The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
Honor Bright travels from England to Ohio in 1850 with her sister Grace. Grace is engaged to marry Adam Cox, a dry-goods merchant from their hometown and a fellow Quaker. After an arduous journey where Honor is constantly seasick, Grace dies suddenly just before they reach Faithwell, Ohio. Honor is befriended by Belle, an outspoken milliner, who has Honor help sew bonnets. When she reaches Faithwell, Honor must depend on the kindness of strangers, and is very lonely. Even Quaker meeting feels different in Ohio, and her sewing and quilting skills are not as valuable, as applique quilts are preferred to elaborate patchwork. Honor must marry and learn new skills, and finds herself caught up in the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves traveling north. Ultimately, Honor must decide what is more important; her principles or her new family.
A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone
Kate Moore leaves her State Department job when her techie husband Dexter gets a job offer from a private bank in Luxembourg. Now an expat American, she takes their two young sons, Jake and Ben, to private school, hangs out with the other expat moms, and waits for Dexter to come home from the office or yet another business trip. They do enjoy occasional weekend trips with the boys to other cities in Europe. Kate is bored and lonely, and becomes suspicious of their new American friends, Bill and Julia. Guiltily, Kate contacts a former colleague to make inquiries, and learns that her husband is under suspicion of stealing millions of Euros. Kate has her own secrets: she worked for the CIA, not the State Department, and was an operative in Mexico and Central America until shortly after Jake was born. Will Kate’s or Dexter’s pasts catch up with them, what secrets will be uncovered, and will love or money win the day? A building unease and suspense keep the pages turning, with the reader trying to figure out who’s telling the truth. But underneath is still a couple who love their sons and enjoy living in Europe. The author is a former cookbook editor who spent some time living in Luxembourg with his wife and twin sons, so the settings and scenes of family life ring true. A first novel, Expats was just awarded an Edgar Allan Poe award for best first mystery by an American author.
Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer
Alex Lomax is the only private detective in New Klondike, a domed town on the Mars frontier. 40 years ago priceless fossils were found nearby, but the explorers’ spacecraft crashed after a prospecting trip. This is a unique combination of noir mystery and science fiction, where humans can transfer their consciousness into an android body. Then they don’t need to eat, and can work in comfort outside the dome. The transfers are also very hard to kill. Alex is approached by an owner of the transfer company to find her missing husband. With a small town, there shouldn’t be that many places to look. The police reluctantly help Alex, but are happy to have him do the detecting. Then it turns out that the diary of one of the prospectors has made it back to Mars with his granddaughter. Can Alex trust her, or the beautiful new writer in residence? There are some exciting scenes outside the dome, where Alex’s life is endangered more than once. Other scenes are in Alex’s favorite bar, where his girlfriend Diana works. Fast-paced and exciting, this book may appeal to readers of noir mysteries. Readalikes include The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, first in the Retrieval Artist mystery series set on the Moon. Another suggestion is A Talent for War, by Jack McDevitt, the first book featuring Alex Benedict, an interstellar antiquities dealer. I’m hoping for more Alex Lomax books from Sawyer, an award-winning science fiction writer.
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
This is a supernatural thriller, and quite fun to read. It’s the first in a series about the Checquy, a secret British spy agency staffed with people with a variety of supernatural abilities or unique physical characteristics, along with normal assistants. The opening sets the tone: Myfanwy Thomas (she pronounces it Miffany) finds herself in a park in London, surrounded by bodies wearing latex gloves, and with no memory. Her former self has left her a letter, however, giving her two options and a safe hideout. Clearly there is a traitor within the Checquy agency. The reader and Myfanwy learn that she is an executive with a desk job at the agency, but is occasionally called on to oversee the Checquy response to supernatural emergencies, such as a building covered with purple fungus that has swallowed the first team sent to investigate screams from inside. Her normal assistant Ingrid is invaluable as Myfanwy tries to get up to speed on her job while looking for the traitor. Lots of action and suspense, along with humor, plenty of eccentric characters, and unique settings including a boarding school for supernaturally gifted children make for a page-turner. I can’t wait to see what O’Malley, a first novelist from Australia, comes up with next. For more information and a video book trailer, visit his website.
Much Ado about Magic by Shanna Swendson
Texan Katie Chandler is normal. She has no magical talents, but is immune to magic and can see through illusions. She returns to MSI in New York City to work in marketing. MSI is run by Merlin. Yes, that Merlin. Her boyfriend, Owen Chandler, is a sweet, shy, powerful wizard. A rival accuses Owen, who’s adopted, of having evil wizards as parents, and of causing the havoc in Manhattan that he stops. There’s a lot of humor with flying gargoyles, a clumsy fairy, magical illusions and spells, and her department’s constant partying while Katie’s trying to plan a big event in Central Park. Her roommates know her secret, and try to help when Owen and MSI are in trouble. Not your typical urban fantasy, it’s more of a romantic comedy with fantasy elements. This is book five in the series that begins with Enchanted, Inc. Read more about Katie on the author’s website. Book 6 is now available, and we own the whole series in print, and as e-books on Media on Demand.
