Monday, April 30, 2012

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns

  Set in 1795, A Simple Murder involves a shaker community and the outside world in solving a mysterious murder.  Rees, a traveling Weaver, takes on the responsibility of searching for the killer. Other mysterious disappearances are discovered to also be murders, causing the community to be in jeopardy of being dissolved.  This gives the reader an unusual picture of an early communal shaker society.

Posted for GPL staff member Mary S.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Beneath the Shadows by Sara Foster

Beneath the Shadows is a modern gothic mystery. Set on the moors of Yorkshire, it wants to follow in the footsteps of Rebecca and the Woman in White, and it succeeds in many ways.

Grace, married and the mother of a very young child, is waiting for her husband in the isolated cottage formerly owned by her husband’s dead grandparents. The couple have moved to Yorkshire to take a break from the rat race in London. Her sister calls, and Grace tells her sister that her husband and infant should have returned to the cottage from a walk in the dusky garden. As she talks and glances out the window, she sees a dark shape on the doorstep. She opens the door to find her daughter, fast asleep in her pram. But there is no sign of her husband.

Chapter 2 resumes the story 12 months later, as Grace returns to the cottage to deal with her unresolved feelings about her missing husband – did he leave voluntarily? – as well as the cottage itself. She meets a large cast of village residents. Her sister and the male best friend who has always been in love with her make appearances in person and otherwise. She hears ghost stories, and strange things happen in the cottage. A mysterious and handsome architect offers to help her with some alterations in the cottage. She is spooked by appearances of black dogs. And when she wants to get away from it all, she picks up her copy of Rebecca.

The reliance on Rebecca as a plot device is tired and overdone, but the narrative is well written, and the author drops little interesting hints to stir up our curiosity. There is a long stretch where I did wonder if anything else was ever going to happen, but about halfway through the book the suspense picks up and the plot moves ahead more quickly.

Beneath the Shadows kept me entertained, and the ending surprised me (although I’m not generally very good at predicting how mysteries will end). It’s not a great book, but it is a good book. If you like modern mysteries, especially those set in England, you may enjoy Beneath the Shadows.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What Dies In Summer by Tom Wright

I was excited to see a copy of What Dies In Summer with the other advance release titles because I was fortunate enough to read this story in draft form. With apologies to eBook devotees, somehow reading it on paper versus a screen made it more "real" to me.

What Dies In Summer is not a book one can “like.” Nor can one fit it neatly into a genre. Big box bookstores don't have a shelf for “Mystery with shades of the supernatural within a coming-of-age story set in the (Gothic) South in the 1960s.” But it works. James Beaudry “Biscuit” Bonham is a compelling hero-in-training storyteller, intelligent enough to realize he is surrounded by more intelligent people (mostly women), and struggling to play his part in solving the rather horrific mysteries around him. Think adolescent Mikael Blomkvist in Texas. He relates at one point “this had the peculiar effect of filling my mind with odd ideas and new angles on things while actually seeming to leave me more ignorant than ever.” “Jimbo” will stick with the reader, and with any luck, readers will be able to meet him again.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Yard by Alex Grecian

The Yard is a fictionalized account of Scotland Yard’s “Murder Squad,” created by the real Sir Edward Bradford (who was Police Commissioner in London in the 1890s). It takes place shortly after the Jack the Ripper murders, when the police and the people are unsettled by the unsolved crimes. The arrival of a new inspector to the squad gives the author the excuse to introduce the many characters and fully explain the circumstances. The Yard opens with the finding of the body of one of the squad’s inspectors inside a black steamer trunk.

On the whole, I enjoyed The Yard. I was a bit confused by the many characters and the multiple plot threads, but the writing and the character development kept me going. The story contains elements of humor, and interesting relationships develop. Occasional flashbacks fill in our understanding of people and circumstances.

If you enjoy historical mysteries like those written by Anne Perry and Victoria Thompson, you will probably enjoy The Yard . (I read an advance release copy of The Yard. It is scheduled to be published in May 2012.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

January First by Michael Schofield

The subtitle -- "a child's descent into madness and her father's struggle to save her" -- pretty much sums up this memoir from blogger Michael Schofield, which tells the story of his preschool-aged daughter's path to a diagnosis of child-onset schizophrenia. At around 4 years old, January Schofield was showing behaviors that had her family worried: she was angry, withdrawn, preferred the company of her legions of imaginary friends to any real people, and refused to be called January, opting instead for any of a bizarre list of made-up names like "Blue Tree Frog." By the time she was 5, January's behavior turned violent. She routinely struck her parents and tried to hurt her newborn brother and even herself. January First chronicles the experiences of January's parents (mostly her father) as they went from hospital to hospital and from doctor to doctor, even going so far as to institutionalize January in an attempt to get her a diagnosis and suitable treatment.

