Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Mangle Street Murders

March Middleton is a "modern" woman, meaning she doesn't really see the need to keep the social conventions polite English society expects young women to follow. She smokes and drinks, but not in front of her male relatives. March is about to embark on a new stage of her life. Her father has died and she has sold off the estate and is heading to London to live with her godfather, Sidney Grice, a man she know nothing about.

Grice is a private eye extraordinaire, or as he prefers to call himself a "personal detective." He has an excellent reputation and so can pick and choose his cases.  He is a gruff know-it-all and a snob - a short, slightly built man with a glass eye. Grice and March are visited by Mrs. Dillinger who wants to hire him to investigate the murder of her daughter, Sarah, whose husband William Ashby has been arrested for the murder. Grice declines the case, but March, feeling sorry for the woman agrees to pay Grice out of her personal funds if he takes the case and lets her tag along. He agrees. At the time of Sarah's murder several unsolved murders of young woman had already taken place in London.

Grice begins March's education into private investigation work. Combined with his maid, Molly; Parker, the morgue worker; Harriet, a woman March met on the train to London, and Inspector Pound of the London police, the investigation gets off to a rocky start.  Everyone adds a little bit of information to the clues, but they don't add up.

This is a great book. Filled with quirky characters, the plot line moves quickly through to its conclusion. The humor is borderline snarky, the relationship between all the characters filled with love and exasperation with each other. I will admit that I was surprised by the ending and not in a bad way. This is the first in the Grover Street Detective series and I look forward to more.



One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band by Alan Paul

Like many Allman Brothers fans, I feel like a major part of the band disappeared when guitarist Duane Allman died at the age of 24 after putting together two studio albums and one (massive hit) live LP. And while One Way Out,  Alan Paul's new oral history of the band confirms that indeed the band was assembled as a showcase for Duane's skills (already honed as a session player for musicians such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin), they have succeeded as a unit by adapting skillfully to new musicians while keeping one Allman (Gregg) intact. In this new book, Paul definitely adjusts some preconceptions that I (and probably other fans) have about The Allman Brothers, one of the most successful southern rock bands of all time (although the band members themselves reject the "southern rock" label as being too limiting).

Paul's book pulls from interview with remaining band members Gregg Allman, Jaimoe and Butch Trucks, as well as former longtime guitarist and guiding light Dickey Betts and others who have joined the Allman Brothers along the way. Much of the early part of the book establishes the camaraderie among the band members as they attempted to make it as musicians both individually and later as members of what became The Allman Brothers Band (after Duane rejected The Duane Allman Band as not recognizing the fact that they were a larger unit). Their early years living together in The Big House in Macon, Georgia, while trying to eke out a living playing music are captured by band members, crew members and family. This closeness was reflected onstage in their ability to stretch their songs into marathon length, setting the bar for all "jam bands" that followed. Meanwhile, the importance of the extended "family" around the band echoes, and can be observed by the inclusion of the crew on the back cover of the Live at the Fillmore East album.

Drugs and alcohol certainly color this book, as both Duane and bassist Berry Oakley partied hard and died young while Gregg Allman has struggled with alcoholism for years, eventually requiring a liver transplant. Guitarist Dickey Betts, who took over the leadership mantle after Duane died also has had substance abuse problems and while he is interviewed in this book, he is also made out to be a bit of a villain, as he could be abusive and confrontational and would sometimes disappear when required to play dates. Betts does get credit for keeping the band alive after Duane died and keeping the Allman Brothers working as a successful unit, later able to thrive when Betts was voted out of the band in 2000.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me is how much of a non-presence Gregg Allman has been through the history of the band. While his voice is certainly a distinguishing feature of the band, he's not a prolific songwriter and one gets the impression that he's happy to go along with whatever direction the other members of the band ask. Guitarist Warren Haynes has essentially taken the role of bandleader since Betts left, though with his recently announced plans to leave the band in 2014 it is unclear where that mantle will fall. Gregg Allman recently stated that the Allman Brothers band will retire from touring following some final concerts this year, but I can't imagine that we won't hear from them again.



A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

the late 80s and early 90s, I worked as a volunteer with the Russian
Jewish community in Chicago. The program was funded by the Jewish United
Fund. The volunteers helped families practice English while assisting
with the difficult transition to American life. In most cases, families
were inter-generational, with grandparents living with children and
grandchildren. The experience allowed me to look at American life
through the lens of an immigrant. It gave me an appreciation for the
freedoms I enjoyed that my Soviet brethren had not.

addition, I listened to family members recount their experiences with
anti-semitism, much of which was state sanctioned prior to the 60s.
Having taken my own admission to universities for granted, I learned how
entrance into universities in the USSR often required a bribe, as did
many government services. Gradually, I came to understand the complex
relationship Soviet Jewry had with their motherland and with their new
home in America.

