Book in a Minute: I Remember You

I Remember YouI Remember You by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disappointing! I was sold by the fact that the super-talented Simone St. James, a worthy successor to Daphne Du Maurier, wrote a rave review of this book. And many others have also loved it and found it super-scary. But for me it was utterly meh.

Three frenemies in dire financial straits have bought an old house on a remote island with plans to turn it into a bed & breakfast for outdoorsy, nature-loving tourists. They decide to go to the island in the depths of winter to do their renovations so they can start raking in the cash from tourists as soon as the weather breaks. Yeah, nothing wrong with that idea as anyone who reads suspense can tell you. Of course things start going creepily wrong right off the bat. There’s the charter boat captain who drops them off and warns them they’ll be totally alone on the island and he may not be able to get back to rescue them right away if the weather turns. There’s the word GOOD-BYE spelled out in seashells on the floor of the cottage. There’s that other person they keep glimpsing from a distance but can never meet. At least, maybe it’s a person…

If it were just a tightly written short story or novella about this trio and their adventures, I think I’d have been all in on this story and loved it. But there’s a parallel story about a doctor whose son has been missing for three years. I found that plot excruciatingly slow-moving and hard to believe. (view spoiler)

Lastly, there was the translation. At least, I hope it was a bad translation. Because the language was so clunky and reportorial, not at all visual and evocative, which to me is what a ghost story needs.

I listed this in my “Did not finish” shelf because I pretty much skimmed my way through the last ten chapters. I did my best in honor of Ms. St. James, but next time she recommends a read, I think I’ll just re-read one of her own books instead!

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Book in a Minute: Another Library Edition

Dr. Knox: A novelDr. Knox: A novel by Peter Spiegelman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A tale of human trafficking and refugees masquerades convincingly as an L.A. noir thriller in Dr. Knox, the latest novel from Shamus Award-winning author Peter Spiegelman. In three previous books featuring banker-turned-detective John March, Spiegelman pretty much created the genre of “Wall Street noir.” Now, he takes that same grim sensibility and applies it to Dr. Adam Knox, a man whose apparent death wish is constantly at war with his desire to save the world. These conflicting goals lead to lots of trouble, not only for Knox, but for his employees and the few friends he has.

In Dr. Knox, a woman fleeing Russian mobsters leaves her little boy at Knox’s shabby clinic in L.A.’s Skid Row. Rather than turn the child over to Social Services, Knox becomes convinced he can save both child and mother. He sets out to do so with the help of his buddy Ben Sutter, a former Special Forces operative. The vibe between these two was very reminiscent of the relationship between Robert Parker’s detective, Spenser, and his sidekick, Hawk.

Like that master of L.A. noir, Raymond Chandler, Spiegelman keeps much of the real story bobbing just below the surface throughout this tale. As Knox searches for the boy’s missing mother and runs afoul of mobsters and corrupt American business tycoons, readers get unsettling glimpses into Knox’s own messy backstory. It becomes clear that while the doctor’s heart is in the right place, his penchant for self-destruction could hurt the very people he seeks to help.

Fans of classic noir fiction and old-fashioned “hard-boiled” detective stories should enjoy Dr. Knox.

This review originally appeared at “Between the Covers,” the book review blog for the Baltimore County Public Library. For more great reading ideas, check out all the reviews there. We cover everything from fiction to nonfiction, children’s books to adult graphic novels. And if you’re in a spendy mood, here’s the buy link at Amazon.

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Book in a Minute: Library Edition

27246115-_uy400_ss400_ I’m doing book reviews for the Baltimore County Public Library‘s Between the Covers blog under my real life name now. At some point in the indefinite future, I’m planning to merge the “real me” website with this site. In the meantime, it seemed to make more sense to post a link to my first review for the library blog here, since this is where I’ve posted all my other book reviews. So here you go, a little review of Delia Ephron’s Siracusa. Enjoy!

Delia Ephron is best-known for her humorous writing and for lighthearted screenplays like You’ve Got Mail and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But her latest novel, Siracusa, displays a decidedly more cynical view of relationships.

Siracusa begins with Lizzie, who thinks a vacation in Italy is just what she and her husband David need to revive their flagging writing careers and their dwindling passion for one another. They’re joined on the trip by another couple — Finn, Lizzie’s fun-loving old flame from college, and his uptight wife Taylor. Dragged along for the fun is Snow, Finn and Taylor’s sullen preteen daughter. If bringing an old boyfriend and his family along for a vacation sounds like a bad idea to you, you’d be right. In fact, few vacation disasters can rival the nightmarish results when this group makes its way to the ancient island of Siracusa.

