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Jill Meyer (United States)
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The Last Pilot: A Novel
The Last Pilot: A Novel
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 13.99

5.0 out of 5 stars One to the moon..., July 24 2015
British author Benjamin Johncock has hit one to the moon with his first novel, "The Last Pilot". It will go down on my list of the best fiction for 2015.

Jim Harrison is a test-pilot at Muroc base in California's Mojave Desert as part of the X-1 program, along with Chuck Yaeger. He was one of the first to break the sound-barrier as part of the team. Harrison's a pilot's pilot. Rough hewn and quiet, he's a doer, not a thinker. He and his wife, Grace, are part of the "family" at Muroc, which centered around - during the off-hours - "Pancho" Barnes's "Happy Bottom Riding Club". Jim Harrison works hard and Grace is part of the community of other wives waiting for their pilot husbands to come home at night. "Augering in" - crashing - was an ever-present danger for the test pilots, and the wives lived in fear of seeing the base brass or a priest walking up to their front door.

Grace, after years of infertility, finds herself pregnant and the baby - named "Florence" for Pancho Barnes - was adored by both her parents. Her early death hits her parents hard and both learn to cope with their loss in different ways. Jim retreats into his work and Grace is left a wreck, visiting the cemetery every day. Their marriage becomes an empty shell as Jim is offered a job as one of the "second set" of US astronauts, and they flee Muroc and their memories to Houston and the space program.

Benjamin Johncock writes a book of feelings and emotions left unsaid that can ruin a life. He places his characters in the middle of the space program - a job and life that keeps an astronaut-in-training Jim as busy as can be, leaving him little time to contemplate his losses. Grace is alone in her misery. How Johncock brings his characters together is a thing of beauty, told in a minimalist style. Most of the book is dialog, but without quotation marks. (If you don't like thatstyle of writing, avoid this book).

I cannot stress strongly enough how beautifully written this book is, on all levels. And I'm still amazed that a British writer can capture the nuances of both US politics and the space program. This is a book to read and treasure.

Lost for Words: A Novel
Lost for Words: A Novel
by Edward St. Aubyn
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.37
37 used & new from CDN$ 4.61

3.0 out of 5 stars A trifling..., July 23 2015
Most readers - serious or not - tend to keep track of the finalists and the winners of the various literary awards all over the world. There are literally hundreds of organisations who give prizes for literary excellence. Perhaps one of the coveted is the "Man Booker Prize", awarded to the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK. For an author, even to be recognised as being on the "Long List" is an honor. But who are the judges and what criteria do these organisations use to recognise excellence in writing?

British author Edward St Aubyn's novel, "Lost for Words" is a look - a glance, really - at the Man Booker Award, here named the "Elysian Prize". The book, which is clever, is actually pretty short and is a fast read. St Aubyn gives the five judges - drawn from the literary, political, and arts worlds - with their pasts, presents, and futures, and, most important, their literary biases. He also features excerpts from some of the books under consideration. One of the six finalist books is an Indian cookery book, which was submitted by mistake by the publisher. He was supposed to submit a novel - the prize is for novels - and instead the cookery book is sent in its place. Edward St Aubyn is clever in both his plot and characters but somehow the book seems insubstantial. There's not much there for the reader to remember when he's finished the book.

Perhaps a better book on the same subject is Ruth Dudley Edwards' "Carnage on the Committee". Dudley Edwards writes the "Robert Amiss/Lady Jack Troutbeck" novels - which are savage, not "politically correct" mysteries - and "Carnage" is a biting look at the committee set up to select the "Knapper-Warbuton Literary Award" winner.

Edward St Aubyn's book is a gentle, satirical look at literary prizes, while Ruth Dudley Edwards' is much more over-the-top witty.

