Archive for March, 2009

The Unquiet Bones

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

By Melvin R. Starr

The Short Take:

Set in England in the 1360s, this novel paints a fascinating portrait of the times as well as offering a mystery that reveals itself in unexpected ways. Plus a new “detective” who is as likely to question himself as a suspect.


The Unquiet Bones promises to be the first in a series of mysteries featuring Hugh de Singleton as a crime-solving surgeon. The writing is very straightforward; descriptions are succinct rather than flowery. You’ll also find plentiful use of terms and expressions typical of the times (no worries — Starr puts his glossary right up front, just read it first). As a result, the book has a directness that feels very appropriate for its time and place: Survival on earth and relief in heaven are everyone’s prime concerns.

Thoughtful and curious, surgeon Hugh is an engaging character who feels totally real. His thoughts at any given moment can fly to the same oddments as ours: Are only lords born with the ability to cock one eyebrow? Since the rich pay monks to pray for their souls, does that mean the poor have less chance of attaining heaven?

Hugh’s tendency to pose questions such as these not only enhance his efforts at investigation, they make the reader wonder as well. That is what set this book apart for me. I like Hugh and I want to know more about him.

And the mystery was enjoyable, too, though to say why would ruin your fun.

A Little Plot:

Through a literal accident, Hugh is invited to open his surgery at Lord Gilbert’s village of Bampton.  When bones are discovered in the castle cesspool, Hugh is called upon to determine whose they are and who put them there.  That’s a monumental task for those times, but Hugh takes it on. As his investigation progresses, more corpses turn up. And one young man looks very guilty indeed. 

That’s all I’m going to reveal. It’s already too much.

For more about Melvin Starr and his new series of books, click here.

The Winter Rose

Friday, March 20th, 2009

By Jennifer Donnelly

The Short Take:

If you liked Follett’s World Without End, this book is for you. In fact, I think it is far better than that best seller. Donnelly’s historical, epic romance avoids the trap of so many in that genre — her lovers actually show some smarts.


I am NOT a fan of romance books. In fact I usually avoid them like the plague. Too often one (or both) of the so-called lovers does stupid things and hides his/her feelings. Arggh! Even Scarlett O’Hara drove me crazy. The star-crossed lovers in this book do fail to communicate at times, but there’s always a smart reason for it. A refreshing change!

There’s lots of action, two side plots (one of which concerns the two main characters in Donnelly’s The Tea Rose), and a nice supporting cast of characters. It also has one of the most despicable villains I’ve come across in quite a while.

I wouldn’t call this great literature, but as far as pleasurable, escapist reading goes The Winter Rose is a good pick. I approached it with trepidation but was quite pleasantly surprised.

A Little Plot:

Our heroine India, in spite of her rich and disapproving family, becomes a doctor in London in 1900. Of course she’s excellent, but must work under another doc with archaic ideas. Then she encounters London’s most famed criminal, Sid Malone. Yep, it’s love. Very, very inconvenient love. Oh, did I mention that India has a fiance? Actually he sees her more as his financier. Yep, he’s the villain.

I’m not going to go into any more details but there’s murder, politics, corruption, women’s health, poverty, Africa, mountain climbing (!), and sex. One insurmountable problem after another besets our couple, but their loves stays true and the pages flip fast.

For more about Jennifer Donnelly and her books, click here.

Matthew Pearl’s New Book: The Last Dickens

Monday, March 16th, 2009

I just got this email from Mr. Pearl. I have read both his other books and enjoyed them, particularly The Dante Club. So I thought I would give you a heads up about his newest effort. Sounds interesting. Here’s what he had to say:

Dear friends,

My new novel THE LAST DICKENS is in bookstores everywhere tomorrow! Please consider showing the booksellers support for the book by ringing one up at your local store or online as soon as you can!

My inaugural book reading/signing is tomorrow, Tuesday (March 17), in New York City. I hope all you New York and Tristate area folks will come to hear about the book and say hello at the Barnes & Noble Greenwich Village location (396 Ave of the Americas, at 8th st) at 6:30pm. Bring friends!

THE LAST DICKENS is a literary thriller that begins when Dickens’s sudden death leaves his final novel unfinished. His young American publisher James Osgood sets out on a quest from Boston to England to discover how Dickens’s novel was going to end, unleashing a real-life puzzle that becomes a matter of life and death. Lots more at!

