Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hope: Entertainer of the Century

Author:  Richard Zoglin
Genre:  Biography

Five Stars
The first definitive biography of Bob Hope, featuring exclusive and extensive reporting that makes the persuasive case that he was most important entertainer of the twentieth century.

Born in 1903, and until his death in 2003, Bob Hope was the only entertainer to achieve top-rated success in every major mass-entertainment medium, from vaudeville to television and everything in between. He virtually invented modern stand-up comedy. His tours to entertain US troops and patriotic radio broadcasts, along with his all-American, brash-but-cowardly movie character, helped to ease the nation’s jitters during the stressful days of World War II. He helped redefine the very notion of what it means to be a star: a savvy businessman, pioneer of the brand extension (churning out books, writing a newspaper column, hosting a golf tournament), and public-spirited entertainer whose Christmas military tours and tireless work for charity set the standard for public service in Hollywood. But he became a polarizing figure during the Vietnam War, and the book sheds new light on his close relationship with President Richard Nixon during those embattled years.

Bob Hope is a household name. However, as Richard Zoglin shows in this revelatory biography, there is still much to be learned about this most public of figures, from his secret first marriage and his stint in reform school, to his indiscriminate womanizing and his ambivalent relationship with Bing Crosby and Johnny Carson. Hope could be cold, self-centered, tight with a buck, and perhaps the least introspective man in Hollywood. But he was also a dogged worker, gracious with fans, and generous with friends.

Hope is both a celebration of an entertainer whose vast contribution has never been properly appreciated, and a complex portrait of a gifted but flawed man, who, unlike many Hollywood stars, truly loved being famous, appreciated its responsibilities, and handled celebrity with extraordinary grace.
There are three people that come to mind as being for the masses, and for the ages:  John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart...and Bob Hope.  Having read the definitive John Wayne, still waiting for the Humphrey Bogart; I turned my attention to the soon-to-be-released biography Hope.  It is a volumnious work, nearly 500 pages, and the most thorough account of Bob Hope's life and career.

He was not an easy man to know; it isn't even clear whether he knew himself or not.  For it appears that Bob Hope was a creation, someone he imagined himself to be and became.  He was not a perfect human being: he took advantage of his wife, was rarely in his childrens' lives, and treated his employees with the consideration of since he was paying them, he owned them.  His worse offense was his womanizing:  of all the things he was adept at, this was one of his best.  I mean that in the sense that he was able to keep it out of the public eye for so many years that no one would have believed it.  He seemed such a consummate role model for a long and happy marriage that no one could have thought it true.  Yet it was, and went on until his own frailness deemed it impossible anymore.

Yet here was a man who gave his all for the public:  his very life.  Everything he did was for his audience, whoever they may be.  He was tireless in his efforts, doing something every minute of every day; and he expected no less from those who worked with him, calling them day and night.  He gave years of service to the Armed Services, literally hundreds of shows, many of them at Christmas, giving up his own holidays for those in uniform.

From his beginnings in vaudeville he moved to radio, with a weekly show for years, and to the movies, garnering an impressive career, many of his works still timeless today.  Simultanously working in radio and film, he moved into television, drawing some of the highest viewing records ever.  In between he managed to host an unparalleled number of Academy Award shows as host; fill charity seats and gather awards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Bob Hope is an icon for the times.  Watching his earlier movies you can see his comic timing, his expressive eyes, his play off the other actors.  His jokes were always top-notch; he knew exactly when to hit a punch line, when to wait for the laughter.  He knew how to market himself - he knew what needed to be done, how to do it, what would work best.  There will never be another like him; no one with such boundless energy, such comic timing, a sense that he belonged not to himself, but to us, the world.  Bob Hope's greatest feat (and gift to the world) was Bob Hope: the man who created himself.

In this biography,  Mr. Zoglin has gathered together all the pieces of the man and put them in one place as not only an excellent profile of Bob Hope, but the definitive one as well.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Bay Tree Preserving

Author:  Emma Macdonald
Genre:  Cookbooks

Five Stars
The Bay Tree Book of Preserving is the ultimate book on the subject, providing a one-stop resource. Everyone can enjoy the fruits of their labours with this book from the UK's foremost producer of a huge range of preserves. Whether you have foraged hedgerows, picked produce from your own vegetable garden or allotment, or searched out the best seasonal buys in the supermarket or market, this book contains a complete collection of recipes for preserving fruit and vegetables, meat or fish. Emma Macdonald gives clear and comprehensive instructions for curing, drying, pickling, bottling/canning, crystalizing and jellying; as well as recipes for all kinds of jams, jellies, pickles, chutneys, relishes, cordials, fruit liqueurs, sauces, ketchups, confits and salamis, fruit curds, cheeses and butters, and dried fruits and veggies. Every classic is covered, including: gravlax, confit chicken, candied peel, quince cheese, elderflower cordial, mint jelly, onion marmalade, rhubarb chutney, sloe gin, raspberry jam and piccalilli. There are many others, some of them centuries old, some of them modern inventions, such as Banana and Date Chutney and Grapefruit and Elderflower Marmalade. Emma also includes expert tips on troubleshooting and information on all the equipment you will need. Pick up your muslins and straining funnel and get preserving!
For anyone who enjoys canning and preserving, as I do, this book is definitely a must.  There are many tried and true recipes along with those that are new to me but sound extremely delicious.  I can't wait for autumn - I live in a part of the country where it's extremely hot - when the weather cools down and I can spend some time in the kitchen trying out these wonderful recipes.
There are many that are perfect for gifts (Christmas is just around the corner, folks!) and obviously plenty for those that like to keep things on hand.  What I especially enjoyed were the recipes for homemade cordials; and I found something unusual - types of homemade cheeses, which you don't usually see in a book on preserves.
The instructions are clear, concise and easy to follow; highly recommended for both the novice cook and the experienced.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters

Author:  Jane Dunn
Genre:  Biography

Four Stars
Celebrated novelist Daphne Du Maurier and her sisters, eclipsed by her fame, are revealed in all their surprising complexity in this riveting new biography.
The middle sister in a famous artistic dynasty, Daphne du Maurier is one of the master storytellers of our time, author of ‘Rebecca’, ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘My Cousin Rachel’, and short stories, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and the terrifying ‘The Birds’ among many. Her stories were made memorable by the iconic films they inspired, three of them classic Hitchcock chillers. But it was her sisters, writer Angela and artist Jeanne,who found the courage to defy the conventions that hampered Daphne’s emotional life.

In this group biography they are considered side by side, as they were in life, three sisters who grew up during the 20th century in the glamorous hothouse of a theatrical family dominated by a charismatic and powerful father. This family dynamic reveals the hidden world of the three sisters – Piffy, Bird & Bing, as they were known to each other – full of social non-conformity, love, rivalry and compulsive make-believe, their lives as psychologically complex as a Daphne du Maurier novel.

This is a long biography (448 pages), and it shows.  There is much detail; far more than is needed, in my opinion, hence only four stars.  While the author obviously did extensive research, she 'lost' me at times in the overlong details; forcing me to re-read several passages along the way.
Aside from that, again, the author obviously did her research.  It begins with descriptions of the life of the du Maurier parents, which I found fascinating to say the least.  While their mother Muriel was merely a figurehead (my words, not hers), it was their father Gerald who really formed their lives.  Which is not to say that their mother ignored them; quite the contrary.  She was always there to ensure that they remained 'young ladies,' at whatever cost, even going so far as to keep them from knowing the true facts of life (sexual and otherwise).  But it was their father who had the final say: in that I mean it was he who tried to keep them younger than their years; he wanted them to remain children long after they had grown to adulthood.
I mention this because it shaped their later lives.  Angela, the oldest, always considered herself inferior to her other sisters, and there were unkind remarks and the fact that she was stifled by her own mother which didn't help.  Although she wanted to eventually marry and have children, such opportunities always seemed to pass her by.
Jeanne, the youngest, remained, in my opinion, the most independent.  She seemed to have escaped most of what befell her elder sisters and was able to carry on in her own way.  Although it may have been what was best for her, she still had her own demons to face.
But it was Daphne who knew, at an early age, what she wanted.  The closest to her father, she developed some of his theatrical tendencies; yet was able to write some of the greatest literature ever.  Several of her novels have been transformed onto the Silver Screen, and I still watch them today, many years after their being filmed.
It is unfortunate, I think, that their parents should have molded their lives to such an extent that I feel they were not given their own wings to fly, but do not allow this to deter you from reading the book.  It is, indeed, a very good one; and worth it.  It gives a deep insight into the three sisters - of which I knew very little aside from that of Daphne - and a fascinating one at that, delving into their lives which hobnobbed with the illustrious persona of their day, including Laurence Olivier and J.M Barrie (author of Peter Pan).  You will find it a rich biography indeed.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Blood of an Englishman: An Agatha Raisin Mystery

Author:  M.C. Beaton
Genre:  Mystery

Four Stars
Even though Agatha Raisin loathes amateur dramatics, her friend Mrs. Bloxby, the vicar’s wife, has persuaded her to support the local pantomime. Stifling a yawn at the production of "Babes in the Woods," Agatha watches the baker playing an ogre strut and threaten on the stage, until a trapdoor opens and the Ogre disappears in an impressive puff of smoke. Only he doesn't re-appear at final curtain.

