Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Nine Coaches Waiting

This beautifully written book was originally published in the 1950's, but don't think it isn't worth the read because it's "old." Miss Linda Martin accepts a job as a governess for an orphaned boy in France. Philippe, the Comte de Valmy's nephew, is living with his aunt and uncle in the ancestral home. Philippe actually is the heir to the estate, but Madame Heloise deValmy and her husband Monsieur Leon deValmy are the trustees of the estate. Heloise hires Linda expressly because she is English and apparently doesn't understand a word of French. Heloise doesn't know that Linda is originally from France.

Heloise is beautiful but guarded, apparently with some health issues requiring constant medication. Leon is confined to a wheelchair after an accident. He runs the estate with loving care, as if it is actually his and not Philippe's. Leon has a son, Raoul, from his first marriage.  Raoul is running Leon's personal estate. There are problems between the father and the son. Raoul has something of a reputation as a ladies man.

On the surface things are calm in the deValmy family but Linda has some strange feelings that make her uncomfortable, such as the original nanny being fired for no apparent reason. Philippe, at 9 years old is sickly and apparently desperate for friends. The secretiveness of some of the staff starts problems for Linda with gossip that she is in love with Raoul. Philippe tries to avoid his uncle Leon, as he is apparently afraid of him.  Then the accidents start. First, someone takes a shot at Philippe, narrowly missing him, then he almost falls off his balcony when part of the stonework gives way. Linda saves him both times.

The story slowly builds. The accidents that Philippe has portend a greater tragedy in the planning. Linda's feelings for Raoul complicate the family dynamics. Everything comes to a head the night of  the party. It's a great finish.

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Too Good to Be True, by Benjamin Anastas

This is a memoir of a youngish writer whose pregnant bride leaves him when she can’t get over his pre-wedding admission that he cheated on her; who quits his day job to write full time, even though he owes the IRS, a list of credit card companies, his accountant, his therapist, Sallie Mae, and numerous others; who continues to get expensive haircuts and enjoy cab rides, even though he fails to pay his portion of the rent, and even though he scrounges for loose change in closets and drawers so that he can buy his young son yogurt and Pirate’s Booty when he visits. This is a writer about whom it is hard to feel sorry.

 And yet you root for him to get over his feelings of superiority, his writer’s block, and his piles of bills because it’s clear he loves both his new girlfriend and his young son, and because he is funny. Humor and hope intermingle with frustration and failure in this compelling slim volume that can be read at one sitting, possibly as a little bit of Schadenfreude creeps in.

 Not long before this sad tale begins, Anastas was the author of two well-regarded novels, “An Underachiever’s Diary” and “The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance.” About the time his wife exits (in the arms of a rival writer), his publisher loses interest in him as well. And he is broke and panicky. But—to quote The New York Times book review—“under the panic lies a remorseful heart (and) a steady determination to become a better person.”

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Malice of Fortune

Set in Italy in the early 1500's Malice of Fortune  will take readers on a tour of Italy's politics at a most interesting time. Rodrigo Borgia is currently reigning as Pope Alexander. It's a position he bought. His most beloved son Juan, who had led the pope's armies, has been murdered and Alexander is still grieving 5 years later. At Juan's death, Cesare Borgia, takes over the pope's army. Previously Cesare, was serving the church as a bishop. Now he is known as Duke Valentino.  His current mission is to bring together Italy under Papal rule.

In his despair, Alexander has Damiata and her child brought to the papal apartments. Damiata, a whore, was the lover of Juan.  Alexander believes that she set up Juan's death. The Pope tells Damiata that he will hold her son hostage until she solves the mystery of Juan's death. Damiata tells the pope that the condettieri  (basically warlords) murdered Juan and that Cesare was involved as well.

Damiata's investigation leads her to a young Florentine diplomat, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli is trying to prevent the sack of Florence by both the condettieri and Cesare's armies. Machiavelli and Damiata develop a close relationship that effects the search. Cesare is trying to unite the condettiere with the help of his military engineer, Leonardo da Vince. More murders begin to take place. The bodies of dismembered and beheaded woman begin to turn up. Leonardo starts investigating. Plotting the locations of their remains, da Vinci discovers a diabolical plot to the murders. This plot proves to be the work of an almost mystical person - someone in a devil's mask.