Events following the one in New York will be in Newton (MA), Atlanta, Miami, Iowa City, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Brookline (MA), and Cambridge (MA). Details included below for each event. I’ll send a reminder email to those I have listed as living in each area the day before each respective event–but I try to be sensitive to email clutter, so otherwise I’ll be updating you on my website’s news page rather than through emails. You can also become a fan at my new Facebook page,

I’m happy to report very nice early reviews: the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says that THE LAST DICKENS is “ambitious and satisfying.” Booklist calls it “a brilliant, exciting thriller” that “aligns perfectly with” THE DANTE CLUB and THE POE SHADOW.” And the London Daily Mail declares the novel a “gripping read” that “ensures excitement.” I’m glad I can now share the book with all of you! Please forward this email to anyone you think might be interested, or any book clubs looking for a new pick.

With best wishes,



Sea of Poppies

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

By Amitav Ghosh

The Short Take:

Not just a great book, this has the earmarks of great literature. You feel the full gamut of emotions, from fury to laugh-out-loud. Ghosh creates amazing characters. The plot compels you to keep reading. A true epic in every sense. I am so glad I read this book.


My rave review comes with two caveats. But you must read further to learn them.

Sea of Poppies addresses issues of race, caste, policies, religion, opium, love, empires, honor, government, family…phew! Yet it is packed with action, drama, and twists of fate. Multiple story lines would be confusing if it weren’t for the fact that every major character (and many a minor one) is so distinctly drawn. Their world may be completely foreign in time and place and culture, yet their passions, fears, and hopes ring 100% true. 

Set mainly in India in the 1830s, this novel is populated by an international cast of heroes, villains, and some individuals who move from one category to the other. Starting as a half dozen or so individual stories, eventually all the plot lines converge as fate brings all together for a voyage to Mauritius.

Even when the book skips from character to character and story to story, Ghosh subtly lets you know there will be convergences. This sense of expectation makes the novel even more compelling. 

A Little Plot:

A woman’s opium-addicted husband dies, leaving her without hope. Through an odd set of circumstances, a young, free African-American rises rapidly in his career as sailor. An eminent Raja meets catastrophe. An orphaned French girl tried to adjust to her new life. A deeply religious man undergoes a startling transformation. 

And that’s just a taste of the bounty this book holds. 

Opium is the thread that binds this book together: Indians are forced to grow it, Chinese are pushed to consume it, fortunes flourish and fail because of it, economies are built on it, and wars are threatened to assure this cycle continues. Yet all that is mere backdrop against which a number of mesmerizing stories play out.

The roads for all will lead to a voyage on the ocean ship, Ibis; for some a voyage of hope, for others a voyage of fear and even death.

Those Caveats:

1. This is the first book in a planned trilogy so the ending is not fully satisfying. Though, believe me, it is far more so than the first book of the ever-popular Lord of the Rings.

2. The language can be very Jabberwocky at times. But even if the words don’t make sense to you, you still get the drift of what is being said. Once I let all that odd language just flow over me, I found it enhanced the novel’s mood. After all, sometimes the characters don’t understand each other, either.

Neither of these things should scare you away from this amazing book. But I believe in full disclosure.

For more about Amitav Ghosh and his books, click here.

The Brief History of the Dead

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

The Short Take:

By Kevin Brockmeier

This book is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s already on my Recommended Reads but it was unavailable for awhile. Now it is out in paperback. While the subject matter might sound bleak, this is actually a book that celebrates our human connections. I can’t recommend it enough.


The inspiration for this novel draws on an old African tradition that holds that there are two stages of death. The first stage is when you are physically dead but your memory lives on in others who knew you. The final death is when there is no longer anyone alive who has any first hand memories of you.

Brockmeier’s book uses this concept in a beautiful yet tragic way. Beautifully written, it will haunt you for a long time. But that is a good thing. The Brief History of the Dead will lead you to rethink the impact your life has on others as well as theirs on you. It’s not preachy, it’s just great.

A Little Plot:

A terrible disease is wiping out the world’s population. But the people who die find themselves in another world — in a city that is very earth-like but not their own. As the deaths continue, only a small band of scientists in Antarctica are isolated enough to survive, at least for a time.

At first the number of people in this other, shadow world grows dramatically. Then it starts to shrink, as the number of truly living people rapidly diminish. The people of this shadow world begin to realize that it is their memories in the minds of others that keeps them there or sends them on. And only a handful are alive. And these are dying, too.

This all sounds so sci-fi, but trust me, this novel has none of that feel. This book has so much humanity in it. Do try it out. Before it disappears again.


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March 2009