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The Night Villa
The Night Villa
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)
10 used & new from $11.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Ghost roots", August 16, 2010
Author Carol Goodman has a well-earned reputation for smart thrillers featuring smart women. The Night Villa sticks to the same mold. The setting is an Italian village that was ruined by the Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D., and the characters are a team of classicists translating scrolls found in digs at the site of an estate called the Night Villa. Our protagonist is classics professor Dr. Sophie Chase from the University of Texas.

Sophie joins the expedition after she is injured in a horrific incident at UT; a student, having joined a cult dedicated to Pythagorean teachings, shoots and kills several people during his girlfriend's interview for the expedition. Sophie takes the place of a team member who died, lured by the suggestion that the villa was home to a slave girl named Petronia Iusta who is Sophie's research subject.

The transcriptions of the scrolls are interspersed with the modern story, and both seethe with sex and greed. The two thousand year old scrolls detail a pagan ritual re-enacting myths of the ancient gods, full of ritual rape and sacrifice. The project members grapple with attractions and suspicions and with the felt presence of the Pythagorean cult, represented in their midst but hidden from their view. The plot moves along smoothly and the ancient gods and goddesses form a fascinating and well-integrated backdrop to the story.

Aside from the reading of the scrolls, the entire book is told firmly from Sophie's first-person point of view. It has a gothic-romance feel to it; a widely-loved genre but tending to marginalize anything that can't be reported by the protagonist. That effect can be seen here--Sophie is vividly drawn, but the other characters are seen through her eyes and reflect her own biases and misunderstandings. Very well done, but be prepared for a moody, veiled atmosphere.

The book is front-loaded with the traumatic UT shooting scene at the beginning, and the weight and constant reinterpretation of that scene overwhelmes the rest of the book to a certain extent. But the ending ties everything up nicely, in both the old and the new stories. Other reviewers more familiar with Goodman's work give it a mixed verdict compared to her other books, but I found it an intelligent and absorbing read.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 25, 2010 6:42 PM PDT

Camille Beckman Hand and Body Duet, Camille
Camille Beckman Hand and Body Duet, Camille

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My skin was begging for this stuff, August 15, 2010
The market is full of hand and body lotions, and many of them feel wonderful and do a great job. My usual issue is with scents; even the lightest, pleasantest scent can get overwhelming when you use a lotion all over. Even the unscented products...well, they usually aren't.

I'm a fan of the Camille Beckman line because the fragrance is subtle; or maybe it just reacts well with my skin so that I never feel overwhelmed (or overwhelming) when I use the hand and body lotions. The French Vanilla is my favorite and that's what I bought this weekend. I wouldn't go so far as to use the shower gel, shampoo and drawer sachets as well, though on their own I am sure they are wonderful.

The glycerine hand therapy cream is my favorite product from the line. It's their most popular product, made with glycerine, vitamin E, almond oil, and other nice gentle ingredients. Silky smooth and never greasy!

I found this gift set discounted at an "end of summer sale" in a local shop, and was glad to renew my supply. After all, skin needs pampering in all seasons.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 17, 2010 4:02 PM PDT

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
by Maggie O'Farrell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.67
291 used & new from $0.01

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The inconvenient girl, August 11, 2010
Imagine discovering that you're responsible for an elderly relative whose existence you never suspected. This is what happens to Iris Lockhart: she learns that her grandmother has a sister, Esme, locked up in a mental hospital for sixty-one years since she was sixteen. Now the institution is closing and somebody needs to get involved in Esme's placement and care. The grandmother, Kitty, has Alzheimer's and so Esme finds herself with a house guest in her small flat.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is the story of these three women; of Iris, Kitty and Esme in contemporary Edinburgh, and of the sisters Kitty and Esme as children and young women. The point of view moves around in sometimes fragmented memories and realizations, a tour de force for author Maggie O'Farrell.

The story is shocking. A girl growing up in the 1930s, out of step with her family, dreaming dreams and wanting to live her own life, not fitting in with the expectations of her emotionally cold parents; an inconvenient girl whose final offense is being a victim. Her family and her doctor send her away and in the asylum she's victimized again; experiences that sentence her to a life away from the world. But is she mad? Now that the hospital is closing, apparently she ISN'T mad. Her grand-niece takes her home and the past begins to unfold.