Surely this isn't the way the scene was rehearsed? When it turns out the popular baker has been murdered, Agatha puts her team of private detectives on the case. They soon discover more feuds and temperamental behavior in amateur theatrics than in a professional stage show—and face more and more danger as the team gets too close to the killer.
Agatha Raisin is back in her 25th mystery.  While it starts out a bit slow, it does not disappoint.  Agatha and Mrs. Bloxby are at an amateur theatrical, and during the show, one of the players, Bert Simple, is murdered in a most unmanly way (pun intended).  Agatha is then hired by Gareth Craven, to find the killer.  It sounds like an easy case, but of course, it is not.
For Gareth is in love with the man's widow, Gwen - and it appears, so are half the men in Winter Parva, where the murder occurred.  But as it turns out, the dead man was quite the philanderer - although no one will come right out and say it.  So it is up to Agatha and her team of detectives to find out the truth.
Which, of course, is easier said than done.  And which, of course, leads Agatha to her new obsession, a schoolteacher named John Hale.  Fancying herself in love (again) she leaves most of the detecting in the case to Toni, her beautiful assistant, but orders her to stay away from John.  However, it doesn't take Agatha long to realize that things are not adding up the way they are supposed to, and people aren't talking the way they should.  While the time drags on - it turns from winter to spring before Agatha gets a real break in the case - Agatha has her attentions turning from one man to another, and her dreams of romantic love staying close to her heart.
When the truth is finally known, I will tell you that although it wasn't expected (there are clues to the killer, but you have to look for them); the gruesome discovery isn't pleasant at all.  Let's just say I'm grateful I don't live in Winter Parva.
We have again the two men who know Agatha best: her ex-husband James drifting in and out of her life between his travels; and the delightful Sir Charles Fraith whom, I think, actually cares for Agatha more than he lets on, keeping our Aggie safe as much as he is able to.  And with his lackadasial personality and wicked sense of humor, he definitely adds oomph to the story.
This book would have rated five stars, but unfortunately, Agatha's attitude that a woman without a man "feels diminished," and the fact that she must wear high heels around them (I gave up heels years ago rather than endure constant pain in my feet later in life) is telling of her attitude toward life.  She should be comfortable in her own skin at this point; and realize that men are more attracted to women who are independent and secure in themselves (one would hope).
The above notwithstanding, a recommended read and a delightful addition to the Agatha Raisin series.  I was given a free copy in return for an honest review, but this in no way influenced my decision.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling Through Hollywood History

Author:  Mark Bailey
Illustrator:  Edward Hemingway
Genre:  Anthology/Hollywood

Five Stars
Humphrey Bogart got himself arrested for protecting his drinking buddies, who happened to be a pair of stuffed pandas.  Ava Gardner would water ski to the set of Night of the Iguana holding a towline in one hand and a cocktail in the other.  Barely legal Natalie Wood would let Dennis Hopper seduce her only if he provided a bathtub of champagne.  And sweet Mary Pickford stashed liquor in hydrogen peroxide bottles during Prohibition.
From the frontier days of silent film up to the wild auteur period of the 1970s, Mark Bailey has pillaged the vaults of Hollywood history and lore to dig up the true-and often surprising-stories of seventy of our most beloved actors, directors, and screenwriters at their most soused.
Bite-sized biographies are followed by ribald anecdotes and memorable quotes.  If a star had a favorite cocktail, the recipe is included.  Films with the most outrageous booze-soaked stories, like From Here to Eternity, The Misfits, and Apocalypse Now, are featured, along with the legendary watering holes of the day (and the recipes for their signature drinks).  Edward Hemingway's portraits complete this spirited look at America's most iconic silver-screen legends.
I wanted to read this book because I am a huge fan of the Golden Era of Hollywood.  I love movies made during that time.  Which isn't to say I don't like other movies, I just have a preference for the classic black-and-whites.
Now this book was different:  it took me longer to read than others because every so often I would find myself curious - not about the anecdotes involved, for I believe everything Mr. Bailey has written, having heard some of the stories previously.  But because being a huge classic film fan, I found myself referring to the Glorious Internet occasionally to find out other facts about certain stars (such as Rita Hayworth's ex-husband Dick Haymes.  When he was referred to as "Mr. Evil," I naturally wanted to know why.)  And, of course, that led to looking at facts about his other ex-wives, etc., etc...
Back to the book: I knew the stars drank, I just didn't realize so much.  Who travels with a suitcase full of liquor, for Heaven's sake?  Included in the stories are the mean drunks, the happy drunks, and the totally oblivious drunks - those who can't remember anything from the night before.  Many of the stories are humorous, others are downright sad.  But when Hollywood was young, liquor was the choice stimulant, although it has transitioned from booze to drugs, I think (not that one is any better than the other, mind you).
I have learned a little about the personal habits of many of the stars, and noted that in quite a few cases they died young, probably due to their habits, which is unfortunate. But in the end, this is indeed an interesting book and recommended for anyone who is interested - like myself - in old Hollywood and what it used to be.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mission to Murder

Author:  Lynn Cahoon
Genre:  Mystery

Five Stars

In the California coastal town of South Cove, history is one of its many tourist attractions—until it becomes deadly…
Jill Gardner, proprietor of Coffee, Books, and More, has discovered that the old stone wall on her property might be a centuries-old mission worthy of being declared a landmark. But Craig Morgan, the obnoxious owner of South Cove’s most popular tourist spot, The Castle, makes it his business to contest her claim. When Morgan is found murdered at The Castle shortly after a heated argument with Jill, even her detective boyfriend has to ask her for an alibi. Jill decides she must find the real murderer to clear her name. But when the killer comes for her, she’ll need to jump from historic preservation to self-preservation.


Jill Gardner, owner of Coffee, Books, and More, is having a problem.  It appears that her newly-discovered mission wall may be fake.  Craig Morgan, owner of The Castle, a popular tourist stop, has declared that the real mission used to stand in the exact spot of where city hall is.  He says he has proof, and even the mayor is on his side.

Shortly after a very public fight with Craig regarding funding and the wall, he is found murdered on the grounds of the castle.  Since there were two, not one, public fights, she is again at the head of the suspect list of murdering him.  But she knows she's not guilty, and so does Greg King, her police detective boyfriend.  The problem lies with having to find out who the real killer is.

