Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum is a nonfiction book as thrilling in many ways as a novel. Each chapter focuses on a different poison, with true but terrible stories from a hundred years ago about both murder and accidental poisoning and how scientists determined which was which.

The title (The Poisoner’s Handbook) and subtitle (Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York) are a little misleading. The book does not serve as a handbook, with explicit instructions on how to poison someone, and the focus is not entirely on murder. But it does cover many fascinating, little known facts about the early days of forensic detection.

The coroner in New York in the early 1900s was a political appointee who often showed up for work drunk. In 1917, Mayor John F. Hylan was pressured to replace him with a qualified doctor. Out of spite, the mayor, who wanted to keep the political crony in office, appointed Dr. Charles Norris, the man who had come in second in the coroner examination results. In doing so, he unwittingly appointed a man who revolutionized the office of chief medical examiner.

Norris and the forensic chemist that he hired, Alexander Gettler, advanced the discipline of forensics with tireless and creative detective work. Chapters include “Chloroform,” which covers the killing spree at a nursing home by mass murder Frederic Mors; “Wood Alcohol,” which details the tremendous number of deaths by poisonous alcohol during Prohibition; “Arsenic,” which includes the unsolved crime of 60 people poisoned by huckleberry pie purchased at a neighborhood bakery; and “Radium,” which tells the tragic story of watch dial painters with crumbling bones from shaping the tips of their radium-soaked brushes with their lips. The book also includes an enlightening chapter on death by regular old alcohol.

Many of the issues discussed in The Poisoner’s Handbook still resonate with our society today. Substances touted for their health benefits turn out to be dangerous; people accused of murder are exonerated or proven guilty by the hard work of scientists. If you are a fan of programs like CSI, you will probably find The Poisoner’s Handbook very interesting.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen by Geraldine McCaughrean

I listened to the Playaway audio version of The Glorious Adventures of the Sunshine Queen and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a madcap adventure with a large and varied cast of characters on a paddleboat cruising the Mississippi in the 1800s. I had a long drive after a 28-hour travel day that included three plane rides and was kept awake and engaged by the humor and solid storytelling. Although it is intended for older children/teens, don't let that put you off if you are an adult who enjoys a good story celebrating an America gone by.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer

I love Georgette Heyer's books and was disappointed in The Black Moth at first, as it lacks her usual sparkle. However, before I finished it I found out it is the first book she wrote, when she was only 15, which is a different matter altogether. There are too many main characters, and the plot takes a long time to really get going, but there are glimpses of the fine author she would become.

If you like Georgette Heyer and would find it interesting to examine her first book, I recommend it. Otherwise, I recommend you pick up one of her other regency romances.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison

This is the first novel by Corban Addison. He is a lawyer specializing in corporate law and litigation, much like the main character of this book, Washington, D.C. attorney Thomas Clarke. Addison has taken his interest in international human rights, including the abolition of modern slavery, and translated it into this story involving two teenage girls orphaned by the 2004 South Asia tsunami and kidnapped into the sex trade. The story follows the girls' dark journey into this horrible demension of human behavior and the involvement of Thomas Clarke, and an NGO that prosecutes human traffickers, in rescuing the girls. Addison has translated real information into a fictional venue which has the grim ring of truth combined with tension as well as elements of the higher values of family love, loyalty, perseverance and hope. The story brings the reader a greater awareness of this ruthless side of today's world, present not only in nations far away, but also in our own country. The book reads a bit like a John Grisham novel. In fact, Grisham, who usually declines to endorse upcoming authors, made an exception in Addison's case, strongly praising the story and its message. Addison handles the sex and violence in a manner which tells the action without excessive detail. The book is dedicated to "the uncountable number of souls held captive in the sex trade and the heroic men and women across the globe working tirelessly to win their freedom." I'm glad I read the book and have had my awareness level raised by the experience. It is forecast to be out in January 2012.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Anne Enright, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering, returns with a tale of love, lust, and the everyday price of adultery. Gina Moynihan is a successful Dubliner living in the height of the Irish economic boom of the 2000s. She is married and has a successful career. All of this comforting stability changes upon meeting Sean Valley, her sister’s neighbor. Sean and Gina’s seduction and resulting affair catapult Gina into a world of painful desire and effortless deception. The longer the book goes on it seems Gina is not in love with Sean but, more accurately, trying to convince herself she is. The Forgotten Waltz is a quiet, unnerving book. Those looking for a steamy bodice ripper, look elsewhere. This is a tale of everyday life, told with haunting poetic force.