Friday, September 20, 2019

Review: The Man Who Couldn't Miss by David Handler

Two years ago I read The Girl with the Kaleidoscope Eyes, the continuation, two decades after he stopped writing the series, of David Handler's Stewart Hoag Mysteries. And despite not being much of a mystery reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the witty and fun amateur detective mystery. So it's no surprise that I happily added the second novel in this series reboot (actually tenth if you count the books from 20 years ago) to my stacks. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I found that it was a welcome re-immersion in the life of Hoagy and his faithful basset hound Lulu.

It's 1993 and Hoagy is living in his ex-wife, famous actress Merilee Nash's guest cottage out in Connecticut. He's working feverishly on his second novel and feeling really confident about what he's producing. Meanwhile Merilee is working hard on a production of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," which she is directing as a special, one night fundraising event to save Sherbourne Playhouse, a summer playhouse where many famous actors, including Merilee, made their stage debuts. Acting in the play with her are three of her very famous, Oscar winning Yale School of Drama classmates and one young, unknown but talented actress. When another former classmate, R J Romero, the one who everyone thought was the most talented, the most likely to make it and make it big, reappears, it is clear that the grudges and animosity from that time in all their lives has never completely disappeared. In fact, R J, now a criminal and drug addict, is blackmailing Merilee for something scandalous that could derail her career forever. Hoagy is determined to protect Merilee, because although she is his ex-wife, he still loves her, and so he gets a little more involved in the upcoming production than he normally would. That means he's right on site when after the successful first act of the play, performed in front of an audience of who's who in Hollywood and Broadway, one of the leads is found murdered in his dressing room. Hoagy, Lulu, and the police have to uncover the murderer in what is almost a locked door mystery, backstage and below stairs in the dilapidated, storm flooded playhouse.

When Handler wrote the first books in the series, it was the 90s so they were set in present day. Now they are set twenty years in the past but Handler has done a fantastic job of still grounding the book in that time period through references, name dropping (especially the actors expected at the fundraiser), and the technology used. Hoagy is a likable character and he narrates the novel. In order to keep the reader in suspense until the very end, he will intentionally leave out information, answers to questions he's asked or even the question itself, in order to signal to the reader that he is on the right track, even if we readers aren't yet. Lulu is an adorable sidekick who is only anthropomorphized to the extent that other dog owners understand but her sniffing investigations do help Hoagy in his conclusions. The wit and humor threads through the story and the visuals of Hoagy's attire are a complete delight. The ending is a surprise but an entirely believable one. As a bonus, in this novel, the whydunit relies on a situation that is quintessentially 90s. I liked the previous installment a little bit better than this one but I am still looking forward to the next novel because I enjoy my time with Hoagy, Merilee, and Lulu. If you're looking for a fun and quick whodunit read, you should definitely take a look at this one.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon.

The book is being released by New Vessel Press on October 1, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: A young bride shuts herself up in a bedroom on her wedding day, refusing to get married. In this moving and humorous look at contemporary Israel and the chaotic ups and downs of love everywhere, her family gathers outside the locked door, not knowing what to do. The bride's mother has lost a younger daughter in unclear circumstances. Her grandmother is hard of hearing, yet seems to understand her better than anyone. A male cousin who likes to wear women's clothes and jewelry clings to his grandmother like a little boy. The family tries an array of unusual tactics to ensure the wedding goes ahead, including calling in a psychologist specializing in brides who change their mind and a ladder truck from the Palestinian Authority electrical company. The only communication they receive from behind the door are scribbled notes, one of them a cryptic poem about a prodigal daughter returning home. The harder they try to reach the defiant woman, the more the despairing groom is convinced her refusal should be respected. But what, exactly, ought to be respected? Is this merely a case of cold feet? A feminist statement? Or a mourning ritual for a lost sister? This provocative and highly entertaining novel lingers long after its final page.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Review: Three Story House by Courtney Miller Santo

If you haven't heard of spite houses before, go look them up because they are fascinating. If you have heard of them, you're probably intrigued by them like I am. The stories behind these houses are wild and so very, very human. They tell of neighbors who hate each other or families who cannot get along. They are a giant middle finger, revenge for something unforgivable. One such house is the thing that functions exactly opposite the way that it might have, bringing cousins together, helping them work through the crises in their lives that are weighing them down, and helping them find happy, productive futures.

