Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Snow White Must Die

Nele Neuhaus is a German author making her US debut in the mystery Snow White Must Die. Set in the small town of Altenhaim, the story starts out with the discovery of a skeleton in an oil tank on abandoned property. And just keeps going from there.

Tobias Sartorius has just been released from prison after serving a 10 year sentence for the murders of 2 girls from Altenhaim. The bodies have never been found.  He has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, and just released from prison, he decides to head home after being met at the prison by Nadia Van Bredlow, a famous German actress and a childhood friend of Tobias'. There are a few surprises waiting for Tobias in his old hometown:  his parents have divorced, his father has lost his business, the village is run down and the people who still live there still hate him. In fact the village is harboring a dark secret and they want Tobias gone. Forever.

Pia Kirchoff is a detective on the scene of the found bones. When she realizes that this is one of the girls Tobias allegedly killed she decides to take a closer look at the investigation of the deaths from 11 years ago.  What Pia reads in the police file sets off a series of events that unravel not only some personal lives, but the whole town of Altenhaim. The town has a dark secret and the people involved do not want it to get out.

This is a great story. This book takes the premises of it takes a village to raise a child and stands it on its head. Neuhaus has written a taut thriller. The pace is fast, but the story just keeps unfolding. Every time I though I had it figured out, another layer of the secret came to light. If you are looking for a new author, try Nele Neuhaus: you won't be disappointed.



The Tin Horse

Told through the "wry and witty voice" of Elaine Greenstein, an 80 year old retired lawyer, Janice Steinberg's The Tin Horse is a multi-layered story focusing on the mysterious disappearance, at the age of eighteen, of Elaine's twin sister Barbara. The book - easy to read and difficult to put down - is full of interesting characters and details of time and place, of the mystery, humor, and truths of life.

Among the many layers are:
Family history - The Greensteins are a Jewish immigrant family in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The twins and their two younger sisters grow up in the 1920's and '30's. Their parents (who met in Los Angeles) and grandfather (who lives with them) have come from Romania and their stories of persecution and escape are told.

Romance - There are multiple romances described in the novel, all useful in defining the characters. One of the main characters, Danny Berlov, a young Zionist who later emigrates to Israel; romances each of the twins and these relationships are central to the mystery of Barbara's disappearance.

The twins - Barbara studies dance, loves performing, and leaves her home and family to pursue her own life and goals. Elaine stays near family, becomes a lawyer, has a happy marriage, but is hurt by the loss of her twin and misses her constantly. When Elaine begins to pack for a move to housing for seniors, she finds new clues about her missing sister. With the help of a young researcher who is preparing her papers for the USC special collection, Elaine seeks the answer to the mystery with the hope of reuniting with her twin.



A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

Irish novelist Maeve Binchy died at age 72 almost exactly one year ago. If Wikipedia can be believed, her books outsold those of other
Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, and Edna O'Brien. Binchy finished A Week in Winter shortly before her death.

Like the author’s other books, this one
features warmth and wit and an unlikely cast of characters (one is even a clairvoyant librarian). The main one is Chicky Starr, who long ago left Ireland
and ran off with a good-looking American named Walter who turned out to be
considerably less than she hoped for. She
now has returned to Stoneybridge on the Emerald Isle’s west coast to open Stone
House, a first-class inn.  Chicky has hidden
her past; now she helps others bury or triumph over theirs.

There are a lot of characters in the book--perhaps
a few too many.  Some are sketched
quickly, and others have their own chapter. Sometimes when Binchy moves on to another character, it seems too soon
and a reader can feel wistful. But many of the characters spend the opening
week of Stone House together, either as a guest or in the employ of Chicky, and
it is a pleasure to see them interact.

Like Chicky, most of the female characters have
gotten into scraps during their life, but these women are strong and resilient.
They have to be, as most of the men in this book are liars, cheaters, or abandoners. But in the end, relationships mend or no
longer matter, and Stone House’s inhabitants enjoy their time together by the
sea in the great Stone House.

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Habits of the House

The setting is Belgrave Square, London 1899. Very fashionable. Lady Isobel and Lord Robert Dilberne live there along with their two adult children: Rosina, a new and modern thinking woman and their son, Arthur, who just loves to live for the moment. The Dilbernes are living off the remains of the original family fortune and the money that Isobel brought to the marriage from her father, the coal baron. Despite her low birth Isobel married well and has been accepted into London society.

Robert receives word that a gold mine he invested heavily in has been flooded during an attack in the Boer War. This news is received from Eric Baum, his lordship's financial adviser. Baum is worried because he has lent Dilberne money and knows the precarious financial situation of the family. Bad investments and free spending have brought the family to the brink of financial ruin.

Baum feels the family gives him no respect judging by their behavior even though he has as much money as they do. The Prince of England personally recommended Baum as an adviser. Once the family realizes  they may have to declare bankruptcy and be ruined, they decide the only way to survive is to have Arthur marry an American heiress. Since the debutante season is over they have to rely on late visitors. Lucky for them, Minnie, a beautiful heiress to a meatpacking fortune from Chicago arrives. Her reputation at home is not good, but times are desperate for the Dilbernes.

This book is reminiscent of Downton Abbey and since I'm a fan of that show, I loved this book. The women - Minnie and Rosina - are "modern" for the time, while Arthur is a throwback. Their Lordships are clueless and Minnie's mother, the wonderful Tess O'Brien makes everybody look like they are hiding something. The servants are loyal and the business partners are not. The Habits of the House gives an intimate look at the workings of this house. Wonderful! Also available is part 2:  Long Live the King.