Thus it was with a sense of empathy that I read A Replacement Life (2014),
by Boris Fishman. In it, he explores the many conflicts - ethical,
social, and familial - that face his protagonist, Slava Gelman. After
listening to Bob Edwards interview the author, it became evident that
Slava is an alter-ego of the author himself.  (Bob Edwards Weekend, July 4, 2014, NPR)

was born in Belarus in 1979 and came to the United States in 1988 at
the age of 9. He became the official English speaker for his parents and
grandparents. As a child, and later as an adolescent, he helped them
navigate the complicated ways of a new society. When he was only 15, his
grandmother asked him to write an appeal to the Conference on Material
Claims Against Germany. She was claiming reparations for her two years
as prisoner in the Minsk ghetto during WWII. There were no surviving
records from that period. The Germans destroyed the ghetto in 1943 and
executed the remaining inhabitants.



Gemini by Carol Cassella

Gemini, by Carol Cassella, is an engaging story that focuses around an ethical dilemma in a Seattle Intensive Care Unit.
An unidentified woman has been brought from the scene of a hit and run
accident to a rural hospital on the Olympic Peninsula. There, something
goes terribly amiss in surgery and Jane Doe never regains consciousness. She is air-lifted to the ICU and becomes the patient of Dr. Charlotte Reese.

this point, the reader is introduced to a parallel story - that of
twelve year old Raney and Bo - the boy she befriends. Raney comes from a
poor, rural family. Knowing nothing about her father and abandoned by
her mother, Raney now lives with her widower grandfather. She is a
fearless girl who escapes the harsh realities of her life by painting
the beautiful, natural world around her.

contrast, Bo comes from a wealthy albeit broken home. He is described as
a waif-like, sickly boy whose attraction to the independent Raney is
strong and immediate. Rainey comes to love him with equal intensity - a
love that lasts through her twenties and beyond.

Gradually, the reader learns the relationship between these seemingly unrelated stories.



Ripper by Isabel Allende

In San Francisco, there have been some very strange murders. The latest one involves a grade school 4th grade gym class discovering a body in the gym. The man, Ed Stanton, was the school security guard. He had been shot through the lead, draped over a piece of gym equipment and assaulted with a baseball bat. The kids were thrilled by the murder; the police, not so much.

Meanwhile a group of 5 teenagers and 1 elderly man are connected through the net and are playing a game of Ripper, which is a role playing game where they adopt alter egos and try to solve the Ripper's crimes. The group members are spread out all over the world - New Jersey, Montreal, New Zealand and California. One member of the group is Amanda whose father happens to be the deputy chief of police and is trying to solve the San Francisco murders. She is also the game master. The elderly man is her grandfather, Blake Johnson. With the latest murder the group decides to try to solve the current murders instead of the Ripper's. A famous local astrologer has predicted a blood bath for San Francisco and it looks like she may be correct.

Amanda has a rather fluid life. Her parents are divorced and she shuttles between her father, the deputy police chief, and her mother a new age masseuse at the local Holistic clinic. Her mother, Indiana, is beautiful  which results in her male clients either falling in love with her or wanting to protect her from all others. Amanda is extraordinarily close to her grandfather.

Amanda's group has been carefully studying the murders. With some inside information they begin to see connections that have so far eluded the notice of the police. The group gets to look from a distance until Amanda's mother goes missing.



Sycamore Row, by John Grisham

Sycamore Row is the best kind of legal thriller: great writing, good storyline, and characters that really come alive on the page. Having said that, the book seems even better on audio, thanks to narrator Michael Beck, an actor and native Southerner who has voiced numerous Grisham novels.

This particular Grisham offering, set in 1988 in Mississippi, is a sequel to the author’s first novel, A Time to Kill. Like that book, Grisham’s latest work stars attorney Jake Brigance, who is once again at the heart of a controversial trial.

Before local curmudgeon Seth Hubbard, suffering from lung cancer, hung himself from a sycamore tree, he wrote a hand-written will giving the bulk of his huge estate to his black maid Lettie, and leaving virtually nothing to his adult son and daughter. With their father gone, the kids expected to be millionaires; they have a copy of Hubbard’s will that was written earlier, and that will includes them and doesn't mention Lettie. Obviously, Hubbard’s children have a huge problem with the new will, which was delivered to Attorney Brigance right before the old man did himself in.

What did Lettie do to deserve the majority of his money, asks the dead man’s children, and a lot of the townspeople are wondering the same thing. Was Hubbard out of his mind on pain-numbing drugs when he penned the new will? Or did Lettie coerce him or possibly romance him into leaving his fortune to her? Even her husband has his suspicions, though he is more than happy to think of himself as a future rich man, and he is just one of Lettie’s many relatives who feel her good fortune is theirs too.



