Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade

By Walter Kirn

(Liveright, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

I first heard of Walter Kirn when I saw the bittersweet movie, “Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney. That popular film was based on Kirn’s book of the same title, and another of his novels, “Thumbsucker,” also was adapted for the screen. His other fiction includes “My Hard Bargain: Stories” and “She Needed Me.” Kirn, who lives in Montana, is a contributing editor for Time and often writes for the New York Times Book Review. His writing also has appeared in in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, Vogue, New York and Esquire. “Blood Will Out” was named a USA Today Top 10 Best Book of Winter 2014.

What is this book about?

This is the story of a smart writer who was gulled – in no small part by his own willingness to believe and his desire to snag a fascinating story – by a con man who goes far beyond a kind of entertaining “Catch Me if You Can” life of impersonations straight to cold-blooded murder. In 1988, Kirn, whose marriage was failing and was about to become a father, accepted a strange assignment: bring a crippled dog from Montana to a mysterious New York banker and art collector who had seen the dog on the Internet and wanted to adopt it. The man called himself Clark Rockefeller and claimed to be part of the famously rich family, but in fact turned out to be a poor German émigré, a skilled sociopathic imposter, kidnapper of his own daughter and a ruthless killer. For 15 years, Kirn let his life be entwined with that of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, aka Clark, and the book details what the author learned about his psychopathic pal and about himself, from the first ill-fated trip with the dog to the murder trial and beyond.

Why you’ll like it:

This is definitely one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” true crime stories, and you will be mystified by how “Clark” managed to fool countless people who should have seen through his brilliant and sophisticated con games, including his wealthy upper class wife. And you may well also be puzzled how Kirn, an apparenty smart and savvy observer of life, also fell – for many years and quite willingly – for Clark’s phony representation of himself as one of the privileged upper crust. Read this one as a cautionary tale: if someone’s story of his life seems too good to be true…well, you know the rest.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says, in a starred review: “In the summer of 1998, Kirn . . .  was a struggling writer, taking assignments where he could get them, when he accepted an odd task: transporting a crippled dog from a Montana animal shelter to New York City, where a wealthy benefactor from the Rockefeller family eagerly awaited its arrival. That alone could have made for a quirky riff on Steinbeck’s classic Travels with Charley, but Kirn’s road trip took another turn entirely as he entered a wild and murky 15-year friendship with the man who called himself “Clark Rockefeller”—a man who would eventually be the target of a nationwide FBI manhunt and charged with murder. Kirn artfully relates how the man born as Christian Gerhartstreiter manipulated those around him, operating against a backdrop of elite mens’ clubs, expensive art, constant name-dropping, and tales of wealth and sophistication. The parallels with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley are not lost on Kirn, who spends as much time trying to understand how he and others fell under Gerhartstreiter’s spell as he does relating the primary tale of the criminal himself. Kirn’s candor, ear for dialogue, and crisp prose make for a masterful true crime narrative that is impossible to put down. The book deserves to become a classic.”

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2014, review says: “An epigraph from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley says much about what’s to come in Walter Kirn’s remarkable confessional: “He was versatile, and the world was wide!” When Kirn first met Clark Rockefeller, he was smitten by the man’s wealth and eccentricities. Coming off a failed marriage (to the daughter of Thomas McGuane and Margot Kidder), Kirn was a bit of a wreck, as was Rockefeller. The two men were drawn to each other. As the friendship progressed–into some uneasy terrain–Kirn ignored the clues “spread out for [him] to read,” and plowed ahead to become a confidant and enabler. Except, it turns out, Clark wasn’t a Rockefeller at all. Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was, as Kirn puts it, “the most prodigious serial imposter in recent history.” He was also a murderer. So what did that make Kirn? “A fool,” he admits, “a stubborn fool.” This is a compulsively readable, can’t-look-away book and, ultimately, a brave piece of work. Kirn has laid himself bare: his failed marriage, his Ritalin reliance, his misguided allegiance to a sociopath. In exposing his own “ignorance and vanity,” what Kirn has really crafted here is the story of a bamboozled writer who for fifteen years ignored the big story right under his nose; who, in trusting his imposter friend, “violated my storyteller’s oath.” With Blood Will Out, Kirn has impressively restored his storyteller’s credentials.

Says Booklist: “In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm dissected journalist-subject dynamics. Here Kirn also covers that subject, but in the highly personal story of his being hoodwinked, professionally and emotionally, by a man he knew as Clark Rockefeller, a member of  the famously wealthy industrial, political, and banking family. Over the years, their often long-distance friendship faltered in suspicious ways, yet Kirn kept up hope, naively perhaps, considering the flaws and untruths he uncovered, disturbing occurrences Kirn chose to ignore. But when Kirn woke one morning to discover that his friend Clark was not even Clark, much less a Rockefeller, and going to be tried for a murder committed years ago, he decided to finally write about their relationship, questioning along the way journalistic integrity and the encounters between the subject and the writer. This tale’s a fascinating one (starting with Kirn’s road trip with a paralyzed dog) that is covered elsewhere (Mark Seal’s The Man in the Rockefeller Suit, 2011), but Kirn’s reflecting, musing, and personal dealings add a killer punch to this true-crime memoir.”

“Kirn is such a good writer and Gerhartsreiter such a baroquely, demonically colorful subject, you could imagine this being a fine read had they no personal connection. That they did, however, elevates Blood Will Out to another level: Kirn lards his story with detail while reviewing his own psyche, in an attempt to discover how he—a journalist!—could have been so fooled. The irony? With all due respect to Kirn’s skills as a novelist, it is hard to conceive of any fictionalized version of ‘Clark Rockefeller’ being as compelling as the real thing,” says Entertainment Weekly.”

When is it available?

Here’s the truth: it’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


Visible City

By Tova Mirvis

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Tova Mirvis, who lives in Newton, Mass., previously published the novels The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, a national bestseller. She has had essays published in anthologies and newspapers, including The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and stories by Mirvis have been broadcast on National Public Radio.

What is this book about?

Kind of a “Rear Window”-style vibe, but without the murder, this is a novel about a woman who relieves the inevitable isolation of being a stay-at-home mom with two little children by using her son’s Fisher-Price binoculars to peep at the people in the windows across the street in an Upper West Side building much like her own.

Here is how Mirvis sets the scene:

“Nina’s living room window offered no sweeping city views, no glimpse of the river or the sky, only the ornate prewar building across the street. She and Jeremy had lived in this Upper West Side apartment for five years but still hadn’t gotten around to buying shades. Even though she looked into other people’s windows, she’d convinced herself that no one was, in turn, watching them. With two sleeping kids, she couldn’t leave the apartment, but it was enough to look out at the varieties of other people’s lives. At nine in the evening the windows across the street were like the rows of televisions in an electronics store, all visible at once. Nina’s eyes flickered back and forth, but she inevitably returned to watching the same square, waiting for the couple to reappear, their quiet togetherness stirring her desire to ride out of her apartment into theirs. Hoping to find them there again, hoping that this might be the night in which they looked up from their books, she didn’t move, not until she was pulled away by the scream of a child.”

The lives of Nina and her husband Jeremy intersect with those of two other couples, challenging their anonymity and forcing them to confront change.

