Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

All Roads Leadeth

Francis Armstrong has finally found the house he has been looking for - a fussy old Victorian in York that is desperately in need of repairs. Armstrong dreams of spending his time restoring the house and the gardens. What he doesn't realize is that his idyll's in the garden will turn up a human skeleton. The remains belong to Muriel Bradbury, the long missing wife of the previous owner.

So starts Peter Turnbull's novel, All Roads Leadeth. Set in the English countryside around York the story starts out with the discovery of the bones. It then races through more murders, embezzlement, missing persons, love interests and sticky police procedure. With fast pacing (even thought the chapters are long) Turnbull introduces his 2 crime solvers: DCI Hennesey and Sergeant Yellich. These two quickly put together the clues that lead to the mysterious Sandra Picardie. Picardie had quickly become the second Mrs. Bradbury. She left Bradbury when he encountered financial trouble. She then turns up as the wife of another man whose wife has gone missing. Are they dealing with a mass murderer?

Hennessey and Yellich pile clue upon clue as they solve the mystery with the help of the local pathologist, Louise D'Acre. The strained relationship between Hennessey and D'Acre may not be all that it seems, and Yellich has his own problems in the form of a young woman with a "tumbling head of golden hair."

This short, fast paced book makes for a good mystery read. The characters are interesting, their relationships with each other are interesting and you just want to come back to them to see what they will solve next.

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The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff

The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff is another wonderful collection of short stories by Chicago writer, Joseph Epstein. Epstein's brilliance lies in creating everyday characters as they go about life's joys and tribulations. He writes with great wit, and he is able to evoke both laughter and tears.

The title story is a satire whose protagonist mirrors J. Alfred Prufrock (T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1917). In it, we find an equally reserved protagonist-- a widower and doctor. He meets Larissa Friedman at a charitable function. She is the widow of the "sock baron" to Nike, and pops into the doctor's life much as the wealthy women "come and go talking of Michelangelo" in the T.S. Eliot poem (lines 13-14 ). All of them are vacuous and serve as foils to the main character.

As he begins an affair with Larissa, Dr. Minkoff does not have time "to wonder 'Do I dare?' and, 'Do I dare?' (line 38)." When she visits him in Chicago, he is swept up in a week of sex, dinner at trendy restaurants , and symphony and theater dates every evening. Likewise, in Brentwood, Los Angeles, Dr. Minkoff and Larissa have dinner at a restaurant of the super rich. He is shocked by the $680 bill. "People lie and cheat and even kill for money," Dr. Minkoff explains to Larissa once they are back at her home. This being so, I've always felt that the least I can do is respect it. Spending that kind of money for a meal isn't, in my opinion, respecting it (p. 7)."

Some of the best stories in this collection portray average guys, who, through marriage or hard work, become wealthy. Such stories are "You Could Also Love a Rich Girl" and "Under New Management." The reader truly empathizes with these men who sadly discover that wealth is not what it seems. In "Janet Natalsky and the Life of Art," "Gladrags & Kicks," and "My Brother Eli," Epstein satirizes those who pursue the arts at the expense of everything else. But he does so in a kind way, showing the reader the price of such a sacrifice.

If you loved Fabulous Small Jews, you will equally enjoy this collection highlighting middle class, intellectual Jews living in Chicago. Each story is a gem. I read them slowly, enjoying the writing and not wanting the book to end.

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Ella Minnow Pea

I don't really read absurdest books, but I thought I'd give Ella Minnow Pea a try after it was recommended by several different people. It's excellent. Ella Minnow Pea is a young woman who is living on the fictitious island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop is named for Nevin Nollop, of course. And the town reveres him. He wrote the sentence, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." which uses every letter of the alphabet. The sentence is a pangram which is a sentence composed of all the letters of the alphabet. The book is epistolary in nature, meaning the story is told through letters.

The story starts out when one of the letters (Z) immortalizing the phrase falls off the facade of the town hall. No one knows quite what to do. The town council decided it is a sign from Nollop and from that time on the letter cannot be used in speech or print. There are escalating punishments for using the banned letter. The only ones excused from the rules are children age 7 and under.

All kinds of problems result. First the library must be cleared of every book that contains the letter. The school teachers may not utter the word, citizens cannot use it in speech or letters, etc. This continues through each missing letter. Towns people leave in droves and a small rebellion starts. Ella is caught in the tumult over the missing letters. Ella's mother receives a letter from a reporter (Nate) who is doing a series on Nollop and has heard of the falling letters and the town council's actions. He sneaks onto the island and goes to an open town meeting where he is discovered for the reporter he is. He is offered his choice of punishments but he agrees to write a similar sentence using all the letters of the alphabet, only this time he will use only 32 letters (Nollop used 35). He has 3 weeks to get this done. The race is on.

Nate has a small group working with him. They are trying to come up with a sentence but the 32 character limit is frustrating their progress. Meanwhile letters continue to fall and the council's actions are growing more outrageous. They seize property, shut down businesses and generally intrude on every part of the citizen's lives. Nate comes closer with the sentence.