Each main character takes a turn recounting the trip’s gradual descent into tragedy.  Without exception, all of them are breathtakingly self-involved or delusional (or both). Thus none of them can see what the reader sees — the huge disaster heading straight for them.

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, Siracusa presents readers with difficult to like protagonists who never tell the whole truth. The crumbling city of Siracusa provides an excellent symbolic backdrop for Ephron’s well-written blend of dark domestic drama and deadly suspense.

And if you aren’t anywhere near the Baltimore County Public Library, find your own library here. Or if you’re in a spendy mood, here’s the Amazon link.

Book in a Minute: Apple Tree Yard

Apple Tree YardApple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A clever, subtle story of suspense and deception. Adulteress Yvonne Carmichael and her lover stand in the dock at Old Bailey, accused of a heinous crime. Did they do it? And if so, which of them was the instigator, which one the pawn? Do even they know the answer?

This one was truly impossible for me to put down. I had a hectic schedule and couldn’t finish it in one sitting, although I desperately wanted to. So much so, that I wound up unable to sleep that night with wondering what came next. The next afternoon, with fifty pages to go and a couple of miles from home, I realized I’d left the book at my office. The thought of not being able to finish it that day was intolerable. I actually turned the car around and drove back to the office to pick up the book.

Which is not only a great advertisement for Louise Doughty’s taut, intense prose–it’s also a great argument for buying more ebooks in the future.

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A Great Man Passes

Leo Bretholz

“Bitterness destroys the person who is bitter…. You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined.” ~ Leo Bretholz

Leo Bretholz died last night. He was 93 years old, so it should come as no surprise. That he lived this long to spread his message about the horrors of the Holocaust is miraculous in itself. Many obituaries will rightly talk about the great contribution he made as a living historian, tirelessly visiting schools to educate young people about the Nazi genocide and about the Resistance movement in which he played a crucial part. Right to the last day of his life, he was still working  to see that justice would continue to be done in memory of the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, he had been scheduled to testify today before the Maryland House of Delegates, urging them to support a reparations bill that was directed at a French rail company contracted to construct a new portion of the state’s light rail line. I hope the world recognizes the great work he did to raise awareness about the dangers of racism, nationalism, all of those -isms that say “Our -ism is better than yours. Your -ism should not even exist.”

A lot of much better writers than me are going to talk about his midnight swim across the River Sauer to escape Austria as it fell to the Nazis. They will talk about his daring escape from a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, his great friendship with the nuns who helped nurse him back to health, and his work with the Compagnons de France, the Jewish Resistance Group.

I will talk instead about the good humor and patience of a man who worked at a bookstore over thirty years ago. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, the bookstore was right around the corner from the restaurant where my mother worked. I was in my early teens, I think, but she didn’t like to leave me at home alone all day. Sometimes she’d send me down the street to the delightful Sobus family, a stereotypical Catholic family of about ten kids. There was always music and noise and good food there, but she didn’t like to take advantage of them, so on other occasions, she’d tell me to come down to work with her and “go find something to do in the neighborhood.”

What I found to do was pester Leo.

I suppose the first few times the chubby girl with thick glasses and weird hair showed up, he wondered if I was shoplifting. But I always found some bargain book to buy and he must have been able to sense a fellow lover of the written word. He began to chat with me each time I came into the store. I told him I thought I might like to be a writer someday, and he said he was thinking about writing a book too. He recommended books for me, introducing me to the wonderful epics of Leon Uris in particular and to many works of history and poetry. After I read Mila 18, Uris’ tale of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Leo began to tell me his own story of survival.

I was, and still am, in awe of him.

He was always kind to me, always had time to talk to me. My mom came into the store to drag me home one day, apologizing profusely, but he brushed it off and told her I was no trouble. To Mom and me, he was just a nice man who worked around the corner from her. Only gradually did we discover what a huge force he was in raising awareness about the Holocaust. Eventually, my mother moved on to another job and so did Leo. I don’t really remember which of them left first, but I know that we lost touch for many years.

In the summer of 2001, my husband and I moved our family a fair distance from Baltimore, where I’d met Leo so long ago. Mom came along. She was retired now and slowing down a bit, so we moved her into an in-law apartment in our home. One day a couple of years later, we were at the local library when Mom saw a poster.

