Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Cypress House

Michael Koryta has spun yet another story with just the right amount of supernatural happenings. The Cypress House begins with World War I vet, Arlen Wagner, heading south on a train with his young friend Paul Brickhill to work in the CCC camps. Arlen has a disturbing skill of being able to foresee death. A skill he developed during the war. When he sees death in the other passengers he leaves the train taking Paul with him.

Arlen and Paul get picked up by a man named Sorenson who takes them through Florida while he does his "pick-ups." Sorenson winds up at the Cypress House, a run down place on the west coast of Florida run by Rebecca Cady. Rebecca doesn't want visitors. She wants Sorenson to make his pick up, take everybody and leave. Stuck at the Cypress House because of a family debt to a crooked local sheriff Rebbecca just wants to bide her time until her brother, Owen, gets out of jail.

Once Owen is released and returns to the Cypress House things take a turn for the worse. Owen wants to continue working for the drug runners, but Rebbecca wants to leave. The bodies start to pile up. Arlen tries to devise an escape plan for everyone, but sees death everywhere. And so the story goes until the surprising climax.

Koryta writes a great book. Thriller but with a little bit of supernatural thrown in. It sounds strange, but it works. The power Arlen has is more of an ESP type power than a supernatural one and the power is more of a character trait than a driving force in the story. Well written and entertaining, this book is a great way to spend the grey days of late winter.

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Simon Winchester's Atlantic

I've enjoyed Simon Winchester's profiles of eccentric individuals in the books The Man Who Loved China and The Map That Changed the World so I was looking forward to his recent book Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Atlantic is a "biography" of the Atlantic Ocean, and while it was sprawling and perhaps a little overwrought, there were enough pleasurable and informational moments that I'm glad I stuck with it.

Winchester structures the book to parallel Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man speech from All The World's a Stage, with each chapter focusing on an aspect of the Atlantic Ocean's place in history, nature, commerce, art, etc. Inevitably, certain chapters work better than others, but I found myself unable to put the book down in the chapters that talk about the motivations for initially exploring the Atlantic, and the warfare, fishing and shipping that developed as the ocean was conquered. As just one example, I found the attempt to span the ocean with the initial telegraph cables to be fascinating, a mind-boggling feat.

Certainly some chapters don't work as well as the parts that I enjoyed. The section on art and architecture influenced by the ocean was perhaps the least interesting to me and near the end, when Winchester outlines the pollution, global warming and overfishing challenges facing the Atlantic, I found myself drifting. There have been other books dedicated to those subjects that may work better for the interested reader. Despite his clear love for and connection with the Atlantic Ocean, and the fact that it was truly the last "conquered" ocean, I did find some of his arguments to be overstated regarding the uniqueness of that body of water compared to other bodies of water.

Perhaps Winchester felt crushed by the size of this work as well, since his latest book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, barely goes over 100 pages. However, you've got to admire the man's passion for his subject and much of the history (political, physical and cultural) contained in Atlantic is captivating.



A Red Herring without Mustard

The third book in the Flavia deLuce series, A Red Herring without Mustard, does not disappoint. Flavia is once again in the thick of it as she causes a fire at the village fete when she upsets a candle in the fortune teller's tent setting off a chain of events that test Falvia's detective skills.

After the fete fiasco, Flavia stumbles across the old fortune teller who has been bludgeoned almost to death. Who could have done this? With a missing child, stolen silver, a dead body in the pond and the appearance of the fortune teller's mysterious granddaughter, Flavia is exhausted.
Enter now the older sisters who are bent on adding more strife to Flavia's life. They kidnap her and proceed to scare her witless when they hide her in a cellar. This cellar experience comes in handy later on in the story. Flavia prevails however - she understands how paybacks work.
While investigating the beating of the old gypsy, Flavia discovers a local low-life has been stealing items from her house. She discovers these items in a local resale shop but shelves that investigation for later until a dead body turns up hanging from one of the statues near the family pond. Stuck in the dead man's mouth is a silver fish fork that belongs to the deLuce silver service.

Getting caught up in both investigations leads Flavia to a years old alleged kidnapping of a local child. The gypsy woman had been accused of taking the child but as the facts surrounding the beating and the murder are revealed it becomes clear something else happened to the child.

Flavia is certainly her usual busy self. This latest book brings out Flavia's increasing awareness of other people's feelings. She is worried about her father's increasing financial problems and she befriends the gypsy's granddaughter, Porcelain.

The book is well written cozy mystery. The red herrings referred to in the title are the clues that continue to pile up during the story. The mystery unfolds gradually and almost all is solved at the end. The best part is Flavia, of course. I can hardly wait to see what she does next.



