Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Rule Against Murder

by Louise Penny

Minotaur Books     2008
322 pages      Mystery
Books in Series

If you haven’t fallen in love with Armand Gamache by the time you get to book 4 in the series by Louise Penny, you are a heartless fool.

As A Rule Against Murder (The Murder Stone in Canada) opens, Armand and his wife Reine Marie are on an anniversary weekend trip to Manoir Bellechasse, a lovely resort near Three Pines, and not far from Quebec City. The other guests at the lodge are the Finney family, also known as the Morrow family—a group of not-very-nice Anglos—at the lodge to have a memorial service for their long-departed father, Charles Morrow.

The Finney-Morrow clan are frankly not very nice, and while it takes almost 100 pages for a murder to be committed, the reader is convinced by that time that any one of the family members is rotten enough to die. Family members despise each other, and other than the child, Bean, any one of them can go! Penny says of the family: “The Morrows could be counted on to choose the right fork and the wrong word.” And then, the murder occurs. The statue created to commemorate the life of Charles Morrow crashes on one of the family members, and Inspector Gamache cannot figure out how a statue that heavy could fall off its marble pedestal. It is a gruesome murder, and the team of Sûreté inspectors arrive to interview all the guests and assess the situation. The mystery and its solution are very delightfully, and intricately developed, and I didn’t figure out the perpetrator any quicker than Gamache did.

My favorite scene in the book describes the only fun moment any of the Morrows had in their entire visit to Manoir Bellechasse. It involves little Bean throwing sticky cookies up on the ceiling of the lodge dining room. I laughed aloud knowing that finally Bean was having some fun.

The very best part of A Rule Against Murder is the way in which the character of Armand Gamache is developed. He is a remarkable man—we already knew that—but in this iteration of the series, we find that he is a loving husband and father as well as an insightful and feeling detective. In a recent interview, Louise Penny describes how she created the character. Watch it and you will see why everyone falls in love with Inspector Gamache. Some of the Sûreté controversy that surrounded Gamache in previous books has been settled by A Rule Against Murder, much to the relief of the readers. It was a bit tedious in The Cruelest Month.

Everyone that I have introduced to the Chief Inspector Gamache series has loved it. I am moving on to The Beautiful Mystery because it takes place at an Abbey that we are going to visit on our trip to Quebec over the next few days. The greatest strength of the series is the character development and the marvelous settings. I enjoyed every book thus far and look forward to meeting Louise Penny on Saturday at the bookstore in Knowlton, Quebec.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Without Fear or Favor

by Robert K. Tanenbaum
Gallery Books     2017
384 pages     Legal Thriller

When you read Robert Tanenbaum's resume, you know that before you even start the novel, Without Fear or Favor, you are in the hands of a pro. However, not all legal professionals can write good fiction. This is the 29th book in the Butch Karp-Marlene Ciampi, District Attorney series, and the second one that I have read, the first being Infamy. Tanenbaum is a master of the political and legal thriller. 

Without Fear or Favor starts off with a bang—a political assassination attempt on the life of District Attorney Karp. Black Supremacist, Nat X, is up to some evil work in New York City, inciting riots and recruiting young boys to do his dirty work. A policeman and a young teenager have been killed, and a policeman indicted—not to mention the work of a religious vigilante who lives in the sewers and appears to administer his own form of justice. The city is totally on edge, especially after Karp is shot. Tanenbaum sucks the reader right in with the assassination scene, and the action never lets up until Nat X is captured and the case against him goes to trial.

At this point, the reader can take a breath and stop to savor the case building against Nat X and Karp's brilliance as a prosecutor. The trial, itself, evolves over about a third of the book. The ending scenes are extremely dramatic—as dramatic as the opening, breathtaking scene. In his closing statement, DA Karp's words are brilliant and heart-wrenching, offering an indictment of the current political climate in the United States, most likely the sentiments of the author.

Tanenbaum does not shirk from expressing his politics in his writings. It hits awfully close to home. Much of the plot in Without Fear or Favor hinges on incidents of supposed police brutality—at least in the minds of the African-American protagonists. Tanenbaum creates believable police officers, both effective and ineffective. He also creates Black characters with integrity and compassion to serve as counterpoint to the thugs. I was particularly struck by the two young boys sucked into Nat X's supremacist rhetoric. We certainly saw those same young men (white this time) as we watched with horror the march last Saturday in Charlottesville VA—young men sucked into rhetoric that they don't fully comprehend. 

The reviewer on the Criminal Element website complained that some of the characters are clichés, but having read another book by Tanenbaum, I understand that character development is not his long suit, but you can't beat his no-holds-barred plot development. 

Some thriller series must be read in order, but that is not the case with the Butch Karp-Marlene Ciampi, District Attorney series. Plow right in, unless you are offended by liberal political thrillers or if you are watching too much political drama on the news. 

Robert Tanenbaum's website.