Tales: Short Stories Featuring Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford
Tales: Short Stories Featuring Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Price: CDN$ 2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A clever marketing tool..., July 21 2015
Mother-son writing team "Charles Todd" has published a very good marketing tool for their faithful readers, "Tales: Short Stories Featuring Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford". The book consists of four short stories - two for each character - as well as an "sneak peek" at the new Bess Crawford book, "A Pattern of Lies", due out in August, 2015. The four short stories take up 67% of the book; the excerpt is the final third of the book. (Don't you just love ebooks?)

I had read all four short stories before and they are a pretty good introduction to the two characters. In one, "Cold Comfort", a new reader to the series can get a pretty good introduction to Ian Rutledge and Cpl Hamish MacLeod, the good soldier Rutledge was forced to shoot for insubordination and whose haunting "voice" Rutledge carried with him after the war. The other story is about a crime/kidnapping Rutledge solves after the war when he's back at Scotland Yard. The two Bess Crawford stories are similar. One introduces Bess as a child living with her parents in India and the other takes place during her wartime nursing service.

I've been reading "Charles Todd" since their first book, which I think was Inspector Rutledge. The two series take place at just slightly different times; Inspector Rutledge is written in post-WW1 England (with flash backs to wartime and before-the-war), while Bess Crawford is written during the Great War. I keep waiting for the two series to merge somehow; there is one character who is the same in both books - Melinda Crawford.

So, if you're looking for a bit of "Charles Todd", as well as jump on the new novel, by all means buy this Kindle ebook. If you've already read the four stories and it's after the new novel has been published, then I think you can pass on this ebook.

The Circle: A Hen Mallin Investigation (Soho Crime)
The Circle: A Hen Mallin Investigation (Soho Crime)
Price: CDN$ 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Members of a "writing circle" get knocked off..., July 18 2015
Police procedurals and mysteries are written with different plots, but maybe the most commonly used is the "someone-is-killed-and-the-suspects-are-part-of-a-group". And, of course, the book continues with more murders with the victim count rising and the suspect count going down. Finally, only a limited number of people are left to be murdered by a limited number of possible murderers!

That is the plot of British author Peter Lovesey's novel, "The Circle: A Hen Mallin Investigation". Mallin - who has appeared in several of the "Peter Diamond" novels, is highlighted in "The Circle" and a couple of others. She brings a feminine perspective to Lovesey's writing about crime solving that contrasts nicely to Peter Diamond's more masculine one. In "The Circle", Mallin is brought in to investigate a murder-by-arson of a small-time, crooked book publisher in Chichester. Someone has stuffed petrol-soaked rags through the mail slot of his thatch house, killing the man and destroying most of his house. The victim is quickly linked to a local "writing circle", where an interesting group of would-be authors gather to critique and help each others' writing.

Okay, if an author is going to use a "group" as victims/murderers, he or she should put together an interesting group of people. Peter Lovesey certainly does this in his book; the "writing circle" is filled with off-beat stereotypes one can assume live in an English town. And one by one the members fall victim to death-by-fire. Several possible murderers are eliminated by Hen Mallin and her group by because they actually had alibis for the times of the murders. Finally, though good police work, the murderer is found and the "writing circle" - quite a bit smaller - resumes its meetings.

Peter Lovesey does an excellent job creating interesting characters. The reader is sympathetic to the victims, and even the murderer is somewhat sympathetic. He highlights Hen Mallin and her fellow officers as they try to solve the crime. The book is a very good read.

Down Among the Dead Men
Down Among the Dead Men
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 18.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Inspecting "on the road"..., July 15 2015
Peter Lovesey, the author of "Down Among the Dead Men", has written 15 "Detective Peter Diamond" mysteries. He's also written several others, including a couple who feature Detective Henrietta Mallen. "Hen" Mallin also plays a pretty large part in this novel, so it may be a "two-fer" for Lovesey fans.

In "Down", Peter Diamond is asked/commanded to accompany his superior, Georgina Dallymore, from their Bath "nick" to a town on the Sussex coast to investigate a murder committed seven years previously. The police powers want to bring in "outside" investigators to zero in on a mistake "Hen" Mallin has possibly done in the initial investigation of a murder. Mallin is "on leave" while she waits to either be cleared or charged with the coverup of her niece's participation in the crime.