Why you’ll like it:

Mirvis writes with empathy and discernment about couples in their 20s, 30s and 60s, each confronting typical, yet unique to them, problems of relationships. Just as Nina spies on their lives, Mirvis lets us look into their worlds, which are not as simple and structured as Nina once believed. Eventually the watcher and the watched encounter one another and perceptions and reality clash in this occasionally darkly humorous and insightful tale.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “If you keep talking to strangers… eventually they become friends.” Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary) writes an intimate story about different types of relationships, including those with complete strangers. Mirvis sets her story on New York City’s Upper West Side where two families live in high-rise apartments with their curtains open, one apartment’s windows facing the other’s. Nina, a restless ex-lawyer and current stay-at-home mother, is in possession of her son’s toy binoculars. To fill the lonely hours until her lawyer husband Jeremy gets home from work, she watches, with admiration and growing jealousy, an older couple across the way. One evening, instead of seeing two peaceful companions reading quietly on the couch, Nina sees a youthful couple (temporarily staying in the older couple’s apartment) in a lustful and heated embrace. The sight makes Nina reinterpret the comfortable and quiet love of the older couple, and wish for something closer to what the young couple has. Her new mindset is further complicated when fate steps in, and the lives of Nina’s family and the strangers in the window collide. In this story of chance and the temptation of change, Mirvis elicits the reader’s sympathy for her characters’ conflicting desires.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Anyone who has spent time in Manhattan or watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window will recognize the voyeuristic pleasure that jump-starts Mirvis’ third novel, as a bored young mother stands at her apartment window watching across-the-street neighbors in their living room, unaware that the two families’ lives will soon intertwine. While her lawyer husband, Jeremy, works all hours at his high-pressure firm arranging large real estate development deals, lawyer-turned–stay-at-home-mom Nina is going a little nuts. Trapped in her Upper West Side apartment with 3-year-old Max and baby Lily, Nina spends lonely nights watching a couple reading together in what looks like companionable silence in the building across from hers. Then one day, the couple is replaced by a young woman in a leg cast who argues, then makes love with a young man, aware that she is being watched. The young woman is Emma, who has moved back in with her parents—art historian Claudia and therapist Leon—while her broken ankle heals and she decides how to get out of her engagement. Running into Claudia on the street, Nina recognizes her former professor, who never encouraged her. Nina’s friend Wendy, who presents herself as a perfect mommy, turns out to be one of Leon’s more unhappy patients. Avoiding involvement with his wife and daughter, Leon spends his happiest hours moving his Volvo to obey parking rules. Leon and Nina meet in the neighborhood coffee shop and begin a flirtation. Meanwhile, Jeremy faces a professional crisis that will impact everyone. (The author’s previous fictions were explorations of specifically Jewish communities, and while Mirvis makes only passing mention of Jeremy’s Orthodox upbringing, there is no mistaking her characters’ ethnicity.) It becomes clear that how people appear in the tableaux created by window frames and how they are in real space can be very different. This dark, witty, if slightly overstructured comedy about deceptive appearances evolves into a moving examination of intimacy’s limitations.”

“Mirvis’s meticulously choreographed novel surprises and moves us. She shows the city for what it is behind all its windows and walls: a vast constellation of those ‘truthful moments’ her heroine seeks, as numerous as the stars,” says The New York Times Book Review.

“A complex novel about intersecting lives. . . [that] paints a wry, funny portrait of an Upper West Side in turmoil, where harried mothers endlessly ponder their skills at “parenting”. . . What makes Visible City interesting is Mirvis’s humane, intelligent perception of the emotional lives of her characters,” says the Wall Street Journal.

“By the time she has knitted up all the delicate threads of her story, Mirvis reveals that freedom often involves the acceptance of responsibility, rather than simply casting off the fetters that bind us to daily life. Through Nina’s eyes, she offers a radiant vision of her characters’ newly discovered liberation and of the infinitely complex, extraordinary city in which that kind of reinvention can come to feel like a possibility every day,” says Bookreporter.com.

When is it available?

You can peek into this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

 


(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

T.T. Monday knows the way to in San Jose. That’s because he lives there. The Setup Man is his first thriller, but you won’t find much online about T.T. That’s because he’s really Nick Taylor, who blogs for PaloAtoonline.com  about books and also writes about baseball.  He’s written two novels as Taylor, but  “The Setup Man” is his first “baseball thriller” as T.T. Monday.  Here is what he blogged about choosing that pen name:

“My decision to use a pseudonym was a mix of three factors: one, I wanted to create a new brand for work in a new genre (like J.C. Oates); two, I was hoping to escape my dismal sales record; and three, I thought it would be fun.

“In case you’re wondering, “T.T.” doesn’t stand for anything. I just happen to like names with a repeated initial (ee cummings, A. A. Milne, Z.Z. Packer, B.B. King, J.J. Abrams, C.C. Sabathia).

“When I finished the book, my agent agreed to send it to editors under the pseudonym. . .  . We eventually sold the book to Doubleday. . .  It wasn’t a first-novel payday, but I felt good about the deal. The editor was young, enthusiastic, and full of ideas for the manuscript. Even better, he was comfortable with me being T.T. Monday, even though he knew who I was. He even offered to let me publish the book as Nick Taylor.

“In the end I went with T.T. By that point I was invested in the idea of a new brand. I even had a new website. I hadn’t escaped my sales record (those numbers will be chiseled on my tomb), but I had reset my own expectations. As T.T. Monday, I had new hope of reaching a wider audience.

What is this book about?

Johnny Adcock is a setup man, a Major League Baseball relief pitcher who specializes in facing left-handed batters in the eighth inning, before the closer comes in to put the game away for his team. But he’s also a private investigator in his spare time, and his fellow players, whose big bucks make them a fat target for criminals, grifters and unhappy wives, know that Johnny has the smarts and discretion to relieve those problems, especially when they are shunning publicity.

But when a teammate begins telling Johnny he needs help with marital issues and then suddenly dies in a car wreck, the pitcher/ P.I. gets tangled up in murder, porn, Mexican cartels and a grand slam of a baseball scandal. Has Johnny got what it takes to leave this field alive?

Why you’ll like it:

Monday/Taylor knows the game and he knows how to write a lively fastball of a book. If you are a baseball fan, or a mystery fan, or both, here is a book that should fill your summertime (or any other time) light reading needs. Play ball!

What others are saying:

From Booklist’s starred review: “ Johnny Adcock knows he’s fortunate. He’s paid $1.5 million per year for about 10 minutes’ work, about 70 times a year. He’s the Setup Man, whose job is to pitch the eighth inning, or even to pitch to a single left-handed batter. But he’s also a realist. At 35, he’s a senior citizen, a torn ligament away from retirement. So he moonlights as a PI, solving the myriad problems that can befall suddenly rich, usually headstrong young men. In this debut, Adcock’s client is teammate Frankie Herrera, who is concerned that porn tapes starring his wife may soon surface on the Internet. But before Adcock can even begin to investigate, Frankie is dead in an auto accident. What Adcock finds is a convoluted mix of prostitution, murder, Mexican cartels, and retired ballplayers. And while he’s detecting, he’s traded to another team, then abruptly waived. Monday’s plot is inventive, but it’s the verisimilitude of Adcock’s baseball life that makes this one a delight. Adcock is a solid MLB citizen, but he’s aware of the many quirks endemic in baseball’s manners and mores, and he shares them freely with the reader. Here’s hoping he has many more seasons and many more cases.”

