Mr. Churchill’s Secretary

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal

Maggie Hope has lived in New England with her aunt most of her life, but is back in London to sell her late grandmother’s house. When it won’t sell, she gets roommates, reluctantly puts off her plans to attend M.I.T., and takes a job as a typist in Prime Minister Churchill’s office. She had applied to be a private secretary, but even a math degree didn’t overcome the gender bias against women. The Battle of Britain begins, Maggie learns a secret about her father, and an IRA plot by someone close to her endangers Maggie and Churchill. The diaries of some of the prime minister’s secretaries inspired the author, and a sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, is planned. A fast-paced mystery, some of the plot twists are hard to believe, but Maggie and her friends are memorable characters. Recommended for fans of Maisie Dobbs.

 Brenda


Ruby Red

Ruby Red, by Kerstin Gier

First published in Germany in 2009, this is the first book in a time travel trilogy. Gwyneth, 16, is a bit of a klutz. But this time, her dizzy spells mean her world is about to change, and that she is the twelfth in a circle of time travelers, not her cousin and classmate Charlotte. Gwen meets an 18th century Count, her great-great grandmother, and a missing cousin, all in the company of 18-year-old Gideon, a more experienced time traveler. Ugly school uniforms, a best friend who researches time travel and history while Gwen sleeps, a mother who’s too busy to listen or explain, gorgeous historical costumes, and a variety of London settings make for a book that’s easy to like. Suspense, humor, adventure, and some romance will have you looking forward to translations of Sapphire Blue and Emerald Green.

Brenda


The Spinoza Problem

The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom

The Spinoza Problem   by Irvin Yalom

So, what is the “Spinoza problem”?  Who was Spinoza?   When we look at the cover of this book we see two people sort of intertwined.   The One person whose picture is older looking obviously must be Spinoza.  The other picture is what looks like a Nazi officer.  When we read the book blurb we find out that this is Alfred Rosenberg, a high ranking official in the Reich’s inner circle.

Irwin D. Yalom is a practicing psychotherapist.  In this book he attempts to psycho-analyze  these two historical characters and rationalize their actions.

Barach Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher who lived in the mid 1600’s.  He came to be considered one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy.  During his studies he became convinced that the Jewish traditions were no better than the Catholic Church which had persecuted him and his family in Portugal and forced them to relocate to Amsterdam.  He dreamed of a God that was pure nature, reflecting the natural world.  Man would have no influence over this God and would not be influenced by him.  For these heresies he was cast out of the Jewish faith.

Alfred Rosenberg, a virulent anti-Semite, was an early and intellectually influential member of the Nazi Party.  When he was sixteen he was called into his headmaster’s office for anti- Semitic remarks he made during a school speech.  He was forced, as punishment, to memorize passages about Spinoza from the autobiography of the German poet Goethe.  Rosenberg was stunned to discover that Goethe, his idol, was a great admirer of Spinoza.  In this book we discover that Rosenberg was as hateful of the Jews as Hitler himself.  In fact he longed to be the Fuhrer of the German people, but Hitler beat him to it. He was Salieri to Hitler’s Mozart.  Hitler mostly ignored him and did not see him as a threat to his supremacy of the Reich.  Rosenberg was obsessed with Spinoza.  How could a Jew espouse things that he as a representative of the master race could whole-heartedly agree with?  For his war crimes and anti-Semitism Rosenberg was executed after the Nuremburg trials.

The Spinoza problem has two elements.  How could a devote Jew who studied to be a rabbi come to renounce most of the tenets of his faith and suffer the fate of excommunication?   How could a man who suffered from Aryan derangement syndrome reconcile the fact that Goethe,  considered one of the supreme geniuses of Modern German literature, had been so greatly influenced by a Jew, whom many including Rosenberg considered an inferior race?

We learn a lot about Spinoza’s philosophy and the origins of Third Reich genocidal ideology in this book.

Joel


Book Awards and Controversy

Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this week, but no award was given for fiction, for the first time since 1977. No explanation was offered beyond the statement, “The three books were fully considered, but in the end, none mustered the mandatory majority for granting a prize, so no prize was awarded.”

 The lack of award has generated a lot of controversy, especially as many people will assume the Pulitzer board decided that none of the books deserved the prize, rather than that they were deadlocked. A three member jury, headed this year by Susan Larson, read 300 novels and presented the board with three finalists. On National Public Radio, Susan said “We were all shocked. We were angry, and we were very disappointed. This is a lot of work.” She also stated that “I think we all would have been happy if any one of these books had been selected.”

Read one or more of the finalists, and decide for yourself if the judges were stumped or disappointed. The three finalists are:

Pale King, by David Foster Wallace

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

The 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded to: A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

Other 2012 Pulitzer Awards:

History Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by Manning Marable

Biography George F. Kennan: An American Life, by John Lewis Gaddis

Poetry Life on Mars, by Tracy K. Smith

General Nonfiction The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt

In other award news, finalists for two other prizes have been announced. The Orange Prize, which started in 1996, is dedicated to excellence in fiction  written in English by women. The 2011 Orange prize was awarded to

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obrecht.

The 2012 Orange Prize short list is:

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan.

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright.

Painter of Silence, by Georgina Harding. This book will be published in the United States in September, 2012.

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller.

Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett.