“Look, it’s Leo!” she cried.

The poster announced a talk and book signing by Leo Bretholz, author of Leap Into Darkness. It was a memoir. “He finally wrote his book!”

We decided to go to his talk. We thought it was important to support him, because sometimes book signings aren’t that well attended. (I hadn’t written any books of my own yet, but I’d heard about book signings where no one buys and everyone just wants to know where the bathroom is.) But Leo had spent decades sharing his story with so many people, and taking time to listen to their own stories, no matter how small. So we needn’t have worried about attendance at his signing. It was standing room only, and the line to purchase his book and have it signed was an impressive sight. We waited until almost everyone had gone, because Mom couldn’t really stand for long periods anymore–all those years on her feet as a waitress had taken their toll. Now remember what a busy life this man had lived, and all the important things that had happened to him, and the fact that he hadn’t seen my mother and I in nearly two decades.

When we stood to have him sign my mother’s copy of the book, he paused and stared at us for a long time.

“I know you,” he said to my mother. And then: “Cathy?”

They embraced and we reminisced for a little while, wishing him good luck with his book. I told Leo I hadn’t written any books yet, but he assured me I still had time to get started.

And so I went home and I did.

He had that kind of effect on people.

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Book in a Minute: Mad About the Boy

Mad About the Boy (Bridget Jones, #3)Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mark Darcy is no longer in the picture for Bridget, and by now, most Helen Fielding fans know why he’s not there. But no matter the reason for his absence, it’s simply a cheat to go from that happy ending so many years ago to no books at all about their married life together. To open with Mark as gone as gone can be at the outset of the new book is at first confusing, then infuriating, and finally just disappointing.

While I understand Helen Fielding’s desire to shake things up, it didn’t feel like “playing fair” with the audience. Also, it didn’t quite work. The book lurched between moods in a jarring way. To be fair, that is much how real life feels as one passes 50, but fiction, as the saying goes, needs to make more sense. Forced attempts to recall the wacky Bridget of yesteryear (upside down in a tree while wearing a thong, no less) alternate uneasily with moments of touching, heartfelt emotion about her grief over Mark’s death.

Some scenes and images really stuck with me. Bridget recalling how Mark died and how she learned about it, the scene where her mother consoles her, and the owl that flies away near the end of the book–all were beautifully written. Women of a certain age will definitely relate to many of Bridget’s funny/sad experiences–the reading glasses, the stiffening body, the truly hilarious Botox mishap. But by and large, it’s an uneven book and a disappointment.

I suppose I should only give it two stars, but I’m too fond of Bridget–and Helen Fielding–to be that hard on either of them. Here’s hoping Bridget’s allowed to keep this latest happy ending, while Helen moves on to new territory.

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Book in a Minute: Through the Evil Days

Through the Evil Days: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne MysteryThrough the Evil Days: A Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne Mystery by Julia Spencer-Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not my favorite in the generally excellent Clare Fergusson mysteries, but still an enjoyable read. The mystery in this entry focuses on a missing girl and a meth lab operation. You’d think that would lead to a roller coaster plot full of suspense. Eventually, it does take off and the action builds to a satisfying conclusion, but it takes Ms. Spencer-Fleming longer than usual to get there. The reason: a much greater focus on the personal lives of Clare & Russ and two supporting characters, Hadley and Kevin.

Indeed, I would say the mystery and suspense elements of the story are more like subplots throughout the first half of the book, which concentrates on the personal drama between newly married Clare and Russ. The shift to focusing so much on character development was unexpected and definitely slowed down the action.

That said, the twist in the kidnapping plot that comes near the end of the book was entertaining and definitely made for a dramatic climax. However, I wish the developments in the main characters’ personal lives could have been integrated more smoothly with the mystery. I truly respect that Ms. Spencer-Fleming does not want her characters to become static, cartoon cutouts, a la Miss Marple, but the lack of balance between the two stories made this a weaker entry in a generally wonderful series.

Every author is entitled to a stumble, though, so I’ll certainly be coming back for the next book. After all, I can’t wait to find out how the “new addition” to the team of Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne will affect their sleuthing abilities.

 

Note: Unlike most of my reviews, this one was based on an Advanced Reader Edition of the book provided to me by the author. Getting a free book did not affect my review in any way, but reviewers are now required to disclose this information to readers. (And I hope Ms. Spencer-Fleming appreciates the honest review and isn’t too upset about the number of stars!)

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