There is nothing better for a reader than to start off a new year with three very good books! And I am happy to say that I've enjoyed every minute of my reading experiences this month! Let's take a look at two solid mysteries and one monster-sized biography that was outstanding.
"The Girl of His Dreams" by Donna Leon
The next in Leon's Guido Brunetti series finds the Venetian detective investigating two cases. The first is the legitimacy of a possible religious scammer who may (or may not) be bilking members of his congregation of their money.
The second is the death of a Rom (gypsy) teenager who fell from a roof, presumably during a robbery. The victims of the robbery, a well to do Venetian family, seem relatively unworried about the theft, with the two main items stolen being returned. And interviewing the parents of the dead girl is not so easy as it might seem as the Rom community closes around them.
Brunetti is faced with some ethical dilemmas as he and Inspector Vianello sort out the details of the case (with the help of Signorina Elettra, of course). He has already enlisted the help of his wife, Paola, in getting information on the religious scam (along with the input of his mother-in-law). Should he also enlist that of his children in finding out more about the family who was robbed and whose daughter attends their school?
And, as answers to the latter case become more clear, will the person responsible pay for the crime -- or will social status serve as a protective shield.
Once again, Leon presents a case with both a clever plot and deep empathy.
"My Name is Barbra" by Barbra Streisand
I did not want this book to end. And when you have 700 pages of a person's life story -- even one whom you admire -- that's saying something.
And why did I feel that way? In "My Name Is Barbra," the singer/actor/director/activist writes as though she's your best pal, sitting in your living room with your favorite beverage (probably hot tea with honey) and a lot of food (because the woman loves to eat). She's the friend who talks non-stop (don't try to get a word in edgewise, and don't we all have friends like that? Sometimes they are even us!). But you don't care because what she is saying is so revealing, so interesting, you just don't want it to end.
In the forward, Streisand explains that she wrote the book because over the years she had read so many things about her that weren't true. It was why she stopped giving interviews (though she has done more than a few for this book!). She wanted her own say. And say it she does.
Streisand reveals all of herself. And that includes both the dimples and the warts of life. She clearly knows her stuff and has worked hard to learn her craft, often adding input where it wasn't wanted (and quite often being right in the end). When it comes to personal interaction and performing, she is shy (her paralyzing stage fright is discussed in length). She recognizes her weaknesses, fears and the things that scare her. But when it comes to standing her ground, she is strong. She's not afraid to stand up for what is good and true about her and I admire that. It's not done in a bragging way but an honest assessment and we should all do that more often.
The book is linear, beginning with her childhood that included a cold mother who was jealous of her daughter's talent and drive and an emotionally abusive stepfather. (Her father died when she was very young and she spent a lifetime searching for him.) We see her make her first Broadway show and the second -- "Funny Girl," the show that sent her to Hollywood. She goes into great detail on these and other projects. If you are a Streisand fan, you will find that look beyond the screen fascinating. I did. She is a lifelong learner, a vociferous reader and a probing questioner who from the start wanted to learn all the elements of the film industry from the directing and lighting to editing and design. That painstaking attention to detail was what guided her performances and later the films she directed, the albums she recorded and the television shows and concerts she produced. She goes through each one in great detail and if you are a fan of film (or want better to understand this filmmaker's approach) you'll find those segments as fascinating as I did.)
By the time you finish a chapter covering a film or her concert prep, you feel as though you have been in the editing room, soundstage or recording studio with her. And, you have a far better appreciation into what goes into making a film, record, concert or play.
(And, if you are like me, you will hop onto youtube to find some of those performances.)
It's not all work. We learn about Streisand's relationships both professional (with her various co-stars) and personal. That includes both the romantic and the friendships. She's honest with her opinions, open with her praise. She has relationships (even with past lovers) that have been in her life for more than 60 years and that says a lot about her as a person.
We also learn about her commitment to activism -- social and political. She puts her money where her mouth is. She has raised millions of dollars for education, civil rights, women's issues, AIDS and HIV awareness and the environment, along with political candidates and issues.
I've always admired Streisand's incredible voice and most (not all!) of her film performances, as well as the movies she has directed. But now I also admire her as a person.
It's possible I just read my "best book of the year" in the first month. Everything else I read will have big shoes to fill.
"The Moonflower Murders" by Anthony Horowitz
In his sequel to "The Magpie Murders," Anthony Horowitz gives us two books in one. Former editor Susan Ryeland is now living with her partner, Andreas, and running a hotel in Crete when a couple from England approach her. They own a hotel in a converted country house where a murder had taken place a number of years before. Their daughter has recently disappeared, presumably because she had discovered something about the murder after reading a mystery that Susan had edited. Written by Alan Conway, the detective in the story, Atticus Pund, was a whiz at solving a murder set at a country house hotel that had all too many similarities to the real place.
They ask Susan if she can find anything in the book that their daughter Cecily might have discovered that could lead to where she might be, if she was still alive. They are willing to pay and since the hotel that Susan and Andreas have is in hard times, she says yes and heads to Suffolk, where her arrival isn't welcomed by all the "usual suspects."
After meeting those who might be involved, Susan finally reads the Atticus Pund novel, "The Moonflower Murders," which is included in the book as a complete novel. She recognizes many characters and commonalities but is still baffled. Her time to complete the assignment is running out. Can she come up with a solution?
As always, Horowitz spins a good yard (or in this case, two) and you'll find yourself flipping pages to see if you can come up with the right answer before she does!
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