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Jill Meyer (United States)
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Purgatory Gardens: A Novel
Purgatory Gardens: A Novel
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars What's happening in Palm Springs?, Aug. 27 2015
Peter Lefcourt writes very funny books. The humor is usually dark and his books are much more character-driven than plot-driven. In fact, only Lefcourt's "The Woody" - published in the late 1990's and is about Washington politics - has as much plot development as character development. It is one of the funniest, most satirical books I've read.

Lefcourt writes both stand-alone books and books reusing old characters. It's always fun to learn what old friends in literature are up to these days, and in "Purgatory Gardens", we do see Charlie Berns again. But instead of being the lead character as he was in previous novels, Charlie is more of a secondary character, though one whose actions do add a boost to the story. The three main characters - Marcy Gray, a fading Hollywood actress, Sammy Dee, a low-level Mafia guy now in the Witness Protection Program, and Didier something-too-long-and-complicated-to spell - are all residents at "Paradise Gardens", a mid-level apartment complex in Palm Springs. All are in their late 60's and all are on the run from various troubled pasts. They wind up in Palm Springs - Charlie Berns is their common neighbor - and a love triangle evolves. Both Sammy and Didier are in love (and lust) with Marcy and are at odds at how to capture her love - and body.

Lefcourt's characters are always interesting in a sort of deranged way. Even when they're doing something stupid - as in this case - or illegal, there's an almost lovable feeling to them. You want to know them and maybe have them as friends. Maybe you're smart enough not to want to be too entangled with them, but you'd like to have them in your life. And the safest way is as characters in a very funny novel, one you can reread every now and again.

Peter Lefcourt is a Hollywood insider whose knowledge of what's going on and how business really works is always on the pages of his "Charlie Berns'" books. "Purgatory Gardens" is another fun and charming novel by Lefcourt. I would also, again, recommend "The Woody" (not available in ebook, for some reason) and another novel I thought was outstanding, was "An American Family", published in 2012 and a serious look at a Long Island family which begins on November 22, 1963 and ends on September 11, 2001.

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion
The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion
by Tracy Daugherty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 37.99
24 used & new from CDN$ 29.87

5.0 out of 5 stars Fragile..., Aug. 25 2015
The author Joan Didion has always seemed to be fragile. Physically fragile, emotionally fragile, and, probably, literary fragile. Her writing seemed to careen between "precious" and "tough" - often in the same book or magazine article. Married to the author John Gregory Dunne, they were the parents of an adopted daughter they rather fancifully named "Quintana Roo", after their favorite place in Mexico. Didion lost both husband and daughter in the mid-2000's and wrote about the searing experiences. But, who really is Joan Didion? In her excellent biography, "The Last Love Song", Tracy Dougherty looks at the life of Didion and examines what made her the inexplicable literary figure she is.

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento of parents who were both descended from long-time California families. The infamous Donner Party figures into Didion's ancestry and the searching for a place to settle also seems to have been a part of her life. She seemed never to completely feel she fit in to where she was, whether in Sacramento, Berkeley, New York, or, eventually, Los Angeles. Now, this may be my interpretation of Dougherty's analysis of Didion, but perhaps what seemed like eternal searching for her place might explain Didion's own perceptive writing. As a college student, Didion won two prestigious competitions and landed in New York City as a writer for Vogue. Her years in New York - most of the 1950's - included time spent in a hopeless romance with enfant-terrible Noel Parmentel and honing her writing.

She finally married writer Greg Dunne and they eventually found great success by moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960's and writing for both magazines and films. Their marriage stayed intact but like most couples, they had their ups-and-downs. Their daughter also lived a life of emotional problems that might have come from her parents' raising her in a rather unconventional manner. Quintana was expected to fit into her parents' life. Eventually they moved back to New York City, where both father and daughter died and thin, fragile Joan Didion lives on into her 80's.

Tracy Dougherty's book is a beautifully written look at both Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. It is also an examination of the changing and often difficult times in American history the two lived through and how Didion tried to interpret those changes to her own readers. I don't particularly care for Joan Didion after reading the biography, but I feel I understand her better. I still think she's fragile...but made of steel.

