Friday, February 18, 2011

Finding Books

A reader today left a comment asking how do I pick out the books I decide to read. That is such a good question I think it deserves its own post.

I have dozens of sources for promising titles and I am always on the lookout for more. I am not usually a fan of traditional best sellers, so I have a lot of different places where I look for books that pique my interest. I am pretty picky and, I will admit, pretty snobby about what I read. My taste runs to good stories with some kind a twist, especially English mysteries, and they have to be artfully written. I also love biographies, memoirs and history.  It is fun to read older books, written in the 20's, 30's and 40's.  I love that time period and I feel reading those books is a window into that time.

The Best of All    

My absolute favorite and prime source for finding great books is the New York Times Book Review,  which I have been reading practically since I was old enough to read. I do not remember who first showed me the section, someone had to have, I don’t think I was independently reading the Times when I was seven, but every week there were at least two pages of reviews of children’s books that I poured over. When I was old enough to write them down and make lists, I would note the ones that appealed to me and take it on my next visit to the library. Of course, most of them were so new the library didn’t have them yet, so I would just bide my time.

Twice a year, in the Spring and in the Fall, I would wait for the thick, special edition of the Book Review that featured children’s books. All those gorgeously illustrated picture books, all those promising new stories! That always resulted in a long list.

I still get excited by the Book Review. I know, it’s sad. But every issue holds at least one book that I know I want to read and usually there is more. A new book! What could be more exciting!

Other sources for ideas and good books:

• I have read many books after they have been dramatized, such as Poldark and The Jewel in the Crown. I really like to read the original book when I’ve seen a good movie.

• If I like an author I always look for other books by them. Sometimes I am disappointed, but most of the time I am not. I have read everything by Winston Graham, for example, the author of the Poldark series. He wrote many other novels, not all historical, he is simply a great story teller and a wonderful writer.

• Friends are a good source of recommendations too. Most of the time you have enough in common with your friends that your taste in reading is similar. Often that is how I have met my friends, who were mere acquaintances until we discover we loved the same writers.

• These days, Amazon is a way of exploring new titles, although I take their reviews with a grain of salt. But I have found some interesting books there.

• Since I like mysteries, I look for new titles on sites that review mysteries, such as and Those are really great sites.

• Just browsing in the bookstore and library is also where I have found books I have really liked. First it is the art work that catches my eye, then the title and then the blurb describing the book itself.

Those are just a few thoughts, but the Book Review definitely is the top resource.

Thanks for a great question, Cube!

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Some Recent Reads

I have read more than I realized lately. Here are a few from the past month.

Half Broken Things
Morag Joss

Sad, sympathetic characters intersect in this story that builds suspense from the first page and you realize right away this is not going to end well. Yet you keep hoping for the best, because the protagonists are so hapless and wounded.

A middle aged woman who has spent most of her adult life house sitting with an impeccable history is on her last assignment, a luxurious country house in the English countryside. She is rapidly unraveling and the story builds as two others join her in a fantasy life. I could definitely see Judi Dench in a movie version.

The Distant Hours
Kate Morten

Kate Morten’s previous two books were great reads, really imaginative stories and well written. I found the formula is getting tired in this book about an eccentric writer, his three daughters and a mysterious connection with a modern day book editor. It starts out promising, but gets confusing before too long and leaves too many unanswered questions. She is a very good writer though and there are sections that could stand alone, but felt like they belonged in another book. Disappointing.

Her other two, much better:

In the Shadow of Gotham
Stephanie Pintoff

This was a nice little mystery by a first time author, a bit farfetched but creative. Set at the turn of the last century, this, the first in a series, tells of a murder that takes place in a suburb of New York City. The main character is a police detective who spends most of his time investigating in New York. The author adds nice period detail but the story line is a bit thin and predictable.

The Kind One
Tom Epperson

I really liked this book, set in 1930’s LA. It reminded me of James Elroy’s books and it is pretty violent, but the story is original and the characters memorable.

