Friday, April 5, 2024

The Books of March

Reading was my escape in the weather-weird, basement-boggling month of March. Somehow I managed to pull off seven books. Most were mysteries, and one, Rachel Maddow's astonishing "Prequel," was as frightening as a thriller and all too real. 

 "Prequel" by Rachel Maddow

An issue that has long disturbed me in recent years has been the rise of anti-semitism in America (and throughout the world). There's a good deal of hate and anger going on and it's absolutely frightening. And yet, this is nothing new. In the years leading up to and well into World War II, America was dangerously close to yet another insurrection, in which the players included some of the highest ranking men in government, industry and public recognition.

Rachel Maddow spells out this period in fascinating and frightening detail in "Prequel," a book based on her podcast "Ultra." She focuses on how a significant proportion of society fell under the misguided ideas fostered by Nazi propaganda. Propaganda leaflets written by Germans were delivered to hundreds of thousands of Americans in a variety of ways -- air drops, personal handouts and -- most egregiously, through what is called the frank. The frank is a privilege given to Congressmen and Senators that allows them to send out information to constituents at no personal cost, as it is paid for by the government. 

Jews were targeted but so, too, were African Americans. The two key political issues were isolation from the growing European conflict (and, as it evolved, the World War II European theater) and immigration, with specific focus on keeping Jews from emigrating to America. There were increasing incidents of violence. In addition, there was great negative reaction to the Roosevelt administration, which followed the Great Depression and had the unenviable task of getting an economy back on track. As in Germany, Jews were blamed for much of this and those angry were arming themselves as paramilitary groups to be prepared to take back the country (sound familiar?).

Characters such as Charles Lindbergh, Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, future architect Philip Johnson and numerous senators and representatives, along with a cadre of lesser known names wielded a great deal of power in terms of disseminating information through large rallies and printed information. They were thwarted through the investigative research of several reporters, including Eric Sevareid, whom older American readers may remember as a nightly news anchor in the 1970s.

"Prequel" may be a story of history but its trajectory and implications are all too present for our times. Maddow's prose reads much as another of my favorite history writers, Erik Larson's does -- well documented facts, told historically -- but in such an engaging way that if one didn't know better they might think it was a novel. 

A note -- Amblin Entertainment has optioned the film rights to Maddow's "Ultra" podcast, on which her book was based, with Stephen Speilberg among the producers. It will be a film worth watching (if we aren't living it in real life by the time it is released.)

"The Zig Zag Girl" by Elly Griffiths  

I have been in Elly Griffiths withdrawal ever since I finished her final "Ruth Galloway" book. So, when I saw another by Griffiths, in her series featuring DI Edgar Stephens, I thought I'd give it a try.

Now I have a new detective to follow!

"The Zig Zag Girl" is an early book in the Stephens series. We meet the detective, who lives in Brighton, and we learned he served in an intelligence unit in World War II in which he and a cadre of magicians made diversions of fake tanks and ships to confuse the German Army. During that period he had become friends with famed magician, Max Mephisto. 

When a body turns up, severed into several pieces and packed into magicians' trunks, he consults his Army friend, Max, now a celebrated magician who is performing in Brighton. The body is that of Max's former assistant and together they become determined to find the killer. But soon, they come to realize that others from their unit (known as "The Magic Men") are also being targeted -- and that includes the two of them.

"The Zig Zag Girl" is a fast read and it is a good one. Griffiths is in good form, the characters are engaging and the plot twists and turns. I have to say I did guess "the bad apple" in this one but only through one clue dropped in the book. And I couldn't figure out the methods or the next steps.

Stephens is no Ruth Galloway, Griffiths' beloved character from her other series of novels, but still, I'll definitely add another in the Stephens series to my list.

"These Names Make Clues" by E.C.R. Lorac


This is another Lorac offering in the British Library Classic Crime Series. This Inspector Macdonald mystery was written in 1937 but it holds up well, as the other Lorac books I've read do. 

Inspector Macdonald is invited to a Treasure Hunt party by a publisher who has a number of detective story writers on his list. The publisher, Mr. Coombe, thinks it would be interesting to see if a real-life detective could outwit the detective writers and his other guests, who are also authors.