Artefacts of the Dead
Artefacts of the Dead
by Tony Black
Edition: Audio CD
Price: CDN$ 123.03
9 used & new from CDN$ 123.03

4.0 out of 5 stars Bleak area with bleak crimes..., Aug. 23 2015
This review is from: Artefacts of the Dead (Audio CD)
Detective-Inspector Bob Valentine, of the Ayr, Scotland police force, is at a crossroads in his life. He's brought back - literally - to life after being stabbed in the heart by a criminal. He wants to return to his post but isn't quite sure he's up to it. He's not on good terms with his wife; they've grown apart since the medical crisis and are of no comfort to each other. He has a lousy excuse for a Chief-Superintendent at work and now bodies start turning up in his patch. The first two are of middle-aged men murdered and then mutilated after death. And, Bob Valentine is being plagued with weird thoughts and feelings he never felt before his brush with death.

Tony Black's novel "Artefacts of the Dead" is either a stand-alone mystery or the first of a series. Set on the west coast of Scotland, in Ayr near Prestwick Airport, the town and countryside as Black describes it is bleak economically and socially. High unemployment and rampant drug use are two of the realities of the area. A dead body is found in a garbage dump; it's of a man who has had a spike inserted into his body (hopefully after death.) He's identified as a retired wealthy banker, with a wife and son. The body of a pedophile is found a few days later, in the same condition, and suddenly Valentine and company are faced with a possible multiple killer. Add in a couple of prostitutes and the crimes expand.

Black concentrates as much on the personal stories of the police as he does on the criminal case. Bob Valentine is a rather tortured soul at this point and he has to face down his own problems with those of solving the case. All the characters are rather interesting, and while the end of the book might be a touch hasty, it's a good read. I'll look for more by Tony Black and I hope he returns to Bob Valentine and his little patch in western Scotland.

The Secret History of the Blitz
The Secret History of the Blitz
Offered by Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging history..., Aug. 21 2015
British author Joshua Levine's latest book, "The Secret History of the Blitz", is as much about England from 1939 to 1943 as it is about the bombing. The Blitz (the word came from the German word "lightening war") affected many towns and cities in England, outside London. Though London seems to have gotten the worst of the bombings, other places - like Coventry - were also targeted.

"Blitz Spirit" was the term that evolved to cover life as an on-going target. The Germans began their bombing campaign as a prelude to "Operation Sea Lion", their proposed invasion of the UK. In 1940, Hitler began to turn his attention to the east - the Soviet Union - where he figured he could get a quick victory and then return to the UK. Unfortunately for him, the invasion of the Soviet Union, beginning in the summer of 1941 was not successful and he was mired in the mud and snow until the tide turned and the Russians moved west. The Blitz bombing of the UK began in September 1940 and ended in May 1941, though bombing raids continued til 1944.

What was it like to live under the constant threat of aerial bombardment? Not easy as thousands were killed or injured. Businesses were wrecked by bombs, and often looting by the citizenry occurred after the "All Clear". Socially, during this time, barriers were coming down between classes as many people pitched in to help. Levine looks at the first "sexual revolution" as people realised that life could be over in an instant and it was best to "enjoy the moment". I think that's common in war-time, in all societies.

"Blitz Spirit" could also extend to clever and not-so-legal ways of making a living. Levine cites the case of one young man with a bad heart, who was turned down for the army. He then rented out his body, posing as another man - who had paid him - to take and fail the physical. Evidently he made quite a tidy sum before being found by the authorities. (This "ploy" is written about in the delightful war-time novel, "Crooked Heart", by Lissa Evans). Of course, the black market was a fertile field for boosting one's income and many people bought, bartered, and traded rationed items.

"The Secret History of the Blitz" is a thorough look at the war years, written in an engaging way.

A Pattern of Lies: A Bess Crawford Mystery (Bess Crawford Mysteries Book 7)
A Pattern of Lies: A Bess Crawford Mystery (Bess Crawford Mysteries Book 7)
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Price: CDN$ 16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Nurse Bess returns..., Aug. 18 2015
One of the best things about "series" books, is the return of characters who've become almost like friends to the readers. We like catching up on their adventures and loves and other aspects of lives we've become acquainted with in the pages of books. Often reading a good book in a series is like a long telephone call to someone we haven't seen in a while, but with whom we still feel a deep connection. Satisfying...

Charles Todd, that mother-son writing team, has two series books. The Inspector Rutledge novels, which take place in the early 1920's, and the Bess Crawford novels, set during WW1. Both are considered mystery series, but the "Rutledge" novels have kept an "edge" that the "Crawford" novels lost a while ago.

