The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Book

From a Google Image Search – penguin.co.uk

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins drops us in the middle of the issues of white supremacy and male dominance. It’s the beginning of the 19 th century but slavery still exists in America and, as in this case, on the sugar cane plantations in Jamaica. The owner of the plantation that is the focus of Collin’s story. John Langton, is from London, a transplant, a scientist, a gentleman farmer (who knows little about farming). We meet Frances as a child being trained as a house-slave. There are plenty of secrets on this plantation – probably on any plantation that keeps people in slavery. Slavery is a nasty business and it taints those who practice it. 

John Langton marries Bella who did not get what she bargained for. Not all gentlemen from rich families are wealthy. It depends on their order of birth. To wreak vengeance on Langton, Bella does something forbidden. She teaches Frannie to read. Phibbah, an older house-slave, warns Frances that white women married to gentlemen tend to be very bored and that she should steer clear of any personal relationship with them. But for Frannie learning to read and getting spoiled is just too enticing and she is too young to understand how Miss-Bella is using Frannie to get her husband’s attention, or to punish him. 

Bella’s husband is a sort of scientist making the most common mistake that is made by scientists. He has his theory already formulated and now is just trying to bend the evidence to back it up. It is his contention that black minds are inferior to white minds unless there has been “racial mixing.” We’re talking about the 1800’s here, but there are still people in the 21 st century who make this argument. John Langton takes vengeance on his wife by using Frances (who can read and write very well) to help him with his scientific work. His lab is in the coach house on the property. He measures and compares the capacity of skulls, and then explores other even less savory arenas. Secrets, secrets, secrets. His book is called Crania.

When the coach house burns down, John Langton’s debts are called in and he loses the plantation. The only thing he still owns is Frannie who he takes to London with him and offers her as a paid servant in the house of a rival scientist, George Benham. George Benham is not against slavery (although it is illegal in England). His theses is that owners should treat their human property better. In the house of George Benham Frances meets the bored wife of Benham, Meg. But this time Frannie is a grown woman. Oh, if only she had listened to Phibbah. The book explores both the dangers faced by women in a male dominated, wealth (or class) dominated society, and the complexities of slavery for house-slaves who we normally think of as escaping the worst of slavery. Frannie may be a kind of “my fair lady” character but there is little fairness in her life’s trajectory, which for the most part she has very little control over. I haven’t given away any secrets. This is not perfect writing, but pretty close.

The Order by Daniel Silva – Book

From a Google Image Search 105.1 News Radio KWPM 1450

Daniel Silva has written and published the twentieth book in the series that features Gabriel Allon, the green-eyed, clear-headed, master of intelligence work and art restoration, The Order. Lucky me. I like these cerebral mystery-thrillers that manage to seek out and find bad actors, and also unravel what is revealed in the aftermath of Jewish genocide in World War II. Silva shines a light on anti-Semitism and although we tend to think that it was limited to Germany, Silva uses his fiction to show how much cooperation Hitler found all over Europe. There were collaborators who cheated Jewish people by offering fake documents in exchange for money, paintings, jewels, and who never delivered. When the Jews were transported to the camps the scammers adopted their possessions as their own, displayed them, probably insured them, although they could not prove their provenance. 

In this case we learn more about the ways that many European Catholics not only failed to protect the Jews, but actually collaborated with Hitler in exterminating them. At the heart of the book are the questions of whether the Jews killed Jesus, whether that explains anti-Semitism, and an exploration of the validity of the gospels. 

Gabriel is the head of Israeli Intelligence. He is married to a beautiful Venetian Jewish woman and they have young twin boys. Chiara, Gabriel’s wife, finally books a vacation in Venice with a promise of a painting restoration. She knows how to tempt her husband. Then Pope Pietro Lucchesi dies. What does Israeli intelligence have to do with the Vatican? Well, it happens that Gabriel knows the Pope personally and saved his life once before. The Pope’s secretary, Luigi Donati and Gabriel have found that they work very well together. They also agree that the Pope did not die of natural causes. He was murdered. They have to move quickly to find the guilty party before the Cardinals lock themselves away in the Conclave to name a new Pope. 

A shadowy Catholic organization which has been mentioned in other Silva books adds menace to this tale. What is the connection between the fate of the Jews and the Order of Saint Helena? Is there an actual Gospel of Pontius Pilate? The ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book gives the facts that are known to be true and these facts provide some authenticity to the events offered up as fiction. The Order is classic Daniel Silva and partners him with his team who we have come to know and care about.