The plot of the book is rather complicated and involves murder, personal disappearances, drugs, and the students and teachers at a local girls' school. The book is considered a "police procedural" but it is also a book of relationships and contacts. The business relationship at the book's center - that of Diamond and Dallymore - is, I think, the weakest. Georgina Dallymore is written by Lovesey as a neurotic boss, who may, or may not, have carnal designs on Peter Diamond. A major hole in the plot concerns Diamond and Mallin's past. I wasn't particularly satisfied with the discrepancy and Lovesey never really addresses it.

"Down Among the Dead Men" is a good read, particularly for the reader who likes complicated plots.

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
by Barton Swaim
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.68
25 used & new from CDN$ 17.90

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent look at a public life in turmoil..., July 14 2015
Barton Swaim's memoir, "The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics", is excellent reading for a political junkie. Swaim, who writes about his three years as a speechwriter for a certain South Carolinian governor - never mentioned by name - is as honest as possible about the ups-and-downs, the give-and-takes that a political staffer must make in his own moral life as he puts in 16 hour days working for a politician.

People become elected officials for a variety of reasons, but most begin with the idea that they're going into politics to "help others". I think that as the years go by, the positives of the life go down and the negatives go up as the realities of the compromises of political life hit home. Governor Mark Sanford - a two term Republican governor of South Carolina - was a difficult individual to work for and with...and I assume to be married to. Never popular with members of the South Carolinian House and Senate, Sanford had what appears to be a displeasing personality. He had certain ideas and would not compromise them even for the purported good of the state. For instance, he opposed taking government stimulus money in 2009, even though it was for education. Who could be against education? Mark Sanford, evidently...

But in the mid-2000's - while a sitting governor on a government trip to South America, Sanford met an Argentine journalist and he fell in love. Like a thunderbolt, he was hit by Maria Belen Chapur's beauty and charm, and began an extra-marital affair. A long, long distance extra-marital affair. His wife found out about it and in 2009, he took a trip to Argentina to see Chapur. As one who lost his good sense to lust and love, Sanford went missing for several days. His hapless office - where Barton Swaim was employed as a speechwriter - claimed Sanford was "hiking the Appalachian Trail". Sanford was discovered returning to Atlanta from Buenos Aires and the jig was up. Sanford gave a press conference, claiming he had met his true "soulmate", and embarrassing everyone who watched.

Barton Swaim and his colleagues were put into difficult situations as Sanford finished up his term as the lamest of "lame duck" politicians. Never easy to work for, Sanford became even more quarrelsome and contentious to work for. Swaim writes a wonderful look at politics from a staffer's view. I was amazed at the perceptive way Swaim looked at "the governor" and at his own work. Very good book.

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
Price: CDN$ 18.96

4.0 out of 5 stars Reviewing the reviewers..., July 12 2015
Okay, why am I writing a review of Joseph Reagle's book, "Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web"? And, why are you reading my review? I'm writing the review because I like to give my opinion on a book or other product and you're reading the review because you're trying to figure out whether you should spend your time and money on reading the book. It's great for both of us - we're working as a team here. The only problem that may come up is your not liking the book, even though I've recommended it. Because, who am "I"? Just the 32nd reviewer of this book on Amazon/US, so far. You can take a look at my other reviews, read a few, and then decide whether my advise is worth following. Some people will approve this review and others will not approve it. I'll get marked with either a "Yes, this review was helpful" or "No, this review was not helpful". All the "yeses" and "nos" are tabulated daily and my Amazon rank is decided, for that day at least. So, that's where I'm coming from as a reviewer of this book. Where are you coming from as a reader of reviews?

Getting back to Joseph Reagle's book. He looks at the on-line world - including Amazon, Reddit, Facebook, and many other blogs and sites - and asks "who is commenting?" Or, "who is reviewing?" Who is going on these personal rating blogs and asking "Am I hot, or not?" Why do people put their faces and body parts out on the internet? And how do they cope with the responses they often receive?

