Books About Books: The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s TaleThe Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Books about books always grab my interest, and the addition of an English setting and a Shakespeare controversy made The Bookman’s Tale a must read. The story plays out along three different timelines, one contemporary, one Victorian, and one Elizabethan. All three involve the 1558 play Pandolfo, by Richard Green, which is widely accepted to be the source for A Winter’s Tale.

Nerdy American protagonist and ultimate bibliophile Peter Byerly, still reeling from the death of his wife, relocates to England, hoping to resume his career as an antique book dealer. When he happens upon a volume of Pandolfo, which contains marginalia that appear to have be written by Shakespeare himself, Peter can’t believe his luck and sets out to confirm its authenticity. This could have been a compelling adventure, full of danger and intrigue. And there is some of that. The problem is that the two back stories, relating the history of the owners of the Pandolfo volume and the history of Peter’s love affair with his wife, continually impede the momentum of the central premise. The historical details are about Pandolfo are interesting enough, but the love story is so schmaltzy that it swamps the mystery.

The Bookman’s Tale contains a lot of material that appealed to the bibliophile in me, but the book is more romance than  mystery .

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It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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Books Within Books: The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick

The Library of Lost and Found 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dearly love reading books in which other books, some real and some not, play an active role. The Library of Lost and Found has the added advantage of being set within a library and narrated by a middle aged woman, Martha Storm, who volunteers there. As a child, Martha used to write stories, allegories, really, based upon her own experiences of growing up within a family tightly regulated by her domineering father. When her parents became elderly and required live-in assistance, Martha reluctantly gave up her own marriage plans and devoted fifteen long, stultifying years to their care. Now that they are gone, Martha is painfully introverted. She can barely remember a time when she had hopes, dreams, and a life of her own, and devotes her free time to doing chores for others. Then someone anonymously leaves a slim volume of fairy stories on her doorstep, and everything Martha thought she knew is about to change…

Make no mistake, this novel is not reliant upon “magical realism”. Rather it is a charmingly told, often painful, journey of self discovery. Martha’s backstory comes out in a series of flash backs, which ordinarily annoy me, but these serve a important purpose both for the reader and for Martha herself, when she is forced to recall in detail some of the forces that shaped her. In her quest to discover who wrote the book, and why it has been inscribed to her by her beloved but long deceased grandmother, she is supported by a cast of vibrant, small town characters who help her along the way.

The Library of Lost and Found is an intelligent, heartwarming tale about finding the courage to step outside one’s comfort zone and face some facts and truths that for many reasons may long have been buried.

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Historical Fiction: The Taster, by V. S. Alexander

The Taster


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been several years since I last picked up a novel about the horrors of WWII, but this particular plot drew me back to the genre. Magda Ritter, though not a Nazi sympathizer, needs a job, and following a rigorous vetting process, is chosen to “go into service” for Hitler. Expecting to be a house servant, she is appalled and terrified when selected to be one of the crew of fifteen women who have the great honor of “testing” Hitler’s food for poison before each of his meals. From that moment, Magda is in a state of perpetual anxiety, frightened that each bite might bring about her death. Residing at the Berghof, the Fuhrer’s eastern headquarters, means protection from the dangers of war and plenty of good food. It also means constant surveillance by the SS, and perpetual worry over whom among the staff can be trusted. Everyone harbors secrets, any of which might prove to be deadly.

What this novel does exceedingly well is portray the terrible uncertainties that pervade “ordinary” life in fearful and extraordinary circumstances. As Magda goes about her work, she gradually learns about the unthinkable atrocities inflicted by the Nazis on the populace, and as she comes face to face herself with some of them, it becomes possible for the reader to experience through her the horrific stresses that descend upon those who are powerless to foresee, control, or even avoid them. It is this position of utter helplessness under constant menace, a circumstance that most of us rarely, or perhaps never, have to experience, that provides a glimpse into the lives of countless German citizens trying to survive during the final year of the Nazi regime.

The general public is always presented by the media with a sanitized version of war. The Taster presents slivers of the truth, based upon the memoirs of one of Hitler’s tasters.