In "A Pattern of Lies", Bess Crawford returns in the summer of 1918. The Yanks joined the war about a year before and their energetic entry in France has revived a bit of the war-torn British and French troops. Whispers about a possible armistice between the Allied troops and those of the Triple Alliance are being heard. But men are still falling in battle and Bess is still in France helping those who are injured. She also escorts wounded men back to England for further treatment and on one of these trips, she runs into a soldier, Mark Ashton, whose family lives in Kent and owns a gun powder company. A couple of years before, the company had literally blown up and 100 or so workers were killed. The Ashton family has been blamed for the explosion, which probably was a true accident.

Feeling concern for Captain Ashton and his family following the arrest of Philip Ashton, the father, for causing the explosion and the deaths of so many workers, Bess decides to investigate the incident. Her investigations - trying to find who may have caused the explosion and so freeing Mr Ashton from jail and clearing the family name - involves her sleuthing-around-in-France-while-nursing, searching for possible witnesses. She's helped - as she always is - by Simon Brandon, her father's aide, and Sargent Lassiter, a dishy Aussie, who always seems to...well, turn up when Bess needs assistance.

Okay, here's the problem with "A Pattern of Lies". Charles Todd has written this same book three or four times previously. Maybe the crimes and locales are different, or the victims or perpetrators have different names, but, Bess - and the reader - have been there before. But I am giving the book four stars, instead of three, because the book is actually quite well-written. (Maybe familiarity breeds a certain ease of writing...) If you like "meeting" old friends again, you'll like this book. But don't expect anything much new from your friends.

The First Casualty
The First Casualty
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A war-time police procedural..., Aug. 18 2015
English author and entertainer Ben Elton has written many novels, seemingly all on different subjects. In "The First Casualty", Elton takes on the Great War and a man, who doesn't want to fight for intellectual reasons. Douglas Kingsley, a brilliant detective for the London Metropolitan Police, was drafted and filed for conscientious objector status. He claimed that the war was unjust and the killing of hundreds of thousands of lives - on both sides - was immoral. His claim was turned down and he was thrown into Wormwood Scrubs prison. This wouldn't be a place a policeman would want to be - reviled for his status as an objector and for his former job - and Kingsley knew he was a marked man. He is taken out of prison, marked as a dead man, and given a new identity as a military policeman and sent to France and Belgium to investigate the death of a soldier.

Now, by 1917, hundreds of thousands of men have been killed or grievously wounded since the war's beginning in 1914. But this murder of a single officer, in the confines of a rest home for injured soldiers, is different. Captain Viscount Alan Abercrombie was a noted poet-soldier. He was also gay. In the book's beginning he is becoming disillusioned with the war and the death and destruction he lives with daily. His murder, in his bed at the rest home, was attributed to a Bolshevic-leaning soldier, but the truth of the murder and the reasons behind the murder are definitely murkier. And possibly harming to a government entering the third year of a war they were supposed to win by Christmas 1914. Douglas Kingsley, now officially dead, is a new man with a new identity, and he is charged with finding the real murderer.

Ben Elton's view of the war is down and dirty. He shows the heroism of these soldiers, caught in a barely livable hell on the front, and the camaraderie between them. He also writes about split-second fate, between being blown up by a bomb or simply having avoided it by moving out of the immediate area a second or two before the bomb's explosion. Elton's book is an excellent look at the hell of the Great War and those men (and a few women) caught up in it. It is a police procedrual set at war.

Dead Zone (Kindle Single) (Ploughshares Solos)
Dead Zone (Kindle Single) (Ploughshares Solos)
Price: CDN$ 3.68

5.0 out of 5 stars A bit of "magic realism"..., Aug. 18 2015
Tova Reich, the author of "Dead Zone", is not an easy-to-categorise writer. Her previous work is full of "magic realism" and she is definitely not "politically correct". It takes a brave soul to write what she writes and an equally brave soul to read it. Her first book, "Mara", published in the 1970's, is an crazy story of a young girl, daughter of a crooked rabbi and his disturbed wife, who travels from her home in New York City to Israel and returns with a fiance who is definitely NOT acceptable to her family. Mara returns as a character in Reich's "My Holocaust", an incredibly non-politically-correct novel about "the Holocaust business" in the US, Poland, and Israel. In this savage and riotous work, each character is more vile and venal than the last. Her latest book, "One Hundred Philistine Foreskins", is a gentler look a female rabbi who might...just might, be the Messiah.