But when one of the guests, Andrew Gardian, dies mid-party and in mysterious circumstances, the treasure hunt turns into a mystery. And, there are plenty of suspects -- the host and his sister, Coombe's secretary/major domo,and all the guests. When Gardian's publisher is found dead in his office the next day, the mystery becomes even more baffling. It appears that more than one suspect may have had a motive and that all relationships of those suspects aren't as casual as they seem.

Lorac always spins a good tale. She's a wonderful writer and this one has a clever plot. While a few turns of phrase are clearly ones from the thirties that didn't translate into modern times, I have no complaints! For mystery fans, it's a good read.

"Red Bones" by Ann Cleeves

I love the TV series "Shetland" but had never read any of Cleeves' books upon which the series is  based, so I thought I'd give this one a try. And, I was not disappointed!

Cleeves, who also writes the "Vera" series, has a wonderful way with words, atmosphere and plot and she can weave story with twists, turns and plenty of suspects.

The story opens on the Shetland island of Whalsay where lead inspector Jamie Perez's junior, Sandy Wilson, was raised. Sandy has gone home to visit family and while walking to his grandmother Mima's cottage, finds her dead. In earlier pages we have met Mima, an elderly woman with a colorful past and on whose land an archaeological dig is being done. The diggers -- supervisor Hattie, assistant Sophie and local volunteer Evelyn -- have found "red bones" as they have been digging. Could this be a 16th century site, an idea upon which Hattie has built her research.

It is revealed early in the book that Sandy's cousin, Ronald, accidentally shot Mima while out shooting rabbits in the fog, but when Perez enters the scene he isn't so sure. When a second death takes place at the site, he becomes more convinced that the killings are related. 

This book is a good introduction to the Shetland series. (It's interesting to note that one of the characters from the TV series, "D.S. Mackintosh" (Tosh) is not in this book -- or any of the Shetland books. Pity.) But we do get to know the characters of Sandy and Perez) well. Recommended and a good start to the series (even if it is book three.)

"White Nights" by Ann Cleeves

Having finished one "Shetland" book, I thought I'd take on another -- this time, reading backwards and picking up the one written before "Red Bones." (Note: You don't HAVE to read this series in order but the relationships of the characters will be more clear if you do. It will make a difference later in the series in terms of relationship building.)

"White Nights" takes place during that disorienting time of the year when it never really gets totally dark in Shetland and the light disturbs the sleep of its residents and visitors. As the book begins, Jimmy Perez is escorting his girlfriend, artist Fran Hunter, to her first joint art exhibition with well known Shetland artist, Bella Sinclair. It's a gala affair but sparsely attended, despite the appearance of Roddy Sinclair, Bella's nephew, who is now considered a hot musical star. 

While there, a mysterious man comes in, stares at one of Fran's paintings and bursts into uncontrollable tears. When Jimmy tries to find out who he is, the man claims amnesia and runs from the venue.

Not long after, he is found in a shared boat shed, hanging from the rafters and wearing a grotesque clown mask.

With no body identification and limited clues, Jimmy calls in DCI Ron Taylor, a man whose methods are in stark contrast to the Shetland native's. Tracking down his identity, as well as any motive seems impossible, since he wasn't a Shetlander and had no apparent ties. 

Or does he? 

In a baffling case with no suspects, everyone is a suspect -- Bella and Roddy Sinclair, neighborhood fisherman Kenny and his wife, Edith; author Paul Whelan, who has rented a cottage not far from the gallery; Martin Lawrence, Bella's restaurant manager, and others. It will take a second murder and some investigation into the past and present of all involved to solve this very satisfying mystery.

"Uncle Paul" by Celia Fremlin

Can you judge a book by its cover? I loved the bright cover to "Uncle Paul," a mystery set at a summer resort in England. I didn't like the book nearly so well, although I'll admit the conclusion, while clever and probably devious, was less than satisfying to me -- and I don't know why.