The Memphis house that Lizzie lived in until she was eight, before her mother married her stepfather, is a spite house. Several years after her grandmother's death, she and her mother could lose the house to condemnation if they don't restore the derelict building and bring it up to code but her mother's out of the country on a mission trip so it's up to Lizzie. Lizzie doesn't want to upend her life to save it, especially given her contentious relationship with her mother, but since she's recovering from a horrible knee injury, one that could cost her her dream of Olympic gold and a her professional soccer career, she agrees to check things out. Once back in Memphis, faced with the overwhelming task, she makes the decision to rescue the house, determined to save it from demolition by the city. She is joined by her two step-cousins, Elyse and Isobel, who are each facing growing pains of their own. Elyse was blindsided when her sister and her childhood best friend, who she's been in love with forever, announced their engagement and Isobel, a former child star, cannot capture the fame and celebrity she craves as an adult. So all three women are on the precipice (almost literally, given the house's location) of change, whether they want it or not.

Spite House is both three stories tall and literally a house of three stories, those of Lizzie, Elyse, and Isobel. Each woman's story is told in turn in the three sections of the novel. The house holds secrets and answers but it is only the backdrop to the renovation, reinvention, and restoration the characters must do in their own lives; it's a project to keep them moving forward and to help them embrace their futures, significantly changed from what they once envisioned. Lizzie is the strongest of the characters and the mystery of her father's identity is another big plot line here. Given the structure of the novel, Lizzie's story, followed by Elyse's story, and finally by Isobel's story, Santo has done a good job keeping all of the stories going, one in the foreground with two in the background at any given moment. The resolutions to everything might be a little bit easy but over all, this was a satisfying, readable family drama.

Monday, September 16, 2019

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past few weeks are:

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton
Retablos by Octavio Solis
The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr
The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhannon
Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor
The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
A Stranger at My Table by Ivo de Figueiredo
The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs
Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Reviews posted this week:

The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Exposed by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf
At Briarwood School for Girls by Michael Knight
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
All Ships Follow Me by Mieke Eerkens
Like This Afternoon Forever by Jaime Manrique
Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Dear Baba by Maryam Rafiee
Saint Everywhere by Mary Lea Carroll
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas
The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin
CinderGirl by Christina Meredith
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie
The Fragments by Toni Jordan
The Question Authority by Rachel Cline
The Plaza by Julie Satow
The Lonely Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Haben by Haben Girma
The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester
Educated by Tara Westover
State of the Union by Nick Hornby
Turbulence by David Szalay
What a Body Remembers by Karen Stefano
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar
Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust by Hedi Fried
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain
Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers by the New York Public Library
The Honey Bus by Meredith May
The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett
The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
Church of the Graveyard Saints by C. Joseph Greaves
Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Advanced Physical Chemistry by Susannah Nix
Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Lowenstein
No Good Asking by Fran Kimmel
Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich
The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail
A London Country Diary by Tim Bradford
Crazy Cupid Love by Amanda Heger
A Moveable Feast edited by Don George
Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giuliani
Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew
Love You Hard by Abby Maslin
Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton
Retablos by Octavio Solis
The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Man in the White Linen Suit by David Handler came from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first in this series about a ghostwriter and novelist and his faithful basset hound and have the second on my to be read shelves so I am anticipating being pleased as punch by the third in the series as well.

Recipes from a Down East Inn by Mark Hodesh, Margaret Parker, and Katherine Gould came from me for me

I heard about this on a podcast and I just couldn't resist even though I am currently trying to cook through and pass along my obscene cookbook collection.

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George came from me for me.

Although a book about container shipping sounds pretty dull, this was talked about on the BBC's podcast A Good Read and it piqued my interest when all three readers talked about how fascinating they had found it despite their initial trepidation.

Unfinished Business by Vivian Gornick came from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I love reading about the books that have shaped other people so I am looking forward to this collection of essays for sure.

Westering Women by Sandra Dallas came from St. Martin's Press.

I have enjoyed Dallas' western set novels in the past and this one about a woman who answers an ad to go to California in search of a husband on the Overland Trail looks like a really good one.

A Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier came from Henry Holt.

My daughter adored the Ruby Read series so I might have gotten this for her (but need to pre-read it, of course). Plus she's away in college so she can't possibly know what she's missing if I read it first. LOL!

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins came from Flatiron Books.

When a Mexican bookstore owner's husband crosses the head of a drug cartel, she and their small son must flee to the north, joining so many others in trying to reach the US. This sounds timely and important and my friend who has already read it said I need to pick it up next.

Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore came from Flatiron Books.

About a woman who time travels in her own life, but in no particular order leaving her permanently discombobulated, this sounds amazing to me.

Light Changes Everything by Nancy E. Turner came from Thomas Dunne Books.

I loved These Is My Words when I read it many years ago so I look forward to returning to this world, now as seen by first book main character Sarah Prine's niece.

Good Boy by Jennifer Finney Boylan came from Celadon Books.