Much of Reich's work involves characters who flit between the US and Israel. In "Dead Zone", a wealthy man, grievously injured in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, has died at the age of 87 in the United States. His wife, now long-dead, was buried in Israel on Mount of Olives and Izzy Gam wants to be buried next to her. His body, accompanied by Gam's grandson, is flown to Israel for the burial. The grave is dug and the body is lowered into the ground. Then the grandson's cell phone rings. It's Izzy Gam calling, saying the grave is already full of other bodies and he wants a fresh grave. Plus one for his late wife, Judi. The search begins in Jerusalem and is then expanded throughout Israel as a suitable grave is sought. Izzy calls with complaints about each one, til a decent one is finally found and Izzy Gam is finally laid to rest.

Since this epic search for a proper grave site for Izzy Gam has been covered by the media, the result is that the United Nations designates Israel as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entire country is turned into a cemetery - the world's largest Jewish cemetery - and the living population disperses around the world.

"Dead Zone" is classic Tova Reich - it will offend a lot of people. Readers should know about Reich's work and read "Dead Zone" as an example of it. The story, like the books before it, stir up a lot of conversation about Jews and the role history and Israel play in their lives.

Covenant with Death
Covenant with Death
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A real story of war..., Aug. 14 2015
I found British author John Harris's novel of WW1, "Covenant With Death" in a note by Louis de Bernieres in his latest book, "The Dust That Falls From Dreams". "Covenant With Death" was originally published in the mid-1950's and is a chronicle of war - climaxing on July 1, 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. That day, the first day of a months-long battle, saw the greatest loss of life in a battle in British history. Bungled battle plans by the brass caused the senseless death and wounding of hundreds of thousands of men during the months of the battle. And the deaths were especially wounding to Great Britain, as many of the soldiers were part of "Pals Divisions". These were army divisions made up at the beginning of the war of affinity groups of men. Some were groups formed from the same town or city, some from the same occupations, and some from the same schools and colleges. Obviously, the casualties from action for the Pals Divisions often destroyed whole villages, schools, and other groups.

John Harris - who also wrote under other names - wrote a fictional account of a Pals Division, modeled on the "Sheffield City Battalion". This group was made up of Sheffield men (and boys) who had enlisted in the first days of the war. Harris's novel of these men - which could have been degenerated into stereotypes - presented twenty or so soldiers, all slightly different, who are drawn with incredible nuance. The book is written in the voice of Mark Fenner, twenty or so years after the war. Obviously he survives July 1, 1916, but so many others, men who he had known before the war and with whom he had trained and served with, first in Egypt, and then in France, did not.

These men, whose fears and strengths and, in most cases, love of life, are beautifully sketched in by John Harris. There are few women in the novel; this is the story of a man's world that comes to an end on July 1, 1916 amid the rats and the dirt and the bullets and the bombs, and, most of all, the carelessness of the British commanders who thought the "Big Push" would work to drive the Germans back to the east.

This Pals Division was assigned to fight and take Serre from the Germans. I've driven the Serre road and have wandered around a few of the small British cemeteries scattered throughout the Somme region. The graves in the cemeteries mostly have individual names and dates and ranks written on them, but many are noted simply as "An Unknown British Soldier". Some of these men - with other names - have their stories told in John Harris's book. It's not an easy book to read; it's long and filled with death. But it is a story that should be read by anybody interested in WW1 and its battles. Easily the best book I've read on the subject.

The Murders at White House Farm
The Murders at White House Farm
Price: CDN$ 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Was it "murder/suicide" or just "murder"?, Aug. 11 2015
Here in the United States, we've become almost numb to the amount of murders - both of family members and strangers - that we seem to occur. In the UK, I think they're a bit more shocked by murders and murder/suicides. One in particular that gained a lot of press was the murder of a husband/wife/daughter/twin sons at White House Farm in Essex in August, 1985. A recent book, "The Murders at White House Farm", by Carol Ann Lee, takes a close examination of the murder and the trial, and the victims and the convicted murderer. Since this book is true crime, the ending - the conviction - is well-known. What's less known are some details that have emerged in the 30 years since the crime and trial.

