Mar 082013
 

br000036PLOT OR PREMISE:

The plot is relatively confused to start. Jack Reacher is a drifter who gets picked up by the police in a small town as a suspected murderer. He knows he didn’t do it, so he is fairly cooperative with the lead detective. But when it starts to appear that some of the other people don’t particularly care if he did it, he is a little annoyed that their laziness is going to cost him a weekend in jail with someone else who confessed to the crime. When jail is no picnic, Jack starts to draw on his past skills as an MP in the army to help out the investigation, and then it starts to get personal.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
1997 Jove, Penguin Publishing B000OZ0NXA Reacher
My Rating (Original: October 5, 2004)

WHAT I LIKED:

From the word go, Jack Reacher is a solid character. He comes with a lot of history and no baggage, which I understand is how the rest of the series unfolds as well. The characters read a little more stream-lined than perhaps a Robert B. Parker novel, without as much soul-searching, and the action keeps going.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

There is a major “coincidence” in the novel, and I really hate novels that hang on coincidence as a major plot device to move the story along. Happenstance is one thing, such as Jack being in the town and subject to being suspected. But when it turns out that Jack knew one of the victims, in a town where he doesn’t know anyone, and there’s no reason for either of them to be there, it’s a bit of a stretch.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

Great intro to a series, overall a great novel period, and I look forward to the rest of the series. I’ll give it 4.00 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 072013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

The author is a book reviewer for the Washington Post; this is the story of his life up until graduation from university.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
2003 W.W. Norton and Company 978-0393057560 Stand-alone
My Rating (Original: May 03, 2007)

WHAT I LIKED:

Dirda was recommended to me by a colleague from work, whose appetites for reading are far more literary than mine. He actually recommended “Bound to Please”, which is a collection of Dirda’s reviews of more literary prose from throughout history, but I tripped over this book first. I’m quite glad I did as I probably won’t read the collection of essays until I’ve read most of the tomes reviewed, but An Open Book is a fantastic autobiography. It reads in some place like Angela’s Ashes without the darkness of Irish poverty. However, it is not without conflict or family dysfunction during the author’s childhood, and he tells the story in places with openness and unashamed personal bias.

The main part of the story recounts Dirda’s intellectual progress as he moved through comic strips from the newspaper (p.49), pun and joke books (everyone sing: “great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts”!), the TAB book club (p.66), the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift series (p.90), a brief stint with romance novels (p.201), and the importance of great literature to challenging society and even changing history (p.290).

It also includes his non-literary education – playing with BB guns (p.81), understanding firsthand how hard his father’s job was (p.185), learning about art and music (p.267), the ceasing to care about grades when writing essays and the corresponding improvements in marks (p.310), the contribution of early influences in his life to later character traits (p.320), and looking back at one’s life (p.321).

The book recounts his life relatively linearly in time, yet with lots of interesting digressions that veer away from developments in his personal life and situation with the texts he was reading at the time.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

It would have been interesting to see more of the reactions from teachers throughout the author’s life, including perhaps even tracking some of them down. It is hard to imagine exactly how certain ones would have reacted to his precocious reading of more advanced novels, and the existing allusions to some of their reactions are rudimentary at best. As well, the final decision (to become a freelance journalist upon leaving university) is rushed in the story, and negates much of the relaxed pace to that point.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

See the early influences on a literary book reviewer! A highly enjoyable read, kind of a “life so far” story to cover his formative years up until the end of university. I’ll give it 4.25 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 062013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

This book is an anthology of women’s experiences in Canada during World War II.  The anthology is a collection of first-person narratives from 57 women who served in various branches of the armed forces, auxiliaries, private industry in Canada during World War II. Each of the narratives have similar chronologies and approach – what the women were doing before the war, how they joined the Armed Forces or supporting occupation, their experiences during the war (both personal and professional), their life-in-brief after the war, and, finally, a chance for them to pass some judgement on “what did it all mean” for them or for women in general.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
2001 Department of National Defence (Canada) 0-662-30037-8 Stand-alone
My Rating (Original: April 14, 2007)

