Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History – John Nowich
Appeal Factors: History as travel guide; epic sweep; chatty narrative tone
When most people think of Sicily they think of the Mafia; the more literary minded may get more specific and think Mario Puzo, but that’s as far as it probably goes. What makes Norwich’s Sicily such a great book is he delves into the fascinating and complex history of a place that is so much more than its stereotype.
Norwich manages to pack a lot into this book. He starts literally with prehistoric Sicily and takes us up to the present day. He paints a picture of a land always under the control of some great power: Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Vandals, North Africans, Normans… The list goes on and on. He uses this always subject state of Sicily to explain its unique fatalism towards the rest of the world. He often notes the apathy with which Sicilians greets most invaders and chalks it up to the fact that when you’ve been invaded that many times what’s one more.
More than just a history this book is also a homage for Norwich. He first went to Sicily as a vacation with his family in the 60s and fell in love with it. He eventually became something of an expert of Norman Sicily which shows in the book. Not only is it a history, Norwich also gives the reader suggestions on things to see in Sicily connected to its past.
The style of the book is what I think of as Old-School History. The major focus is on the larger political events and big names. So kings and queens. In fact he follows them so relentlessly a portion of the book takes place in Naples because that was the capital of Sicily at one point. He also has very clear views of the people he is writing about and will give his unvarnished opinion of the leaders of Sicily and the natives in general. That said it is an easy and engaging read and if you read a lot of European history you will be amazed at all the ways Sicily intersects with it.
Genre: Non-Fiction; Nature writing, writing reference
Landmarks – Robert Macfarlane
Add Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks to the pantheon of books that are best read slowly so that every word, every image, every bit of new knowledge might be savored to the fullest. In the grand scheme of categories and genres and other restrictive labels, Landmarks would most readily find its footing in nature writing, but it might also rest easy in writing reference, as it houses between its covers a generous slew of glossaries.
Taking a step back, and here I won’t even try to squeeze the book into a nutshell — it wouldn’t do these pages and the terrain they cover justice — Landmarks turns over and peeks underneath the language(s) associated with British landscapes (though Macfarlane ranges farther afield here and there throughout — to the Arctic, briefly to America). It hones in on various writers who drew their inspiration from their environment — writers like Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin, and Barry Lopez — and at their work, all formative texts for Macfarlane.
In When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams offered up Testimony: Writers Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness as an example of a writing campaign that successfully bolstered conservation efforts. That anthology of stories and poems, pressed into every pair of hands in Congress, saved a large section of Utah wilderness. My mind climbed back to that story after encountering a similar one in Landmarks: On the Isle of Lewis in 2004 an effort to block a wind farm from being erected on the Brindled Moor resulted in memory-maps, recorded personal histories rooted in the moor, poems inspired by the landscape and climate, and nearly eleven thousand letters full of impassioned reasons why the moor should remain unburdened by the trappings of turbines. Those pen-on-paper voices were heard; the moor is its own. “The power of language” may be an echo of unknown origin, but consider how strong it must be to still and so often be strengthened by other voices. Consider the proven accounts, which, stacked one on top of another, just might rise higher than Muir’s beloved Redwoods.
That echo is a small part of the whole; this book is about connections and how they manifest, it’s about grief and apple trees, it’s about walking over blade-like ground in worn tennis shoes instead of copper ones to find a portion of the tunnel up ahead blocked. It’s about a whole lot more than all of that. Landmarks is so remarkable — passionate and personal/universal — it has made of me a lifelong fan of Macfarlane. I cannot wait to read his backlist of titles and all of his future releases.
Genre: 2016 Summer Reads – Mystery – Historical
Cocaine Blues – Kerry Greenwood
Appeal Factors: Pace: Fast; Characters: Good, quirky; likable; Story: Character-driven; Language: Engaging, humorous; Tone: Spunky; strong sense of place; Frame: Mid 1920’s; Melbourne Australia
Phryne is a loose ends and a bit bored. She foils the attempted theft of a priceless necklace, and a witness, Colonel Harper, hires her to look into his daughter’s health and marriage. Phryne packs 9 trunks or so and heads to Melbourne where she was born.
Phryne books a suite at the Windsor, saves a young girl and hires her as a maid, partners with a couple of Great War vet/part-time cab drivers, locates a rapist/abortionist, ad captures the local cocaine lord. Phryne is a James Bond without the gadgets or the spying. Style and flair.
I’ve been watching the TV version and decided to pick up the first in the series. The TV version seems to match the characters in the book very closely, I can hear their voices and visualize them in their period clothing.