This is a book that challenges the reader with its quick shifts and non-linear construction--and with its revelation of uninterpreted experiences. Bad things happen and bear bitter fruit, but the reader must connect the dots; O'Farrell's style makes the reader a participant. If you enjoy this kind of challenge, you'll lose yourself in the women's stories. It could have been written as a family saga, and probably done well, but the creativity of O'Farrell's language and style took my breath away. Only the very end of the book left me somewhat unsatisfied, and all of a sudden I wanted the author to do something more conventional in the last few pages. My own failure of nerve, I'm sure.

I listened to the unabridged audio, stunningly performed by Daniella Nardini whose rendition of the characters added so much to the impact of the story. The Audible link on the Amazon product page takes you to a version that is unavailable in the US due to publishing rights restrictions, but if you search for the book on the Audible site you'll find that it is available.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 25, 2010 6:45 PM PDT

Damaged: A Maggie O'Dell Novel (Maggie O'Dell Novels)
Damaged: A Maggie O'Dell Novel (Maggie O'Dell Novels)
by Alex Kava
Edition: Hardcover
106 used & new from $0.01

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good start but a little too easy on the reader's nerves, August 7, 2010
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DAMAGED is my first Maggie O'Dell book, though it's the eighth in the series. On the whole I prefer not to have a lot of back-story in series books and Damaged satisfies on that count, though the downside is that I didn't feel I knew Maggie all that well by the end of the book.

A Coast Guard team from Pensacola, Florida finds a fishing cooler floating in the ocean and it turns out to be filled with body parts. Maggie, an FBI profiler fresh off a bloody case, is enlisted by the Deputy Director of Homeland Security, her friend Charlie Wurth, to investigate the body parts case. It's not exactly clear why a profiler would be needed on this sort of case but it does put Maggie right in the eye of the Category 5 hurricane bearing down on the Panhandle--and in the same city as her friend and possible romantic interest, Colonel Benjamin Platt. The Colonel is investigating a virus attacking wounded soldiers in an army hospital there.

The other thread of the story involves the family of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Liz Bailey. Her brother-in-law Scott has a new, very creepy business associate turning up at odd hours at Scott's funeral home.

There are a number of quirky characters in the book but aside from Maggie, the one with the most depth is the rescue swimmer, and I'd like to read more about her. Maggie, as one would expect, is a tense and complicated character. Will she and Platt ever take a chance on their relationship?

Author Alex Kava dishes up the story in short, tight chapters that move from one character and plot thread to the next. It keeps the reader turning pages but doesn't allow much depth--I'd like to see a more extended style from her. While many books seem to be fifty or a hundred pages too long, DAMAGED errs in the other direction and doesn't provide enough sustained tension. All the ends are tied up but it's not really a thriller. The hurricane theme may have been done and done again, but since the author chose to play the hurricane card, we could have done with more "storm coverage."

I understand that the Maggie O'Dell series has its ardent fans, so I think it's safe to say that DAMAGED is not the place to start. It's a good light read, but misses on a few important aspects. Three stars.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 12, 2010 7:18 AM PDT

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)
10 used & new from $14.95

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Here's mud in your eye", August 6, 2010
Fans of the Golden Age "grande dames" of detective fiction are oh-so-familiar with the young, fast set in 1930s London. Lord Peter Wimsey could talk "piffle" till the wee hours at clubs and parties, and Roderick Alleyn--until he met the artist Agatha Troy--was known to enjoy the company of actresses. These detectives were the creations of Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, but their London came to life as a backdrop to the wildly popular books.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is by no means a crime novel, but it was written in 1938 by Winifred Watson, a contemporary of Sayers and Marsh. It was a best-seller in its day but went out of print until resurrected by Persephone Books, a London-based publisher of "neglected classics" from the 20th century. "Miss Pettigrew" was made into a movie, which I have not seen, in 2008.

Miss Pettigrew is a drab middle-aged spinster out of a job and looking for work as a governess (which she hates, being afraid of both the children and their parents). An agency sends her by mistake to the apartment of nightclub singer Delycia LaFosse. Miss LaFosse's personal affairs are in an uproar due to a surfeit of suitors, and Miss Pettigrew discovers in herself a talent for sorting out difficult situations. The day brings one situation after another and there is never a chance to inquire about the position. How does timid Miss Pettigrew find it in herself to send unsuitable young men packing and become the toast of cocktail parties and night clubs? Simple--she takes her inspiration from haughty former employers and of course from the movies she loves so much. It's all so wonderful for her; she's never had a scrap of glamor and excitement in her life until this wonderful day.

