Book Review: Miss Julia Stands Her Ground by Ann B. Ross @penguinusa

Miss Julia Stands her Ground
Miss Julia #7
Ann B. Ross
Penguin Books, April 2007
ISBN 978-0-143-03855-9
Trade Paperback

There’s something compelling about a protagonist that is unlikeable—you wouldn’t want them as a friend but you have to admit they can go places where more polite and meek heroines may hang back. Olive Kitteridge is one such character; the reader wonders why her husband stays with her and doesn’t fault her son for cutting ties with her. MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin is another such character, a man-crazy busybody who insults her neighbors but is tolerated because she gives generously to village charities.

Miss Julia is a not-quite-genteel Southern widow. Her husband, Wesley Lloyd Springer, was a leading citizen and church member in their hometown, who died in the arms of his mistress, Hazel Marie. The young woman is a complete surprise to Miss Julia, who had been married for over forty years, as is Hazel Marie’s young son, who is the spitting image of Wesley Lloyd. The entire Springer estate was left to the boy, and Miss Julia had to fight to keep her house and an income.

How was Miss Julia to cope with the humiliation of her husband’s indiscretions coming to light? She invited Hazel Marie, a likable young woman with no fashion sense, and Little Lloyd to live with her. In this seventh book of the series, Hazel Marie’s ne’er do well uncle, Brother Vernon Puckett, announces that he is going to contest Little Lloyd’s inheritance, because Wesley Springer was not the boy’s father. Miss Julia is indignant, and plans to thwart Brother Vernon’s plans.

You wouldn’t want to have Miss Julia as a relative—she’d criticize your wardrobe, hairstyle, and manners. Ann B. Ross serves up a delightful story, one that promises an entertaining afternoon cozy read.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, January 2021.

Book Review: Fall From Grace by Tim Weaver

Fall From Grace
A David Raker Mystery #5
Tim Weaver
Penguin Books, July 2017
ISBN 978-0-399-56257-0
Trade Paperback

David Raker, finder of missing persons, is asked to locate Leonard Franks, a retired 35-year veteran who headed the Met’s murder squad, and had disappeared seven months before without a trace in a variation of the locked room mystery.  His investigation becomes more complicated than just finding out what happened after Franks stepped out from his living room to gather a few logs from the woodshed.  When he didn’t return, his wife went out to look for him and couldn’t find a trace: no tracks in the snow, no car visible for miles in any direction.

Raker’s investigation takes him from the bucolic Dorset countryside to the depths of London and into an abandoned Bethlehem, a mental institution, a cast of characters too numerous to contemplate and copious family and police secrets.  Along the way, violence erupts and Raker and his daughter are in danger.

The author has chosen to develop a plot far beyond a simple missing person’s case, unraveling a series of subplots ending in a denouement far from the original start of the story.  Whether this track is a good idea or not is up to a reader’s taste.  This reader reacted in the negative, believing a story should be simple rather than overly complex.  But the novel is well-written and –plotted, and for those who can enjoy very multifaceted tales, it can be and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2017.

Book Reviews: The Highwayman by Craig Johnson and Fallout by Sara Paretsky

The Highwayman
A Longmire Story
Craig Johnson
Penguin  Books, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2090-4
Trade Paperback

The author prefaces this Longmire novel by stating he always wanted to write a ghost story.  And now he has, thrusting Walt Longmire and his friend, Henry Standing Bear, into the middle of an enigma.  At the request of the head of the Highway Patrol, Walt and the Bear seek to determine what is happening to Rosie Wayman, who patrols a stretch of highway in the Wind River Canyon, an area where radio communication is almost nonexistent.

On the other hand, Rosie begins receiving calls from Bobby Womack saying “officer needs assistance.”  The problem is that Womack, a respected highwayman who patrolled the same route, died 35 years previously.  Walt and the Bear have to determine whether Rosie really is hearing the signal, or is in need of psychiatric evaluation.  What follows during the investigation is a series of events which might be ethereal, or explained by logic in the real world.  It is up to the two men (along with the reader) to determine which.

It is a clever plot and, while it is a deviation from the 11 prior entries in the series, The Highwayman is a welcome addition to the earlier books, and it is recommended.

The 13th novel in the series, The Western Star, will be published by Penguin on September 5th!

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2017.

