Friday Book Whimsy: Later

Hard Case Crime is a collection of hardboiled detective stories, some old reprints, some newer novels, written by a large number of different authors. Most of the authors’ names are familiar: Donald Westlake, Earl Stanley Gardner, Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, to name just a few.

One of the more familiar contributors to this collection is the oh-so-prolific author Stephen King. King is most well-known for his horror collection of books, many which have been made into spooky movies. But he has written a few detective/mystery books, and the ones I’ve read are as well-plotted as he scarier stories.

Later, by Stephen King, is one of the books in the Hard Case Crime collection, which is how it caught my eye. As usual, King did not disappoint.

Jamie Conklin is a young kid much like every other pre-teen. There is one distinct difference between Conklin and others: he is able to see an talk to dead people, primarily those who have died recently. He has admitted his “gift” to his mother, who has urged him to keep his secret to himself. Unfortunately, she doesn’t follow her own advice, and tells her girlfriend — a corrupt NYPD cop — about Jamie’s abilities. She immediately sees how this gift could help her advance her career and make good — if illegal — money out of the deal.

Jamie gets caught in the crossfire between his mother and his mother’s girlfriend, much to his dismay. And just when things are getting dangerous, help comes from an unexpected, if reluctant, ally. Parts of the book are plain scary!

King’s ability to combine pure mystery with just enough horror to keep it interesting makes for a really readable novel. Jamie is very likable, and the reader empathizes with the pull between his desire to keep his mother safe and helping a corrupt cop with her dastardly crime. I could almost feel Jamie’s preteen angst.

I really enjoyed Later.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Rose Code

I thought I had it up to HERE reading books that take place during World War II. I’ve read about this war from the perspectives of the British, the Americans, the French, and the Italians. What more could I possibly read?

The Rose Code, by historical novelist extraordinaire Kate Quinn, offered me a new perspective on a platter — a novel about the brilliant men and (mostly) women who worked at Bletchley Park, where the people who broke German military codes supposedly shortened the war by years.

The Rose Code features three very different female protagonists. There is Osla, a rich debutante who was presented to society in front of the king and queen. She yearns, however, to leave her social status behind and be something important in the world. She is dating the handsome Prince Phillip of Greece, before he becomes smitten with Princess Elizabeth.

Mab grew up poor on the the East End of London. Her childhood was difficult. She is determined to meet and marry someone who can bring her up in the world, and believes using her brains to decode military secrets can bring her towards that end.

Beth is quiet and mousy, kept ignorant of her own brilliance by an abusive mother and a father who refuses to stand up for her. She meets the other two women who are billeted at her home, and it is through them that she is brought into Bletchley Park to find and use her brilliant mind.

The three women go on to discover the presence of a traitor, and work together to expose him to the military. While doing so, they go through their individual joys and sorrows, all leading to the book’s climax.

The author gives such a wonderful picture of what went on at Bletchley Park, both the good and the bad. Being so intelligent — and doing important work on which the balance of the war could rest — created an experience of the war that is very different than others’. Insanity can lie just on the other side of brilliance.

The Rose Code will definitely be one of my favorite books — if not my favorite — of 2021.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Sanatorium

Picture this: You’re at a fancy hotel in an isolated town located in the Swiss Alps. It starts to snow, and soon turns into a blizzard. An avalanche prevents anyone from getting in or out of the hotel. All of this sounds bleak enough, but then people start being killed.

Sound like And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie?

Well, no one can compare to Ms. Christie, but author Sarah Pearse does a darn good job of tell a chilling tale in her debut novel, The Sanatorium.

Elin is taking a break from her job as a London police detective to meet her brother and his fiance at a brand new minimalist hotel outside of the ski village of Crans-Montana, Switzerland. Her brother Isaac and his fiance Laure are celebrating their engagement. The hotel was formally a sanatorium for people with TB, but has long been vacant.

Elin and her brother Isaac have been estranged for some time because Elin blames Isaac for the drowning death of their brother. She agrees to meet them in Crans-Montana to give him a chance to explain exactly what happened. Elin’s boyfriend Will joins her.

