I had too much company to get much reading done in August but the books I read were worth the time and the late nights! They include a political thriller, three mysteries (set in England, Florence and Venice), a non-fiction look at how a London writer adjusts to small town life on the coast of Denmark and a short book of poems by cats!
"State of Terror" by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny
Sometimes co-written books by a famous author and a famous public figure work and sometimes they don't. "State of Terror," by mystery author Louise Penny and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton works. Clinton's expertise on the way her political world operates and Penny's brilliant writing style makes this one a page turner from beginning to end.
The plot follows newly appointed Secretary of State Ellen Adams, who has a tenuous relationship with her boss, having supported another candidate rather than him. He has set her up on some missions almost guaranteed to fail, perhaps to show her up. He is replacing a president not unlike our Former Guy, which has eroded international confidence in the United States, destroying the trust of the Western world in matters of international diplomacy.
When an bus explodes in London across from the famed Fortnum and Mason's, the terror incident has international implications and Adams is sent on a diplomatic mission. When a second explosion occurs in Paris, it is clear that there is indeed a state of terror enveloping the world and she is off on a series of journeys that take her to Germany, Iran and Pakistan. It soon becomes clear that someone in the White House, possibly one of the holdovers from the previous administration, is implicated (but who?) and the fears that a nuclear device will be detonated in the United States becomes very real.
"State of Terror" is more than a page-turning thriller. It is also a story of friendship -- that between Ellen and her childhood friend Betsy, who is now her political advisor. And, it is a story of family ties, as Ellen's children play a significant role as well. It deals with the empowerment of women in the male-driven political world and ultimately, with a situation that, as Clinton said in an interview with Penny, was one that kept her up at night when she was in Ellen Adams' position -- what happens if a dirty bomb lands on United States soil?
I loved it.
"The Year of Living Danishly" by Helen Russell
Suppose you were an editor of a popular women's magazine, living a hectic life in London, and your husband said, "I've been offered the dream job of a lifetime -- working at Lego in Denmark for a year." Do you move with him or stay in London?
Helen Russell decided to accompany her husband to Denmark, a country where she did not speak the language, and spend a year in a small coastal town in Jutland, far from the larger cities. Knowing no one and unable to work conventionally, she did what writers do -- she began writing.
Russell had learned that Denmark is considered the world's "happiest country" and she wanted to know why. So she began a quest to see why just about everyone she met rated themselves between eight and ten on a 1-10 happiness scale. Along the way, she discovers both the challenges and the joys of being an ex-pat and works through many of the reasons the Danes are so happy and content with their lives.
They have a lot to smile about. Yes, their taxes are extraordinarily high. But the benefits from those taxes more than make up for it. Entirely free medical care -- and extremely solicitous and good care at that; free education through university; generous child care stipends, and much more.
They are also extremely healthy, enjoying an outdoors culture, and community-mindedness is very much encouraged. In the winter, things shut down and the residents of the town stay inside (the homes there have heated floors!) and experience a hygge life. Sport is popular as is volunteerism.
It isn't the conclusions of Russell's year-long investigation that make this book a good read. It is her delightful writing style, the introduction of her new neighbors and friends who share a new and interesting lifestyle and ultimately her own evolution from a schedule-ruled city woman to a happy almost-Dane. Covering everything from the food to interior design, she takes a thorough look at her new country as she approaches the end of her first year -- and must decide if they will stay on for another.
Recommended (and I might say, we as a country could learn a lot from the Danes high-tax, excellent services model).
"A Change of Circumstance" by Susan Hill
I'm almost caught up with Susan Hill's terrific police procedural series featuring Simon Serrallier in "A Change of Circumstance." This one is a little less gritty than some of her previous entries -- and just as interesting.
This time, Serrailler and his brother-in-law/boss, Kieran, are on the trail of an expanding drug ring that uses young people -- some as young as Brookie, an eleven-year-old boy -- as unknowing drug mules. In the early pages of the book, Brookie has missed his bus and is offered a ride by a fellow named "Fats" who gives him a backpack that he "found" and later, a phone from which he sends the boy messages to deliver an envelope to a given person.
Brookie isn't his only mark. Olivia, a teenaged girl, has also received gifts from Fats -- along with envelopes to deliver. But it is Brookie's father, who discovers the phone, which gives Serrailler and his team their first solid lead.