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
How is our modern, high-tech, industrial culture both better and worse than life in a traditional hunter gatherer or subsistence agriculture group? That is the question explored in this book by Diamond, who spent decades in Papua New Guinea first as an ornithologist and later as an anthropologist. Traditional societies on several continents are covered. Some of the chapters I found more interesting or easier to read, but overall this is a thought-provoking read. Who is a friend, a stranger, or an enemy? Sometimes it depends on degrees of relationship, a common language, or the potential as a trading partner. Are large scale wars worse than frequent small battles? Is the lessened risk of dying from an infected insect bite offset by the frequency of diabetes and heart disease as people adopt modern diet and medicine? Chapters explore child rearing, justice, diet, the benefits of multilingualism, religion, warfare, responses to perceived and actual dangers, and how traditional societies cooperate differently when there is drought or an overabundance of food. The author’s experiences in New Guinea would be of interest for readers of Lost in Shangri-La.
Nightshade by Susan Wittig Albert
This is the third book in a trilogy within the larger China Bayles mystery series. The other two books are Bleeding Hearts and Spanish Dagger. China is a former attorney who owns an herb shop in the Texas hill country, and does a lot of detecting on the side, often with Ruby, who runs the new age store next to the herb shop, and Sheila, who’s in law enforcement. Mike McQuaid, China’s partner, is a former cop and university professor turned private detective. This trilogy is about a mystery from China’s past; her father’s death in a car crash 16 years earlier, and the introduction of a previously unknown half-brother, Miles. China wasn’t close to her father, who was also a lawyer, and resists the idea that his death wasn’t an accident. This is a good point to jump into an excellent ongoing mystery series. There is a strong sense of place, which makes me want to visit the Texas hill country. The characters develop and change from book to book, and subplots often carry over as well. Susan also writes the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, the Darling Dahlias books, and collaborates with her husband Bill on the Kate and Charles Sheridan mystery series as Robin Paige. Learn more at their website, along with information about herbs, recipes, and the Texas hill country.
Red Velvet Cupcake Murder by Joanne Fluke
This is the latest book in the Hannah Swensen cozy mystery series, which begins with Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder. They are set in fictional Lake Eden, Minnesota, where Hannah owns The Cookie Jar, a cookie bakery and coffee shop, frequently finds bodies, and tries to decide which boyfriend she likes best: Mike the detective or Norman the dentist. Her mother and two sisters along with her friend and baking partner Lisa help her solve cases, in between baking and enjoying cookies and other desserts. Recipes are included, but I like to listen to Joanne Fluke’s books on compact disc, so I haven’t tried the recipes yet. There is a cookbook available, Joanne Fluke’s Lake Eden Cookbook. Unlike most mystery series, you can start with any book, as Hannah shows no signs of settling down with either boyfriend, and the main characters continue from book to book. If you’re looking for a light, cozy mystery, Hannah Swensen mysteries are perfect. Appealing characters, small town setting, and a suspenseful scene or two make for enjoyable reading.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
“The real director of our life is accident—a director full of cruelty, compassion and bewitching charm.
It’s an unrecognized form of stupidity, you have to forget the cosmic meaninglessness of all our acts to be able to be vain and that’s a glaring form of stupidity.
How boring and stale it must be to know that what happens today, this month, this year, doesn’t matter, endless more days, months, years will come.
A feeling is no longer the same when it comes the second time. It dies through the awareness of its return
In the immortal soul, a gigantic weariness and a flagrant despair must grow in view of the certainty that it will never end, never. It is death that gives the moment its beauty and its horror. Only through death is time a living time. Why does the Lord, the omniscient God, not know that? Why does he threaten us with endlessness that must mean unbearable desolation.”
Had enough? Can you tell this novel was written by a Professor of Philosophy?
These and other rantings are on full view in Night Train to Lisbon.
This is a story with two main protagonists. First is Raimund Gregorius, He has led a dull, unfulfilling life as a teacher of classic languages at a private school in Bern Switzerland. He learns of his exact opposite in Amadeu de Prado, a brilliant student who goes on to be a brilliant doctor and also a leader in the Portuguese Resistance to Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, whose dictatorship dominated Portugal for 1932 to 1974. Gregorius spends most of the novel pursuing information about the life of Amadeu who has been dead for a while, first through an obscure book that Amadeu published and then by tracking down and talking to most of the people that knew him.
Both Raimund and Amadeu are angsty people. Both suffer from life threatening, chronic ailments that may be their undoing. To my disappointment, not much is mentioned about the resistance other than showing the effects on some of the characters, such as deformed hands and broken minds.
I made it through this book and it had its redeeming qualities but on the whole was a real downer. The book is now a movie, starring Jeremy Irons. It was filmed in Germany, and has not yet been releases in the United States.
That’s how he was, the godless priest: He thought things through to the end. He always thought them through to the end. No matter how black the consequences were.