 Robert K. Tanenbaum is the author of thirty-two books—twenty-nine novels and three nonfiction books: Badge of the Assassin, the true account of his investigation and trials of self-proclaimed members of the Black Liberation Army who assassinated two NYPD police officers; The Piano Teacher: The True Story of a Psychotic Killer; and Echoes of My Soul, the true story of a shocking double murder that resulted in the DA exonerating an innocent man while searching for the real killer. The case was cited by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in the famous Miranda decision. He is one of the most successful prosecuting attorneys, having never lost a felony trial and convicting hundreds of violent criminals. He was a special prosecution consultant on the Hillside strangler case in Los Angeles and defended Amy Grossberg in her sensationalized baby death case. He was Assistant District Attorney in New York County in the office of legendary District Attorney Frank Hogan, where he ran the Homicide Bureau, served as Chief of the Criminal Courts, and was in charge of the DA’s legal staff training program. He served as Deputy Chief counsel for the Congressional Committee investigation into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills and taught Advanced Criminal Procedure for four years at Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, and has conducted continuing legal education (CLE) seminars for practicing lawyers in California, New York, and Pennsylvania. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Tanenbaum attended the University of California at Berkeley on a basketball scholarship, where he earned a B.A. He received his law degree (J.D.) from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley.   Visit

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo

by Stephanie Storey
Arcade    2016
345 p.      Historical Fiction

Make sure you have access to the Internet  before you begin reading Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, because you will spend a great deal of time looking for images of the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, among others. Storey has created a well-imagined rivalry between the fifty-year old Leonardo and the much younger Michelangelo. When the novel begins, both have returned to their home city of Florence to begin new projects.

Leonardo had fascinating interests—from science to painting. The narrative emphasizes the plan he had to reroute the Arno river, so that ships could get from Florence to the sea. He is also fascinated with the idea of flying, and devised a plan for a flying machine. 
At the same time he is on this creative journey, he receives commissions from the city to paint frescoes on public buildings, which he works at sporadically. His primary obsession, during these years, is a young wife of a successful silk merchant. Her name is Lisa Gheradini, and Leonardo convinces her husband to commission a painting of her—the painting that became the enigmatic Mona Lisa.

Michelangelo's obsession is a huge block of marble owned by the city. He had just returned to Florence from the successful completion of his statue, the Pieta, in Rome. Surprisingly, for a relative unknown, Michelangelo receives the commission to sculpt a statue from the gigantic hunk of marble. He decides to create a statue of David, slayer of Goliath, and he dedicates all his energy to its creation—an effort that nearly costs him his life. The David statue came to symbolize the strength of the city of Florence and set Michelangelo on a path to artistic super stardom.

The New York Times reviewer calls Oil and Marble a "richly imagined tale," and indeed the novel is eminently readable. Storey really knows her history, and she manipulates her knowledge gracefully so that it tells a cohesive story. Even though I have been to Florence and seen David, and to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa, I had no idea that both artists were living and working in Florence at the same time. Of course Storey took dramatic license with the plot and the historic figures involved. Even Machiavelli plays a manipulative role in the story line.

I was particularly drawn to the concept of creativity, and how these two men exemplify the spirit of the times and of the creative movement in Florence, in particular. The early 1500s were an amazing time in Florence, and the two men were so fortunate to be part of that era. One quote from the novel about da Vinci speaks to his creative potential: "Leonardo believed in potential like many men believed in God." The scope of his creativity knew no bounds. I was fascinated with the way Michelangelo let the stone speak to him, and after he decided to sculpt David out of the stone, he found that he was asking David to speak to him through the stone, guiding his hand and his hammer.

The rivalry between the two men is a secondary story line, but a powerful one. It reminded me of the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri as it was depicted in Amadaeus, although in the case of da Vinci and Michelangelo, both of them created iconic representations of the times—neither was a secondary player. 

Another minor plotline, but also a powerful one, is da Vinci's idea about redirecting the flow of the Arno River. With my ever handy Google, I found that this was, in fact, true. The construction project failed, and much land was wiped out by a flood, killing many people. Leonardo's shock and grief over the failure of the project is exciting and horrifying at the same time—one of the best written sections of the book. The plotline involving Lisa Gheradini and Leonardo's obsession with her is not as well developed and much less believable. 

It has been at least 45 years since I was in Florence, but Oil and Marble really made me want to return. I loved the city. Storey has made the city of Florence in the early 1500s one of the characters in the book. The book is perfect for lovers of history and historical fiction, art, and excellent character development.

Here are 10 top questions about the creation of Oil and Marble.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Senator Al Franken
 Twelve 2017
416 pages     Nonfiction/Memoir/Humor
Audio Book

As we were planning our long road trip earlier this summer, I asked my husband what book he would like to listen to in the car. My regular readers know that my husband is a lifelong Republican (albeit currently a very disillusioned Republican). He suggested Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. Not surprisingly, that was the book I was thinking about, so I jumped at the chance to add it to our audio collection. Might I suggest that this is the perfect book for audio, because Franken reads it himself and is able to add all the nuances that make it both incredibly effective and incredibly ironic—irony being his comedic modus operandi.