Nominees for the Hugo awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy are:

Best Novel

Among Others by Jo Walton
A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
Deadline by Mira Grant
Embassytown by China Miéville
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Best Novella

“Countdown” by Mira Grant (Orbit)
“The Ice Owl” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction November/December 2011)
“Kiss Me Twice” by Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s June 2011)
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson (Asimov’s September/October 2011)
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu (Panverse 3)
“Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

Best Novelette

“The Copenhagen Interpretation” by Paul Cornell (Asimov’s July 2011)
“Fields of Gold” by Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
“Ray of Light” by Brad R. Torgersen (Analog December 2011)
“Six Months, Three Days” by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)
“What We Found” by Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2011)

Best Short Story

“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld April 2011)
“The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick (Asimov’s April/May 2011)
“Movement” by Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s March 2011)
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2011)
“Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” by John Scalzi (Tor.com)

Brenda


The Big Cat Nap

The Big Cat Nap, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown

It’s been 20 years since Harry (Mary Minor) Harristeen and her pets started solving mysteries in Crozet, Virginia. If you haven’t discovered this cozy mystery series, you’re in for a treat, especially if you like small town mysteries where two cats and a dog help solve crimes. The first book is Wish You Were Here, where Harry and Miranda run the local post office. In The Big Cat Nap, Harry is concentrating on farming, and is considering selling her sunflower crop to the local grocer ahead of harvest to help finance tractor repairs. Due to a minor accident and a mechanical problem, two of Harry’s friends are referred to the ReNu collision repair shops run by Victor Gatzembizi. ReNu is known for its low cost repairs, and is recommended by the local insurance agency. When Harry drives a friend there to pick up his truck, she finds a dead mechanic instead. After another ReNu worker is killed, Harry is hot on the trail, which may lead to a local racetrack. While Harry’s cat Pewter is being quarrelsome, she still helps fellow cat Mrs. Murphy and corgi Tee Tucker protect Harry and do their own detecting. The small town Virginia setting and Harry’s circle of friends (including veterinarian husband Fair) add greatly to the appeal of these books. The cats, dogs, horses and even an owl talk amongst themselves and add to the charm.

Brenda


The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

“Tell everyone what happened here. Tell everyone what happened here.”  This refrain echoes throughout this harrowing novel by Elliot Perlman.  There are many plot threads in this book , but the main one tells the story of the Sonderkommando revolt at Auschwitz/ Birkenau in October 1944.  Auschwitz was the most notorious of the Nazi Death Camps.  The Sonderkommando or Special command units, were Jewish prisoners who were forced to work at the grisly task of burning corpses of those already murdered by the Nazis in the Gas Chambers. 

When the unfortunate Jews are first transported to Auschwitz they are separated into two groups by Nazi Doctors.  The healthy ones go to the right and are put to work until they die.  The unhealthy ones are directed to the left and are immediately sent to the Gas Chambers.

The story is told through two of the main characters.  Lamont Williams is a black ex-convict  hospital intern who befriends Henryk Mandelbrot, a Jewish Holocaust Survivor who tells him of his role in the Sonderkommando Revolt before he dies of cancer at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  Mr. Mandelbrot has never told anyone about the events of October 1944.

Adam Zignelik is a failing history professor at Columbia University.  He needs a research project for his work but also to help him get over the break-up of his marriage.  He finds such a project in the discarded recordings and writings of Henry Border a polish immigrant Psychologist who discovers a unique way to record people’s experiences.  Border hears of the events surrounding the war against the Jews by the Nazis, and decides to go over to Europe and record the memories of Holocaust survivors who have survived in the Displaced Persons Camps after the war.  It is here that Henry discovers the story of the Revolt which is later corroborated by the statements of Mr Mandelbrot.

Both of these main characters are people living in the present who are touched by the ghosts of the past.  The book recounts the heroic struggle of the Jewish prisoners to fight back against the demonic SS guards, who could kill them and replace them at any time. “This book has some grand themes and deals with memory, love, guilt, heroism, the extremes of racism and unexpected kindness, spans the twentieth century to the present, and spans the globe from New York to Chicago to Auschwitz.” (excerpted from the book jacket)

This is a novel to read with reverence and respect.

Joel


Ghost Story

Ghost Story, by Jim Butcher

Harry was dead, to begin with. Like Jacob Marley in The Christmas Carol, Harry is sent back to earth as a ghost, to solve his own murder, and because his friends are in danger. Six months ago, Harry was last seen near an island in Lake Michigan, but his body and murderer were never found. Harry, a wizard, protected Chicago, and things have gone downhill since his death. Karrin Murphy, former police officer, is even working with gangster Marcone. Harry’s apprentice Molly may be the vengeful Rag Lady, and it’s still snowing in May. Something is very wrong. While trying to learn the rules and tricks of being a ghost, Harry befriends Sir Stuart, the ghost of an 18th century marine, and Fitz, a young gang member who can hear his voice. Harry’s cat, Mister, ectomancer Mortimer, Bob the skull, and Molly can see Harry’s ghost, but everyone else is reluctant to believe it’s really him. We learn the power of memories to a ghost, retrace part of Harry’s childhood, and relive his anguish at the death of Susan, the mother of his daughter Maggie. Molly, Mortimer, and Dr. Butters have hidden depths, his fairy godmother and an archangel have unexpected advice, and the adventure has plenty of twists and turns. There’s even some humor. This is an excellent entry in the urban fantasy series that starts with Storm Front. If you enjoy audiobooks, John Glover narrates this book very well.

Brenda