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Jill Meyer (United States)
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Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle
Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle
by Mark Braude
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 29.36
26 used & new from CDN$ 6.46

4.0 out of 5 stars A fun read..., April 20 2016
I was a bit disappointed when I finished Mark Braude's book, "Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle". The book I had enjoyed reading ended in the 1930's. Then I looked at the title again, and realised why the book ended when it did. Monte Carlo, part of Monaco, really had been the product of speculation, wild ideas, and sometimes shady operators. Was the time period Braude wrote about the end of the speculative era? Did things calm down after the 1930's?

Mark Braude has written a snappy, fun book about the creation of Monte Carlo. He begins by examining the German spas which were set up in the early 1800's to provide a place to both "take the waters"...and have a little fun on dry land. That fun often included gambling and the spa towns attracted plenty of high rollers - both royal and just wealthy. The spa and casino of Bad Homburg, located in Hesse, had been started up by twin brothers, Louis and Francois Blanc. Francois was lured away to Monaco in the early 1860's to revive a not-so-thriving casino. Francois Blanc worked his magic, turning around the poky casino and livening the place up with a flashy hotel and other entertainment. But the money-making casino was still the major draw to those seeking fun in the south of France.

Monte Carlo and its allure was made even more reachable by increased train service to the rocky area just east of Nice. The train service and other attractions were made known by a directed publicity campaign. Some smart minds were behind the advertising, and Monte Carlo became "the" place to see and be seen. Braude ends his book with the "Circuit de Monaco" road race, run through the streets of Monaco.

Mark Braude does an excellent job of looking at the people who created the myth and the reality of Monte Carlo. The book is a fun read. So, why am I giving it four stars instead of five? Because, if ever a work of non-fiction needed illustrations, this is the book. There are three maps of the area I found, but I looked through the entire Kindle version and could find no pictures of either the people behind the development of Monte Carlo, or of the place itself. Maybe photographs will be added to future editions. They are sorely needed.

The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World
The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World
Price: CDN$ 17.00

5.0 out of 5 stars An "elegant" look at migration..., April 18 2016
When Americans think about migration from eastern Europe, I think we concentrate on the immigration of people from there to here. Millions of people left eastern European lands and moved to the United States in waves basically beginning in the 1840's. We know what they were looking for when they came here, but what were they leaving behind in the places they emigrated from? And what were those places like after great swathes of people left? In her new book, "The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World", University of Chicago professor Tara Zahra has produced an elegant piece of historical writing explaining what the effects were on the places and the people "left behind".

Please remember that Tara Zahra is only writing about the emigrants from eastern European countries. Those from the UK, Scandinavia, France, etc, are not referred to here in her book. Their experiences - both in the places they were leaving and the places they were going - were largely different from those from the eastern European countries and Russia .In the 1800's and up to the early 1900's, Christian emigrants were looking for economic prosperity in the United States; the same reason for Jewish emigrants, who were also fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms. What they found here was not always the "Golden Medina"; rather it was a land where the immigrant had to work hard to get ahead. In the countries they had left, often villages and city areas were left empty by those who had left seeking a better life. After the First World War, the reasons to leave became more political as the world-wide Depression and the repressive regimes gave rise to wide anti-Semitism. And after WW2, the migrations were all over Europe as Displaced People found a way to return "home" after being forcibly moved by war and post-war politics. she ends her book alluding to the most recent migrations in eastern Europe.

Tara Zahra's book is a fascinating look at both the politics and economics of migration. Her writing is fluid and the book is a pleasure to read.

Spellman Six: The Next Generation (The Spellmans series)
Spellman Six: The Next Generation (The Spellmans series)
Offered by Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 16.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The last one..., April 17 2016
One of the wonderful things about a series book is the chance it gives a reader to revisit old friends and catch up with their on-going lives. Nowhere is this more true than in Lisa Lutz's "Spellman" series. The Spellmans are a family living in San Francisco who run a PI firm. Their three children have all been brought up as operatives in the firm and only the oldest - David - leaves the family firm to become a lawyer. The two younger children, Isabel and Rae, work for their parents and by the end of the series, Isabel owns the firm and her parents are lookers-on in their partial retirement.

Okay, you either like Lisa Lutz's "Spellman" series...or you don't. "The Last Word: A Spellman Novel" is the sixth - and presumably last - book in the series. It's a bit of a harsh book, with very few of the gentle laughs Lutz provided in the first four books. (I didn't read the fifth book). The book is harsh because Lutz has to end her visits with the PI Spellman firm and for an author to end a series, she must put in actual "endings", both emotional and physical. The book ties up loose ends with a bit of wishful longing for the characters. Maybe Lisa Lutz will return with more Spellmans, but I doubt it. This book, her last, is a satisfying summing up of our old friends. We'll miss them.

