Monday, May 28, 2012


This is an older novel in the National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon series that I had somehow missed.  Reading it filled a hole in my knowledge of Anna.  I had known forever that she had had a drinking problem and perhaps was a recovering alcoholic.  I assumed she started drinking heavily after her husband's death but I didn't know when she had admitted alcohol was a severe problem for her.

Well, now I know.  It's in Ill Wind when she is stationed at Mesa Verde National Park that everything comes to a head because she's having blackouts and bugging her sister on the phone at all hours of the night, saying "Zach's dead."  (Zach was her husband.)  Thankfully her sister is able to convince her this is a problem that will kill her if she doesn't stop.  It also helps that a heavy drinker who works construction in the park is a stupid drunk and, being the cop, it's Anna who has to pick him up all the time.

The mystery involves the death of a ranger who was a friend, and who was the stepfather of a handicapped child that Anna has become close to.  Anna has two roommates while she waits for better housing, one of whom is a radical ecologist threatening bad things are happening in the Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde because the "Old Ones" are angry at what's happening in their homes.  Actually bad things are happening and it's Anna's job to figure out who and why, along with a federal agent, our old friend Frederick Stanton.

I always enjoy Nevada Barr novels greatly but this one less so than the others I've read.  Can't put my finger on why because it has all the components of the best ones.  Maybe it was just hating to see Anna losing control because of the bottle.  Anna is so real to me that hurt.  There has never been a time, though, when I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend that if you haven't ever read Nevada Barr, you should run not walk to the library or bookstore to get in on the fun.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved Blue Asylum.  I had never read anything by Kathy Hepinstall before but the premise of this novel attracted me to it so I entered a contest and won it. Thank heaven I did because this is undoubtedly going to be on my Top 10 list this year.

The story is about a woman named Iris Dunleavy.  She is the daughter of a minister who grew up in Virginia, is courted by a visitor from further south, and marries him.  The Civil War is going on, but so far she has felt little repercussion from that war.  Her husband takes her home to his plantation but before going to the main house he stops the wagon at the family cemetery, takes her by the hand to his parents' graves, and says, "Here she is."  Uh-oh.  Right there you know something isn't right with this man, and this isn't going to end well.

I'll skip over the fascinating story of how this happens  (no spoilers here) but Iris ends up being declared insane and sent to a lunatic asylum on Sanibel Island.  Yes, that Sanibel Island.  Most of the book details her life on Sanibel, the doctor and staff, the other patients, and finally the doctor's thoughtful and kind12 year old son, Wendell, who becomes Iris' friend.

The novel has many tragic scenes, some tender moments, and a story you just can't tear yourself away from.  We've had several rainy days in a row, which is a good thing since I just read and read until I finished this story.  In a blurb on the cover, Hillary Jordan writes of Hepinstall's "vivid, beautifully crafted sentences."  The quality of her writing was what made me read the book slowly so that I could savor each scene, each description, each character.

I recommend this highly whether you like historical fiction or character-driven stories.  It's just plain wonderful.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Walter's Muse by Jean Davies Okimoto

Ever since I read Okimoto's The Love Ceiling, I've been anticipating another wonderful novel from her.  That's why I was thrilled to win Walter's Muse in the contest on Margot's Joyfully Retired blog.

This new story is everything I had expected and more.  Okimoto's main character, Maggie, is a retired elementary school librarian.  She lives on Vashon Island in Puget Sound where she expected to have a calm summer alone while taking stock of her life and deciding what kind of future she would like to pursue.  Calm is anything but what her summer actually becomes.

First there is a huge windstorm in which her neighbor, Walter, is injured.  He's a children's book writer and he lives with his dog, Bill Bailey, who will only come when Walter sings the old song, "Won't you come home, Bill Bailey?"  When Walter must go to the hospital, Bill Bailey becomes a problem for Maggie to deal with.

Then there is Maggie's ditzy little sister, the drama queen, who has just separated from the latest in a series of millionaires she has married.  She comes to Maggie bringing a Siamese cat that Maggie detests from the beginning.  But on the other hand there are her friends.  Martha Jane, a ninety-something wise and funny lady, and Howie and Mark, a gay couple.  And when her world gets to be too much, Maggie goes kayaking alone to sort things out.

I love Maggie.  She's intelligent and feisty and caring.  She's patient when Martha Jane forgets things, and she doesn't hesitate to plunge right in to help someone.  I've found dogs always know who to trust, and Bill Bailey loves Maggie too.  Maggie butts up against serious issues in this story.  There are light moments for sure, but the issues she confronts are life-changing ones.  In other words, lots of meat but leavened with humor.  In all, a very satisfying story.