I do love books about dogs and with winsome dogs on the cover (although I worry they'll die in the telling of the story) so this memoir about seven dogs who have shared Finney Boylan's life and heart should be really good. (I suspect many of the dogs do die so I'll probably need tissue to read it.)

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler came from St. Martin's Press.

I'm going to be on a book club panel with Ms. Fowler in November (if you want to come, let me know!) but I'd want to read her novel about two families in an affluent neighborhood who live next door to each other, their teenagers who fall in love, and the complications of sharing a property line with someone you don't agree with even if I wasn't.

Otherhood by William Sutcliffe came from Bloomsbury.

I'm hoping that this novel about three mothers who drop in on their thirty-something sons to try and figure out why these sons don't seem to have figured out adulting will be hilarous. Plus there's going to be a movie and I always have to read the book first.

Roxy by Esther Gerritsen came from me for me.

A road trip novel set in motion by Roxy's husband being killed in a car accident with his lover, I am interested to see how this young widow puts her life back together again.

The Second Chance Supper Club by Nicole Meier came from me for me.

Estranged sisters, a clandestine supper club, and a chance at forgiveness. What else could a reader want?

All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine came from me for me.

I am drawn to this cover and to the idea of essays written by a woman who cooked for her mother while her mother was undergoing treatment for cancer, especially since I cooked for my parents while my mother did the same.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Review: The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht

I am not a birder by any stretch of the imagination. I cannot identify many birds off the top of my head. I do not have bird feeders in my yard to attract our feathered friends. But I do enjoy listening to them chirping and peeping in the trees, even if I can't ever follow their trills to their location. I enjoy watching their little head tilts and apparent curiosity when they catch sight of me as they hop along the deck railing or from branch to branch of the backyard trees. Their preening makes me laugh as I admire the intricacy of their feathers. So I consider them welcome visitors to my yard but my investment and expertise in them is nil. As I was browsing at the bookstore one day, I saw this intriguing little book by the cash wrap and picked it up. Of course it had to come home with me. Now I'm hoping to spot some of the annoying little twit(terer)s Matt Kracht has drawn and described here in his entertaining, profanity-filled field guide.

Modeled after actual field guides, this snarky little spoof of a book has sections on the birds, bird watching tips, seasons, extinct species, bird feeders, and more. The section on the birds themselves are the most entertaining, of course, and that is subdivided into author created bird classifications. Kracht has grouped the birds in the categories of Typical Birds; Backyard Assholes; Hummingbirds, Weirdos, and Flycatchers; Egotists and Show-offs; Fuckers; Floaters, Sandbirds, and Dork-legs; and Murder birds. He illustrates each entry with quick, appealing sketches roughly colored in. The birds are given sarcastically derisive names (the real name is listed below the invented one) and the entry on each bird is short, pithy, and often hilariously annoyed. For example, the seagull's entry reads in part " The commonly used term 'seagull' is actually a catch-all for the many different types of gull and it doesn't describe a specific bird. Practically speaking, this doesn't matter because they're all the same trash bird at heart." His entry on the Canada Goose starts off sarcastically, "Thanks a lot, Canada." Kracht's primary complaints about birds are their annoying and constant loudness and their tendency to poop everywhere. Despite his irreverent, negative and fairly accurate descriptions, it is clear that Kracht actually enjoys birds quite a lot (and not just roasted or baked). The biggest problem with this book is the positively microscopic print but that's a design flaw, not a content flaw. The humor does wear a little thin over the course of a reading unless you read it in small snatches but as long as profanity doesn't offend you, you'll probably giggle along often enough to make this worth reading. I know I did.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Inheritance by Evelyn Toynton.

The book is being released by Other Press on September 17, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: In this luminous novel about romance and illusion--and what's left of love when they're stripped away--an American Anglophile is drawn into the lives of a disintegrating aristocratic family.

After the sudden death of her husband, Annie Devereaux flees to England, site of the nostalgic fantasies her father spun for her before he deserted the family. A chance encounter in London leads Annie to cancel her return to New York and move in with Julian, the disaffected, moody son of Helena Denby, a famous British geneticist. As their relationship progresses, Annie meets Julian's sisters Isabel and Sasha, each of them fragile in her own way, and becomes infatuated with visions of their idyllic childhood in England's West Country. But the more she uncovers about Julian's past, the more he explodes into rage and violence. Finally tearing herself away, Annie winds up adrift in London, rescued from her loneliness only when she and Isabel form an unexpected bond.

Slowly, with Isabel as her reluctant guide, Annie learns of the emotional devastation that Helena's warped arrogance, her monstrous will to dominate, inflicted on her children. The family who once embodied Annie's idealized conception of England is actually caught in a nightmare of betrayal and guilt that spirals inexorably into tragedy.

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