“The Madness of Crowds”: A Brilliant Mystery

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny

Louise Penny, author of “The Madness of Crowds,” is a literary artist. This latest work, a worthy addition to her “Inspector Gamache” series, exhibits all the brilliance that characterizes her every mystery novel. It’s exceedingly thoughtful, potentially controversial, and incredibly reflective of the contemporary issues which most of us find so exasperating, exhausting — even explosive.

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‘Tips for Magicians’ by Celesta Rimington is a superb middle grade book that deals with overcoming loss, family and friendship

Tips for Magicians by Celesta Rimington

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from “Tips for Magicians,” a new middle grade book by Celesta Rimington. The title sounded cute—but I realized the book is much more than “cute.” It’s a powerful and touching story of a boy who loses his mother in an unexpected accident, and we see that the grief and the resulting damage to his family seems overwhelming. Harrison’s mother was a beautiful classical singer, and she performed all over the world. His father was her stage manager, and since her death he’s been working a lot. We don’t know if he needs to work or wants to be busy to assuage his grief, but he’s gone a lot. Since her death, Harrison’s father can’t stand to hear music in their home, and Harrison has been grieving not only the loss of his mother, but the loss of the music that both he and his mother loved and shared together.

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Coco: A study in fostering a senior dog

Coco – beautiful inside and out

June, 2021: Coco is gone. Her gentle beautiful spirit left her battered body yesterday morning. My husband was with her. She had gone over 24 hours without eating, and it was clear that she was in distress. She didn’t wag her tail, she didn’t bark, she could barely make it outside to urinate. Her body trembled and shook, and she didn’t lift her head. And her eyes—her beautiful, soft, sweet brown eyes—were red-rimmed and sorrowful. Jack looked at her Sunday night and said, “it’s time.” I still gave her her diazoxide, the medicine which might have caused some of her distress, to stop her from having a seizure from low blood sugar, and just in case she’d make it through. Here’s the story of Coco’s all-too-short time with us.

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L. M. Elliot’s ‘Walls’ and the Wall of Oppression

Walls by L. M. Elliott

Throughout the history of humankind, The Wall has most often been a symbol of alienation and separation, of hostility and rage, of the stubborn and destructive refusal to recognize the oneness of our race. L.M. Elliot’s latest young adult historical novel, “Walls,” deftly deals with the story of one twentieth century wall whose function, whose purpose, was to ensure that those negative and cruel human characteristics would be clearly demonstrated: the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961 for the primary purpose of keeping the virtually imprisoned residents of East Berlin from escaping to freedom in the West — an escape attempted by thousands and achieved at great risk by only a lucky few.

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‘The Hummingbird’s Gift’ by Sy Montgomery is a jewel of a book about a fascinating bird

The Hummingbird’s Gift by Sy Montgomery

Like its subject, the hummingbird, “The Hummingbird’s Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings” is a little jewel of a book. Author Sy Montgomery is renowned for her books on animals. As an educator, I have valued her many quality nonfiction books on animals for children and used them in my classroom. This is one of her nonfiction books for adults, although children could certainly benefit from reading it. In fact, an earlier version of this book was a chapter in one of Montgomery’s books on birds.

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In ‘Eleanor in the Village,’ we see a different Eleanor

Eleanor in the Village

Eleanor Roosevelt was a global icon by the 1950s, a world-renowned former First Lady of the United States who had the bearing, manner, and natural dignity that radiated an essence of near-royalty. She had been the wife and unofficial advisor of the most beloved U.S. president, a man who had brought the country out of an historically difficult depression that had drowned thousands in the mire of poverty, who had lifted our spirits from the depths of financial hell, and who had led us to the proudest military moment since the Revolution, the twin defeats of the Japanese war machine and the German horror machine.

