Category: What we’ve been reading



Cover Three Bags Full

REVIEW BY HELEN KRUMMENACKER

     Mystery stories have to work hard to set themselves apart from the crowd. Some do it with an underlying nonfiction theme, such as mystery novels/recipe books. Special settings can be useful. Most of all, characters are a way to be distinctive and memorable. There’s an entire bookshelf in our house of mysteries with animal detectives.

Cats make up the majority of animal detectives, able to roam freely and unobtrusively. Three Bags Full takes a different, and possibly unique path. As the name suggests, the mystery is being worked on by… sheep.


It begins with the discovery of the death of their shepherd. Even they can tell it is not natural causes, because he has had a spade stuck in his body. Whether it is the cause of death or not, it is a definite sign of violence and took place in their pasture, at night, while they were in a barn. They are disturbed; it is very like and yet unlike a wolf attack. The sheep vow that, as he protected them and cared for them in life, they would see his killer brought to justice.


From early on, it is evident the sheep are unusual (and some of the most interesting subplots come from the secrets of the sheep themselves being revealed). Even so, they are terribly unsuited for the task ahead of them– to solve a murder, one must understand how human society functions, and they start out knowing so little about it that they draw conclusions like the priest’s name is God, because they heard him welcome people to the house of God. He seems to talk about himself a shocking amount. (I find their attempts to understand religion quite amusing.) They also have to understand those parts of their shepherd’s life that don’t involve them, and, indeed, we the readers are somewhat puzzled by the parts that do. He seems to have deliberately brought in sheep that might have been in danger elsewhere, won’t sell any of them, reads books to them, and wants to take them on a tour of Europe.

The best thing, for me, is that the write, Leonie Swann, puts so much empathy into working out the way sheep might think. They aren’t little humans in wool coats; they are nervous, social, forgetful (except for Mopple, the Memory Sheep, who acts as a sort of living notebook for the flock), and they can gather information through their sense of smell. They also have their own culture; human society may be a mystery to them, but they have their own aphorisms, superstitions, and generational knowledge. Within the flock, each sheep still has individual identity. Miss Maple is extremely clever, Othello is brave, Cloud is kindly, Zora has imagination, and there are many more special traits and sheep.

     I would recommend this even without having finished it yet. It is the kind of book where the experience of reading and thinking about it make the journey a joy, regardless of how the plot wraps up in the end.

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Death Light Moon

REVIEW BY HELEN KRUMMENACKER

Death by the Light of the Moon by Joan Hess was something I picked up from a Friends of the Library sale, a paperback mystery marking itself as A Claire Malloy Mystery. I’d never heard of the series, but the description was interesting. An eccentric, rich elderly lady dies the evening of a party that was meant to reveal her heirs. The protagonist is there by virtue of being a daughter-in-law, and barely knows the family.

The basic plot is grounded in the “cozy” style of mystery– the murder takes place in a somewhat remote area, limiting the suspects mostly to the family, with a few hints about something more being afoot. The protagonist is not a professional detective, just someone with a knack for coming across trouble and ask questions. As the story goes on, it becomes a bit less cozy in both the genre and descriptive sense, as more bodies turn up and the protagonist becomes a target, giving a bit more of a thriller vibe at times.

I found this to be not only satisfying as a mystery. The author has a sense of humor and a way with words. The prose makes for a light, easy read, and yet there are digs, gentle in some cases, hard in others, at real ways in which worse aspects of human nature tend to surface, reminiscent of Jane Austen, or perhaps P.G. Wodehouse. From the self-absorbed digressions of a teen, to the small-town police who almost prioritize getting along over getting answers (but who do change their approach appropriately as events unfurl), to the sexism and racism causing real, secret problems for a family of Southern aristocrats, the foibles are observed with wit and honesty. The protagonist even has her own failings

It would have definitely been worth buying at full price, and I look forward to finding more of the series.


