Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Just Jennifer

The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nicole Bernier (Crown, June 2012)

When Kate’s friend Elizabeth dies in a plane crash, Kate finds herself the keeper of Elizabeth’s journals and must decide what to do with them and the secrets they contain.  As Kate reads the journals while on her family beach vacation, she reminisces about the Elizabeth she knew and the times they spent together, but learns more about Elizabeth through the journals than readers learn about Kate who is still alive.  Elizabeth’s plane crash occurred just before September eleventh, and Kate is reading the journals the following summer as she wrestle with the decision to return to her career as a pastry chef or continue being a full time mother.  Through Elizabeth’s journals, Kate learns of Elizabeth’s difficult teenage years, the time as a young wife and mother when she was robbed because of an incautious act, and that the secret trips that Elizabeth’s husband assumed where to meet a lover were something entirely different, something that her friends and family may feel cheated for not knowing about when she was alive.  While Bernier explores the secrets we keep and the persona we put on for others, sometimes, even for those closest to us, this is a very introspective novel and there is not as much character development as might be expected from a story such as this.

Just Jennifer

The Queen: A Life in Brief by Robert Lacey (Harper Perennial, May 2012)

Distilled from royal biographer Robert Lacey’s longer works on Queen Elizabeth II, this short (six chapters) book, full of photographs of the only monarch of England most people have known in their lifetime, offers an overview of the woman who was born not to rule England, but who has become probably the most recognized world leader of the twentieth century.  Born the first daughter to the second son of King George V, Lilibet had no reason to ever think she would be crowned queen, but after the death of her grandfather, abdication of her uncle and the coronation of her father, George VI, an eleven year old Elizabeth realized that she would be the next monarch to rule Great Britain, a task that came sooner than she expected when her father died in February 1952, just five years after Elizabeth’s marriage to Philip Mountbatten.  Throughout the following fifty years the world has watched as Elizabeth gave birth to four children, including the next king of England, Charles, raised her family, watched as they married, had families of their own, divorced and remarried, and suffered great losses, changing the face of the traditional monarchy.  From the photos in the book, it is evident that while Queen Elizabeth has a great love for her nation, she also has a fierce love for her family: a grinning son (Andrew) greets his mother upon his return from the Falklands War and a grieving daughter keeps both eyes on her mother’s casket as it is borne out of Westminster Abby with all the pomp and circumstances befitting the Queen Mother.  

Just Jennifer

The Boy Who Stole the Leopard’s Spots by Tamar Myers (William Morrow, May 2012)

Tamar Myers grew up in the Belgian Congo and adds a great authenticity to the setting of this third mystery set in Belle Vue.  Set in 1958 with flashbacks to 1935 when the birth of twins born to a chief set in motion a chain of events that will have far reaching effects, including a murder, when the two are reunited in Belle Vue.  At the center of the investigation is police chief Pierre Jardin and Protestant missionary Amanda Brown, who share a mutual attraction, much to the dismay of the locals.  Myers deftly depicts the tension between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, the Belgians and the Congolese, in a nation so torn it will be almost impossible to become whole without much strife and death.  The ritualistic cannibalism and other superstitious activity collide with Amanda’s mission, and that of Monsignor Clemente who carries his own secrets, dating back to the 1930’s.  Myers is known for her Pennsylvania Dutch Inn mysteries featuring the farcical Magdalena Yoder and are filled with silly, often outrageous situations, a tone that sometimes creeps into this series and doesn’t match the tenor of the time.  The authenticity of colonial Africa life and politics is very interesting and could not be done as well by someone who had not lived it.

Just Jennifer

The Voluntourist by Ken Budd (William Morrow, May 2012)

When Ken Budd was thirty-nine, his father collapsed and died after playing eighteen holes of golf, one year into his retirement.  As Ken and his father’s friends and family grieved, Ken began to assess his own life, especially with regard to the affect his father had on others.  Ken became very conscious of the fact that he and his wife, his childhood sweetheart Julie, did not have children and would mostly likely not have children.  An unsolicited e-mail from a Katrina Relief organization sets Ken on the road of becoming a semi-pro volunteer.  Over the next few years, he rebuilds a home in flood damaged New Orleans, teaches English (with his wife) in Costa Rica, works with special needs children in China, studies climate change in Ecuador, works with orphans in Kenya and at a refugee camp in Palestine. As Ken, and sometimes Julie, experiences life in other countries, meets people like himself, searching for something in their life, and helps others, especially children, he comes to accept his life as it is and learns he is capable of having an impact on others, even without children of his own.  Ken’s story is broken down into each of his volunteer tours of duty and is told with honest emotions as he reflects on each experience and what he learns from each.  Ken keeps his sense of humor in many situations where others would throw in the towel and continues to help and inspire as he looks for his own way.