I read this book with my stomach in my throat. Schofield writes a bit dramatically for my taste, but in this case it seems understandable -- this story lends itself to drama. As a reader, there was a sense of always waiting for the next Big Bad Thing to happen; the end of one chapter would see January have some kind of breakthrough, only to be followed 3 pages later by another violent incident. It was hard to read, but 100 times harder to live, I'm sure. My one main complaint was the extent to which the voice of Schofield's wife, Susan, was left out of the narrative. He often describes her in what felt to me to be an unflattering light, while painting himself as January's primary advocate. Aside from that, though, I would recommend this book to readers of popular nonfiction or those interested in parenting or psychology.

January First is available in August, 2012.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? by William Poundstone

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? is a fascinating look into the zany trickster interview questions and hiring practices common at many top industries today. Poundstone has packed this little book with enough mind-bending riddles to make anyone go cross-eyed. Imagine if you will, being in an interview and having any of these bad boys dropped onto your lap:

How would you weigh your head?

How many bottles of shampoo are produced in the world in a year?

Imagine a country where all the parents want to have a boy. Every family keeps having children until they have a boy; then they stop. What is the proportion of boys to girls in this country?

Many of the questions have no “correct” answer, but more accurately, the company has a “preferred” answer. And for inquiring minds, no, I am not smart enough to work at Google. Although, if I could combine the riddle busting powers of my boyfriend and I into one person, we might have a fighting chance of being able to… submit a resume. Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? is a puzzle lover’s paradise. Readers are guaranteed a good time and a roller coaster of emotions ranging from pride “Victory! I am a genius!” to despair “Who would ever get that question right? This is totally ridiculous!”.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Always the Young Strangers by Carl Sandburg

In Galesburg, feelings about Carl Sandburg run deep. I’ve only lived in Galesburg for six years, so my relationship with Sandburg comes from growing up in the Chicago area, where there are frequent references to Chicago as the “City of the Big Shoulders” and “Hog Butcher for the World.” I’ve always admired Carl Sandburg as a poet.

Each year, the Galesburg Public Library hosts a community read, encouraging people in the area to read and discuss the same book. This year, thanks to a grant from the Galesburg Community Foundation, we are celebrating Carl Sandburg’s book Always the Young Strangers. I was interested to read it, having heard strong statements about Sandburg and his relationship to his hometown from many people since I moved to Galesburg.

I’ve heard people say that Carl Sandburg was ashamed of Galesburg and did not have good things to say about it. That’s certainly not the impression I got from reading Always the Young Strangers, a warmly nostalgic look back at the Galesburg of his youth, full of fond memories and stories. He acknowledges the restlessness of youth and the conflicted relationships we have with the people and places who influence us in our childhoods:
What came over me in those years 1896 and 1897 wouldn’t be easy to tell. I hated my home town and yet I loved it. And I hated and loved myself about the same as I did the town and the people. I knew then as I know now that it was a pretty good home town to grow up in. I came to see that my trouble was inside myself more than it was in the town and the people. (p. 377)

Sandburg is a powerful writer, able to conjure up vivid images of life in Galesburg in the late 1800s. For example, he writes about doing laundry in Illinois in the winter:
In a blowing wind I pressed wooden clothespins to fasten bedsheets, shirts, drawers, handkerchiefs, stockings, and diapers on the rope clothesline. Often I found the clothes left in the basket had frozen stiff. Coaxing those frozen pieces of cloth to go around the rope for a wooden pin to be fastened over them was a winter sport with a challenge to your wit and numb fingers in Illinois zero weather, with sometimes a wild northwest wind knocking a shirt stiff as a board against your head. (p. 40)

In Chapter Eleven, “Learning a Trade,” he tells of going about Galesburg taking jobs and looking for a trade. He perfectly captures the monotony of one job in this passage, which reads almost like a prose poem:
When I took a job washing bottles in a pop bottling works one summer I didn’t expect to learn a trade. I knew the future in the job was the same as the past. You washed the same kind of bottles in the morning and afternoon today as you would be washing in the morning and afternoon tomorrow, and yesterday had been the same. You could see the used bottles coming in and the washed bottles going out and it was “Here they come” and “There they go” from seven in the morning till six at night. (p. 250)

Sandburg heard the railroad horns all Galesburg residents are familiar with, and economic times were bad when he was growing up. His recollections strike notes that resonate with us in today’s rough economic climate:
There was a note of doom and fate about the big railroad whistle in those Hard Times months. For years we had heard it at seven in the morning, at twelve noon, and at one and six o’clock in the afternoon. Now it blew at eight in the morning and twelve noon only. It was the Hard Times Clock saying, “Be careful, watch your pennies, wait and hope!” (p. 51)

Sandburg speaks with great affection for and admiration of his parents and their lives as Swedish immigrants in America. He also speaks of how Galesburg shaped him: “In those years as a boy in that prairie town I got education in scraps and pieces of many kinds, not knowing that they were part of my education.” (p. 230)

If you are interested in a detailed and intimate picture of life in a small American town in the late 1800s, and especially if you are interested in Galesburg history, I recommend Carl Sandburg’s Always the Young Strangers. You may learn a few things about Galesburg, Carl Sandburg, and yourself.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Drowned by Therese Bohman

This book was quite suspenseful, and I literally read it in just a few days because it kept me on the edge of my seat. It is the story of a young girl named Marina, with mental issues of her own, who travels by train to visit her older sister Stella, who is living with a much older, famous author named Gabriel. The two sisters haven't seen each other in quite some time, so their relationship seems odd and forced. Then you throw in the boyfriend, and the hairs on the back of your neck start standing up because you realize that something isn't quite right with Gabriel.