Meg receives  a telegram from her sister, who is vacationing at a caravan with her family near the sea, to please come at once. When she arrives, she learns that Isobel is concerned about their much older stepsister who raised them. Mildred has taken a cottage nearby but she is terrified that Paul, her former lover (and presumed husband, though he was already married when he "married" Mildred),  has been released from prison and is coming to kill her because she turned him in. The excitable Isobel needs Meg's calm head to help make Mildred see sense.

Soon, Meg's gentleman friend, Freddy -- of whom she knows little -- turns up at the camp as well. We meet a variety of campers,including a mother with an obnoxious son, a retired general, other guests at the nearby hotel, and eventually, Isobel's strict husband, Philip.

Meg decides to stay with Mildred, who is close to hysterical, at the cottage, which is tucked in the woods. Eventually, through a series of happenings, Meg, too, becomes afraid, especially when Mildred tells her that Uncle Paul is going to kill Meg because although she was only six at the time, it was Meg who recognized his photo in a newspaper and convinced Mildred to call the police on him fifteen years before.

So, who is "Uncle Paul"? Does he  show up? Does anyone die? And what about the other characters -- might they be hiding something?

All elements for good suspense and if I liked the characters more, I might have liked the book. You may love it but I'm not eager to read more Fremlin anytime soon.

"About Face" by Donna Leon


Donna Leon nailed the title with this, her 18th book in the Guido Brunetti series of mysteries. And, I have to say that it is probably the Brunetti I've liked the most in those I've already read. 

Once again, Leon takes two presumably separate issues that affect the Venetian police officer and by the end of the book, they are quite entwined. The first emerges after a dinner party he and his wife Paola attend at her parents' palazzo. There they meet Mauricio Cataldo, a wealthy business man who is hoping Brunetti's father-in-law will go into business with him, and Cataldo's wife, Franca Marinelli. She is much younger than her husband and her face all but immobile, following what all understand as a plastic surgery gone dreadfully wrong. Bruno agrees to look into Cataldo to see if the deal is above board.

Meanwhile, at work, he is visited by an officer of the Carbiniere and agrees to look into the death of a man who was an informer about the toxic waste business. The the officer is found murdered, Brunetti is assigned to the case -- an "about face" for Brunetti's boss, Patta, whom at first wants his department to have hands off the case.

The mystery is an intriguing one and the characters are well drawn. You can almost "visualize" the appearances of all the characters. And of course, she takes us into the seedier side of Venice, the side tourists never see. 

But perhaps what I most liked about this one was that Paola (as well as her wealthy parents) all played slightly larger roles and in doing so, I have an even better sense of them and the relationships. You don't need to read the Brunetti books in order and if you're looking for an interesting one to start with, this might be it.


Tom said... dyslexia has always made reading difficult and I'm not sure if I've ever read seven books. I read many articles and I have a post scheduled about "The German American Bund" which was a German-American Nazi organization that was established in 1936. Any of us who study history (something that the Right tries to hide) should understand that today's Right Wing politics is nothing new. We just haven't learned from history!

Ana Dunk said...

I recently signed up for Britbox streaming and finished the Shetland series with Jamie Perez. So far, I have watched all the Vera Series, A Touch of Frost, all of Shetland, and am currently deeply involved in Mirren's series which name I can't recall (senior moment). I will be off to the library next week for the Ann Cleeves mysteries. It is a sickness, I tell you.

Boud said...

Prequel was disturbing, yet we somehow survived that era, more or less! Wonderful writing.
And cleeves and Leon, you're reviewing some of my favorites!

The Happy Whisk said...

You had me a new detective to follow. What fun! Reading is THE BEST!

coffeeontheporchwithme said...

Loved, loved, loved the whole Shetland series which I read before I saw any of the shows. I just couldn’t get into Elly Griffith’s other series, though. - Jenn

DUTA said...

Anti -semitism? Nazi propaganda? Nothing new under the sun. Jews are more bothered by their own kind, less by the non-jews such as germans, americans, polish etc.. The cover of "Prequel" looks quite strong!
(The other day I offered a young lad a book, and I was shocked to hear him say: I don't read books at al. I liked his honesty, nevertheless it was shocking.)

DVArtist said...

