Friday, September 19, 2014

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

The Whodunit book group met for the first time at R.J. Julia in Madison, CT on Wednesday evening. There were five of us and we discussed William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace, winner of the 2014 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Ordinary Grace is a story told by a middle aged man about the summer of 1961 when he was 13 and death visited his small town in Minnesota not once, but three times.

We all enjoyed the book and agreed that it was the coming of age story & time period that captivated us more than the mystery/mysteries of the book. We actually thought some of the mystery aspects of the story, particularly how Frank came to his realizations about murder suspects, were some of the weaker aspects of the writing. (And by 'weaker' I don't mean 'bad,' these moments in the story simply were not on par with the rest of the writing, which is excellent.) That said, it is a good mystery and the characters are all wonderfully drawn.

I didn't grow up in a small town, but the urban neighborhood I grew up in had the same atmosphere as the New Bremen, MN created by Krueger: kids out by themselves all day, playing ball, playing on the train tracks, getting into trouble, getting out of scrapes, negotiating bullies, trying to make sense of adults, etc. Thankfully, I never stumbled on a dead body in my neighborhood.

While reading Ordinary Grace another novel hovered in the back of my mind: To Kill A Mockingbird. I read TKAM decades ago as a teen in high school, and the flavor of that classic has stayed with me all these years. I wasn't surprised to learn that TKAM is one of Krueger's favorite novels.

Ordinary Grace is a beautiful book, full of nostalgia for a time gone by and a way of life that for most of us no longer exists. There are also interesting reflections on the after effects of war, how people cope with loss & grief, and how the temperaments of adults shape children. I highly recommend it to both mystery lovers and literary fiction readers for the sense of place, character development, and exploration of relationships.

You can read the first chapter on Krueger's website--click here.

Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger
Atria, 2013
Source: bought it

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Civil War buffs and those interested in 19th century and women's history will definitely want to check out this book. Knowledge of the Civil War is not required to enjoy it.

Abbott traces the heroic actions of four women during the Civil War. Two for the North and two for the South.

For the South:
Belle Boyd and Rose O'Neal Greenhow.
In 1861 Boyd was 17, a bold, adventurous girl from Virginia. Her story begins when she shoots a Yankee at point blank range and doesn't bat an eye.
Greenhow was 43 in 1861, a widow deeply intrenched in the politics of Washington, D.C. who used her connections to head a spy ring, passing on important information about northern plans to southern leadership.
Both women are depicted as boisterously committed to their cause, but both also seemed to have a need of self-aggrandizement that made me, at times, roll my eyes at their words.

For the North:
Emma Edmonds, aka, Franklin Thompson and Elizabeth Van Lew.
In 1861 Edmonds was 19 and had already been living as a man. Originally from Canada she enlisted in the northern army in Michigan as a man and served as a battlefield nurse, then as a letter carrier, and finally as a spy.
Van Lew was 43 at the outbreak of the war, a wealthy Virginia "spinster" and abolitionist with deep ties to the North who helped northern soldiers and slaves escape and became the head of a spy network, passing on important information about southern plans to northern leadership.
Both of these women are portrayed as more cautious and less flamboyant than their southern counterparts and come off as being much more grounded.

There's a fifth woman involved who should be given accolades. No matter the risks taken by Boyd, Greenhow, Edmondson, and Van Lew, they were all white women which meant they'd perhaps have at least a chance of talking their way out of trouble if caught. It was war and spies were executed, so I don't mean to belittle their risks, but Mary Jane Bowser, on the other hand, was born a slave to the Van Lew family. She was freed after Elizabeth's father died and educated in Philadelphia. She'd been working as a servant for Elizabeth who asked her to go undercover as a slave servant and act as a sleeper agent in the home of not just any high ranking confederate, but in the mansion of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Intense, right?

While chronologically weaving the story of these women, Abbott includes tidbits about the war and what conditions were like for soldiers and civilians. Like how "depraved hucksters" sold "Yankee skulls" and rebel women wore brooches made out of the bones of soldiers scavenged from battlefields.

One of the most startling mentions was about a widow who was too sick to move from her bed and whose house happened to be in the middle of the battlefield at Manassas. Her foot was shot off  during the fighting and she died the next day.

