Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November 2014 Book Recommendations

November 18, 2014

Murder 101: A Decker/Lazarus Novel 
By Faye Kellerman &

Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot 
By Reed Farrel Coleman 

If you are a fan of Faye Kellerman and have followed Rina Lazarus and Peter Decker throughout the years, nothing I say is likely to stop you from reading Murder 101, the latest installment in the series. Nonetheless, I would recommend skipping this title. 

Why? In a word: bor-ing. Kellerman has moved Rina and Peter to a fictitious upstate NY hamlet from the mean streets of LA, which is a bummer. Part of the magic of the Decker/Lazarus team was the contrast of Peter’s gritty work requirements contrasted with Rina’s cozy domesticity. Further, the plot centers on the theft of Tiffany glass panels from a mausoleum. Yawn. A few murders ensue but rather than this picking up the pace, the author gets bogged down in minutiae about Russian art, etc. I don’t know about you but when I read a mystery novel, I’m just in it for the sheer entertainment of a whodunit. Brain candy, take me away. 

Which brings us to Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot, the latest in the Jesse Stone mysteries, a far more satisfying read, despite the fact that the author is dead. Well, Robert B. Parker is dead, but his ghost writer, so to speak, has picked up the pen right where Parker left off without sacrificing anything in tone, character development or plot. Jesse Stone, a detective transplanted from LA like Decker, faces a demon from his past when an old rival in both baseball and love comes back to town at the same time a local rich kid is kidnapped and his girlfriend murdered. Unlike Decker, Stone is a lone wolf still trying to figure out how to get along with others, despite his full roster of female companions. Although this story also plays out in a sleepy hamlet, discovering how all the pieces fit together engages the reader enough to make even the characters’ forays into Lowell intriguing. 

If you’re a mystery reader, Robert B. Parker, dead or alive, rarely disappoints, but stick to Faye Kellerman’s less recent work for page-turning fun. 


November 10, 2014 

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
By Margaret Atwood 

Short stories. I know a lot of avid fiction readers scan right past short story collections on their way to novels. This would be a mistake, though, in the case of Margaret Atwood’s latest offering Stone Mattress. Every tale reveals Atwood at the height of her powers, seemingly effortlessly spinning yarns with confidence and self-assurance. You can almost sense cockiness amid the darkly humorous prose. After publishing over fifty novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, and non-fiction works, this writer knows what she’s doing. 

The first three stories of the nine feature the interior lives of different participants involved in a multi-faceted love triangle, at least fifty years after its painful unraveling. The conclusion of this drama is simple, sweet, and profound. While the rest of the stories all contain elements of the macabre, Atwood’s keen insights into human nature are just as present. “Lusus Naturae” was written for Michael Chabon’s project McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories; “I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth” provides a phantom-filled follow-up to Atwood’s 1994 novel The Robber Bride; “The Dead Hand Loves You” is a spooky tale about fate, and “The Freeze-Dried Groom” leaves you wondering where the next body will turn up. The title story, to me, was the most interesting, as it methodically outlines how to cover up a murder on a cruise ship in a truly engaging tale of well-deserved payback. “Torching the Dusties,” while disturbing in its premise of young radicals terrorizing nursing homes in a misguided effort to balance the environmental scales, is a fine finale. 

Short stories don’t get much press, but as writer Neil Gaiman says, “The short story is a very underrated art form.” If ever there was a reason to read short stories, Atwood gives you nine of them here. 


November 3, 2014 

John Singer Sargent and His Muse: Painting Love and Loss
By Karen Corsano and Daniel Williman 

In the end, this is three stories: a love story, a war story, and an art story. The cast in this story are famous, in some cases, and wealthy, educated, and talented in most other cases. John Singer Sargent, the famous American painter, was raised in Europe, and constantly crisscrossed the European continent as did most of his extended family. Sargent made his mark early as a great painter. He often summered in the Swiss Alps and invited family members to join him and he would paint and use family members as models dressing them in Asian and Middle Eastern fashions which reflected Western artistic interest in those cultures in the early 20th century. 

His favorite model was his niece Rose-Marie, an educated, vivacious, and attractive young woman. She is the lead model in many of his famous watercolors from those vacations in paintings such as The Brook, Simplon Pass: Reading and The Pink Dress, which is reproduced on the cover of the book. Rose-Marie met and fell in love with Robert Michel, a young and rising historian, and the son of famous French art historian, Andre Michel, whom Sargent knew. The background of these families is explored in detail to demonstrate the idealism of the young couple as they united. The authors follow their lives and reactions to the war once it breaks out. Robert is activated and is an officer. He writes letters and entries in his journal which reflect incredible idealism, which did not seem to diminish even after he experiences the carnage of some of the war’s battles. We as readers know in advance what will ultimately happen. That does not, however, reduce the terribly tragic impact of his fate. Rose-Marie decides to serve as a nurse in a rehabilitation unit for blinded soldiers. We know what will happen to her, too. That tragic impact is not reduced either. 

The author’s chapter, “The Paris Gun”, reads almost like a technical bulletin in describing the weapon that the Krupp foundry created to fire long-range into Paris. It is harrowing to read knowing what its firing mission will do. As mentioned earlier, this is a war story and war stories are tragic. It is also a love story, and in this case, a very moving one. The apt subtitle, Painting Love and Loss, perfectly describes, in a poignant and profound way, the rest of the book, a story about art and how a work of art came to be painted. 


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