“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Two back-to-back surprising deaths send shockwaves to a sleepy community in a quaint English town.  A quirky old detective with a heavy accent and a sidekick enter the scene with numerous suspects holding many secrets.  Sound familiar?  No, it’s not Agatha

magpiemurders

Christie – it’s Anthony Horowitz and his book “Magpie Murders.”  It is a traditional whodunit where all the clues are presented throughout the story and the reader is challenged to tie them together to solve the crime before the genius sleuth does the final reveal.  The twist here is that Mr. Horowitz has taken the genre to a new level:  it’s a whodunit within a whodunit.

For the set up, “Magpie Murders” is the new book by fictional megastar mystery writer Alan Conway, creator of the hit Atticus Pünd detective series. Alan writes in the style of Agatha Christie and uses many of her gimmicks, including basing the title and names of chapters on a nursery rhyme – in this case, the old nursery rhyme about magpies: One for sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy, Five for silver, Six for gold, Seven for a secret, Never to be told…. The editor, Susan Ryeland, has just received the draft of the book and has hunkered down with a glass of wine to read through it over the

weekend.  For the next six chapters we are reading “Magpie Murders” along with Susan.  The reader becomes engrossed in the story of two mysterious deaths at the old Pye Mansion in the fictional town of Saxon-on-Avon in the 1950s.  The idiosyncratic detective Atticus Pünd is Jewish, of half German and half Greek lineage, who survived the concentration camps during World War II.  He is known for being the best as he has solved many high-profile crimes. As he moves about the village interviewing the inhabitants, he uncovers many festering secrets, some that have been buried for years.

The Magpie Murders story is suddenly interrupted, and we are back with Susan who learns of an unexpected death in her world.  It is ruled a suicide, but Susan has her suspicions. Using techniques she gleaned from editing the Atticus Pünd mysteries, she takes on solving the mystery.

After many red herrings in their respective stories, both mysteries are neatly solved.  For mystery lovers, it’s a “two-fer” in one book.

Both mysteries take place in small towns; it appears Horowitz is making a statement about the people that inhabit them.  Upon first look, it would appear that a country village is a tranquil place to live. Susan remarks that she “soon discovered that every time I made one friend I made three enemies and that arguments about such issues as car parking, the church bells, dog waste, and hanging flower baskets dominated daily life to such an extent that everyone was permanently at each other’s throats.”  And, later: “Emotions which are quickly lost in the noise and chaos of the city fester around the

village square, driving people to psychosis and violence.” She reasons that, because people are so close to each other day after day, they tend to get on one another’s nerves more quickly.  She reasons also that, because people know everyone else in a small village, they are more likely to be suspicious of each other. “Cities are anonymous but in a small, rural community everyone knows everyone, making it so much easier to create suspects and, for that matter, people to suspect them.”  She suggests that these close-knit comm

unities create a web of suspicions, sometimes based more on gossip than hard fact.

W

atch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on

Monday, May 7.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 2 to discu

ss “Magpie Murders” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katrina Bivald

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Two friends meet online over their mutual love of books: Amy, an elderly woman in Broken Wheel, Iowa; and Sara, a young bookseller in Sweden. Although they met online, they begin a pre-internet practice of writing letters to each other about their respective reading lists and events going on in their lives. Through their correspondence, Sara learns of the varied characters that live in Broken Wheel, and Amy learns of the goings on at the bookstore. Amy repeatedly invites Sara to visit Iowa. When Sara loses her job due to the bookstore’s going out of business, she decides there is nothing stopping her from making the trip.

Upon arrival, Sara learns that, while in in route, Amy succumbed to a long terminal illness – the funeral was just letting out. She had travelled half way around the world to stay with her friend, and now her friend is dead. The town, not quite sure what to do with her, takes Sara in and insists she stay in Amy’s house for as long as she wants.

It’s clear to Sara: Broken Wheel’s best days were many years ago. Most of the main street is boarded up, save a diner and a hardware/grocery. As is typical of most rural areas, the agrarian economy was wiped out when big commercial farms took over the industry and made it difficult for family farms to compete. As one resident, John, summed up the dying town: “If there aren’t any jobs then the young people and the families won’t stay, and if the families don’t stay then there aren’t any new young people, and there’s no town without young people.”