WHAT I LIKED:

Although I know the editor, and hence added the book to my reading list for that reason, the stories and subject matter are compelling to me in their own right. I can remember reading an USA Today article back in 2001 about the efforts of some U.S. organizations to capture oral histories of their WWI and II survivors, archiving them at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. Volunteer organizations set up sample questionnaires and encouraged young Americans to interview their grandparents about their experiences in the war, recording them and sending them off to be archived. “Distributed processing” of oral histories is a great technique that works with limited resources, and I remember getting excited about it, thinking “what are we doing for Canadian histories?”…it turns out, quite a bit. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a website that captures a lot of this for Canada and has some great materials available to all online.

This book though captures the often-missed histories of women during that time. The individual stories are compelling and varied in place of origin, type of occupation, impact, and all the elements that comprise the story of each woman, presented in their own words. It is an amazing collective resource for anyone doing research on the era, and would serve as both a stand-alone text as well as a supplement to the experiences of others (mostly men) during the Second World War that are covered elsewhere. And it includes all the things people would expect, which I won’t cover in detail, as well as some surprising elements that transcend the ordinary.

First and foremost, the book does a fine job of avoiding over-stating the impact of WWII on the women’s movement…the tendency in many publications of this sort would be to say “this era is important, these women are important, and therefore this time was the sole catalyst for changing the world forever for women”. However, as many of the stories note, a lot of changes were already underway. This doesn’t discount the impact or added impetus of the time, but also places it in a larger context, where women were no longer only being considered as second class citizens. Many of the women left decent jobs to join the Armed Forces, putting a lie to the often-popular view that the women simply “left the house” for the first time during WWII.

Second, the small details from individual stories are particularly riveting, golden nuggets of their experiences:

  • the lack of common knowledge about the true horrors of the concentration camps until much later after the war – while lots of organizations try to argue or advocate that people in other countries knew but sat and did nothing to prevent the atrocities, they make that argument with the wisdom of hindsight, forgetting that while rumours ran wild, very few people believed the true level of catastrophe when they heard those rumours…only after the reality was truly known and “documented” so-to-speak could people look back and say “that particular rumour there” was true, and we should have believed it. Without a reference point, lots of people would not – and maybe could not – believe that such atrocities were possible. Even today, it is hard for people to accept genocide as a real event even though it’s happened before (Jacqueline Laplante, p.22, Elizabeth Hunt, p.142) yet there was some official recognition of the problems as many Jewish people were told to change their identifications before fighting overseas (Nano Penefeather-McConnell, p.126-127);
  • the experience of women’s rifle training and teams (Jacqueline Laplante, p.28);
  • the role played by French priests in some family decisions in Quebec, with many of the priests trying hard to prevent the women from joining up or calling them home claiming their birth certificates were forged (Mary Saunders, p.28, et al);
  • the commonplace / matter-of-fact way of dealing with notifications of deaths in the family (Ruth Ralston, p.72);
  • the drafting of women in England (Elizabeth Hunt, p.134);
  • the impact on the economy in Quebec in 1939 with many farming families suddenly having boosts in their family income with many sons and daughters working in factories, and for families in general with work plentiful and banks willing to give loans again (Olive Villeneuve, p.166); and,
  • the two government employees explaining to them in 1941 that there were going to be new deductions from their wages for something called “income tax” and “unemployment insurance” (Olive Villeneuve, p.168).

My favourite though is the impact of reading Lorna Stanger (p.161) talking about VE-Day in Europe. For the first time since the war started, they could have the lights in the city on at night, and had it all lit up. For the youngest children, many had only known black-outs and air-raid sirens, and seeing the lights at night actually scared them.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

My biggest complaint is self-inflicted – I did not follow the advice of the Chief Archivist for DND who recommends in the introduction that people should read a few stories at a time rather than plowing through them. My challenge was simply that I borrowed the book from the library, so with limited time, I did plow through them. And hence probably had a lessened impact than if they were read properly.

