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Update July 2017


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Book Review
 

Update July 29, 2017

Connelly cements reputation as master of crime fiction

Jeff Ayers

“The Late Show” (Little, Brown and Company), by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly leaves the world of Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller to start a new series featuring Detective Renee Ballard, a strong-willed woman forced into the grinding night shift.

When most everyone else is asleep, Detective Ballard and her partner Jenkins work cases.  They gather evidence, interview witnesses and then pass on their notes to the morning shift, which closes them.  Ballard misses following up to the conclusion of a case and nabbing the culprit, but Jenkins likes going home at the end of the day and being with his ailing wife.  Then one evening, Ballard and her partner get a compelling case and she can’t let it go.

Ballard will go against direct orders and her partner’s pleading to let others handle the case.  She must see justice prevail, even if it puts her and the people she cares about in harm’s way.

She has a load of baggage with her, which alienates Ballard from some of her fellow officers.  She had worked the day shift, but when she filed a sexual harassment suit against her boss, it became her word against his.  In the outcome, she was sent to night duty while her boss was promoted.

Connelly has created wonderful characters with Bosch and Haller, but Ballard is a force that with just one novel will easily be as beloved.  There’s no doubt Connelly is a master of crime fiction, and “The Late Show” cements that reputation.

A new Bosch novel will come out later this year, but hopefully early next year will see Ballard’s return. (AP)


Update July 22, 2017

‘Ancient Brews’ reveals tasty history of alcohol

Kevin Begos

“Ancient Brews: Rediscovered & Re-created” (W.W. Norton & Co.), by Patrick E. McGovern

It’s easy to find cold brews on summer days, but here’s a twist: a journey back to the alcoholic beverages that people drank thousands of years ago.

Patrick McGovern, a renowned scientist and passionate lover of fermented beverages, brings the history of ancient brewing alive with this fun, tempting and thought-provoking book.  McGovern is director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  For more than three decades he’s been a pioneer in archaeological chemistry — a field that combines old-school fieldwork with cutting-edge technology such as mass spectrometry and DNA analysis.

The new lab tools are able to identify the chemical makeup of astonishingly small beverage traces that remain on ancient artifacts, such as the stains on beverage containers found in the Egyptian pyramids.  McGovern and other researchers then match the chemical fingerprints to various grains, fruits and spices, and come up with a kind of reverse recipe, brought to life thousands of years after the original beverage was originally consumed.

“Ancient Brews” is a geeky and tasty way to learn about ancient history, and the science of booze.  McGovern explains the chemistry of fermentation, the molecular components of alcohol (two carbon atoms, six hydrogen, one oxygen) and how our love of alcohol probably originated more than 100 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period, when flowering plants appeared and fruit flies developed specific genes to process alcohol.  (Humans still have some of those same genes, by the way.)

But McGovern isn’t entrenched in the past.  The book contains numerous recipes for home brewers, created in collaboration with Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery.  There are also food suggestions based on archaeological findings, such as a lamb and lentil stew that was consumed around 800 B.C. at what was probably King Midas’ funeral feast in what is now Turkey.

The recipe for the accompanying beverage (also available bottled through Dogfish Head as Midas Touch) has some familiar beer ingredients (malt extract, honey and hops) but also twists: saffron threads and grape juice.  That’s a theme in the book: McGovern shows that people had exotic tastes thousands of years ago, all over the world.  They weren’t just chugging alcohol for the buzz, though that was certainly appreciated, perhaps originally in religious ceremonies.

Numerous archaeological sites now reveal that ancient people often combined what we call beer (fermented grains) with wine (fermented grapes), and also experimented by adding a vast range of local herbs and flavorings.

McGovern’s mix of gee-wiz science and thoughtful historical context makes “Ancient Brews” a refreshing read, for the summer or any other season. (AP)


Update July 15, 2017

Mystery abounds in ‘Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore’

Christina Ledbetter

“Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” (Scribner), by Matthew Sullivan

Matthew Sullivan’s “Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore” is shocking, charming and thrilling from the opening scene.  Lydia Smith, a compassionate bookstore clerk, is horrified one night when she finds her favorite customer, the young Joey Molina, has committed suicide in the Western history section.  Things turn eerier when Lydia spies a picture of herself as a child poking out of the dead man’s pocket.  However, it is when Lydia learns that Joey has left all of his meager possessions to her (including an assortment of books he has meticulously defaced in efforts to convey a message of sorts) that the bookseller has a mystery on her hands.

While she attempts to decipher Joey’s message, readers will begin to wonder what Lydia is hiding.  She brushes off a postcard from a homicide detective who recognized her photo in the newspaper; she’d rather not think about a villain dubbed the Hammerman lurking in her childhood (and possibly the streets today); and she refuses to speak to her father.  The story alternates between present day and Lydia’s childhood, and Sullivan navigates the transitions elegantly.  The narrative remains consistently suspenseful, yet smooth.

