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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: "Winemaker Detective' series

Treachery in Bordeaux
Nightmare in Burgundy
Deadly Tasting
(Winemaker Detective novels)
By Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen
Crime fiction (French series)
2012-2014 (English translations)
Le French Book
ISBNs: Treachery: 9780985320621
Nightmare: 9781939474285
Deadly: 9781939474223

Benjamin Cooker is a winemaker in this French detective series, consulting with vineyard owners and wineries, dispensing his opinion in a popular guidebook and serving on wine juries. It's a good life for this half-British, half-French lover of good wine, food and cigars. But just like Jessica Fletcher or any number of cozy amateur detectives, he doesn't go looking for murder. It finds him.

The series begins with Treachery in Bordeaux, in which wine in three vats of one of his longest friends has gone bad. Since the distraught man owns one of the last wine estates remaining within the city limits of Bordeaux, its prestige needs to be protected. He needs someone to look into things quietly, not with a splash. And that's just what Cooker does. Along the way, he acquires an assistant, indulges his love of art and local lore, and discovers what happened to the wine and why. As a series introduction, it's a breezy read with a very interesting motive behind the crimes that occur.

Nightmare in Burgundy, published in trade paperback on July 31, finds Cooker and assistant Virgile travel to that other renowned French winemaking region. Our hero is inducted into a highly honorable organization that celebrates the fruits of the grape. Odd graffiti is discovered in various places around town. Cooker realizes the writing is in Latin. An old friend, an aging monk, helps him find the Biblical verses that correspond. And Virgile is adept at enchanting at least one local young woman.

When disgust at the graffiti leads to death, Cooker is the one to put the pieces together. The plot is wrapped up very quickly in this short novel, but its conclusion brings to mind a classic mystery. As with the debut novel, all the pieces fit together smoothly.

Deadly Tasting
, the fourth book in the series, requires Cooker's expertise when an elderly man is found dead and, in his humble abode, are 12 wine glasses with only one filled. What wine is it and how might that be pertinent to the crime? Then another body is found, and another. Cooker has to put the pieces together before the circle is completed. Again, the motive of what's going on is clever and, as with the other two mysteries, the clues have a lot to do with France and French winemaking.

The novels are very quick books to read. On occasion, there are things that don't fit into such a light premise, as some crime scenes that are more gory than usual in cozy mysteries and jarring vulgar language that is thrown in when many other alternatives are available. It's not that crime fiction should -- and hardly does -- shy from such things. But they do stand out in what are otherwise light, cozy reads.

Although people who know France and French wine will more fully recognize the lists of names that are used in the books and what they mean, those who appreciate gastronomic delights will enjoy this aspect of the series. The French lore and history are especially enjoyable aspects.

The series has been adapted to French television and, based on these three entries, shows the potential for many stories.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted by permission

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Fourth of July Creek

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further commentary or context. Except to mention that it was difficult to find just one passage.

A hospital visit was supposed to happen just after the morning shift change, but a teacher had broken up a huge fight in the local high school parking lot, and by the time everything was sorted out Debbie's appointment had been scotched. She asked to go to the ER once, but it was a faint request made to a cop shop full of a dozen sullen high school wrestlers and officers calling their parents. She went to lie down. No one saw her spasm or heard the jouncing of the springs under the thin mattress as she had the heart attack that killed her.

-- Smith Henderson, Fourth of July Creek

Review: 'I am Pilgrim'

I am Pilgrim
By Terry Hayes
Crime fiction (espionage thriller)
May 2014
Atria Books
ISBN: 978-1439177723

A wise and rumpled NYPD detective has a stumper of a murder case in a seedy hotel. Everything that could identify the victim's body has been removed. Coincidentally, he knows one of the world's most accomplished investigators, a shady operative who worked in a division that not even the CIA was supposed to know about. So he'll help.

Just when the noirish quality of this story has been established, the scene shifts for a longish segment about a totally different story in Terry Hayes's debut novel. And it switches again. And again.

Hundreds of pages later, the threads all come together -- and come together very well. But this novel isn't really about that murder case. It's about the shadowy investigator called in by the cop. He's going to be set on the trail of a Muslum radical whose family was done wrong by the Saudi royal family. So this heartbroken young man is going to become an Osama-like radical and decide to bring down the United States instead of attacking the Saudi royal family (which is an actual political stance of some radicals but doesn't look too logical put that way).

The long, involved story of how the radical's childhood and what happened to his family is an engrossing story. So is the story of the investigator's childhood. So is the story of the NYPD detective. And of several other characters who come within the widening, then tightening, circle of the story's structure.

This kind of storytelling may not work for every reader. The book was not a pageturner because just when the narrative draws one into a certain character's story, changing to another character's story -- especially in a long flashback -- may make readers feel they've wandered into a different book and decide to put it down for a spell. Others may enjoy the badminton effect of going back and forth.

