“Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson, published by Little, Brown & Company, 2019

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Atkinson is a writer of exceptional detective procedural and historical novels. Big Sky is the latest featuring her slightly muddled protagonist, Jackson Brodie. A retired police Detective Chief Inspector in a major city, he is now a humble private detective who followed a former lover to the seaside of Yorkshire to be with his teen age son, Nathan, and an aging black lab, Dido.

True to this type of plot, Brodie is hired to identify some baddies by the wife of a covert operator in human trafficking. The plot is interesting as Atkinson weaves the relationships among types of friends. According to Vince, one of the friends who recently lost his job and his wife, there are golf friends, work friends, old school friends—then there are friend friends, harder to come by. And, as we have experienced, when you are with a group of golf friends that contains several friend friends, it’s hard not to feel on the outside. But when friends are engaged in human trafficking, it’s good to be a bit on the outside.

This is a story told in the details. So savor the slow build and the rather predictable denouement. Recommended for a fun read of the Brit detective genre. Great fodder for a BBC-like series.

“The Snakes” by Sadie Jones, published by Harper, 2019 – Short Book Review

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Like a snake shedding its skin, The Snakes turns from a modern story on the effects of the acquisition and spending of infinite money on families into a murder thriller. Various feelings and suppressed concerns of the characters, Dan and Bea, lower middle-class young marrieds, Alex, brother of Bea and damaged family goods who manages a run-down hotel in France, Griff and Liv, parents escaping the unintended consequences of their lives. Bea shed her skin of privilege by leaving her family, happily working as a certified therapist among the undeserved and marrying Dan, a mixed-race artist scraping together a living as an estate broker.

Bea and Dan shed the humdrum of their lives by taking a three-month holiday touring the Continent. They stop to visit Alex. Clearly the hotel and his life are in shambles. His death/murder brings Griff and Liv to France and the plot takes off—but it’s about half-way through the book.

Enjoyable reading if you don’t mind a bit of gore and a realistic end. Good, facile writing.

“O My America! Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World” by Sara Wheeler, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

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The premise is fascinating. Six women who traveled to the new United States of America from England in the 19th century—none of them connected save that each wrote a memoir of the experience. They did not stay in the safe confines of New York and New England. They went to the interior via steam and sailboat, railroad, horseback and on foot. Each was or became financially independent, mostly because of their writing, and all eventually returned to England. I was familiar with two of them: Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony Trollope, my favorite late 19th century British novelist, and Isabella Bird, a traveling Scots woman who “wintered” in Estes Park, Colorado with William Nugent, aka Comanche Bill, a renowned mountain man.

With an Introduction and six chapters, Wheeler tells the stories of these brave women, integrating them with her personal story as she approaches middle age. She follows the trails of her heroines’ journeys, not attempting to recreate the impossible, but gathering the shared images of the mountains, rivers and plains. Wheeler is also British and had an early awakening experience when she resettled in the U.S. and learned firsthand the value of our somewhat classless hospitality.

These are wonderful stories of extreme hardship that each give prismatic insight into our undeveloped country in the 19th century. Most of it is not pretty. But the take-away is that these women came unaided, for the most part worked unaided and turned their lives around. As a reader I found Wheeler’s intersticed thoughts on her own situation intrusive. Perhaps if I was turning 50, they would hold more meaning.

Recommended for readers who seek unique insights into U.S. history.

“The Soul of an Octopus:  A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery – Published by Atria 2015 – Review

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The Soul of an Octopus is a trip to the other side of animals – invertebrates.  Some invertebrates, such as clams don’t even have brains.  So how did the octopus develop consciousness?  Why are they able to carry on separate activities with their eight arms, processing different sensory input from each sucker or all?  How are they able to give and receive affection?

My only previous knowledge of octopuses was eating them—delicious basking in olive oil and grilled with little bits of crust on the skin.  And I will continue to do that.  But, after delving into their hidden world with naturalist Sy Montgomery, they will receive more respect.  We know so little about octopuses because theirs is a life of stealth and mystery.  They live alone, compressed safely into tiny spaces in the briny deep, venturing out only to kill and eat.  Eventually, near the end of the lives (usually five to eight years) they mate and die.  Not likely candidates for a best-selling book. 

Montgomery mostly experiences octopuses (pluralized with “es” not “I” because it is a Greek derivative, not Latin) at major aquariums, like the Cold Marine tank of the New England Aquarium in Boston.  Here they are exposed to the visitors, but mostly to the employees and volunteers who see this wild life through different eyes.  Employees and volunteers have relationships with fish and invertebrates; with tortoises and snakes; with all the aquarium inhabitants.