The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece
The Vanishing Velázquez: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece
Offered by Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A search for a lost painting..., April 15 2016
About 35 years ago, I noticed a painting in a window of a local art gallery/semi-curiosity shop in the Chicago suburb where I lived. It was a largish painting of a young girl in Spanish court garb, and looked for all the world like a painting by Diego Velazquez. The painting was priced at $2000 - well-beyond my budget at the time - but I would visit the shop window almost daily for a few months, until it was sold. Could this painting be a Velazquez? For a mere $2000? I never would know but I later found out that several other people had eyed the painting, thinking, "maybe..." Now, I know that I should have found the $2000 from somewhere and bought the painting. Because, even if it wasn't a true Velazquez, it would have taken a place in my heart. He and Albrecht Durer have long been my favorite painters, both because of their art, but also for the history they portrayed.

British art historian Laura Cumming has written a book, "The Vanishing Velazques: A 19th Century Bookseller's Obsession With a Lost Masterpiece", about John Snare, who purchases what he thinks is a portrait of Prince Charles, painted by Diego Velazquez on the English prince's trip to Spain to - maybe - marry a Spanish princess. The trip, which occurred in 1623, was the only time Charles was known to be in Spain, and Diego Velazquez - aside from two trips to Italy - was never in England. But John Snare thought the painting was a Velazquez, bought it, and led the rest of his life in homage to the painting. He displayed his treasure in England and Scotland for years - suffering through law suits - before leaving his family in Reading, and moving, with the painting, to New York City. He continued to show the painting, earning money that kept him in a precarious financial state til his death. He never returned to England and only once was reunited with a son, who was born after he and the painting absconded to the United States. John Snare truly lived his life in thrall of a painting.

Laura Cumming writes about the hunt for both the provenance of Snare's painting, as well as the hunt for the painting itself. It seems to have disappeared into the mists of time and may have been destroyed physically or lost in the back rooms of a museum or in the attic of a country house. She takes the reader on a journey to both the courts of Kings James I and Charles I, as well as that of Spain's Philip IV. It was in this court where the genius of Diego Velazquez was seen in all it's glory; his paintings of court members and commoners alike give the Hapsburg Philip IV its place in history. Cumming describes both Velazquez's subjects and painting style and how that style influenced painters from then on.

Laura Cumming's book is part mystery, part character-study, and part a history of the art and of the times the art was painted. My only complaint - and I'm not sure if its important - is that the display of the art plates in the Kindle version of the book is not great. I guess that most ebooks are lacking in adequate pictorial display. But Cumming's book is marvelous reading for anyone interested in history, art, and how art keeps its place in history.

I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams
I Saw the Light: The Story of Hank Williams
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent biography..., April 7 2016
I bought this book after seeing the movie, "I Saw the Light", with Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams. (The movie has received mixed reviews, but I thought it was quite good.) Colin Escott's biography of Williams - formerly titled "Hank Williams: The Biography" - is one of the best biographies I've read. From the beginning of his life to the end, Hiram "Hank" Williams was a walking country-western song. Beset by alcoholic and pill addictions that may have stemmed from physical pains, Williams flashed onto the musical scene before his life ended in the back seat of a car, while being driven to a concert in Canton, Ohio, a mere 4 years after gaining prominence.

Country music historian Colin Escott seems to understand Hank Williams and his times and his songs and his influence on both those times and those songs. Born in 1923 in a southern Alabama town to a family that seemed to have the vicissitudes of life down pat. The father, Lon, was a drifter, and the mother, Lillie, saw musical promise in her young son. He grew up in small towns, eventually ending up in Montgomery, where he began working with other singers with a purpose of singing at the "Grand Ol' Opry". He wrote songs - never as successful for other singers as they were for himself - and began a rise through the Shreveport, LA radio barn shows. He married a firecracker - Audrey - who battled his mother for managing Hank's career and their marriage was combustible from the start. Depressing drinking and fighting and philandering on both sides of the marriage. Divorce...then musical fame, beginning in 1949. But the good times - and the bad marriage - didn't last through the haze of liquor and prescription pills. Another marriage followed and so did what seemed to be an untimely death...but probably wasn't. The man was just "wore out" in both body and spirit by his 29th year.