I do hope you'll read this one.  I recommend Jean Davies Okimoto wholeheartedly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

I discovered this book in a bag of goodies from a friend and was glad of the chance to get reacquainted with Investigator Arkady Renko of the Moscow prosecutor's office.  Poor Renko has really gotten the shaft, for lack of a better term, from the powers-that-be.  He just doesn't let well enough alone, doesn't play politics, and he ignores "unwritten rules."  Now, just to top everything off, his lover Eva has left him for a rising star, Detective Nikolai Isakov, who is a veteran of the Chechnyan civil war.

Obviously, I'm fond of Renko and love mysteries set in that part of the world, so I was doubly disappointed that I wasn't fond of this novel.  This may be my fault as there has been a lot going on in my life, but I was confused throughout the story.  There were a few too many convenient coincidences along the way as well for my taste.

I'm not saying this isn't a good book by any means.  I don't think Martin Cruz Smith is capable of writing a bad book, but perhaps he presumed readers were more knowledgeable about Russia than I am.  I don't know enough about the history in Chechnya, for instance, to catch on to much of the story.  I'm not knowledgeable either about elections in Russia and in this novel Isakov is a candidate for office who is not shy about using devious methods to get more attention by the press.

At the beginning of the book Renko, always in disfavor, has been assigned to investigate what's really happening when people swear they are seeing the ghost of Stalin at a certain railroad station at night.  How far he has fallen, he thinks, but the ghost sightings lead him into a deep investigation of Isakov.  Is he doing this because there is a real crime, or is it simply jealousy over Eva?  You'll have to read the book to find out.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Movies: An Old One I Finally Got to See

There are so many movies I wanted to see but missed for one reason or another.  Now that we get Netflix I'm slowly catching up.  This week it was "Philadelphia" with Tom Hanks in the starring role.  I don't recall what year this one came out but I had wanted to see it ever since.

All I knew going into this movie was that it starred Tom Hanks, it was set in Philadelphia which is one of my favorite cities, and it was about a lawyer who had AIDS.  What a surprise to find how many other big-time stars were also in it:  Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenbergen, Antonio Bandares (whose name I've probably misspelled), and biggest of all, Joanne Woodward.  Woodward has a smaller role as Hanks' mother but she adds so much to the story with her acting "presence."

Hanks is a lawyer with AIDS and his partner is portrayed beautifully by Bandares, an actor I had only thought of as Zorro or a sexy love interest for a woman.  The law firm, headed by Robards, sees Hanks as their shining star and gives him their biggest case but then discovers he has AIDS.  At that point they sabotage his work in order to fire him for incompetence.  He sues of course and is represented by a flashy ambulance chaser type of lawyer played by Denzel Washington.  The firm is represented by Steenbergen in a strange bit of casting.  Hers was the only character that didn't seem to fit; no fault of Steenbergen's.

I'm glad I saw this movie.  It was so moving that I had a lump in my throat more than once.  The support of Hanks' family was one of the best parts of the story.  I probably should include the make-up department for their part in making Hanks fade away from the illness right before our eyes.  But the best part of all was Tom Hanks' performance.  He was totally believable as this dying lawyer, a good man and brilliant lawyer who refused to sit back and be fired under false pretenses, to be the victim of the partners' bigotry against gays.  The ending left me absolutely breathless.

If you haven't ever seen this movie, please do so.  It's got to be one of the best movies I've ever seen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

I won this book, which is coming out May 15th, from LibraryThing.  If you are in a book club, I hope you'll consider reading it for discussion.  I think it would spark quite a conversation about the life, loves, and responsibilities of women in marriage, regardless of whether they have children and regardless of the age in which they live.

The book spans the years from just before World War II through 1964, and the only complaint I have is that segments go back and forth between a few years which makes it a bit confusing.  The main characters are Babe, Millie, and Grace who we follow through high school friendship, to heartbreak and hardship caused by the war, and on to mature married life and motherhood (or not).  Babe is the one we get to know best and some of her decisions in life are bound to cause a visceral reaction in anyone over the age of 30.  She is the one who arguably is most mature of the three.

World War II is the defining moment of the lives of their husbands and therefore of these three women.  They live in small town America and each is a sort of everywoman that we can all relate to in some way.  During the war some of the town's families lose a son and/or husband on D-Day or another battle.  Some families never recover from that loss.  Other young men return home emotionally, psychologically broken, shell shocked, healing only very gradually through their adult lives.  Others who have served their country valiantly come home expecting to be treated like first-class citizens but instead find the old class system intact.