Venice: A New History

As far as unique cities go, vehicle-free swamp-situated Venice must be near the top of anyone's list. This, as well as the fact that I was planning a trip there this summer, made me excited to see Thomas Madden's Venice: A New History arrive at the library. These days Venice has a reputation as a museum city that is kept alive by tourists serenaded by gondoliers but, as this book makes clear, Venice has dynamic history in which they were once a naval and mercantile power.

The question that this book starts by addressing is "why Venice?" Why form a city among swampy islands? Venetians can almost give credit to Attila the Hun as a city founder since his destruction of the land-based city of Aquileia drove future Venetians to the islands in retreat. A future invasion by Charlemagne's son led them to unite and defend the least attractive part of the lagoon, which would become the city of Venice.
Being forced into an uninhabitable marsh led the Venetians to form a unique culture based on mercantilism. Unlike landlocked nations, the land available for growing crops and raising livestock was very limited, forcing Venetians to the sea where they successfully began trading with Constantinople, Cyprus and other Mediterranean nations. Eventually, against some Venetians' best judgment, they also began acquiring colonies on the mainland, leading them to become an empire by the 15th Century (though it would decline following the rise of the Turks in the 16th Century).
Madden also spends much of the book covering Venice's unique political system, which was a republic that lasted more than thirteen centuries - a time period during which most other governments were being ruled by royalty or dictators. Madden feels that it was the pragmatism of mercantile Venice that made them so successful in not letting one person gain too much power. The political system and people of Venice were always interested in stability and were thus able to deal with threats of despotism. It was only Napoleon's conquest that made them give up the form of government that at the time was the world's longest-surviving republic.
This book is also to be commended in its gripping storytelling of the battles, often taking place during the various Crusades to which Venice committed itself. Overall this is an excellent portrait of how a unique city in both geography and temperament became what it is now. The main problem that some of you might face in reading this book is that you will soon find yourself planning a trip to Venice to explore the history that Madden describes!



The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Mary Bowser was a real person, born a slave in Richmond, freed and then educated in the North, who returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War. Few details are known about Mary's life. Lois Leveen has created a work of historical fiction based on Mary's life and on other historical figures and situations. Included in the book are photographs of locations described and a picture, thought to be of Mary.

A unique aspect of this book is the details of what life is like for free and educated black people during the time of the Civil War. Contrasts and parallels are made with the life of those free in the North and in the South, with the life of black servants, and with the life of black slaves. The details of Mary's life - where she lives, her food, her clothes, what she reads, her romances - all serve to  immerse us in a time and place similar to what we have read in other Civil War novels, but with many specifics which may be new to us. 

In the novel, Mary, a child, is freed by Miss Bet, the daughter of her owners, and taken to Philadelphia for school and to begin a new life. When Mary is 20, she defies the law which forbids freed slaves from returning to Virginia, to go back to Richmond to care for her father. While in Richmond, working with Miss Bet and others, she acts as a servant in the household of Jefferson Davis in order to spy for the Union.

Leveen's writing drew me into the story - the history, the mysteries of escaping slaves and of spying, the romances of Mary and her parents, and the ideas and ideals of family, courage, and freedom.



Speaking From Among the Bones

Flavia is back! It's March 1951 and Flavia and her sister, Ophelia are in church . Ophelia is practicing the organ pieces for Easter mass since the regular organist has recently disappeared. Falvia is excited since the church is going to disinter the bones of the Church's patron saint for the quincentenary of his death. The saint is rumored to have been buried with "Lucifer's stone," a diamond. Flavia thinks that maybe the stone can be used to help her father's money problems.

Flavia is on her usual course of murder and mayhem. The body of the organist is found on top of the crypt of the saint. The organist has been murdered. A secret tunnel is found leading from the graveyard into the crypt area under the church and the crypt of the saint has already been looted.

More mysteries abound in the form of strangers who have materialized  during the raising of the grave. The Bishop's secretary (Parr) and Mr. Sowerby, a friend of the vicar's are very interested in the stone. But it appears to be missing and just who murdered the organist? And just what is going on in the magistrate's house?

I love these books. There are easy to read and Flavia is a delight.  But she appears to be growing up, even though she still has her trusty bicycle, Gladys. There are some twists and turns but the ending was a complete surprise! I recommend these books - they are like seeing an old friend.



Benediction by Kent Haruf

I have not read this author since Plainsong, and now want to go back and read everything he has written. Benediction is set in Holt, Colorado, several hours outside of Denver. Main character "Dad" Lewis, beloved owner of the local hardware store, has just received a diagnosis of cancer. Sounds like a downer of a book so far, but trust me, just the opposite. He and his wife Mary and daughter Lorraine work together to ensure that "Dad" lives his last months the way he wants.  

Poignant, beautiful writing about a man who has lived his life with dignity and compassion, and is not about to change. Lovely descriptions about the strength of small town life; about the outpouring of love and support "Dad" and his family experience. Such fine writing about his attempts to reconcile his life before he goes.  Highly recommended.

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Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide is the story of a grand English house of that name. Professionally reviewed as a Downton Abbey clone, I found that it was not. The star of this book is the house. The story line follows the owners of the house from the very first idea of the grand house to the brother and sister who inherit it as the last of the family line.

The real story starts in 1775 with the family Mores, who commission the house. Great detail is given on how the house was designed and the stone work started. It was really quite interesting. The Mores never fully paid for the work on the house and never fully finished it either. A great big house with beautiful proportions, as it is described, the house limped along until the Henderson's bought it in 1844. They loved the house, finished it off and restored it. The story line is tied together through the people who inhabit the house: first the stone mason and architect, then a housekeeper, then actual family members and servants. The house survives through various wars, illnesses, family traumas and periods of neglect.

There are plenty of architectural terms describing the house - the author is an author of interior design and architecture books as well. Not the character driven story that Downton Abbey is, the book is a very  interesting description of a grand English manor house and its history.

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