Hugh

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (2012)

Louise Penny’s fans might try The Beautiful Mystery (eighth in the series) to find Chief Inspector Gamache in a venue other than Three Pines. The Chief Inspector, assisted by Guy Beauvoir, travels to a remote monastery hidden deep in the Quebec wilderness to find which (if any) of the 24 brothers has murdered the choir director. The Brothers all have beautiful voices and are totally committed to performing the Gregorian chants in each office of the day.

A recently released trial CD has brought in good revenue but also conflict among the brothers as to whether or not to pursue commercial success. One group of Brothers welcomes the new revenue while others are afraid notoriety will interfere with their devotions. Other complications arise as Guy is distracted from the hunt by his secret relationship with the Chief Inspector’s daughter and his chemical dependency developed while he was recovering from previous wounds.

The Beautiful Mystery is the winner of the 2012 Agatha Award for best novel, the 2013 Anthony Award for best novel, and the 2013 Macavity Award for best novel.
Hugh

Refusal by Felix Francis (2013)

Although Dick Francis died in 2010, his legacy of English horseracing mysteries continues under the very capable pen of his son Felix Francis. Refusal, his third novel without his father as coauthor, fits nicely into the genre. The principal is an ex-jockey who reluctantly takes up his prior vocation as a private eye to sort out blatant corruption that clearly would give a bad name to the racing sport. The novel keeps the reader in suspense wondering how the principal will keep himself and his family safe as he confronts the bad bullies attempting to fix racing results.

 
 
Hugh

Antarctica: an intimate portrait of a mysterious continent by Gabrielle Walker (2013)

Although some reviewers see Walker as too bubbly and unaware of the basic scientific understanding her readers are likely to have, I very much enjoyed reading this book. The author takes us on a tour of Antarctica describing the various scientific projects from penguin behavior to ice core sampling and meteor hunting. She allows us to visit both the east and west lobes of the continent with some details of where the ice sheets are retreating and how it might affect the rest of the world.

Also, there are brief episodes of the historical heroes given as the narrative moves around the continent as well as interesting tidbits of persons spending successive winters at the South Pole and the first natural born citizen of Antarctica. Try reading Antarctica in the dead of winter to set an appropriate backdrop for the narrative.
Hugh

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013)

For many years, authors have written about Jesus of Nazareth using the Christian Bible, historical works and their imagination. Recognized history outside of the Bible has little to say about Jesus (he was a Jew who was crucified under Roman authority) but much to say about his effect on western culture and civilization. Now in Zealot, Reza Aslan writes a description of Palestine at the time of Jesus to show how the man from the Gospels may have fit into that tumultuous time when our calendar began.

Aslan, a well-educated scholar of Christianity and other religions, writes to define Jesus as a special man much like other Zealots of his time but one whose miracles are not questioned through later centuries of controversy about his birth, divinity, and resurrection. Aslan emphasizes the confrontational aspects of encounters and parables in the Gospels to paint Jesus as a revolutionary against the Roman and Jewish temple authorities.

After the destruction of Jerusalem, Aslan believes Christian writers moderated the zealous teaching of Jesus from a revolutionary stance to one of a Kingdom beyond this world with mercy, justice and peace as its goals. Zealotry, that is excessive zeal and fanaticism, was seen to endanger the early Christian community by inviting violent repression from Roman authority. Aslan doesn’t give much value to the 2000 years of witnesses beginning with the Apostle Paul viewing Jesus as the Son of God. Christians may not find this work a best choice for Christmas reading.

 
Hugh

Spotlight: Seasons of Grace series by Beverly Lewis (2009-2010)

I enjoy listening to relaxing stories when I lay down at night and Beverly Lewis’ novels as audiobooks are just right for that purpose. These books might be called an Amish soap opera, but one where every character cares about others in the family and community. Of course there are some very troubling secrets from the past that cause a mother to first wander about the fields at night and then leave home without telling her husband or children. The oldest daughter, Grace sees her leave with the community taxi driver. Suspicion and gossip pervade the community and Grace with her new friend Heather search for Grace’s mother in out of state communities where cousins reside. Heather is an interesting character too as she, an outsider to the Amish community, has been diagnosed with cancer and elects to ignore her doctor’s advice and seek traditional cures.

Start with The Secret before moving on to The Missing and The Telling. And for more novels about the Amish, check out our bibliography titled The Plain People.
 
 
Hugh

Inferno by Dan Brown (2013)

In Inferno Dan Brown and Robert Langdon again take us on a tour of Renaissance art and literature while spinning a thrilling tale of danger and escape. One should see Amazon.com for pictures of some of the classic sights described along the way. Also current issues like overpopulation and bioterrorism appear with some suggested solutions you may not like but you may be startled by the stark predictions.