There is also a scene where Edmons/Thompson undergoes a physical examination to become a spy. She worried about her sex being uncovered, but the focus of the exam was on her head. Phrenology was supposed to reveal one's character:
She silently prayed that her head did not betray her sex; phrenological studies on women often concluded that their organs of "adhesiveness," cautiousness, and procreation were so prominent as to elongate, and even deform, the middle of the back of the head. The doctor poked and prodded with his caliper and scratched notes on a pad. Emma felt stifled inside her frock coat, drops of sweat sliding down between her breasts. He determined, finally, that Frank Thompson indeed had the head of a man, with "largely developed" organs of secretiveness and combativeness. Emma acted as though she'd expected to hear as much, and took the oat of allegiance.
Famous figures of the time make their way into the story and add to its richness: Nathaniel Hawthorne is mentioned as are Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, and Mary Chestnut. Thomas Carlyle plays a role, as does Napoleon III. Then there's Pinkerton and his crew, including at least one female detective. As always, Mary Todd Lincoln is mocked for her plainness and northern General McClellan is portrayed as a do-nothing general. However, on the southern side of the fence, instead of General Lee stealing the show Stonewall Jackson gets much more ink in this book.

This is a thick book, 544 pages, and at times it felt like it. It seems that the repetitive structure of going back and forth between four stories and the lack of a sharper unifying drive within the narrative made it was slow going here & there. However, the book was never a slog to get through, it simply isn't a swift historical narrative so don't expect a read like, say, The Devil in the White City.

One historical inaccuracy jumped out at me from the second page of the preface where Abbott sets the scene of troops pouring into each capital in the spring of 1861. She mentions that "taps" is played at night. That gave me pause because having read The Killer Angels earlier this summer where the bugle calls of General Butterfield are discussed and which led me to read a bit more about Butterfield, it is well documented that Taps wasn't written until July 1862. Some may excuse this as a minor inaccuracy, but it did cause me to be on guard as a reader.

For example, Abbott makes a point of stating that she didn't make up any dialog, but she did, it seems, imagine scenes that, while adding some spice (such as Belle waiting for General Butler with her hands on her hips and impatiently tapping her foot) or giving closure to a section (like Rose  "spreading" her daughter across her lap to tell her a story and making sure the good guys win) also caused me to stop and wonder if these things really happened. Leaving the flow of a narrative to check footnotes for documentation is not something a storyteller wants the reader to do on a regular basis.

The above are minor complaints compared to the overall enjoyment of reading about these courageous women who risked their lives to fight for what they believed in. This is an engaging and important book, one that shows women's active participation in the waging of warfare long before they had the right to vote.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
Karen Abbott
HarperCollins, 9/2/2014
Source: uncorrected proof for TLC Book Tours

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Little Free Library, Austrian Style

I recently spend a few days in Obertraun, Austria while on vacation.

We stayed at the Seehotel, which is across the lake from the more touristy town of Hallstatt. While Hallstatt is beautiful, it's also crowded with tourists from all points on the globe and rooms are booked way in advance.

I was thrilled to see this bookcase in one of the common areas of the Seehotel. Most of the books were in German, some in Russian, and a few in English.
The only English novel I spied on that bookcase. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe.
Obertraun was perfect for our stay and the day we spent in Hallstatt was fun--full of browsing shops, visits to churches, and a hike up the mountain. However, there is no bookstore in either Obertraun or Hallstatt.

Local businessman Wolfgang Müllegger took matters into his own hands earlier this summer and brought books to the people, without using public funds. He designed his own variation on what we call, here in States, Little Free Libraries. Bücherschränks is what they're called in the newspaper article that someone left inside the free library, which means 'bookcase.'  Müllegger donated three free libraries, one of which is conveniently located behind the Seehotel on the shore of the Lake Hallstatt.

For a list of such free public bookcases (öffentlicher Bücherschränke) in German speaking countries check out this Wikipedia page. It's in German, but there are pictures.You'll notice that most of these really are bookcases and not little.
We first stumbled upon the Bücherschränk that's behind the Seehotel hotel in the dark while on a walk exploring the grounds after dinner. That's me above posing with it the next morning to give you an idea of its size.
There was a thunderstorm one night during our stay and the wind whipping down the mountains and off the lake make those sturdy legs a must! The morning after the storm I was surprised none of the books inside were wet or even damp (of course I had to check on would've, too).
A newspaper clipping someone left inside, dated July 2, 2014.
A stamp to use on your contribution to the cause, identifying the book as coming from the free bookcase in Obertraun.
Some of the books.
My German isn't good enough to take a book, but if it were this book would've been my choice.

I want to go back!
Note: If you should ever book a stay at the Seehotel or any hotel in Obertraun it will be helpful to know that the building numbers won't help you find your destination. After driving around, baffled by the numbers on the houses--24 next to 12 next to 101--we stopped to ask for directions. Our GPS was useless. A woman explained that the building numbers represent the order in which a house was built. Oh, okay. In that case 2 next to 89 next to 43 makes sense.