 

The-Handmaids-Tale

REVIEW BY HELEN KRUMMENACKER

I’m starting this book review with the book still unfinished. It’s the kind of book that you think about a lot while reading it, even as you itch to turn the pages again. I can’t compare it to the movie or TV show, as I wanted to read it rather than watch it. I would advise this, although the adaptations may be excellent. The voice of the narrator is crucial.


The voice of the narrator is crucial to the story’s style. We begin, a little scared, a little confused, picking up meaning from tiny details– because that is what she can give us. Her voice becomes clearer, gradually, as she moves farther from the drugging and brainwashing and has time to rebuild her story and factor in the new things. But even ¾ of the way through, I still don’t know what goes on in the colonies that has her worried about being sent there, or what the real fate of Unwomen is. Sometimes, it sounds like she’s afraid of being executed and sometimes it sounds like there is something worse in store for her. The people in charge probably like to keep everyone uncertain, because it makes them more pliable.

The voice of the narrator is also an important part of the story itself. There are many women in this story, but the narrator’s story is very much hers, very personal. She finds joy in little things, and fear in them as well. She was left with a pillow that has Faith embroidered on it, but reading is forbidden to women… so she stands, when she finds the pillow, reading that one word over and over, enjoying breaking one of the stupid rules, but wondering if she will be held responsible for a pillow she did not choose. Internal moments like that are a tremendous part of the narrative, and they make the dystopia seem far more real than an external storytelling would.

One thing that is difficult in reading it is that she speaks in the present tense even when recounting dreams and memories. We don’t always know what is real until we have read enough to place it in her timeline. But this reflects her own struggle to handle it all. Her memories, her reality, her hopes and fears jumble together when she is left to sit alone for hours with nothing to do.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, the story takes place in a near future time when theocrats take over. There are wars and perhaps disasters as well that have left the majority of people unable to create healthy children. The narrator had a healthy child, before the theocrats took over but after some of the pollution events, and so she is seen as proven fertile, and eligible for status as a Handmaid, a caste of women who are, in theory, to be honored for trying to keep humanity alive by acting as breeding vessels, but are in fact despised for having a life defined by their sexual potential. They are circulated in assignments among the elite, and if they give any of the Commanders a healthy child, they will have a future. If they do not, at a certain age or after a period of time, they are removed from Handmaid status and death or exile seem to be their fate.

This is part of a larger theocratic totalitarian state, but the Handmaids are important not only because this is the story of one, but also, I must say, Gilead (the state they are in) is both correct to be desperately trying to make more citizens and at the same time, doomed by its methods. The rules controlling the Handmaids, the infertile Wives, and the men of all ranks, makes it less likely there will be successful offspring. Cheating leads to death (and I suspect some Handmaids are trapped into it by angry Wives), but the Commanders often are sterile. The atmosphere of fear and mistrust seems unconducive to reproduction. At best, stress hormones aren’t great for a pregnancy, while at worst, the people are actively undermining the possibility. If Gilead really wants babies, it should make procreation fun and free rather than coercive, but the people in charge want to control everything more than they really want another generation.


* * *
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m finding myself surprised by some things I heard in the past. I have to wonder if people saying, “Serena Joy was worse than the Commander” were talking about the movie, because my feeling about her in the book is quite different. She was unhappy and oppressed as well, and sometimes showed some genuine kindness in spite of her general jealousy. Even when she had something specific to be jealous about, she didn’t want the Handmaid destroyed– she alone had the nerve to make a slight protest when the narrator was led away.

The ending, I won’t say exactly what it was, but this book manages to pull a The Lady or the Tiger end which I look at from the optimistic perspective, finding it more in keeping with the way I interpreted a couple of characters. It certainly gave more room for optimism than 1984 or Brave New World, mostly within the personal story, but also, I believe that Gilead is doomed/ They have no real ability to convince the people they are oppressing that their regime is the best thing around. They have only existed for a few years and already they are riddled with corruption, resistance, hypocrisy, inconsistency, poverty, and a death rate much higher than the birthrate. Either the regime will be pulled down or it will collapse under its own failure to work with human nature.