The Soul of an Octopus touches on all their stories both human and animal.  My most memorable take-away is Montgomery’s statement that Jane Goodall and her researchers did not reveal the most important findings of their work until 20 years after the first publications.  Though they found significant evidence of consciousness among apes and chimps , they did not reveal it for fear of their research being minimized as anthropomorphic.  Montgomery found it the same with the workers at the aquariums.  They rarely mention to outsiders the bonds they develop with their charges—not the bonds of an owner for a pet, but the bonds with other creatures capable of reciprocal feelings. 

Recommended for readers who enjoy quasi-scientific information combined with human interest stories. 

 

"Staying On" by Paul Scott - A Brief Review, Published by Heinemann, 1977

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A beautiful book about the end of things: The Raj in India, a volunteer’s joyful task of preparing the church for services, an old hotel that will be torn down and with it the home of the protagonists, and a life.  Paul Scott is the author of The Raj Quartet, the seminal set of novels about the end of the Raj in India.  In Staying On, he writes about two expats, husband and wife, who chose not to return home in 1947.

As the book opens, Tusker and Lucy Smalley (such Dickensian names) are barely keeping up appearances as the only British in a small Indian hill town in the north.  Though they have friends among the Indians, both middle and servant class, the Smalleys are not willing to completely drop the color bar drawn by the British.  They will never afford to return to England, so they make do, nursing feelings of rage for each other and their circumstances.  In spite of that, the book is charming, often funny. Staying On won the Booker Prize in 1977.

Scott is a masterful story teller and Staying On is the coda for his Raj Quartet.  Available at your library or used book store.

Highly recommended for readers of British/Indian historical fiction.

Lookingglass Theater Production of "Mary Shelly's Frankenstein."

Earlier this summer Ed and I saw the Lookingglass Theater Production of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.

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We enjoyed it so much that we both read the book again. Surprisingly, it was interesting and not too archaic. Yes, Mary Shelly blabs on a bit about things we would consider inconsequential to the plot. But this book is 150 years old. If you pick up novels by Trollope, written 50 years later, they clip along. Ed and I gave each other permission to skim through the repetitious parts. Actually, because the play must be radically simplified, the sequencing of the book and the manner in which the story was told were more sensible than the play. Well done, Lookingglass Theater, and well done 18 year old Mary Shelly.

Read my review on PictureThisPost.com.

“Cape May” by Chip Cheek, Celadon Books, 2019

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The review, by trusted resource Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal, was magnetic.

“Suddenly the innocent couple, who still say their prayers before going to bed, are ushered into a world of idle wealth, dissipation and, inescapably, adultery.”

Set in the gin swilling 50’s, this is just what we need for a good summer read.

And a good, quick read it is. Cheek’s writing style is beguiling and undemonstrative. Yes, there are many sex scenes--titillating, but not lewd. Best of all, there is no moralizing, no redemptive ending. Cape May is Cheek’s debut novel. If he heeds the feedback, his future novels will also be concise and entertaining.

Recommended for readers who like to intersperse “serious” books with well-written entertainment.

"Our Man Down in Havana: The Story Behind Graham Greene’s Cold War Spy Novel" by Christopher Hull, Pegasus Books, 2019

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Graham Greene is one of the foremost prolific British writers of the 20th century. He did not come from money, but enjoyed the high life, and that drove him to write. Lucky for us.

Our Man Down in Havana details the actual story behind the writing of the novel. Twelve weeks after it was published in January 1959, the Cuban Revolution transformed a capitalist playground into a communist stronghold. And in 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis fixed the world on the island, those familiar with Greene’s novel and subsequent movie were amazed at the prescience of his vacuum cleaner like installations in the Cuban mountains.

What did Greene know that others did not? He spent a fair amount of time in old Cuba, hung out with prominent members of the Batista government and wealthy Cuban nationals. He also courted revolutionaries, sympathetic to their original motives. Did he work for the British Foreign Service as a spy? They did pay for many of his trips to Cuba and other world hot spots. While Hull’s carefully research inquiry forms conclusions, nothing is proven and validated due to the covenants of secrecy.

Recommended for lovers of Graham Greene, the history of the entanglement of the UK, the U.S. and Cuba during the 50s and the 60s, and the philology of Our Man in Havana.