The world of the blog and news commenters is often cruel. Bloggers have sometimes stopped accepting comments on their blogs - tired of the often sick and cruel responses they receive on their ideas and their writing. I read a few political blogs everyday and I am often surprised and shocked at how mean some of the comments are about political figures in the news. But, I am also sometimes amused by the comments. As a reader - and occasional commenter - my identity is secret. Unlike Amazon where I review under my own name, I comment on blogs using several aliases. As do most people, Reagle writes. Does anonymity give the poster a freedom of expression? It sure does.

Joseph Reagle has raised - and answered - some interesting questions about on-line life in the past 20 or so years. His book is very good.

Diane Von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped
Diane Von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped
by Gioia Diliberto
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.56
35 used & new from CDN$ 8.47

5.0 out of 5 stars A "workman" like bio of Diane von Furstenberg..., July 7 2015
Author Gioia Diliberto has written a plain, not flashy - "workman-like" - biography of one of the most interesting women in fashion, "Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped". This book is not an overblown look at von Furstenberg - you know, the kind of bio that is excerpted in the "National Enquirer", promising salacious looks at the "real" Diane; rather it is a quiet look at the woman, on both the professional and personal levels.

Here's the thing: I truly think after reading the biography that Diane von Furstenberg has led a rather understated life, given all the sex, drugs, bad business practices, and other idiocies that have gone on around her. As the daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz who was emotionally fragile, Diane grew up in Brussels with two parents who were a volatile match. She married young to her life-long friend, Egon von Furstenberg, had two children with him, and developed a famous fashion business in the 1970's, centering around her "wrap dress". The marriage failed but Diane stayed close to Egon, which seemed to be the pattern of most of her relationships with men. The 1970's passed, the phenomenal sales of the dress petered off, and Diane went on to reinvent herself, both socially and financially. Each new boyfriend after her divorce from Egon prompted a slightly "different" Diane than before. Finally, she married her long-time, off-and-on friend, Barry Diller. Diller is gay but their marriage seems to be a partnership of true love and devotion to each other. Who cares what they do in the bedroom? They appear to be "soul-mates", and have done much good on the charitable and political worlds.

Gioia Diliberti's biography is measured and well-written. No salacious tidbits; Diane von Furstenberg seems to be a nice woman who has led an interesting life and has given back to society on many levels.

Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House
Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House
by Susan C. Law
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 35.95
21 used & new from CDN$ 19.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Lords and ladies behaving badly..., July 4 2015
In 1830, the first Earl of Ellenborough was granted a divorce from his wife, the former Lady Jane Digby, in a private Parliamentary action. Ellenborough, who was many years older than his wife, sued for divorce on grounds that Lady Jane had indulged in quite a few affairs and indiscretions with other men. The fact that Ellenborough had, himself, had carried on many affairs was not really brought up, and the trial was chock-full of testimony by the family's servants. One of the men accused of having enjoyed Lady Jane's bed was the Austrian diplomat Prince Felix Schwartzenberg. After the divorce, Jane and Schwartzenberg eloped to Paris, where she bore him two illegitimate children. They never married - Schwartzenberg couldn't marry a divorced woman - and Jane continued her life of searching for love, eventually marrying a Bedouin chief 20 years her junior and living out her long life in Syria.

All this background is important because British author Susan Law has written a fascinating book, "Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House" about the aristocratic infidelity in the Georgian and Regency periods, when lords and ladies, barons and baronesses, and, indeed, many members of the British peerage, were acting with sexual abandonment.