I wonder if the people who found the book more depressing than I did mostly identified with the narrator more. I don’t say she was difficult to identify with. Actually, she’s a fairly normal woman. I’m just not normal, and found myself more drawn to side characters. I also kept thinking that in that world, I would have been sent to the Colonies (forced labor areas), if I wasn’t killed outright,  and wanted to know more about life there.


making money

The Bank of Ankh-Morpork has gone to the dogs… or rather the dog of the now deceased chairman of the bank. When Topsy Lavish died, she willed her controlling shares in the bank to her dog Mr. Fusspot, who she in turn bequeathed to the least trustworthy man in all of Ankh-Morpork, Moist Von Lipwig former con artist and now “reformed” character.

Soon our dear Mr. Lipwig finds himself trying to deal with the entire Lavish family who all want Mr. Fusspot dead, while at the same time he has Lord Vetinari the city’s Patrician, breathing down his neck to give the city a loan to fund some much needed infrastructure improvements.

But the Bank and the Mint both run on the gold currency, and there’s only so much gold to go around.

Soon Moist is in mischief and high finance up to his ears. Wheeling and dealing, talking a mile a minute and selling the idea of paper currency to the inhabitants of Ankh-Morpork. Can his fast talk and silver tongue keep him ahead of his enemies as well as his old partner, who remembers him as Albert Spangler notorious crook and con-man?

The jokes and imagery Mr. Pratchett creates within this novel are as fast and furious as ever. Yet at the same time, he provides the readers with a good look into the way banks operate and how financial decisions are made.

His unique blend of comedy with fact is an amazing achievement that keeps the reader both entertained and informed a the same time. However, he never loses that wry sense of humor that keeps his audience in stitches. The image of Mr. Fusspot and the self-winding ‘toy’ he finds amidst piles of leather garments, whips, and chains, provides some classic imagery throughout the book.

Mr. Pratchett is indeed one of the finest comedic authors of our time and this installment of his Discworld series proves it. Truly worth 5 stars. A fantastically funny read.


The Thing

Just found this novella a few weeks ago and was thrilled to get another chance to read it. I’d read it once before many years ago, but I had thought it lost and was delighted to find it was simply among my books in storage.

Mr. Campbell did a wonderful job of creating a terrifying science fiction tale of isolation and the old ’10 Little Indians’ theme. In the lonely antarctic, a team of researchers are slowly realizing that the remains they brought in from a wrecked spaceship they’d found in the ice is still alive. Even more alarming is the fact that it can infect and duplicate any life form, by entering the victim’s body and replacing every cell in that target body, allowing it to devour and become that person/animal.

The rest of the humans must find a way to figure out who’s been taken over and what this ‘thing’ wants, before any migrating birds come to stay at the base and move on to other parts of the world.

John Carpenter’s version of this story “The Thing” is very close to Mr. Campbell’s actual story, but liberties were taken and the novelette is still worth reading. I highly recommend anyone who is a fan of science fiction and mystery to check out this spine-tingling tale.


Love and Coffee

Many of us have a particular establishment where we go for a good cup of coffee, tea, and maybe even a pastry.  We might even like to park ourselves at a table, maybe by the window, or in a corner so we can sit, read, do a bit of texting, writing, artwork, or just dream.  But how many of us pay attention to the other folks sharing that space where we like to relax and unwind?

After reading “Love and Coffee” you may find yourself paying more attention to those around you and wondering what roads they’ve traveled down.

“Love and Coffee” is a collection of short vignettes that all take place inside not just any coffee shop,

but a very special one.  It’s run by a woman everyone calls Little Italy, who knows just what you need even before you make up your mind.  She’s assisted by her cohorts Big Red, and Angel, as well as a music box that seems to have come straight out of the more benevolent corners of the Twilight Zone, along with Little Italy who simply has to give it the slightest nod or look of encouragment get the device to bring the just the right song into play at the moment it’s needed most.