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Historical Fiction: Before I Met You, by Lisa Jewell

Before I Met You
My rating 4 of 5 stars

Splitting a story between two parallel time frames has become a popular convention in historical fiction, and Lisa Jewell does that seamlessly in Before I Met You. The novel opens on the island of Guernsey when young Betty meets her aging but still glamorous grandmother, Arlette, at her crumbling clifftop mansion. Betty will stay on as caregiver as Arlette slips into dementia and dies several years later. Arlette’s will leaves a small inheritance to her granddaughter, and intriguingly, a much larger one to an unknown individual named Clara Pickle, who lives in England. Betty decides to move back there to try to locate Clara.
From this point forward, Betty’s story, set in 1995, will mirror Arlette’s, which took place in the 1920’s. Both are romantic tales involving two young women setting out for adventure, struggling to start building lives of their own in Bohemian Soho. Both find low-paying jobs and cramped flats, and both will become enamored of two famous musicians. In chapters alternating between the jazz age and the age of heavy metal, Betty and Arlette each have experiences they never imagined. Both will have to make difficult choices. One of them will face heartbreak, the other, a happier resolution. Arlette’s story is the more compelling, mainly because of the verve and color that infuse her era and the genuine charm of her love interest. Betty’s, which bogs down from time to time, is enlivened by her search for the elusive Ms. Pickle, who turns out to be a lovely example of characterization. The book’s conclusion is truly edifying. Quite often, novels that feature very young protagonists fail to capture my interest, but, particularly in its second half, Before I Met You managed very well to do so.

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Modern Lit: The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Cottle is a civilian investigator specializing in finding children who are missing and presumed by police to have been abducted. Like many PIs in this genre, she is dedicated to her work to the point of obsession, driven by her own personal demons. Naomi’s unique set of experience, insight, and motivation stems from her own childhood, when she made an escape from the clutches of a pedophile. Her current case centers on Madison, a little girl who disappeared 3 years ago into the wilds of Oregon when her family ventured out to find the perfect Christmas tree.
While most mysteries focus on procedural details, The Child Finder is quite different. Readers do follow Naomi’s search, but her reactions and thought processes are the focus. Interestingly, those of Madison and her abductor are also revealed in chapters describing how she tries to adapt to her strange, frightening new life. Her abductor is a trapper, a loner who has learned how to live under the radar, his point of view is also presented.
Though very dark, this is a novel about the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to survive terrible, incomprehensible circumstances. The writing is intelligent, controlled, and frequently luminous. As Naomi begins to recall more of her own horrific past, as the abductor recalls his own fearful childhood, and as Madison finds creative ways to sustain herself through her own fear, it becomes possible for the reader to develop a glimmer of understanding about how and why crimes such as this occur.
Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.

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Folklore: Fall Equinox/Harvest Home

In 2019, the autumnal equinox occurs September 23, when the sun will cross the equator and head towards its lowest point of the year in December (Northern Hemisphere). On that date, the sun will rise exactly in the east, shine for 12 hours, and set exactly in the west. Everywhere on earth will experience close to 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. Exact times vary from place to place  due to light refraction and other factors. This is the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra, the balance, an appropriate symbol of this astronomical event. Because the earth wobbles  a bit on its axis, the date of the equinox varies slightly from year to year.

Fall is the time of harvest, and in Europe, the equinox was a period of celebration known as Harvest Home. Numerous megaliths and tombs, such as Stonehenge, built in prehistoric times, were organized around the solstices and equinoxes. However, much technological knowledge was lost over the eons, and in the middle ages, since most peasants weren’t able to do astronomical calculations, the date of the festival was set to September 25, which the Church named Michaelmas. Various traditions sprang up in different countries. Modern misconceptions aside, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was ever a part of Harvest Home traditions. But there were many mock sacrifices involving effigies of various sorts.

from Eastborne Lammas Festival

Probably the best known of the effigies was a large wicker figure of a man, in England called John Barleycorn. Based on mythologies in which the the god of night conquers the god of day, John Barleycorn represented the spirit of the fields/summer/light, which was believed to reside in the last sheaf cut. When the harvest was done, the wicker figure was burned in symbolic sacrifice amidst great rejoicing. Everyone knew that they had not seen the last of him, because, if all went according to natural plan, he would return in the spring. The traditions of making “corn dollies”, little figures made of wheat or barley, is closely related. The Harvest Queen, or Kern Baby, is made and bundled by the reapers who proclaim, ‘We have the Kern!’ The sheaf is dressed in a white and decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole (a phallic fertility symbol). In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest is called the Maiden, and must be cut by the youngest female in attendance.

