My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Swedish author MyGrandmotherFredrik Backman’s second novel starts out like this. “Every seven-year-old deserves a superhero. That’s just how it is. Anyone who doesn’t agree needs their head examined. That what Elsa’s granny says, at least.” And from this auspicious beginning Backman weaves a touching reality/fantasy story about Elsa and her granny and all the tenants in her apartment building.

You see, Granny is the kind of granny every almost-eight-year-old needs. She’s a non-conformist. She’s a staunch advocate of her granddaughter. She applauds those who are ‘different’, such as Elsa. Elsa has no friends, other than Granny, but they are the closest two friends can be.

Granny spent much of her adult life away. A doctor in a time when few women were doctors, she traveled around the world assisting in disaster areas, leaving Elsa’s Mum in the care of others, primarily Britt-Marie, another tenant in the leasehold Granny lived in. But when Elsa was born, all that changed. Her main focus, her only focus was being a good Granny.

She developed the six kingdoms of the Land-of-Almost-Awake, a fairy tale land that Elsa could go to when she was frightened and couldn’t sleep. She developed a secret language that only Elsa and Granny knew. She told Elsa all of the fairy tales on this land. And together, they could go on adventures. I wish I had that when I was almost eight.

When the book opens, though, Elsa is dealing with two major life changing events. It soon becomes clear that Granny has cancer. Secondly, Elsa’s Mum is expected a baby, Elsa calls Halfie since she doesn’t know the sex yet. She’s afraid of losing Granny and afraid of losing Mum whose attention will be devoted Halfie. This is tough stuff for an almost-eight-year-old, no matter how different or how precocious she is.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is a marvelous story which blends fantasy and reality, as Elsa, the adventurous knight of the Land-Of-Almost-Awake, navigates her world. There are quirky characters (my favorite kind) galore, such as George who seems always to be making eggs, Lennert who is always brewing coffee, Britt-Marie who always picks invisible specks of something off her clothes and Alf, the always cursing taxi driver. But my favorite character is the wurse (find out for yourself who that is).

AManCalledOveI will admit, as I usually do, that I was a tad misty at the end of the book, but Backman neatly wraps everything up in a tidy package which will make you smile. This is the kind of book worth having in your own personal library. I’m off to snare his first book, A Man Called Ove. There seems to be one copy on my library shelf and I want it before anyone else gets it.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is a contender for the best adult book I’ve read this year.

In all ages, the ‘elite’ have their own way of living, their own HouseOfThievesmoral code, their own mannerisms, their own etiquette. However, there is no era in which these rules and regulations were more evident than in 1880s New York City. Even if you were tangentially related to wealth, you had to abide by certain rules and those differed if you were ‘old money’ or ‘new money’. But one thing is certain: if your name is tarnished, you will be disowned in a flash. So, when John Cross, successful architect and friends with Stanford White among others, and a reasonably close relative of the Astors, finds himself in a bind, he’s not sure what to do.

It seems that his son, George, a recent Harvard graduate, has accumulated a sizable gambling debt that he’s unable to pay. The man he owes, James Kent, a well respected New York socialite whose sideline happens to be crime, upon hearing that George’s father is an architect, presents John Cross with a proposal–in exchange for sparing George’s life, Cross will assist in the planning of robberies of buildings and homes he designed. A percentage of the proceeds will go towards paying off George’s debt. Of course, Cross feels like he has no choice. Thus begins a great book by Charles Belfoure, House of Thieves, author of The Paris Architect.

ParisArchitectI heard Belfoure speak at Book Expo and he mentioned he always wondered what a life of crime would be like.  An architect by profession, he thought this would be the perfect way to marry these two professions. However, he also said that the idea was not original, but had come from the life of George Leslie. The headline in the Daily Beast of October 19, 2014 states “The High Society Bank Robber of the 1800s: He was wealthy, a member of New York City society, and a patron of the arts. And he was also the secret mastermind behind the biggest bank heists of his day.” Leslie was also an architect by profession.

However, while I admit there is a lot of drama and tension regarding the events of the book, the real treat is Belfoure’s description of the Manhattan of the late 1880s, the tenements, the grand houses of the rich, the vacant land and farms above 80th Street. It is inconceivable to me that parents who could not care for their children would throw them out onto the streets to make their own way in the world as pickpockets, newsies, etc. The piss and manure that lined tenements streets is contrasted by the opulence of the mansions along Madison Square.

The squalor of the poor is described against the huge amounts of money spent on Julia, Cross’ daughter’s, coming out party. No expense was spared–as it was paid for by her Aunt Caroline (Astor). Belfoure goes on to explore women’s roles at the time–Julia was being groomed to marry someone of her social class and her desire to go to college and write a novel were smirked at. The mother’s and grandmother’s roles were to educate Julia regarding proper etiquette, provide here with piano lessons and enough education to enable her to converse with eligible bachelors.