All the stories are told through the eyes of the author, who has a wonderful gift for making you feel like you’re there at the same table with him watching each installment unfold.  And although we never learn the real names of the other patrons, he manages to make us feel like each and every one is an old friend and when the next story involving them comes up you can’t help finding yourself sharing their hopes, dreams, and disappointments.

I found myself smiling, laughing, and even shedding more a few tears over a number of these short tales, which I offer as high praise for the author’s handling of each scene.  There are a host of characters waiting for you within the pages of this collection like The Man with the 5 Minute Memory,  Pin Stripe, Mister Tick Tock, The Mouse and so many others.  They’re all waiting for you, so step on with your favorite beverage.  And if you don’t have one, never fear because Little Italy will help you discover it soon enough.

And when you finish never fear, Mr. Main already as a “Refill” in the works and I for one cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Amazon:  

https://www.amazon.com/Love-Coffee-Bryce-Main-ebook/dp/B01DUAPC0Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519742214&sr=8-1&keywords=bryce+main+love+and+coffee

AmazonUK:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Love-Coffee-Bryce-Main-ebook/dp/B01DUAPC0Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519742273&sr=8-1&keywords=bryce+main+love+and+coffee


c3b4c-e-vamp

A Romantically Fang-Tastic Read

5-stars:   

This book surpassed all my expectations.  In an age of sparkling day-walkers, we get some good old traditional vampires who have moved with the times.  They’re powerful, clever, and have built some strong financial power for themselves.  However, a number of them are still ‘monsters’.  Dorian Taylor is an exception.  He does not view mortals as merely play-toys or food, like his associates.  He longs for something more and finds it in Jennifer, he also finds his heart.  

Definitely not a book for anyone under eighteen, but a cracking good read.  Miss Black supplies the reader with a good amount of BDSM and sex.  But even more importantly she provides us with a love story with plenty of danger lurking in the shadows.  There are twists and turns I did not see coming which I found both moving and exciting.  While some situations might seem trite to some people, the author does something else that certainly makes up for it.  She makes us ‘care’ about the characters, including the supporting ones.  

A damn good read, which I highly recommend to others.  


I first encountered Mr. King’s works back in the late 1970’s and quickly became a huge fan.  I even got to meet the man himself in 1983 when I was attending Nassau Community College.  Mr. King had come for a politician who had been running for the Democratic Presidential ticket (the man in question later dropped out after having been caught out by the press for having an affair).

Back to Stephen King, I was in awe of him back then and I still am today.  I will admit some of his books are not always my cup of tea these days, but he is still a brilliant writer whom I look up to and respect.  “Salem’s Lot” is one of the reasons for my admiration.  Check out the review I created for Goodreads.com below and perhaps you’ll get a better picture as to why I love this particular book so much.

5-STARS
Salem's Lot

Possibly one of the best modern-day vampire stories I’ve ever read.

‘Salem’s Lot is a nice little town up in Maine. A charming community where everyone knows their neighbors, but not all their dirty little secrets. Even the most picturesque towns has it’s share of dark tales. Take the Marsten House where Hubie Marsten murdered his wife and then hung himself. No one has lived there for years, but now someone has bought the place.

At the same time Ben Mears, the famous author, has returned to ‘Salem’s Lot to do a story on the old place. He’d gone inside once on a dare and has been trying to reconcile what he saw that day inside the old abandoned place. But while he tries to wrestle with old ghosts, a greater threat has come to town.

