Thursday, March 24, 2016

Cold Morning: An Edna Ferber Mystery

by Ed Ifkovic
Poisoned Pen Press    2016
279 pages      Mystery

It is not often that characters in a murder novel hit close to home, but my life experience with Charles A. Lindbergh made Cold Morning a fascinating read for me. Charles A. Lindbergh, if you don't know, was a famous pilot who was the first person to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a single person airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.

Eighty years ago this week, Bruno Hauptmann was executed for the kidnap and murder of Charles and Anne Lindbergh's toddler son, Charles Jr. Although the evidence against Hauptmann was purely speculative and circumstantial, the fact that he was a German immigrant was apparently all that was needed to assume and prove his guilt. This novelized version of the trial stars Edna Ferber, a real-life famous American novelist and journalist. She and her crony, the writer Aleck Woollcott, are in the small village of Flemington, New Jersey covering Hauptmann's trial for the New York Times, and the scene is a circus. H.L. Mencken called the trial "the greatest story since the Resurrection." The town is alive with tourists and thrill seekers, the hotels are full, and little boys are hawking replicas of the ladder used to kidnap little Charles Jr. Every morning of the trial is a Cold Morning.

Edna Ferber senses that there is a lot that is not right with the situation; the craziness of the trial itself is exacerbated by all the New York celebrities that descend on the village to be a part of the action. Everybody who is anybody has shown up, and many working-class people have been drawn to the community to find work during the trial. When a waitress who has waited on Ferber and Woollcott's table is found murdered, Ferber sets out to try to find her murderer. 

Ferber slowly builds her case—first to prove the innocence of the man charged with the murder of the waitress, and then to find a plausible explanation for the kidnapping, and solve the supposed suicide of a maid at the Lindbergh household. The momentum builds to a surprise ending—something I did not see coming. Don't you just love it when that happens!

The novel is just plain fun. I had a great time trying to recall how I knew the names of all the characters on the periphery of the story line—names like Kathleen Norris and Walter Winchell—to say nothing of the daily appearances of the Lindbergh and Morrow families (the Morrows were Anne's family) and the head of the New Jersey State Police, Norman Schwarzkopf, who worked as personal protection for the Lindbergh family. Schwarzkopf was the father of the Vietnam War era general, Norman Schwarzkopf. My computer was kept very busy looking up all the writers, actors, and other celebrities that showed up at the trial.

Like many people who followed the Hauptmann trial, Ifkovic is convinced that there was a huge miscarriage of justice in the Lindbergh case, and through his surrogate Edna Ferber, he tries to show an alternate scenario. Ferber is a feisty heroine; I liked her independence and her fortitude. The reviewer in the Kirkus Reviews says that this is "perhaps the finest hour yet for a fictionalized heroine." Actually Ferber is the protagonist in seven murder mysteries written by Ifkovic.

And now for my story. Six of my most impressionable formative years were spent in the small town of Little Falls, Minnesota, which was Charles Lindbergh's home town. During the years that my family lived in Little Falls, the Lindbergh family farm on the Mississippi River was being developed as a state park, but the family home had not been rehabilitated yet. We children had free reign to run through the house, hide in the closets, and clamber all over a Model T that was in the garage. Now, of course, there are tours of the home with costumed docents. (More on that later.) When I was in the third grade, the new elementary school, The Charles A. Lindbergh Elementary School, was dedicated. My father was on the school board that year and had the opportunity to shake hands with Lindbergh—something I will never forget. Remember, please, that Charles Lindbergh was the town hero.

All of this happened in the 1950s, before the world began to be critical of Lindbergh's World War II fascist leanings, before he became an isolationist,  and certainly before the world learned that he had three secret families in Germany, including seven children. Last summer, my sister and I made a pilgrimage to scenes of our childhood and we toured the Lindbergh family home—the one we had raced through many times as children. The docents reminded us that we were to only ask questions about Lindbergh's childhood and life up until his famous flight, and that questions about his isolationist views, his opinions about Hitler, and his secret families were off limits. 

Ifkovic keeps Lindbergh as a shadowy figure in the novel, except for one scene with Edna Ferber, but the reader gets the feeling that there is more to Lindbergh's character than that of a hero. The text alludes to, but never discusses, some of his character flaws, which of course, we now understand. I was reminded time and again of O.J. Simpson's circus of a trial in the 1990s, and the current controversy over the Netflix series Making a Murderer, about police malfeasance in Wisconsin. I guess America loves a good trial!

 I have not read any of the other Edna Ferber mysteries but I can heartily recommend Cold Morning. You can find the other Edna Ferber mysteries on Ed Ifkovic's website. I can also recommend a novel about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin.