Just Jennifer

Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon (Crown, July 2012)

Retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney isn’t all that retired as he returns for his third case.  Gurney and his wife have move to upstate New York where the media dubbed Supercop can rest and the couple can try and live a normal life.  So far, that hasn’t happened as Dave has become a consultant on two cases, the last one that ended with Dave being shot and the resulting depression and over dependency on pain medications.  When a reporter calls and asks Dave to assist her daughter who is working on her graduate thesis, a television series based on the emotional trauma family members of the victims of a serial killer known as the Good Shepherd suffer every day; the Good Shepherd, who targeted people driving luxury black Mercedes sedans in Upstate New York was never caught, and Dave realizes that he has only been dormant all these years and will not be finished until he is caught.   Though it seems unlikely that a cop with Dave’s instincts and brooding temperament would get as involved with a reporter, especially when he learns that the television show is going to be more sensational than originally pitched, the plot is good and Dave’s different way of looking at the evidence helps point investigators in the right direction, though not soon enough to prevent more deaths.  Verdon’s plots are tightly constructed, his characters well developed, and though nothing may compare to his first novel Think of a Number, this is definitely one of the better detective series out there today.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New This Week...and Last

Canada by Richard Ford (Ecco)
After his parents are arrested and imprisoned for robbing a bank, fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons is taken in by Arthur Remlinger who, unbeknownst to Dell, is hiding a dark and violent nature that interferes with Dell's quest to find grace and peace on the prairie of Saskatchewan.

Lower River by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin)
Idealizing the four years he spent in Malawi with the Peace Corps, Ellis Hock is abruptly divorced by his wife and decides to return to Africa only to find the region devastatingly transformed by poverty and apathy. 

Beautiful Sacrifice by Elizabeth Lowell (William Morrow)
Archeologist Lina Taylor teams up with former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Hunter Johnson to track down four ancient Mayan artifacts that have disappeared.     

Wife-22 by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine)
Baring her soul in an anonymous survey for a marital happiness study, Alice catalogues her stale marriage, unsatisfying job and unfavorable prospects and begins to question virtually every aspect of her life. 

The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)
 In 1923, Eva English and her devout sister Lizzie embark on a journey to be missionaries in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, while in modern-day London, a young woman's act of kindness to a Yemeni refugee results in an unexpected journey.    

Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley (Harper)
Douglas Brinkley presents the definitive, revealing biography of an American legend: renowned news anchor Walter Cronkite.   

The Thief by Clive Cussler (Putnam)
On the ocean liner Mauretania , two European scientists with a dramatic new invention are barely rescued from abduction by the Van Dorn Detective Agency's intrepid chief investigator, Isaac Bell. Unfortunately, they are not so lucky the second time. The thugs attack again-and this time one of the scientists dies. What are they holding that is so precious? Only something that will revolutionize business and popular culture-and perhaps something more. For war clouds are looming, and a ruthless espionage agent has spotted a priceless opportunity to give the Germans an edge. It is up to Isaac Bell to figure out who he is, what he is up to, and stop him. But he may already be too late . . . and the future of the world may just hang in the balance.

Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara (Ballantine)
A fictional account of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, told from the perspectives of participants on both sides, recreates the April 1862 surprise attack by Confederate forces on the Union Army at Shiloh.    

Saturday, May 12, 2012

New This Week

Stolen Prey by John Sandford (Putnam)
When the brutal killing of a family in a small Minnesota town reveals unsettling similarities to drug-retribution crimes, baffled police officer Lucas Davenport is shocked by findings that lead him into the darkest case of his career.

The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry (Ballantine)
When his beloved daughter falls in the clutches of a ruthless zealot, disgraced journalist Tom Sagan risks everything to embark on a perilous quest from Florida through Prague to Jamaica in search of an invaluable historical treasure.

