclaimed his innocence for years, but even without a body, he is guilty of murder in the eyes of the town. Now, twenty years later, another girl is missing and Scary Larry is under suspicion once again.

I can’t give away too much in this blurb without ruining the wonderful mystery the author crafts, but I can tell you that this story is about racism, life in a rural town, and the definition of friendship, both one-sided and true. Normally I can’t stand dialect in novels, but the author does a wonderful job using dialect to keep you rooted in Mississippi without overdoing it. He also illustrates what life for a man ostracized by a small town must be like, and what a lonely existence it must be. This is a thought-provoking mystery that focuses on the motivations and emotions of the people forced to interact because of the missing girl because they are either in law enforcement or have become a suspect.

Why such an odd title? In Mississippi school children are taught how to spell their state’s name in a song that goes: M – I – Crooked Letter – Crooked Letter – I – Crooked Letter – Crooked Letter – I – Humpback – Humpback – I.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Because I Wish Halloween Wasn’t Over

My favorite holiday is Halloween and I’m having trouble saying goodbye, especially with all the great new horror and suspense books out there. Here’s one I just finished…

The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman

For three hundred years the first born son of each generation of the Durkin family has become the Caretaker of Lorne Field. Being the Caretaker is a backbreaking job. Imagine a field the size of a football field and a half, now imagine weeding it of two inch high plants, three times a day. That’s how fast the Aukowies grow. They get harder and harder to weed as they grow bigger. And you don’t want to know what happens if the weeding isn’t done.

Unfortunately times are a-changing. The contract the Durkin’s have with the town, for the Caretaker to go out every day from the first thaw to the first frost and clear the field of Aukowies, is under scrutiny. Jack Durkin knows that he’s saving the world every single day, but the town, even his own family is beginning to doubt that the Aukowies are real.

This book is a great character study. You work alongside the Caretaker as he slaves through the pain of his aging body, the ridicule of all those he knows, and the burden of believing, knowing, that the fate of the entire world is on your shoulders. It’s a great story of tradition clashing with the modern world. Sometimes traditions exist for a reason…sometimes they are just traditions without a real reason at all…

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Touch of Whimsy

Ghosts, special powers and fairy tales all add a certain whimsical element to fiction. Here are three books that add the whimsy well.

Fan of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? You may want to give this tale a try. Many reviewers are suggesting this tale for fans of Guernsey because of the lighthearted look at serious issues.

It’s a typical day at the Tower of London. The Beefeaters are donning their uniforms to go out and answer tourist questions (most popular, just like at the library, where’s the loo?) leaving their marital problems, writer’s block, nighttime ghostly visitations and other personal catastrophes in their stone walled homes. Life as a Beefeater isn’t easy. And with the move of the Royal Menagerie to the Tower from the London Zoo things are about to get even more exciting.

As I mentioned, there are serious issues at the core of this story, but there are also touches of whimsy to bring a smile to your face. There are frightened monkeys with interesting fear reactions, the London Underground’s Lost Property Office (with a varied collection of false teeth and magician props) and Sir Walter Raleigh who just won’t leave the Tower.

The Popular Fiction Book Discussion Group will be meeting at the Bridgewater Library on Tuesday, December 21st at 7:00pm to discuss The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

What would eating be like if you could taste the emotions of the bakers of your food? And not just the bakers, but the people who harvested the apples which went into your apple pie? What if you were able to tell what factory your processed food came from based on the emotions, or lack of emotions, your food brought out? This is the gift/curse that Rose Edelstein learns to live with, and eventually enjoy, after hiding from eating most of her young life.

This tale of magical realism is not as light as I thought it would be. I was expecting a lighthearted tale with some romance thrown in. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe the bright cover? Instead, this is a by turns dark coming of age story about life in a dysfunctional family. An interesting read, but not what I was expecting!

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

I was talking over this tale with some friends and we were trying to decide what genre it is. It’s not a love story (although there are romances that come and go); it’s tragic (but not overwhelmingly); and it is gothic (but again, not completely). My friend Fran (thank you Fran!) nailed it down – it’s reminiscent of the family sagas of the seventies and eighties. This is a tale you can get lost in as a family mystery is discovered and unraveled over three generations over two continents.

This is a gripping novel told simultaneously through three different timelines. It is a bit confusing in the beginning as a number of characters are introduced, but as you get absorbed in the mystery the story moves quickly and unfolds in twists and turns.

So where’s the whimsy? One of the main characters is a masterful fairy tale author. A few of her stories appear in the novel and the tales are definitely reflections of the mystery surrounding her life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mysterious G-Men

The Mysterious Mornings group met this morning and talked about their favorite mysteries starring FBI Agents. If it was mystery or thriller and it featured a main character who was employed by the FBI, it fit this month's subgenre.

Here are the group favorites:

  • Catherine Coulter – FBI Series
  • Ted Dekker – Standalone Thrillers
  • Michelle Gagnon – Kelly Jones Series
  • Lisa Gardner – Pierce Quincy Series
  • Kay Hooper – Special Crimes Unit Series
  • Alex Kava – Maggie O’Dell Series
  • Paul Lindsay – FBI Series
  • Kyle Mills – Mark Beamon Series
  • April Smith – Ana Grey Series
  • Mary-Ann Tirone Smith – Poppy Rice Series
  • Mariah Stewart – FBI Series

Interesting in joining in on a Mysterious Morning discussion? A list of suggested authors and titles are available at the Bridgewater Library and books will be on display about a month prior to the discussion. (If you’re a voracious mystery reader you can read more than one.) Our next theme/subgenre is Crimes & Passion: Romantic Suspense.

If it’s a mystery and it has a touch of romance, then it fits this month’s sub-genre. Just keep in mind how the love story affects the unfolding of the mystery because that’ll be a major talking point at our discussion Wednesday, January 5th at 9:30am at the Bridgewater Library.