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‘The Princess Spy: The True Story of WWII Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones,’ is a thrilling tale of espionage and danger that reads like fiction (it’s not)

The Princess Spy by Larry Loftis

Almost everybody loves reading nonfiction that reads like a novel. “The Princess Spy: The True Story of WWII Spy Aline Griffith, Countess of Romanones” is pure nonfiction, but it’s also a really enjoyable read. Author Larry Loftis keeps the excitement going from the first page of the Prologue. We read about a strange noise outside Aline’s apartment window in Madrid. Then the shutters are pried open, and a hand pushes back the curtains. Lofts writes, “She raised the gun.” Then Chapter One begins in Estoril, Portugal on May 24th, 1941. We don’t learn about who the intruder into Aline’s apartment was, or whether Aline fired the gun, until much later in the book. Loftis, like many successful mystery writers, often leaves us hanging at the end of a chapter, forcing us to keep reading so we can find out what it is that one person is hiding, or who the person behind the curtain really is. That technique is just one of the ways in which Loftis’s book reads like a thriller.

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D: A Tale of Two Worlds

D (A Tale of Two Worlds) by Michael Faber

Author Michael Faber’s “D (A Tale of Two Worlds”) is a fascinating, fantastical fever-dream of a novel. References and homages to other literary pieces, films, political figures and events, and philosophical observations abound. But every element of this marvelous work merges into an imaginatively constructed plot that clearly demonstrates the classical “Hero and the Quest” genre but morphs into an ingenious and unique twist on that literary form.

The hero who embarks on the quest in this case is a youngster who is just beginning her secondary school career with all the inherent difficulties therein. Her name is Dhikilo, and she was born in a place called Somaliland — which, as far as anybody knows, doesn’t really exist. It’s supposed to be in Africa, somewhere near Somalia, and its inhabitants are people of color, as is Dhikilo. So World Number One in this Tale of Two Worlds is very much like our own. Dhikilo is an “other” in Cawber, England, where she lives with her adoptive parents, having lost both her birth parents before she ever knew them; and she suffers all the indignities, slights, and overt and covert humiliations that “others” face all over this world.

In Book and World Number One of the tale, everything seems rather normal in a Dickensian sort of way — at first. But soon, two strange events and two strange characters emerge, and the semi-realistic nature of the world becomes blurry and opaque. The first strange event occurs when Dhikilo awakens one morning and discovers, while conversing with her English parents, that in all the words that include the letter D, that letter is now missing. To make matters even worse, all street signs and street names now have no Ds, and everyone to whom she speaks does not use or even recognize the letter or its sound. It has simply vanished. So Dhikilo’s few friends, who used to call her Dicky, now call her Icky. Dhikilo, as we might imagine, is annoyed and mystified in equal measure. And from here to the end, the novel’s magic and mysteries magnify and multiply. But we are still residing in World Number One.

The second significant event is the appearance of the next very important character, Mr. Charles Dodderfield. The doddering ninety-plus-year-old gentleman is a retired teacher — Dhikilo’s favorite — who is now blind and crippled and is most often seen wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood with his big brown dog, whose name is either Nelly or Mrs. Robinson, depending on who is addressing her. Dhikilo is informed that Dodderfield has died, and she attends his funeral. She then visits his home because she is concerned about the welfare of Mrs. Robinson. There, she discovers that Dodderfield is very much alive and that Mrs. Robinson is actually a magical creature called a sphinx, who is capable at any time she chooses to turn herself from a Labrador retriever into an absurdly large cat-like being with a lovely human face, curly blond hair, sharp teeth, and a tail that turns into a snake on command. Together, Dodderfield and Mrs. Robinson persuade Dikhilo that she must visit another world, a much more dangerous one, in order to find and return the letter D to its rightful place in the language and their world. Mrs. Robinson will be her partner and her guide. And so ends Book One.

Book Two takes us along with Dhakilo and Mrs. Robinson as they journey in and through the dark, cold, snowy, stormy Land of Liminus, whose population includes a variety of partly-human beings, some evil, some disgusting, some kind and generous, some laughably stupid and awkward, and one murderous, greedy, immoral, lying, puffed-up dictator who is one hundred per cent responsible for the disappearance of the Ds. We experience the characters, phenomena, events, and situations encountered by the two travelers.

