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Archive for July, 2013

I read in last week’s Economist about “a retired civil engineer” in India, Chewang Norphel, who has “built a dozen artificial glaciers.” Natural glaciers there are disappearing or receding, so they no longer provide annual melt water farmers relied on in spring. The report notes that glaciologists (a cool job title, I think) might quibble that what Mr. Norphel is making is not technically a glacier. But it’s still very good work, well received by those it impacts.

Which brings me to the book I read this week, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Until two weeks ago it was touted as a debut detective novel by Robert Galbraith. A very good debut, although not a very big seller. Now of course the world knows that J.K. Rowling wrote it, so it’s not technically a debut. But it’s still very good work, and even before its famous author was outed, well received.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bookconscious regulars know I’ve been on a bit of a spy/detective kick lately. Also Teen the Younger got me into watching Elementary, with Lucy Liu as our favorite Watson ever. The Cuckoo’s Calling introduces the detecting duo of Cormoran Strike, a former Army Special Investigator, and Robin Ellacott, who temps in his office, fulfilling her secret girlhood dream of solving mysteries. I loved them both and could see them as I read. I think they’re a good team — not as funny as Sherlock and Watson, but complementary.

The story is also very good, with lots of social commentary woven wittily and seamlessly into the story, à la Jane Austen (or perhaps Jonathan Franzen). And a number of suspects, so that I wasn’t exactly sure who’d committed the crime right up until Strike revealed it (the only thing I didn’t love – the scene where he explains the crime is a bit unbelievable). Vivid descriptions really brought the streets, flats, offices, pubs and shops of London to life — again I could picture every scene. I especially got a kick out of the designer Guy Somé  and his studio.

The supporting characters were as interesting and carefully wrought as Strike and Robin, and Galbraith/Rowling got each person’s tics and quirks down, so her hero could note them as he questioned and observed. That kind of detail made the detective work a pleasure to follow. References to everything from pop culture to Latin literature gave the story texture as well. All the way around, this was a very entertaining, well written book.

Which I would have found fun and well done regardless of who wrote it. But I may not have heard about it had the news not broken about it’s real authorship. Debut or not, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Just as the farmers in Kashmir are enjoying the annual cycle of melt water irrigating their fields, regardless of whether the glaciers are brand new man-made creations or ancient ice.

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Yesterday was another scorcher, but I had a plan: a lounge chair on the screened porch in front of a large fan, a bowl of popcorn, a tall cold glass of seltzer, and a novel: Anonymous Sources, by Mary Louise Kelly. I heard a snippet of Kelly’s appearance on the The Diane Rehm Show last week, and was intrigued. It sounded like just the thing for a warm Sunday afternoon.

If you recognize the name Mary Louise Kelly, you’re an NPR listener (or CNN or BBC World Service, where she’s also been a correspondent and producer). Try not to hate her for being incredibly successful at two careers; this will be a challenge if you read her acknowledgements, as she describes writing the novel in Tuscany as her husband brought her espresso & Chianti and helped her work out tricky plot issues.With this novel, she’s definitely launched her fiction-writing career with a flourish. Anonymous Sources is a terrifically entertaining spy novel. By the end, the reader is able to start putting the pieces together, but it still felt fresh, even though the villains are familiar: rogue Pakistani nuclear scientists and a fringe terror group.

Her heroine, Alexandra James, is a hoot. She’s a smart young reporter with a weakness for designer shoes and Hendrick’s gin. She’s acutely aware of the effect her long legs and red hair have on men. And she’s not afraid to exploit it in order to file a good story or, as the case may be, get out of a sticky situation with a wannabe terrorist.

I loved the supporting cast as well, from Alex’s best friend and fellow reporter Elias, who owns an incredible array of kitchen gadgets and “drinks espresso the way Italians do. Which is to say, like water,” to Hyde, the quirky father-figure editor who lets Alex chase a hunch on a routine story that leads her from Harvard, where the White House Counsel’s son has died in an apparent accident or suicide, to Cambridge University, where he’d spent a year as Harvard Scholar. There Alex meets Lucien Sly, “Lord Lucien Sly,” who makes her laugh, is “fantastic in bed,” but is also “obviously a cad and incapable of an exclusive relationship.”

I don’t want to give away the page-turning story, so I’ll just say this: if you want a fun read, the literary equivalent of a smartly-done popcorn flick, with great details about the intelligence community and national security, a gripping and somewhat alarming plot, and characters that will make you laugh and also compel you to root for them, pick up Anonymous Sources. If you’re an aspiring writer, read the acknowledgements, where Kelly talks about rewriting the awful parts under the guidance of her agent, and take heart, and rewrite.

Up next, I have requested the now-outed J.K. Rowling’s police procedural from the library, since I seem to be on a spy/mystery/thriller kick. I can’t wait to see what it’s like, since it got such good reviews before anyone knew she wrote it.

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Here’s the column, which appeared in today’s Concord Monitor.

By DEB BAKER

For the Monitor

Sunday, July 14, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, July 14, 2013) 

New Hampshire author Geoffrey James has written extensively about Elizabethan courtier/scholar John Dee. Sorcerer: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth’s Alchemist is inspired by Dee’s work in astrology, alchemy and divination. An expert on navigation, a mathematician and translator, Dee believed he could decipher messages from angels dictated by a “scryer,” Edward Kelley. Like other 16th century scholars, Dee didn’t see a conflict between academic and supernatural studies. His problems, which James incorporates into the novel, were practical: securing funding, keeping powerful patrons satisfied, avoiding religious condemnation, navigating European politics. Picking up the story just before Dee met Kelley, James also explores the personal and professional tolls of Dee’s studies.