Publishers Weekly says: Monday’s clever debut introduces 35-year-old Johnny Adcock, a Major League Baseball player winding down a 13-year pro career and developing a sideline as an investigator whose clientele consists primarily of fellow ballplayers. Backup catcher Frankie Herrera approaches Adcock, who has developed a reputation as a dependable setup man for the Bay Dogs of San Jose, Calif., about an embarrassing sex video featuring wife, Maria. Even before Adcock begins to investigate, the case takes a deadly turn, and Herrera’s problem morphs into a case of murder, prostitution, and sex trafficking that paints a target on Adcock’s own back. Monday deftly describes the perks and pitfalls of life in pro ball—the highs, the lows, the boredom, the fragility—and the temptations. Monday, the pseudonym of Nick Taylor (author of the historical novel The Disagreement), has delivered a rare double—a book that succeeds as both a mystery and a baseball novel.”

“I’m a sucker for baseball fiction. I’m a sucker for private detective fiction. That makes me a double sucker for The Setup Man by T.T. Monday. I was more than happy to ride shotgun with Johnny Adcock as he battled Mexican drug lords, surrendered dingers to steroid-muscled designated hitters and described everything with a sense of humor even in the midst of great physical or emotional pain. Much fun, much fun, much fun,”- says sports columnist and New York Times bestselling author Leigh Montville.

“Don’t shy away from this mystery if you’re not a baseball fan. The industry is seamlessly interwoven into the story and you’ll pick up all you need to know without any effort. If you are a baseball fan, dive in headfirst….This is the author’s first thriller, but I hope it’s not his last,”- says Suspense Magazine.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A throwback Southern California mystery in modern pinstripes, this book leaves no doubt that the author is a fan of both Sam Spade and Bull Durham’s Crash Davis. When a teammate and a 17-year-old girl are found dead in a crashed car, aging relief pitcher Johnny Adcock’s secondary skills as a sleuth are put to their most severe test. Johnny is in his final stretch with the San Jose Bay Dogs, a fictional major league squad. The dead teammate, backup catcher Frankie Herrera, had asked for help on a blackmail scheme involving an old porno film his wife appeared in. The girl in the car with Frankie, it turns out, was a prostitute, one of many controlled by an insidious cartel that targets baseball towns. Far from grief-stricken, Frankie’s widow is involved in the operation. So, in classic fashion, is just about everyone.  . . . Monday writes with a smooth, easygoing authority, wryly referencing noir and baseball fiction rather than trying to reinvent them. Johnny’s internal monologue can’t compete with Kevin Costner’s character’s, but there’s still fun to be had in watching him be crafty enough to strike out a former battery mate on a breaking ball but cocky enough to give up a game-winning home run on a fastball the next time he faces him. Johnny is in worse pain watching the ball’s flight  than when he is beat up, tied up and knocked unconscious by the bad guys. A treat for readers of mystery or baseball novels, this debut will be especially enjoyable for fans of both.”

When is it available?

It’s on deck at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany and Ropkins branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

The Bees

By Laline Paull

(HarperCollins/Ecco, $25.99, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Laline Paull is not yet well-known, but “The Bees” may well change that. Paull, who is of Indian heritage, studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theater in London. After working in Los Angeles and New York, she now lives in England with her husband, photographer Adrian Peacock, and their three children.

On her website, www.lalinepaull.com, she talks about herself, and about bees:

“It takes twelve bees their entire lives to gather enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey. It should be priced like gold.

“I live by the sea with my husband, daughter, two step-sons and two cats.

“As a child, books and animals were my best friends.

“I believe in nurture at least as much as nature.

What is this book about?

Its heroine is a lowly janitor, of the apian variety. That’s right: Flora 717 is a bee. But not your average bee, we soon learn. Flora, who does her work in a hive in an orchard, toils away like others of her station, but she is admired for her bravery and strength, though her curiosity worries the hive. Still, she is allowed to feed baby bees in the Queen’s nursery and later to forage for nectar and pollen for the threatened colony. Soon she discovers secret – and dangerous –  information about the hive and her maternal instincts lead her to challenge its hierarchy and the Queen herself.

Why you’ll like it:

There have been memorable books set in the world of animals – “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” come to mind—as well as fables set in dystopian societies: think “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In “The Bees,” Paull combines elements of each type, making the world of the bees vivid and realistic while also establishing parallels with humanity (and often they are frightening.) Flora is a feminist heroine and as brave as any warrior, whether she is taking on a stultifying bureaucracy or fighting for her life and the lives of others. She may float like a butterfly, but she stings like a you-know-what.

Here are some thoughts about the book and bees that Paull includes in her website:

“A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation. I also felt very agitated that someone else must surely have seen it before me and written the novel that I needed to write. I rushed to Google to check – and when I couldn’t find one, I rushed to write it myself! . . . I’m still fascinated by how honeybees exist in a strange and literally lawless gap between the wild and the domestic – we can buy and sell them, treat them as we will, kill them through neglect or massive industrial exploitation – and there is no penalty.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist:  Imagine a story similar to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale but told from the perspective of an insect. That’s exactly the premise of Paull’s debut novel. Flora 717, a lowly sanitation bee, is born with unusual features and abilities that allow her to move fluidly between the strict hierarchies of her hive. Through this ability, she witnesses the brutality and beauty that the various castes of bees exhibit to keep the hive productive, all in service and loyalty to the queen. But when Flora discovers she is fertile and can produce an offspring, she must betray her instincts to worship the queen bee and follow an untrodden path that leads her away from her kin. Paull’s plot brings to mind films like the 1998 hit Antz, but her deft storytelling and her nod to scientific literature allow the story to avoid the cutesy trappings that sometimes characterize novels featuring nonhuman characters. A surprisingly compelling tale.”

“It quickly became clear that in its basic facts, the novel sticks closely to real-world apian biology and behavior. That is fascinating enough, but Paull deftly wields this information to create an even more elaborately layered culture of beeness…Beautiful,” says The Washington Post.”

“Brilliantly imagined…Paull’s use of human language to describe this tiny, intricate world is classic storytelling at its finest…The Bees boasts a refreshingly feminist spin on fairy tale-style plots….A wildly creative book that resonates deeply for quite a long time,” says the Austin Chronicle.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “Laline Paull’s ambitious and bold first novel…is told with…rapturously attentive imagination…the tale zooms along with…propulsive and addictive prose…Forward-thinking teachers of high school environmental science and biology will add The Bees to their syllabuses in a flash. Not only is this novel a gripping story of a single bee’s life, it is also an impossibly well-observed guide to the important role bees play in our human lives. When I finished the book, I stepped outside my door and into a spring day, full of buzzing and pollen, and I wanted to thank each and every bee for its service. Few novels create such a singular reading experience. The buzz you will hear surrounding this book and its astonishing author is utterly deserved.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Dystopia meets the Discovery Channel in this audacious debut novel. Flora 717, a bee born to the lowest social strata at the orchard hive, is different than her kin. Her uncommon earnestness and skill lead her to various jobs—from child rearing to food gathering—and earn her the respect and admiration of her peers. But Flora’s advances also expose her to the hive’s questionable social order and attract negative attention from the elite group of bees closest to the queen. Like Animal Farm for the Hunger Games generation, Paull’s book features characters who are both anthropomorphized and not—insects scientifically programmed to “Accept, Obey and Serve,” but who also find themselves capable of questioning that programming. The result is at times comic—picture bees having an argument—but made less so by the all-too-real violent stakes involved in maintaining beehive status quo (sacrifices, massacres, the tearing of bee heads from bee bodies). Dystopian fiction so often highlights the human capacity for authoritarianism, but Paull investigates bees’ reliance on it: what is a hivemind, after all, if not evolutionarily beneficial thought control? And while Flora 717 may not be the next Katniss Everdeen, she symbolizes the power that knowledge has to engender change, even in nature.”