This book was so enjoyable I didn't put it down until I was finished.  The plot was interesting, as were the subplots: her friend Amy's relationship with boyfriend Hank; her Aunt Jackie's wannabe suitor; and handsome officer Troy's 'female following'.  They alone were worth reading the book.  It's nice to read a mystery that doesn't completely focus on the main character all the time, but it was also nice to watch the relationship between Jill and Greg move on, albeit ever so slowly.

Even while following the clues, I still had no idea who the murderer was.  There wasn't anything really solid pointing to that fact, and only a tiny hint of a possibility.  This is a good thing.  I really dislike it when I've figured out the murderer shortly after the deed is done, as it were; but there is no chance with this; it was definitely written so that you don't discover it too soon.  And when the pieces fell into place, what a nice little puzzle it turned out to be.  Highly recommended.

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson

Author:  S. C. Gwynne
Genre:  Biography, History, the Civil War

Five Stars

Stonewall Jackson has long been a figure of legend and romance. As much as any person in the Confederate pantheon, even Robert E. Lee, he embodies the romantic Southern notion of the virtuous lost cause. Jackson is also considered, without argument, one of our country’s greatest military figures. His brilliance at the art of war tied Abraham Lincoln and the Union high command in knots and threatened the ultimate success of the Union armies. Jackson’s strategic innovations shattered the conventional wisdom of how war was waged; he was so far ahead of his time that his techniques would be studied generations into the future.

In April 1862 Jackson was merely another Confederate general in an army fighting what seemed to be a losing cause. By June he had engineered perhaps the greatest military campaign in American history and was one of the most famous men in the Western world. He had, moreover, given the Confederate cause what it had recently lacked—hope—and struck fear into the hearts of the Union.

Rebel Yell is written with the swiftly vivid narrative that is Gwynne’s hallmark and is rich with battle lore, biographical detail, and intense conflict between historical figures. Gwynne delves deep into Jackson’s private life, including the loss of his young beloved first wife and his regimented personal habits. It traces Jackson’s brilliant twenty-four-month career in the Civil War, the period that encompasses his rise from obscurity to fame and legend; his stunning effect on the course of the war itself; and his tragic death; which caused both North and South to grieve the loss of a remarkable American hero.


First off, let me say that I absolutely love anything and everything to do with The Civil War (even going so far as to marrying a man who grew up outside Gettysburg).  That said, I was excited to read this book, and I must say that I was not disappointed.

This is truly an exceptional book about an exceptional human being.  Mr. Gwynne does an excellent job of detailing not only the life of General Jackson, but also the lives of the people around him; the events that shaped his life; and the events of this sad, but necessary, war.

I did not know the sad circumstances surrounding General Jackson's early life: his father passing when he was but a child, his mother's remarriage and subsequent death, and his being "farmed out" to relatives.  He was at least lucky enough to be welcomed into a family that truly loved him.  He had an early marriage to Ellen, which ended abruptly when she died after giving birth to a stillborn son; but he was fortunate enough to find love again and from all appearances and letters which have survived to this day, they truly loved one another, eventually having a daughter, Julia - of which the general was indeed fond.

He was a professor of physics at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), from which he left to continue his military career; and extremely religious, which he carried with him in his day-to-day life: when his first wife Ellen passed away, he was comforted in the knowledge that she was with God, but it did not, in turn, keep him from deep grief.  Yet he never let his beliefs keep him from what he thought was his military duty: he was a stern officer and rigorous commander, unpredictable; yet at the same time, he could be extremely caring toward his men.  He was thoughtful, kind, tender and sensitive toward his family and friends; and while he kept to himself, he also was a loving and gentle husband when he was with Anna (his second wife).  He believed himself ill quite often, keeping to a rigorous diet of stale bread and water, very little meat; never even to have been known to drink tea or coffee.

It is a testament to Jackson that when he was mortally wounded his troops refused to leave him behind.  He was hit three times, and when the battle was still raging, his aide covered Jackson with his own body to protect him.  It could not, however, save him.  His wife was sent for, and on May 10, 1863, the country lost one of the greatest generals that ever lived.

The descriptions of campaigns and troop movements are done beautifully; Mr. Gwynne has definitely given us images of what once occurred during those dark times, and the lives that were lost; the well-known battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, and his unfortunate death.  Southern general he was, but a brilliant one nevertheless.  Had he lived, there might have been more deaths for the northern fighters.  He was widely known due to his exceptional performance at the Valley Campaign.

I have always been fascinated with General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson; not only for his prowess in battle, but for the man he was, his clear eyes showing everything.  I am a firm believer that the eyes truly are the windows to the soul; and his reveal everything that has been shown here in this narrative.  I do not know what more I can say except to stress that this book is indeed worth reading.  Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the Civil War and/or its commanders.


Author:  Kristi Cook
Genre:  Fiction

Five Stars

In Magnolia Branch, Mississippi, the Cafferty and Marsden families are southern royalty.

Neighbors since the Civil War, the families have shared vacations, holidays, backyard barbeques, and the overwhelming desire to unite their two clans by marriage.  So when a baby boy and girl were born to the families at the same time, the perfect opportunity seemed to have finally arrived.