I enjoyed this run around from Harvard to Florence to Venice to Istanbul with interludes on a large sea vessel named Mendacium. Although at first I could hardly put my tablet reader down, towards the end I became weary of the game and wanted it to end.

 
Hugh

Mandarin Gate by Eliot Pattison (2012)

In this seventh of the Inspector Shan series, we have culture, politics, and a compelling mystery to keep one reading another page when it is time to turn off the light and go to sleep. In Mandarin Gate, neither the reader nor Inspector Shan (now demoted to irrigation ditch inspector) can see a reason for the terrible triple murder but can only speculate as to a possible cause. Beijing wants the crime solved without international ripples and Inspector Shan is very concerned that the recent suicide of his friend, an unregistered Tibetan monk, may have implications in the case. Readers concerned about China’s dismantlement of Tibet’s culture and religion will find much to think about while reading Eliot Pattison’s compelling novel.

 
Hugh

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011)

Berlin in 1933 was no place for a peaceful university professor with a fun loving son, and a recently separated daughter looking for romance and adventure. Professor Dodd was not Roosevelt’s first choice for ambassador to Germany, but he accepted the appointment thinking it would be a good career move and give him time to complete his historical writing on the American Civil War.

The reader is greeted with an outrage by brown shirt paramilitary against an American doctor even before the Professor and his family arrive in Berlin. This outrage and others to come are initially regarded by the Ambassador and his daughter as isolated incidents that occur as Germany seeks to find its place among the powerful nations of the world. It takes some time for the Ambassador and his family to realize the dark nature of this German government.

Then in 1934, it became clear to the Dodds that the Nazis could not be trusted and would resort to clandestine and harsh measures to attain their goals. Dodd, through his critical communications, loses favor with both the U.S. State Department and his German hosts so that he and his family are required to leave Germany at the end of 1934. The reader can follow the narrative through this two year period with interest and gain some understanding of how the world did not recognize the great danger that was to come.

Find a copy of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson today.
 
Hugh

Warped Passages (2005) and Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2011) by Lisa Randall

For those like me who have been confused and fascinated by modern physics, these two books are an awakening to the subject. Not only does Lisa Randall give a bit of history as to how modern theories came about, she also gives examples, allegories, and stories to help in understanding. She contrasts theories and models showing what each can do in making a connection between abstract ideas (often mathematical or multidimensional) and the real world we experience.

Randall clearly prefers Switzerland (CERN) to northern Illinois (Fermilab) which she regards as boring notwithstanding the buffalo herd and colorful buildings. I recommend both of these books but Knocking on Heaven’s Door is the more current and tells a great deal about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. These books are quite readable even by those with little technical education. Check out Warped Passages today.

And in a bit of serendipity, a superconducting particle storage ring is being transported from New York to Illinois this summer. Join us on July 25 at 7pm as a representative from Fermilab shares more about future experiments and big science.

 
 
Hugh

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil by Alexander McCall Smith (2011)

Unusual Uses for Olive Oil  by Alexander McCall Smith is best enjoyed in audio to fully appreciate the outrageously funny names and inane chatter surrounding Prof Dr. Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld and his colleagues at the Institute of Romance Philology in Regensburg. Igelfeld must endure the rambling of Librarian Herr Huber and the condescension of Amadeus Unterholzer as the staff has coffee in the Institute Library.

But all of this may change as Von Igelfeld’s friend Ophelia believes he should find a suitable wife. Ophelia believes she knows just the one – Frau Benz, a widow who lives alone (except for servants) in her Schloss on a beautiful Hill. As Frau Benz puts it, “Herr Benz has left me very comfortable.” Von Igelfeld is delighted when Frau Benz invites him to lunch and to view the recently completed, colorful mural on her dining room ceiling showing Herr Benz and other German notables, such as Wagner and Hindenburg, being welcomed into heaven.

Unfortunately Prof. Igelfeld expresses his distaste for Mercedes-Benz Autos and the budding romance come to a sudden halt! Many other humorous adventures follow among Igelfeld and his colleagues for your entertainment.
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Hugh

Spotlight: The Supreme Court

The nine justices serving the eleven years from 1994-2005 constituted the longest serving nine-member court in our nation’s history. Of these nine justices, seven were nominated by Republican (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and H.W. Bush) and two by Democratic (Clinton) presidents. Even with the 7-2 Republican-nominated advantage, decisions on abortion, gay rights, gun control, and affirmative action did not go as far as some would expect. In The Nine (2007), Jeffrey Toobin gives some insight on this as he takes us through this eleven year period with the first woman justice (Sandra Day O’Connor) becoming a leader, consensus builder, and deciding vote in many important decisions.

