Small packages – when less is more

So many of the audio books I “read” go on and on. That can be good if you want to get hooked into a book that will be with you for a while, say on a long road trip. But it’s refreshing to encounter a couple of novels that are more understated. Each of these tells the tale in just six CDs, which fit into a compact package. Each offers 7 ½ hours of listening time.  One is more successful than the other, but both were entertaining. Both are ably read and work well as audio books. And both would also be entertaining and quick reads in print.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LUCKY US. By Amy Bloom. Read by Alicyn Packard. $41. Also available in print from the Random House Publishing Group.

It’s 1939. Eva Logan is a 12-year-old girl who lives with her mother, a waitress, in the Midwest. Her charming father usually visits on Thursdays and Sundays, bearing gifts and exuding good cheer. In the way that children do, Eva accepts this arrangement as normal.

Then, as the book’s opening line tells us: “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”

What’s in it for Eva is a new life. Her mother leaves the little girl and her suitcase at her father’s house in Ohio and never comes back. Eva’s father, it turns out, had another life, with a job as a college professor, a wife with inherited money, a nice house – and another daughter, Eva’s half-sister, Iris, who is 16 and beautiful. Edgar Acton takes Eva in, but makes up a story rather than acknowledging her as his daughter.

Iris, clever, scheming and ambitious, intends to get away from her freeloading father and head for Hollywood to make her fame and fortune. Their dad, it seems, having run into some difficulties, is in the habit of stealing money from the stash Iris earns by entering various competitions.

Iris takes Eva with her when she makes her break from Ohio to Hollywood, where Iris soon finds some of the success she seeks. But the decadence gets the better of her, and an indiscretion with a rising starlet gets her on the blacklist.

By then, the girls’ father has resurfaced, and the three, along with Francisco, a gay Mexican makeup artist who has befriended them, head east for new jobs on Long Island.  Edgar is going to be a butler in the home of a wealthy Italian family, and Iris will be the governess. Francisco, who has relatives in Brooklyn, opens a barbershop. Eva helps out in a beauty parlor, where she eventually begins reading Tarot cards for well-to-do ladies.

Things go pretty well, until Iris falls in love with the household’s cook, Reenie. By then, the United States has been drawn into World War II, and events set in motion by Iris’ passion have far-reaching effects, including the arrest as a spy of Reenie’s husband, Gus, who is of German descent.

To go on with the story is to tell too much, a sin of which Bloom is not guilty as a novelist. She manages to advance her story beautifully through the effective use of plot twists that come as surprises but are completely credible in context. She does not belabor the day-to-day life when things run smoothly, nor does she overdo introspection and soul-searching. By telling less, she reveals more.

Some of the later story is told through letters, many from Iris, who by then is living in London, to Eva, and also to her from Gus, Reenie’s husband, who has long been young Eva’s friend.

The story unfolds against the rich backdrop of the 1940s, a time of great changes and social upheaval as Americans moved from the Depression era to World War II and beyond. Eva’s family – however you define that – is not the only one to include misfits and a mixture of previously segregated or ostracized people.

Eva – used by others, a smart girl who never even finishes high school – may not seem “lucky” for much of the novel, but by the time this lively, surprising, sometimes sad, often funny story reaches its end, the adjective seems perfectly fitting.


2 A.M. at THE CAT’S PAJAMAS. By Marie-Helene Bertino. Read by Angela Goethals. Random House Audio. Also available in print from Crown.

This short novel covers only about 24 hours, but they are a momentous 24 hours in the life of Madeleine Altimari, a 9-year-old motherless waif in Philadelphia. Since Madeleine’s mother died, her father has mostly been unable to get out of bed. She spends time conversing with the cockroaches in their apartment, and dreaming of becoming a jazz singer.

It’s two days before Christmas, and Madeleine runs into trouble at school, a turn of events that is not uncommon, as she has no friends and is inclined to say whatever she’s thinking, often in indelicate terms. She winds up being expelled, free to wander the city the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, Madeleine’s fifth-grade teacher at the Catholic school is preparing to go to a dinner party she doesn’t really want to attend. She’s recently returned to Philly after an unpleasant divorce, and the man she had a crush on in high school is expected to be there.

Also meanwhile, Lorca, the owner of the storied jazz club The Cat’s Pajamas, is about to have his establishment shut down by the cops, for a host of violations.

Inexorably, these separate stories and those of others – the school principal who has it in for Madeleine, the grandmotherly woman who runs the neighborhood café and helps look after Madeleine, the woman’s dog Pedro, Lorca’s teenage son – converge, with a high point coming, of course, at 2 a.m. at The Cat’s Pajamas.