As a result, I found myself in some places confusing stories with the previous one, thinking “how did she do that? Wasn’t she in Europe by then?” and then paging back to realize it was a different woman with a similar occupation.

In others though, I find myself struggling with the format – the stories appear one after another, seemingly ungrouped in any way. I can’t help wondering if there would be more impact if the stories had been arbitrarily grouped to convey a stronger message. For example, by province of origin – would those who were born in Ontario have a different experience than those in Winnipeg? Ordering by service branch would be an obvious option but might negate some of the commonalities across branches. One could organize by a dozen other possibilities too, such as their posting, occupation, age at induction, future careers, whether they went overseas, etc.

In the end, the challenge might just be the biographical genre. Given the wealth of information, I found myself wanting to see some analysis across the anthology that you could digest and pull out, rather than just the raw text. But that would be a different text then, perhaps one more for academics to produce. And absent the analysis, I wanted to see different ways of sorting – but that too would be a different publication, more of a database than a book.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

A great resource only somewhat limited by format. The book is a great resource filling in an important part of the historical picture, and should be read over the course of a few months or a year to get the full impact. I’ll give it 3.75 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 052013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

Jess Mastriani got hit by lightning, and now she’s psychic. So she’s been calling in tips to the missing persons line and telling the feds where to find the kids. The FBI wants her to do more, but she told them she lost the gift (which of course they don’t believe). And when a local kid shows up dead with strange militia markings on him, Jesse gets drawn into local militia groups and right-wing nuts in general, with the feds following along behind.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
2002 Simon Pulse B002S5NOT4 Missing
My Rating (Original: October 28, 2004)

WHAT I LIKED:

Not much — although it is good they still have Jess acting like a teenager.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

While I prefer this characterization of Jess to the TV-series that has changed her into a kick-in-the-door, guns-blazing federal agent, this individual story is waaaay over the top. Like Hardy Boys meets the A-Team.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

There’s no place to hide the fact this one’s over the top. Not the best in the series, hope Carroll can keep it fresh. I’ll give it 1.00 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 042013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

Keziah Dane is a struggling single mother in 1939. Her husband died two years before in a flood, trying to rescue other townspeople, and her son was taken too. This leaves Keziah with no money, and she has to look after four remaining sons and two daughters. In addition, her mother-in-law has gone a little batty with the loss of her son, leaving Keziah to take care of her too.  A passing drifter sees the family burying the family dog and figures if they are burying something, it must be money. He ingratiates himself into the family posing as an unconventional minister, and tries to figure out how to get the money. The sub-stories are fairly straightforward – the oldest son wants to go back to the flooded town and dive for salvage, despite the danger; the second oldest son is working for a local farmer and falling in love with the daughter; and the remaining family members are struggling through being at school with much wealthier families.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
1967 The MacMillan Company B002ZW4VQA Stand-alone
My Rating (Original: March 17, 2007)

WHAT I LIKED:

The sub-story with the second oldest son falling in love with the local farmer’s daughter is really well-done. Her mother is a hypochondriac with a small problem with her foot, but it is interesting to see how the son deals with her, ending up as an excuse to spend time in the house near the daughter. The blossoming romance between the two of them – one practical, one romantic – is really well done, and natural, albeit perhaps mis-placed in time (would work even better in the 1800s, except for the physical side perhaps). I also like the hook for using the farmer himself to drive a plot twist near the end.

There is a scene with the drifter and the buried treasure that is beyond disgusting, and made me shudder – a perfectly done description by Grafton. I could see it and I really didn’t want to anymore. Blech. In a good way.

The struggle of the children to adapt to their situation, the realization that they are poor and what that means, is strongly written, and captures the heartache, pride, jealousy, desire, fear, happiness, and importance of family that goes along with it. I thought there were a few too many young kids to talk about in the story, and Grafton could have got by with two fewer in my view, but it was not a complete distraction.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

The opening is fairly basic, reminiscent of Old Yeller, and doesn’t do much to hook the reader. I’m almost ambivalent towards Keziah Dane herself as she seems like the perfect mother – understanding when she needs to be, long-time sufferer or martyr who soldiers on, but I would have liked to see more conflict within her. A lover perhaps that she goes to visit occasionally. In addition, there is a conflict near the end of the story that is bizarre in detail, although confused and disjointed in places that it is hard to tell what exactly is happening. The ending is also a little pat, with everyone better off. Grafton potentially missed an opportunity with the chronology – setting the story in November 1939 could have included a hint of the outside world intruding, but no wind of change is blowing their way. It could have easily been set in the 1800s with no real loss of story.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

Grafton can write stories that don’t involve detectives! Obviously a radically different type of story than the Kinsey Millhone detective character that she later developed, it is a shame that Grafton didn’t write more like these. I’ll give it 3.75 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 032013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

Suzannah is a mediator — she helps ghosts move on from this plane to the next. But when she’s not embracing her sixth sense, she’s earning money as a staff babysitter at a hotel/resort and dreaming about Jesse who haunts her current home. Then she meets trouble in the form of spoiled brat Jack who also is a mediator but doesn’t know that ghosts are real and instead is three steps away from a nervous breakdown. Suze has to help him figure out his own role with ghosts, at the same time that she tries to figure out more of the mystery with Jesse’s past life.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
2001 HarperTeen B000FC2OIE Mediator
My Rating (Original Mar 28, 2004)

WHAT I LIKED:

I really liked the idea of finding newbies who don’t know what they are supposed to do when it comes to ghosts — hey didn’t they see the movie? I also still like the fact that Suze can actually interact with the ghosts (i.e. fight with them). The backstory for Jesse was cool, and knowing that Suze can move to another plane at least temporarily is really a good omen for future books. The interesting addition of negative mediators to counter-balance is very “Tru Calling”-ish, and we’ll have to see how that plays out in future books.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Some of the repeated teenage angst might well with teenage readers, but gets really repetitive fast for older readers.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

Oh no, it’s ghosts again! Another good entry in the series, I’ll give it 3.50 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 022013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

Susannah is a mediator, a la Sixth Sense, helping ghosts resolve their earthly problems so they can depart. She lived a life of adventure and school problems in New York, hung out with her visiting dead father’s ghost, and got in trouble with the law. Then Mom married a guy from California and they moved in with the new family — new stepdad and three new stepbrothers. And her first day of school? She finds out that her school’s principal, a priest, is also a mediator. She’s not alone! Ever!

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
2000 HarperTeen B000FC2OHK Mediator
My Rating (Original: Mar 7, 2004)

WHAT I LIKED:

The introduction of a character who gets to physically interact with ghosts is great, and the introduction of Susannah to the ghost Jesse who has been haunting her new bedroom for the last 150 years is actually funny. There are lots of humourous bits as she moves into the new school, and meets the resident bully — a rejected popular girl who committed suicide over a boy, and now wants to exact revenge on him for her getting dumped.


WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Some of the clichés used around the vengeful ghost is a bit much, and the constant injuries to various people while she skates uninjured is rather exaggerated.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

She sees dead people — and sometimes she kicks their butt. A really interesting series that takes the Sixth Sense idea and improves upon it. Great story, look forward to the rest in the series. I’ll give it 4.50 lilypads out of 5.00.

Mar 012013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

The premise of this book is that there are many people who never feel satisfied, nor take the time to feel satisfied, and are always looking forward to the next obstacle, next project, next item on their to-do list — and whatever they have done, or accomplished, is never enough.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
1996 Hazelden 978-1568381978 Stand-alone
My Rating (Original: Oct 27, 2004)

WHAT I LIKED:

There is a lot to like in this book. Some highlights:

  1. Never-enough thinkers act compulsively…unsure about what they really want, they stay in constant motion. (p.2)
  2. Having been taught not to depend on other people, you take more than your share of the blame for what goes wrong in your relationships, at work, and in your family. (p.4)
  3. Realize that if you could “just do it”, you would have done it. (p.5)
  4. There’s a saying in Twelve Step programs: Your best thinking got you here. (p.9)
  5. When we suppress our painful feelings, we lose our happy feelings too. (p.32)
  6. You get an illusion of security from having all of these untapped talents. (p.47)
  7. Depression indicates that the self system has had to retreat to a lower level of functioning in the face of its inability to meet higher goals. Depression also serves as a communication, a message to the world at large that the self system can no longer be counted upon, that it has ceased to function in some significant degree, that one has lost hope, and that help must come from the outside. In other words, the self says, “enough is enough”, and retreats away not only from the feelings that are most troublesome, but all feelings in general. It’s a concept that goes far toward explaining why depressed people often feel, “What’s the use?” (p.67)
  8. You have an emotional thermostat turned high to nuances, a sensitivity to a lot of surplus information other people filter out and disregard. This sensitivity is your strength at times. But it has an enormous cost. (p.84)
  9. We meet the right person when we become the right person. (p.144)
  10. There’s an interesting fact about blaming oneself which explains why so many people are so willing to take it on. If one is at fault, then one can always do better. As long as one is responsible, one always has hope. (p.208)

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Some of the approach gets a bit repetitive in trying to emphasize or illustrate certain points.


THE BOTTOM LINE:

A good self-help resource, one that strongly resonated with me. I’ll give it the full 5.00 lilypads out of 5.00.

Feb 282013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

A collection of 20 solve-them-yourself mysteries, perfect for reading on your break. For context, the stories are all short, suitable for reading one or two on a coffee break. If you have seen the 5-minute mysteries in the back of magazines like Reader’s Digest or remember the old Encyclopedia Brown series, then you understand the premise — you read a short-short story (almost flash length) with a mystery of “who did something”, ending with the narrator announcing she or he knows the solution. Then, as the reader, you are challenged to figure out the mystery too. Turn the page, and voila, the solution from the story’s narrator to see if you’re right.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
2011 Amazon Digital Services B004OEKF6M Stand-alone
My Rating (Original: Apr 26, 2011)

WHAT I LIKED:

Sometimes when you see this type of story presented in magazines, the author doesn’t play fair — they hide a piece of evidence, or they play games with personal pronouns to trick you into thinking the character named “Chris” is a man, but really a woman. The narrator knows the “extra” fact which leads to the solution, but you’re left high and dry. When that happens, the stories can be extremely frustrating to read. Red herrings are fine, deliberate trickery by the author to hide the solution is not. Based on those experiences, I probably wouldn’t have bought this book — but I really enjoyed it (in the interest of full disclosure, I was given a copy by the author for review purposes).

In this collection, I was happy to see that all of the mysteries play out completely fairly — in almost all cases, the information you need to solve them is provided completely within the text of the story. There are three small exceptions to this (Pilgrim Thanksgiving, Poe’s Mysterious Visitor, and White House Ghosts), but they are all historical mysteries — testing your knowledge of history to find the solution. And each are presented fairly, so long as you have basic knowledge of American or literary history.

I also really liked the “Ask Martha” collection within a collection. These are all stories with the same narrator — Crusher Davis, an ex-athlete turned sportswriter who also writes a “Ask Martha” column for the newspaper on the sly. It is odd, but the continuing character really helps the stories feel more vibrant, and more easily digestible. Of the six stories with Davis, The Arsonist and the Baseball Mystery are two of the best mysteries in the entire collection.

Finally, the last story (Is It A Wonderful Life) is one of the best of the collection, except there aren’t enough suspects or meat to the story. It’s pretty obvious who the main suspect is, including a possible missed clue that the killer knows the contents of something she probably wouldn’t have seen if she was telling the truth.