Toobin’s follow up, The Oath (2012), begins in 2005 when Roberts becomes the Chief Justice and goes on to explain the strained relations between the court and the president. Trouble began with the muffed oath at the beginning of the Obama presidency and progressed with the President’s voiced objection to the First United decision in his State of the Union message. Although Roberts joined the 5-4 majority in upholding the Presidents Affordable Health Care Act, Toobin suggests the Roberts court will continue to take a conservative slant. The author introduces the reader to the other three new justices (Alito, Sotomayer, and Kagan) entering the court from 2006 to 2010 and follows the retiring Justices Stevens and O’Connor in their last days with the court. The author shows his admiration for Justice O’Connor after her retirement to care for her husband. To Toobin, she was the most powerful and influential woman in the history of the nation.

 
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Hugh

The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Round House is narrated by a young person, 13-year-old Joe, of the Ojibwe tribe, whose mother has been brutally attacked and whose father, a tribal Judge, tries to find justice. As the story unfolds, Joe, with the help of his three friends, sees it as his responsibility to bring protection and vindication to his family.

The story is interwoven with colorful characters engaging Joe and his friends along their way. There is the ex-Marine priest who refuses to include target practice on gophers as part of Joe’s confirmation, the centenarian grandfather who tells stories of the tribe in his sleep and still enjoys worldly pleasures when he can get Sonia the ex-stripper to visit, and uncle Whitey, Sonia’s significant other who becomes jealous when she directs too much motherly attention to Joe. All of these play poignant and sometimes humorous scenes in the story.
The Round House is more than just a hunt for the attacker; it is the extended Native American family showing concern and helping one another, the tension and humor of dealing with the Anglo community, and young boys struggling to grow up. The story ends with hard happenings, but like Mockingbird, brings closure to the injustice.

Louise Erdrich's novel also won the  2012 National Book Award.
Hugh

Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham (2012)

I recommend the audio form of Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham to hear the Texas drawl and the expression of feeling in the readers voices. The story runs from preteen to late 30s of three orphans, two guys and the girl they both love, as they find their plans upset by some very bad acts and choices made in adolescence. The guys become star high school football players with offers of scholarships to a major university, while the girl, Cathy, abandons her dreams of medical school to stay in the home town and have the child she believes to be from her choice of the two guys, Tray.

Tray walks away and the other guy John, inexplicably to the community, abandons his football scholarship and enters Loyola in New Orleans in hope of becoming a Catholic priest. Twenty some years later Cathy is the owner of a successful restaurant, her son Will a graduate engineer with a good job and John a priest working closely with an older couple running an orphanage in the home county.

Tray, after a successful career in the NFL, finds he is dying and returns home to confess his wrongful teenage acts to the couple who have suffered greatly from those acts. Cathy and John are disturbed and unsure how to respond to Tray’s homecoming.

Reviews for this book have varied from 1 star (banal soap opera) to 5 stars (classic literature) depending on how the reader (listener) reacts particularly to the unexpected ending. These varied reactions may well show merit in this work

 
 
Hugh

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler (2012)

In Anne Tyler's latest novel, Aaron marries Dorothy, but his sister Nandina thinks it is an inappropriate match as Dorothy is much shorter and much older than him. But Aaron, who has some physical handicaps, thinks Dorothy is just right with her hidden beauty that only he sees. Also, she does not in any way hover over him in the controlling way his older sister has done since his youth. After an ordinarily happy marriage of ten or so years, Dorothy is killed in an unlikely accident and Nandina steps in again.

To Aaron’s and the reader’s surprise, Dorothy is not out of the story just yet, but walks in and out of various scenes in Aaron’s life. Aaron is amazed at the reaction of others to her appearances (or is it just the way Aaron acts and looks when she is around). The reader can be amused and at the end encouraged at how Aaron lets his life flow on to a quite satisfactory resolution to these strange happenings.

Aaron is an editor in his family publishing house (Nandina is boss) where there is much activity on the series of beginner’s books helping the novice start a new activity. If The Beginner’s Goodbye should enter that series, it would be a hit. This book is a bit of refreshment for those of us who still see our deceased spouse walking around the corner at the end of the hall or driving her car into the parking lot as if returning from a shopping trip.
Hugh

Cain at Gettysburg by Ralph Peters (2012)

As we look forward to celebrating the 4th of July in 2013, we also remember the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. Mr. Peters writes about this battle even though it has been covered in numerous sources in the past 150 years. One would think there is nothing left to say, but Peters gives another look at history while telling individual solders’ stories to let one know how it must have been to be there.

Friendships develop among unlikely soldier types and examples of traumatic stress and great cruelty are described. General Meade’s value in leading the Union army to victory is brought out even though he shows surprise as well as discomfort in being given the command; then, he is later criticized for not finishing off Lee’s Army. Cain at Gettysburg is another good read for all civil war aficionados.

For further reading on the Civil War, check out our list Civil War in Fact and Fiction.