There’s a psychological element to the book as well. Cross was armed forces age during the Civil War and the law allowed the wealthy to pay a substitute to serve in the army. Cross’ family having the means, did just that (as did George Leslie’s family). But Cross always wondered whether he had courage enough to do something dangerous.

All in all, House of Thieves is good on so many levels. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

I’m not typically a western-country-mystery person, preferring the cityCrazyMountainKiss police procedurals-Harry Bosch, 87th Precinct, etc. When my mystery reading extends to the country, it’s typically the northeast, such as Archer Mayer’s Joe Gunther series in Vermont. But based on a journal recommendation I extended my reading geography to Montana and was pleasantly surprised with Crazy Mountain Kiss.

The Sean Stranahan detective series by Keith McCafferty was quite enjoyable. It certainly wasn’t gritty like Harry Bosch. I’d classify it as almost cozy. A down on his luck mystery author decides to leave L.A. for the solitude of an isolated cabin in Montana. It is April and cold so he decides to light the fireplace but smoke starts billowing into the cabin. Finding no flue lever in the cabin, he climbs up on the roof and looks down the chimney to find the blockage, which to his chagrin is a body…obviously dead.

The Hyalite County police are called in and police chief Martha Ettinger decides she needs the help of investigator Sean Stranahan who happens to be in Florida. He flies back and the small team begins the investigation. It turns out that the body is of a young girl, Cinderella Huntington, who had disappeared five months previous.

I liked the characters in Crazy Mountain Kiss. Ettinger and Stranahan had a ‘thing’ which Ettnger broke off, but neither are really over the other, so there’s some romantic tension. (Most every female character has the hots for Stranahan.) Loretta Huntington, Cindy’s mother, plays a major role as an “I won’t take no as an answer’ woman who has overcome a physical disability. The remainder of the police team are each unique and quirky.

There is some Indian folklore referenced in the book, which I found interesting. Also, some spirituality. Having lost three children, Etta has rejected formal religion for a more spiritual feeling and she is happy when she thinks that her children are in the heavens.

Crazy Mountain Kiss is a very satisfying read.

Vinceent Van Gogh

If you’re a Vincent Van Gogh enthusiast, I’ve got just the place for you to go. Van-gogh-undergrowth-23The Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA has an exhibit through mid-September called Van Gogh and Nature. It has corridors and corridors of Van Gogh paintings and sketches that most people have never seen before. They have collected paintings from all over the world. I’m sure you’ll find a new favorite in the exhibit. I did…Undergrowth. Of course, many of his paintings have the same title, but that doesn’t matter. I thought it was beautiful.

Clark1The Clark Institute is in a beautiful setting. While the building is interesting, it is not gorgeous. However, the hills in which it is set are beautiful. This doesn’t do it justice. Apparently there are trails you can hike. Or, like us, just sit under the shade of a tree and sip our coffee, eat our muffin and admire the setting. It is so relaxing.

There is even a little pond out of a Monet painting. Clark2(There is a small Impressionist exhibit there as well with Degas, Renoir, Monet, Manet).

While, if you’re like me and don’t mind starting out at 6 AM, you can do this as a day trip. However, it is much more relaxing to make it in two days, making some side trips on the way up and back. Williamstown is an eye-catching town and the college campus is amazing. We stayed overnight in the Berkshire Hills Country Inn, itself set in a bucolic setting, near a babbling brook at the edge of a forest.They had chairs set up so you can enjoy the tranquility of the area.

All in all, this was a fantastic weekend.

Circus Mirandus, a debut novel by Cassie Beasley, is a wonderful middle grade read. Like many other ‘magic’ books, it laments the loss by adults of the ability to believe in magic and Circus Mirandus, the circus, tries to find those kids whose belief is so great that they are worth cultivatingCircusMirandus.

Micah Tuttle’s grandfather, Ephraim, is not well. Micah’s mean great-aunt Gertrudis (Ephraim’s sister) has come from Arizona to take care of Micah and Ephraim (Micah’s parents had died in a car accident and he was living with Ephraim). As the book begins “Four small words. That was all it took to set things in motion.” The four words summoned the Lightbender from Circus Mirandus who Ephraim had met decades ago, when he as a young boy, went to the Circus and became fascinated by the magic.

However, the wish that Ephraim wanted was vastly different than Micah’s who supposed that the Lightbender would cure his grandfather. When Ephraim finds out through the Lightbender’s parrot Chintzy, that the circus is coming, he tells Micah to go and experience the wonder. Micah takes along his unbelieving friend, Jenny Mendoza, who finally begins to understand.