Gryphon: New & Selected Stories

Gryphon by Charles Baxter
Gryphon is a collection of stories written by Charles Baxter. They take place in Minnesota and Michigan, many in the bleakness of winter. The lives of the characters are conventional; there are no great epiphanies. Yet, the stories captivate in a way similar to those of Alice Munro and William Trevor.

What makes Baxter a great short story writer is his ability to completely engage the reader in stories where there is little action. Although soothsayers appear as grotesque, homeless men and tarot cards yield vague futures, the characters remain unchanged by their discoveries and continue in their mundane lives. A particularly good example of this is in the story, "Shelter." In it, Cooper, who dropped out of law school to become a baker, finds contentment in both his marriage and his craft. He is especially cheered by the warm feeling the smell of freshly-baked bread gives his 7 a.m. customers. But his peace is shattered by the image of the mentally unstable beggars he sees on the street.

"You're such a good person," his wife says to him.
"No, that's wrong," Cooper replies. "This has nothing to do with good. Virtue doesn't interest me. What this is about is not feeling crazy when I see those people."

How often do we give money but avert our eyes, feeling guilty for our own good fortune? The author takes this feeling one step further. He has Cooper volunteer at a shelter, and then, invite one of its residents (Billy) to his bakery, and later, to his home for dinner. His prosecutor wife proceeds to interrogate the homeless man, sensing a wantonness there that her husband fails to see. And indeed, she proves to be correct.



The Empty Family

CoverThe Empty Family, by Colm Toibin, is a poignant short story collection built around the themes of exile, past loves, and bereavement. Yet the stories--all nine--are so much more. Toibin looks intensely at characters no longer living in the places of their birth, in this case, Ireland. They look with longing at the physical surroundings that once were home to them.

The title story, "The Empty Family," is one of the most evocative in the collection. In it, the narrator is addressing, perhaps in a letter, a former lover. He has returned to Wexford County, Ireland, a verdant area bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. His former house is kept clean, its bills paid from his current home in San Francisco.

Describing the beach in Point Reyes (Northern California), the narrator calls it a "passionate and merciless sea...the Pacific Ocean at its most relentless and stark...: (p. 28)

"I missed home. I went to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home." (p. 29)



Downton Abbey

In case you missed Downton Abbey, which premiered January 3rd on Masterpiece Classic, PBS, you can watch the episodes on the newly released DVD series.

The plot of Downton Abbey centers on the family and servants of Earl Robert Crawley, who are in danger of losing their home because there are no male heirs. The only heir apparent is a middle-class lawyer, Robert Crawley. The household, from the servants to its leisure class inhabitants, holds him and his mother (a former nurse) in disdain.

The time period of part one of this series is of great interest. It takes place in 1912, just after the sinking of the Titanic and before the start of WWI. Women are still in corsets, but the Woman's Movement is beginning. The class system is in place, but there are "radicals" in the crowds, as well as talk of equal rights. The typewriter has been invented, and young women servants hope to better themselves with jobs as secretaries. One of the Earl's daughters is caught up in the fever of the times. Meanwhile, the eldest daughter, Mary, chafes at the notion of having to marry; she does not want the life her mother has.

Downton Abbey is sheer entertainment. The series has a cast of characters matched only by Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Maggie Smith masterfully plays the mother of Robert Crawley; Elizabeth McGovern plays his beautiful American wife. The performance of Maggie Smith alone is worth watching.



The Devil and Sherlock Holmes

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder Madness and Obsession is the second offering from David Grann, the author of the hit The Lost City of Z (recently reviewed in our Staff Picks) and it's a readable collection of nonfiction originally published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and The New Republic. Ostensibly an attempt to profile real life mysteries, it's really just a look at some interesting people, many of whom have a connection to a crime. The profiles range from an elderly bank robber to Toto Constant, a former strongman in Haiti.

One of my favorite pieces in this collection had nothing to do with crime, but was instead a profile of the tunnel system thousands of feet under New York City.  It's an awe-inspiring look at an incredible feat of engineering, and shows how despite changes in the technology used to create and maintain this system the families involved in the work remain the same, generation after generation.

Among other the pieces in this collection are an attempt to identify the murderer of an expert on Sherlock Holmes (thus giving the collection its title), a look at a con-artist who specializes in false identities who may have been conned himself, and the search for the elusive giant squid.

As in any collection of this type, the pieces are not equally captivating. But they're all relatively short and readable making it easy to move on to the next one. A light read, this collection will be of interest to people interested in true crime (although only half the essays deal with this subject) or NPR-ish profiles of interesting people. It's a nice holdover as we wait for his next full-length piece of nonfiction.