Whichever reading preference one has, Hayes, a former journalist who did the novelization for the original Mad Max and wrote the screenplay for the second film in the series, knows how to pull the storytelling strings within each section. And he knows how to finally pull the strings together. As a bonus for those who don't appreciate political bon mots in their thrillers, there are only two such little dumplings in the story. For those who do not look for a long commitment in their thrillers, be warned; the U.S. hardcover version of this novel is more than 600 pages.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: 'To Rise Again at a Decent Hour'

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
By Joshua Ferris
Literary Fiction
May 2014
Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 978-0316033978

Paul is an ordinary dentist with minor quirks. He has a practice in Manhattan but adores the Boston Red Sox. That was his father's team, and some of his best-preserved memories are of being a boy, sitting at his father's feet, during games. If only his father hadn't fallen victim to despair and killed himself.

He hasn't had much practice with women. (He has had such little practice that he uses a highly offensive term to describe what others might just call being in complete thrall to the object of one's love.) The two he has loved the most, he also has fallen in love with their families. But it got uncomfortable very fast as the hapless young man tried to ingratiate himself, wanting to become Catholic like the first love's family and then Jewish like the second love's family. Paul's former fiancee still works in his office and, although they show no interest in getting back together, they have fallen into the comforting kind of routine that old married couples share. Now that he's on his own again, he's decided to be an atheist.

Paul doesn't have much to do with the internet, although he does post a few things about baseball. But as the online impersonations escalate, Paul becomes more attached to his "me-machine", whether it takes the form of tablet or smart phone, more than his employees or his patients.

In Joshua Ferris's brilliant new novel, this is only the beginning. First, there's a website about his practice. Then social media accounts. It's all accurate. But it's not him. And it's getting to him. Who is this guy pretending to be him?

This setup is light, amusing and sails by. But as the online masquerades escalate, things get deeper, darker and far more murky. The imposter starts posting quasi-biblical, important-sounding things about a lost people who are scattered around the planet. Comparisons are made to Jewish people. Paul is more than uncomfortable. Connie, his ex-fiance who still works for him, is Jewish. She and Paul's office manager, a woman near retirement age who knows her Old and New Testament, do not recognize what this person is posting. They also don't understand why Paul doesn't just admit it's him.

Is it Paul? Is he fooling himself? Is Ferris fooling the reader? Would that be the case if he emails the imposter and gets back the response: "How well do you know yourself?" Say, just what is going on here?

Just when it looks to get very uncomfortable reading about a group of people that is "so wretched they envy the history of the Jews", the story changes again. There's a specific reason Ferris has gone this route, and it has a lot to do with self-awareness and belonging.

Everything falls wonderfully into place (whether one thinks that what happens is what would be the best thing to have happen). It is Paul's patients who provide him with an epiphany about faith, the power of doubt and how a person could consider how he fits into the world. His deep-seated love for the Red Sox, tied so strongly to Paul's love for his father, before they ever broke the curse of the Babe and the godawful season when Bobby Valentine was the manager and the team and their fans endured the biggest drop in baseball fortune that has ever been, is used to test that power of doubt to uphold faith. And Ferris makes it work.

This is a novel that once appeared it was going to go off the rails in spectacular fashion. But instead, it ends up feeling heartfelt and provides an emotional homecoming that means it was all worth it in the end, that just like our protagonist, what we yearn for is to be able to get a good night's sleep and to rise again at a decent hour to spend another day here in the world.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Review: 'Here We are Now'

Here We are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain
By Charles R. Cross
March 2014
It! Books (HarperCollins)
ISBN: 9780062308214

The 90's were a time of great creativity, even if not all of us who were around then recognized it as such. Looking back though, especially through the lens of someone who knew and respected a great musician, and who now is looking at how that musician's legacy is influencing culture today, the 90's weren't half-bad.

Charles Cross was a editor of The Rocket, a Seattle magazine that chronicled current rock music. He knew and wrote about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana before they were famous, before MTV played Smells Like Teen Spirit over and over, before the band became a phenomenon and grunge, especially Nirvana, became seen as rock's latest saviors. And then Cobain, a troubled kid from a grey working class town that has fought against his fame for years, a young man who suffered from horrible physical and mental pain, killed himself.

In the years since that dreadful day when he had to confirm Cobain's death just as an issue of The Rocket was due to go to press (but not with the original planned story about Courtney Love's new Hole album), Cross has seen how Cobain and his band have become mythologized. Instead of merely saying "Me too", Cross has pointed out various ways in which Cobain has a genuine and continuing legacy. He snaps a shot of each aspect of that legacy and fills in the background with facts about what happened and how that has been built upon.

From the music itself to various cultural impacts -- including women's rights, gay rights and even fashion -- and how Seattle became the center of the music universe for a time, Here We are Now traces Cobain's impact. Cross also makes certain Cobain's physical ailments are chronicled for a more full picture of what may have been going on for that young man, as well as Cobain's upbringing in a town -- Aberdeen, Washington -- that rivals any other miserable upbringing. As a Washington state native who has lived on both sides of the Cascades, I can attest that Cross nails it.

And as someone who let the music wake her up when it was fresh and who has let in sink in for years, I can attest that Cross nails the ways in which Nirvana and its frontman continue to move us. Here we are now, Kurt, and you've enriched and entertained us.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review: 'Bread and Butter'

Bread and Butter
By Michelle Wildgen
February 2014
ISBN: 978-0385537438

Three brothers, two restaurants and falling in love are the ingredients in Michelle Wildgen's winning Bread and Butter, a quiet novel about familiar satisfactions.