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri (Harper Collins)
Humiliated by her husband's infidelity, forty-year-old Nora Keane, married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts, takes refuge with her maternal aunt on Burke's Island off the coast of Maine.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Just Jennifer

A Lady’s Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury, May 2012)

In 1923 sisters Eva and Lizzie are traveling to Kashgar along the Silk Road as missionaries with the strong-willed, outgoing Millicent Frost.  Lizzie is very intent about their mission, but Eva is mostly along to write the bicycle travelogue for which she signed a contract before leaving London.  Along their route, the women encounter a young woman giving birth; the woman dies and the group, who is now caring for the newborn infant, is held under house arrest by local Muslim officials, possibly for murder.  In a separate story set in modern day London, Frieda, a young woman whose parents were free spirits, and who has not seen her mother in many years, inherits the contents of Irene Gray’s house, a woman she never knew and of whom she never heard anyone speak.  Along with a Yemeni alien whose welcome in London has been worn out, but who doesn’t know where to turn, Frieda sorts through the contents of Irene’s house, including an owl, and in the process learns more about herself and how she came to be who she is and maybe a bit why her mother was the way she was.  When the two stories finally connect, it will most likely not be a surprise, though there are several choices for how they will.  Eva’s journey and Frieda’s both become as much about self-discovery as anything else.  Both are strong willed women, though Frieda does seem as much so as Eva because of the times.  Many familiar topics are covered, but framed in such a way as to make them interesting and unique.  Well researched with keen insight this first novel is one not to miss.

Just Jennifer

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, June 2012)

When his wife Amy goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne begins to question how well he knew his wife.  The police suspect Nick in Amy’s disappearance after his casual reaction to his wife’s disappearance and the knowledge that Nick and Amy’s marriage was beginning to falter, and Nick must now follow clues his wife left him to learn her secrets and to learn the secrets Amy had uncovered about him.  The more Nick looks, the more he learns he never really knew Amy and the more he realizes he will never be able to be free of her, no matter how this ends.  Filled with cunning and clever tension, Gillian Flynn describes the marriage of two people who only knew about the other what the other was willing to reveal.  There are neat twists and turns, with a narrative that drives the plot forward as what happened to Amy, and what Amy did, is slowly revealed one layer at a time, making this book completely irresistable.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Just Jennifer

A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by Luc Ferry (Harper Perennial, 2012)

Luc Ferry is a French philosopher at the University of Paris.  In this easily accessible book he takes on five major areas in the history of philosophy, the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, the Christian thinkers, existentialists and modern and post-modern philosophers, synthesizing it in a way that allows us to think about modern daily life and how the wisdom of old can help us live a more enlightened journey, and perhaps have a happier outlook on life.  Ferry first tackles the question of “What is Philosophy?” framing it not as the antithesis of religion, but perhaps as its corollary.  He then spends a chapter on each of the five areas he has chosen to highlight, explaining how one leads into the next and how they are interdependent, building upon each other, yet can be seen as individual schools of thought.  Ferry’s love for his subject matter, and his reverence for it, show; he includes socio-political climates surround each major school and guides the reader to see how each philosophy might fit in to his or her life rather than assuming every thought is for everyone at all times.  While the chapters chronologically lay out the history of thought, once the book has been read the first time, it is easy to pick up and find the sections that appeal to us most at any given time.  Ferry gives relevance to the great thinkers we studied in school and makes us want to understand them and apply their thoughts to our lives. 

Just Jennifer

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (William Morrow)

Owen Meany and John Wheelwright are, for the most part, two ordinary eleven-year olds growing up in New England.  Johnny is the illegitimate grandson of one of the town’s founders and Owen, the son of a quarry worker, is a smaller than normal child with a high voice, both causing his classmates to pick on him.  In baseball, Owen is the team’s favorite pinch hitter (as he always walks) and pinch runner (as he easily steals bases).  The one ball Owen hits is a foul ball that kills Johnny’s mother, something Johnny does not hold against Owen.  Instead, the two strike up an unlikely friendship, almost a protector/protectorate relationship, though who is protecting who is not always clear.  When Owen sees a tombstone with the precise date of his death on it (during an ill-fated production of A Christmas Carol) he turns this knowledge to his advantage and adopts an almost ethereal quality about him, allowing himself to speak whatever in on his mind without fear of retribution.  As the two enter young manhood and are faced with the Vietnam draft, Owen injures Johnny to save him from his fate, but Owen charges into the army, certain that his fate lies in Vietnam, only to meet it in Arizona trying to ease the pain of the family of a fallen soldier. 
From the first sentence of the novel, narrator Johnny Wheelwright acknowledges that Owen Meany is the reason he is a Christian, in whatever form he has chosen and allowed his faith to take. While there are many, many detailed stories about Owen and Johnny’s friendship and their life together, the theme remains the same:  Owen becomes the instrument that allows others to consider their faith and to follow the path set out before them.  Stylistically, Owen’s dialogue, ALWAYS WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS, is bothersome and unnecessary to get the points across.  While Owen may appear too good to be true, indeed too good to be of this world, there is something appealing in the time honored tale of two best friends looking out for each other, no matter what may come.  Written in 1989, A Prayer for Owen Meany is Irving’s seventh novel.  His most recent In One Person was published by Simon & Schuster this May.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

New this Week

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Holt)

The sequel to Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice. At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne's head?