Monday, March 14, 2016


by Heather Graham
MIRA     2016
304 pages      Romantic Suspense

How have I missed Heather Graham all these years? I must have read some of them—she has written 150 romantic suspense novels over the past 30 years. 

Graham's newest book, Flawless, is an appropriate book to read during St. Patrick's Day week since much of it takes place in an Irish pub in New York City. Kieran Finnegan is part of the Finnegan family that has owned a pub  in Manhattan for generations. Right now, she and her three brothers run it, although she and two of her brothers have other jobs—Kieran is a criminal psychologist. Everyone comes together to help out on their times off from their other jobs. Kieran's first loyalty is to the pub and her brothers.

Someone is robbing jewelry stores in the diamond district, and it appears that there are connections to Finnegan's Pub. An FBI agent named Craig Frasier is brought in to investigate the robberies and discovers not only the connections with the pub, but he also makes a connection with Kieran. Although he knows that she has something to hide, he falls in love with her—of course. How involved is Kieran and the pub with the robberies?

When I was a young mother, this is the type of book I read all the time—simple romantic mysteries were the perfect antidote to single parenthood. In the last few years, however, since I have had a blog and been in a book club, I have become a much more discerning reader. I told my husband the other day that what I have learned by more careful reading is to distinguish good fiction from bad. And I am sad to admit, Flawless is bad fiction. I knew it was from the outset, and I still read the whole book. Why did I continue reading it, you ask? Not sure, but I do know I went to sleep easily every night. 

Here are a few of my favorite lines: "Of course," she said, wondering why she suddenly felt as awkward as a newborn filly." and "And I know now you'll have to investigate Finnegan's up the wazoo, she said softly." On the other hand, Heather Graham has written over 150 books in 30 years--that is 5 books a year! Somebody must be reading these things. 

A recent article in The Daily Beast bemoaned the demise of the Irish Pub. In New York City, 40 percent of the city's traditional pubs have closed in the last ten years. If Finnegans closes, where will the jewel thieves hang out? How will Kieran and FBI agent Frasier solve their crimes? Stay tuned—Heather Graham probably has the next installment ready for the publisher.
Happy St. Paddy's Day, everyone!

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Japanese Lover

by Isabel Allende
Atria Books     2015
322 pages    Literary Fiction

Isabel Allende says that the spark for the novel, The Japanese Lover, was inspired by a story told to her by a friend. It was the tale of a lifelong friendship between the friend's mother and her Japanese gardener—a friendship of over 40 years. Allende, who apparently finds a love story under every rock, imagined that the two were lovers and the plot of the book took shape. More interesting details about how the book emerged can be found on the Stuff website.

Alma Belasco is in her 80s and has moved into a retirement home, Lark House, which is not far away from her family estate. She befriends one of the attendants, Irina, and hires her to help her in putting her affairs together. Both women have huge back stories,  but they become trusted confidants, and as they work together each comes to an understanding of the love and the loss in their lives. 

Alma's grandson Seth is in love with Irina, a creature "straight of a Nordic saga." Irina, for her part, seems incapable of a romantic relationship, and the reader is unable to discover why until much later in the book, although there is a lot of foreshadowing when we meet her at the book's beginning. Irina and Seth set out to answer questions about the mysterious Alma, who they soon discover had a generations-old love affair with a Japanese gardener on the family estate. 

The events in the lives of both Alma and Irina are told in flashbacks and letters. There are some shocks, and much of the history of the last 75 years impinge on their lives. We are exposed to AIDS, sexual slavery, child pornography, immigration, and Japanese internment camps, all happening to the characters of the book. The reviewer in the LA Times calls the characters "tragedy-prone." And yet, Alma serenely prepares for her life's end without sharing much of her story. It has to be dragged out of her. In the same way, Irina's tragic story has to be wrung out of her, as well.

The Japanese Lover has its moments, but on the whole, I was not too impressed. Part of this is my cynicism regarding unrequited love, which this book has a lot of. It was hard to believe that Alma's husband Nathanial went along with the idea of her life-long lover, Ichimei, or that Seth so patiently waited for Irina to love him. By the time the last tragedy is revealed, the reader is pretty much going, "Oh for God's sake! Not this!" Just another tragedy to check off the list.

The benefit of the book, I believe, is its realistic look at the aging process. While Lark House is more quirky than some retirement homes, the novel acknowledges the idea that everyone in a retirement home, or out in the world, has a life story that needs to be understood and celebrated. The end of life should be a time to tie up all the loose ends and meditate on life's meaning.

The Japanese Lover did not get very good reviews. However, Allende has had an illustrious career as a writer, including receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2014. The Japanese Lover is the first of her books that I have read. She writes in Spanish, which I found interesting, although she has lived in the United States for most of her adult life. Her style has been called "mystical realism." Her own life appears to be as mystical as her novels. 