This story is entertaining and has much to offer, especially as an audio book. Marie-Helens Bertino is a gifted writer with beautiful turns of phrase. The book is very funny much of the time, the tone light and playful – even when that doesn’t quite suit the subject matter.

At times, though, it seems to be more of – what? A poem? A series of clever, interrelated skits? – than a novel. There is some magical realism and a good deal of contrivance. Readers wanting credibility will have to overlook a great deal, including the idea of a school still in session on Dec. 23, and a child being expelled with no due process or parental involvement. This book is, after all, set in contemporary times.

The book is fun, worth the quick listen or read, but at the end, you feel that it’s not quite a novel that you’ve experienced. Bertino’s art and artifice at times take over her story.



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Wacky and oh, so true

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

Understandably, when newspaper reporters try writing fiction, they’re likely to have a newspaper reporter as a major character. Stephen Roth, who spent 12 years in the trenches as a reporter for newspapers in Missouri and Florida, gives us a good one in Pete Schaefer, an aspiring novelist who’s stuck in a reporting job at the Pridemore Evening Headlight in Missouri.

A PLOT FOR PRIDEMORE. By Stephen Roth. Mercer University Press. 297 pages. $20, paperback.

Roe Tolliver has been the mayor of Pridemore, Missouri, for more than 40 years. He’s getting old and tired, but he can’t stop fighting for his beloved town. Ever since the main highway was rerouted to bypass Pridemore by eight miles rather than run right through town, things have gone downhill.

The town and its businesses are slowly dying. Efforts to recruit new industries go nowhere. And then the mayor has a brilliant idea. What if Pridemore were the scene of a major news event, the kind that’s all over network news for days, not to mention the cable channels? What if all eyes were focused on Pridemore? Wouldn’t that put the little town back on the map? Wouldn’t that make it known around the nation, maybe even the world? Wouldn’t that liven things up?

In this small town, there are a few people who get things done, usually with a lot of behind-the-scenes plotting and deal-making that certainly skirt any open-meetings laws, not to mention other legalities. Mayor Tolliver sets about persuading those key people to help him with his intricate scheme.

The plan is to trap a likable, mentally challenged young man deep in a local cave, necessitating a massive effort that would last for several high-profile days before the eventual triumphant rescue. It would be better than the baby-down-the-well drama that had captured the national attention years earlier.

Meanwhile, at Pridemore’s local newspaper, the Evening Headlight, young Pete Schaefer longs for the big story that will rescue him from endless days of writing obits and covering boring meetings and inane features. This is not what he envisioned when he’d gone to journalism school. He needs a break. It doesn’t help that, in his boredom, he’s fallen into a risky relationship with the publisher’s teenage daughter. He could more usefully spend his empty hours working on the novel he started while still an undergrad. But that would require more energy than he seems to have these days.

Such are the ingredients for “A Plot for Pridemore,” a first novel by Stephen Roth, who’s done his time as a reporter covering small-town life and politics. And as you might expect, Roth deftly combines these ingredients into a story that’s as rich in humor as it is in insight.

Of course, nothing goes quite as planned. Digby Willers does get trapped in the cave, a media circus does ensue, and Pete Schaefer gets a big story, plus a lot more than he bargained for. But a lot goes wrong, some of it very wrong.

Roth’s tale is spiced with exaggeration and wacky characters, both in Pridemore and among the media horde that descends as the drama builds. But the novel is more dry humor than slapstick, in the fine tradition of Southern (yes, we’ll count rural Missouri as Southern) comic novels that includes such writers as Clyde Edgerton and James Wilcox.

Blessed with a good reporter’s skepticism, verging on cynicism, Roth obviously knows how old-boy networks and backroom deals work. Reporters who cover places like Pridemore are given to saying things like: “I oughta write a novel, but nobody would believe this kind of thing. You can’t make this sort of stuff up.”

Roth did write a novel, using his hard-won insights to make up some pretty outrageous “stuff.” The result is a story that’s delightfully funny and surprisingly true.



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Grand and terrible

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I’d seen the large monument in the cemetery at Hospital Point on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It’s a structure of rocks, topped by an ice-glazed cross and an anchor. I suppose I’d even read the inscription. But there are a lot of monuments on the Naval Academy grounds. Not until I learned of the terrible ordeal of the crew of the USS Jeannette through Hampton Sides’ gripping new book did I fully appreciate the rare example of courage, perseverance and the human spirit that this monument commemorates.