Wow! Good for you. 7 books in one month. I used to read a lot but not that many in a month. R.M. is the best. She puts things out in a way that everyone can understand it. There is a series on Netflix called Turning Point the cold war. If you have Netflix it is a time line in history that will open your eyes to the madness of men. Thanks for the great post.

Debra@CommonGround said...

First, Rachel Maddow is absolute genius.
I read all of Ruth Galloway, and after the last one felt sad that I wouldn't have another book to look forward to. I do wonder how she and Nelson survive living in the same house.
Thank goodness for BritBox and Acorn during Covid. They entertained us through that rough time.
Love hearing your book reviews, thanks for taking the time to write these posts!

Rita said...

Both Shetland and Vera are favorite shows of mine. I have trouble reading actual books anymore and can't focus well on audio books. I may have to try audio books again, I think. But Shetland without Tosh...sounds so weird. I do so enjoy her character.

Rachel Maddow's book has sounded really compelling. She has a way of telling the stories on her show that makes them so interesting and clear. Would be a scary read but a good one.

You always have such good reviews! Makes me yearn for the days I devoured books. These days I binge watch shows--lol! ;)

roentare said...

I would love to read Red Bones. Got a holidays coming up. Gonna read a few books.

Linda P said...

Ann Cleeves, Donna Leon, Elly Peters are favourite reads. However it's good to find new authors so thank you for the review and recommendations. I hope you have a good weekend Jeanie.

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Great job with these reviews, Jeanie - as always, I might add.

eileeninmd said...

Hello Jeanie,
I am a fan of Ann Cleeves, Donna Leon and Rachel Maddow.
I have enjoyed the Vera series and the Shetland Series both the books and TV shows. I do miss the Ruth Galloway series! Great reviews! Have a happy weekend.

Iris Flavia said...

You do impress me with your reading!
Well, sadly anti-semitism also rose in Germany, namely Berlin again. I cannot see why.
The live their beliefs in silence, so why bother? I have a Jewish colleague and it was so nice to find him chatting with my Muslim colleague about food at: The Christmas lunch!!!
Three religions combined, and ... why not?!
And yet... there are still or again Nazis in Germany. Horrible. Sad they don´t learn from history, just look at Russia or the Orange Baby.
Wish we could live in peace and respect and love.

Anonymous said...

This is Lisa. You had a great month of reading! That Maddow book sounds interesting - and harrowing. The cover of that second to last book is so cute! It would have drawn me in as well!

La Table De Nana said...

I like telling my husband about your books:) My favorite book this year..I am not as voracious a reader as you though..But The Little Liar won five stars in my Goodreads for me which is rare.Mitch Albom.

My name is Erika. said...

You had some good books this month. I bet they were a good escape from life’s March events. You can’t go wrong with that Shetland series and I liked the Zigzag girl
Too. Too bad the Nightmare Vacation wasn’t as good because that is a great cover. Just like you said. In my mind you can never really go wrong with mysteries. I think you agree with that. Thanks for sharing. You’ve inspired me to get back to the Shetland books since it’s been awhile since I read any. HugsErika

Linda @ Life and Linda said...

Wow, you are an avid reader. No Rachel Maddie for me😝I love a good detective book. Happy weekend Jeanie.

Marilyn Miller said...

Prequel is definitely on my list, but just the new is so disturbing I haven't brought myself to read the book yet. I will though.
One book I just finished reading is The Women by Kristin Hannah. Well worth reading.

gigi-hawaii said...

Ah, you like mysteries. I wish I had an inventive mind and could churn out mysteries. Why, I would be a millionaire with best sellers galore!

Misadventures of Widowhood said...

I'm glad to know 'Prequel' might be made into a movie. My concentration for reading isn't what it used to be and I barely make it through my book club's selection each month. Maddow is such an ethical and mathematical researcher and Speilberg is---well, the great Speilberg!

This N That said...

I don’t know how you have time to do all that reading. I guess I spent too much time on the computer. Enjoy your weekend.

Steve Reed said...

That Rachel Maddow book sounds FASCINATING. I may see if I can order it for our school library!