Writers and Lovers by Lily King – Book

From a Google Image Search – Entertainment Weekly

Lily King’s novel, Writers and Lovers is the kind of book that is so readable that it’s over before you are quite ready for it to be over. Usually books that we can’t put down are mysteries or thrillers, but this book is not in either of those genres. I suppose it would be classified as literary, but it is not at all obscure. Casey’s life is not in a good place. Her mom just died. They had a blip in their mother-daughter relationship but it got mended and they became very close. She is trying to finish writing a novel and yet she wants to cancel her appointment at a writer’s camp in Rhode Island because her grief is not the best mood for writing. And indeed, she gets almost nothing done but she does have a sexy romp with another writer, Lucas, which ends badly.

We find her, after her days at writer’s camp living in the garage of a friend of her brother, in what is so shabby and small it can hardly be called an apartment. Casey does not want to sell out. She does not want to take a job just for money because then she won’t have any time to write. But her college loans are weighing on her and we all know those lenders do not leave you alone. She is working as a waitress at Iris, a restaurant that King describes so perfectly that we know exactly where it fits in our restaurant schema; at the high end. King also brings all of the other wait staff, owners, chefs to life with deft character sketches that don’t require too much detail because we already know these people in a sense. Some of Casey’s fellow employees are miserable and some are warm and see work as a cooperative venture. 

Casey’s friend Muriel is also a writer and she can see the grief and the debt weighing down on Casey’s mind. She takes her to a party where a writer named Oscar is set up in the kitchen for a book signing. She has another writer on her mind, named Silas who left town after they had one date – hard not to take that personally. She doesn’t pay attention to Oscar but he pursues her and shows up at Iris with his two lovable sons. His wife, the boy’s mom, died and he is past the main stages of his grief, looking for a new wife and a new mom for his boys. Here is another trap for Casey. First of all she doesn’t really want to be a wife and a mom, she wants to be a writer. Can she be both? But she is half in love with those two little boys. Second, Oscar is older than she is and is already a published writer with a pretty hefty ego. Is Oscar likely to be happy if she also becomes a successful published writer. And then there is that other interesting weirdo, Silas. He is back in her life and yet just as skittish. Will Casey Peabody have a nervous breakdown now that her landlord tells her the garage property is up for sale and the new chef turns mean. Quelle dilemma.

I see that I made this sound like some kind of romance novel, which it really isn’t. That’s because I’m not as good a writer as Lily King. Maybe I enjoyed this novel so much because I am currently trying to write a novel of my own. Still, worthwhile if the story line is of interest to you. 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – Book

Something freaky happened while I was reading Delia Owen’s book Where the Crawdads Sing. I experienced a small invasion of fireflies in my house. When I turned off my lights at night the flashing lights began, like little twinkle lights, except with a bug attached. Now Kya, the “Marsh Girl” in Owen’s book may have found comfort in a few little fireflies, she may have looked them up in her books and learned all about them, but I didn’t like the idea that they might cozy up to me while I slept so I kept catching them in plastic containers and taking them out to the porch and setting them free. What I learned about fireflies in this novel made them far less romantic, but Kya would excuse them because that is just nature. It’s about survival and reproduction of the species. 

Where the Crawdads Sing is a book that requires you to suspend your disbelief, but it is also a book of beautiful images and natural lessons. Kya is born into a family with parents and children, although some of the children are quite a bit older than she is. Her father drinks and yells and slaps and punches, anyone who gets near him but especially his wife. Kya is only six when her mother leaves her, when she walks off in her alligator high heels, carrying a small suitcase, tossing a white scarf over her shoulder. Kya looks every day for years for her mother to return. Her closest sibling, brother Jodie, also leaves. He tells her that it is too dangerous for him to stay and he has to go. That leaves Kya with that abusive father. But Kya is a child of the marsh land and the swamps. They entertain her, teach her and hide her. She simply hides in the marshes when things get scary.

Kya had heard all about the potential horrors of foster care. She tries school for one day and then cannot bring herself to go back. The town sees the father and little daughter as trash and they do not really want to be involved. Kya’s dad stops drinking for a while and they fish together and motor around the marshes in his small boat but eventually he starts drinking and gambling and once again gets abusive. Eventually, when Kya is only ten, he also leaves and doesn’t come back. She barely survives but she uses the gifts from the sea.

What the beaches and marshes of the South Carolina lowlands come to mean to Kya, the deep loneliness she feels, that she sees herself as unlovable among humans but an accepted part of the beaches and marshes and swamps and clearings that she comes to know and love, eventually offers her some ways out of poverty and solitude. She meets two men, Tate, who shares her love of the lowlands and who teaches her to read, who brings her books and her first kiss. The second man is of the town and if Kya was not so lonely she would not have been involved with him. 