Overall, here are the stories I liked the best:

  • The Pilgrim Thanksgiving — A holiday pageant at a school concludes with a test — which of the stories was historically inaccurate? Rating: 4.00;
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s Mysterious Visitor — A group of local Poe lovers want to take over the graveside vigil of the anonymous Mysterious Visitor who comes to Poe’s grave every year, but to be chosen, they must pass a test about Poe. Rating: 3.00;
  • The White House Ghosts — Four former Presidents decide to leave a gift for the new President’s children…but which President is represented by the gift? Rating: 4.00;
  • Ask Martha – The St. Patrick’s Day Mystery — Somebody spikes the drink at a fundraiser, but who turned the green celebration blue? Rating: 4.00;
  • Ask Martha – The Arsonist — Somebody is setting fires around town, and the tipline produces some leads…but only one leads to the firebug. Rating: 4.50;
  • Ask Martha – The Identify Thief — A group of friends go out for lunch, one comes home without a credit card. Rating: 3.00;
  • Ask Martha – The Jackie Mitchell Autographed Baseball Mystery — A dying old man has a special baseball on his mantle that goes missing as soon as he dies. Rating: 4.50;
  • The Miser’s Hoard — An old miser dies, leaving a small treasure hidden in the wall…but when it is about to be divided up, somebody sneaks an early withdrawal. Rating: 3.00;
  • The Gourmet Mystery — Who was a pig that ate the expensive truffles and didn’t want to pay for them? Rating: 3.00;
  • Is It A Wonderful Life? — An old man dies of an overdose — was it an accident, or a prescription for murder? Rating: 3.50;

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

All of the stories are rated PG — which is only a problem in the sense that some of the characters seem uni-dimensional, like they’re stuck in an episode of Leave It To Beaver (one involves naive students pickpocketing people, which is dismissed as a prank because they apologize). At least three of the stories rely on an assessment of character (such as a person’s religious devotion) to eliminate suspects, which hardly registers as “evidence” to the normal mystery reader (in one case, a religious devotee is cleared of stealing a religious artifact because he is too devoted to steal). The solutions aren’t that complicated, but if the nuance was added that the police/narrator would prioritize their investigation on the main suspect first, rather than the narrator declaring “I know who did it”, it would be a little softer to read. And easier to agree with the solution presented. Often times I had it narrowed down to two suspects, and agreed the “correct” one was more likely, but I couldn’t eliminate the other one on the evidence alone.

There are two stories that seem out of place in the collection. The first involves a re-imagining of Oliver Twist, but I’m not entirely sure for what purpose; the second is an “embassy” style mystery involving Ronald Reagan in Geneva, and is relatively uninteresting with no real mystery to solve.

Here are my ratings for the short mysteries that I didn’t particularly enjoy:

  • Who Poisoned George Washington? — George is poisoned while visiting New York, and there are four suspects. Rating: 2.50;
  • A Dream of Old Salem — A girl dreams of a witch trial in old Salem, but which of the witnesses is lying? Rating: 2.50;
  • Stealing Second Base — A baseball base is stolen from a display case and three students had the opportunity. Rating: 1.50;
  • Lost (Stolen) and Found — A purse of money is found in the woman’s washroom at the diner…but who put it there? Rating: 2.50;
  • Ask Martha – The Pickpocket — People are losing their wallets around town, and a small pool of suspects has already formed. Rating: 2.00;
  • Ask Martha – The Shoplifter – Four people write to Martha for help, followed by the police — and all of them are related stories about potential five finger discounts. Rating: 2.50;
  • What the Dickens – A Christmas Eve Mystery — A re-imagining of Dickens’ Oliver Twist and his reunion with his family. Rating: 1.00;
  • The Twelfth Night Mystery — The Three Wise Kings visit a little girl in modern times, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh — and a kitten! Rating: 2.50;
  • The Crusader’s Robe — A ship is returning from the Crusades with treasures, and somebody pilfers one. Who was it? Rating: 2.00;
  • The Geneva Summit Goldfish Mystery — Reagan goes to Geneva to meet a goldfish. Rating: 1.00;

THE BOTTOM LINE:

A treat for your break, even if you don’t drink coffee. A good collection of short mysteries, easily digestible at coffee breaks or short interludes. Obviously not going to be huge on plot or character development, but that’s not their goal. I’ll give it 3.25 lilypads out of 5.00.