One night while walking home from dinner a car pulled up and a young man got out and asked if we knew where the Seehotel was. He was Korean. After fumbling around in German it came out that he spoke English (very well) and so we were able to give him directions with landmarks. We all had a good laugh about that later at the hotel.

Monday, September 1, 2014

New Book Group and July & August Recap

Well hello September! You sure crept up on me.

In fact, so did August. I never did do a recap for July.

But before I get into my recap, I want to let you all know that R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, CT has a new mystery/thriller book group starting up this month that I'll be facillitating.

Our first meeting is Wednesday, September 17th at 7pm and we'll discuss Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger.

If you live in the area I hope you'll join us!

Have you read anything by William Kent Krueger? Ordinary Grace will be my first by him. I've heard nothing but good things about his novels from other readers and bloggers like Jennifer over at the Relentless Reader who reviewed Ordinary Grace last summer.

Now, on to the recap. Links go to my reviews. I have plans to review unlinked books, but we'll see how that goes. Pre- and post- vacation threw me out of my routine and I'm hoping to be back in the saddle with my projects this week.

Here's what I read in July and August


  • The Quick by Lauren Owen -- Touted as the literary vampire novel of the year. Decent plot, got off to a good start, but I thought the story fizzled out towards the end.
  • The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara -- So glad to have finally read this one. Caught me a bit of a Civil War bug with this one.
  • The Bone Seeker by M.J. McGrath -- Solid mystery novel, a good read. Review copy.
  • This is the Water by Yannick Murphy --  Interesting thriller both in form and content. Review copy.
  • Steel Magnolias by Roberty Harling -- If you liked the movie, read the play. It left me jonesing to see a stage production.
  • Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little -- Did the starlet who spent 10 years in the slammer for murdering her mother really kill her mother? I didn't really care, but I enjoyed reading this one. Fresh narrative voice. Review copy.
  • Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie -- Released date 9/23/14. Historical fiction about the men behind the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s). Look for review on 9/11. Review copy.


  • Born on the 4th of July by Ron Kovic -- I was curious about this book ever since I saw the movie in 1989. So glad to have finally read it. It's a brilliant time capsule of the Vietnam era and a combat veteran's experience of dealing with and healing his war wounds.
  • Women Heroes of World War I by Kathyrn J. Atwood -- YA history. Excellent reading for teens and adults. If you want to read something about women and WWI, this is a solid jumping off point. Review copy.
  • Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathyrn J. Prince -- I always thought the Titanic was the worst maritime disaster and never heard of about this tragedy where over 9,000 civilians died when the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Russian sub in the Baltic toward the end of WWII. Fascinating subject matter, but the editing could have been stronger.

Currently Reading:

  • The Long Way Home by Louise Penny -- If you're not yet reading Louise Penny stop denying yourself! Get thee to the library and check out Still Life, the first Chief Inspector Gamache mystery.
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel J. Levitin -- I'm not crazy about the title. "Thinking Straight" brings to mind the scared straight programs of the 90s or conversion therapy, but I enjoying reading about the science of thinking and strategies for self improvement.
  • Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do by Wallace J. Nichols -- Listening to the audio version. I already know how important being around water is for me, so Nichols is preaching to the choir in my case. After all, my wife and I spent over two years working three jobs each to make our move to the Connecticut shoreline happen, and we live down the road from a lake. Water makes us happy, that's for sure. Granted, it hasn't made me a better blogger as I've spent more time in the water than blogging this summer, but maybe in the long run it'll help make me a better writer. :)  Did you know water sports are being used to help people with addictions and PTSD? Lots of good stuff in this book.
So, what have you been reading? Are there any stand out novels or nonfiction studies you'd like to recommend?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ida Tarbell & Willa Cather

From Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker by Kathleen Brady:

"There was a new writer on staff [at McClure's Magazine], a former teacher in her late twenties, who had lived in Virginia and Nebraska and acquired the worst accents of both. Only McClure and Roseboro liked her. The rest thought Willa Cather a disgruntled "yes-man," according to Curtis Brady, one of several Brady brothers on the business staff. Cather wanted to meet Ida Tarbell, the woman writer who had made a name for herself but Tarbell had no time. Ida "didn't cotton to her, nor discount her either," according to Roseboro. In later years, Tarbell expressed great admiration for Death Comes for the Archbishop and defended Cather's way of guarding her privacy to protect her working hours" (134).

Click here to see a picture of Cather with Ida Tarbell taken years later in 1924 when Cather was 51 and Tarbell 67.
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