Britt and Leo never really left their hometown. Leo started, and Britt soon came in to run the front, of Winesap, a refined yet comfortable restaurant named for the trees in their parents' yard. The restaurant is a well-oiled machine and the brothers are growing middle-aged settling in as essential cogs of that machinery.

Younger brother Harry has kicked around here and there, dividing his time between university courses and cooking. His exploits have included travel, a stint in an Alaskan salmon cannery and cookng at a self-sustaining restaurant on a Michigan island. He's back home now, too, and plans to open his own restaurant. The older two are skeptical but not unencouraging. Until Harry's vision clicks for one of the brothers and he becomes Harry's partner, dividing his time between the new place and Winesap.

At the same time, Britt, who appears as confident, is slightly rattled by the appearance of a confident woman who begins dining at Winesap regularly and who knows Harry. Then Leo's eyes are finally opened about someone who has been there the whole time.

That the ensuing complications and conflicts arise not from the men falling in love with these women -- although their falling in love opens them both up -- is one of the calm delights of this novel. It's a pleasure to read a book that is not about brothers fighting over women or fighting over who is smarter and the better entrepreneur and the more accomplished foodie.

Rather, it is a pleasure to read a novel about brothers who love each other, get to know each other and themselves a bit better, and who enjoy what they are doing.

Also, the parts about food are delicious. Wildgen knows what she is writing about, whether it is family or food.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Review: 'Bunker Hill'

Bunker Hill
By Nathaniel Philbrick
History (Revolutionary War)
April 2013
ISBN: 978-0670025442

When readers speak of falling into a book and living in it, they usually refer to fiction. But it also applies to the experience of reading Nathaniel Philbrick's masterful account of Bunker Hill. Beginning with a young John Quincy Adams and his mother, Abigail, watching the battle that claimed the life of patriot and valued family friend Dr. Joseph Warren, to the epilogue of John Quincy as an old man who disdains platitudes in favor of action, Bunker Hill is a marvel of rich narrative.

Philbrick weaves together small details about real people and what they actually did, including troop movements, strategizing by military leaders and actions of individuals brought into what inevitably became a revolution. Philbrick also compelling describes how the disagreements and disgruntlements became that revolution, making clear that neither rebellion or an American victory were foregone conclusions. Little moments had major consequences in both battle and off the field.

Bunker Hill is one of those rare histories that is carefully researched but which never shows it. All the information fits together. Philbrick also is adept at answering questions for readers as they come up -- why did this happen? why did this not happen?

Both as a primer of what actually happened at the battle known as Bunker Hill, although it is hoped most American readers know that's not where it happened, and as a detailed reminder of how the American Revolution got underway, Philbrick's history is well worth reading.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Review: 'Faking Normal'

Faking Normal
By Courtenay C. Stevens
YA realistic fiction
February 2014
ISBN: 978-0062245380

Faking Normal opens at the funeral of a mother killed by an abusive father. Bodee is now alone, except for a grown brother. But he's not the central figure in this novel. That's Alexi, one of his classmates. Although they have gone to school together forever, and live nearby, they're not close. Bodee is, after all, the Kool-Aid Kid and not quite cool.

Alexi, on the other hand, is one of the golden girls of Rickman. Her older sister has gone out with the football coach since they were in school together, her friends go out with football players and Alexi, well, Alexi is struggling. Perhaps her struggling allows her to feel some empathy for Bodee, who runs out of the funeral rather than speak over his mother's coffin. Alexi goes out to silently comfort him.

Alexi is struggling because she let a guy go all the way last summer -- a guy she knows and who was on the outs with his girlfriend. She didn't want to do it, but she didn't say no. And now Alexi feels like she is damaged goods and it's her own fault. Alexi and Bodee form a solid friendship in which wise and comforting Bodee gently encourages Alexi to come out with the truth about what happened to her. (No one knows that something happened except Alexi and her attacker; Bodee suspects she is keeping a secret though.)

Her other source of comfort -- and Alexi needs a lot of comfort, especially compared to a boy who lost his mother to a murdering father -- is lines of songs left by an unknown student on a desk they share. Could this unknown bard be the football player her friends want her to out with? And what's up with Bodee, who uses Kool-Aid to dye his hair and who is the most quietly confident teen in the book? Who is Alexi's attacker, and why is she scared to admit she was raped?

Faking Normal has a lot going for it. Alexi's dilemma is real and her feelings are portrayed honestly. Bodee, however, seems too good to be true, especially with his healing seeming to go on the back burner for much of the book. It's also worth noting that most of the characters are portrayed as strong church-goers. Yet not much is done with the themes of forgiveness and the ways in which females have been historically portrayed in patriarchal churches as the ones to blame for any sexual transgression.

The author's writing does shine in portraying the ups and downs of small-town life and a gorup that has gone through school together, forming a community that seemingly knows each other so well but still has secrets. It would be interesting to read any explorations Stevens may create regarding small towns and congregations in works to come.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission