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Review: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

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The Night Strangers book coverWhy are there so many greenhouses in the White Mountains village of Beth, New Hampshire? Are the women who tend these gardens truly interested in their health benefits or is there something sinister going on?

Chris Bohjalian, a very successful author, has written a ghost story/human drama with such a plot line in The Night Strangers. At the heart of this story is Chip Linton, an airplane pilot. His plane was downed by a flock of geese sucked into his jet engines as he flew over Lake Champlain. Hopeful of another Sully Sullenberger Miracle on the Hudson landing, Linton was unsuccessful, his plane crashed and many passengers died, 39 to be exact.

The survivor guilt was too much on Linton so he moved from Pennsylvania to a rural area in northern New Hampshire where he, his wife and their 10 year old twin daughters started a new life. They chose an older home with many nooks, crannies, hidden staircases and, of course, an earthen area of the cellar which housed an old wooden door sealed shut with 39 large bolts. What a coincidence.

Bohjalian is a master at building suspense as this story unfolds. Linton is left at home working on the house with the creepy wallpaper, the 39 bolt door and apparitions. How much of the goings on are the result of the overactive imagination of a traumatized man and how many are real is for the reader to decide.

Many of the women of the village are overly solicitous to the family and fawn all over the twins. They bring over many covered dishes, and the family is encouraged to partake of their hospitality. The brownies and cookies, however, have an aftertaste.

There were moments when I felt this book might descend into an Amityville Horror remake, but the author has a human touch combined with a psychological component that is hard to resist. He’s an excellent writer.

I recommend this book for its originality, non-formula ending, and insight into a family in crisis.

I give the book 3 9/10 sprigs of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama

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Women of the SilkAs much as I try to keep up with current fiction and some non-fiction, I am gratified when a truly fine book from the past comes to my attention. Such is the case with Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama. When this book was initially published in 1991, I recall a friend recommended it in passing. It wasn’t until I met a fellow patron recently at the hair salon reading it that it finally clicked.

There are many levels of enjoyment to this book. First, it is of a normal length with short chapters for easy reading. Secondly, the prose is somehow soothing and restful , even when events occur that are not pleasant. Lastly, the subject matter was a revelation to me about a culture I knew little about–a true learning experience.

The main character in Women of the Silk is Pei, a Chinese girl living with her family in a rural Chinese village. Her father tends the fish ponds and mulberry groves, and it is a hard life. If daughters were not promised in marriage, they became a burden to their families. In Pei’s case her father just took her on a trip one day and dropped her off at a silk factory without a backward glance.

As hard as it was to be so abruptly separated from the family, Pei made friendships with her co-workers and those who housed her and cared for her. She made enough money to send to her family which was the incentive to begin with.

Beginning in 1926, Women of the Silk follows Pei through the next 20 years of her life with the sisterhood. In addition to life in the silk factory, the author inserts some history of the Far East which I was unaware of. Apparently the Japanese were invading China at the time prior to World War 11 so that danger coupled with the demise of the silk factory made for great social change and flight to Hong Kong.

It is always a good feeling to read a book where the main character faces great adversity and perseveres with dignity and courage. Readers like me who missed the boat in 1991 have a treat in store.

I give the book 3 7/8 silkworms.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George

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Believing the Lie book coverIt seems like only yesterday that Elizabeth George wrote her last 600 + page mystery novel featuring Inspector Thomas Lynley. Although it is never too late to join this particular bandwagon, the need to know what came before in Lynley’s life becomes more important as this series continues.

In Believing the Lie, and there are plenty of lies to go around, Inspector Thomas Lynley is sent to Cumbria, a particularly scenic area of England on the Irish Sea. His job is to investigate an apparent drowning of a member of a prominent family. I will refrain from mentioning the names of all the family members of the deceased in order to prevent complete confusion.

What gives coherence and continuity to the story, however, is the appearance of some of the main players from previous Lynley novels – Simon and Deborah St. James, Barbara Havers and Superintendent Isabelle Ardery. I could have gone for more Barbara and Isabelle and less Simon and Deborah. However, in the author’s wisdom Elizabeth George chose to make Deborah a kind of undercover sleuth with disastrous results. She defies her superiors’ and her husband’s advice and basically runs amok.

Barbara, on the other hand, continues to be Lynley’s staunch right hand investigator. She is still working on her new regimen of stylish clothing and a fetching new hair-do as prescribed by Superintendent Ardery. I loved these portions of the book as they added humor to some otherwise deep, dark goings-on.

In addition, Lynley is trying to get on with his life after the tragic loss of his wife Helen , and he and Isabelle are having a hard time adjusting to the direction their relationship is heading.

In the meantime, there are numerous subplots to follow, including a reporter from a tabloid which requires him to search for sensational headlines even when none exist. What he does uncover, however, with the help of the feckless Deborah St. James is a different take on the story altogether that has no value to yellow journalism.

Amidst all the subplots, there are several torn-from-the-headlines topics that are not uplifting. It works in the context of a New Scotland Yard investigation, but the material may be troubling to some readers.

I hope to have gathered a few more members to the Elizabeth George bandwagon. It’s quite a ride.

I give the book 4 lie detectors.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Death Benefit by Robin Cook

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Death Benefit book coverReaders of the medical thriller genre are very familiar with Dr. Robin Cook’s work. This author of 30 previous books has updated his medical expertise with the advent of stem cell use and replacement organs in his latest effort, Death Benefit.

It is clear early in the book that Death Benefit has to do with insurance policies. Some Wall St. Wonders have developed a scheme to buy up life insurance policies of very ill people and cash in on the upcoming death benefits.

Unfortunately for them, two molecular geneticists are hard at work in a bio-safety lab at Columbia University Medical Center on organ replacement, specifically the pancreas, which will extend life expectancy for another 10 years. This, of course, throws off all the charts that had been devised to lure investors to the life insurance scam.

In the midst of all this intrigue is Pia Grazdani, a medical student at Columbia, who works closely with the researchers. She becomes directly involved in the fallout that occurs when the two opposing forces collide- research vs. greed.

As if this were not enough story line to follow, Cook introduces a mob element that stalks the lab and specifically Pia. This occurs rather late in the book as does the critical role of the Chief Medical Examiner.

If there was one shortcoming in this modern- medicine book, I would say it was uneven. As interesting as it is to hear about actuarial life insurance tables and medical jargon, the author spent an inordinate amount of time in the early part of the book on setting up the scam and not enough time on the solving of the case by the Chief Medical Examiner.

In any case, Robin Cook fans will rejoice that he has returned to the medical rotation and is in his office.

I give Death Benefit 3 ½ c.c.’s of insulin.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

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Death Comes to PemberleyAs much as I enjoy watching a Jane Austen work such as Pride and Prejudice, I have a hard time getting through a book of hers. I find the sentences unusually convoluted, and I often find myself re-reading passages for the sense of it all. Learning the relationships between all the characters is another obstacle.

Why on earth I chose to read Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James is beyond me. Maybe it was my last attempt to read about what happened to Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice six years later. Told through the eyes and pen of famed mystery writer P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley has given me a renewed appreciation of Jane Austen.

It’s 1803 and Elizabeth and Darcy are preparing for an annual ball at their estate, Pemberley. Unfortunately, word comes to them that a terrible event has occurred in the surrounding woods, and a death has been verified. Involved in this situation are Elizabeth’s sister and her husband Wickham who are on the outs with the family.

Thus begins an investigation into the whereabouts of the staff and all those known to be in the area. There are by necessity conversations that refer to past events in the family’s history which will not ring a bell to those who are not familiar with Pride and Prejudice. In addition some characters are referred to by various names which adds more mystery to the proceedings. If you can just go with the flow, it’s great fun adding this layer to a classic tale.

In total, I felt the book was a tribute to the talents of both Jane Austen and P.D. James. The joining of the two talents is genius. Of necessity the focus is not so much on Elizabeth and Darcy. As a matter of fact I found their concluding conversation anti-climactic and not such a great ending.

Nevertheless , if you’re interested in a well-crafted English mystery with all the trappings of Downton Abbey, you must read Death Comes to Pemberley.

I give the book 3 7/8 liveried footmen.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: The Litigators by John Grisham

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The Litigators book coverI can’t speak for all readers, but I can’t help but notice that every time I read a John Grisham book I learn something new about the law and the role of attorney specialization. Added to the knowledge I have accrued over the years watching Judge Judy, this makes me pretty much a paralegal prospect. (Don’t co-sign for poor risks.)

Grisham’s latest endeavor, The Litigators, is about such lawyers, those who go to court over a suit and argue before a judge and often a jury. David Zinc, a Harvard Law School graduate, was not a trained litigator. He worked for a large specialized law firm in a Chicago high rise with long hours and good money. Unfortunately, the work was sucking the life force from him, and he snapped. He couldn’t get his body into the office and went on a day-long bender at a local bar. It was this set of circumstances that landed him at the door of Finley & Figg, a two man operation adept at ambulance chasing, DUI’s and quickie divorces. Finley & Figg found room for Zinc where he happily did legwork for this boutique law firm.

One of the lawyers uncovered the fact that a pharmaceutical company was being sued over a cholesterol drug that could have bad side effects. Thinking this was a good way to enter high stakes tort law, a partner recruited as many users of the drug as he could find and signed them up, promising them a big payday. Of course, Finley and Figg were in way over their heads and had no idea that the expert witnesses that had to be hired required huge sums. The pharmaceutical company, on the other hand, had many more resources, and it became David vs. Goliath.

Meanwhile, Zinc gets more and more involved to the point where he becomes part of the litigation team where his expertise is nil. In addition, Zinc learns of a child suffering from lead paint poisoning. Upon further investigation, he finds the source of the lead paint and moves forward with that product liability suit. It’s all very fast-paced and highly instructive.

Don’t miss The Litigators: law at its most tensely dramatic.

I give the book 3 7/8 litigious societies.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: 11/22/63

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What would you change if you could turn back time? Would your life improve or would it just cause more unforseen problems? This butterfly effect is at the heart of Stephen King’s latest opus, 11/22/63.

On 11/22/63 I was a student teacher at Springfield Commerce High School when the principal came into the class to report that President Kennedy had been shot. When one of my favorite authors, Stephen King, wrote a huge book about that history-altering event, I wasn’t sure I was up to reliving that moment. But I did.

I should have known that King would use that event in time travel mode to entertain and engross the reader yet again. The book cannot help but be somewhat political as it involves in part Lee Harvey Oswald, his time in Russia and his growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. government and life in general. King includes Oswald’s relationship with his wife Marina and how she coped with a new country and a semi-deranged, abusive husband.

As though this is not enough drama and great storytelling, King’s main character, Jake Epping, falls in love with a school librarian on his trip to the past. Including a pretty good love story is a departure for King, but it works very well. The reader wonders how Jake is going to bring his love back to 2011 when he returns after his mission.

There are many wonderful, keenly written moments in 11/22/63, but I was struck by how nostalgic I became for the late 50’s and early 60’s. Sure, people were smoking a lot more then and there was pollution galore, but didn’t the frosted root beer taste great? Wasn’t the music outstanding?

In Stephen King’s long illustrious career, he has written some bizarre, gory, supernatural and far-fetched material, most of which I liked. Just not at night. This book is unique for him and can be enjoyed and appreciated by those readers who may not have chosen to enter his fertile imagination before. This is an adult book with many level of literacy excellence.

Remember, life turns on a dime…

I give the book 4 sock hops.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer

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Only Time Will Tell book coverI have been on the lookout for a new Jeffrey Archer novel after having read his book of short stories, “And Thereby Hangs a Tale.” There it was on the new book shelf just waiting for me: Only Time Will Tell.

Encompassing the years between World War 1 and World War 11, Only Time Will Tell is a Dickens-style tale of a young man brought up with limited means who has a gift.

Harry Clifton is the boy in question whose mother Maisie tells him that his father was lost in the war. Harry is destined to be a dockworker like his father and uncle until he is discovered by a benefactor and given a scholarship to an exclusive boys’ school in England.

The description of life in the boys’ school not only reveals class distinctions but the regimen all students must follow in their studies, extra-curricular activities and the fierce competition to get to the next level of education. I found this insight into the British educational system enlightening.

The method Archer uses to reveal this complex tale is by introducing each main character in a narrative told from his point of view. Although it may seem redundant to hear about the same occurrence from various characters, I found it original and effective. After all, there’s more than one (or more) sides to every story.

It is clear to me that Jeffrey Archer is a great story-teller, but he also has a sense of history and is not afraid if writing sweeping, multi-generational works.

All of this discussion brings me to the fortuitous conclusion that this is the first in a series, The Clifton Chronicles. What a treat if you like tales of adventure, romance, treachery, intrigue and all those good things. 2012 is already looking upbeat for readers.

I give Only Time Will Tell 4 Oxford English Dictionaries.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

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Last Night in Twisted River book coverIf you’re in the mood for a long detail-oriented novel in the style of The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, John Irving is the man for you. This prolific author’s latest work, Last Night in Twisted River, is a saga worth the reader’s time.

Covering five decades and encompassing New Hampshire, Boston, Vermont, Toronto and the frozen landscape of Pointe au Barie Station, Ontario, Last Night in Twisted River traces the life and times of Dominic Baciagalupo and his son Daniel. Initially set in a logging camp in northern New Hampshire, Last Night in Twisted River begins with a tragedy and never lets up. In John Irving fashion, the characters become entwined in each other’s lives for better but often for worse. Dominic is the cook for the logging crew, and his young son observes and learns from this rough and tumble crowd. Unfortunately, there is an occurrence on the Last Night in Twisted River which sends Dominic and his son to Boston where they assume new identities. Thus, Cookie/Dominic Baciagalupo becomes Tony Angel and his son becomes Danny Angel.

The reader must truly be on his toes because in addition to name and identity changes, the author indulges in the technique “in medias res” where the reader is dropped into the middle of a situation unexpectedly. Eventually the reasoning becomes clear, but John Irving demands a lot of attention to his carefully scripted work. He’s a joy to read.

It would be pointless to get into all the subplots and numerous characters along the way, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Irving’s expert storytelling affords insight into the logging industry of northern New England in addition to many religious and political references which makes for an enriching reading experience. A keen sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.

This is another of those long complex novels whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I give the book 4 black bears.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Unbroken:A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Lauren Hillenbrand

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Unbroken book coverIn the field of non-fiction, Laura Hillenbrand has distinguished herself with the bestseller Seabiscuit. In a relatively short space of time her latest blockbuster Unbroken came on the scene. Subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini.

The author, who did exhaustive research on this book, collaborated with Zamperini when he was in his 80’s to get all details possible. Since World War ll veterans are becoming fewer, it was important to note all the memories that could be retrieved. In this case Zamperini’s ordeal occurred in the Pacific when as an Army Air Force bombardier, he was shot down in 1943.

Zamperini and two other crew members were adrift on a makeshift life raft for weeks with basically no life-saving supplies, including food and water. They had to become resourceful and clever with what they could put together to catch fish and birds and even fight off encircling sharks. I think the killing and eating of an albatross or two was a bad luck move, however.

Unfortunately for these three, this was just the beginning of their ordeal. They were captured by the Japanese and sent to a series of POW camps, each worse than the one before. Because Zamperini was known as a world class runner, he was singled out for more intense punishment than the others.

Told in infinite detail, Unbroken is a testament to the human spirit which in this case survived under extreme duress. There are pictures throughout the book of Zamperini’s family, aircraft and fellow flyers. The author does not conclude the story with the end of the war and the POW’s release, but explains how difficult re-entry into civilian life was.

I remember watching “Victory at Sea” Sunday afternoons with its soaring music and battle scenes, but I never dreamed as a child that there were thousands of American POW’s held and abused at the same time.

Unbroken is a realistic look into one man’s experience that effected us all.
I give the book 4 life jackets.

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