It isn’t long before one of their party is lost while skiing, and evidence points to her being pushed off the side of the mountain. A short time later, an avalanche surrounds the area with snow and prevents anyone from coming or going, including the police. Out of necessity, Elin — using her detective experience — begins to investigate.

But then more people are killed, one by one, and it has to be one of their party who is the murderer. Could it be Isaac?

There is just the right amount of creepiness in the hotel, with its retched history, its stark decor, and the blizzard separating them from the rest of the world. Pearse’s writing is as stark and creepy as the hotel itself. The author made the reader feel the cold as well as the fear that they might be the next victim. I felt like there were a few too many side stories, and that took away from what is a great mystery.

All in all, I recommend the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Chicken Sisters

I will admit that the first thing that drew me to this book was the title. I then learned that the story was about two families who are fighting over fried chicken. Boom! I was hooked, and set out on a chicken adventure — The Chicken Sisters, by K.J. Dell’Antonia.

A small town in Kansas is the home of two fried chicken restaurants run by separate families. Both make fried chicken — one pan fries and the other deep fries. The sisters who now own the restaurants hail from the two families who have been feuding for over 100 years as to who makes the best fried chicken. is it Chicken Mimi’s or is it Chicken Frannie’s.

The feud reached the boiling point when one of the daughters — Amanda — married the son of the other family. It has reached the point where neither restaurant is making money. So Amanda reaches out to a food network that features a program — Food Wars — that pits rival restaurants against each other. The network selects the two restaurants for their program. That’s when the fun and fury begin.

At the same time that Amanda is appealing to Food Wars, her sister Mae loses her NYC television job. She doesn’t particularly care about her mother’s restaurant, but she sees Food Wars as being a stepping stone to a national career.

The competition starts out slowly, but quickly becomes, well, a war. What was once a simple rivalry becomes a mud-slinging and finger pointing disaster. Will this family be saved? Will the restaurants survive? Who will win the chicken war?

The story is mostly a light-hearted look at small town politics and the importance people place on their local restaurants. Underneath, however, there are some important messages about social media, mental illness, and the importance of families.

I enjoyed The Chicken Sisters very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Wife Upstairs

I first read Jane Eyre, By Charlotte Bronte, sometime in high school, and it has remained one of my favorite novels. It has everything a reader needs in a gothic thriller. There is a plain orphan who grows up and is hired by a handsome widower who lives in a mansion in the English countryside. You root for Jane — who runs into obstacles again and again — throughout the book. It has a happy, yet unexpected, ending.

Rachel Hawkins, author of The Wife Upstairs, gives away any surprises simply by comparing her novel to Jane Eyre, something she does in her foreward. She loved Jane Eyre just as I did. Hawkins took on the difficult task of writing a novel with a comparable storyline.

Hawkins’ Jane escapes her past by running away to Birmingham, Alabama. She barely makes a living by walking dogs in a neighborhood of made up of newly-rich 30-somethings. She subsidizes her salary by stealing their jewelry that she knows the bored housewives won’t ever miss. Jane looks at her employers with a mixture of loathing and envy.

That changes when she meets Eddie Rochester, a handsome widower whose wife died in a boating accident. The two of them hit it off, and before she can say McMansion, he has asked her to move in with him and make the house her home. But it’s hard to get past Eddie’s wife’s legacy. Bea was brilliant and beautiful and the owner and CEO of a popular line of home goods and jewelry. Still, his interest in her seems real, and, after all, he gave her free reign to use his credit card. And he has even proposed to her. She begins planning their wedding, when she discovers a big surprise.

Jane Eyre and The Wife Upstairs have similar stories. The difference, however, is that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane was a sympathetic — even loveable — character. The fiery Mr. Rochester was heartbreakingly sad and sexy. The best friends — Helen, in particular — were good women who endured tough lives.

On the other hand, Hawkins’ Jane is inherently unlikeable. Her so-called friends are shallow and back-stabbing. Even Hawkins’ Mr. Rochester is dull and uninteresting. Nevertheless, the author’s writing is very good, and the story — while predictable — still kept me interested.