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette. By Hampton Sides. Read by Arthur Morey. Random House Audio. 17 ½ hours, 14 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Doubleday.

The United States was finally recovering from its devastating Civil War. The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 had introduced such wonders as electric lights, the telephone and the typewriter, fueling Americans’ belief that they could accomplish great things. With the American West largely having been settled, attention turned to conquering a new, unexplored frontier: the North Pole. The U.S. Navy was still small and somewhat outdated, clearly inferior to the British fleet.

And James Gordon Bennett Jr., the flamboyant and extraordinarily wealthy owner of The New York Herald, wanted a story that would boost circulation even more than had his stroke of genius in 1871, when he sent a reporter named Henry Morton Stanley to the wilds of Africa to find the famous British explorer Dr. David Livingstone. This was the heyday of newspapers, and Bennett had no qualms about creating the news.

All these factors, plus the ambitions of a young U.S. Navy officer, George Washington De Long, were at play on that day in early July 1879 when the USS Jeanette, with De Long and a crew of 32, including a Herald reporter, set sail from San Francisco amid great fanfare. They were going to find the North Pole.

The Jeannette was a Navy ship and De Long a Navy officer, but Bennett of the Herald was picking up the tab. That meant Bennett also got to call at least some of the shots.

De Long had been in the Arctic before, and the ship had been reinforced to withstand the tremendous pressure of the ice they would encounter. Egged on by Bennett, the nation was watching and waiting with high expectations.

But, as Sides’ well-documented narrative makes clear, the expedition faced tremendous challenges, some of them unnecessary. First, the fundamental premise on which De Long operated was wrong. There were various theories about what the North Pole was like, and De Long and Bennett had chosen to trust the prominent German geographer August Petermann, who believed that once they were through a rim of ice where rivers emptying into the ocean had frozen, the explorers would find an open, warm polar sea. If global warming predictions are correct, that open polar sea may became a reality later in this century, but it was a myth in 1879.

And, as De Long discovered much later, many of Petermann’s charts and maps of the Siberian coast were woefully inaccurate. Petermann had committed suicide the autumn before the Jeannette set sail, so he never knew the repercussions of his mistaken ideas. Maybe his death was an omen.

Bennett insisted that the Jeannette spend some time pursuing what he thought might be a side story before the ship actually headed through the Bering Strait and northward. Given the brevity of the arctic summer, that delay was costly.

In any event, the Jeannette became trapped in pack ice north of the Bering Sea but way short of the pole. And there she stayed for two years, immobilized but moving along with the giant, shifiting pack of ice. Those who survived would look back on those two years stuck in the ice as the good times of the expedition. They had brought a huge store of food and other supplies – even cases of Budweiser beer. And they could walk out onto the ice to hunt for game.

There were some failures. The arc lights De Long had bought from Thomas Edison to help dispel the interminable darkness of polar winters did not work. Nor did the telephones supplied by Bell that were to have linked those who ventured from the ship with those still on board.

Eventually, in the summer of 1881, the Jeannette finally broke free and floated in the water.  But any celebration did not last long, because before long the ship was destroyed by the pressure of the ice floes surrounding it. Those on board had to abandon the sinking ship in favor of three small, open boats.

And there begins the horrifying part of the story. With winter bearing down, the men set out to find Siberia, where they hoped they could get help. Battling fog, cold and dwindling supplies, they sometimes dragged their boats, sometimes rode them across relatively open stretches. And then in a fierce storm, the three boats became separated. One boat vanished forever. One, under the command of George Melville, the Jeannette’s engineer, made it to Siberia. Melville and his men suffered considerably but did find helpful natives. De Long and those on the third boat found that rather than anything like Petermann’s charts, the delta of the Lena River was a bewildering maze that would soon freeze. And the natives who spent summers in the area had already retreated to safer areas.  So had most of the wildlife that might have become food.

De Long’s party left the boat and wandered across the harsh, barren land as winter began to set in. Because De Long, the ship’s doctor and others kept good records and journals, Sides is able to tell us about their increasingly desperate ordeal in gruesome detail. When a team led by Melville eventually found their bodies months later, it appeared that De Long’s last conscious act had been to fling his journal away from the fire so that the information he had painstakingly written would be preserved. His raised arm was frozen in the act of throwing.

