Archive for March, 2010

Ruby’s Spoon

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

By Anna Lawrence Pietroni

The Short Take:

The momentum of this book’s plot just keeps building, and what a fascinating ride it is. Fears and secrets, dreams and despair — Lawrence Pietroni has packed plenty and to spare in her first novel. And her almost-14-year-old heroine, Ruby, has all the tenacity and three times the energy of Oz’s famous Dorothy. This book just kept getting better the deeper I delved.


The fascination starts with this novel’s time and place: Black Country, England in the 1930s. However, the small community of Cradle Cross seems from an earlier era, where one company dominates a whole town and people still use charms for protection. Now introduce a lonely and motherless girl who meets an exotic looking woman on a mission and immediately becomes her ally.

That would be enough for a good plot right there, but there’s much more to come in this rich read.

Lawrence Pietroni has a marvelous way of introducing seemingly insignificant mysteries  — as in the mere part of a name — and then weaving their revelations into the advancement of her plot, adding layers of interest to her storytelling. This densely atmospheric novel captures the oppression of a town worn down by grief and hardship, so insular the smallest act immediately becomes everyone’s business, and strangers are viewed with hostility.

But Ruby’s Spoon is not dark and depressing — the lively and highly likable Ruby brings brightness to every page, just as she strives to bring light to the mysteries that swirl around her new friend and herself.

A Little Plot:

White-haired Isa Fly appears in Cradle Cross and immediately Ruby is caught in her quest for a lost half-sister. Isa also finds a friend in the new heir to Blick’s Button Factory, Truda Blick. While Ruby goes around asking about this missing person, Truda Blick finds she must make unpopular choices to keep her factory afloat. Both sets of actions upset the townsfolk and witchy-seeming Isa Fly becomes the focus of their hatred.

It’s a dangerous situation and Ruby races to keep Isa and Truda safe as well as solve an ever growing series of mysteries.

I didn’t come across a website for this new author, but to enjoy the author giving a short reading and some more background at a setting inspiration, click here. It’s worth clicking for sure.

The Fifth Servant

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

By Kenneth Wishnia

The Short Take:

I really liked this book, but not so much as a mystery. Instead, I found it to be a fascinating and highly intelligent historical fiction that presents the religious practices, fears, and suspicions of the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews of 16th century Prague in an entirely engrossing way.


You can almost taste and smell Vishia’s Prague, from a family’s Seder meal in the cramped Jewish Ghetto to the Inquisition’s torture chambers. And it’s a fascinating — and terrifying — place to visit. While the Jews theoretically live under the protection of the German Emperor Rudolph !!, nothing really protects them from the other citizens — Protestant and Catholic alike – who are only united by their common misconceptions and hatred. Not that there is any love lost between those two groups, either — each thinks the other should burn sooner rather than later in the fires of hell.

On top of this a visiting Bishop is determined to roust out any and all witches, and he has all the tools at hand he needs to get anyone to confess. In other words, there’s plenty of not-quite-bottled up fear to go around, and anything can set off a bloodbath.

But what I really enjoyed most about this novel was the characters’ religious discussions and debates concerning Jewish laws and practices. I admit to pretty much complete ignorance about the learned religious writings of Jewish philosophers and leaders. The samples Wishnia included in his novel were compelling indeed. I did not realize until after I finished, that one of the Rabbis was in fact a very famous reformer (I told you I as ignorant). I really want to know more about Rabbi Loew, the Kabbalah and more.

The crime and its investigation set everything in motion and drive the actions of the central figures, but its resolution is not what grips you. After all, when the lives of everyone in the Ghetto could be forfeit, one murder doesn’t seem that important.

A Little Plot:

It’s Easter weekend and a young Christian girl is found murdered in the shop of a Jewish merchant. Christians are convinced Jews took her blood for evil purposes and want to burn their Ghetto and kill them all. It falls on the shoulders of a newly-arrived religious scholar, Benyamin Ben-Akiva to investigate this crime in the slim hope of preventing a massacre.

With laws from all sides hampering his efforts, not to mention outright hostility against his mission, Ben-Akiva risks everything in a journey that takes him from the shadowy rooms of a whorehouse to the royal palace of the Emperor.

But does he really have any chance of success?

For more about Wishnia and his book click here.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

By Rebecca Skloot

The Short Take:

Read this book! It is phenomenal. You will be amazed, inspired, shocked, intrigued, and well rewarded for your time. Skloot’s scientific writing is clear and totally accessible. Best of all, her book avoids casting people as heroes or villains. The humanity of every person — from the first Johns Hopkins researchers to the offspring and friends of the immortal Mrs. Lacks — is presented with nonjudgemental honesty and respect.


I was intrigued by this book in advance, but never expected to be so thoroughly delighted. I usually read a fiction book alongside my non-fiction reads; mainly because non-fictions just don’t satisfy the “What’s going to happen next?” factor that propels me forward at top speed.

Not this time. I could hardly put Skloot’s book down.

You would never think a book built around the cultivation of cancer cells for medical research could be so fascinating to a total layman. Skloot avoids jargon and never comes close to overwhelming you with scientific facts. On top of that, she portrays a complex family that is transformed and shattered first by Henrietta’s death as a young mother, then by learning of the vitally important life her cells still lead.

And, Skloot does it all with a true journalistic eye, without bias or melodrama. This is one amazing book; almost as amazing as Henrietta’s unstoppable, eternal cells.

A Little Plot:

During treatments, a doctor takes samples of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells and attempts to grow them in a culture. For the first time in history the cells survive and multiply, and are dubbed HeLa. They become a scientific jaggernaut, contributing to countless medical miracles including the polio vaccine. Decades later, her children learn totally by accident that their mother’s cells still live. Confused and angry, they want answers, but they don’t know where to start.

Fate brings them Rebecca Skloot. And we should all be thankful.

For more about Skloot and her great book, visit her website by clicking here.


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March 2010