Home by Toni Morrison (Knopf)

Frank Money is an angry, self-loathing veteran of the Korean War who, after traumatic experiences on the front lines, finds himself back in racist America with more than just physical scars. His home may seem alien to him, but he is shocked out of his crippling apathy by the need to rescue his medically abused younger sister and take her back to the small Georgia town they come from and that he’s hated all his life. As Frank revisits his memories from childhood and the war that have left him questioning his sense of self, he discovers a profound courage he had thought he could never possess again.

In One Person by John Irving (Simon & Schuster)

A tale inspired by the U.S. AIDS epidemic in the 1980s follows the experiences of individuals--including the bisexual narrator--who are torn by devastating losses and whose perspectives on tolerance and love are shaped by awareness of what might have been.

11th Hour by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro (Little, Brown)

Investigating the murder of a millionaire who was killed with a weapon linked to the deaths of four San Francisco criminals, pregnant detective Lindsay Boxer is horrified to realize that the killer could be among her closest friends.

The Road to Grace by Richard Paul Evans (Simon & Schuster)

Reeling from the sudden loss of his wife, his home, and his business, Alan Christoffersen, a once-successful advertising executive, has left everything he knew behind and set off on an extraordinary cross-country journey. Carrying only a backpack, he is walking from Seattle to Key West, the farthest destination on his map. Now almost halfway through his trek, Alan sets out to walk the nearly 1,000 miles between South Dakota and St. Louis, but it's the people he meets along the way who give the journey its true meaning: a mysterious woman who follows Alan's walk for close to a hundred miles, the ghost hunter searching graveyards for his wife, and the elderly Polish man who gives Alan a ride and shares a story that Alan will never forget. Full of hard-won wisdom and truth, The Road to Grace is a compelling and inspiring novel about hope, healing, grace, and the meaning of life.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Just Jennifer

Jackie After O by Tina Cassidy (It Books, May 2012)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis may have been the most recognizable women in the world beginning in the late 1950’s when her very attractive, young husband was elected to be president of the United States.  With the same passion she approached life and impeccable taste, during her thousand days in the White House, she with a team of designers restored America’s home, raised her two children and became the symbol of a nation’s mourning as she walked behind her husband’s casket to Arlington where he was buried after his assassination in Dallas.  Five years later, Jackie surprised her family and her nation when she married Greek shipping magnet Aristotle Onassis, almost twenty years her senior.  She moved a young Caroline and Patrick to the Greek Island where Ari lived until she realized her children needed to be in the United States and moved her children back to the Manhattan of her youth.  There Jackie reveled in the culture and architecture available, essentially becoming estranged from Ari.  After reading that Grand Central Terminal was to be turned into a modern office complex, she lent her support to the Municipal Art Society and became the driving force to save the Beaux Arts building and restore it to its present glory.  In 1975, Jackie received word that Ari was in grave health and flew to his side in Greece where she and his daughter Christina moved Ari to Paris where he would spend the last months of his life, thought Jackie would not be at his side when he died.  Once more Jackie found herself a widow with the world’s eyes on her, especially as Christina began planting stories that Jackie and Ari were on their way to a divorce and that he had all but cut his extravagant wife out of his will.  Frustrated and not sure which path her life should now take, Jackie took this time to reexamine where she was in her life and where it should go from here.  Jackie returned to her journalism roots, writing some pieces for The New Yorker, and landing a job at Viking, a publishing house where she was a consulting editor, publishing a number of books before her death in 1994. 
This well documented book focuses on Jackie’s reemergence as a woman on her own in 1975, but examines the events in her life that led to this pivotal moment.  This small, concise book is well documented with many endnotes citing primary sources and will peak readers’ interest to delve into the many full length books in the bibliography.  Tina Cassidy has focused on a small portion of this American icon’s life, offering fresh insight and providing inspiration.