When Sara learns that one of the boarded storefronts in town belonged to Amy (her husband ran a competing hardware store) she decides what the town needs most is a bookstore! The odds are stacked against her. Her bookstore in Sweden closed in the heart of a thriving town – it’s a tough business even in the best of circumstances. Worse, there are virtually no readers in Broken Wheel – who would be her customers? Undeterred, Sara starts to refurbish the store. Immediately the town pitches in. Caroline, the local church lady, takes up a collection of used furniture and shelves. George, a down-and-out who struggles with alcohol, helps with cleaning and painting the store. For inventory they start out with Amy’s large collection of books. It is the most exciting thing to happen in Broken Wheel in decades.

The main themes are rebirth and the power of books to transform lives. The bookstore revives main street – it gives new life not only to the town, but to the individuals who start to read. George now has a purpose and gives up alcohol. Prim and proper Caroline gives up shame from the past and finds love with a younger man. Grumpy Grace (owner of the diner), starts to try out something she read in a book: “If you have a talent or skill, it is your responsibility to give of your gift to those with less ability.” She begins to use her talent to bake cakes for Caroline’s church bake sale. And lonely Tom (Amy’s only relative and nephew) and Sara form a relationship.

Will it all come to an end when the Immigration Investigator comes to town just before Sara’s Visa expires? You’ll have to read the book.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, April 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, April 4 to discuss The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“High Cotton” by Darryl Pinckney

highcottonChosen for Black History Month, High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney is a fresh and contrasting perspective of a young, upper-middle class black man in America from the stereotypical drug, violence, and crime riddled experience, typically depicted of the black poor.  In 1903, scholar, activist, and first African American to receive a doctorate degree, W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term “Talented Tenth” in an essay by the same name.  It was a term that designated the leadership class of African Americans and described the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change.  Du Bois strongly believed that blacks needed a classical education rather than the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington.  It is from this heritage that the story is told by an unnamed narrator in High Cotton as he moves from his comfortable childhood in white suburban Indianapolis to Columbia University to enjoying a brief stint as an expatriate in Paris.

 

The book is a fictional, yet mostly an autobiographical bildungsroman of a fourth-generation product of the old (as opposed to the post-civil rights new and budding) African American middle class.  Although it contains historical elements of the author’s life, it is done on a large scale of finding and creating an identity, all the while getting at society, history and the spirit of the age.  Prominently featured in the story is the narrator’s grandfather Eustace, the son of a Baptist preacher who attends Brown University, Harvard Graduate School, and eventually becomes a lousy business man and a controversial Congregationalist preacher.  The narrator tells us his grandfather was “a terrible snob, his pride somehow outrageous and shaky at the same time.  He had a finely developed idea of his own worth and enjoyed, like ill health, the illusion that no one else shared it.” His grandfather represents the Negro past — something to rebel against.  There is an almost orthodoxy and inherent demand in Du Bois “Talented Tenth” or as the narrator calls “The Also Chosen” that educated blacks have a commitment to their community- much more so than could ever be expected of anybody who is white.  The narrator is trying to forge his own identity while dealing with the inherited identities and expectations he was born with.  He says “All men were created equal, but even so, lots of mixed messages with sharp teeth waited under my Roy Rogers pillow.  You were just as good as anyone else out there, but they —whoever ‘they’ were — had rigged things so that you had to be close to perfect just to break even.”

 

The book is not an easy read – it is almost painstakingly slow.  Every paragraph is dense and references so many allusions that you almost need to decode, unpack, lookup, or at least reread every other sentence.  For example: “Nothing ever broke through the narcotic of Grandfather’s nostalgia, although the traditional horrors actually happened.  What now seems tired was then fresh… One night Esau hid under the floorboards of a forsaken country church while the necktie party that had elected him honored guest of the hickory tree raged over the benches…” is referencing a lynch mob that was after his grandfather.  Overall, the effort of the difficult read is worth it.  Pinckney’s prose is beautiful and, like poetry, must be consumed at a slower, contemplative pace.  There the reader will be rewarded with humor, wisdom, sarcasm, and a fresh view of a black life in America.

 

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, March 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, March 7 to discuss High Cotton at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Book of Wonders” by Douglas Trevor

9780984824557The Book of Wonders, the second collection of short stories by author Douglas Trevor, features nine humorous, smart, and absorbing works of fiction.  His writing is crisp, witty, and deftly traverses the inner and outer landscapes of his characters and their situations.