Library Journal gives it a starred review: “Accept, Obey, and Serve.” This is the first commandment within the hive. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, the lowest of all the castes. Yet from the moment she emerges from her cell into a community where variance is destroyed, Flora shows herself different. As her uniqueness proves useful in a time when the hive is at risk, Flora finds herself feeding newborns in the royal nursery, then foraging alone beyond the hive to bring back pollen, and even meeting the Queen, who shows Flora the beauty and sadness that exists in the bees’ past and present. Each new job brings Flora more joy, and more questions, for while she knows that obedience and sacrifice are instinctive within the hive mind, her individual traits bring her under the purview of the high priestesses and fertility police, who are striving to maintain the strict hierarchy of their society. When Flora breaks the ultimate law of the hive, challenging the Queen’s role as mother to all, her desire to protect her egg will lead the hive toward a future none expected. VERDICT Paull’s debut presents the intricate world of the honeybee hive, where devotion and service are sacred, and caste, politics, and power are as present as in any human royal court. A powerful story reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which one original and independent thinker can change the course of a whole society.”

When is it available?

The buzz says it is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Mr. Mercedes

By Stephen King

(Scribner, $30, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen King has had an amazing career as a writer, with a phenomenal 50-plus international best-seller list to his credit. Most of us have read at least one, or seen a movie based on one, or are watching the TV miniseries “Under the Dome.” Some may dismiss him as a writer of horror stories, but many praise his gifts as a storyteller and author of imaginative fiction, often the kind that scares the living daylights out of its readers, and his nonfiction memoir/guide, “On Writing,” is a valuable book for writers and readers alike. King’s honors include the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Many of his books are set in Maine, where he lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

What is this book about?

I interviewed Stephen King for The Courant last year, and he told me then that his forthcoming novel, “Mr. Mercedes,” would make people think it was based on the Boston Marathon bombings, but in fact he had already written it before that horrific event occurred. But this novel does indeed involve a mad bomber, one Brady Hartsfield, a deeply insane young man who lives with his abusive alcoholic mom and is bent on committing evil acts. He starts relatively small: deliberately running his stolen Mercedes into a crowd of forlorn job seekers, killing some and wounding many more. But Brady has bigger plans for thousands more victims. Who can stop him? Perhaps a depressed retired cop, Bill Hodges, who gets threatening letters from Brady and sets out to prevent further mayhem, working with some unusual helpers.

Why you’ll like it:

This is not one of King’s patented supernatural tales, though the evil at its heart is far from normal.  King is a personal fan of gritty crime stories, and that is the genre in which “Mr. Mercedes” has parked itself. So you don’t have to believe that crazed shape-shifting clown demons lurk in the sewer to be chilled and thrilled by this one: the killer here is all too human. The plot follows a favorite path of this author: a regular-guy hero pairs up with a few intrepid souls to figure out, find and write the finale for a very bad man. A well-tuned Mercedes offers a smooth ride; so does this novel.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “King is clearly having fun, and so are we…For the first half of the novel, King tickles our anxieties, his detective engaging in a classic cat-and-mouse game with the killer. But you can feel him wriggling against the hard-boiled tradition, shaking the hinges. Soon enough, in ways large and small, he rejects and replaces the genre’s creakiest devices…But it’s the larger genre deviations that make Mr. Mercedes feel so fresh. At their purest, hard-boiled novels are fatalistic, offering a Manichaean view of humanity. For King, however, dark humor extends beyond the investigator’s standard one-liners, reflecting a larger worldview. Killers and detectives make mistakes all the time…and coincidences play a far greater role than fate. Mr. Mercedes is a universe both ruled by a playful, occasionally cruel god and populated by characters all of whom have their reasons. One man can do only so much.”

Says Booklist:  “King’s interest in crime fiction was evident from his work for the Hard Case Crime imprint—The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013)—but this is the most straight-up mystery-thriller of his career. Retired Detective Bill Hodges is overweight, directionless, and toying with the idea of ending it all when he receives a jeering letter from the Mercedes Killer, who ran down 23 people with a stolen car but evaded Hodges’ capture. With the help of a 17-year-old neighbor and one victim’s sister (who, in proper gumshoe style, Hodges quickly beds), Hodges begins to play cat-and-mouse with the killer through a chat site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella. Hodges’ POV alternates with that of the troubled murderer, a Norman Bates–like ice-cream-truck driver named Brady Hartfield. Both Hodges and Hartfield make mistakes, big ones, leaving this a compelling, small-scale slugfest that plays out in cheery suburban settings. This exists outside of the usual Kingverse (Pennywise the Clown is referred to as fictive); add that to the atypical present-tense prose, and this feels pretty darn fresh. Big, smashing climax, too. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: No need to rev the engine here; this baby will rocket itself out of libraries with a loud squeal of the tires. –

Says the Associated Press: “Classic Stephen King. Creepy, yet realistic characters that get under your skin and stay there, a compelling story that twists and turns at breakneck speed, and delightful prose that, once again, proves that one of America’s greatest natural storytellers is also one of its finest writers.”

Library Journal says: Bill Hodges is bumping around, barely registering his retirement, when a maniac in a stolen Mercedes repeatedly drives into a line of unemployed folks waiting in the gray dawn of a gray Midwestern city for a job fair to open. Eight people are killed and 15 injured. Hodges immediately enlists two allies to help him find the killer, who so loved his little taste of death that he’s planning to blow up thousands. The novel, described as King’s first hard-boiled detective tale, has an unsettling ripped-from-the-headlines feel, though the author has said that he started work on it before the Boston Marathon tragedy.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In his latest suspenser, the prolific King returns to the theme of the scary car—except this one has a scary driver who’s as loony but logical unto himself as old Jack Torrance from The Shining.  It’s an utterly American setup: Over here is a line of dispirited people waiting to get into a job fair, and over there is a psycho licking his chops at the easy target they present; he aims a car into the crowd and mows down a bunch of innocents, killing eight and hurting many more. The car isn’t his. The malice most certainly is, and it’s up to world-weary ex-cop Bill Hodges to pull himself up from depression and figure out the identity of the author of that heinous act. That author offers help: He sends sometimes-taunting, sometimes-sympathy-courting notes explaining his actions.  . . . With a cadre of investigators in tow, Hodges sets out to avert what is certain to be an even greater trauma, for the object of his cat-and-mouse quest has much larger ambitions, this time involving a fireworks show worthy of Fight Club.  . . . King’s familiar themes are all here: There’s craziness in spades and plenty of alcohol and even a carnival . . . It’s nicely dark, never predictable and altogether entertaining.”

When is it available?

“Mr. Mercedes” is waiting for passengers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Blue Hills, Camp Field and Dwight branches and will also be at the Albany and Goodwin branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War

By Jacqueline Winspear

(Harper, $26.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Jacqueline Winspear is a British author now living in California, who is best known for her popular Maisie Dobbs novels, featuring a nurse with psychology training turned private investigator in London in the early 1900s. Her debut Dobbs’ novel, in 2003, made lists of best books from Publishers Weekly and The New York Times and also was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. “Care and Management” is not part of the Dobbs series, but is also a historical novel set during World War I.

Winspear loves the outdoors: horseback riding, hiking, sailing, and mountain biking are among her pursuits. She also loves traveling, and found a way to do it without cost, she told an interviewer:

“My first ever job after college was as a flight attendant. I wanted to travel and could not afford it, so I decided to get myself a job where I could travel. I did it for two years and had great fun.”

What is this book about?

