Monthly Archives: November 2012

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

I met the endearing Maggie Hope in MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary this past summer, and could not wait for Princess Elizabeth’s Spy to come out.  Now Maggie has completed her MI5 training (or as much as she can:  Maggie is an expert code breaker but physically can’t meet the rigorous demands) and has gone under cover as a math tutor for Princess Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, though her real purpose is to protect the princesses and keep the former King Edward VIII from returning to the thrown.   Maggie is drawn into a huge conspiracy at the castle when a lady in waiting riding with the princesses is killed, and no one is quite sure who the intended target was.  This history mystery is a perfectly enjoyable weekend read and comes highly recommended by this book barista!

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The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Meet Edie Middlestein…lawyer, mother, wife, passionate about food.  So passionate, in fact, that she is overweight and battling diabetes.  Her husband leaves her, and her grown up children try to fix her.  And so unfolds the story of The Middlesteins, a readable and touching family saga. There are many memoirs of dysfunctional families, especially those with alcoholics, and stories of families with anorexic children, but I found this novel of a family whose matriarch couldn’t resist food unique.  Edie’s story is revealed through a combination of present time and flashbacks and through several characters’ points of view.  Edie’s life is what it is.  She is limited by her weight and off-putting to her family and friends.   Attenberg explores Edie’s character frankly and without being cruel.  And, we learn that Edie’s husband Richard and her children, Benny and Robin, are just as lonely and off-putting, even without an eating disorder.  The search for compassion — and each character ultimately experiences it–and the journey for each Middlestein toward becoming a more compassionate person is what makes The Middlestein’s worth the read.

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Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen

The following quotation on the jacket of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, caught my eye as the school year began, and prompted me to revisit Anna Quindlen’s writing:  “Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor: We are good parents not so they will be loving enough to stay with us but so they will be strong enough to leave us.”

I read Anna Quindlen’s column in Newsweek pretty faithfully before my I married and had children.  I liked her because her writing always seemed to say ‘you can have it all…but it is ALOT of work.’  Quindlen is just enough older than me to give me an encouraging glimpse into the future, often with a sense of humor.   Now 60, Quindlen’s memoir covers a broad range of coming of middle age topics in her “column” style of writing.  She doesn’t offer advice as much as she shares her lessons learned-her hindsight. 

While I most often read, for this book, I listened in the car, and found it was perfect for my short drives around town.  Quindlen read her own book, and has a great audiobook voice.  Lots of Candles is a good listen… light and fairly entertaining for the right demographic.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

E-book or paper? 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a snapshot of today’s book business, with some thriller and adventure thrown in.  Clay Jannon is a young, west coast web designer and victim of the recession.  Laid off, he takes a night shift job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore and tries to put his tech savvy side to work for his new bibliophile boss.  Clay soon discovers the book shop isn’t the antiquarian mecca he thinks it is.  He stumbles onto the puzzle Mr. Penumbra’s customers have spent lifetimes trying to solve, and with the help of some tech friends and Google, quickly figures out the mystery. The last third of the book is the most exciting.  Read for plot as the characters have only the qualities and actions needed for the story.  There are no subplots or diversions, and you won’t miss them.

Sloan’s unique novel offers an intelligent and thought-provoking commentary on the changing book business and the digital revolution.  It is a new twist on the new versus old, progress versus tradition dilemna.  Kudos to his effective format–using a mystery instead of an essay or speech to weigh the value of our digital existence versus traditional books.   At the heart of the novel is Sloan’s message: “embracing modern digital technology does not mean giving up the values of the past.”  Well worth the read!

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The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

On March 18, 1990, two people posing as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston claiming they were responding to a call.  They stole 13 paintings, including 5 Degas drawings, which have never been recovered. 

Enter Claire Roth.  Young, naive and idealistic, Claire is an up and coming painter.  For Isaac, her lover and  art teacher, Claire paints “4D” while he is blocked.  She starts with his idea and paints in his style; he signs his name.  When the MOMA purchases the painting, Isaac’s fame sky-rockets and he drops Claire.  Claire decides to out Isaac and claim the painting as her own, but through some political maneuvering, she is blackballed in the art world, and can’t get a show or sell her work.  She begins working for Reproductions.com, reproducing famous paintings. 

Three years later, she is contacted by Aiden Markel, owner of Markel G to reproduce Degas’ After the Bath.  Both the asker and the fee are too good for Claire to turn down.  Claire soon comes to believe the “original” she is painting from is not in fact one of the Degas paintings stolen in the heist, but a copy of the stolen painting.  Should Claire tell Aiden she is copying a fake? Can she find the real Degas in time to save Aiden?  Is Aiden worth saving?

The Art Forger is a great novel, set in the backdrop of a real unsolved art heist. Shapiro did some excellent research, so be sure to read the author’s note to know what is real and what is part of the story.  It is all quite believable and well worth the read!

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The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season made me think about how the past always impacts the present, especially with regard to history.  This is a very  deep emotionally and historically detailed novel. The past and present theme runs throughout the novel-a murder in the past and present, Belle Vie as it was and as it is, society and it was and as it is and relationships as they were and as they are.  While this novel takes place in the present , Attica Locke brings the current deep south to life with all the old subtle/not so subtle racial divisions and  distrusts that linger just below the surface. You could say that one of  the main characters in this novel is Belle Vie, the restored antebellum plantation located on the Mississippi River because Attica Locke’s words bring this house to life.  The novel’s main human character is Caren Gray, who grew up on Belle Vie, as the daughter of the plantation cook and is now the general manager/resident historian.  On one of Caren’s routine morning plantation facility checks, she discovers the body of a murdered woman in a shallow grave at the edge of the plantation property.

The police investigation quickly points to Donovan Isaacs, one of Belle Vie’s employees, who was on the plantation the night of the murder and has a police record.  Caren begins to investigate what Donovan was doing on the plantation the night of the murder and uncovers evidence that she believes will exonerate Donovan,  even as the police get a confession from him.  Caren also discovers that Donovan has been researching the disappearance of one of Caren’s relatives,  that was never solved, but long suspected of being a murder.  Caren’s long-held beliefs about many people and facts come into question as the book progresses and as the reader you are very emotionally invested in all of Attica Locke’s characters.   It is not easy to spot “the bad guy” in this book because there are many different degrees of badness, however, most agree that in the end the murderer  trumps all.

The Cutting Season  was the much-anticipated follow-up to Attica Locke’s first novel Black Water Rising.   Attica Locke is one of those authors who draws you in without you even realizing it.  You feel as if you are there, at Belle Vie walking the property with Caren.  If you enjoy history, suspense and mystery you will enjoy The Cutting Season.  However, this is not a straightforward mystery.  It is a well crafted compelling novel, filled with a balance of  suspense, history and mystery.  Definitely one to consider adding to your reading lists.

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