One of the recurring threads woven throughout the stories is books – reading, writing, studying, touching, relishing, even defacing them.  Many of the characters are academics, writers, librarians, scholars dealing with the written word and how it relates to the real world.  My favorite story is “The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group” which features Colin, a recently divorced professor at the University of Michigan where he teaches English composition and Theory of Critical Thought.  Colin, blind-sighted by his divorce, is trying to remake his life by staying busy to avoid moping and strategically looking at ways to find a new girlfriend.  He made a list of things to try: yoga, golf, Thai cooking, learning Russian, volunteering, and internet dating – all which proved to be hilariously disastrous.  One night he is voluntarily kidnapped by a couple of blue-collar white teenage girls and a black man named Ty.  Ty, who never applied to college, had obtained (aka stolen) and had been reading materials from Colin’s syllabus for his course on the Frankfurt School: Traditional and Critical Theory.  The upshot of the Frankfurt School’s philosophy was that the marriage of political ideology and manufacturing capability prevalent in the Nazi regime left workers without a chance of improving their lot.  The purpose of the “kidnap” was for Colin to make an appearance and speak to Ty’s Frankfurt School Discussion Group in Detroit.  Ty’s reasoning for the group was this:  if Detroit is going to rise again, be rebuilt, it is in the interest of the workers to do it right this time around.  And what better way than to glean what could be learned from the Frankfurt School to shape the future of the Big D.  And what better way to understand the Frankfurt School than to kidnap the professor.  The meeting is held in an abandoned, dilapidated warehouse that used to be a book depository before it burned.  There are books strewn everywhere, nibbled on by rats.  Ty selected the location as a living metaphor: “Where do books end up? They end up rotting, turning to ash.  Books are just things.  You got to take the ideas that are in books and move them out into the world to make them matter.  That’s the central message of the Frankfurt School.”

In the story “Sonnet 126”, Theo (another professor of literature and research) spends three to four days a week in the British Library in London depending on his teaching schedule.  One day he comes across a discovery of a lifetime: two lost final lines to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126 in the poet’s own handwriting.  He sacrifices his opportunity for acclaim by bequeathing the discovery to another scholar: his ex-wife Fiona.  He decides to abandon books altogether: “I think I want more than books for my life… I’m done with the business of old books, Fiona.  I want to be done with it.  Enough torture and torment.”

Myths are another recurring theme.  According to the Greek myth, Endymion, a beautiful young shepherd sleeps with his eyes open, never ages and he and the moon, Selene, fall in love.  In “Endymion” a present day beautiful Greek man named Damien Endymion picks up the overweight accountant Cynthia at her company’s happy hour at an Irish pub up the road from her office.  She can’t believe someone so beautiful could be attracted to her.  He says her rotundness reminds him of the moon.  He sleeps with eyes open.

In the final story “Easy Writer”, Trevor’s use of myth takes on a Jungian treatment where a person’s life narrative resonates with a myth contained in the collective unconscious.  The myth of Ceres by Ovid resounds with the autobiographical account by Charity, a writer (and again professor of literature).  In her story instead of a descent into hell, it is a descent into the bowels of the Chicago slums – the pomegranates from the myth (forbidden, lest one be trapped forever in the underground) are transformed into heroin and the consequent addiction that steals Charity’s mother from her.  The “reader”, Alex, grew up an economically privileged white kid in La Jolla but was overweight, uncool, and bullied.  The myth and Charity’s story are translated in his subconscious as a story of abandonment by his father.

I highly recommend this collection.  Trevor’s writing is impeccable and the themes erudite.  The alienation and loneliness found in each story is poignant.  The humor in the predicaments is non-whimsical – like funny in a sad, existential way.

Douglas Trevor works won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize, the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 5.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, February 7 to discuss The Book of Wonders at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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The Book Of Wonders By Douglas Trevor (Short Story Collection. Fiction)

(author will be at The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague MI January 26th, at 5:30pm) 

Review written by Andrew H. Kuharevicz

The Book of Wonders by Douglas Trevor is about questions, and about what keeps our stories going, our myths and dreams…

It is a book that asks if the wonder and mystery is more important than the truths we find, age old questions to be sure, maybe even unanswerable, but important we ask none the less. It is about people trying to coexist with other people, and all of the complexities that entails.

            The Book of wonders (2017 published by six on seven books) has numerous meta-narratives working below the surface of the fictional character’s existence, bringing the object known as the book and the ideas of our own reality into play. One is about literary mediums, and one person might ask…

Why in the age of twitter and social media, a time where everyone wants everything right now, with a society that seems to have an attention span that lasts no longer than five minutes, why, is the short story not more popular than the novel?