On the home front, Serrailler finds himself at odds, longing to see his former love, Rachel, who repeatedly rebuffs him, while his sister, Dr. Cat, is feeling the stresses of overwork and family challenges with her son Sam, a missing pet dog, and husband Kieron with an injured leg.
It's the mix of Simon's and Cat's personal lives interplayed with the actual mystery that puts all the Serrailler books at the top of my list. This is a worthy entry. (It is recommended to read the Serrailler series from book one forward; the mysteries are self contained but the character stories and dynamics continue and evolve from book to book and the books are all the richer for reading them in sequence.
"Uniform Justice" by Donna Leon
Inspector Guido Brunetti of the Venice Police is back with another baffling crime -- this time set in a military academy located on one of the islands under the city's jurisdiction. A young student is found dead by hanging in the communal bathroom of the academy. It is presumed a suicide, but Guido isn't so sure.
The boy's father was a leading medical figure in Italy whose report on the medical system was not without great controversy. He was also a former politician and by all accounts an honest one, who resigned after only two years following a family tragedy.
As always, Brunetti leads us through a complex investigation and a sensitive one -- many powerful local figures may play a role and his boss, Patta, never likes to ruffle powerful feathers. But with the help of Signorina Elecctra, the secretary/computer-hacker-extraordinaire (a woman with friends in many helpful places) and the wisdom and groundedness of his wife, Paola (a strong feminist and a terrific cook!), he brings readers to a most satisfactory and surprising conclusion.
(Sequential reading is not required to get the most from this series.)
"Treachery in Tuscany" by Phyllis Gobbell
This is the third in Gobell's Jordan Mayfair series and I've not yet read either of the first two, but it held on its own as a mystery that needn't be read in sequence.
Jordan Mayfair is a 50-something architect from Savannah who accompanies her uncle Alex, a travel book writer, to Florence as he researches his newest book. Alex also wants to visit a woman who was a long-ago love, and who later married his best friend and is recently widowed. She runs a family agritourismo business, selling products made on their farm and offering classes in their villa.
Alex and Jordan pair are staying in a convent that now offers B&B services and early in their visit they meet the 18-year-old Sophie, who is on her own quest in Tuscany -- to find the woman with whom she is quite sure her father is having an affair. When Sophie falls from one of the convent windows while watching a festival on the streets below, it is thought to be a suicide. Jordan isn't so sure.
Running alongside of the mystery of Sophie's death is a series of jewel thefts in the neighborhood of the convent. They are of secondary interest to Jordan but of key interest to a journalist named Eli, to whom she is introduced. Can Eli's connections perhaps delve more into Sophie's death?
Adding to the ambience and romance is the arrival of Paul Broussard, a handsome French art dealer/critic with whom Jordan has had a relationship (apparently in one or both of Gobbell's previous books). But their revived romance is not without its complications as well.
There's a lot to this book. I wouldn't put it into my top tier of mysteries, but if you enjoy Italy and its art and architecture, there is much to learn from Gobell's vivid descriptions of the city and its treasures. The characters are pleasant, the relationships between Jordan and both her uncle Alex and Paul are interesting and the mystery isn't bad. (But don't expect an early death -- things don't really ramp up in a mystery-way until page 150!)
I'd read another of Gobell's books, especially if she includes her wonderful descriptions of the regions she writes about and its culture, but not racing to find one. (Note: The first book I read in September was another in the Jordan Mayfair series. Stay tuned for a review next month!)
"The Rodent Not Taken" by Jennifer McCartney
This book isn't for everyone. But if you love and know cats, you'll get a boost out of this poetry collection with the subtitle "And Other Poems by Cats." McCartney divides this short, fun book into several sections: "Cat Verse Inspired by Famous Poems," "Free Verse and Beat Poetry," "Rhyming Verse, Haikus and Limericks" and "Poetry Inspiration."
Along the way she riffs off the work of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Walt Whitman, Joyce Kilmer, Dylan Thomas, William Blake and others. The originals -- largely haiku and limericks, are equally clever and fun. With titles like "Laser Pointer," "Box," "Ode to a Fresh Litter Box," "Ode to the Corner of the Book You are Trying to Read," "Haiku of Shame," and "Cat Lady Haikus," you know any cat fan is in for a clever treat.
I leave you with one of her entries, and since it's wine o'clock here, it's a perfect one:
There once was a puss from Bordeaux
Who developed a taste for Merlot.
The cat was ashamed.
She left town, changed her name.
Now she gets drunk on Mouse-cato.
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