Great Nonfiction:New England Nation, by Bruce C. Daniels

New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever wonder why America always has to “save the world”? Why the town meeting style of government has survived on the local level for 300 years? Why Americans are so intent upon personal independence? Why higher education is so important to us? And what about due process of law?
While world views and social standards have changed drastically since Plymouth was settled, our core values, those that show up time and again in protests, demonstrations, and speeches have remained the same. Historian Bruce Daniels explains how this came to be in his 232 page narrative, a witty, fluent explanation of how the Puritans thought and why they behaved as they did, for good or bad. It’s not always a flattering picture, but it is a comprehensible one. Worth checking out for any reader of American history and sociology.

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It’s a Mystery: The Fabric of Sin, by Phil Rickman

The Fabric of Sin (Merrily Watkins, #9)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery to me why Phil Rickman remains largely unknown in America, seeing as how he’s a very talented writer who combines the mystery, paranormal, and historical fiction genres like nobody else. His Merrily Watkins series, set in present day England, features a female vicar charged with being the “deliverance” (read “exorcism”) minister in her parish and its environs. Merrily has a daughter, a young teen in the earlier novels and a young woman in the latest, and a significant other, former rock legend Lol Turner, who play prominent roles in all her deliverance activities. Other colorful characters from the church and the village round out the cast. Rickman’s characters are always richly developed, whether they are pro-or-an-tagonists.

In The Fabric of Sin, the action is placed in the Duchy of Cornwall, the province of Prince Charles, who looms large in the background of this investigation. The Reverend Mrs. Watkins is called out to look into a frightening paranormal incident that took place at the Master House in remote Garway. The Duchy owns this ancient property, rumored to have been inhabited by none other than the Knights Templar, and wants to clear matters up so that its restoration can continue unencumbered. Merrily finds this easier said than done, since the church, the villagers, and the Duchy all have their own hidden agendas. As usual, Mr. Rickman incorporates authentic and vivid atmosphere, historical background, psychological suspense, and subtle supernatural elements to produce an engrossing set of mysteries and murders for Merrily to tackle. This is a series that never disappoints.

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It’s a Mystery: Fruitful Bodies, by Morag Joss

Fruitful Bodies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The posh Sulis Clinic is the setting for the third Sara Selkirk mystery, all of which take place in the ancient spa city of Bath, England. A renowned cellist, Sara  spots her former music teacher amongst the audience at one of her concerts, and is dismayed to discover that now elderly Prof. Cruikshank has become a down and out alcoholic. Sara arranges for treatment at the Sulis, and becomes drawn to its charismatic director, Dr. Golightly. How the murder of a Japanese scientist becomes entangled with the affairs of the medical clinic sets the plot into action, and when a second death occurs among its patients, Sara, as is her wont, can’t resist trying to assist Andrew, the Chief Inspector who is now her lover.

As a mystery, Fruitful Bodies is interesting enough, but Sara should realize by now that her attempts to be helpful are merely inept meddling. As usual, she stumbles upon a clue that happens to be valuable, and in doing so, puts her own life in danger. This is a trope much overworked by many mystery writers, and it might be refreshing if there were no serendipitous escape. I’d like to see more about her own career, and would also like to see both Sara and Andrew take a more mature route to establishing their relationship. As things stand, I don’t see how that can happen, and for now, it’s the historic setting and the competent prose that keep me returning to this series.

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It’s a Mystery: The Black Country, by Alex Grecian

The Black Country (The Murder Squad #2)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little girl has discovered a human eyeball in a bird’s nest in the coal mining village of Blackhampton, where a local couple and their little son have disappeared. Baffled and alarmed, the local constable summons assistance from Scotland Yard, which assigns Inspector Walter Day and his sergeant, Nevil Hammersmith, to the case. They duo arrives by train in the midst of a blizzard, but the deepening white blanket can’t disguise the grit and grime of the village, where houses are actually sinking into the miles of mine shafts that snake about under the ground. After less than an hour in the pub, where a few of the taciturn villagers have gathered to meet the inspectors, they learn that Blackhampton is also riddled with superstitions and secrets. To make matters worse, a mysterious contagion has infected half of the townsfolk, so many that the church has been turned into a makeshift hospital. Add a couple of sinister American strangers to the mix, and Day and Hammersmith have their hands full.