Feb 272013
 

PLOT OR PREMISE:

This book is an amazing collection of 36 shortstories from a master storyteller combining romance, history, danger, twists, international intrigue, and domestic angst.

Year of Release Publisher ISBN/ASIN Series
1998 Harper Collins 978-0060192242 Stand-alone
My Rating (Original: Jul 27, 2003)

WHAT I LIKED:

Obviously with 36 shortstories, one cannot simply provide a generic list of key elements. A really nice mix, particularly some of the ones with twist endings. Here is an overview of each of the stories and the ratings for each.

  • NEVER STOP ON THE MOTORWAY: Woman driver is chased by a van down the motorway, with the context backlit by recent rapes and murders. Fantastic twist. 5.00
  • OLD LOVE: Two competitors, one boy, one girl compete against each other in everything including who loves the other more and are inseparable throughout life. 4.50
  • SHOESHINE BOY: Mountbatten (sic) pays a visit to St. George’s where a drastically underfunded Governor rolls out the red carpet. 4.50
  • CHEAP AT HALF THE PRICE: Mrs. Rosenheim wants a bauble from the jewelry store but has to play hustle to get the men in her life to commit to buying it. 4.00
  • BROKEN ROUTINE: A man whose routine is unflappable is somewhat disturbed by a brash youth on the train who wants to read his paper and smoke his cigarettes. Nice twist. 4.50
  • AN EYE FOR AN EYE: A woman has an alibi for the death of her husband: she was not only in the hospital (although the time is shaky) but also blind…or is she? 4.00
  • THE LUNCHEON: A up and coming man takes an attractive (married) woman to lunch to try and get business favours. Unfortunately lunch is expensive and he has no budget. 3.50
  • THE COUP: Two business rivals are stranded in Nigeria during a coup, and they end up resolving their differences and being the real coup. 3.50
  • THE PERFECT MURDER: A man commits an accidental murder of his mistress after finding out she was also stepping out with another man, and manages to frame the man for the murder. Cute twist at end. 4.00
  • YOU’LL NEVER LEARN TO REGRET IT: David is dying of AIDS and leaving everything to Pat. They trick the insurance company despite his condition and collect handsomely on David’s death. But insurance companies are sometimes trickier than one might think, as are their brokers. 3.75
  • THE FIRST MIRACLE: A cute twist on an old tail has an historical figure running errands around the birth of Christ. 3.50
  • THE LOOPHOLE: Two friends get into a heated argument at the club and not only engage in slander but also physical fighting, leading to a legal battle and an eventual settlement, yet the two remain friends. 4.00
  • THE HUNGARIAN PROFESSOR: An Englishman visits Hungary for the Olympics and meets a Professor who knows all about England and wants to practice his English and talk about all the sites in London. 4.25
  • THE STEAL: A tightly-budgeted couple takes a vacation and are forced to endure the overblown ramblings of an obnoxiously rich couple, up to and including the purchase of an oriental rug. 4.75
  • CHRISTINA ROSENTHAL: A strange story of a Jewish marathon runner and the gentile woman he fell in love with, and the strange stories of their love over time. 4.25
  • COLONEL BULLFROG: A Colonel becomes a POW in Asia shortly before the end of WWII and the strange relationship that develops between the captive and the captors. 4.00
  • DO NOT PASS GO: A political refugee resettles in America, but during a return flight to the area of his birth, his plane is forced to land in Iraq, where there is a bounty on his head. 3.50
  • CHUNNEL VISION: A strange tale of a man about to be dumped by his latest fling, where the woman runs up expensive charges at a restaurant where the man explains to an old friend a detailed plot of an upcoming novel. The old friend, also a novelist, is horrified as the plot is the plot of his latest best seller, and the man doesn’t know. 4.00
  • DOUGIE MORTIMER’S RIGHT ARM: A story of rowers and the mysterious cast of the arm of one of the first rowers which keeps disappearing from the rower’s club. 3.75
