For weeks I thought August was a slow reading month. Too much computer time? But somehow I finished seven books and they were all good ones. In this month's reviews, series mysteries by Donna Leon, Martin Walker, Mark Pryor and Ann Cleeves; as novel by Jodi Picoult; a delightful memoir of actor Martin Short, and a remarkable, wee book that is timely and important. (And yes, there is a drawing in this post. Read on!)
"Blood from a Stone" by Donna Leon
The 14th book in Donna Leon's "Guido Brunetti" series, set in Venice, finds Brunetti on the case of an African immigrant, known collectively as the vu campra, shot execution-style in an open air market on a December day. No one seems to know who the man was or even where he was from and Brunetti's efforts are leading to few conclusions. Surprisingly, his boss, Vice Questore Patta, pulls Brunetti and his team from the case, saying that Italy's Department of Interior is taking over. However, Brunetti refuses to let go and quietly continues on, with the help of the enigmatic Signorina Elettra and his sergeant Vianello.
The subplot of this book revolves around Brunetti's family life and there is a bit more of it in this story. He and his wife, Paola, are shocked by his daughter Chiara's callous discount of the murder victim, as an immigrant being "not one of us." But their ways of approaching and handling the issue and their daughter vary. It was a good look at teenagers and adolescents and their views -- how they are shaped and what guides them. Brunetti finds it confusing because while Chiara so easily dismissed the murder of the vu campra, her school friend is a Muslim immigrant -- and what is the difference?
I find Leon is strongest when she ties in Brunetti's work and family and seeing how she interprets the legal and judicial systems in Italy, along with corruption in the government and police force. The police/case scenes are all business; the family, all heart. (And yes, once again your mouth will water at Paola's delicious Italian cooking!)
"The Book of Two Ways" by Jody Picoult
I'm new to Jodi Picoult, whom I know is a favorite of many fiction readers. (I read so little fiction, that may be why!) In this novel, she follows the story of a woman named Dawn, who gave up a career as an budding Egyptologist and the love of her life, Wyatt, a fellow student, when her mother became terminally ill. Following her mother's death, she cared for her younger brother, became a social worker and eventually a death doula. In that role, she helps terminal patients prepare for their deaths in all ways not medical. She may do their laundry, arrange their funeral or help them carry out their last wish.
Dawn is married to Brian, whom she met while her mother was in Hospice, and they have a 13-year-old daughter who is going through the challenges of being an overweight teen with all the self-consciousness that goes with it. When Brian misses Meret's birthday to be with a female grad student, Dawn leaves him and goes to Egypt to see if she can or should return to the career she left behiind.
Picoult takes the story back and forth between Egypt and Boston, past and present, so much that I was confused. I didn't know if it was writing style or if Dawn was experiencing the parallel universe that she had heard so much about from her quantum physicist husband. What was in her head and what was happening "for real"?
It's an intriguing book. I'm not really into Egyptian studies so the archaeology sections didn't appeal to me nearly so much as the personal elements -- the relationships of Dawn with Brian, Wyatt, and her daughter, Meret. One of the sections that intrigued and engaged me most was her connection to her current client, Win, a married woman, dying, whose artistic past and relationship haunted her. The pair clearly have much in common.
I was also most intrigued by the concept of the death doula and what that role involved. I think after reading this, we all might wish we had one when the time comes. For this and this alone, I would recommend the book, but the story is also an interesting one and it's a good read.
"Hidden Depths" by Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves just amazes me. She is able to write intriguing and interesting mystery plots that are complicated and yet easy to follow with such well-defined characters that they seem to pop off the page. In this "Vera" offering, Vera Stanhope and her team investigate two murders, seemingly unrelated and yet both deaths were staged, with the bodies found in water with an array of woodland flowers floating in the water around them. One is a troubled teenage boy, the son of divorced parents. The other is the vivacious teacher of another lad with a stay-at-home mom and professor dad who have a group of bird-watching friends.
Vera and her team begin to uncover some connections between the two cases but the murders themselves remain a mystery as they investigate each subject's life, relationships and alibis. Eventually the pieces fall into place with a well written and satisfying conclusion.
Cleeves keeps her readers guessing and I love a mystery like that. (I can't help it -- I also "see" television "Vera" Brenda Blethyn in the finely defined character!) Worthy of the name "Vera."
"The Sorbonne Affair" by Mark Pryor
This is another in the Hugo Marston series, set in contemporary Paris. Marston, as a diplomat serving directly under the American ambassador, is often called upon when an American in Paris is in trouble. At a funeral he meets Helen Hancock, a best-selling romance writer. Hancock is in Paris to finish her current book and to teach a small writing workshop to three Americans, Buzzy, Ambrosio and Mike. She seeks Marston out because she believes she is being followed.
When a camera is found in her hotel room, the action ramps up. Who placed the camera and why? Were they out to steal her writing? When a salacious video turns up online, the answer is clear. And, when an employee who purchased the equipment is murdered in the hotel, who was responsible?
It will take two other murders for Hugo and his French lieutenant friend, Camille Lerens, to find the answer and it's a cleverly plotted and good one!
"I Must Say" by Martin Short with David Kamp
When I started watching "Only Murders in the Building," I was reminded again how much I like Martin Short, whose sketch comedy characters, such as Ed Grimley have delighted audiences on SCTV and Saturday Night Live. I'd also enjoyed his performances in film and his "two man show" with friend Steve Martin, which was on Netflix. I'd had his autobiography for a long time and decided now was a good time to read it.