I listened to the audio recording of this book, ably read by Arthur Morey. Sometimes, when listening to a complex historical account, I think that I might have enjoyed it more had I read it in print. That is not the case with this book, because I am confident that I would not have kept reading the print version as it described more and more about frostbite, amputations and starvation. But the story is fascinating and worthwhile, and I’m glad that Morey’s presentation kept me going through the grimmest parts.

This is a well-researched, well-written historical account, and a true-adventure tale of valiant explorers. Sides also thoroughly grounds the expedition in its context, the Gilded Age, telling readers much about the outrageous exploits of James Gordon Bennett and about American society in general. He also ably describes the beauties as well as the terrors of the arctic, including much information about the natives in Alaska and Siberia and how the coming of “civilization” affected them.

It’s also a very human story. We get to know and care for De Long and his wife, Emma, who wrote him many letters he would never see, and who later worked to make sure that his detailed accounts of the expedition were made public. One of the most remarkable things about De Long is the way that this young Naval Academy graduate and Navy officer maintained dignity, discipline and purpose right up until his terrible death. The Jeannette Monument deserves its place of honor.



Posted in American History, Audio Books, Contemporary Nonfiction, History, Military History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A chilling Barcelona tale

Antonio Hill’s day job, according to the blurb on the cover of this audio book, is translating English-language fiction into Spanish. He must have analyzed what makes fiction successful as he pursued his translations. Like his debut thriller, The Summer of Dead Toys, published a year ago, his new book is expertly plotted, intelligently written, and rich in characters and setting.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE GOOD SUICIDES. By Antonio Hill. Read by Mark Bramhall. Books on Tape. 11 ½ hours; 9 CDs. Also available in hardcover from Crown.

Inspector Hector Salgado is back, in fine style. Oh, the Argentine-born, short-tempered detective is still having trouble sleeping, and still struggling with unhealthy habits. He’s still trying to deal with the disappearance of his former wife (who had left him for a woman), not to mention the challenge of raising their teenage son without her. But his personal problems are not going to keep him from figuring out what is happening to the high-level employees of a cosmetics company in Barcelona.

Alemany Cosmetics is a successful, family-owned business. When Salgado is called to investigate the apparent suicide of Sara Mahler, a high-level secretary at the company, he is startled to find that a gruesome photo of dead dogs hanging from a tree had been sent to her phone just before she jumped in front of a subway train.

As he begins to investigate, Salgado realizes that a man who had apparently killed his wife and young child before turning a gun on himself a few months earlier also was an Alemany employee. With his instincts telling him there is likely to be some connection between these two deaths, he begins looking into the company as well as into the lives of the two dead employees.

As in Hill’s first detective/thriller story, the more Salgado investigates, the deeper and more complicated the mystery becomes. It seems that the two dead employees were part of a small group of key personnel who participated in a team-building weekend retreat at a remote country house.

And all the people who attended the retreat seem to have, at one time or another, received an anonymous email saying, “Never forget” and including the photo of the hanged dogs.

Not even sure what crime or crimes he might be investigating, Salgado must use all his wits to break through the secrecy surrounding the company and its employees. At any moment, another suicide may be imminent.

While Salgado is trying to sort through this ominous puzzle, his partner, Leire Castro, is out on maternity leave, waiting for her baby to arrive. Bored, she turns her attentions to the unsolved case of what happened to Salgado’s wife, Ruth.  Her investigation is unauthorized, and she doesn’t want Salgado to know about it. But she may be stirring up a lot more than the bargains for as she pries into the darker corners of Ruth’s past.

Hill weaves these two plot lines deftly. In addition to a first-rate, tightly plotted detective thriller, this becomes a story about the dangers posed by keeping secrets, especially when complex cover-ups are required. And, like the first book, it’s also a story about family, love and loyalty – and how those forces can work for good or ill.

The Summer of Dead Toys was set in the steamy summer of Barcelona. This book shows us Barcelona in an unusually cold winter, an apt setting for this chilling tale. In both books, Hill brings the city alive, just as he does his characters.

Beware: This story ends with a twist that makes it difficult to wait for Salgado’s next big case.

Mark Bramhall does a fine job of reading the audio version. The listener has no trouble following the complex plot, even with the alternating and occasionally intersecting lines of Salgado’s and Leire’s investigations.



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The dreariness of conformity

Charles Davenport Jr. of Greensboro, a new contributor, takes a look at a 1993 book that’s much in the news because of a movie adaptation.

Reviewed by Charles Davenport Jr.

THE GIVER. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin. 225 pages. $9.99.