Jemma Cafferty and Ryder Marsden have no intention of giving in to their parents' wishes.  They're only seventeen, for goodness' sake, not to mention that one little problem: They hate each otherJemma can't stand Ryder's nauseating golden-boy persona, and Ryder would like nothing better than to pretend stubborn Jemma doesn't exist.

But when a violent Mississippi storm ravages Magnolia Branch, it unearths Jemma's and Ryder's true feelings for each other as the two discover that the line between love and hate may be thin enough to risk crossing over.


Jemma and Ryder have their whole lives planned out for them.  By their parents.  Because of something that happened during the civil war, their families were forever united; but never in wedlock.  Since these were the first two of any generation that were the same age, their parents have decided that they will finally unite the both.

Unfortunately, both Jemma and Ryder have other ideas.  She can't stand him, and thinks he's stuck up.  He has no idea why she hates him, but ignores her because of it.  Then things start to get even more confusing.  Jemma's sister Nan has a brain tumor and must be operated on immediately.  So Jemma's father and mother, along with Ryder's mother, Laura Grace (who is a registered nurse) take Nan to Houston for immediate surgery.  Ryder's father, an attorney, is out of town on a big case, leaving Ryder alone.

And when a tornado and hurricane threatens Magnolia Branch, everyone decides the only thing to do is have Ryder stay with Jemma and weather it out.  Jemma, who is resourceful herself, has already stocked a small cellar room with everything they might need.  And in the space of a couple of days, these two will learn things about each other, and the truth of what is behind their feelings for each other.

Finding their way around the fact that Jemma has recently dated one of Ryder's friends; the worry for their homes and their families; the tragedy of a loss; deep personal secrets and pains; and the discovery that what they really wanted all along was right in front of them the entire time, help to show Jemma and Ryder that what is really important in life may not be so far off after all.

This book was a delight to read, and while it isn't filled with any life-changing events, it is indeed a recommended book for anyone who enjoys reading about life and people and the events that shape us into who we are.

Let's Get Lost

Author:  Adi Alsaid
Genre:  Young Adult/Fiction

Five Stars

Four teens across the country have only one thing in common:  a girl named Leila.  She crashes into their lives in her absurdly red car at the moment they need someone the most.

There's Hudson, a small-town mechanic who is willing to throw away his dreams for true love.  And Bree, a runaway who seizes every Tuesday-and a few stolen goods along the way.

Elliot believes in happy endings...until his own life goes off-script.  And Sonia worries that when she lost her boyfriend, she also lost the ability to love.

Hudson, Bree, Elliot and Sonia find a friend in Leila.  And when Leila leaves them, their lives are forever changed.  But it is during Leila's own 4,268-mile journey that she discovers the most important truth-sometimes, what you need most is right where you started.  And maybe the only way to find what you're looking for is to get lost along the way.

A novel told in five parts, Let's Get Lost is a bittersweet debut about love, loss and finding your way back home.


Leila shows up at the garage belonging to Hudson's father.  Hudson is a mechanic there, sees Leila, and immediately falls in love with the girl with long black hair and green eyes.  While fixing her car, he convinces her to allow him to show her "treasures" in the town.  Hudson soon discovers that Leila is on a journey to see the Northern Lights before she goes back to school.  For his part, he has an interview the next day with the dean of "Ole Miss," one that could get him a full scholarship, since he can't afford college otherwise.  The evening they spend together is one that makes him see the world in an entirely different view.  However, when they part the next day things are said that cannot be unsaid, and Leila continues on her journey...

Where she meets Bree, and the story is told through her eyes...each part of Leila's journey is told through the eyes of the others, until the last is told through hers.  Bree has left home after too much fighting with her sister, who was raising her.  Elliot (my favorite story) is pining for the girl he has loved all his life.  Sonia is pining for the love she lost, and the new one found.

The last part of the story is told by Leila, and we find out the true reason she is on this journey:  It is not a whim, it is a need born of despair and hope.  We do not find out until then why she is where she is, only that she has touched these people and, in her own unique way, helped them along their own journeys in life.

I read this book in the space of a day (and it's not a short book 352 pages), but it was so enthralling and interesting that I felt I could do no less.  Leila's story is bittersweet, in the fact that she finally accepts the things that have happened, even if she doesn't understand the reasons.  It is a book not so much about travel, but about the journey of life and what brings us to where we are.  I wish I could say more about this book, but to do so would spoil it for others, so all I will say is that I absolutely loved this book and it is highly recommended for everyone.

Death of a Crabby Cook

Author:  Penny Pike
Genre:  Mystery

Five Stars

When restaurant reviewer Darcy Burnett gets served a pink slip from the San Francisco Chronicle, she needs to come up with an alternative recipe for success quickly.  Her feisty aunt Abby owns a tricked-out school bus, which she's converted into a hip and happening food ruck, and Darcy comes aboard as a part-timer while she develops a cookbook project based on recipes from food fests in the Bay Area.

But she soon finds someone's trafficking in character assassination-literally-when a local chef turns up dead and her aunt is framed for the murder.  The restaurant chef was an outspoken enemy of food trucks, and now Darcy wonders if one of the other vendors did him in.  With her aunt's business-and freedom-on the line, it's up to Darcy to steer the murder investigation in the right direction and put the brakes on an out-of-control killer...