It was billed as “the war to end all wars,” but sadly, that was not to be the case. This historical novel, set in 1914, looks at World War I through the eyes of two young women, one of whom, Kezia, is marrying the her best friend Thea’s brother, Tom. He’s off to the war, leaving Kezia to manage the family farm, and Thea, who is on the outs with her, gives her a guide to good housekeeping, “A Woman’s Book,” as a snarky wedding gift. Kezia proves to be better as a farm manager than Tom is as a soldier; Thea, though a passionate suffragette and pacifist at heart, joins the war effort as an ambulance driver as the international conflagration grows. Though set in a time of great public upheaval, this is primarliy a novel about individuals caught up soul-testing times.

Why you’ll like it:

Winspear has created engaging, believable characters in this tale, the kind that make readers wonder what they themselves would do if living through similar times. There are no flamboyant heroics here, just regular folks coping with world-shaking events and bravely trying to hold on to some semblance of normal life. There is something very British about this effort, and readers will be rewarded with a fine character study firmly embedded in a lesson about war, set in a conflict that is ever more rapidly retreating into the past, but that still holds meaning for us today.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “What kind of farm wife would educated Kezia Marchant make in 1914, wonders her dearest friend, Thea Brissenden? Just before Kezia marries Thea’s brother, Tom, who runs the family farm, Thea gives the bride-to-be an ironic gift, The Woman’s Book, the actual volume, published in 1911, that inspired this novel. As it turns out, Kezia brings a different, lighter tone to the farm, particularly in cooking, which is new to her. After Tom feels duty bound to enlist in the Great War, Kezia fills her letters with mouth-watering accounts of the meals she is preparing for him, descriptions that become ragingly popular as he reads them to members of his unit on the front lines in France. As Kezia proves proficient in managing the farm and keeping discouraging news from Tom, who has become the whipping boy of his hard-nosed sergeant, Thea, in danger of arrest for her pacifist activities, also joins the war effort. In a stand-alone departure from her popular post-WWI mystery series featuring psychologist Maisie Dobbs, Winspear has created memorable characters in a moving, beautifully paced story of love and duty.”

Says Kirkus in a starred review: “Five kind and honorable people are caught up in the depredations of the Great War in this first stand-alone novel by the author of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. In 1914, as war looms, newlyweds Tom and Kezia Brissenden are making a go of the farm Tom inherited from his father, a farm that would have been part of the estate of wealthy gentleman Edmund Hawkes had not his great-grandfather lost it to Tom’s great-grandfather in a darts game. Kezia, a vicar’s daughter, is earnestly striving to supplant her finishing school ways with those of a farm wife, consulting a housewifery guide, The Woman’s Book. . . .  Tom and Hawkes both enlist and are sent to the front line in France, where Tom, a private, serves under Capt. Hawkes. Kezia keeps Tom’s spirits up with her letters describing the sumptuous meals she prepares for him in her imagination, where wartime food shortages and government inroads on the farm’s production aren’t problems. The whole battalion soon looks forward to her letters and the occasional fruitcake. However, Tom is scapegoated by this novel’s closest thing to a villain, the cynical and embittered Sgt. Knowles, who resents the influx of so many green recruits. Meanwhile, Tom’s sister (and Kezia’s best friend), Thea, anguishes over whether she will be arrested for her activities as a suffragette and pacifist. Ultimately, she decides that the only way to escape government oppression is to reaffirm her loyalty: She becomes an ambulance driver at the front, where Kezia’s father, Rev. Marchant, is ministering to troops in the trenches. Without questioning either the cause of the war or the dubious tactics employed, seemingly, to ensure maximum loss of life for minimal military advantage, these characters simply get on with it, reaffirming our faith in the possibility of everyday nobility. A sad, beautifully written, contemplative testament.”

“Winspear’s beloved period mysteries featuring Masie Dobbs depict an England haunted by memories of the Great War, so it’s no surprise that she uses the conflict as the backdrop to this elegiac historical, her first stand-alone novel. Kezia and Tom Brissenden have been married only a few weeks when Britain declares war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Tom enlists, leaving his town-bred bride in charge of his sprawling Kent farm. His commanding officer is Edmund Hawkes, an aristocratic neighbor whose loneliness is magnified amid the horror of the trenches. Meanwhile, Thea Brissenden, Tom’s sister and Kezia’s estranged best friend, volunteers as an ambulance driver on the front lines to avoid charges of sedition stemming from her involvement with a pacifist group. Kezia and Tom exchange letters full of love and well-intended deceit concocted to shield the other from anguish, while Edmund and Thea struggle to overcome self-deception and find meaning in a senseless war. VERDICT Though this is not a mystery, Winspear’s fans should welcome the keen period detail and thoughtful tone so familiar from the Maisie Dobbs books, while historical fiction readers will be gripped by this sensitive portrayal of ordinary men and women on the home front and battlefield,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

This book about World War I, and many others, can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

American Romantic

By Ward Just

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Ward Just, 78, a Midwesterner who briefly attended Trinity College, began his career as journalist, including stints as a correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post, before concentrating on writing novels. “American Romantic” is his 18th (he has published short story collections as well), and Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley, a great admirer of Just’s work, says this latest novel may well be “the best of them all.” Just writes often about how politics affects the personal lives of its practitioners and his stories usually are set in Washington or foreign nations, or both.

What is this book about?

Harry, a young American foreign service officer from a wealthy and liberal Connecticut family, is posted to Indochina as the conflict that will become the Vietnam War gathers momentum. There, two things occur that influence the rest of his professional and personal life. He has an off-the-books meeting with insurgents that goes very, very wrong and he meets Sieglinde, a German woman who becomes the love of his life, but not his wife. That would be May, a New Englander as well, and while his diplomatic career and their marriage are successful, he never forgets Sieglinde, who describes Harry  as an “an American romantic.” May also harbors secrets.

Why you’ll like it:

This novel plays with the ironic truth that even those who are smart and powerful enough to influence international affairs may not be able to successfully manage their own. Through the story of the once idealistic, but increasingly cynical Harry, who has known loves both passionate and deeply comforting and who has learned that diplomacy and intrigue can be inextricably, if contradictorily, entwined, we see parallels to America’s own progress from naïve confidence in the early days in Vietnam to today’s resigned, pragmatic acknowledgement that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars failed to justify their overwhelming cost. Reviewers praise Just’s elegant writing as well as his clear-eyed look at contemporary history and its major and minor players.

What others are saying:

Booklist’s starred review says: “ In this deft portrait of a promising young foreign service officer, Just reaches back to the earliest, hazy days leading up to the “misbegotten” Vietnam War, a time and place he witnessed firsthand. Though he never names the country Harry Sanders is posted in, Just describes it with molecular particularity, from the roiling city streets to the malevolence of the deep jungle, creating an arresting visual lexicon drawn from the paintings of Matisse, Vuillard, and Munch. This adds evocative textures to Just’s lushly sensuous and moodily introspective tale while also conveying Harry’s cultural legacy as a man born to privilege in orderly Connecticut, the opposite of this dense, lacerating land. Stubborn and idealistic, Harry envisions a bright future as a diplomat with the beautiful if haunted Sieglinde at his side, though they hardly know each other.  . . . He sees himself as a “connoisseur of the counterfeit and the inexplicable” after a dangerous, clandestine mission and Sieglinde’s abrupt disappearance leave him hobbled and scarred. As Just circles forward and back to tell their dramatic stories, he dissects the romance, presumption, nobility, and futility of the diplomatic life and weighs the stoniness of the past. Master writer Just’s eighteenth novel is elegantly structured, worldly wise, shrewdly suspenseful, and profoundly satisfying.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “Just’s 18th tells the sensitive, elegant stories of a young, desperately naïve American foreign service officer and the two women who love him.  . . . Harry’s budding career, however, takes a fatal turn when he is duped into a secret, unsanctioned negotiation with the North Vietnamese and his actions come back to haunt him. Years later, Harry marries May, and she follows him through 30 years of global postings and ambassadorships, during which time Harry’s early career idealism becomes cynical posturing. And although he loves his wife, he cannot forget Sieglinde. In his work, he struggles to justify American interference in other countries’ affairs, while in his personal life, he is torn between his feelings for the two women. Only after he retires does Harry finally understand something about his life. Just’s clever plot reveals a man conflicted by duty and loyalty, adroitly playing the State Department career game, but always wondering what might have happened if he had just made one or two different choices in his life. It’s also a fascinating portrayal of American embassy operations and the treacherous shoals of international diplomacy and duplicity.”