In the movie theater about a month ago, I saw an interesting preview for a film called The Giver. Intrigued, I made a mental note. Later the same night, while reading a magazine, I ran across a glowing review of a book by the same name, upon which, I discovered, the movie is based. The next day, as I waited in line for a modem at Time-Warner, I noticed that the young man beside me was thoroughly engrossed in a paperback. Naturally, I stole a glance at the title: The Giver. Minutes later, I received an email alert from one of my news providers: The featured story of the day was an interview with the director of – you guessed it – The Giver.

Perhaps this was merely a freakish string of coincidences. Then again, maybe it wasn’t, and I’m not one to defy Providence. I drove straight to the bookstore, purchased a paperback edition of The Giver (originally published in 1993), and raced into “the community” of Lois Lowry’s making.

It is a society free of homelessness, poverty, hunger and pain. Citizens of the community – we never learn its name – lead stress-free lives, because all of their choices are made for them. It’s not even necessary to check the weather forecast: Climate control has eradicated inclement weather.

But, as our protagonist – a young man named Jonas – quickly discovers, the community is no utopia. Despite the apparent order and tranquility, all is not well.

In an ideal society, ordered liberty reigns. In Jonas’ community, the Committee of Elders – the governing body – has established an authoritarian regime under which order prevails, but individual liberty is virtually non-existent. Citizens are told what to wear, what means of transportation to utilize (bicycles), what careers to undertake and even whom to marry. Children must be applied for, and they are assigned to “family units” by the Elders. Each family unit is limited to two children.

In the community, there is neither color nor music. The sun never shines, and there are no animals. Yet, Jonas and his fellow citizens are none the wiser: They have been deprived of memory. They are only vaguely cognizant of “Elsewhere,” a mysterious place into which lawbreakers, the elderly, and the unwanted are routinely “released.”

Only one citizen – the Receiver of Memory – is aware that another type of society exists; that another, perhaps superior, mode of living is possible. But he is elderly and frail. The plot thickens when the Committee of Elders chooses 12-year-old Jonas as the new Receiver of Memory.

When the elderly, former receiver (aka The Giver) begins filling Jonas with memories, the latter endures pain and anguish, as expected. But he also revels in a world of color, bonds with animals, exults in the warmth of sunshine, gleefully sleds down a snow-covered hill, and most important, learns the difference between a “family unit” and a family. Jonas begins to question the nature of life in the community.

For instance, citizens are taught that a Ceremony of Release – particularly when performed for an occupant of the House of the Old – is a festive occasion. They celebrate without knowing the exact nature of a release, or precisely what happens to the happy honoree. But the Elders know. And so does The Giver.

Eventually, Jonas does, too. The pivotal moment in the book is a gut-wrenching scene in which Jonas witnesses a Ceremony of Release for an infant. The gruesome procedure is performed by one of the community’s most respected Nurturers, or caretakers of newchildren: Jonas’ father. When Jonas discovers that Gabriel, an “Inadequate” infant to which he has become attached, is also scheduled for release, he takes decisive action in defiance of the community. Fortunately, the edge-of-your-seat action that follows is only the beginning: there are three more books in the series.

The Giver won the Newbery Medal in 1994, and it’s easy to see why. Lois Lowry is a gifted and imaginative writer. This book should be mandatory reading in every American middle/high school.

  • Charles Davenport Jr. ( is a freelance writer in Greensboro.




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Crime and politics in Scotland

It’s always a pleasure to read a book review by Tom Dillon. He reads such interesting books. This time, he’s enjoying a bit of detective fiction, but as you might expect, it’s a bit more complicated than shoot-’em-up and whodunit.

SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE. By Ian Rankin. Little, Brown and Co. 389 pages. $26 hardback. Also available in paperback and on Kindle.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

Do you ever get the feeling certain authors are playing around with you? That’s how I’m beginning to feel about Ian Rankin, creator of the Scottish detective John Rebus, after reading Rankin’s latest, Saints of the Shadow Bible.

I started reading Rankin’s Rebus novels on a trip to Scotland in 2006, and I was immediately drawn in by a detective who puts solving crime above being deferential to authorities and nice to bigwigs. That’s long been Rebus’ modus operandi. It reminds me of some newspaper reporters I’ve known.

Rebus’ life is police work. It’s one of the things that broke up his marriage long ago and allows only occasional contacts with his daughter. That, and the fact that he’s an out-of-shape older cop still smoking and drinking too much.