With compelling characters and rich descriptions, Sullivan’s writing is spot-on.  Raj, a chubby, jumpsuit-sporting boy befriends Lydia as a child and offers her doughnuts from his parents’ gas station.  David, Lydia’s boyfriend, with his mangled fingers resembling a knot of bread dough in his palm, disassembles VCRs and wipes crumbs from the kitchen counter.  BookFrogs, a cast of local eccentrics who regularly fill the bookstore, roam Bright Ideas’ aisles and nap in armchairs.

Sullivan nails it, delivering a captivating conflict plus masterfully executed prose.  To boot, the bookstore setting will charm even those who devour this read electronically. (AP)


Update July 8, 2017

Scholar offers insights into what makes Scandinavians tick

Jerry Harkavy

“Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North” (Overlook Press), by Robert Ferguson

Norway, Sweden and Denmark consistently rank at or near the top in global surveys of national contentment, prosperity and well-being.  It’s as if peaceful and progressive Scandinavia were a place of relentless cheeriness backed by a lilting soundtrack from ABBA.  Even the prisons seem to encourage happiness.

The other side of the coin projects a conflicting image: a dark and cold land beset with melancholy and gloom, a thread that runs from William Shakespeare’s Danish prince Hamlet to Swedish playwright August Strindberg, angst-driven Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, Norwegian painter Edvard Munch of “The Scream” fame and film director Ingmar Bergman.  Mix in Stieg Larsson and the string of popular mysteries known as Nordic noir and there’s no shortage of insanity, suicide and general malevolence.

Robert Ferguson, a British-born scholar, brings an outsider’s perspective to the place he fell in love with and made his permanent home when he was in his early 30s.  His previous books include a history of the Vikings and biographies of two of his fellow Norwegians: playwright Henrik Ibsen and novelist Knut Hamsun.

Ferguson’s latest book is an idiosyncratic and digressive examination of Scandinavia’s history and culture that combines personal recollections with sometimes rambling conversations with authors, critics and artists, often conducted in cafes over beer and aquavit.  He covers roughly 1,500 years, from the Viking era to the present, and sheds light on fascinating episodes unknown to readers not steeped in Scandinavian lore.

Ferguson analyzes key chapters in the region’s history, touching on Sweden’s brief emergence in the 17th century as a great power, the flow of emigrants who brought their culture to the farmland of America’s Midwest and Great Plains, and the vastly different experiences of Norway, Sweden and Denmark during World War II.  Ferguson also provides an interlude in his narrative: a rewriting of Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” in which the playwright is confronted with proof of a son that he fathered with a woman he abandoned decades earlier.

“Scandinavians” is a delightful book chock-full of surprises, fascinating anecdotes and insights into the region’s rich history and culture.  If the author’s digressions at times seem tiresome and clumsy, they advance his goal of painting a picture of what makes Danes, Swedes and Norwegians tick. (AP)


Update July 1, 2017

John Grisham’s ‘Camino Island’ is fine beach read

Jonathan Elderfield

“Camino Island: a Novel” (Doubleday), by John Grisham

The tale opens with a robbery and closes with a reconciliation.  In between these bookends, “Camino Island” by John Grisham is populated with ruthless thieves, witty writers and enough intrigue to fill a bookstore’s mystery aisle.  At the heart of the story is the theft of five priceless, yet heavily insured, original manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald, including “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night,” from Princeton University’s library.

After the successful caper turns sour — a few of the crew are quickly nabbed by the feds — the story moves south with an abrupt turn.  The reader is introduced to Bruce Cable, an outgoing and popular bookstore owner in the town of Santa Rosa on Camino Island, Florida, who just happens to make the occasional black market deal for stolen books — and who has a penchant for seersucker suits.  Could he somehow be involved in the Princeton theft?

Next we meet Mercer Mann, a novelist who cannot get her new book going and has recently lost her teaching job at the University of North Carolina.  She’s soon recruited by an outfit working for the insurance company as the perfect sleuth to suss out the fate of the manuscripts — she spent much of her youth on Camino Island with her grandmother, who died tragically.  As Mann looks for the books and comes to terms with her grandmother’s passing, she discovers a town filled with successful and failed writers, from romance novelists to struggling literary fiction authors, some with drinking problems, others brimming with the latest gossip.

As the fate of the lost manuscripts is revealed page by page, the action pivots among Mann, Cable and the thieves until all is revealed.

“Camino Island” makes a fine beach read no matter what island you end up on this summer.  However, I’m not sure if this novel’s Camino Island, filled as it is with writers, is Grisham’s idea of “This Side of Paradise” or if he considers the writers to be “The Beautiful and Damned.” (AP)
 


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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Connelly cements reputation as master of crime fiction


‘Ancient Brews’ reveals tasty history of alcohol


Mystery abounds in ‘Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore’


Scholar offers insights into what makes Scandinavians tick


John Grisham’s ‘Camino Island’ is fine beach read


 



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