The story is told in 2 parts. The first from the point of view of Damiata as though she is speaking to her son.  The second part is told from Machiavelli's point of view. This part gives the reader a glimpse into the rational behind Machiavelli's other writings. There are wonderful descriptions - you can actually see the plains at night, the crowded public rooms and the luxurious clothing.  This is an interesting look at a time period that contained historically great men (Leonardo, Machiavelli and the Borgia's) but was still mired in the lore of witches and fate.

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A Hundred Flowers, by Gail Tsukiyama, is a nicely crafted historical novel about China during the late 1950s.  In May, 1956, Mao Zedong invited criticism of the Chinese Communist Party's policies, quoting from Chinese classical history.  "Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend." Intellectuals and others opposing China's policies waited until the spring of 1957 to voice any criticism. Although it was initially encouraged, retribution followed by early July of that year. Opponents of the regime lost their jobs and many were sent  to "re-education camps. There they were subjected to back-breaking manual labor. ("Hundred Flowers Campaign." Encyclopedia Britannica Online Library Edition. 2012.)

It is 1957 when the book opens.  Sheng, beloved husband and father, has been arrested for writing a letter critical of the Communist Party.  His wife, the herbalist Kai Ying, worries about making ends meet.  Her father-in-law, a retired art professor, lives with a wrenching secret.  Tao, Sheng's son, witnesses his father's arrest and deals with his grief silently.  His silence turns into anger, and a year later, Tao climbs a giant kapok tree and falls 30 feet.  Everyone's feelings for this magnificent tree are described so vividly that the tree itself becomes yet another compelling character.


As they stood next to each other, Kai Ying was glad she couldn't see her father-in-law's face.  She wanted the old Wei back, the man who commanded respect just by walking into a classroom, the man who had sat by the side of his dying wife day after day reading to her, the man who spent hours talking and laughing with his grandson. Instead, she felt only the looming presence of the kapok tree rising above, and the sense that they, too, had fallen. pp. 37-38.

Tsukiyama
has once again written a compelling story about family bonds and enduring love. Her rich, descriptive prose captures the essence of this turbulent historical period.

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The Prophet

Football. Small town Ohio. Two brothers, Adam and Kent Austin. Adam
is a bail bondsman, having been on the wrong side of the law himself. Kent is the beloved town football coach with a team on its way to an
undefeated season and a state championship. Kent is always in control and Adam, not so  much. Both are still mourning the death of their sister
Marie. She was abducted and murdered when they were teenagers. They
have been estranged ever since her death.

A teenage girl, calling herself April, walks into Adam's office. She is looking
for her father who supposedly has been released from prison. She has
letters from him indicating that at long last he wants some contact with
her and that he will soon be released from prison. The letters give
April just enough details that Adam can find an address. Against his
better judgement, Adam gives April the information. She is found
murdered a short time later at the address Adam had sent her to. April is not her real name, her father is still in prison, and she is the girlfriend of the star football player.

The
story races forward from here. The way the brothers have dealt with
their sister's death has a direct bearing on how they deal with April's
death. Adam determined to not let a murderer walk free; Kent with
prayer and forgiveness, until his family becomes involved.

Tense and faced paced, with some surprising twists, Michael Koryta has written another excellent thriller.

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Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page

I read many rock star biographies and they usually go like this: rock star has difficult childhood, starts band, leads life of reckless drug abuse, marries and divorces multiple times and finally finds wisdom and redemption in old age. Unfortunately, the books do not always talk about the music, which is what really matters. Perhaps this is why I found Light & Shade so refreshing. Built around a series of interviews with Brad Tolinski, the editor in chief of Guitar World, Light & Shade is a nice look at what made Jimmy Page's recordings with and beyond Led Zeppelin so unique.