First a beloved dog is found hanging on the cemetery gate, mutilated in a most bizarre and ritualistic fashion. Soon a small boy disappears and his older brother contracts a fatal illness with anemia-like traits. Soon darkness spreads across the town, but no one is willing to talk about it. Some ponder but none are willing to acknowledge or admit to the possibility of something ‘supernatural’ taking hold of their community…

I have always loved this story because it felt so believable to me. We are taught to be rational and intelligent. To not believe in bogeymen, werewolves, or vampires. So I could easily see an entire town slowly being turned into the living dead through the old “you bite two friends, and they bite two friends, and so on…” method. And who would believe it if you told them this was happening? The police? The clergy? The newspapers? Or would you have to create your own little band of slayers to fight the threat? People who’ve seen and now believe and are willing to stand with you? Or do you simply turn and run, leaving the town to it’s fate?

For me, this is one of Mr. King’s greatest works


body snatchers
NOTE: This review contains spoilers, so read only if you choose to.
Ever since the 1956 black and white classic movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was released certain phrases became part of everyday life for most folks.  I’ve heard things like:  Pod person?  Have you checked his/her basement for any giant seed pods?  So-and-so is acting weird, you think he/she might’ve been switched by a seed pod?  Dunno, if they did it’s an improvement… (this one was directed at me more than once, fyi).

But before the movie came the novel, a brilliant piece of fiction by Jack Finney (who also authored other great works such as “Time and Again”, “The Night People” and many others which I hope to read and review down the road).  However, it was “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that captured the minds of readers.  Released in 1955, it was subsequently snatched up by Hollywood to be made into a movie in 1956.

Interestingly, despite the time of the book’s release Mr. Finney seems to have had no intention of making his book about McCarthyism or the “Red Menace” (referring to Russia and socialism during the Cold War).  Instead, it seemed to hint at the loss of individuality and personal freedom, as well as (from my point of view) the overuse of the planet’s resources.

Those who’ve seen the original 1956 movie already know the basic plot, a small town doctor in California begins encountering patients who swear their nearest and dearest are not who they appear.  Each of these people swear that somehow their mother/father/uncle/teacher you name it… has been somehow replaced by a doppleganger who intends some kind of menace.  The patients admit that the individual in question looks, sounds and acts like the person they’ve known all their lives, but SOMETHING is missing and that’s how they know the person they’ve loved has been replaced.  Naturally, the good doctor talks to some of these ‘replaced’ individuals and finds nothing amiss, at least nothing he can really put his finger on.  And being a man of science and medicine he chalks it up to mass hysteria, especially after referring some of the patients to a psychiatrist friend of his (unknowing of course that his friend was replaced some time back).

The doctor then meets an old flame who’s come back to town and they start dating only to notice there are some differences going on in their little home town.  Restaurants that were normally busy as can be are practically empty, some of the homes/businesses seem to be slacking off on work and even basic maintenance, etc.  Then some of the good doctor’s patients who had complained that someone close to them had ‘changed’ begin telling him (with exaggerated embarrassment) about how silly they had been acting and that all is well, etc.

Of course we the readers are fully aware that something is up and follow the doctor and company slowly catching on as well.  The final proof for our protagonists comes when a close friend summons him late at night to check on a ‘dead’ body found in his basement.  As one can surmise, the body is one of the invading pods that is slowly replicating the doctor’s friend, little by little in an attempt to replace him.  This is where the action really kicks into high gear as the pieces start coming together for our heroes and heroines.  The clock begins to tick and the horror begins to dawn on them as they discover hidden pods making these duplicates and now they must alert the town only to learn to their growing horror that they may be the last 4 normal humans who are not being targeted for replacement.

All of this can be seen in the movie, which was shot on a shoe-string budget to great effect.  However, there are certain scenes which were left out which shows that the pods were not as intelligent as many think.  The doctor speaks with a botanist who tells him about a farmer summoning him to his barn where a some strange large pods showed up amidst his trashcans.  The botanist tells the doctor that aside from the unusual pods (“…which over time I probably could have identified, but not right then…”) he saw nothing unusual except two empty tin cans of tomato sauce that looked remarkably similar, along with 2 axes with identical broken handles amidst the rubbish.