After inciting a fight at a late-night club to save Miss LaFosse from herself, with whom will Miss Pettigrew find herself sharing a cab? And what will come of THAT adventure? Predictable but so much fun...the entire book is a piece of delightful "piffle," and of course everyone gets the very thing they want most in the end.

There are a few passages that are culturally inappropriate by today's standards, and of course you wouldn't want your daughters lying about in negligees drinking all day and staying up until 4 a.m. throwing themselves at tantalizing men in night clubs. But the book is a product of its era so if you can cut it some slack on that account, then by all means pick it up and enjoy it.

I listened to the unabridged audio, wonderfully narrated by Frances McDormand who played Miss Pettigrew in the 2008 movie. It was six hours of pure escapist enjoyment, though I'm sorry to have missed the original illustrations in the Persephone edition.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 7, 2010 3:43 PM PDT

My Lie: A True Story of False Memory
My Lie: A True Story of False Memory
by Meredith Maran
Edition: Hardcover
41 used & new from $0.01

24 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Memory or metaphor?, August 5, 2010
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When journalist and author Meredith Maran was a child in the 1950s and early 1960s, she was very close to her father. They were best friends and companions, especially on weekends when they'd spend hours together. That intensity turned to open warfare when Meredith became a teenager; she dated boys her father found unacceptable and threw her energies into protesting the Vietnam War and union organizing.

By the early 1980s Maran was married and the mother of two sons, living in California. She landed a job editing a manuscript about sexual abuse of children, a subject that was coming to the forefront of public attention and outrage. As she immersed herself in the terrible stories of sexual abuse and incest against children, her marriage broke up and she began to surround herself with women combating issues of abuse and incest in their past. "...Planet Incest," she writes, "where the question was always incest and the answer was always incest and the explanation for everything was always incest, and no one ever asked, 'Are you sure?'"

"Recovered memory" was the hot topic in therapy. Studies were published claiming that up to one in three women had been sexually abused at some point in their lives. Hundreds of parents and day-care workers were prosecuted for abusing and torturing children in their care. Families were being torn apart as women and children, led by therapeutic questioning, recovered memories of abuse and even of satanic rites. Maran's family was among them: surrounded by friends in therapy for abuse issues, she began to wonder, to have dreams, to reinterpret her past, and finally reached a threshold of certainty that her father had abused her.

Comparing the fervor of those times to the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, Maran cites examples in today's headlines of the harm that can be done when mass hysteria leads people to believe a lie. And a lie it was, in many cases. Early in the 1990s the newspapers and talk shows began switching their outrage to the damage done by "false memory" and to the lack of due diligence in many prosecutions of the prior decade. Maran chose to turn away from the people who were feeding her self-declared status as an incest survivor, and she realized that there was no basis for her belief in that reality.

She presents some fascinating material on current neuroscience theory. "Twenty years later," she writes, "brain chemistry, not childhood, was the manna of mental health; pharmaceuticals, not talk therapy, had been anointed the miracle cure. Neuroscientists, not psychotherapists, were the mind gurus du jour." Human nature strives for certainty, we learn, and certainty floods us with a feeling of well-being. We're likely to interpret our uncertainties in the context of a prevailing phenomenon--in this case, recovered memories of sexual abuse. As an added benefit, a history of abuse has a strong emotional appeal in explaining, if not excusing, dysfunction. One expert refers to the A-B-C explanation for behavior; C: you're crazy, and nobody wants that. B: you're bad, and nobody wants that either. A: you were abused, so nothing is your fault.

Maran writes that she doesn't entertain certainty as readily as she did during those years--and I am reminded of a line from "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Open-minded as this book is, it certainly doesn't lack conviction or passionate intensity. Maran is passionate about understanding and learning from the recovered memory craze, and passionate about justice for those still in prison. She substantiates her own story with historical context, excerpts from media, and interviews. At all times she maintains her compassion for real victims, and states that for all the harm attributable to this difficult period, good also came, in the form of awareness of the rights and needs of children to be safe, and the responsibility of adults to protect them.

My Lie: A True Story of False Memory is an intensely readable and thought-provoking book; also a painful book, as we witness Maran's reconciliations with family members. Approach it, if you can, with compassion and an inquiring mind. This is the most moving and effective book I've read this year.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 4, 2010 6:26 PM PDT

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
by Deborah Blum
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.04
121 used & new from $0.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science and history, August 2, 2010
In the early 1900s New York, like any sprawling city, exhibited the best and the worst of human behavior. Some of New York's worst came under the lax scrutiny of the elected coroners, not always the sober and honest guardians of the public that they should have been. Poisoners, among other criminals, were often able to walk away scot-free because the devious ways of poison were poorly understood.