Darcy Burnett loses her job at the Chronicle due to downsizing.  Her ex-boss, however, throws her a bone in the fact that he tells her he will be offering her freelance positions occasionally, and the first one is the San Francisco Crab and Seafood Festival, which includes the food trucks.  Since her aunt is owner of one of them, serving up comfort food, Darcy is reluctantly helping her aunt out during the festival.  Reluctantly, because although Darcy was a food critic, she can't cook.  She can't even boil water.

While arriving at her aunt's truck, she sees her arguing with a local brick-and-mortar business owner about who has a right to be where.  Her aunt is carrying a large kitchen knife, and is observed by most of the other truck owners.  After convincing Abby to calm down, she finds out that Oliver, the business owner, had threatened Abby.   So, when Oliver later turns up dead, Abby is front and central on the police radar.

While trying to clear her aunt, Darcy figures it must have been another food truck owner, so she begins questioning them - Willow, the Coffee Witch, Sierra and Vandy, the vegan truck owners, etc., and most important - Jake Miller, owner of Dream Puffs.  Jake makes cream puffs to die for, and it doesn't hurt that he's gorgeous, either.  As a matter of fact, Darcy has gained five pounds trying to get to know him (her words, not mine).

But when there is another murder, and this time it's a food truck owner, now there are two murders to solve, and the heat is not only on Abby, but also on her son Dillon, who is a computer geek and has taken to hiding and outlandish disguises to keep under the radar.

This book is fun, fresh, and different.  I've never read a mystery with food trucks, (or 'roach coaches' if you will) as the focal point.  It's something that doesn't immediately come to mind when you think cozy mystery.  Or any mystery, for that matter.  But it's written well and makes perfect sense as the story progresses.  And when the killer is finally revealed, I must say that all the red herrings pointed in a different direction (at least until Darcy started putting everything together).  And that, for me, is the sign of a good mystery.  Highly recommended.

Murder in the Mystery Suite

Author:  Ellery Adams
Genre:  Mystery

Three Stars

Tucked away in the rolling hills of rural western Virginia is the storybook resort of Storyton Hall, catering to book lovers who want to get away from it all.  To increase her number of bookings, manager Jane Steward has decided to host a Murder and Mayhem Week so that fans of the mystery genre can gather together for some role-playing and fantasy crime-solving.

When the winner of the scavenger hunt, Felix Hampden, is found dead in the Mystery Suite, and the valuable book he won as his prize is missing, Jane realizes one of her guests is an actual murderer.  Amid a house full of fake detectives, Jane is bound and determined to find a real-life killer.  There's no room for error as Jane tries to  unlock this mystery before another vacancy opens up...


Before I tell you anything about this book, I have to tell you that to read it you must suspend all belief - and that's not a good thing.

Jane Steward is manager of Storyton Hall, and niece of the owners, Octavia and Aloysius Steward.  Storyton Hall is a retreat of sorts, a giant library that caters to its guests.  Guests may bring electronic equipment, but they may not use them.  They must be left in their room.  They are there to read and relax.  They are not even allowed to use e-readers.  There is, however, plenty to do outside if you choose not to read.  And they have wonderful food, from what I gather.

The book begins with Jane venturing to the village to pick up supplies.  She sees a young woman race by on a horse that is out of control.  Chasing her is a man on another horse, and when he finally reaches her and is able to stop the horse, it is too late.  She has apparently died from fright.  (More on this later, since you learn nothing else right away).

In order to bring more revenue into Storyton Hall, Jane decides to host a Murder and Mayhem Week, where people will attend dressed as their favorite literary detective, whether it be Nick and Nora, Miss Marple, or even Sherlock Holmes.  When one guest arrives in character - and refuses to answer to any other name - as Umberto Ferrari, a detective written by Adela Dundee (both fictional, for those who would like to know), he stays in character.  And when there is a scavenger hunt where the prize is a first edition Adela Dundee, he wins - but only by cheating because he got Jane's twin six-year-old sons to help him.  Which I guess is alright with Jane, because she knows they're "helping" people and collecting 'tip' money for it.  (Not very cricket, as they say, for those who chose to look for clues on their own, is it?)

When Mr. Ferrari, or Felix Hampden as he was in reality, is found murdered, Jane is stunned.  But not too stunned to ignore the local sheriff when he tells her to stay out of the crime scene.  She goes in anyway, telling him she 'has an obligation to her guests to keep them safe.'  Which, of course, couldn't have waited until the sheriff gave her the go-ahead.  In reality, she'd probably be reprimanded or arrested for that kind of behavior.  This sheriff just shrugs it off.

Now the dead woman comes into play - it turns out her Aunt Octavia had a minor stroke.  And I mean minor, because the day afterward, she is sitting up in bed barking at everyone, with apparently no damage at all except the nurse tells her she might have a little trouble with her balance and need to use her cane.  Hmmmm....anyway, Octavia apparently gave Jane the wrong first edition; this one had an envelope with a letter to Adela Dundee and the other one didn't.  So she asks Jane to get it back.  When Jane asks her what is in the letter, Octavia tells her she doesn't know, she has never opened it, since it was addressed to the deceased author.  Another hmmm...readers are notoriously curious - she didn't open the letter but didn't forward it to any heirs either?  And it turns out the dead woman was aware of the letter and searching for it, along with others who are attending the Murder Week.