The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez AND The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice

At the 2014 Printers Row Lit Fest, Cristina
Henriquez and  Luanne Rice discussed their most recent works with Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea and Henriquez are writers recognized for their works about immigrants and immigration from Latin America. Luanne Rice had contacted Urrea about her story for The Lemon Orchard wanting to know if this story of immigration from Mexico was her story to tell. Urrea urged her to do so. 

Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, The World In Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories. She was born in Delaware and now lives in the Chicago area. She spent her childhood summers in Panama with
her father's extended family and it is her own personal knowledge and experiences that are reflected in most of her work. Her prose is exceptional and her stories are powerful.

Her most recent, The Book of Unknown Americans, has been widely reviewed and praised.   This is one example, from The Washington Post:
“The Book of Unknown Americans’ is a deeply stirring story about a
budding romance between two unlikely lovers, but it is also a ringing
paean to love in general: to the love between man and wife, parent and
child, outsider and new­comer, pilgrims and promised land. With a
simple, unadorned prose that, in the end, rises to the level of poetry,
Henríquez achieves the seemingly impossible: Without a trace of
sentimentality, without an iota of self-indulgence or dogma, she tells
us about coming to America.”

The Book of Unknown Americans is set in Delaware and told by a variety of immigrants from Latin America, living in one apartment building. A boy and a girl who fall in love are central to the story. Each chapter is told in a different voice and by a different person, including the boy, the parents of the girl, and others who live in this small world and share the immigrant experience from a multiplicity of viewpoints.

New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice is the author of thirty-one novels. After hearing her speak about The Lemon Orchard, I knew this was one I wanted to read. It was based on her own personal experience of moving across the country to California and of time spent learning the story of a landscaper, an undocumented Mexican worker, with whom she became friends.



Willin': The Story of Little Feat by Ben Fong-Torres

You may be familiar with the songs of Little Feat from the other artists that have performed them. Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, The Byrds, Robert Palmer and even Van Halen have covered Little Feat songs on their albums. Or you might actually know Little Feat's songs from their original albums, though they certainly weren't a band that sold tons of albums in their 1970s prime. They had a sound that bridged rock, R&B and New Orleans funk and while the quality of their work went down in their reunion in the wake of founder and guiding light Lowell George's death they still have a dedicated following.

Much of the focus of music writer Ben Fong-Torres' new biography of the band is (appropriately) on Lowell George, the unique frontman of the band (and the owner of the little feat of the band's moniker). George got his start playing with The Fraternity of Man, his own band The Factory and Frank Zappa's Mothers, from whom he escaped with bassist Roy Estrada in order to form his new band with drummer Richie Hayward and keyboardist Bill Payne. George had a large appetite for both food and drugs and between his size and his unique slide guitar style (played with a spark plug socket) he would end up being the center of the band's focus by fans and the media. Luckily he was a heck of a songwriter too, with a sound that moved beyond the traditional R&Besque sounds of similar groups.

Little Feat was signed to Warner Brothers and while their first couple of albums did not sell well, they were lucky to be signed to a label that would take time to develop artists, enabling them to tour and develop a bigger following during years to come. Unfortunately Lowell George died at the age of 34 due to heart failure brought on by excessive weight and drug use. The band broke up but reformed years later and has continued touring with different lead singers. To be honest, I skimmed this last section of the book since the band became a lot less interesting both musically and personality-wise in its later years.

The book is a fairly workmanlike read in parts but for those interested in the band, it serves a good purpose. Unfortunately, once George dies the book (and the band become a lot less interesting). I do think that the best way to judge this book is that it certainly made me want to go back and listen to Little Feat's catalog album by album.



The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My introduction to the writing of Donna Tartt came late. It began with The Goldfinch - a Dickensian suspense novel whose characters, for all their frailties, remain sympathetic and identifiable. The Goldfinch is her third and most recent book. The Secret History, the author's first novel, was published twenty years ago. Donna Tartt was only 28 years old at the time of publication.

From the prologue, the reader is made aware of a murder - a premeditated murder by five college friends. The ensuing 524 pages are an exploration of why the murder occurred and its psychological aftermath.

Our narrator, Richard Papen, is one of six classics students who form a tightly knit group at a small, East Coast college. Of the six, Richard is the outsider - the poor kid from a family without means and lacking respect for higher education. Thus Richard seeks to reinvent himself. At college, he ingratiates himself into the wealthy and elite group of classics students taught by the enigmatic Julian.

The six students, each fully actualized in the book, and Julian, the erudite muse, do not mingle with others on campus. They study only Greek and read untranslated classics. Estranged as they are from their families and the world at large, they start living outside its moral boundaries.