“The latest from Just considers the toll that a life lived upon the great stage of international politics can take on a man of substance. . . Mired in disinformation, Harry’s stranded in the jungle, injured, forced to kill. Once the “war turned into an ironist’s feast, a smorgasbord of contradictions and false hopes,” Harry becomes damaged goods, but State owes him, and so comes a lifetime of assignments to Paraguay, Africa, Norway. There’s a comfortable, even loving, marriage to May, but Harry forever remembers Sieglinde, a German woman with whom he had an affair in Saigon. . . . Minor characters, especially Harry’s ambassador mentor, fascinate and shine with veracity.  . . Just writes without quotation marks, but the narrative’s beautifully descriptive story is easily parsed, growing especially intense when Harry is trapped in the jungle and later when he is assaulted by grief.  . . . Just is sometimes cynical in his appreciation of diplomacy and existential in regard to God, but Harry, as much a realist as a romantic, is a man astride the American century. Another brilliant novel from Just: wise, introspective and full of humanity,“ says Kirkus Reviews.

Library Journal, in another starred review, says: “Trust Just, a onetime journalist and author of nuanced political/historical fiction . . . to offer a sweeping view of late 20th-century U.S. diplomacy. He opens in early 1960s Indochina, when “their army was called a guerrilla force. Our army was called a Military Assistance Command,” as eager young Harry Sanders fails at a secret outreach mission to the enemy. Recognized as perhaps too genteel for a business that’s “not a straight-line affair”—he even chides himself tartly as “the ambitious one who thought that a negotiated settlement would end the war”—Harry gets more manageable postings over the next decades and marries sweet, naïve May. Meanwhile, he recalls his affair with Sieglinde, a technician on a German hospital ship in Saigon’s harbor who sails away despite her promises.  . . One wonders: Are can-do Yankees as shaped as anyone by historical forces, and did Vietnam (and beyond) prove that we can’t do everything? VERDICT Highly recommended as a sharp, fluidly written book on what it means to be American; great for book clubs.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Last Night at the Blue Angel

By Rebecca Rotert

(Morrow, $25.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Rebecca Rotert, an Omaha, Neb.-based writer who has just published her debut novel, is also an award-winning poet, having been honored with an Academy of American Poets prize. She has published her poetry and essays in many literary journals and magazines.

Her debut novel is set in a world of jazz musicians. Here are excerpts from an interview with her written for Amazon.com by bestselling author Paula McLain., in which Rotert talks about her background and certain characters in the book:

“My family sings a LOT. I was classically trained, and sang in school choirs and plays. As a young adult I sang in a few bands and learned to write music, to show up at practice with lyrics and chords on a scrap of paper and have a song by the end of the night. I chose to limit Naomi’s artistry to singing other people’s music as another way for her self-expression to be truncated. If she wrote her own music, if she had that kind of agency, her story would be different, I think.”

“….These characters were gleaned from my life. I had one particular teacher who treated me with an undeserved and seemingly endless amount of patience and respect, and stood by me through my development as a writer as well as countless personal difficulties. I also believe that nuns are among the smartest, fiercest, most radical women I’ll ever know—and Rita is surely a tribute to all the fearless characters in my life.”

What is this book about?

In this novel about music and motherhood, set in Chicago in the turbulent 1960s, we meet Naomi, a terrific jazz singer hoping to find fame after years of being on the brink, and her wise-beyond-her-years 10-year-old daughter Sophia, who mothers her self-destructive, highly attractive single mom, a woman forever scarred by her own unhappy childhood. That long-awaited chance for fame may be at hand when Naomi is chosen for a cover story in Look magazine (remember Look?), but it comes with a cost. The story is told in alternating chapters by striving mother and anxious child and is a penetrating look at a pivotal time in American history as well as a riveting personal story. Rotert says this about the book  in the Amazon interview:

“Sophia’s voice appeared first and I immediately fell in love with her sensibility, her hyper-vigilance. Her mother, Naomi, demands an enormous amount of attention, and Sophia lives in the shadow of that appetite, like a riverbank constantly being shaped and re-shaped by Naomi’s currents. You could also say I’ve been thinking about this theme all my life. I was acutely aware from an early age of my own mother’s magnetism. In a way, the brighter she shone, the more private I got to be, and in that privacy my own internal world began – the reading, writing, painting, and music.”

Why you’ll like it:

Tuesday’s blog entry told you about Emily,  the vividly written teenage protagonist of Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.” Today’s blog entry brings you another unforgettable, though much younger child: Sophia Hill, who is blessed and cursed by having a talented but troubled mother, Naomi, who the girl adores and envies and takes care of in this upside-down kind of family. Rotert is a poet as well as a novelist, and her skill with words is one of the strengths, along with the strong characters of Sophia and Naomi, of this impressive debut.

What others are saying:

Booklist says, in a starred review:  “Set in mid-1960s Chicago, this impressive debut novel tells the story of 10-year-old Sophia and her mother, Naomi. With chapters alternating between the two characters’ perspectives, Rotert paints a moving portrait of a tumultuous yet tender mother-daughter relationship. Naomi, a talented and very troubled jazz singer, performs at a past-its-prime nightclub while trying to catch her big break. Irresponsible and selfish (yet somehow likable and sympathetic), she drinks too much and hosts a variety of lovers in the hotel apartment she shares with her daughter. In flashbacks to Naomi’s childhood in rural Kansas, we learn of the painful past that both shaped and haunts her. Sophia essentially serves as her mother’s caretaker. Kindhearted and wise beyond her years, she obsesses about nuclear destruction and keeps a list of things that must be reinvented once it happens. Sadly, a normal childhood is forever beyond her grasp. With lush prose and well-drawn characters, this heartbreaking novel of love, loss, and the redemptive power of music also offers a satisfying glimpse of Chicago at a pivotal point in history.”

Publishers Weekly says: “. . . Rotert’s debut depicts Naomi Hill’s struggles to succeed as a jazz singer, largely from the perspective of her young daughter, Sophia. “Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin. For the first ten years of my life, I watch her from the wings.” A reckless single mother, Naomi believes in living in the moment and depends on her friends to help care for Sophia. The girl grows up in an erratic lifestyle revolving around Naomi’s club act at the titular Blue Angel. The stress Sophia already feels as a result of their unpredictable routine is heightened by school civil defense drills, which leave her feeling anxious about the threat of nuclear warfare. However, she has an ability beyond her age to understand her mother’s flaws while still being able to cherish their relationship. In flashbacks told from Naomi’s point of view, the woman reflects on what drove her to flee her Kansas hometown in the 1950s and what drives her to pursue the spotlight. Rotert has created a complicated and engaging heroine in Sophia, a memorable character portrait which is her book’s most striking aspect.