We will be talking about The Japanese Lover at book club next week. What stories will we tell each other?


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Children's Books March 2016

 Children's books are an occasional feature on my blog as I get a chance to read new books to my preschool grandchildren. Last week was a big week for grandchildren because of a sick granddaughter and two snow days with Grandma in charge. Here are the new books we read last week.

Welcome to the Symphony
by Carolyn Sloan; Illustrated by James Williamson
Workman Publishing     2015

My 3-year-old grandson was absolutely enamored with Welcome to the Symphony. This is a concept book that introduces children to an orchestra presentation of Beethoven's 5th Symphony using little mice to tell the story. Numbers on the page match a number on a sound panel. The child is able to match the picture of the instrument in the orchestra with the sound that the instrument makes. Davick loved it. He kept pointing to the instrument and playing the sound—over and over. He played the "daddy" string bass, the "mommy" cello, and the baby "violin," but he was particularly happy to play the timpani. Adela, who is 4, read the book with me one time and then she moved on to other things. Davick interacted with the book for about an hour.

This would not be an appropriate book for a library, because after about an hour, the batteries in the sound panel died. It is much better used in the home. I do think, however, that a music teacher would find great value in using this book prior to a visit to a symphony concert.

How Many Legs
by Katja Spitzer
Flying Eye Books     2015

Let's Go Outside
by Katja Spitzer
Flying Eye Books   2015

These are two simple little books that proved to be surprisingly interactive for my grandchildren. My granddaughter, who is 4, is learning her letters and numbers and she was intrigued by the simplicity of the words in the books.
She could read Let's Go Outside because there was only one word on the page and it matched the picture. I read it once, and then she read it to me.  

How Many Legs was fun for my 3-year-old grandson because he liked the counting. We read it two times, and then he carried How Many Legs around for the rest of the morning.

I think that I would use these books for bedtime books and for beginning readers. They are short and sweet, the pictures are fun, and the children seemed to relate well to them.

Putter and the Red Car
by Kate K. Lund. Illustrated by Ana Maria Velicu
Kate Lund, Publisher     2016

Putter and his family take a trip across the United States from Boston to Seattle. Simple illustrations and a simple story help children adapt to the idea of moving, or to the idea of a long car ride. Putter, the dog, gets bored and needs to run. The family sees some fascinating sites, and they arrive gratefully at their new home. 

Adela was only mildly interested in Putter and the Red Car, perhaps because we were trying to read it on a Kindle. It might have been more interesting in the paperback format. I think, however, that this is probably a marginal purchase, perhaps for a family planning a long trip. "Are we there, yet?"

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The God's Eye View

by Barry Eisler 
Thomas and Mercer     2016
416 pages     Thriller

Sometimes fiction is too much like reality—or is reality too much like fiction? In the case of The God's Eye View by Barry Eisler, it is both. It is a tale of espionage, government manipulation, hit men, conspiracies, whistle blowers and megalomaniac government executives. Pretty scary stuff but nothing that we haven't see recently in real life!

The story is set post-Edward Snowden, and the head of the NSA has developed a tool called the God's Eye View by which the government can monitor every mobile device, cell phone, and surveillance camera on the planet. Evie, the single mother of a deaf child, works as a programmer for the NSA. In her daily work, she realizes that Anders, the head of the NSA, is overstepping his bounds and has orchestrated some rather disturbing events around the world. She knows how to find the thumb drive holding the information that will expose Anders and his maniacal plan to control information. In exposing the plot and Anders, she puts herself and her son in incredible danger.

There is sex and murder, chases, clandestine appointments, evil henchmen, and everything else necessary for a great thriller.
Eisler has enough insider knowledge of CIA-style operations to make it all quite believable, and is a skilled enough writer to make it all move along very rapidly. Several times I thought I was going to quit because I'm not a big fan of espionage, but I couldn't let it go. Thus, I finished it and am glad I did.

Apparently I am into maniacal protagonists, lately. The Newsmakers, which I read last month, had a maniacal newspaper publisher.  One could argue that Richard Nixon, the protagonist of Being Nixon, had maniacal tendencies. I am currently watching Frank Underwood display megalomaniac presidential traits on House of Cards (Season 4), and I am also watching too much political machinations ala Donald Trump, megalomaniac in chief. 

So, if you want to read a political thriller way too close to the way the world is running right now, read The God's Eye View. It will scare the s—t out of you!

The God's Eye View is gaining good press and got a "starred" review in Publisher's Weekly.
Here's a very interesting interview with Eisler about his reasons for writing the book in the Huffington Post.