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Fallout
A V.I. Warshawski Novel
Sara Paretsky
William Morrow, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-0662-584-2
Hardcover

It all begins in Chicago, and ends up in Kansas, but VI Warhawski needs more than ruby read slippers to return home.  Apparently, a black retired movie star decided on a moment’s notice to leave the Windy City, ostensibly to visit the town where she grew up, dragging a young man man along to film her reminiscences with stops along the way to Lawrence, KS.  When the two seem to disappear, VI is retained by the woman’s concerned neighbors to find them.  The young man also is a person of interest in a drug theft at his place of employment, and Vicky becomes more wary when she discovers his apartment ransacked.

So off goes VI on the long drive to Kansas, tracing the woman’s journey and attempting to pick up a trace of the pair.  She visits Fort Riley, where she learns they stopped, but little else.  So Vicky continues on to Lawrence, where she encounters all kinds of obstructions, and becomes involved in all kinds of side issues, other than her original purpose to locate the actress and her photographer.

The reader has to plow through a rather dry start to the novel, about one-third the length of the book, before the plot begins to develop.  Then it turns into a complicated story that probably could have served as the basis for one or more novels.    All in all, Fallout is an interesting work and can be recommended despite these reservations because the author and the series are so deservedly popular.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2017.

Book Review: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Me Before YouMe Before You
Jojo Moyes
Penguin Books, April 2016
ISBN 978-0-14-310946-4
Trade Paperback

Well.  Now I know what all the buzz is about.

Some people may not like a book that defends suicide.  “Defend” is maybe not the most accurate word.  Perhaps it’s better said that Will’s story illustrates a different perspective.

People consider and commit suicide for essentially one actual reason: the pain of living, for that person, is unbearable.   Whether the pain is physical, mental or emotional it is indeed very real and incurable.  It overshadows everything, impacts every facet of life and if not constant, it is consistent.

Ms. Moyes presents two remarkably different sides of an age-old argument thoughtfully, beautifully and boldly.  Me Before You  is not an easy read, no matter which side of the argument the reader supports.  It is captivating and compelling.  I stayed up way too late last night because I had to finish.  And consider.  And cry.  To me, that’s precisely what makes a damn good book.

That’s why I’m writing this pseudo-review.  Not because Ms. Lelia is patiently waiting to post it; but because this topic is so important to me and it’s rare that it is written about in such a thought-provoking, considerate manner.   I wish I could carry copies with me at all times so whenever I hear someone ask “why?”, I can hand it over and say, “maybe this can help you understand”.  I wish that each and every person who has grown weary of trying to articulate his pain could have just as many copies to share for the same reason.  As the adorable and admirable Louisa Clark says, “knowledge is power”.

Reviewed by jv poore, June 2016.

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NG

Everything I Never Told YouEverything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng
Penguin Books, May 2015
ISBN 978-0-14-312755-0
Trade Paperbook

Everything I Never Told You is the Fabergé Egg of literature. As a whole it is breathtakingly beautiful. Viewing details closely and from different perspectives; unique gems are revealed. While stunning unto themselves; they become totally transformed when part of the whole.

This is the most heart-breaking book I’ve ever read. Actually painful. As the gloss wears down, and the truth trickles out, the ache began…gnawing in the pit of my stomach….knowing where this was going, hoping that it couldn’t be heading in that direction, but knowing that there really is only one path.

Not to say the story is predictable….the opposite is true….there are clever twists…..much like the old science lesson as to what is really “full”…..there are times when the reader is convinced that the complete story has been strung out, in vivid Technicolor with all of the lines connected….only to feel almost sheepish when Ms. Ng subtly spills secrets that snap the picture into a totally unanticipated focus.

Never have I seen a situation from all sides so clearly. Intuitively, I would expect to have a sure opinion at the end. Knowing all of the facts, it should be simple to identify the “bad” guy(s), the “good” guy(s), the mistakes, people acting selflessly alongside those with only mal intent. Sort it out, point the finger, assign the blame, perhaps feel a bit righteous and move on.

But, this book….it’s like real life and it just doesn’t work like that. The answers don’t shake out neatly into two columns and there are no promises, no guarantees. Each of us has seen a person exert little to no effort, yet reap great rewards and on the other side of the coin, we’ve all seen the person put his whole heart and mind into a goal, but not achieve success.

Ms. Ng puts pen to paper in the most generous, considerate, thoughtful and eloquent way and gives us the Lee family. And immediately takes young Lydia away. After artfully creating the glaring absence, Ms. Ng truly introduces Lydia to us and we begin to understand her, admire her and then feel for her.