  • CLEAN SWEEP IGNATIUS: A Nigerian Minister of Finance wants to cut out the heart of corruption and flys to Switzerland to get the names of the citizens in his country who have Swiss bank accounts. 4.00
  • NOT FOR SALE: An up-and-coming artist gets swept off her feet by a gallery owner who wines and dines her to finish some stunning paintings for her first showing, with initially tragic results. 4.00
  • ONE-NIGHT STAND: Two male friends are inseparable until they meet a woman that impresses both of them, despite each being already married, and they both pursue her with reckless abandon, cutting each other off in each attempt until one finally succeeds. Neat feminist twist. 4.50
  • A CHAPTER OF ACCIDENTS: An art hustler likes to borrow paintings and then return them, while at the same time picking up the nearest available wife for a turn around the studio. Burned twice, a gallery owner plots a terminal revenge. 4.00
  • CHECKMATE: An elaborate plan to trick a woman into bed revolves around a game of “strip”-chess. But the plan goes too well for awhile, and then a final twist to set things right. 4.00
  • THE CENTURY: A sports tale of an elaborate cricket match of Herculean competition between two giants at Oxford and Cambridge. 3.50
  • JUST GOOD FRIENDS: A strange bar tale leading to a new companion for a recently-bruised male ego. 4.00
  • HENRY’S HICCUP: A rich man tries to hold on to his comfortable life despite the impact of the Great War in Europe. After the war, he’s disappointed to find privilege doesn’t return to the owner. 4.00
  • A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE: An upright (and uptight) businessman tries to export his business values to Mexico when he tries to get a construction contract. 4.50
  • TRIAL AND ERROR: More of a short novella than a short story, this is the tale of a man convicted of murder who hires the straightest arrow at Scotland Yard to find the corpse which he thinks is still walking around very much alive, and that his wife was in on the frame. 4.50
  • THE PERFECT GENTLEMAN: A publisher visits a club in NYC and grabs hold of a story of a backgammon championship from the 1930s and how a non-player apparently beat the world champion despite numerous setbacks that week. 4.50
  • À LA CARTE: A boy wants to follow his father’s footsteps working at a car factory, but his father makes him work for a year in London to see if he can find something more upwardly mobile, and he does: chef! 4.00
  • THE CHINESE STATUE: A man travels to China as a diplomat and is given a statue of some value by a peasant, and has to try and find a way to repay the debt. 4.50
  • THE WINE TASTER: A wine taster is challenged to a duel of palates by an unscrupulous rich upstart. 4.00
  • TIMEO DANAOS…: A bank branch manager with pretensions to grandeur takes his wife on a Mediterranean cruise, and she wants to buy a new dinner service. 4.00
  • NOT THE REAL THING: A strange combination of foreign governments, an engineer who helps rebuild their basic services, a woman with two suitors who marries the engineer, and the desire of the engineer to show up his now important former rival (despite the fact that the engineer won the girl). All in all, a story worthy of medals <g> (a subplot of the story). 4.50
  • ONE MAN’S MEAT…: A story told in two parts. The first part is the intro — a man sees a beautiful woman entering a theatre, and finagles a seat next to her. Then, he asks her to dinner and the story diverges into four possible endings.
    • RARE: Everthing goes perfectly, all too well in fact, and the ending is a depressing twist. 4.00
    • BURNT: The woman’s husband turns up, so the night is a bust and goes downhill from there. 4.25
    • OVERDONE: Everything goes horrible between the two, and the woman is basically a shrew and the meal feels like a battlescene. 4.00
    • À POINT: An amazing combination of optimism and lightheartedness that outshines the other three endings by far. 5.00

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

That there weren’t even more stories or that some of the really good ones weren’t longer!


THE BOTTOM LINE:

An excellent collection, I’ll give it 4.25 lilypads out of 5.00.