Escott's biography is a straight forward one. He's kind and sympathetic to his subject and understands America of the times (though he does refer to a politician as "standing" for office, rather than "running" for office.) and how country music was never as "pure" after Williams' death. Would Hank Williams be as much of a success today? Escott reminds the reader of how "packaged", "molded" and "handled" today's music makers are. Williams doesn't seem to have been the type that took to handling. He was his own man and his music proved his individuality.

Journey to Munich: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
Journey to Munich: A Maisie Dobbs Novel
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Price: CDN$ 17.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Another in the series..., March 31 2016
Author Jacqueline Winspear created her "Maisie Dobbs" character in her first series book, "Maisie Dobbs", back in 2003.There've been 12 books so far, with this book, "Journey to Munich", as the latest. From the beginning of her series, the character of Maisie Dobbs was drawn very carefully; with an interesting back story that included both Maisie and people who influenced her life's journey. The plots of the first six or so were equally well drawn, but after with her seventh or so book, it seemed as if Winspear was bored with her characters. Both the plots and characters seemed almost to be "phoned in". Her previous book, "A Dangerous Place", was an improvement on those few middling ones, and this one seems to be moving in the right direction.

As long-time readers know, the Dobbs books are set in London, and most were examinations of the city and it's people after the Great War. Maisie had psychiatric training from her mentor, Maurice Blanche, and ran a detective agency. She married, was widowed, sought time and space to recover. As the series continued, time moved on as well. Soon we were in 1938, as the Nazis had come to full power in Germany. Maisie was asked by the government agents if she could go to Munich and extricate a British national who was captured by the Nazis and was being held at Dachau. The German government agreed to free the scientist as long as he was accompanied home by a close relative. As the man's daughter was dying, Maisie was hired by the British government to take her place. She was trained and sent off to Munich. She was also supposed to find the daughter of some acquaintances she had a history with, and persuade her to return to London.

Okay, by 1938 the full extent of the Nazis grasp on Germany should have been known by someone as smart as Maisie Dobbs. However, once in Germany, she questioned why and with who and where she should be going. Call me naive, but I sure wouldn't be snooping around a boarded up building, knowing that the SS had broken up an illegal printing operation there and was probably keeping a look out on the building. I also wouldn't be trying to persuade a young woman with a sketchy past and present to return home. Particularly since that young woman was known to have Nazi ties.

In "Journey to Munich" the plot is a bit of a stretch but the characters in Maisie's circle to come together. It's a satisfying read as long as you don't ask yourself too many questions. I'm glad Jacqueline Winspear seems to moving back to her original good books.

Fortunoff's Child: A Novel
Fortunoff's Child: A Novel
Price: CDN$ 9.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Two stories?, March 27 2016
Leslie Tonner's novel, "Fortunoff's Child", was originally published in 1980. Tonner was one of a few Jewish women writers like Gail Parent, Tova Reich, Laurie Colwin, Olivia Goldsmith, and Susan Isaacs who wrote comedies-of-manners about Jewish women. Their books were mainly smart, funny, perceptive, and there weren't too many sad-sacks among the lead characters. Some of these authors - Olivia Goldsmith and Laurie Colwin - died way too early, and the others seem not to have written much lately. And now, Leslie Tonner's novels are being released in ebook form.

"Fortunoff's Child" really seems to be two stories in one novel. The primary one is about Josie Goodman and her growing up with a Dr Joyce Brothers-like mother, a scientist father, and a Hari Krishna-brother. She has two husbands in her past - both unsuitable - and Tonner turns a caustic eye on Dr Maxine Fortunoff, Josie's mother, and how she influences those around her. Tonner's wit is sparkling in these segments. However, where the book takes a turn is the child Josie has with her second husband. The boy is retarded in some way and has been very slow since birth. Nicky's father has taken off, leaving Josie to raise Nicky. The sections of the book including Nicholas are poignant and well-written, but somehow out of step with the levity of the rest of the book. The ending was brought together in a satisfactory way, but still I put the book down, a bit puzzled about the story.

Okay, the reason I pointed out the original publishing date of the book as circa 1980 is the use of the term "mongoloid" child in the book. I don't think Tonner used it instead of Down syndrome; she does refer to "Down syndrome" in its own right. I found the word jarring, and I am NOT a particularly "PC" person. I wonder if it will strike other readers the same way and I'm a bit surprised it wasn't edited out of the new edition. But maybe it was decided to keep it in because either no one noticed its inclusion or we readers were deemed as sophisticated enough not to object. In any case, I did enjoy "Fortunoff's Child".