We also see through these women the changes in America through the decades, particularly in the 60s.  Bigotry is as common in their small town as it is anywhere else in the country, and persecution of Jews as well.  We see the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement even in this little place far from the action, and we see how hard it is for many of the older generation to accept those changes.

My reaction to Next to Love is mixed.  Perhaps it's been too long for me to go back to how people felt in the 50s and 60s, but maybe it's just that the views disgust me.  I can't deny that the book strikes a chord in my mind, but it also makes me long for bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism to be gone already.  We were so hopeful in the 60s that we could do away with such awful things yet they remain.

The struggles of Babe, Millie, and Grace to find a happy life will resonate with women, and probably find a place in the hearts of women who are the mothers and wives of returning soldiers today.  I recommend this book.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Executive Actions and Executive Treason

Once again I am delighted to participate in a Partners in Crime Tour, this time with two e-book thrillers by Gary Grossman.  This author has long experience in television and movies, so I suppose it’s no surprise that both of these books read to me like screenplays and I can imagine wonderful movies made of each.  The second is a sequel to the first so this could be something like a Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible serial hit for a popular actor.

Now of course I can’t tell you much about the plots but I must say that once I got into the multiple settings and characters, enough so to keep them straight and see their agenda, I was pulled along by the storyline.  I’ll even admit to nail-biting tension toward the end of each book as all seemed lost and I worried how the heroes would bring it to a good conclusion.

The major hero in both books is Secret Service Agent Scott Roarke.  With Grossman’s visual writing style, I can easily envision Roarke and the other characters.  If I knew current actors better, I could probably cast a film just off the top of my head.  Roarke, former military hero,  had saved President Morgan Taylor’s life at one time, Taylor being an ace pilot before his political career.  In Executive Actions Taylor is running for reelection and Roarke is his most trusted agent.   His opponent is a Kennedyesque New Englander who looks unbeatable after his wife is killed during an apparent assassination attempt on the candidate’s life.  He even has the perfect name:  Theodore Wilson Lodge.

Since this is a thriller, you know evil is afoot and it seems to be coming from Libya.   There are action scenes that will translate beautifully to the wide screen, particularly a raid on an office building in Tripoli.

In Executive Treason the person sworn in as president at the end of the first book (whose name I can’t reveal because it’s a spoiler) is now in office and the plot switches to world-wide terrorism beginning with the finding of a bomb in a hotel in Sydney, Australia where the U.S. President and other dignitaries are scheduled to stay within months.  An assassin familiar to us from the first book awaits a presidential assistant as she jogs in California.  A talk radio host in the Midwest stirs up animosity toward the administration through his show called “Strong Nation.”  And finally, Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency is involved.

Scott Roarke and his girlfriend are once again in danger and things are moving fast.  Now of course I can’t tell you anymore lest I ruin the fun of reading these books for yourself, but accept it that you will follow the action breathlessly in some parts.  I do recommend both of these e-books for anyone who loves a good thriller, possibly for beach reading on your Kindle.

I have received a request from the author about how to purchase these two books.  The links are:  or   

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

Mary Bowser was a real woman who lived in the mid 19th century in Richmond, VA. Her owners, the Van Lew family, gave her her freedom and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. Later she returned to Richmond, married a free black man, and spied for the North during the Civil War while her husband spirited slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad. Mary eventually got a job as a maid in the house of Confederate States President Jefferson Davis, a perfect position from which to send valuable information to the north. Davis knew someone was getting information out from the Gray House but Mary, as a slave, was invisible to him; he never suspected her.

This is a short synopsis of the plot which doesn't do justice to the personality and determination of the main characters or the undercurrent of fear that runs throughout. In this fictional account of Mary Bowser's life, we follow her to Philadelphia and back and to the end of the war.

Mary's former owner, Bet Van Lew, is one of the most intriguing characters. She's a dyed in the wool abolitionist and yet she really doesn't have a clue what it means to be a slave. Her color blindness is naive and touching, but she also manages to ignore danger to accomplish some valuable work getting news out, saving slaves, and bringing much needed food in from her outlying farm. Even more impressive is that this spinster from a privileged family never complains of or even reveals the heavy sacrifices she must make during the war.

Mary is of course the character around whom everything revolves. She has a prodigious talent for memorizing. She is strong and inventive but not superwoman. Occasionally her fears overcome her courage but she pulls herself together and does what she has to do. Her story will pull you in and won't let you go.

This is definitely going to be on my Best Books of 2012 List.