I can’t enthusiastically proclaim it to be the best thriller I’ve read this year, but I would recommend it to those who like thrillers, even if it’s just to see how the Other Half lives.

Friday Book Whimsy: Better Luck Next Time

Julia Claiborne Johnson wrote one of my favorite books of all time: Be Frank With Me. My fondness for that book made it an easy decision to read Better Luck Next Time, the author’s latest novel.

It’s 1938, and it’s not as easy to get a divorce as it is nowadays. So rich women with cheating or abusive husbands came to a dude ranch in Reno, Nevada, where they spend the necessary six weeks to become a Nevada resident at which time they can easily divorce their husbands. The dude ranch — the Flying Leap — provideed women with a pleasurable experience while they waited out the six weeks. The ranch catered exclusively to these women.

Ward came to work at the ranch after his family lost all of their money in the stock market crash. He is handsome, fun, and knows how to keep a secret. And these women have lots of secrets to keep. He became particularly close to Nina — whose time at the dude ranch wasn’t her first. Nina not only befriends Ward, but also young Emily, who has left her abusive husband in San Francisco, and a teenage daughter who is taking her father’s side.

Nina teaches Emily about life, fun, and friendship. With Ward’s help, Emily experiences life in a way she never thought possible.

The author develops likeable characters with interesting lives. I was rooting for the band of women who are leaving their comfortable lives with their wealthy families and learning how to live on their own.

I enjoyed the novel very much.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie almost since I learned to read. Dame Christie helped define my taste in literature. I learned to love the mystery book genre by following the activities of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Tuppence and Tommy taught me how to work together as husband and wife to solve a murder, a skill that I shockingly haven’t had the opportunity to put to use.

And yet, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about Agatha Christie’s personal mystery. In 1926, Mrs. Christie went missing for 10 days. She drove away from her house just after lunch, and her car was discovered not far from her home. Mrs. Christie was no where to be found, and her winter coat was in the back seat, despite the frigid weather. It became a worldwide news story. She was later found at a hotel not very far from her home, and claimed she had amnesia. Though many theories were put forth, the mystery was never satisfactorily solved.

Author Marie Benedict presents her own theory in the historical novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. Ms. Benedict’s theory is as good as — and perhaps better — than any I’ve heard. And it made for a clever story.

Agatha Christie was born into a upper class family in England. In 1914, she married handsome Archie Christie after dating only a few months. In 1916, she wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Her career was off and running.

At first the marriage was a good one. She gave birth to a daughter, and the two were very happy. And then Archie became bored with marriage, jealous of her success, and began a relationship with another woman. Mrs. Christie suspected his daliance, and shortly after, she disappeared.

Just like in an Agatha Christie’s novel, Benedict’s story is carefully laid out, doling out hints and secrets like Hercule Poirot. While we all know how the story ends, it was fun to read about one person’s solution to the mystery.

I loved this novel, and recommend it to mystery readers, particularly any Agatha Christie fans. As you well know, her writing career went on for many more years.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Authenticity Project

One of my favorite books from 2020 was Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby. I reviewed it here. Based on my strong recommendation, my sister Bec read it. I asked her what she thought, and she told me, though she thought the writing was amazing, the story was too depressing for this period when life itself is difficult. Fair enough, I told her. But I went on, I have a book recommendation for you that will be perfect.

I had just finished reading The Authenticity Project, and the delightful story of friendship and, well authenticity, left me feeling good about the world. I knew it would strike the perfect cord for her and anyone else who needs cheering up during this difficult period. The Authenticity Project, by Clare Pooley, is story of unrelated people with secrets to share who find each other through a notebook,

SeptuagenarianĀ Julian Jessop is an artist who has been driven crazy from loneliness since his wife died. Even after five years, he mostly stays in his junky apartment and has pushed away all of his former friends. He is convinced that everyone is living a false life what with Instagram and Twitter and Tik Tok. So he decides to create the Authenticity Project. Using a plain lined spiral notebook, he explains that whoever finds the notebook should write the TRUE story of his or her life. He starts it off by writing about his own sadness at the loss of his wife. He drops it off in a nearby coffee shop.