In another starred review, Kirkus says:  “A debut novel about a nightclub singer preoccupied with her own desires and a young daughter who yearns for her love. Ten-year-old Sophia Hill knows her mother’s life is about to change as she watches her final performance at the Blue Angel. Naomi’s picture now graces the cover of Look magazine, and she’s famous. Naomi has achieved her goal, but Sophia’s dream is different: She just wants her mother’s love. It’s 1965, and Sophia lives in a Chicago motel with Naomi, meticulously documenting the comings and goings of the men and women who spend time in her mother’s bedroom, including a couple of guests from the past. She doesn’t fully grasp the meaning behind all of Naomi’s visitors, but Sophia is wise beyond her years in many ways. Surrounded by adults who’ve always protected and indulged her mother, she’s never experienced a normal family life. Instead, her days and nights revolve around Naomi’s needs, and she worries that her mother will leave her behind the same way she imagines Naomi left her own parents. However, unbeknownst to Sophia, Naomi’s life has been one of turmoil and deprivation. One of seven children born in poverty in Kansas, she was a rambunctious student until a teacher recognized her talent and encouraged her to sing. After graduating from high school, she was forced to leave town after becoming sexually involved with the daughter of a prominent community leader, sparking a complicated future with regard to relationships. Telling the story from Sophia’s and Naomi’s distinct perspectives, Rotert creates an expressive and haunting narrative highlighting Sophia’s innocent vulnerability and her mother’s single-minded obsession. Though the characters are very different, the author’s interpretation of both emerges spot-on. And, while Naomi’s journey is interesting, Sophia’s story hooks the reader from the beginning and dominates, particularly as the final chapters unfold. A tale that’s poignant, poetic and heart-wrenching throughout.”

Says Library Journal:  “Rotert’s astonishing debut novel opens with ten-year-old Sophia sitting behind the dusty velvet curtains at Chicago’s Blue Angel Jazz Club. She peeks out at the audience, yearning to be noticed. But it’s the singer, her mother, Naomi, who’s center stage, the place that she was born to be. Naomi is single-mindedly focused on achieving fame, and therein lies the conflict for Sophie and everyone else caught up in Naomi’s thrall. Her daughter, her lovers, and her best friend, Jim, though complex, nuanced characters, are just bit players in her entourage. Naomi may seem abusive, living as she does in a run-down hotel, keeping Sophie out half the night at the Blue Angel, entertaining various men and women until morning, and using the deeply smitten photographer Jim as dad, cook, and housekeeper. We begin to understand better when Rotert shows us Naomi’s 1950s Kansas childhood, during which her siblings worked the farm and a dissident teacher, Sister Idalia, recognized Naomi’s potential, encouraging her musical talent. This, too, is where Naomi fell in love with Laura, sparking a scandal that would reverberate over the next 20 years. VERDICT Rotert’s musical background informs Naomi’s passion for performance, but it is her heartbreaking portrait of Sophie, so wise yet so vulnerable, that readers will remember long after the final page.”

When is it available?

You can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

By Chris Bohjalian

(Doubleday, $15.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Chris Bohjalian, the New Yorker turned Vermonter, has published 17 books, including four bestsellers: “The Sandcastle Girls,” “Skeletons at the Feast,” “The Double Bind” and “Midwives.” Which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  As readers of “The Double Bind,” which incorporates parts of the story told in “The Great Gatsby,” will recall, Bohjalian is a great admirer of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and owns at least 42 editions of books by or about him. Bohjalian often works contemporary or historical issues, such as domestic violence, gun safety, the genocide of Armenians and the horrors of World War II into his novels, adding weight to his well-written books.

What is this book about?

Bohjalian’s latest blends the story of one individual – a troubled teenage girl in Vermont who adores the poetry of Emily Dickinson and wishes her parents would stop drinking so heavily – and a mega-disaster. That horror is an explosion in a nuclear power reactor, brought on when weeks of rain cause a dam to overflow, which in turn floods the power plant, leading to a meltdown and the release of deadly radiation in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Emily’s parents worked – and were killed — at the plant, and her father may have contributed to the accident. Suddenly orphaned and forced to hide her identity from furious Vermonters who have lost everything, Emily takes to the road and experiences the travail of homeless kids, even as she tries to mother a runaway 9-year-old foster child and find her way back home, or to what is left of it. The title, by the way, recalls a heartbreaking moment in recent Connecticut history.

Why you’ll like it:

You can call this a dystopian novel, but it is far more than that.  While the nuclear meltdown ruins the lives and land of residents of the Northeast Kingdom, those who live out of the danger zone are far less troubled. Emily’s story bridges these two worlds and brings in elements of drug use, human trafficking and exploitation of needy kids. But grim as these aspects of the novel are, Emily’s voice, as she moves back and forth in telling her story, is wise beyond her years, often sad and poignant and even more often sardonic and  surprisingly funny. Those who live downwind of aging nuclear reactors ought to read this book, and so should any reader seeking to meet a lively, if troubled, teenager trying to cope with a world turned upside down. Once you have met Emily Shepard, you will not soon forget her.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal: “Emily Shepard is hiding out in a shelter made of ice and trash bags after a nightmarish meltdown at a nuclear plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that left her parents dead. Since the meltdown might have been her father’s fault, she’s not reaching out for help, but she does take a homeless boy named Cameron under her wing. More heartfelt, engaged work from relentlessly best-selling, best-book author Bohjalian, and how can you not love a heroine who identifies with Emily Dickinson?”

Booklist says:  “When a disastrous meltdown occurs at a Vermont nuclear power plant, forcing people to flee for their lives and face permanent exile from their beloved homes, everyone blames Emily’s parents. Her father was chief engineer, and her mother was the communications director, and they had a reputation for drinking. Terrified, Emily, a bookish, 16-year-old only child, runs away and ends up crashing in the squalid lair of a guy called Poacher, who recruits homeless teens for his drug-and-prostitution ring. But smart Emily, who knowledgeably reveres Emily Dickinson, gets it together once she takes responsibility for a nine-year-old boy on the run from foster care and builds a trash-bag igloo to protect them from the bitter cold. In his sixteenth novel, the versatile Bohjalian has Emily tell her harrowing, tragic story retrospectively, under medical care. If only this well-meant and compelling tale offered more scenes depicting the shocking aftermath of a nuclear disaster to provide an even more arresting and significant context for traumatized yet tough and resilient young Emily’s sad, brave saga.”

Says Elizabeth Hand, in the Washington Post: “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian’s terrific new novel, could serve as a master class on how to write the thinking reader’s bestseller. Suspenseful, provocative, often terrifying yet compassionate . . . all while creating one of the most memorable teenage protagonists in recent fiction . . . Moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title.

“In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused cataclysmic floods in Southern Vermont, cutting off small towns for weeks and imperiling the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant just a few miles from Brattleboro — an area far more populous and closer to the East Coast megalopolis than Bohjalian’s imaginary facility in the Northeast Kingdom. His wrenching descriptions of mass evacuation, bumper-to-bumper traffic, refugee camps and the plight of those suddenly made homeless cuts frighteningly close to the bone in this era of dramatic climate change and mega-storms.