The idea of marriage among the aristocracy was often a financial arrangement at this time. Love - or the idea of love - was hoped to evolve by the married couple, but often times it didn't and the marriages failed. However, divorce in the 1700's was definitely frowned upon and very few were granted. Basically, they were expensive and were generally sought by the wealthy. The middle class and poor had to grin and bear it when marital discord flared between spouses. For the wealthy, discreet infidelity was often engaged in by both partners. But here and there, husbands began to sue for divorce, using the devise of "crim-con", which as short for "criminal conversation", or adultery to make the "other man" pay up to the cuckolded husband. And newspaper articles and magazine pieces were appearing in the press of the time giving details that were often embarrassing in the extreme.

Okay, who among us doesn't read gossip columns, even "on the sly"? Don't we get a strange sense of satisfaction in reading about the bad behavior of those who supposedly are our "betters"? And since these "betters" were wealthy and had country houses and city houses and acted with impunity where ever they were, there was a lot of "looking through the keyhole", to gain evidence.

Susan Law's book is full of cases of infidelity of the period and the price those indulging in a tickle in the bed often paid. For women, because the law at the time, considered the couple's children as solely the possession of the husband, most lost custody of their children. For the wife's lover, because the basis of "crim-con" was compensation for the breach of fidelity with the other's wife, large sums were often paid to the cheated-on husbands. (Curiously, there was little going the other way; women suing their husband's lovers...)

Law has written a lively book about an interesting subject. She gives many examples of these members of the peerage acting very, very badly. Looking back two hundred or so years, we can see that people haven't changed.

(For readers interested in Lady Jane Digby and her fascinating life as she searched for love, there are two excellent biographies. One is "A Scandalous Life: The Story of Jane Digby", by Mary Lovell, is still in print. However, "Passion's Child: The Extraordinary Life of Jane Digby" by Margaret Fox Schmidt is no longer in print but is worth buying from a used book dealer. I think the Schmidt book is slightly better than the Lovell book, but both are well-worth reading.)

Being Nixon: A Man Divided
Being Nixon: A Man Divided
Offered by Random House Canada, Incorp.
Price: CDN$ 17.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Non-ideological..., June 18 2015
I am not reviewing Richard Nixon, but rather the biography of him by Evan Thomas, "Being Nixon: A Man Divided".

There are two kind of political biographies. The first are those that are written with an "agenda" - either partisan or personal - and the second are those written to be non-partisan. The first kind of biographies may be more "fun" to read - particularly if you agree with the "agenda" - than the second, but "Being Nixon" is an excellent example of a fact-based, opinion-free book. I recently read and reviewed "Mormon Rivals: The Romneys, the Huntsmans, and the Pursuit of Power", and found it to also be free of political ideology.

Evan Thomas - an author with an impeccable East Coast/Ivy League pedigree - would be the kind of person Richard Nixon would find very little kinship with. Nixon was raised in a small rural town - Whittier - outside Los Angeles, the son of struggling parents. His father was an unsuccessful business man but his mother, Hannah, urged her sons to succeed in life. She was a fervent Quaker, and was a life-long inspiration to Richard. After graduating from Whittier College, Nixon was offered a free ride in law school from Duke University. After law school, Nixon applied to "white shoe" law firms but was turned down. He joined the US Navy after Pearl Harbor and was sent to the South Pacific. When he returned to California, he was "noted" by the local Republican power broker and offered a chance to run for US Congress. He campaigned hard, won the election, and then four years later to the US Senate, after a fairly dirty campaign. He joined Dwight Eisenhower on the national ticket for Vice-President in 1952, but was laid low by rumors of a slush fund. Most everyone reading this review will have heard of Nixon's famous "Checkers" speech, which saved his place on the ticket. The book - and Nixon's life - continue from there.

Evan Thomas writes about Richard Nixon with a good mix of the private and public man. He doesn't shirk in pointing out Nixon's weaknesses, but also talks about his strengths. Thomas looks at those people who surrounded Nixon - from his wife and daughters who faithfully supported him in his public life - to his political friend and cronies who Nixon leaned on for advice and support. But what Evan Thomas does so well in his biography of Richard Nixon is to define the man and give context to his decisions. "Being Nixon" is well-worth reading.

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