There must have been some rock and roll in the water in the area southwest of London that Page came from since it also bred Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, all of whom served in the groundbreaking Yardbirds at some point (with Beck recommended for the job by Page who had initially turned it down). What many people don't realize about Page's career is that even before the Yardbirds he played on sessions in what the book estimates as 60 percent of the records made in Britain in the early 1960s. His guitar shows up on hundreds of tracks including tracks by The Who, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Petula Clark and Rolling Stones.

The real meat of the book involves Page speaking on how he was able to get the unique sounds on the various Led Zeppelin recordings. Not all of this revolves around the guitar, as their drum sound was truly remarkable and had been midwifed by Page. However, guitar lovers should rest assured that there is plenty of detail given to Page's various guitars, including a chapter devoted to all of his gear. There are other interludes as well, including interviews with Paul Rodgers and Jack White.

Jimmy Page's career has not been profiled as extensively as those of other guitar heroes and that made this book very refreshing and informative to me. While his partying antics during the Led Zeppelin heyday years are legendary, the publishing world has been relatively subdued when it comes to profiles of his importance as a musician. This book should be a welcome addition to any rock music lover's shelf.

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No Easy Day

With the movie Zero Dark Thirty appearing in theaters, you also may be interested in No Easy Day, which was written under a pseudonym by a US service member who was at the killing of Osama Bin Laden. His real name has since been published and he is currently under investigation by the Pentagon for violation of the nondisclosure agreements he signed as a SEAL. That's the background on the author.

The book opens with an author's note explaining why he wrote the book (basically he was tired of all the misinformation that had been put out) explaining that he had an attorney vet the manuscript. He sounds absolutely sincere. Proceeds from the book are going to a fund for SEAL families.

The first chapter has the author and his team flying into the Abbottabad compound on a helicopter that is about to crash. All team members were crowded into the open doors getting ready to rappel down when the helicopter became unstable and started down. The story line then shifts back to 2004.

By 2004 the twin towers had been destroyed and the United States was embroiled in the conflicts in Iraq.  The author is now a SEAL and is starting his final qualifications. He gives some information on the SEAL training for something called the Green Team. This consists of 9 months of  intense training.  From this group comes the infamous SEAL Team 6, which is actually part of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), the Navy counter intelligence group. Green team training results in the elite group of SEALS.

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Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace

Mrs. Robinson is a Victorian era lady. She was raised in relative wealth, married, had a son and was widowed at 31. As a child she was willful, disobeying her parents at every opportunity. She smoked cigars as a young woman, something scandalous for the time. She married Henry Robinson because she felt she needed to be married even though he father left her some money to live on. Robinson was an engineer, who was often away on business.

The setting is the time of Queen Victoria's reign. Madam Bovary had just been published in France, but was currently banned in England. In 1858, the Crown began giving divorces to the middle class - an act of Parliament was no longer required. Even though the Victorians were thought to be straight-laced, sex was everywhere.  Several treatises had been published dealing with the sexual urges of woman and how they effected their mental health. Isabella was a forward thinking woman, more free spirited than her very straight and narrow minded husband. To say that Henry was mean spirited and vindictive was understating the facts.

Isabella and Henry lived in a fashionable area of Edinburgh. Isabella became good friends with Lady Drysdale, her daughter, Mary, and her son-in-law Edward Lane. They lived within walking distance of each other and had children of similar ages. Isabella spent a lot of time with the Lanes. Isabella also kept a diary, a common practice at the time. In it she recorded her thoughts and emotions as well as her feelings for certain people, her husband and Edward Lane included. She called her husband an "uncongenial partner" after he took control of the money her father had given her for her personal use.

In time Isabella grew to despise Henry. He had a mistress and 2 illegitimate daughters. Isabella believed Henry married her for her money. Isabella spent more and more times with the Lanes. She and Edward talked about poetry and philosophy and items in the news something she never did with her husband.   Isabella indicated in her diary that she had feelings for Edward. She was concerned that her "lustings" were going to ruin her. Edward was not the only man Isabella had feelings for. She actively sought out  the tutors of her sons. All this information was contained in her diary. Either Isabella had a vivid imagination or her diary was remarkably frank.

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