Anyway, I followed Rankin’s John Rebus novels right up through Rebus’s retirement five years ago in the novel, Exit Music. I said then that I didn’t think retirement was a very good fit for Rebus, and boy, was I right. Barely skipping a beat, Rankin came out with Standing in Another Man’s Grave, in which Rebus is working part-time with a “cold case” unit looking at old crimes.

And now here’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, in which the retirement age has been raised and the old guy is, believe it or not, back on the force – albeit at a lesser rank. He retired as a detective inspector; now he’s back to being a sergeant, and his former protégé, female detective Siobhan Clarke, is his boss.

Adding to the ironies, Rebus is paired with one of his old nemeses, Malcolm Fox, late of the Complaints Division of Police Scotland. Complaints is the unit that investigates rogue cops, and they’ve had ample reason to look at the career of John Rebus through the years. Can Rebus and Fox, now on the road to becoming a detective himself, get along?

Rebus, Fox and Clarke start out investigating a young woman’s car crash that quickly turns suspicious. Her boyfriend is the son of a high-ranking Scottish politician involved in the Scottish independence movement, and neither wants to talk to the police.

Then there’s a subplot, a reopened old case involving some of Rebus’ colleagues when he first joined the force more than 30 years ago. Those colleagues, known as the “saints,” swore an oath of loyalty on something called “the shadow bible,” and now some of their work may be coming back to haunt them. Was John Rebus involved in corruption all those years ago?

Handling those two plot themes at the same time is a tall order, but Ian Rankin has long since proved himself adept at such things. Further, he lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two sons, and his work shows he keeps a steady hand on the pulse of Scottish life and politics.

The whole novel, published a few months ago, takes place amid the politicking for the Scottish independence vote, which has been scheduled for Sept. 18 this year (700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, for the record, which first achieved Scottish independence from England). But the vote is just part of the background. Don’t expect a solution.

More important is this look into John Rebus’ early life as a policeman, and the delicate interplay between Rebus, Clarke and Fox as they both navigate the back roads of Scotland and try to come to terms with their former selves.

As I said, I don’t know where Ian Rankin is going with the late-life career of John Rebus, and I’ve given up guessing. But wherever the destination, the trip is going to be adventurous. I’ll keep reading.

  • Tom Dillon is a journalist who lives in Winston-Salem.



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Beware the wild New Jersey Chihuahuas

What fun!

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

TOO SECRET TWENTY-ONE. By Janet Evanovich. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. 6 hours; 5 CDs. $32.

How many wacky adventures can Stephanie Plum get into? How many cars can be destroyed? How often can her apartment be trashed? How long will her relationship with Joe Morelli survive her continued attraction to Ranger?

Infinitely, apparently. Janet Evanovich manages to keep this delightful series fresh, book after book. And not only fresh, but better and better. Top Secret Twenty-One is, if anything, more entertaining than the books that preceded it.

If you thought nothing could top Kevin, the 7-foot-tall giraffe galloping around a neighborhood in Trenton, N.J., in Takedown Twenty, you underestimated Evanovich’s zany imagination. Try a pack of feral Chihuahuas, alternately shivering in terror and attacking ferociously.

Stephanie Plum, for anyone who might not know, is a bounty hunter who nabs people who jump the bail provided for them by her cousin, Vinnie. Some of her cases start out sounding as if they’ll be pretty routine, but there are always surprises, some of them involving the possibility of serious bodily harm. In her spare time, to pick up a little extra cash and because he’s a good friend, she helps out Ranger, the sexy and mysterious owner of a security firm that seems awfully secret and high level. Those expeditions also thrust her into dangerous situations, and that’s only one of the reasons they bother Stephanie’s more-or-less regular boyfriend, Morelli, who is a homicide cop.

This time, Stephanie is looking for Jimmy Poletti, a big-time used-car salesman who jumped bail after he was arrested when it turned out he was dealing a lot more than cars.  She’s having a little trouble catching Poletti, and it doesn’t help that people associated with him keep turning up dead. Then there’s the problem of Randy Briggs, an obnoxious 3-foot-tall former hospital security guard who’d been keeping the books for Poletti and therefore knows way too much. Briggs turns to Stephanie for protection after his apartment is hit by a rocket, and she’s too softhearted to turn him down.

Meanwhile, somebody is seriously trying to kill Ranger in a particularly nasty way, and Stephanie tries to help him figure out who has it in for him and why.

All this gets complicated by the Chihuahua pack, not to mention the feud between Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur (who develops a very interesting bucket list) and Morelli’s evil-eyed Grandma Bella.