The characters in Circus Mirdandus are interesting, including the Lightbender, the Head (who leads the circus), and Chintzy who will definitely make you laugh. The friendship that grows between the very staid Jenny and the believing Micah is tender. The love that exists between grandfather and grandson is touching. However, it isn’t too mushy to turn children away from the story.

If you want a fun middle grade read, maybe as an alternative to a darker Harry Potter, Circus Mirandus is a smart choice.

There are only two things I’ll tell you about the plot of Karin Slaughter’s new, PrettyGirlsstand alone mystery Pretty Girls (no spoilers).

1. Claire’s younger sister, Julia, disappeared over 20 years ago. As a college student, she was last seen in a local bar. After she left, she was never seen again.

2. Claire was arrested for assault. Her sentence was reduced–all she had to do was wear an ankle bracelet for six months so that law enforcement would know where she was at all times. On the day the bracelet came off, she met her husband, Paul, for dinner. Feeling a little frisky, they left the restaurant after drinks, but instead of going home, Paul decided wanted to ‘have’ her in an alley behind the restaurant (he’d never shown any inclination to this in their 18 years of marriage). They were mugged in the alley and Paul was killed.

From this point, the story unfolds and the ‘sick’ side of Paul begins to emerge.

This is  not my ‘type’ of mystery but it was Karin Slaughter (who I’ve read before and liked), so I thought I’d give Pretty Girls a try. Up until page 216, I was fine and the book pulled me in. But I started page 216 and unceremoniously bagged the book. One of my (hopefully) few rules is that if there is a big chance that characters I like will get brutally hurt, I stop reading. In addition, an unlikely event took place that made the book unbelievable…to me.

What amazes me is that I heard Karin Slaughter speak at a Library Journal/Book Expo dinner and she was hilarious. How such a funny mind could come up with such a perverted plot is beyond my understanding.

CopTownTo conclude, if you’re into perversions, this book is tailor made for you. If not, skip it.

P.S. In all fairness, I must add an addendum. If you haven’t read Cop Town, Slaughter’s previous book, I highly recommend it.

TheLittleParisBookshopLet me start of by saying The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is not a guy book. I don’t normally segregate books by the gender of the reader, but in this case it’s the truth.

Jean Perdu (which means ‘lost’ in French) is truly lost. His lover, Manon, left him 21 years ago and he still hasn’t gotten over it. His apartment is devoid of furniture and he has a huge jigsaw puzzle on his floor, which he takes apart on completion and begins anew.

He lives in a small apartment building inhabited by a peculiar group of neighbors. One is a young and acclaimed writer, Max Jordan, who is hiding from his adoring fans, especially those expecting a new book which is not forthcoming. A new arrival is Catherine who has been in a loveless marriage for 20 years and has recently been thrown out by her husband with nothing but the clothes on her back. It is inevitable that Perdu and Catherine, two lost souls, would meet.

Perdu is a book seller (which is what attracted me to the book initially). His shop is a barge docked on the Seine and he considers it a Literary Apothecary. According to him, he can see into people’s souls and know exactly what book to prescribe to mend a broken heart or a broken soul.

For reasons you need to find out for yourself, Perdu impulsively pulls anchor and embarks upon a voyage. Of course you know it’s a voyage of self discovery. At the last minute, Max jumps on board and the two experience this life voyage together. As per the Publishers Weekly review, “Though George’s prose is sometimes a bit overwrought and the “physician, heal thyself” plot device has been done to death, her cast of engaging characters [on the river voyage and in the apartment building] keeps the story moving. Her sumptuous descriptions of both food and literature will leave readers unsure whether to run to the nearest library or the nearest bistro.” I agree, and the recipes she includes at the end of the book are an added bonus.

George’s prose do get a little bogged down, but there are some gems as well. Such as when Perdu is pondering his life,  “Where did the last twenty years go? The south is a vivd blue, Catherine. Your color is missing here. It would make everything shine all the more brightly.” Her discussion of literature is way beyond my comfort zone, both the real and the fictional literature. I much prefer her descriptions of the river towns the duo stop at and the quirky people that inhabit them.

I consider myself somewhat of a romantic but the story was a little over the top for me. Yes, we all have regrets and we’ve all suffered romantic heartbreaks, but to have put ones life on hold for 21 years seems a bit much to me.

The Little Paris Bookshop is an ode to love of the life long kind. I’m sure it exists and I wish I had experienced it as a young man. In some respects I’m jealous of Perdu. But in many others, I’m glad I’m not him. Your opinion?


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