I avoided reading this book for quite a while because I guess I am not very enamored of crawdads, but it was a compelling story, whether believable or not. Delia Owens leaves you with some things to think about, and if you finish it you will see why it was freaky to have those fireflies visit while I was reading Kya’s story.

Photo – From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – Book

From a Google Image Search – Tor.com

The title of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is more symbolic than actual, although the book abounds with expensive houses and hotels full of glass walls, and images of light on glass, and reflections in glass, water like glass, and even two cryptic examples of acid writing on glass. Despite all the reflected sunlight, and the sunlit exteriors viewed through shaded interiors we get the feeling that this will be a dark tale. The sunlight simply covers over the crimes little and big that all human lives seems to collect. The glass suggests a transparency which does not exist. It is as if you tried to look through the glass from the outside, but the inside was so dim in the bright sunlight that all you could see was your reflection.

Paul is the first character we meet. Although he certainly wanders along underneath the main narrative, his is also an iconic modern story. Paul’s sister, Vincent, I know strange name for a girl, but that is her name, does not know her brother well and is warned by her mother that he has a difficult life and she should stay away from him. However, Paul is adrift and Vincent is his only anchor so he makes sure that his path sometimes crosses hers. Paul wants to be a musician but he is in college studying math. He is barely surviving and then things get even worse when he goes to a Goth bar to hear the group Baltica and buys a bad batch of Ecstasy. He hands it off to the band, not realizing that it is a messed up batch and Charlie Wu dies of a heart attack. Talk about a life-haunting event. And why did it have to happen to a guy from the back of beyond in Canada who already had a tenuous grasp on life skills. Paul becomes a heroin addict.

Vincent, who once engraved with an acid pen on her window the mysterious phrase ‘Sweep me Up,” does get swept up by billionaire John Alkaitis when she is working as a bartender at an exclusive hotel near her hometown of Caiette. Vincent also drifts along through life, although she is not very old. She has the habit of filming scenes from nature, especially of water for five minute segments of time but this does not seem to be leading her to any career or art form. It’s just something she does. Paul, actually Vincent’s half-brother, also is working at the hotel and he is accused of etching the sentence ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass’. It’s an odd echo of his sister’s behavior and we even think that Vincent may have done this. It’s a mystery that isn’t solved until much later so I will leave it there.

This is not really the story of Paul and Vincent although they begin the story and end it. The fact that Paul keeps stealing parts of Vincent’s life and slowly killing himself with drugs will have you wondering about the reason these two are even in this story. They are sort of two innocents destroyed by the evils of modern life. But John Alkaitis does not seem evil. He’s very good to Vincent and he has style and wealth. He’s a sympathetic figure as he lost his first wife to cancer. Vincent is too young for him but she doesn’t question him or try to control him in any way. She is just a pretty, cheerful and self-contained presence. But John Alkaitis is a financial wizard who seems to use magic to produce investment returns that are consistently high. How does he do it?

The book is well-written, full of evocative images. It begins with a flashforward to the end which you may not even process unless you go back and read the beginning again. The beginning did not draw me in but I stayed with it and became quite enamored of the book. It’s not easy to pluck a story out of the news and make it fresh, with a decided literary flair.

Camino Winds by John Grisham – Book

From a Google Image Search – CBS17

Camino Winds takes us back to Camino Island just in time to greet a direct hit by a Category 4-5 hurricane named Leo. John Grisham takes us to revisit Bruce Cable at his very popular bookstore when Mercer Mann is scheduled to do a reading and book signing for her new novel, named Tessa after her grandmother. Bruce Cable is an enthusiastic fan of Mercer and he is an enthusiastic fan of all novelists, although he likes literary fiction best. The island has attracted a small, oddball group of writers who enjoy each other’s company and are happy to be strong-armed into attending the book signings Cable sponsors. His bookstore is a popular stop on publishers’ marketing circuits.

Mercer is with her new beau Thomas, also a writer, but they have to evacuate the island before the book signing can ever take place. Mercer’s grandmother’s cottage may not be able to survive a direct hit by such a strong storm. Bruce moves all his first floor books to the upper floors in the bookstore and decides to stay put in his Victorian home, beautifully decorated by his wife Noelle, an antiques dealer. Noelle is off on a buying trip. Nick, a young student working part time in the bookstore hangs with Bruce through the storm and the aftermath. Bruce has a generator.