When reading a biography, there is always a risk that you will not like the person nearly so much afterward. (That's less likely with an autobiography.) But this one is delightful. It reminds me very much of the Mel Brooks autobio that I liked so much. I still like Martin Short a lot. In fact, I like him even more.
Short is one of these performers who had a very happy childhood, despite the deaths of his parents during his teen years. The family was close, supportive and loved to laugh. It's clear that his comic timing was honed at an early age. He also loved to sing and would "host" talk shows and record Sinatra standards in his attic bedroom. While he planned to study medicine in college, it wasn't a surprise when he found a fun extracurricular interest, theatre, where he met his two closest friends, fellow Canadians Dave Thomas (SCTV) and Eugene Levy (Schitt's Creek).
Finding success in the Toronto production of "Godspell," Short made lifelong friends who would pop up again and again in his career, including his early girlfriend, Gilda Radner. It was during "Godspell" that he also met the love of his life, actress Nancy Dolman.
The book is both life story and love letter to the late Dolman, told with great humor, much joy and yes, introspection. This is a man to whom family means the very most and his Nan was at the top of the list. His chapters about her illness, death and grief are powerful and worth a read for those alone. It's one of those books I was thinking of passing along because it is so fun. Then I got to those chapters and thought, "I need to hold onto this one; someday I might need it."
The other high point for me -- his "Nine Categories" way of looking at life, which he uses to make decisions and continually evaluate if those choices "work" for him. That alone is worth reading this gem of a book.) He credits his collaborator, David Kamp, as well and I respect that. Recommended.
"On Tyranny" by Timothy Snyder
Wow. If you care about democracy and the threat it is facing in our own country (and many others) please read "On Tyranny." In 126 pages, this small book packs big concepts and ones we should all incorporate to be aware of the threats to any democratic form of government.
Snyder focuses on "twenty lessons from the twentieth century," looking at how in Germany, the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the people -- many of the people -- fell into step with authoritarian or Fascist leaders, bit by bit. He shows how it happened and offers solid, practical suggestions on how we as individuals can act in a positive way to hold onto that most precious, fragile thing known as democracy.
His lessons are timely and important. His chapters include such topics as "Beware the one-party state," "Be kind to our language," "Believe in truth," "Investigate," "Be wary of paramilitaries," "Listen for dangerous words." The importance of fact checking, professional ethics and institutions are emphasized. His words make perfect sense -- and yet so many these days (and I'm not just talking about famous folk) are doing anything but.
If these sound like heavy concepts, in the abstract, they are. But Snyder presents them simply and succinctly. Those concepts are also just part and parcel of being good, responsible citizens who respect democracy and what can so easily happen when one group or person slowly, but very specifically, tries to take control. What becomes the agenda or one group or person can ever so subtly but certainly filter down to the greatest population, and then? Well, we've seen it before, as Snyder eloquently illustrates.
This small book should be a required text book for a high school or junior high government class but I have a feeling at least one state in the US would ban it. And ban it not because it is wrong but because leaders are supporting so many of the things of which these 20 lessons tell us to be aware. It teaches us to think, research, to understand the implications and consequences that following something that might - on the surface -- make sense to some, with disastrous consequences.
And sometimes, that's exactly what people don't want you to do.
My lake friend Kathy gave me my copy and said she had given over 50 of them away to friends. It's that important. 128 pages in a 4x6-sized book. It packs a wallop.
I want to follow in her footsteps. I can't send all of you a copy but I will do a drawing from comments to this post and if you would like to be entered in a random drawing for one of two copies, please include that in your comment. (International entries are also included.) Also, if you are a no-reply blogger or anonymous, please tell me how to "find you."
"No Hidden Graves" by Martin Walker
I kept waiting for a murder to happen. When it hadn't occurred by page 200, I realized that the twenty-year-old skeleton found during an archaeological dig was the only murder in the book (until the end in a thrilling and heartbreaking climax). In this relatively early entry in the "Bruno Chief of Police" series, Martin Walker again takes us to the French village of St. Denis, where wine is plentiful and so is fois gras.
Bruno has his hands full. In addition to the discovery of the skeleton, he is working on the security for a ministerial summit between France and Spain that may be the target of Basque terrorists and dealing with the PETA-related crimes against duck farmers in his constituency who raise the animals for the fois gras industry. Between working with the visiting security liaison, Carlos, dealing with Teddy and Katja, two students from the dig who may be responsible for the vandalism of the farmers, the disappearance of the lead archeologist on the dig and his conflicting relationships with the English Pamela and Isabelle, his one time love, who is back in St. Denis for the summit, his hands are full.
Life isn't made less complicated by the new magistrate, Annette, with whom he gets off on the wrong foot, and Duroc, the Inspector who oversees the gendarmes and with whom Bruno has always had a rocky relationship.
Are these events related? Are any of them smokescreens to cover up what might be a disruption to the summit -- or worse, a terrorist plot to assassinate one or both of the visiting ministers? Will Bruno be able to straighten out the problems with the various women in his life? And fans of the series will want to know what delicious thing is he going to prepare. (Walker has also written a Bruno cookbook.)
Apart from an ending that just -- well -- ended (a tad too abruptly in my book), this was another solid entry in the series and I look forward to the next one (especially since he left me hanging.
Don't forget to tell me in the comments if you want to be entered in the drawing for a copy of "On Tyranny." And remember to tell me how to "find you" if you don't have a blog. Entries for this drawing end on midnight, Tuesday, September 12, EDT time in the U.S.