This is not a long novel, as the author doesn't spend a lot of time on things that don't matter - she gets right down to it and makes every word count. The scenery in the Swedish countryside where this is set is described beautifully, and the psychological suspense is a real treat. There are some graphic sexual scenes that are a little, how shall I say this, disturbing, but other than that, it is a good read.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Struck, by Jennifer Bosworth

Submitted by Easton, teen reviewer:

Struck is an amazing novel. The mind of the author is so complex. It tells the story of a girl named Mia who lives in Los Angeles. This book is for people who enjoy romance, thrills, complex plots, and interesting characters. Here are some small hints:
  • A prophet
  • seekers
  • lightning
  • post-apocalyptic
  • earthquake
  • Los Angeles

Read the book!!

Struck will be in stores May 8, 2012.

Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Do you know someone who hoards? Chances are very good that you do. According to Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, studies show that between 2 and 5 percent of the population hoards. That’s between six and fifteen million Americans.

Frost and Steketee are the authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, a fascinating look at the compulsions that make people hoard. Whether we are savers, collectors, or compulsive cleaners, none of us is completely free of the impulses that drive hoarders. In Stuff, we are introduced to individuals trying to overcome their hoarding problems as well as individuals who do not recognize their issues.

It can be a fine line between collecting, saving, and hoarding. The authors describe hoarders as engaging in something “that causes them distress or interferes with their ability to live.” They also quote The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which defines hoarding as “the inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.”

I found it very difficult to stop reading Stuff. The case studies are fascinating. One woman, Debra, felt it was her mission to be the keeper of magazines and television shows. She spent hours taping shows that she never watched. “seeing them didn’t interest her; preserving them did.” After a serious car accident, her major concern was that she couldn’t go home to program her videotape recorders. It is not uncommon for a hoarder to save so many recipes from newspapers and magazines that the kitchen is so cluttered he or she can no longer cook.

As part of her therapy, Debra was sent a postcard containing only her address and a stamp. She was asked to throw the postcard away and record how she felt. Days after receiving the postcard, she insisted that she was not ready to throw away the postcard. Another woman, Irene, described how she felt after throwing away a five-year-old ATM envelope containing notes on how she spent the cash on odds and ends. “When she threw the envelope into the recycling box, she began to weep. She said, ‘I realize this is crazy. It’s just an old envelope, but it feels like I’m losing that day of my life.’”

The authors speculate that our consumer society has contributed to hoarder problems. They note that “Forty years ago, facilities for storing unused personal possessions were virtually nonexistent. … In March 2007, the New York Times reported that self-storage unit rentals had increased by 90 percent since 1995 and more than eleven million American households rented outside storage space.” However, there is a distinction between people who acquire and save things and people with saving habits that negatively affect their lives.

Hoarding is a serious disorder. It affects not only the hoarder but family, friends, and neighbors. Therapy has mixed results. If you are interested in the psychology and science of hoarding and examples of hoarding behavior, I predict you will find Stuff a fascinating read.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale by Lynda Rutledge

I really enjoyed Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale--so much so that I stayed up to finish it with the clock edging toward midnight and my alarm ready to wake me in 6 scant hours.

It is the last day of 1999 in Bass, Texas, and Faith Bass Darling wakes with the sure conviction that God has instructed her to sell her possessions on what will be the last day of her life. So she drags out to her yard five generations of family heirlooms including Tiffany lamps, a Louis XV clock, and a Spode china set and begins to dispose of them to a growing number of bargain-hunters. Throughout this remarkable day we learn Faith's story--the one told by the heirlooms and their provenance (both real and re-imagined), and the one told through the memories of Faith, her daughter, and a few friends.

And yet can these memories be trusted any more than the stories of the histories of the heirlooms? It seems unlikely, given that Faith, suffering from Alzheimer's, has begun to "sundown" and experience a past and present all jumbled together. In her more lucid moments Faith questions who we are without our memories and wonders why she can't keep the ones she wants and get rid of others.

Meanwhile, the others, trying to decide whether or not Faith needs rescuing, experience their own crises best summed up by this line I so hope makes it to the finished publication unchanged: "squinting hard for signs of the wandering Faith." From Claudia the one-time Buddhist daughter to Father Fallow the Episcopalian priest, each of the characters faces an examination of faith and Faith.

In turns funny, heartbreaking and surprising, Faith's garage sale is one worth visiting. This book is due out in May 2012.