The Story of a Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

This book has it all.  It came to my attention before it was published, and I couldn't wait to see it in print so I could recommend it to anyone who came near me!

The book opens as a lovely retired widowed teacher opens her front door to a couple soaked by a rainstorm. As they enter her home, and shed their rain drenched outer garments, she sees a young white woman with a newborn, and a black man who is not the baby's father.  As she prepared food for them, more pounding comes at the door, and they flee, but not before pressing the baby into the teacher's arms and urging "hide her!" 

The ensuing story is spellbinding, and I can't stop thinking about it!

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A Simple Act of Violence

R.J. Ellory's new book A Simple Act of Violence is anything but simple. The book starts with the murder of Catherine Sheridan, whom for some reason seems to know that she is about to be murdered. Washington police department detectives Robert Miller and Albert Roth are assigned to investigate. Miller is just returning from a suspension he received after being implicated in a murder.

Miller has doubts about what really happened right from the start. What he does know is that this murder is similar to 3 other murders of women in the past few months. The murderer has been dubbed the "Ribbon killer" because he ties ribbons around the victim's necks. When the victim's backgrounds are checked it seems as if these people were never alive. The investigation of Sheridan's murder leads Miller on a chase through the secret agencies of the United States. CIA, FBI, NSA all seem to be involved.
Intertwined in the main story is a narrative by someone named John Robey. Robey was an operative for the CIA. He was an assassin and he worked with Catherine Sheridan. His asides give the story line the background information that leads to the conclusion. Robey is eventually interviewed by Miller and Roth and he tries to drop hints as to what is really going on. It takes Miller awhile to catch on.
I liked this book. The beginning winds a bit and it is a little confusing with the shifting between the main story line and Robey's but persevere, they come together and everything is clear. The main story of the murders is a good one. Robey's story about the CIA and it's activities is more than just an aside. Combined they make for a very interesting fast paced mystery.

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Broken, by Karin Fossum

Avid readers often wonder how a novel is created. How does a plot evolve? How do characters "come alive?"

Norwegian mystery writer Karin Fossum attempts to answer this question in Broken. In it, a novelist is awakened in the night by an intruder in her bedroom. That intruder is none other than one of her characters. Tired of waiting in line outside her window, he wants his story told now.

Thus begins this well-written and creative suspense story. The author, the "I" in the novel, is a driven woman, dependent on wine and pills. It is implied that she suffers from depression. The character she creates, Alvar Eide, is an intelligent man who manages an art gallery. Like the writer, he is a loner, unable to sustain friendships. But he is excessively needy and unable to make decisions. He is also unable to stand up for himself.

When a young woman, a heroin addict, knocks on the door of the gallery, Alvar lets her in and gives her hot coffee. In doing so, he opens the door to his insular way of life. The woman appears again, and eventually follows him home. When she arrives on his doorstep one night, Alvar lets her in. She gradually insinuates herself into Alvar's life, stealing a key to his apartment and coercing him to take money out of the bank. Her encroachment on his life confuses Alvar; he doesn't know how to say no. "What kind of world is this, where good leads to bad," he wonders. (p. 174)



The Mozart Conspiracy

The Mozart Conspiracy is a thriller in the vein of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. Mozart was written by British author Scott Mariani whose books are popular in the UK, but new to the US market. The Mozart Conspiracy is the latest in Mariani's Ben Hope series.

Ben Hope is an ex-SAS member who is trying to get on with his life. He hires himself out as a "crisis response consultant." Meaning he helps people escape from situations they would rather they or their family members not be in. Ben is heading back to his house on the west coast of Ireland when he receives a call from Leigh Llewellyn the sister of a friend of his. Oliver Llewellyn, an accomplished pianist, has just died in a drowning accident. At the time of his death Oliver was trying to unravel the meaning of a letter Mozart wrote shortly before he died. The letter purportedly shows that Mozart was killed at the hands of a secret society called the "Order of RA," a dissident band of the Freemasons. Oliver has a video he made while he was preforming in a great house in Vienna. The video shows the murder of a man.

Ben meets up with Leigh and she mentions that Oliver was looking into the letter and that he sent her something shortly before his death. The DVD is a copy of the video Oliver shot. Things start to move at this point. Leigh is shot at and someone tries to kidnap her in the hope of discovering what she knows about the letter and the DVD. Ben and Leigh try to track down Professor Arno who owns the original copy of Mozart's last letter. While Arno is explaining the background of the Masons and their relationship to Mozart he is shot. Before he dies, Arno tells them that the Order of Ra is still in existence.

While running for their lives Ben and Leigh come in contact with a detective named Markus Kinski. Kinski had done the original investigative work into Oliver's death. Kinski is interested in reopening the investigation but when he tries his young daughter is threatened and ultimately kidnapped. Oliver and Ben suffer a series of attacks before they are able to piece enough information together to get the real story of Oliver's death, the missing letter and the Order of Ra.