Curtain Call
Curtain Call
by Anthony Quinn
Edition: Paperback
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.97

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting novel set in 1936..., March 25 2016
This review is from: Curtain Call (Paperback)
British author Anthony Quinn's novel, "Curtain Call" is part murder mystery and part character-examination. The murder mystery part - there's a Jack-the-Ripper-like killer in 1936 London - is not the main part of the story, but put in when the author needs an event to involve a character with. Mainly the book is a look at various people, largely involved in the art and theater worlds in London.

The main character, society painter Stephen Wyley, is having an affair with actress Nina Land. He's married, she's not. The two are in a hotel one afternoon, enjoying each other's company, when they hear an argument in the next room. When Nina knocks on the door, she sees a young woman fleeing from a man who had obviously been beating her. This occurs against the back-drop of a serial murder scare. Nina thinks the man is the "Tie-Pin Killer", and wants to go to the police but Stephen persuades her to let him draw a picture from her description to show the police. Nina also meets up with the young woman who had gotten away from the would-be killer. As the story continues, it snowballs, involving neo-Nazi politics, the gay community in London, the theater and arts community, and various friends and family members of the above groups. The plot is almost like looking through a kaleidoscope as the various characters come together and then combine in a different plot point.

The book is set in 1936, but the author only refers obliquely to the Abdication. He's focuses more on the fire that burned down the Crystal Palace and the British Nazi party and their actions.

The characters are all interesting. There are no caricatures among them, and as a reader, I "cared" about them and was interested in their fates. I think the author was, too, as they were so well drawn. This was a strangely satisfying book and I'll look for more books by Anthony Quinn.

The Two-Family House: A Novel
The Two-Family House: A Novel
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 13.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good debut novel..., March 9 2016
All families have secrets and the only question about the secrets is if the family can keep them from being exposed. In Lynda Cohen Loigman's debut novel, "The Two Family House", it seems that the Berman family of first Brooklyn and later Long Island, there's one act that sisters-in-law commit that carry consequences on through the family into the second generation.

Abe and Mort Berman have built a box manufacturing business into a successful family business. Both brothers have unique talents that have blended to make the business work, and they share a house with their wives and children in Brooklyn. One brother has four sons, and the other brother has three daughters. Their wives, Helen and Rose, are close but both are aware that their husbands - in particular Mort - would love to have another child that would be of the opposite sex of their existing children. Both women fall pregnant at the same time and their children are born at home during a raging blizzard. I think most readers can guess what the secret the two women hold close til it simply cannot be kept secret any longer.

Lynda Cohen Loigman's strength as a writer lies in the depiction of her characters, rather than in her plotting. Loigman's characters are well-drawn. No "unreliable characters" for Loigman; her people act pretty close to how they're depicted. As a reader, I don't like "unreliable characters" I cannot "trust" to be who they are. (You might know I read a lot of non-fiction!) Loigman's setting are the post-WW2 years, when mores and social conduct change fairly rapidly. Her Berman family is shown as coming to grips with such changes in both subtle and obvious ways.

I found Lynda Cohen Loigman's novel quite enjoyable and even a bit thought-provoking.

The Ditto List
The Ditto List
by Stephen Greenleaf
Edition: Hardcover
3 used & new from CDN$ 12.54

5.0 out of 5 stars Dt.T. stands for what?, March 7 2016
This review is from: The Ditto List (Hardcover)
Back in the 1980's and 90's, a lawyer named Stephen Greenleaf wrote a series of novels featuring San Francisco private eye, John Marshall Tanner. They were clever reads but more attuned to the simpler times in which they were written. These Tanner novels have been recently reissued in ebook form, along with a couple of standalone novels, one being "The Ditto List". I had enjoyed all of Greenleaf's novels, but in particular, "The Ditto List" and when I saw it was now available again, I downloaded it.

The "ditto list" was a list of divorce court cases that family-law attorney D.T. Jones prepared for weekly court action. Most of his clientele were women, usually poor and downtrodden, who wanted to be divorced from their often violent, usually nere-do-well husbands. Oh, every now and again he represented women from higher economic ranges, but his bread and butter were "ditto listers". D.T. was often asked what his initials stood for, and he always had a different answer, depending on who was asking. D.T. was himself sort of on the skids; he drank a bit too much, gambled a lot too much, but the reader and his ex-wife, Michele and daughter, Heather, knew that under D.T.'s surface was a heart of gold.

Stephen Greenleaf's book is an excellent look at a flawed man who knows his flaws better than anyone else does, but tries to overcome them. He represents women in cases that cried out for do-gooder lawyering and D.T. is a man whose innate cleverness displays itself mostly at the right time and in the right circumstances. "The Ditto List" is a bit melancholy but the excellent ending is well-deserved.

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