Everything I Never Told You is simultaneously a fantastically phenomenal book filled with gorgeous, thoughtful prose and clever, cutting comments; and an imperative example of what is truly heart-breaking. I whole-heartedly recommend this to everyone.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2015.

Book Review: The Shortest Way Home by Juliette Fay—and a Giveaway!

The Shortest Way Home
Juliette Fay
Penguin Books, October 2012
ISBN 9780143121916
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

If you had a 50% chance of dying young, how would you choose to live you life?

Sean Doran, a man convinced he has inherited a life-threatening genetic disease, resolves to travel the world as a nurse caring for the poor, sick and injured, found among natural disasters and war zones. He is determined to do as much good as possible with the time he has. Physically and emotionally burned out, Sean returns home to Belham, Massachusetts, only to realize that home may be the one place he is needed the most.

You might think that a guy who makes his living as a nurse in remote, poverty-stricken countries would be able to come home for a little bit of rest and recuperation from the toll such difficult work has taken on his body. Yeah, not so much.

Sean is at a crossroads. He has apparently outrun the likelihood of having inherited Huntington’s Disease from his mother but his body is wracked with constant pain and he seems to have lost some of the drive that has led him to spend years giving service to others in dire need. Home is where he needs to be for a while, especially since things are not so good there, either, with his aunt showing signs of dementia, his orphaned nephew withdrawing from the world and his sister becoming angrier every day that she has had to give up most of her dreams to watch over Aunt Vivvy and Kevin. Sean’s faith is taking a hit, too, and his prayers just don’t seem to mean as much as they used to.

Little by little, though, Sean begins to make connections with his past through friends old and new, even with those issues that will probably never be fully resolved, and he finds that the present may not be in such depressing shape as he thought. Coming home started out as an obligation to family as well as an escape from physical pain and emotional bleakness. Could it be that coming home will turn out to be his salvation?

Author Juliette Fay has already established herself as a writer who has that special touch with words, who can pull the reader into the story she’s telling, and this book is no exception. Her rich prose and her insight into people’s behavior are what make this true comfort fiction and men will enjoy it just as much as women.

One of the pleasures of The Shortest Way Home is a cast of characters that are mostly very likeable and even those who are not so appealing still engage the reader’s interest. In short, Sean and his family and friends are the sort of people you can find in your own surroundings and so they feel “real” for lack of a better word. I was engaged with Sean from the beginning and, as time went on, I found myself rooting for this man who had fled his own uncertain future but had, as a result, become a man dedicated to helping others. Perhaps it’s now Sean’s turn to find happiness and peace.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2012.


Leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing

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This is open to US and Canadian residents and the winning

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Book Reviews: The Shadow Woman by Ake Edwardson and Stranglehold by Ed Gorman

The Shadow Woman
Ake Edwardson
Translated by Per Carlsson
Penguin Books Original, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-14-311794-0
Trade Paperback

Slow and steady:  Sweden’s youngest Detective Inspector seeks elusive clues in this slow, plodding police procedural about a murder victim that takes half the book to identify.  Erik Winter, the dapper inspector who likes expensive clothing and cars, and finds it difficult to grow up to a maturity in relation to his girlfriend’s desire for more permanence, is an intuitive, careful thinker confronted, in this second installment in a Swedish noir series, with almost no clues about the victim or murderer, other than that she has borne a child.

The plot switches back and forth between the present-day investigation and flashbacks, so the reader – this reader, at least – is at a loss as to where the story is at.  It is confusing at best, yet interesting, from a psychological point of view.  There are some idioms the translator apparently inserted into the text which have no obvious counterpart in Swedish.

Having struggled over a longer period of time to read the novel than would be devoted ordinarily to a book of this length, it is with ambivalence that it is recommended, solely on the basis that it is an interesting work.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Stranglehold
Ed Gorman
Minotaur Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-53298-7
Hardcover

The cynical political consultant Dev Conrad returns in this well-plotted, twisting tale of intrigue and blackmail during a Congressional election campaign.  The candidate has a long-standing hidden secret which, of course, could cost her the election.

Dev’s staff is at its wit’s end trying to keep the campaign on an even keel, but the candidate keeps eluding the political experts and they call in the boss to find out what’s wrong.  Dev arrives and begins to follow the candidate and has to act as a detective to follow the clues, something the reader can do easily.

Written with humor and insight into the workings of a political campaign (after all, the author is a veteran of six of them), the characters seem real enough to occupy the front pages of one’s hometown newspaper.  The story is filled with enough hurdles to keep the reader from jumping to conclusions and interested in the outcome.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.