These are his words to introduce the book: "Senator Al Franken has represented Minnesota in the United States Senate since 2009. Before entering politics, he was an award-winning comedy writer, author, and radio talk show host. He's been married to his wife, Franni, for 41 years — many of them happy. They have two children, Thomasin and Joe, and three grandchildren. Senator Franken graduated from Harvard College and received his doctorate in right-wing megalomania studies from Trump University." Admittedly, the book was written just as the election was decided, so his comments about Trump are only a small part of the narrative.

Primarily a memoir, Franken tells the story of how he got to where he currently is—a two-term Democrat Senator from Minnesota. His first career, of course, was as a comedy writer, for Saturday Night Live and the movies. When he decided to run for the Senate in his home state of Minnesota, he found that his constituents were not interested in having a comedian for a Senator. After all, they had already lived through a wrestler as a governor. So, in order to be elected, he had to work extra hard at being serious, all the while repressing joke after joke in his brain. He says that it was the hardest thing he ever had to do. His brain bleeds humor, such as the time he got in trouble for rolling his eyes at Mitch McConnell. His staff monitored his comments for the entire first term in office.

Now, well into his second term, he is able to let it all out. Al Franken, Giant of the Senate is funny but also very true. During his first campaign, his opponents mined material from his career to attack him. At first he was offended because the offensive remarks they were using had been his job, and he felt that to have to apologize for work he had done as a comedy writer was to sell out his career. Eventually, however, he was able to show Minnesotans that he was very serious and after an extremely close election and months of recounts, he was able to take his seat in the Senate.

Besides being funny, the book also shows Franken to be very serious about his work and extremely well-prepared. I was impressed by that, but I was also impressed by Franken's understanding of the value of humor in political discourse. He discusses which members of the Senate have a sense of humor, and which do not. He says, for example, that Lindsey Graham has the best sense of humor in the Senate and Ted Cruz has the least. He believes that a well-placed quip can ease tension in any room, and now that he has been in the Senate for 10 years, he can occasionally add a note of humor to a discussion. There is some talk of Franken running for President in 2020. Imagine that—someone who could make (and take) a joke.

My husband and I really enjoyed our time with Al Franken, and we heartily recommend the book. We have read several political books, including Being Nixon: A Man Divided and books about the Obamas, and Orrin Hatch. None of these had any laugh lines in them, so Al Franken, Giant of the Senate was refreshing in its candidness. The reviewer in the New York Times thinks that there is a lot of "stale recitations of liberal talking points" throughout the book, but that as political memoirs go, it's a "whole lot funnier" than most. 

You will find Franken's interview with Stephen Colbert about his book interesting.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story

by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
Viking     2010
304 pages     Spiritual Memoir

In the late 1990s, Sue Monk Kidd and her young adult daughter, Ann, traveled twice to several sites in Greece and France. Kidd, the author of Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair, and The Invention of Wings  among other works, was in a creative funk. She was turning 50 and feeling her age. She had begun thinking about a fiction book that she wanted to write that involved bees, a young girl, and a Black Madonna. 

The second trip the mother-daughter duo took to Greece helped her ferment and develop the concept of the sacred feminine in her mind. She says that "When I visited Mary's House in Ephesus during Ann's and my first trip, the theological polarization I felt about how to relate to Mary began to be resolved." Each event in the story of Mary "feels like a universal story, offering points of entry into my own experience." 

Ann had just graduated from university and had broken up with her boyfriend when the pair took their first trip. She, too, was in a funk and quite depressed. A university trip to Greece had convinced her that she wanted to study ancient Greece for a graduate degree, but unfortunately, she was not admitted into her graduate school of choice. By the second trip, Ann is in a better place emotionally and is planning to be married soon after they return from their travels. During this trip, she debates whether to become a writer. On both trips, she ponders the poem by David Whyte that says, "Give up all other worlds except the one to which you belong." What world does she belong in? She finds that to be the mission of her travels.                                                              

In each section of Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue and Ann share their journals and their impressions of the area they are visiting. They also express their spiritual growth and their heart's longings. Sue purchases glass pomegranate charms to wear on necklaces as a way to counteract what she sees as a growing estrangement between mother and daughter. The necklaces serve as a reminder of the story of Demeter rescuing her daughter Persephone from the underworld. They find the answers to their inner searching through their growing understanding of the Madonna and other images of the sacred feminine. Both grow from these travel experiences—individually and together.

I found Traveling with Pomegranates to be both intriguing and tedious. The most intriguing part for me was how Sue formulated the concepts that became her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. The tedious parts were their inner arguments, which became strained and repetitive as the pair journeyed. On the other hand, the book is an excellent example of how travel can formulate ideas and creative expression. 

I read the book for the monthly spiritual growth book group at my church. It engendered a great deal of discussion, but several times, members of the group were heard to say, "Well, it wasn't my favorite." Many felt that the publishing of the book was Sue Monk Kidd's attempt to help her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor begin her career as a writer. But, everyone agreed to reread Secret Life of Bees for next month's book group, citing the introduction we got from Ann in Traveling with Pomegranates.