In 1918 the city established its first true medical examiner system, and the wealthy and well-educated Dr. Charles Norris took over as its leader. Norris and his top forensic chemist, Alexander Gettler, were in the vanguard of the new science of forensics. The Poisoner's Handbook is the story of these innovative men, and of the toxic substances they worked so hard to understand.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum devotes each chapter of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York to a different poison, explaining its chemistry and effects, a case or two in which it's used with nefarious intent, and the work of Norris and Gettler in developing tests and conducting forensic examinations. Blum discusses arsenic, chloroform, mustard and other toxic wartime gases, cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium (pity the clock-dial painters who sharpened their brushes between their lips!), lead, and less well-known but deadly substances such as thallium. These poisons are used for fumigation, to hurry inheritances, in support of sheer greed, and sometimes out of desperation or ignorance.

The science is not at all overwhelming, if you don't mind some talk of minced organs and dismemberment. Blum's vivid language describes the chemistry in terms of icy crystals, brilliant layers in beakers and tubes, and "the sizzle of gas burners...and the bubbling of flasks over flames."

Blum frames her book around the years of Prohibition, the so-called Noble Experiment, which was ratified as the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in January 1919 (and repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in December 1933). Blum makes thorough work of the harm that accrued to the public from drinking poisonous methyl alcohol and concoctions such as "smoke" and "Ginger Jake." By government policy, industrial alcohol was "denatured" by toxic additives; Norris and Gettler saw so much death from this policy that they became ardent crusaders against Prohibition.

It's interesting to read social history through a very specific lens; and this book is a fascinating social history. Yes, it's about poison, and about the birth of forensic science, but there's also much to be considered about public policy and the growing awareness of industrial responsibility in this cross-section of American life from 1915 to 1935.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 17, 2010 2:32 PM PDT

The Greengage Summer
The Greengage Summer
192 used & new from $16.95

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "An older, more truthful world", July 26, 2010
Originally published in 1958, The Greengage Summer is a lush coming of age novel that might have been aimed at the young adult market, featuring as it does the five Grey children virtually on their own in France. Their father is a botanist and seldom home, so their long-suffering mother marches them to the champagne country of the Marne for summer holiday, intending that they should be edified by seeing "what other people have given." The bedraggled troupe arrive at a hotel named Les Oeillets where the proprietress, Mademoiselle Zizi, is horrified at the sight of them. Her "special friend," the cheerful Englishman Eliot, arranges for Mrs. Grey to have hospital care and appoints himself guardian of the children.

The eldest, sixteen-year-old Joss, is taken to bed for some time with a stomach upset. That leaves her thirteen-year-old sister Cecil, our narrator, in charge (so to speak) of the three younger children. They spend their days roaming the gardens, gorging themselves on plums in the greengage orchard, picnicking along the river, and getting their noses into everything while remaining invisible to the adults who don't want to see them anyway. Their slim command of French just adds to the hazy, exotic quality of their holiday.

Ah! but Joss and even young Cecil are "standing with reluctant feet / where the brook and river meet," writes Godden, quoting Henry Wadworth Longfellow's poem "Maidenhood." They learn very little about the war (other than from the bullet holes, blood stains and buried skull carefully restored from time to time at the hotel), but they learn much, much more about the pleasures and risks of adulthood. Joss has blossomed and Eliot can't take his eyes off her, to Mlle Zizi's rage, and then there is the kitchen boy, Paul ...

This book has flashes of humor that remind me of another long-loved book: Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. But English author Rumer Godden reveals the dark side of growing up in "Greengage," as adult passion and greed lead to actions that the children see as betrayal.

So yes, the story is mesmerizing, but oh, the language! It's so rich and atmospheric. "...I can smell the Les Oeillets smells of hot dust and cool plaster walls, of jasmine and box leaves in the sun, of dew in the long grass...I can hear the sounds that seem to belong only to Les Oeillets: the patter of the poplar trees along the courtyard wall, of a tap running in the kitchen mixed with the sound of high French voices, of the thump of Rex's tail and another thump of someone washing clothes on the river bank; of barges puffing upstream...of the faint noise of the town and, near, the plop of a fish or of a greengage falling."