It tells the story of a Danny Landon, recently out of the hospital, who works for a vicious gangster, very ironically nicknamed The Kind One. Danny has amnesia from a head injury and is an extremely reluctant criminal, which contradicts stories he has heard about his own brutal past. He lives in a quintessential California apartment court and becomes involved particularly with two of the other residents, an ex-pat Englishman and a neglected little girl.

The ending is a little improbable and wild, but over-all it is an entertaining read. A movie version starring Casey Afflek and directed by Ridley Scott is due to be released next year.

The Girl She Used to Be
David Cristofano

An utter fantasy that could only have been written by a man, but a fun read nonetheless.

Six year old Melody Grace McCartney’s craving for a special treat led her family to witness a mob killing. In return for their testimony (which does NOT result in the mobster’s conviction), the family goes into the witness protection program. Melody’s teenage rebellion and disclosure of the truth causes her parent’s deaths and now, at 26, she is still in the witness protection program, riddled with guilt.

Enter Jonathan Bovaro, son of the murdering mobster. He tracks her down, obstensibly to kill her for his family, but it seems he has fallen in love with her. She soon returns his feelings and most of the book revolves around discussions of guilt, personal identity, resolution and family ties.

Believe it or not, the overall tone of the book is light hearted, despite the subject matter. The ending was creative and surprised me. This is a quick, entertaining diversion.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

When There is More Than One...

Finding a great, well written story is always a treat. But when it is part of a series, when you know there is more to come, that just adds to the pleasure. Here are a few of my favorites.


I got hooked on Poldark after about five seconds of Robin Ellis’ smoldering performance on Masterpiece Theater. That was in 1978. I started reading the series written by Winston Graham and I plowed through them with glee.

Alistair Cooke, the host for so many years, later said Poldark was not one of his favorites in the Masterpiece Theater series, that it was too much of a soap opera. With all due respect to Alistair, I couldn’t disagree more. It is a melodramatic story in many ways. But the characters are true to life, full of flaws and bad decisions, good deeds and altruism when you least expect it. They experience grievous losses and hilarious escapades. In other words, nothing is black and white, just like real life.

There are twelve novels altogether, covering a time period from 1783 to 1820. The stories take place mostly in Cornwall, England and revolve around the Poldark family, with elements of the politics and social standards of the times thrown in. In the first novel, Ross Poldark has fought in the Revolutionary War in America and returned to find his home in shambles and his fiancée about to marry his cousin (she does, too!).

He sets about rebuilding his life, restoring his family fortune and finding love himself. Subsequent books chronicle the lives of the people around him including his wife, his children and even his archenemy. I re-read the series every few years. They are wonderfully written and fun to get lost in. I always find something I had forgotten or rediscover a terrifically wrought phrase. Winston Graham died in 2003, so I treasure what he left to us.


The Jewel in the Crown was another Masterpiece Theater series that was so wonderful it was a gift to discover there were four novels behind it. Four! Yippee!

The TV series began in December of 1984 and was absolutely beautiful in the way it unfolded. It is a heartbreaking story of love and jealousy and revenge on the eve of India’s independence from England. It was based on the novels by Paul Scott, an Englishman who was stationed in India through World War II and the subsequent partition of India and Pakistan. He fell in love with the Jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown and wrote several novels with India as the setting. The Raj Quartet was not initially well received but has since gained popularity and respect as a work that tells a lush saga intertwined with history and a complicated, beautiful, mysterious country.

The four novels that make up the Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown (1966), The Day of the Scorpion (1968), The Towers of Silence (1971) and A Division of the Spoils (1975), loop from the 1940’s to the 1960’s and back to the turn of the century. The narrative encompasses dozens of characters, each memorable in their own way as part of plot, but also because they are so rich and well developed. Their stories are absorbing and tragic. This series will make you want to hock everything and go to India to explore it’s magnificent geography and turbulent history. It is well worth reading for so many reasons.

If you are interested in any of these books, there are links below to Amazon.

There are other great series out there that I'll share in upcoming posts.

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