Okay, the basis for the book is good.  But it's downright silly.  First, her six-year-olds are telling her they're late for school and have already missed "first period."  They're in grade school.  There are no periods.  They're probably only in first grade.

Secondly, when her aunt and uncle tell her they want her to become "the guardian of the books," she discovers that it means that there are not just any books, but a secret room that has vacuum-sealed chests of rare books and is soundproof, bulletproof and fireproof.  These are rare manuscripts - the finished copy of Edwin Drood, three unpublished Shakepeares, etc.  So, everyone knows about the Lost Letters of Adela Dundee but no one knows about the rest?  And, the people that work with her (her librarian, chauffeur, butler, etc.) are specially trained agents (they worked for the CIA, Navy Seal, Her Majesty's Secret Service - to protect - priceless books. Books that supposedly no one else in the world except thieves know about; and I say this because why would any historian just turn manuscripts, etc., over to them and no one knows about it. I had a hard time believing that whoever discovered these items would just turn them over to the Stewards and figure that they could take the responsibility for them (if we're suspending belief, we must ask questions like this). 

And here's the good point:  She now has to train to "protect" the books.  You know, martial arts and such.  She needs to know archery, how to juggle daggers (!), fencing, etc.  Is she planning on frightening thieves by showing them she can hit a target at 300 feet?  (Besides, who walks around with a bow and quiver full of arrows).  Teaching her to use a gun would have been more believable.  The kicker is that she now must get a tattoo as the new keeper of the books., later on she mentions that "books aren't worth killing for," yet isn't that what she's training to do?  Kill to protect her books?

Be that as it may, the story flowed smoothly and the dead woman tied in nicely with the mystery.  It was well-written and I liked most of the characters, but would have liked to have known more about Edwin, the brother of her friend Eloise.

In the end, I would have really liked to have given it more stars, but it began to become a little far-fetched with the martial arts and tattoo thing (and I'm not against tattoos, just so you know, I have one myself).  However, I am sure others may like this better than I did, so give it a chance if you're a fan of Ellery Adams.

Joe and Marilyn: Legends in Love

Author:  C. David Heymann
Genre:  Biography

One Star

Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe's elopement in January 1954 caused a sensation unlike any the American public had ever seen.  Joe and Marilyn reveals the true inside story of these iconic figures whose love affair (and ensuing scandals) became Hollywood legend.  Though their marriage lasted only nine months, they remained devoted to each other, even after death:  DiMaggio had a half-dozen red roses delivered three times a week to her crypt for twenty years.

Based on extensive archival research and personal interviews with Monroe and DiMaggio's family and friends, Joe and Marilyn offers great insight into a famously tragic romance.  In an intimate, sensitive, shocking, and richly detailed look at two of America's biggest stars, Heymann delivers the expertise and passion for his subjects that his many fans are hungry for and pens an unforgettable love story for the ages.


Let me first tell you that I love biographies.  It doesn't matter if they're movie stars or war veterans; politicians or animals.  I read them like I read any other book, but with a catch:  in a novel, you expect to connect to the characters somehow, to try and like them or at least be willing to spend a few hours of your time with them (or however long it takes to read the book).  With biographies, you expect to learn about the person; their likes and dislikes, their manner, their thoughts, ideas, and how they lived their lives.  Well, I did learn how Ms. Monroe and Mr. DiMaggio lived their lives.  But it wasn't exactly what I was expecting.

The keyword here from the blurb is "scandals".  The way Mr. Heymann portrays Ms. Monroe is as follows:  A nymphomanic who liked to walk around in the nude and would sleep with anything that wore pants.  (Mr. DiMaggio doesn't fare any better; we are told - but very few examples are given - that he would sleep with any woman who came near him).  In fact, according to this "biography" that's all they did - sleep with each other and anyone else who crossed their paths.  From the way Mr. Heyman describes it, I am sure their marriage didn't survive not because their personalities were so different, but the fact that they couldn't stay faithful to each other (which may or may not even be true).

Nearly everything the author tells us I already knew:  Marilyn's childhood, teenage years, first marriage, the heavy drug use, the Kennedy years, etc.  The only new stuff was the numerous - nay, constant affairs she was having.  It reads as if she were having so many affairs, she wasn't tired from the work she was doing while in Hollywood; all her energy was sapped from having to sleep with so many people.  She slept not only her way through Hollywood, she slept with people right through all her marriages, and it didn't matter who it was.  The author excuses it by stating that 'Marilyn looked as sex as the only thing she had to give to men, so she gave it.' 

What is said of Joe is a little about his first marriage, how badly he treated his wife  and about his horrendous temper and jealousy of any man who looked at Marilyn.  He is portrayed as a man with a terrible temper who disliked the limelight and could not understand Marilyn's desire for a career and to be photographed constantly.  Joe's son from his first marriage, Joe DiMaggio, Jr. also figures heavily in this book, as Marilyn's relationship with him never wavered, even after she divorced his father.  It was a stability in his life that he longed for and appreciated.