Another part that is left out of the original movie is the revelation that the pods travel through space and purposely land on various planets or astral bodies in search of things to duplicate and replace.  “The moon was quite lush at one time…” it’s revealed, “Mars too…” For me, these passages raised the threat and terror levels to all time highs.  Furthermore, the pod-people reveal that they only have a 5 year existence, and that they cannot reproduce themselves, thus they must help grow more pods to keep their ‘race’ alive.

At this point the idea of not McCarthyism or Communism being the implied threat went out the door for me.  The good doctor gets the pod people to reveal that they can duplicate anything that is/was alive and that the originals simply crumble to grey fluff after being duplicated and replaced.  Meaning grass, trees, animals, etc.  In 5-10 years time everything on Earth would be duplicated and then the duplicates would themselves perish, leaving a dead planet behind while the newest pods would float up back into outer space and find another world to drain of its resources.  At one point the pod speaker says, “How is it any different than the way your kind are using up what your planet offers?”

Again for the most part, the movie closely follows the book remarkably well.  However, the climactic finish differs wildly… and I’m NOT about to share it with you.  This is a cracking good read so I suggest you get your own novel, Kindle/Nook, or audio version of the story and let it capture your imagination.

As Stan Lee would say, “Nuff said…”


Isaac Asimov is well known for his extremely numerous writing contributions to science and science fiction.  But not everyone knows he was also a mystery author and regular contributor to Ellery Queen Magazine, as well as a few others.  His most famous crime sleuths never actually went to a crime scene, nor did they go into police headquarters and announce they had cracked an important case.

No, these amateur sleuths, who call themselves the Black Widowers because once a month they come together for a dinner of just themselves and one invited guest, a man.  Women are not allowed to attend this function, hence their nickname.  For one night a month they can enjoy just the company of each other without female company, not that they object to women.  It’s simply their own little club.  The members of this little club are based on friends from the author’s own life and are listed here:

  • Geoffrey Avalon, a patent attorney (based on L. Sprague de Camp)
  • Emmanuel Rubin, a mystery novelist and acquaintance of Isaac Asimov (based on Lester del Rey)
  • James Drake, a chemist (based on Dr. John D. Clark)
  • Thomas Trumbull, an expert in cryptography for the United States government (based on Gilbert Cant)
  • Mario Gonzalo, an artist, who usually draws a portrait of the evening’s guest (based on Lin Carter)
  • Roger Halsted, a high school mathematics teacher, fond of jokes and limericks (based on Don Bensen)
  • Henry Jackson, the club’s waiter, was not based on an actual person, but according to Asimov was inspired by PG Wodehouses character Jeeves.
 
At each meeting a guest is brought by one of the members and after being served an excellent meal, are then ‘grilled’ by the group, usually by being asked “How do you justify your existence…?”  What happens in the first story sets the stage for the rest of the tales within the pages of this excellent work.
 
A puzzle is presented to the Black Widowers who systematically try to help find the answer to their guest’s dilemma. In the end, it is the esteemable Henry who provides the final solution to each of the twelve tales you will find here.  Each story is presented fairly and the reader is supplied all the hints that the Black Widowers are given.  Although Henry supplies the answer, he always credits the club members for having helped eliminate all the other options, allowing him to discover the final solution.  
 
My personal favorite in this collection is “The Acquisitive Chuckle” which is also the 1st story.  In it we learn a great deal about our hosts and even more importantly we gain keen insight into their wondrous butler Henry, a scrupulously honest man, but who is not above delivering a little payback to an old partner.
 
There is one puzzle that involves a death of one of the club member’s sister, which is touching and bittersweet, but handled very well.
As for the rest of the tales, each has its own flavor and unique outcome.  I can safely say that they are wonderful puzzles that will keep you guessing and wondering.  But at the same time it is the interplay between the characters will also keep you smiling and laughing.
 
There are 5 books in this series and I will tell you right now, each one is a 5-Star read.  I intend to review each of them as in the near future.
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