I listened to this old friend of a book, brilliantly performed by Nicola Pagett. I didn't understand the French conversation quite so well as I did at fifteen, but that was no obstacle to my complete enjoyment of this beatiful book.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 27, 2016 11:04 AM PDT

The Possibility of Everything
The Possibility of Everything
by Hope Edelman
Edition: Hardcover
52 used & new from $0.01

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The center of the cosmos, July 24, 2010
A high-anxiety lifestyle, an acting-out three year old, a vacation in Belize, and toes dipped into the mysterious power of the spiritual world. These are the ingredients of author Hope Edelman's The Possibility of Everything: A Memoir.

Edelman and her husband Uzi are at a loss when their daughter Maya starts showing aggressive behavior and blaming it on her imaginary friend, Dodo. The pediatrician says not to worry, a therapist friend says the same, but Edelman's not the laid-back parent who can do that. Something's not working in their household.

Hope and Uzi decide on a Christmas vacation and after an over-achiever selection process, Belize it is. During the Central America planning, the idea of consulting a shaman or spiritual healer for Maya takes root. Uzi is the kind of person who easily accepts the unknown but Hope believes in what she sees. For her, the idea is a reach. The trip starts off badly: Maya has croup and the Central American airline's schedule has a meltdown that keeps them in transit an extra day.

Hope Edelman's tourist narrative about Belize and Guatemala is very detailed and slows the pace of the book; if you enjoy travelogues, you may not find this a bad thing. I enjoyed the Mayan history and the visit to Tikal, an excavated Mayan site in northern Guatemala. Be aware that you're signing on to a tour that includes a sick and sometimes troubled three-year-old at the center of the action, along with her imaginary Dodo, and that you may wish her parents to be a little less helpless and introspective in dealing with her. You will have to form your own opinion when young Maya objects to the Tikal tour guide "saying her name" during his narrative, and especially when he does his best to talk about the powerful rulers who lived and worshiped there without saying "Maya" or "Mayan."

The shaman experience: Hope and Uzi take Maya to see two very different types of spiritual healers, and follow their prescriptions (ointments, burning herbs, flower baths, prayer). Will the wicked Dodo stay in Belize as they hope? Will the trip be a turning point in Hope and Uzi's high-stress marriage? The answers are not what will stay with me from this book, but I won't forget the honesty and thoughtfulness of Hope Edelman's writing. Whether or not you resonate to Hope's personal journey, you will find that she's a fine writer.

I listened to the recording of this book from Amazon's partner Audible, narrated by the author.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2010 6:35 PM PDT

A Fatal Grace (Three Pines Mysteries, No. 2)
A Fatal Grace (Three Pines Mysteries, No. 2)

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fire and ice, July 24, 2010
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Author Louise Penny writes beautifully, creating atmosphere and evoking the personal struggles of her characters in an effortless fashion. A Fatal Grace: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel is her second Three Pines mystery, set in a fictional village east of Montreal, off the beaten path and as self-contained as a snow globe. Three Pines, shockingly, has become a focal point for murder. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache was sent from the Quebec Surete during the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday in late October to investigate the murder of a local woman ("Still Life"), and now fourteen months later Gamache and his team are back in Three Pines.

This time the murder victim is an outsider; or at least a newcomer, which amounts to the same thing in Three Pines. Thoroughly unlovable author CC de Poitiers is pitching herself as the new self-help expert and arbiter of style, while she and her nearly-as-unlovable husband and daughter model chaos and misery to the village.

My first Three Pines book was a later entry in the series, which I enjoyed thoroughly. Going back to start from the beginning I found "Still Life" excellent, but this second book staggers a bit. There is still the promise of depth, but "A Fatal Grace" has a couple of rough patches, albeit non-fatal ones. For one thing, there are too many "new" characters whose backgrounds are keys to the plot and need to be rushed out to the reader. Second, there is a simmering sub-plot in Gamache's professional life that (while it may eventually add depth to his character) distracts from the story at hand; this sub-plot seems to be the excuse for some dangling ends, which are unwelcome in a mystery--even one that is part of a series.

Penny writes most effectively of the here-and-now, of the vignettes before our eyes and the personal responses of her characters to them. The bitterly frozen Quebec winter, the horror of fire, the village's traditional Christmas festivities, all are vividly atmospheric. But a mystery investigation carries the baggage of all the back-story uncovered by the detectives, and to saddle it with even more is risky.

Even with these reservations, Penny's writing is absorbing and intelligent. Having read a later entry, I know this Three Pines series gets better and better, so I'm carrying on. I notice that each of these books has a U.K. title and a different U.S. title, so I'm being careful not to buy the same book twice.

Linda Bulger, 2010
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2010 12:18 PM PDT

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