In the Midst of Winter

51lKIT-x2jL._SY346_     In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is a wild ride in the middle of a snowstorm to dispose of a dead body in the trunk of a Lexus. The life stories of Lucia, Evelyn, and Richard as they tell each other about their past are more compelling than their adventure.

At the end of the ebook on my iPhone, I found  a summary for the reading group guide  – I could not have said it any better.

“A blizzard in New York City brings together three strikingly different people, each burdened with a difficult past. Lucia, an aging Chilean writer who has survived political exile, disease, and betrayal, is marooned with her dog in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. Richard, an academic chairman at NYU, is a broken man haunted by guilt for his fatal failures as a husband and father. And Evelyn, a brave young Guatemalan woman, is an undocumented home health aide who fled her native country due to gang violence, which claimed the lives of her two brothers and very nearly destroyed her own.

Over the course of several days, these three—each a misfit in a different way—are forced by circumstances into a rare level of intimacy. As the result of a shocking crime, they depart on a precarious epic journey that reveals their painful inner demons and ultimately enables them to forge a tentative peace with their pasts.”

My favorite quotes from the book:

  • {Despite the} “atrocious weather, fleas, food poisoning, his ulcer, and his own and the moose’s shit,” Richard falls in love with Lucia.

  • From Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer. ”

And, I found Lucia’s recipe for  comforting Chilean cazuela – homemade stew made with beef, potato, pumpkin and corn on the cob – click here to see it.

Allende cleverly connects immigration, political turmoil and history, family loyalty, and cultural divides, through a murder mystery.  The murder with the disposal of the dead body in the trunk of a car in the middle of a snowstorm and the revelation of whodunit at the end is almost an aside to the harrowing backstories of the three who become friends under strained circumstances.   Despite the confusing jumps back and forth through lives and times,  the journey of the three disparate lives, as they reveal their backgrounds, is the real story, providing important history and information; the murder plot and the final reveal of whodunit is secondary.

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Tell Tale – Shorts by Archer

9781447252290tell tale_5_jpg_260_400    After following the characters in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles for years (one character was named after me, but only my first name appears in one of the short stories), it’s a relief to have a few shorts without cliffhangers in Archer’s new book of short stories – Tell Tale.

In fourteen short stories, Archer targets a range of characters and lifestyles, from the bank executive forced to retire months before his pension, to the iron monger who became a theologian.  In one story, “The Holiday of a Lifetime,” Archer offers the reader a choice of endings, and two well-known literary characters pop up in “A Wasted Hour” and “A Good Toss to Lose.”   Demonstrating his talent for writing clever plots, Jeffrey Archer begins and ends his collection with stories confined to 100 words; the others are varying lengths, but each has a surprising O’Henry twist at the end.

Archer’s newest collection of short stories is as entertaining as his novels, and he ends with a teaser for his fans – the first four chapter of his next novel – “Heads You Win” to be published next year – I can’t wait.

Beautiful Animals

An isolated Greek island in Larry Osborne’s Beautiful Animals welcomes the wealthy every summer to bask in the sun while idling away the hours in luxury, but one summer an unexpected guest arrives.  With a slow sinister spin, Osborne combines a commentary on the shallow lives of the rich while also exposing their vulnerability.

The story begins with an innocuous description of two families vacationing in extravagant houses on the cliffs set against sparkling seascapes and sunwashed cliffs. Naomi Codrington, who has just been fired from her law firm, is spending the summer with her father, an art dealer with an implied shady past, and her stepmother, a friend of  the Onassis family.   She befriends Samantha Haldene, a younger American college student, whose family is new to summers on the island.  All the descriptions of the surroundings, the food, the houses, the leisurely pace of their lives, their boredom seem endless, until a chance encounter suddenly begins the action, and the timeliness of Syrian refugees invades the pristine vista.

Naomi and Samantha spend their days swimming, drinking at the local cafes, and smoking pot purchased from a wild local who periodically rounds the island on her small boat.  One day as they explore one of the outermost beaches, they find a bedraggled man lying on the beach, seemingly washed up on shore.  Assuming he is an Arab refugee, they decide to care for him, bringing him clothes, water, food, and eventually secretly hiding him in a shepherd’s hut in the hills.  But this is an island and there are no secrets from the locals.  Naomi is forced to pay for silence, and decides checking him into the Four Seasons under her name is safer (after she has cleaned him up, of course).