First — actually as a Book One transition to Book Two — they see hordes of dragonflies soaring overhead, all grouped in a perfectly straight line, each one carrying a shiny object in its feet as they all make their way to a mysterious destination. The shiny objects turn out to be the missing Ds, so the intrepid duo decide to follow the insects’ trail. From this point, now well on their way, they experience seven separate adventures. They soon meet the Magwitches, four mean old ugly hags who warn the travelers about the murderous Gamp, the ruler, while themselves making threatening gestures toward the dog and the child, They’re chased away by Mrs. Robinson in sphinx form. The two then become very tired, so they’re relieved to see Bleak House, a very fancy-looking hotel. But there are signs all over the place from “The Management” demanding obedience to strict, strange, increasingly threatening rules, until finally the duo recognizes that the hotel is, in fact, a prison, designed so that its guests can never leave. It’s the Liminusian version of the Hotel California. But Dhikilo figures out the means of escape, and she and Mrs. Robinson finally free themselves from the hotel’s clutches.

After that terrifying experience with an apparently inorganic magical entity, the next threat is their encounter with the Quilps, dwarf-like creatures who resemble greasy pigs. They’re war-like and stupid, and they are determined to kill both visitors and have them for dinner. But once again, Dhikilo’s wit and Mrs. Robinson’s strength save the pair, and they’re off to their next adventure. Their next hosts are the Droods, large cat-like beings who possess some indefinable human-like qualities, this time positive ones. They are kind, generous, and warm. Dhikilo accompanies them to their chapel and teaches them a song which they adapt to their own language and musical style and use as a prayer to wish for relief from the cold and storms that have plagued all of Liminus for many years. Miraculously, the prayer works. The sun appears, the snow disappears, and Dhikilo becomes a virtual goddess to these admirable beings.

As they finally approach the Gamp’s home city, Gampalonia, the pair must get past the well-meaning but quite ignorant gatekeeper, Inspector Pumblechook, the bumbler who is as silly as his name. After they convince him that they are trustworthy, they arrive at the border of Gampalonia, where they find a hilarious Gampalonian souvenir shop which, of course, sells all kinds of ridiculous Gampalonian memorabilia, one piece of which is significant. It’s a model of the shining tower which is the Gamp’s pride and joy. They don’t buy it — they have no money — but they certainly do remember it. Almost immediately upon entering Gampalonia proper, where they see the real tower, they are warned that “ogs” have been outlawed by their ruler, and ignoring the law will result in the death penalty. Mrs. Robinson cannot, of course, make herself the sphinx because her appearance and strength would also surely result in their immediate execution. Dhikilo is thrown into jail and will be sentenced to death and executed via guillotine the next morning after the pseudo-trial hosted by the Gamp himself. A huge crowd will gather in the town square, all very excited to witness the beheading of this strange girl who has broken laws and brought her alien ways — and her “og” — to Gampalonia. But with the help of Mrs. Robinson and her four ectoplasmic friends (who had been briefly introduced in Book One), Dhikilo escapes. The Gamp, who wears puffed-up clothes in public to make himself look powerful, is exposed as a phony, sheds his clothes and runs away; the energy Dynamo which the Gamp had used to control the town is destroyed and emits all the Ds the Gamp had collected “just to prove he could”; his tower, which had been made of ice, melts in the newly revealed sun and warmth, and our conquering heroes make the pleasant trip back to Cawber, Mr. Dodderfield, and Dhikilo’s adoptive parents, who will probably have to figure out a way to gently punish the girl for being gone so long, never realizing that their adopted Somalilandian daughter has saved their language and defeated a cruel dictator.

Faber’s concoction of magical beings and events is brilliant on several levels. It’s a morality tale that examines the dangers of authoritarian figures and their societies, the often-ugly foibles of human nature, the horrors of the hatred and violence we inflict on each other, the utter failures of political entities ruled by stupid people, the all-too-human tendency to fear and loathe those who are “different,” and even the rewards of positive human qualities — kindness, generosity, intelligence, empathy, determination.