“Sometimes I think I was at my best when the world seemed to be at its worst,” Emily muses. And while Bohjalian provides no simplistic happy ending for his young heroine, he gives us something much more satisfying: a finale that’s moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title, revealed in its final pages. I closed this book with regret that it had ended — and relief to know that the Vermont Yankee plant will be shut down by the end of this year,”

Publishers Weekly says: “Bohjalian’s impressive 16th novel charts the life of a teenage girl undone after a nuclear disaster. . . . Emily is banished once she’s pegged as the daughter of heavy-drinking parents both employed (and held responsible by surviving townsfolk) at the power plant. . . . Frequent flashbacks to her days at school and the youth shelter show her surrounded by influential miscreants, self-abusing “cutters,” and drug takers like friends Andrea and Camille. Stealing and shoplifting through neighboring towns in order to survive the frigid New England winter becomes an often harrowing ordeal for Emily and Cameron as she attempts to figure out her next move. Through her first-person narration, readers become intimately familiar with Emily (and Cameron), as she grapples with the frustrating life of a misunderstood homeless youth on the run. Emily continually surprises herself with her newfound maternal instincts for Cameron and how difficult it is to survive life on the streets. Her admiration for kindred spirit Emily Dickinson serves to humanize her plight, as does an epiphany in the book’s bittersweet conclusion.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “After a nuclear meltdown, a Vermont teen flees to the mean streets of Burlington.  . . .Fearing she will be asked to testify about her father’s alcoholism, she assumes a new identity and claims to be 18. After bouncing from a Burlington shelter to the home of a drug dealer who exploits her and other young women as prostitutes, Emily rescues 9-year-old Cameron, an escapee from an abusive foster home. During the frigid Vermont winter, the two inhabit an igloo of frozen, leaf-filled trash bags, but when spring thaw melts their domicile, Emily gets a waitressing job and a place to stay, thanks to a shelter acquaintance. This newfound security is short-lived: Cameron falls seriously ill, and after an emergency room visit threatens to expose both their identities, Emily fears she has run out of Plan B’s. Readers hoping for a futuristic novel imagining the aftermath of a Fukushima-type disaster in the United States may be disappointed—Bohjalian’s primary focus is on examining, in wrenching detail, the dystopia wrought by today’s economy. Emily’s voice is a compelling one, however, and hers is a journey readers will avidly follow.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Goodwin Branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Grey Howl

By Clea Simon

(Severn House, $27.95, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Clea Simon got her start as a reporter and nonfiction writer before she found her true métier: writing cozy mysteries that feature amateur detectives aided by their feline companions (including a kitty who has already crossed that darn Rainbow Bridge.)  A Harvard grad and Boston lover, she lives there with her husband and her cat, Musetta. She writes frequently for the Boston Globe and also contributes to as American Prospect, Ms., San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon.com., among others. Her essays also appear in anthologies, such as “Cat Women: Female Writers on Their Feline Friends.” She is the author of three series of mysteries, all enlivened by cats and the occasional dog. They feature animal psychic Pru Marlowe, freelance writer Theda Krakow and Harvard grad student Dulcie Schwartz, whose mystery titles all include the word “grey” and involve ghosts as well as cats.

What is this book about?

Anyone who has ever done time working at a college knows that academic rivalries and jealousies can be intense, occasionally leading to the killing of reputations and, at least  in many mysteries, to actual killings. So readers won’t be surprised when a literature conference in Cambridge, MA, (where else?) is plagued by a sabotaged presentation and the disappearance – make that suicide – no, make that murder — of a visiting scholar. But (just as with the Spanish Inquisition), nobody expects the ghost of a cat to show up. That would be Dulcie Schwartz’s sainted Mr. Grey, who helps her expand her conference role from grad student working as the university liaison to the conference to sleuth who solves the case.

Why you’ll like it:

Simon refers to her books as “fun feline mysteries,” which is exactly what they are, and she has chosen a genre that has wide appeal to lovers of a good, puzzling story and the wise cats who help solve the mystery. Here she mixes in academic life, always a fat target because of the pomposity of the players, and the results are satisfying. This book is the lucky seventh of the Dulcie/Grey series, and those who sample it will likely want to read the previous six books (and two other series) as well.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Academic politics and the world of literary scholarship provide the background for Simon’s charming seventh Dulcie Schwartz mystery. Harvard grad student Dulcie, who’s been researching The Ravages of Umbria—a gothic romance—and the role of women in 18th-century society, is looking forward to a prestigious academic conference in Cambridge, Mass., at which she’s to present her first paper. On the eve of the conference, Marco Tesla, a visiting scholar, is found dead with a broken neck, having fallen from a balcony. Detective Rogovoy and Dulcie, with the help of three cats she communes with for assistance (one of whom, Mr. Grey, is deceased), determine that Tesla was murdered and try to uncover who, among the scholars vying for the position of department chair, is the culprit. Extracts from The Ravages of Umbria add to the fun “

Says Kirkus Reviews: “More adventures in the dangerous groves of academe. Doctoral candidate Dulcie Schwartz is thrilled that she is getting the chance to read a paper she wrote on aspects of a gothic novel by a so-far-unidentified woman author who’s the subject of her thesis. The literature conference is being held for the first time at a prestigious university in Cambridge, Mass. Dulcie has been pressed into service as a liaison and fixer of problems by her nervous department head, Martin Thorpe, who’s fighting to keep his job. Dulcie would prefer Renée Showalter, a Canadian professor who’s made available to her some highly interesting documents that will help in her research—at least, until she meets charismatic Paul Barnes, another candidate for Thorpe’s job who hints that he’d like to work with Dulcie. When a paper that Stella Roebuck had planned to read vanishes from her computer, professor Roebuck, blaming her former lover Barnes, demands that Dulcie’s boyfriend, Chris, a computer expert, find it. Then Marco Telsa, Roebuck’s newest lover, falls off a balcony at an evening party, and the police suspect murder. Dulcie, who often seeks advice from the ghost of her deceased cat Mr. Grey and her new cat, Esmé, is worried about Thorpe, who appeared to be drunk at the party, and Chris, who’s acting strangely. Although she’s survived several murder investigations, her immersion in all things gothic gives her a distinctive slant on sleuthing that puts her in peril. Though Dulcie’s rather scatterbrained approach to sleuthing may put readers off, her seventh provides a plethora of suspects that keeps them guessing.”

Kingsriverlife.com says:  “As the visiting conference attendees arrive, Dulcie finds herself in the middle of battling egos, romantic engagements and rival studies. When one of the professor dies in what is initially declared as a suicide, Dulcie has little doubt that it was in fact murder, especially considering the clues and information she receives from her trusted companions.

“Mr. Grey, the ghost of her most beloved feline companion, continues to whisk in and out of her life providing advice and comfort, and his talent for telepathic communication has been passed on to the very living La Principessa Esmeralda, also known as Esme, Dulcie’s new tuxedo cat companion who more than lives up to her lofty name.

“In this seventh mystery featuring English and American Literatures and Language graduate student, Dulcie Schwartz, her computer science boyfriend Chris, and her feline companions, Simon continues what feels like a long episodic narrative that explores both Dulcie’s investigation into the life of a gothic novel writer as well as her introduction into a whole new world of ghostly and corporal communicative cats.

“Animal lovers will find the felines–one who acts wisely and the other who remains true to her catty temperament–completely endearing, while mystery lovers will appreciate the battles of the academia and the internal political squabbling. This is an entrancing mix that seems reminiscent of Amanda Cross’s academic mysteries and Lillian Jackson Braun’s helpful investigating cats. Cat and mystery lovers rejoice!”

When is it available?

You can hear this one howling “come get me” from the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!