One of the amazing things about all this is that Stephanie, despite the zaniness and danger of her life, remains a more or less normal, unassuming young woman. She wears jeans and T-shirts, takes care of her pet hamster, visits her parents and grandma frequently, tries to be true to Morelli and has no super powers whatsoever. She hates guns and is a terrible shot if forced to use one.

Did I mention Lula? A former “ho,” Lula is Stephanie’s sidekick, which only adds to the craziness.

As audio books, the Stephanie Plum novels are high-level entertainment. Lorelei King is perfect, whether she’s issuing Lula’s sassy remarks or uttering Ranger’s trademark, “Babe…”

The only fault I can find with this book is that it had to end.





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Disaster, public and private

If you haven’t discovered the books of Chris Bohjalian, you need to. I first encountered his work in Secrets of Eden (December, 2009), which impressed me a great deal. Since then, I’ve been equally impressed by The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins  (both of which are reviewed here). The man has written 15 other novels and a collection of essays. That’s a lot of good reading to be enjoyed.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CLOSE YOUR EYES, HOLD HANDS. By Chris Bohjalian. Random House Audio. Read by Grace Blewer. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $41. Also available in print from Doubleday.

Chris Bohjalian has a well-earned reputation for beautifully written novels that provide rich insights into the sometimes-heartbreaking complexities of the human condition. He also is known for introducing his readers to an impressive variety of subject matter, often blending historical fiction with more contemporary settings. The Sandcastle Girls, for example, deals with the little-known story of the Armenian genocide during World War I and a modern-day suburban mom who is a descendant of Armenians. The Light in the Ruins is a murder mystery of sorts set in 1950s Italy, and also a story of how an Italian family was affected by their government’s alliance with the Nazis in World War II.

This book is different from those earlier novels in that, on the surface, it’s much simpler, set in the present or a not-too-distant future, and told in the first person by one teenage girl. But from the moment that girl, Emily Shepard, begins to tell you her story, Bohjalian will have captured you as surely as he always does. Before long, you will be deeply moved by what Emily has endured, what she has to say and – for this is part of Bohjalian’s genius – what she does not say.

Emily is a high school junior in the rural northeast corner of Vermont, an only child who lives in a “meadow mansion” development with her parents. She’s a somewhat introverted girl who’s a great admirer of Emily Dickinson and aspires to be a poet and novelist herself. Like most teenagers, she has her gripes and quirks, and maybe a little more problem with impulse control than some of her more laid-back peers. But things are basically OK.

And then one day, near the end of the school year, the nuclear plant near her home has a catastrophic meltdown.

Such a disaster would be terrible in any case, but for Emily, it’s much worse. Her father was in charge of the nuclear plant; her mother worked there too, in public relations. In her heart, she knows they must be dead. Worse yet, her father, who had problems with alcohol, is being blamed for the meltdown.

With passions high and her father being vilified all around, Emily is terrified. Rather than stay with her classmates as they evacuate the area, she flees and makes up a different identity.

As we get to know Emily, we learn she’s been at a hospital for a while, and that she’s talked with therapists. Saying she wants to try to tell the reader only what is true, she begins her story by talking about the igloo she made of trash bags and frozen leaves hen she was homeless in Burlington, Vt., six months after the meltdown. She lived there with Cameron, a younger boy who’d fled an abusive foster home.

Haltingly, recalling her life before the meltdown, how she survived as a street person since and the desperate decisions that finally brought her where she is now, Emily tells her story in unadorned, matter-of-fact prose. Like her idol Emily Dickinson, she uses words sparingly, and each carefully chosen word says a great deal.

In some novels, Bohjalian has helped his readers understand how people in other places and other times dealt with adversity and even atrocity. This time, the worlds are closer to home: the life of a troubled teen who finds herself on the streets, dealing with drugs, sex, bullies and self-abusing “cutters”; and a “typical” American suburban region where disaster suddenly crumbles the illusion of comfort and safety.

Emily’s story is utterly compelling. Her voice will haunt you. There is an added bonus for those who “read” the audio version. Bohjalian’s daughter Grace Blewer, who was 19 when he was writing the book and helped him with Emily’s voice and contemporary expressions, is the reader who brings that voice to life. Now an acting student, she does a marvelous job.


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Travels with Tooly

Some books are just made to be read aloud. This one is a great story, and I’m sure it’s enjoyable when read in print. But in its audio form, it’s utterly captivating. I quickly felt that the reader, Penelope Rawlins, was a dear friend, telling me a fascinating story – one that I didn’t want to end. And the voice she gave to our heroine, Tooly, brought her endearingly to life as well.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE RISE AND FALL OF GREAT POWERS. By Tom Rachman. Read by Penelope Rawlins. Random House Audio. 15 hours; 12 CDs. $45. Also available in print from The Dial Press.