The storm is a doozey and there is plenty of damage but it is to the north of where Cable lives, closer to the big hotels. And indeed, the electricity does get taken out by the storm. But one of Cable’s writer friends fares far worse in the storm. When they go to check on him they find him folded over a stone wall in his back yard, dead. At first they think he was hit by flying debris, but young Nick, lover of mystery books, offers good reasons to believe this is actually a murder.

Nelson is an author who has just finished a new book, although he has not yet sent it to a publisher. At first no one except the reader of Camino Winds thinks there is a connection between the manuscript and Nelson’s untimely demise. But we, John Grisham‘s readers knew it. We were right, sure enough there is a connection and it makes for another edge-of-your-seat story, even with a little edge of menace. Watch out or you will be pulling another all-nighter.

Camino Island by John Grisham – Book

Google Image Search – You Tube

I decided to go for a bit of lighter summer reading and I know John Grisham well and so I knew if I chose his book Camino Island that I was likely to find what I was looking for. The book begins in a library at Princeton University, always a good sign for me when a book begins in a library. In this case four thieves decide to take on a nearly impossible heist of five original Fitzgerald manuscripts from a very well-protected vault. Pulling off the theft required plenty of advanced planning and ingenuity and the end result was both successful and not successful. The books ended up in the shady end of the rare books trade. 

In a parallel story, which we know will eventually connect back to this theft, we meet a young author Mercer Mann (great author name) who has just lost her job teaching at a university due to the economy. She had published one book which was well-accepted by critics but did not really sell because of inadequate marketing. She had spent many summers on Camino Island with her grandmother Tessa, protecting endangered sea turtles, enjoying her grandmother’s company, and learning to love the ocean and the beach. When her grandmother, who had gone sailing, was found drowned after a storm, Mercer stayed away from the beach house she loved because she could not face knowing her grandmother would no longer be there. But it has been several years and Mercer is without a job and finding it difficult to write her second novel.

Enter Elaine, chic insurance investigator looking for those missing Fitzgerald manuscripts and running out of time. When she offers Mercer much more than a year’s salary to spy on the local bookseller, Bruce Cable, and then ups the ante by offering to pay off Mercer’s burdensome student loans, Mercer takes on this task despite her gut feeling that this is a very bad idea and that she is unsuited to the task.

John Grisham is skilled at grabbing us with his prose and his timing and keeping us engrossed in a story until we risk losing sleep over the matter. He has not lost his touch. He also knows how to make imperfect people likeable enough that we make allowances. This book doesn’t attempt to meet any goals that inspire global equality or cooperation; it exist strictly to entertain, and it does that very well. The book has suspense and questionable choices, but it also offers warmth and charm.

Network Effect by Martha Wells – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Nerd Daily

Perihelion’s network has been taken over by alien remnants and so has its engine, draped in organic alien remnants, so the ship kidnaps SecUnit, our SecUnit, the surgically altered, Murderbot who figured out how to turn off its own governing module. The problem is that SecUnit is not alone. Amena the somewhat annoying teenaged daughter of his new friends from Preservation is with him when he gets kidnapped. Fortunately the bot who usually controls Perihelion, the one our antisocial SecUnit calls Art, works with and understands teenaged humans and Amena is more grounded than she seems. This is the way Network Effects by Martha Wells, her fifth Murderbot book begins. From that point on the action is nonstop. 

We are not at all sure why we like a SecUnit with an attitude, but he has become recognizable to us because of certain little foibles like his addiction to space movies which are basically space soap operas. SecUnit has taught Art to share his taste in movies. Whenever either can free up a small amount of his/her coded brain, which is a network in control of many things at once, you can bet there is movie running in the background with a title like Mainstream Defenders Orion or World Hoppers.

Clearly our SecUnit is also becoming more an augmented human than a murderbot. Murderbots are incapable of empathy or social anxiety. They are built to be stone cold murderers. Even before SecUnit turned off its own governor module it had far too many moral issues with the orders it was being given to be an efficient murderbot. When a murderbot doesn’t behave it gets shut down and reconfigured by whatever corporation or other entity owns it. Since they are very expensive they are usually owned by only the wealthiest companies and bonded out for specific jobs. Our SecUnit became his own “person” very early in his career. Here’s the old artificial intelligence question about whether or not machines can learn. And what about a machine that is a mix of machine parts and organics? SecUnit is quite lovable and handy to have around, but isn’t it possible that might not always be the case with an ungoverned murderbot. (Random, but valuable thought, not answered in this novel.)