The story flips back and forth between the two wealthy families and Faoud, the Syrian Arab whose background is not as desperate as his appearance; in fact, he misses his own life of privilege before it was taken away.  Naomi, the sleekest of the beautiful animals in the tale, is also the most lethal.  As she plots to have Faoud steal from her father’s house, her selfishness seeps through her outward veneer of “charity-worker passion.” Samantha, the younger and more impressionable, follows Naomi’s strong will, imitating and idolizing her.

When the burglary turns into murder, and Faoud escapes in the expensive Peugeot with Naomi’s father’s credit cards, passport, and the keys to the family’s Italian villa, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley begins to haunt the narrative.  For a while, it seems Faoud will finally be able to live the good life, buying expensive shoes and drinking good wine – until another unexpected stranger arrives to thwart the plan.

Osborne’s plot twists appear unexpectedly, with detailed treatment of the characters as they prowl through life: the self-satisfaction of the young girls, preening for Faoud’s attention “What beautiful animals we are, Sam thought, beautiful as panthers”; Faoud’s  determination, as a migrant “Either you act or you are shipped back in a cage to face an anonymous fate that no one will care about anyway.”

Of course, someone is always watching them, waiting to pounce.  Sadly, Osborne’s note on the refugee crisis echoes the modern dilemma in Europe:

“. . . If we keep them out it destroys them; if we let them in it destroys us…”

Osborne’s book was riveting but left a sour taste with me, much like Flynn’s Gone Girl.  The ending is realistic but not satisfying.  I wonder who will play Naomi in the movie.

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery at the Spa – Keep Her Safe

4124dC61QCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sophie Hannah was chosen to continue the legacy of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in two novels following the grand Dame’s style, and when you finish Keep Her Safe, you will understand why.  Murder, kidnapping, a distraught pregnant British mum, an arrogant American former prosecutor/talk show host, and a few policemen – set in a posh Arizona spa – come together to offer an entertaining mystery, Agatha Christie style.

Several plot lines intersect to keep the reader off balance but the main focus targets the murder of a young girl whose body has never been found.  The girl is spotted at the luxury spa after a flustered hotel clerk hands out the wrong room key to a jet-lagged British customer who not only becomes the instigator for the search of the girl but also becomes a victim.  As the story goes in and out of the possibilities, Hannah has the characters dancing in a complicated and sometimes confusing maze.  I lost patience with long pages of letters, interview transcripts, and descriptions of towels and pools at the luxury spa worthy of a marketing ad.    When the action finally picks up, the flashbacks, journals and court documents come together in a clever reveal of the true villain.

Just as Agatha Christie neatly summed up the action, laying bare the motivations of all the characters in her last chapter, so does Hannah.  Just in case the reader lost the thread of who did what to whom, she clearly explains it all in the end, exposing the villains and restoring faith in the system.  Except – there is an added surprise – leaving the ending with an uncomfortable and shocking revelation.

Although mystery books are not the best focus for a book club discussion, Sophie Hannah’s twists and surprise ending in Keep Her Safe might make the exception.  The ending would be worth discussing.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you feel about the ending.

 

Review of The Monogram Murders

 

 

Three Books Published Today

Not in my library yet but I’ve downloaded the samples on my iPhone, trying to decide which to read first.  They all look good.

  41nPeHMQ9NL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks

Since hearing Ann Patchett praise her preview copy this summer, I’ve been waiting for this book of short stories by the famous actor.  According to Ann, he can write too.

 

SevenDaysblog-196x300Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

If a family reunion during the holidays has you apprehensive, the premise of this story may help prepare you.  After returning from disease infested Liberia, Olivia returns to England but must be in quarantine for seven days. This family has never spent that much time in each other’s company and it promises to be quite a Christmas.

 

LastMrsParrish-blog-196x300The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

Psychological suspense with shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley – noone is who you think they are – sounds deliciously thrilling.