Author Grecian injects his plot with authentic Victorian atmosphere, and enough menace and mystery to keep the pages turning at a rapid pace. As gritty as its setting, the book is marred only by a somewhat histrionic conclusion, but in the milieu of that village, it works well enough, especially because the characters are so richly developed.

You can’t beat a good English mystery!

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It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

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Great Nonfiction: Rebel Yell, by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall JacksonTom Fool to Stonewall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas J. Jackson was an unlikely hero. Though after graduating from West Point he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, peace time turned him into a pedantic teacher at Virginia Military Academy. A socially awkward man with tendencies toward hypochondria, Prof. Jackson was baited by his students and called “Tom Fool.” His religious fervency, which he frequently expressed in words, further distanced him from others. (Hindsight is better than foresight, and today, some historians speculate that he may have had a form of autism.) At the start of the Civil War, he was refused a position of command. After his astonishing first campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, people began to view Jackson in a new way. After First Manassas, he and his unit, comprised of many of his former VMI students, became known as the Stonewall Brigade for their refusal to back down under heavy fire. Once Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was quick to recognize Jackson’s brilliant ability to manage and win battles, even when grossly outnumbered. If Jackson had survived the loss of an arm at Chancellorsville, who knows how the war would have played out. Imagine Stonewall Jackson vs. U. S. Grant. But when Jackson died, it had a profound effect on the South, where many viewed his loss as the beginning of the end.

Author S. C. Gwynne is a professional writer but not a trained historian, though you’d never guess it while reading his lively, often riveting account of Stonewall Jackson’s astonishing transformation and accomplishments. Gwynne covers each of his battles in detail, but it is in the study of the many facets, often contradictory, of Jackson’s personality and character that this book really shines. In battle, one singular trait, that of a ferocious, dauntless determination to win at any cost, utterly obscured the eccentricities and foibles that dogged Jackson at all other times. Many biographical accounts of military careers are factual but very dry in the telling, but in Rebel Yell, one never loses the sense of the presence of General Jackson as a man. His demands took a huge toll on his soldiers, and as is generally true of charisma, it’s difficult to grasp exactly why they bonded so strongly to their leader. But that bond held until the day he died.

P.S. Did you know that it was the Stonewall Brigade that devised the infamous Rebel Yell? “On one occasion during the Valley Campaign, while the Stonewall Brigade was in camp, one of its five regiments began yelling. Soon another regiment took it up, and then another, and another, until every member of the entire brigade was delivering the Yell at the top of his lungs. General Jackson came out of his tent, leaned on a fence, and listened. The cacophony continued for several moments and then began dying away. When the last echo had rebounded from the Blue Ridge, old Blue-Light, universally known to be totally tone deaf, turning toward his tent and said “That was the sweetest music I ever heard.” S. C. Gwynne provides a recorded reproduction of the sound early in the audio version of his book.

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It’s a Mystery: The False Friend, by Myra Goldberg

The False FriendThe False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years back a book was published about “mean girls”, the queen bees of junior high who are granted the power to decide who’s cool and who’s decidedly not. When 30 year old Celia Durst, now living and working in Chicago, notices a VW bug on the street, memories of her BFF, Djuna, and her early death, come flooding over her. Accompanying the memories are an acute sense of guilt, for Celia feels responsible for that long ago death. She immediately books a flight home to upstate NY, where she hopes to atone for her actions by confessing to her parents and the friends from her junior high clique. But no one believes her; their memories of the incident don’t match Celia’s.

The False Friend is about a woman’s search for the truth about who she was and who she now is. Narrated from Celia’s point of view, her slow and painful discovery about the child she really was opens questions about the slippery nature of memory and the motives for and the ways in which we wallpaper over the flaws in our own personalities. Celia is the only truly vivid character in the book, though Djuna’s mother comes close. The others, including her too good to be true, all-American boyfriend and her clueless parents, are basically window dressing. Some of the scenes are disturbing, even chilling. Ms. Goldberg is spot on in her portrayal of the social life and behaviors of 11 year old school girls. When the story approaches its close, it comes in the form of an imperfect ending, as imperfect as life itself, and for that reason, it’s very real.

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