In an Author’s Note after the novel, Faber recognizes the authors whose works inspired his story, among them Dickens and “A Tale of Two Cities” and C.S. Lewis and the Narnia stories. He does not, however, cite L. Frank Baum, whose “Wizard of Oz” seems to act almost as a guiding light for Faber’s work here: a displaced and unusual girl travels with a dog to a world very different from her own and faces dangers totally unlike any she might ever experience “in Kansas”; on arrival she meets witches; she falls asleep in a very evil place; she meets animals with human-like qualities and dwarves; she must reach a destination where even greater dangers await; ice plays a large part in the destruction of the villain; and she unmasks a cowardly faux-magical faux-savior.

Also not directly addressed are the stunning similarities of the primary villain to a certain American political figure: a man who says “Only I can fix it”; a coward who puffs himself up while masquerading as an icon of power; advisers who fawn on him; a glitzy tower and even a hotel as symbols of that fragile pseudo-power; beings who are not just witches but MAGwitches; and a one-syllable name ending in -mp.

I enthusiastically recommend this most unusual piece of literature, which amazingly manages to be both brilliantly derivative and absolutely unique.

And best of all, it efinitely boasts a happy ening. On’t miss it!

Review by Jack Kramer. Please note that this review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.

‘The Zealot and the Emancipator’ by H. W. Brands is an enlightening history of abolitionist zeal vs Republican caution

The Zealot and the Emancipator

H.W. Brands, the author of this superb study, “The Zealot and the Emancipator,” has presented us with a fascinating, authoritative, carefully researched account of the activities and beliefs of two figures who might accurately be described as men who changed America; who forced Americans to examine their minds and hearts in ways that had never been demanded of them before; and who ultimately were responsible for the hard realization that the country could not exist half-slave and half-free. The zealot was John Brown. The emancipator was Abraham Lincoln.

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‘Eli’s Promise’ by Ronald J. Balson: A double dose of corruption

Author Ronald J. Balson’s new novel, “Eli’s Promise,” is a superb piece of historical fiction that features three interlocking and interweaving plot threads, each of which offers fascinating views of epochal eras in world and American history.

Plot number one takes place in the mid-1940s, as Jews are being rescued from the concentration camp called Buchenwald, a camp which had all too clearly demonstrated the unconscionable cruelty of the Nazi policy they called the “Final Solution,” the deaths of all European Jews. Among the victims at Buchenwald is Eli Rosen, a young Polish man who had been the owner of a building and construction company before he was taken. Also a prisoner there is his son Izaak. They survive after being rescued by American troops and are taken to an American-run camp in Germany. The camp is set up for Holocaust survivors who await their visas and transfers to new homes all over the world. It soon becomes apparent to readers that the real villain of the piece (other than the Nazis) is one Maximilian Poleski, a traitor to his people. Poleski is using his connections in America and Germany to illegally procure visas that will allow survivors to enter America. He sells the visas to those few former prisoners who have somehow saved or found the money to buy them, charging obscene prices for his services and moving the buyers to the front of a very long line of seekers of entry to America and other potentially new homes. Eli Rosen swears — promises — to bring Maximilian to justice, and he will not rest until he does so. But the visa issue is just the tip of the Maximilian iceberg, and his many other sins are revealed in plot thread number two.

The scene is Lublin, Poland, 1939. Hitler conquers Poland and orders his military henchmen to take immediate steps to corral all Jews. Eli Rosen, though, is important to the Nazis because of his expertise in construction, which will help the Nazi power structure to erect ghetto camps, build German official headquarters, and prepare to officially organize all Polish Jews into groups which will eventually be transported to concentration camps to be killed when they are no longer useful to the Nazi cause. Maximilian, the slimy eel, manages to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, saving himself and promising his Jewish friends that he will protect them — in return for huge cash protection payments. But when the noose begins to tighten, Maximilian continues to promise safety when he knows he will no longer be able to actually provide it. And he takes his victims’ last meager cash reserves as payments for the protection he knows he can no longer ensure. Eli’s wife is taken. Eli eventually is taken, too, as is his son. Only the oily obeisant Maximilian escapes significant punishment. Wherever he goes, wherever he is moved, he manages to slither away from the fate he so richly deserves.