Okay, were the deaths of Nevill and June Bamber, their divorced daughter, Sheila and her twin boys, age 7, "murder/suicide" or just "murder". The difference is that when the bodies were discovered at the rural farm house, the police, guided by the Bamber's son, Jeremy, thought that Sheila - age 28 - had murdered her parents and her sons, and then turned the gun on herself. Later evidence showed that Jeremy had entered the house and done the murders himself, basically for reasons of greed.

Nevill and June Bamber married after WW2 but were unable to have children. After a few years of marriage, they adopted, first, Sheila, and then a few years later, Jeremy. It was thought that neither child "bonded" with their adoptive parents, but that's easy to claim if adoption is how a family is put together. Certainly the same problems between parents and children can and do occur between natural parents and children. In any case, the Bambers did the best they could for their two children but they had grown a bit apart as the children aged. June Bamber became very religious and the children didn't feel particularly comfortable with the religious bent of the household. Both mother and daughter had emotional problems. Sheila, a beautiful girl, tried her hand at modeling but wasn't quite right at it. She married a young man, Colin Caffell, and had twin sons before divorcing. The two shared the child-rearing, even though Sheila's emotional difficulties.

Jeremy Bamber had a diffident personality. He wasn't close to his family but worked in the family businesses. He knew he would inherit a goodly amount of of money from his parents at their deaths, but he didn't want to share the inheritance with his sister. They all had to die.

And die they did. After the police had finally been set straight by Jeremy's former girlfriend as to his role in their murders, the trial resulted in his spending the rest of his life in jail. Since his conviction, almost 30 years ago, Jeremy Bamber has been touting his innocence to anyone who would listen. But he couldn't convince the courts of law or the courts of public opinion that his sister could have murdered their parents and her sons.

Author Carol Ann Lee takes a long and detailed look at the case and the verdict. This book, published in hard back, rather than in mass-market, shows the seriousness and interest that this case has held in Britain since 1985. It was a good, but ultimately sad, read as these stories of personal destruction usually are.

The Vienna Melody
The Vienna Melody
Offered by Penguin Group USA
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Viennese family saga..., Aug. 8 2015
This review is from: The Vienna Melody (Kindle Edition)
Europa Editions has reprinted "The Vienna Melody" by Ernst Lothar. The book was originally published by Lothar in 1942, while living in exile in the United States. Lothar was an Austrian playwright and theatrical producer who may have been Jewish. His novel is a fascinating look at an old Viennese family who were mandated by a family will to share quarters in a first three, then four story home. The story begins in 1889 with the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf - along with his young mistress - and ends in the first years of WW2. And what a story it is.

The Alt family, consisting of grandfather, sons and daughters, and grandchildren, had been coexisting in a large Viennese apartment for many years. Christopher Alt, was the founder of both the family and the famous piano manufacturing company that bore his name. Various male family members worked for the company, while others were lawyers and civil servants. The women of the family were socially adept; particularly the bride of Franz Alt, Henriette Stein. The Alt family - strict Catholics - had intermarried with Jews through the years. Henriette - the daughter of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother - had been raised as a Catholic. She was a stylish, flirty and engaging woman who was wooed by Crown Prince Rudolf, but declined to share his suicide. She instead married the much older, stolid Franz Alt. Their marriage was long and produced four children and was not particularly happy.

The supporting characters in the book revolve around the main two - Henriette Alt and her son, Hans. Ernst Lothar writes them - and of course, his other characters - with great nuance. None are caricatures and because Lothar is writing about contemporary issues, the book has a much more interesting feel than if it had been written today as historical fiction. One fascinating inclusion in the story is that of Hans Alt's attempt to be admitted to Vienna's Acadamy of Fine Arts. Another test taker was a young man with bad teeth, known to the Academy testers as "Hitler, Adolf". He doesn't gain admittance, and neither does Hans Alt. Both go on to different destinies.

But if the Alt family are the characters of "The Vienna Melody", then the setting - Vienna - is definitely a huge part of the story. Ernst Lothar's Vienna - as seen from 1889 through 1940 - is an Imperial city, a war-time and post-war city, and finally, a Nazi city. Lothar makes the societal issues of Vienna part of his book. Anti-Semitism was an ever-present undertone to Viennese society and politics. "Melody" is a wonderful, compulsively readable novel of a family, a city, and a time.

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