Other historic symbols of the season include apples, gourds and melons, and cider, beer, and wine. Sometimes a loaf of bread, shaped as or marked with a wheat sheaf, is baked using the last of the harvested grain.

In the rhythm of the seasons, putting up the harvest led to a time of rest and plenty, before the onset of winter. It was a time for beginning new leases, resolving accounts and paying the annual dues.

Updated 9/26/19

Folklore in My Garden: The Wooly Bear

Growing up in the in Northeast U.S., my neighborhood friends and I always looked forward to fall, mostly because of Halloween and our pillowcases heavy with candy. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we’d meet up outdoors after school, shuffling through the growing piles of leaves we helped rake up and trying to settle upon what costume we’d adopt this year and how we ere going to make it. If we happened to spot a wooly bear caterpillar, we’d spend and hour or so with the little fella trying to decipher whether the coming winter would be mild or severe, based upon the relative size of its black and rust stripes. We never could agree on which color was the significant predictor, or how a fuzzy, inch long creeping critter might actually know what the season would bring. Today I stumbled upon an article from the venerable Old Farmers Almanac, which made everything clear at last.

In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, made up his mind to figure out scientifically, once and for all, whether the wooly bear legend was fact or fiction. Over the course of eight years, he collected caterpillars from New York’s Bear Mountain, and counted the number of rust-colored segments each one had, compiling the data into records of the average number that occurred each year. He used the data to forecast weather for the coming winter. If the central rusty band comprised a third or more of the caterpillar body , folklore held, and Dr. Curran predicted, that winter would be mild. Conversely, if the black bands at each end predominated, severe weather was due.

What did Dr. Curran discover? Well, his results suggested that there was indeed some merit to the folk belief! Huzzah!

As a scientist, he was careful to emphasize that his samples were too small to prove the caterpillar’s forecasting prowess. But he founded The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, which each year visited Bear Mountain to check them out. Thirty years following the society’s final excursion, the park’s nature center took over the annual wooly bear count and predictions, without guaranteeing accuracy.

They can’t be any worse than the forecasters on tv, right?

On a side note, I try to avoid direct contact with such creatures as insects, amphibians, and reptiles, but the wooly bear is the one exception. I have no problem with gently picking them up to hold for a few moments before releasing them to resume their search for the perfect shelter in which to overwinter. can’t wait to spot the first one this fall….

It’s a Mystery: Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter

Pieces of Her
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andrea Cooper has never wondered much about her mom, Laura, a respected speech pathologist living in a cottage by the shore. Like most of us, from time to time she’d question her about her past, in a general sort of way, always pretty sure about the woman Laura was. Then came the day when their mother-daughter birthday lunch was interrupted by gunshots which take down two customers. Understandably terrified, Andrea cowers helplessly behind Laura, and is stunned to witness her mom coolly take charge of the scene by killing the shooter before he can murder anyone else. As the media frenzy and the police investigation ramp up, Laura forces her daughter to go on the run, providing her with a detailed plan, a burner phone, and a handgun. Don’t, she warns Andrea, even think about returning to the state until she calls her with the all clear.

Thus begins a saga in which a hapless, badly frightened, and insecure young woman embarks on a harrowing mission to discover who her mother really is, and, in the painful process, discovers herself. This enthralling tale bounces between two separate narratives, one gradually revealing the shocking details of Laura’s past, and the other chronicling Andrea’s own coming of age in the present. There are countless heart stopping, heart breaking moments for each as they grapple with and dodge the deadly fallout from events that occurred thirty two years ago, shortly before Andrea’s own birth.

In an era in which strong female protagonists are valued in novels, Karin Slaughter comes in with two. While Pieces has a complicated plot, the complexities of their personalities are just as engrossing, as are the positive changes that we witness evolving within them. What fills the novel with topical relevance is that the themes over which the decades-old conflict of the plot was waged are still threatening ordinary citizens in the present day. It’s always heartening when a best selling thriller author    writes cogently about things that really matter, in addition to providing good  entertainment.

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