The third plot thread flashes us forward to 1965 Chicago. America is again at war, this time in Viet Nam. Eli is an important figure in this thread, but he is not the protagonist. Having survived the Holocaust, he now works in some mysterious capacity for the American government. His assignment is to investigate a group of war profiteers who are in the business of collecting, storing, and keeping huge sums of cash through all kinds of scams involving weapons sales and sales of other wartime goods. The main character (though there are several important ones) is a young lady named Mimi Gold, who lives in Albany Park, Chicago, with her mother and grandmother. As the plot unfolds, Eli moves into the apartment below the Golds’. The women suspect that their new neighbor is working for the CIA or FBI. But it’s Mimi who is gradually becoming unwillingly involved with the network of wartime materials criminals. Vicious crimes ensue — murder, theft, intimidation, arson — all the horrors which almost inevitably result from wartime profiteering, the unchecked felonious activities of the rich and powerful, and the hypocrisy of governments and government officials as they excuse and justify their wartime sins. Meanwhile, as we might suspect, Maximilian, though we don’t know his exact role in the 1965 Chicago criminal enterprises, will appear once more in all his disgusting glory. And the stubborn quest and questions persist: will Eli’s promise be kept; will Maximilian finally be brought to justice?

Besides the three engrossing plots, “Eli’s Promise” vividly demonstrates other necessary qualities of historical fiction. We find fascinating information about actual events which we have likely never considered before: the details of the horrors inflicted on Polish Jews in Poland itself and, of course, in German camps; the difficulties of finding permanent homes for Holocaust survivors, including the stubborn resistance of the American government to the granting of visas to those victims of Nazi atrocities; the corruption of American governments at all levels — local, county, state, and federal — specifically in the 1960s. And on the plus side, we learn much about the courageous people who refused to bow to the Nazis; the Polish resistance and the stubborn will to survive of of the Jewish people; the complicated but extraordinary efforts of the American military to save, protect, and help Holocaust survivors to rebuild their lives.

“Eli’s Promise” is a moving and suspenseful piece of authoritative historical fiction; profoundly informative and entirely compelling. It’s highly recommended.

Review by Jack Kramer.

This review was first posted at Bookreporter.com.

‘The Awakening’ is Book One in Nora Roberts’ new series ‘The Dragon Heart Legacy’

An intricately detailed alternate world set just alongside Ireland, a world which has all the charm and natural beauty of Ireland but the addition of witches, fairies, elves, and dragons, makes Nora Roberts’ newest book, “The Awakening,” in her new series “The Dragon Heart Legacy” stand out. When Breen Kelly stumbles across the portal to Talamh, this alternate place brimming with magic, her life changes.

Breen’s life in Philadelphia had been very ordinary. She taught middle school language arts to students who didn’t inspire her. Or didn’t they inspire her because she didn’t love teaching? The truth is that Breen became a teacher because her mother told her that was all she was capable of, and Breen is miserable. But all her life, her mother insisted that Breen was never more than average. There was nothing that she excelled at. And yet Breen does her mother’s bidding, taking care of her home when she’s away.

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‘Pretty Little Wife’ by Darby Kane is a murder mystery with a special twist

pretty little wife

“Pretty Little Wife” starts with a special twist. We know who killed Aaron Payne before we even open the book. The back of the book’s heading reads, “Shouldn’t a dead husband stay dead?” We know that Lila Ridgefield killed her handsome husband, a beloved high school teacher — but there’s a problem. His body, whose death she had carefully staged, is gone, along with Aaron’s car and cell phone. Continue reading