Reading the first in the series fills in the background including how Phryne got her name and a bit about why she is so self-sufficient. Recommended.
Cocaine Blues is a fast read with good, quirky characters and a strong sense of time and place. Great fun.
Phryne Fisher should appeal to fans of Amy Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, Ashley Weaver’s Murder at Brightwell, Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair novels, Catriona McPherson’s Dandy Gilver murder mysteries, Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness mysteries, Barbara Cleverly’s Laetitia Talbot mysteries, and Alice Duncan’s Mercy Allcutt mysteries.
Genre: Romantic suspense
Hold your breath – Katie Ruggle
Appeal Factors: Pace: Fast; Characters: Well-developed, good back story; likable; Story: Character-driven; Language: Compelling; Tone: Heartwarming; suspenseful; mildly sensual; Frame: Contemporary; Colorado
Lou Sparks has abandoned a stifling life in Connecticut and a boring relationship with a guy selected by her parents. Instead she has made her way in Simpson CO, lives in a remote rustic cabin, and has joined the Dive Rescue Squad. On a training dive, she inadvertently kicks HDG – headless dead guy and becomes involved in identifying him. His family should know what happened to him.
On a parallel track, troubles have been following Lou. Her tires have been slashed twice, she feels like she is being watched, and someone is trying to kill her. Stoic Cal Cook, head of the dive team, steps up to help her out and watch her back.
This is an original series that definitely needs to be read in order. There is an overarching story arc that runs from book to book. Recommended. I received a couple of installments in the series for review from the publisher. The characters are likeable, and the pace is relentless.
Search & Rescue #1
Jill Sorenson – Aftershock; Catherine Mann Elite Force novels; Vivian Arend Adrenaline novels; Nora Roberts – The Collector; Jayne Ann Krentz – Dream Eyes; Linda Howard – Shadow Woman; and Julie Garwood – Fire and Ice.
Genre: 2016 Summer Reads – Literary Fiction
The Widower’s Tale – Julia Glass
Appeal Factors: Pace: Leisurely paced, compelling; Characters: complex, courageous, believable, relatable; Story: character-driven, intricately plotted; Language: stylistically complex, accessible, witty; Tone: heartwarming, thought-provoking, sense of apprehension, strong sense of place; Frame: contemporary, suburban Boston
Solitary since the premature death of his wife when their daughters were young, Percival Darling sacrifices his privacy to offer a home to an upscale preschool and secure a job for his confused and rootless older daughter. The advent of the school, its teachers, parents and students, open Percy to a range of new experiences and emotions. The protections of his former life fall away, allowing joy and apprehension in almost equal measure.
The characters, gradually revealed, are likeable and believable. The reader understands the prickly ones and what causes them to behave the way they do. The Widower’s Tale reminds us that the choices we make affect those around us. The range of characters is fascinating in an historical, wealthy town outside Boston, as is the variety of challenges they face.
Remarkable and accessible for its breadth and depth, The Widower’s Tale is a moving and relatable novel. Although we have not experienced every one of the assortment of events affecting its characters, we’ve all been there to some degree. Highly recommended.
Readers who enjoy the novels of Richard Russo, John Irving, and Jonathan Franzen, or stories like Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove), Mark Spragg (Bone Fire), Frederick Barthelme (There Must Be Some Mistake), Amy Bloom (Lucky Us), Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) should also enjoy The Widower’s Tale.
Genre: 2016 Summer Reads – Mystery/Suspense
Widow-maker – Paul Doiron
Appeal Factors: Pace: fast; Characters: well-developed; flawed; Story: Character driven; Language: engaging; compelling; Tone: Strong sense of place; suspenseful; Frame: Backwoods Maine, contemporary
Mike Bowditch has matured. His anger and impulsiveness are more under control. He considers consequences a bit better. A manipulative single mom persuades Mike into looking for her missing son. Along the way, Mike is attacked by a druggie, confiscates a wolf dog, and investigates a camp for paroled sex offenders. He also lies to Stacey endangering their relationship.
The suspense and cold are palpable. The strain of working alone in unknown situations is as well. Widow-maker is a sound addition to a solid series. My major disappointment is having to wait for the next installment.
Series: Mike Bowditch #7
C.J. Box – Joe Pickett novels; William Kent Krueger – Cork O’Connor mysteries; Nevada Barr – Anna Pigeon series; James W. Hall – Hell’s Bay; Kitty Sewell – Ice Trap; Peter T. Deutermann Cam Richter novels.