When we meet Tooly Zylberberg, she’s an eccentric young woman in her early 30s who curiously seems to have little connection to anyone. She’s recently bought a moldering bookstore in a remote village in Wales, having invested her remaining funds from some mysterious source in an enterprise that’s bound to go broke. But she loves the books, and her living quarters upstairs, and is content living a mostly solitary life. Her one regular companion is an equally eccentric, quite dramatic, young Welsh man who works for her in the shop.

For the most part, Tooly is happy to be left alone in her quiet existence, but she does occasionally succumb to curiosity and prowl the Internet searching for news of some of the people from her past.

Then one day, a message arrives from one of those people, a boyfriend she was with for a while in New York back around the turn of the new century, when she was college age. Her father is very ill and badly needs her help, the old flame tells her.

Tooly is puzzled. Who is this “father”? So she’s off to the United States to solve that mystery and see what’s going on.

The identity of the ailing father is far from this book’s only mystery. Tooly, we learn gradually, knows more than we do about her past, but her understanding is incomplete and flawed. Tom Rachman deftly moves the story back and forth among 1988, when Tooly is 10, to the days in New York and to the present, slowly revealing bits and pieces of Tooly’s life.

Was she an heiress, victim of a kidnapping that went wrong? The pawn of people involved in international espionage? Something unimaginable? The action, both in the past and the present, moves in a sometimes-breathtaking way across Asia, Europe and the United States. Always in the background, affecting Tooly and her associates, are the major events of a momentous quarter-century in world affairs. The Iron Curtain crumbles, the Internet rises, 9/11 happens, entrepreneurs rise and markets crash.

Through it all, whether she’s a delightfully precocious 10-year-old, a 20-something trying to fit in with “normal” kids her age, or the 30-something woman who hopes finally to confront her past, Tooly is thoroughly endearing. She’s smart, funny, spunky, a lover of words and books, and a person who wants to do the right things despite what’s been done to her. She has done some things wrong, and has some regrets, but the wrongs that have been done to her are much greater – even though she may not always think so.

To say too much about the intricate plot of this book, about the secrets that ultimately unravel, would be to spoil the fun of Rachman’s energetic, surprising, witty and sometimes poignant story-telling.

Suffice it to say that you’ll love Tooly and enjoy her peripatetic journey through recent history. With her, you’ll come to ponder those big questions about what’s important in life in a way you probably haven’t before.



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Where there’s Hope, there’s a good story

It’s always a pleasure when the latest installment in a good series arrives.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PRIME MINISTER’S SECRET AGENT. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam Books. 301 pages. $15, paperback.

Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope series has become one of my favorites. In Maggie, MacNeal has created an intelligent, sensitive, complex heroine who’s a convincingly real person. She’s spunky, but human. She has romantic interests, but real life – complicated by war – intervenes.

Maggie’s life story becomes a bit more complex with each book. At first, we thought she was a British orphan, reared in America by her college professor aunt. Gradually, we learn that her parents are alive – and in many ways more problem than blessing. And, surprisingly, she has a half sister in peril in Germany.

Maggie, a recent Wellesley mathematics graduate, came to England to sell her late grandmother’s house, and found herself in the midst of the action as England was thrust into World War II. She decided to stay and do her part, which soon turns out to involve spying for His Majesty’s government.

Like the previous three books in the series, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent is a winning combination: a well-plotted mystery, a thriller with a proper share of danger, a romance, and a historical tale in which Winston Churchill and other real people march convincingly through the pages.

This time, Maggie, recovering from physical and emotional wounds suffered during her recent adventures in wartime Berlin, thinks she’s winning some peace and quiet by taking a teaching job at the remote camp in Scotland where she was trained to be a spy.

But when she visits an old friend in Glasgow, the sudden illness of three ballerinas – including her dear friend – plunges her right back into the thick of things. She finds herself working with MI-5 to uncover what might be terrible secrets.

Meanwhile, as 1941 draws to a bloody close, events in the Pacific are about to come to a head, and Churchill is planning a trip to Washington – a trip that he insists must involve Maggie Hope.

MacNeal tells Maggie’s story well, and in the process, she also tells the broader story of what it was like to be caught up in a terrible war – a war in which good people must figure out how far they can go to combat evil without becoming evil themselves.



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