It's interesting that "Red Bones" is the third book in the Jamie Perez/Shetland series, because if I remember correctly that's the plot of the first season. (We just watched it not long ago!)

I was momentarily stumped by the promo line on "Uncle Paul" calling Fremlin "Britain's Patricia Highsmith." I always think Highsmith WAS British, but she wasn't -- she was from Texas. Why can't I ever remember that?!

Rajani Rehana said...

Beautiful blog

Valerie-Jael said...

You read lots of good books. Reading books has always been my salvation! Hugs, Valerie

Pam Richardson said...

Jeanie, I always enjoy your reviews. I am still heavy into reading the classics. Enjoy your weekend!

Lowcarb team member said...

Reading is such an enjoyable pastime and there is so much choice.
Many thanks for sharing your books and these reviews.

Enjoy your weekend.

All the best Jan

Lowcarb team member said...

Oops I got an error message when I hit the publish button so not sure if my comment came through.

Thanks for sharing these books.

All the best Jan

Pamela said...

Thank you for reading and reviewing Rachel Maddow's book. I need to read this!

Debbie-Dabble Blog and A Debbie-Dabble Christmas said...

Thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words and prayers for Joe and for our family during this difficult time...
It is gratefully appreciated!!!
Debbie-Dabble Blog

Polly said...

wow, 7 books in a month, well done Jeanie. The anti-semitism, hate and anger is frightening. I like Ann Cleeves books.

NGS said...

I find it comforting that The World of Books is still so diverse that I haven't even heard of one of these books. I feel like publishing is always on the verge of collapse, but here you demonstrating that I shouldn't worry overly too much about that. There will always be more books to read!

Red Rose Alley said...

Oh Jeanie, I love that you read so much. My eyes aren't what they used to be, and can't read the small font, so I don't read as often as I should. Books of history are always interesting, and I enjoy those, and I also like biography's of some likeable characters.

I also wanted to tell you that it is awesome the progress you are making in the basement. That's a lot of work, and you've done a great job so far. You have even organized the bins and getting them ready to donate. Keep up the good work, Jeanie.


Sherry's Pickings said...

I love Elly Griffiths and I will miss Dr. Ruth!

Velva- Evening with a Sandwich said...

You had me at the Rachel Maddow book. Did you know she was a Rhodes Scholar? I have added her book to my list. I assume she will scare me more than I am already scared for our humanity. I am not a big fan of mystery but enjoyed reading your summaries of the book. I do enjoy reading!

Thanks for sharing.


Jim and Barb's Adventures said...

That is an impressive reading list for last month. I am lucky to get through one!

It's me said...

You read a lot of books…..Jeannie !…how are you ? Love from me and Leaf…πŸ€πŸ’—πŸΎπŸ€ said...

I always enjoy reading book reviews and suggestions, thanks Jeanie!

Sandra Cox said...

Prequel is going on my TBR. Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were antisemitic? I had no idea. Scary stuff.

Pam said... have been doing a lot of reading. Most mine takes place at bedtime and usually more in cooler temps, so I am not doing much at all right now. Keep it up lady. And....its been awhile since you posted....

Linda Stoll said...

oh Jeanie, this is such a rich list ... those Shetland books are now on my reading radar. thank you, friend!

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Impressive group of books!
I've only read one book this month- "The Women" by Kristin Hannah

Lisbeth said...

A good reading month it seems. Detective stories mixed with real life event is always a good combination.

Danielle L Zecher said...

Thanks for reviewing "The Zig Zag Girl"! I've been struggling to fill the Ruth Galloway void, too, but haven't found much yet. Jesus wept.

Have you read Elly Griffiths' Harbinder Kaur series? I like it about as much as the Ruth Galloway series, but there aren't very many of them.

I've never read Anne Cleeves, but I may check some of hers out now.

R's Rue said...

You read great books.

Carola Bartz said...

The Shetland TV series - as much as I loved it - is "based" on those books by Ann Cleeves, and I might add, loosely based, which becomes especially apparent in the first book of the series. Both - the TV series and the books - are excellent in their own right, but really don't have that much to do with each other. If I remember correctly, even the murderer is a different one in the TV series than in some of the books.

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