I will not spoil the book for others by stating exactly what drove the relationship between Joe and Marilyn.  Suffice it to say that they both loved each other until the day they (respectively) died. I was, however, disappointed to find that this was not truly the love story between Joe and Marilyn; what it was, at least to me, was more about Marilyn's sex life.

Unless you're a baseball fan, you will probably find new and interesting information on Joe Dimaggio, the Yankee Clipper.  For myself, I already knew.  I grew up in a household with a brother who can recite every baseball stat from every year, so I know what a great player he was.  

This book isn't the love story I thought it would be.  It is more of a character analysis - and not a good one - of both Marilyn and Joe.  It's an interesting fact that you can't libel the dead.  Because I feel that they have both been mistreated here.  What could have been a wonderful book about two people who loved each other turned into something else entirely.

There are photos, but only one of Joe and Marilyn together, so if you're expecting more, you won't see it here.  That could be due to Joe's dislike of the press, however.  I've read things in the past written by Marilyn herself which reads nothing like this tripe.  At the last as I see it (and this is just my opinion), is that practically every other page has something about Marilyn's sexploits on it, (it appears the author took 'sex sells' to the nth degree) and they read like a tabloid. Unfortunately, it was not for me.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living

Author: Paul Collins
Genre:  Biography

Five Stars

Looming large in the popular imagination as a serious poet and lively drunk who died in penury, Edgar Allan Poe was also the most celebrated and notorious writer of his day. He died broke and alone at the age of forty, but not before he had written some of the greatest works in the English language, from the chilling “The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—the first modern detective story—to the iconic poem “The Raven.”
Poe’s life was one of unremitting hardship. His father abandoned the family, and his mother died when he was three. Poe was thrown out of West Point, and married his beloved thirteen-year-old cousin, who died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. He was so poor that he burned furniture to stay warm. He was a scourge to other poets, but more so to himself.

In the hands of Paul Collins, one of our liveliest historians, this mysteriously conflicted figure emerges as a genius both driven and undone by his artistic ambitions. Collins illuminates Poe’s huge successes and greatest flop (a 143-page prose poem titled Eureka), and even tracks down what may be Poe’s first published fiction, long hidden under an enigmatic byline. Clear-eyed and sympathetic, Edgar Allan Poe is a spellbinding story about the man once hailed as “the Shakespeare of America".


Okay, let's first say that I'm probably prejudiced in the fact that I own all of Poe's works:  not once, but twice - having bought them for myself and then again been given as a gift from my darling mother-in-law.  I am such a fan of his, in fact, that on a recent trip back east I insisted on traveling to Baltimore for the main purpose of visiting his grave.

That being said, I will acknowledge that this is not an intense biography; it does not run hundreds of pages.  But what it does cover are intense periods of Poe's life; his early life with his parents, his living with a stepfamily (he was never formally adopted) and the strained relationship with his stepfather; his marriage to Virginia; and his untimely death at the age of forty.

It covers a vast amount of his youth and the events and people that shaped him into the person he was.  While only four, he went to live with the Allans, while his older brother and younger sister were also adopted out to others.  Though the Allans were rich; he did not have a warm relationship with his stepfather once he grew older; it seemed that more was expected of him than he was able to give.  Their personalities were too different - John Allan was a businessman; Edgar was a dreamer.  He began writing poetry at an early age, and this was so well-received that he continued to do so throughout his life.  Unfortunately, it permanently removed him from any deep rapport he might have had with Allan.  It seemed Edgar was too much like his father - theatrical, and a dreamer.

While he did try working at regular jobs, none of them seemed to ever work out.  And every time he attempted to work at newspapers, his criticism of fellow writers caused problems.  But none of this ever seemed to bother him, and he plodded on.  In fact, the only real thing that ever mattered to him was his wife, Virginia; who was his cousin and who he married when she was but thirteen and he was twenty-seven.  (Before you think that this is a terrible thing you must remember that it was common back then - plus, it has been noted that Edgar waited years before consummating the marriage.  His reasons for marrying her so young are more than this, but I will not go into them here).  Yet there is no doubt that she remained the Great Love of His Life once and forever.  There is also no doubt that she loved him as much as he loved her.

Although it was true that he was an alcoholic, he did have periods where he didn't drink and produced some wonderful works, among them The Raven - arguably his most famous work.  So famous that it was satirized by many, yet today remains the definitive work of Poe.  His stories have even been turned into film - Murders in the Rue Morgue remaining a timeless classic.

While I knew much about Poe to begin with - chief among them that he was a genius well ahead of his time - still Mr. Collins offers others, including the fact that he inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  He was friends - and sometimes enemies - with authors such as Longfellow and Dickens.

Perhaps we will never know the truth of Edgar Allan Poe and who he was.  Perhaps it is better if we do not.  But, as Mr. Collins states, in Poe, there was definitely The Fever Called Living.  The end result is that this biography, while short, is well-written and well-researched.  It 'cuts to the chase', as it were and gives us an essential knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe, not only the writer, but the man; and, if it can be said, what drove him to be the person he was.

Tragic Toppings (A Donut Shop Mystery #5)

Author:  Jessica Beck Genre:   Mystery Mass Market Paperback; Digital Book ISBN #:  9780312541095 Minotaur Books 290 Pages [Various Prices];...