Grand Mal Press, which published Sorcerer, describes itself as a “publisher of weird and wacky fiction,” mostly genres that aren’t my cup of tea, so I opened the book unsure of whether I’d enjoy it. But Sorcerer is a page turner. James’s familiarity with his subject and copious sensory and historical details transport the reader to another time and place.

A few quibbles: Occasional footnotes are confusing – I couldn’t immediately tell if they were fictional – and might work better as an afterword. Each main character’s point of view is numbered within numbered chapters like an outline, a distracting design. The proofreading is imperfect (I notice this in mainstream publishers’ books, too). Sometimes James lapses into archaic sentence structure or vocabulary, which might be historically accurate but isn’t consistent. A few scenes told more than they showed. But if you’re a genre fiction fan willing to overlook minor flaws, you’ll enjoy this debut, brimming with intrigue.

Science fiction, hiking and cooking

The Curiosity, by Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan, is another intriguing debut: Scientists working for “The Lazarus Project” discover a dead man frozen in sea ice since 1906 and reanimate him. Kiernan writes movingly about “Subject One,” Jeremiah Rice, along with expedition leader Dr. Kate Philo, her egomaniacal boss Erastus Carthage, her colleagues and Daniel Dixon, a middling science reporter granted exclusive coverage of the project. The descriptions of Jeremiah’s introduction to 21st century Boston, as well as the pain he feels at the loss of his previous life, are lovely. Kate orders a coffee, laughing when Jeremiah is baffled by “double-espresso mocha latte with skim.”

Jeremiah thinks of his daughter: “It was no compensation for Agnes, no such thing existed, but that laugh leavened my heart nonetheless.” When the book opens, Kate looks back on events, explaining things ended badly for her. This tension, combined with science-fiction flavor, literary style and pacing, and humor, make The Curiosityappealing to a variety of readers. Book clubs would enjoy dissecting the novel’s social, moral and ethical conundrums.

Maine author John Gibson’s In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: The New Hiker’s Guide to Thoreau’s Mountain Travels, retraces Thoreau’s steps on 12 mountain treks: two each in Massachusetts and Maine, eight in New Hampshire. Gibson revisits Thoreau’s hikes, referencing his writings and other period sources, and explains in detail how to recreate the outings. Each chapter includes maps, photos, directions, suggested gear and recommended resources.

It’s amazing, considering today’s well-mapped, easily accessible trailheads with nearby parking, how far Thoreau walked just to reach hiking spots and how often he blazed his own trails. These details, along with what Thoreau carried and ate on expeditions, who he traveled with, what flora and fauna he saw, and what he wrote about each trip, make In High Places vivid reading. Gibson notes, “In using this guide you will, I hope, see the mountains as Thoreau saw them. . . . Ultimately, he went to the hills in pursuit of . . . another, exceptional universe . . . a world of high places. And now, with this guide in your rucksack, it is your turn to follow him.”

My family was delighted when another cookbook arrived, The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook: 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State by Tracey Medeiros with photographs by Oliver Parini. Medeiros presents recipes from 107 farms, markets, co-ops, inns, resorts, bakeries and restaurants across Vermont, along with profiles of the people and places the recipes come from. Part of the book’s proceeds will benefit the Vermont Foodbank. I made Rory’s Irish Scones from Simon Pearce’s Restaurant in Quechee, Vt., Vegan Chili from City Market Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Bow Thai Pasta Salad from Woodstock Farmers Market and Maple Bars from Osborne Family Maple in Ferdinand. All were easy and delicious!

Sequels

Finally, last summer I raved about Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman, a police procedural set in Concord as the world awaits the devastating impact of an asteroid. Winters’s sequel, Countdown City, is equally smart and funny. His writing is sheer pleasure – creative, thoughtful and engaging. He captures what’s best about humanity – distilled in his lovable hero, Hank Palace – in a zany yet believable story, even as he paints a society collapsing on itself. Fun, fast-paced entertainment that’s also thought-provoking and profound.

New Hampshire author Betsy Woodman also has a sequel, Love Potion Number 10, revisiting her unflappable heroine Jana Bibi in 1960s India.

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When it’s really rainy or really hot, it’s easier to set aside chores and read. So this month’s column is packed with books!

First up, a debut historical/suspense novel from a small press (Grand Mal) by Hollis, New Hampshire author Geoffrey James, Sorcerer: a Novel of Queen Elizabeth’s Alchemist, inspired by the Elizabethan courtier/scholar John Dee.

Shorter reviews this month include:

The Curiosity, an intriguing debut novel by Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan

In High Places with Henry David Thoreau: a Hiker’s Guide with Routes and Maps by Maine author & hiker John Gibson

The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook: 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State by Tracey Medeiros with photos by Oliver Parini (Bow Thai Pasta Salad from Woodstock Farmers’ Market went over very well as a July 4th side dish.)

and a brief but enthusiastic endorsement of the 2nd book in Ben H. Winters‘ The Last Policeman series, Countdown City, which I devoured on the screened porch over the last couple of days. I can’t say enough good things about these books, which in my mind are the perfect summer read: fun, entertaining, and also really thought provoking.

I also mention, for fans of last summer’s Jana Bibi’s Exellent Fortunes, New Hampshire author Betsy Woodman’s sequel, Love Potion Number 10, and as always, bring readers up to date on when and where to meet Mindful Reader authors around Concord. I turn the column in Monday and it should appear in the Sunday Concord Monitor on 7/14.

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