Monica — the owner of the shop — finds the notebook, and decides to participate. She writes her truth, and leaves it out on a table. From there, the notebook begins its journey that ends up changing people’s lives.

The book’s premise is interesting, and the author’s characters are quirky and unforgettable. There is a drug and alcohol addict who is determined to change his life by sobering up. There is a new mother who is exhausted from caring for her baby, but paints a perfect life on Instagram. You get the picture. The notebook encourages honesty.

The Authenticity Project was a pleasant read, and left me thinking about characters in a way I normally don’t.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Our Darkest Night

There have been about 1,207,436 novels written about World War II in the past 15 years. I’ve read a lot of them, because I find that period of time interesting and tragic. Some have been bad; many have been good. I picked up Our Darkest Night because I found the plot description interesting. Moreover, while I have read many books about England and France and Germany during World War II, I haven’t read many about Italian Jews.

I will also admit that I was interested in the novel because I enjoyed author Jennifer Robson’s novel The Gown, a novel (I reviewed it here) that took place just after WWII, and gave the back story about Then-Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown. The Gown was a wonderful book, and I was optimistic about Our Darkest Night.

I wasn’t disappointed. I enjoyed the book very much.

Antonina lives with her family in Venice. It’s 1943, and as the Germans appear to be losing the war, things are getting even more difficult and frightening for Jews in Italy. In an effort to keep his daughter safe, Antonina’s father takes a drastic step to keep his daughter safe. He, with the help of a friend who is a priest, convinces Nico Gerardi, a Catholic man (who left the seminary to help care for his family’s farm,) to pose as Antonina’s new husband, and take her to the farm near a small Italian village. Antonina reluctantly agrees to this arrangement. They not only have to convince the German authorities that they are married, but they also have to convince Nico’s family, who can’t know the truth for their own safety.

The novel could have been satisfying as simply a romantic story. Robson, however, takes the reader to the dark side of the closing days of the war. It wouldn’t have been as good a novel had she not done so. It was World War II, after all. The descriptions of life in concentration camps was disturbing and terribly sad. The story paints a clear picture of the strength of family and love.

While I know the Germans were the bad guys in WWII, it would be nice if an author could resist caricatures of German soldiers. There must have been some who recognized the evil with which they were surrounded. Having said that, I was happy to see a Catholic priest presented in a positive light for a change!

I highly recommend this book, as I did The Gown.

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Friday Book Whimsy: Confessions on the 7:45

I love trains. I love fast trains, slow trains, A-trains, commuter trains, cross-country trains, Polar Express trains. You name it; I love it. My fondness for train travel leads to me liking books — particularly mystery books — set on trains. Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train, The 4:50 From Paddington.

Prior to now, I had never read a single book by Lisa Unger, a prolific mystery writer. But the title of her recent book, Confessions on the 7:45, caught my attention. I love trains and I love confessions.

Selena lives a storybook life with a great job, her handsome husband Graham, and two great kids. Except is her life a romance or a horror novel? Following a hunch, her nannycam catches her husband Graham having sex with, who else? The nanny. This fact won’t be posted on the artificial life she characterizes on social media. She’ll keep this to herself.

Except, when she gets on the 7:45 commuter train, she immediately notices an attractive woman sitting all by herself. For reasons Selena can’t explain, she’s drawn to the woman. She sits down next to her and strikes up a conversation. Before she knows it, she is confessing that her husband is having an affair with the nanny. The woman — Martha — confesses her secrets as well. And then the train ride is over, and the two go their own separate ways.

Over the next few days, Selena tries to figure out if she should give her cheating husband another chance. In the meantime, she begins getting text messages from Martha, even though Selena never gave Martha her telephone number.

The author lays out the rest of the story very well, dribbling pieces of information to the reader little by little, allowing us to try and figure the curveballs she delivers until the very end of the book. I found Unger’s writing extremely readable, and the characters satisfyingly complex and real.

While I had not read any books by Lisa Unger in the past, I will be reading her in the future.

Here is a link to the book.