We also get a enormous dose of animosity towards the role of corporations in exploring and developing planets. Martha Wells does not seem to believe that rapacious corporate entities are going to be any less greedy and profit-oriented out in space than they are on earth, but the repercussions could be very deadly. And sometimes they might be deadly on purpose. Entertain yourself sometime with Network Effect or one of the other Murderbot Diaries. If you don’t like them it may be because you are not addicted to space soap operas like me and the other bots.

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment – Book

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment – NPR

In Jill Ciment’s new book, The Body in Question, Ciment turns us into judges. We are presented with at least 3, maybe 4 situations that we can’t help but judge. The first involves a court case. Hannah and Graham are at the court house because they have been called for jury duty. Hannah is 52 years old, a former photographer for Rolling Stone. Hannah got tired of rock stars and she became aware of the grief one animal feels when a related animal dies or suffers. She became quite famous for photographing the faces of these sad animals. Graham is a 42 year old anatomy professor. They begin to chat as they wait to be called for questioning. They speak about things we would speak about; how they plan to get out of having to sit on an actual jury, but in the end, they are both chosen to serve on the jury of a murder trial. 

This is the first and most important thing we can’t help but pass judgement on. A young, rich, white girl has been charged with murdering her brother, a toddler. As the details of the case come out we find that a definitive version of what actually happened is not on offer. There are as many questions as answers. A fire happened but it is unclear who set the fire. The baby was trapped and the young lady, her sister, and her sister’s boyfriend all said they could not rescue him. We learn that the accused sister has what is perhaps a mild autism. Each child’s testimony seems to contradict the other’s. The trial ends and the jurists are sent to deliberate. When they don’t reach a decision by nightfall they are sent to an Econo Lodge after eating at an Outback Steak House. Jury duty is hardly luxurious. They are cautioned not to speak about the trial.

Hannah is a married woman. She married a man 30 years older than she is and they have had a nice marriage, but he is getting frail and is worried that he is disappointing her. Hannah, jurist C-2 and Graham, jurist F-17 have been flirting with each other. More judgement arises on our part. Will their flirtation turn sexual? Will it affect their ability to make a fair decision about the trial? Will they be able to keep any intimate activities secret? What if Hannah’s newly insecure husband learns about their flirtation? When the jury ends up being sequestered for more than one week, as we follow them to the jury room, to the hotel, to a conjugal weekend visit we can’t help but become more and more judgmental. We worry that there will be a mistrial and the child will have to be retried. We wonder if it might be better if there were a second trial. We begin to wonder if these two jurors will still be interested in each other when the trial ends. We wonder if this child got justice? Lots of judging going on and the reader is the real jury in this new twist on a courtroom tale.

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine – Book

From a Google Image Search – Amazon.com

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine appealed to me for a couple of reasons. I am a writer, although I can hardly claim to be a grammarian. I have my weaknesses – commas, semicolons, ‘ei-ie’ words, remembering what letter a schwa sound represents (hint, it varies from word to word). So the title caught my attention right away. Second this book is about twins and we have two sets of twins in our family. Third, it was suggested that the book was humorous and the combination of grammar and humor seemed unlikely, so my curiosity got the better of me. 

Laurel and Daphne are twin redheads born to Arthur and Sally. Laurel is seventeen minutes older. I happen to know from observing our twins that who is older holds great significance between twins. These girls had a secret twin language even as babies. They were precocious in this way. Their parents often felt left out by the close bond between these twins. One set of our twins also had a ‘twin language’ which their mom did claim to be able to interpret. 

Arthur brought home an entire library of books he was left by a friend and it included an enormous, library-worthy dictionary on an oak stand that looked like an altar. Each day the girls poured over this dictionary looking for words that appealed to them, often chosen by unexplainable gut reactions. 

These girls did not seem to require a personal identity. They were so close that they were a self-sufficient society unto themselves all through high school and into their lives after graduation, when they moved to a tenement they called a garret in the East Village. Laurel found a job as a kindergarten teacher, and, one day when she switched with Daphne to see what her job as a receptionist at a newspaper called Downtown was like, she helped Daphne see the potential in being a copy editor. But their careers eventually evolved into writing articles for publication that were even more language and grammar oriented.

When the twins married at a double wedding their lives suddenly began to move in different directions. Daphne eventually felt that her sister was copying her and they stopped speaking to each other. The twins in my family did not excel at grammar, although they excelled at all things academic. Their language skills evolved into computer languages. They saw each other every day until they married. Their wives did not get along and so those boys rarely see each other these days, although not to the extent that Daphne and Laurel experienced. The Grammarians is an enjoyable book, if you like language or twins, but, although I chuckled in a few places, the claim that it was humorous was somewhat exaggerated.