The characters in The Novelist & The Short Story Writer are ying and yang. The story itself is a contrasting thought experiment where two different writers are shown in juxtaposition to one another, colliding at a summer conference where the novelist is held in such high regards, while the short story writer is seen as a weirdo who unfortunately writes badly. Somehow, the short story writer has mistakenly been invited to lecture, and as the summer days go by he becomes an outcast, while talking about his experimental writing and asking the novelist if she’ll do whatever it takes to be able to write the story she needs to write, even if that means lighting herself on fire. It is a comedic but lonely piece of writing that ends abruptly…after the novelist meets the short story writer’s family, who lives in Ohio in a lower middle-class neighborhood.

The novelist brings the short story writer’s notebook he forgot on campus to him, they talk for a while, but that’s it, they part ways; the short story writer goes inside of his house to calm down his autistic child before he types his stories at the kitchen table when his family goes to bed.

She (the novelist) gets back on the highway, home to New York, seemingly happy that her life isn’t the short story writer’s life, making the reader wonder if either of them understood anything that happened to them. Were any lessons learned? But—so goes life, and often enough we don’t take the time to comprehend what is going on in the moment, a major theme in—The Book of wonders, and this is just one of the stories, but all have a different existential impact on the reader.

Trevor (who’s tight prose is a perfect fit for the literary short story genre) writes about humanity, and about the relationships we have with each other. Mothers and daughters, brothers and colleagues, all interactions of human nature are on display. The short story collection could be said to be about…what happens after…

The Book of Wonders. It is a great book, I’d say, about simply, existing.

Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know (SixOneSeven Books, 2013), and the short story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space (University of Iowa Press, 2005). Thin Tear won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Girls I Know won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize. Doug’s short fiction has appeared most recently as a Ploughshares Solo, and in The Iowa Review, New Letters, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has also had stories in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, The New England Review, and about a dozen other literary magazines. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

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“The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles” by Katherine Pancol

yelloweyesKatherine Pancol’s novel, a runaway bestseller in France, has been translated into more than 2 dozen languages.  It’s a predictable Cinderella plot line that is wrought with lively characters and humorous predicaments.  Dowdy, middle-aged Josephine hits bottom when her chronically unemployed husband runs off with his mistress (and manicurist) to start a crocodile farm in Kenya.  He’s certain that this is finally the get-rich-quick scheme that is going to pay off.  He is so confident that he drains their savings to invest in the project.  Josephine is left alone to support their two teenage daughters on her measly wage as a 12th-century French research scholar.  To make matters worse, her oldest daughter Hortense blames Josephine for her husband’s behavior – she is much too frumpy and dull to keep a man interested.  Meanwhile, Josephine’s sister Iris has everything: beauty, a rich husband, a swanky apartment in Paris, and a glittering social life.  But, Iris is bored by it all.  At a cocktail party she strikes up a conversation with a publisher – to make herself seem more interesting, she tells him she is working on a novel.  He agrees to read the manuscript when ready.  It is then that Iris hatches the brilliant idea of having Josephine write the book (a romance that takes place in 12th-century France).  Josephine keeps the money, and Iris gets the credit and attention.  The book is an overwhelming, overnight success.  Josephine becomes rich, and Iris gets fame.  Josephine, buoyed by her achievement, comes into her own:  she loses weight, gets highlights, fights inner demons from her past, and even finds a handsome lover in the library.

Although this is a satisfying Cinderella story, the theme is the age-old moral:  money, fame, and wealth are shallow pursuits, and you can lose your soul by pursuing them for their own sake.  Crocodiles are used as a metaphor for this – one can be eaten alive by chasing the gold of the crocodile’s yellow eyes.

Katherine Pancol has gone on to write two sequels to the novel:  The Slow Waltz of Turtles and The Squirrels of Central Park are Sad on Mondays (not yet translated to English).  The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles has been made into a movie – in French.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, January 3 to discuss The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Leonardo Da Vinci” by Walter Isaacson

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In a series of best-selling biographies of Renaissance men (Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin), Walter Isaacson tackles the original Renaissance man himself: Leonardo da Vinci.  Leonardo’s interests were wide, vast, and deep: the arts (theater, painting, music), the sciences (optics, biology, anatomy, hydraulics, aviation, geology), and engineering (mechanics, civil, architecture, city design).  The challenge for Isaacson was source material.  His previous genius subjects left piles of material in their wakes – Da Vinci left 7200 pages of notebooks.  The notebooks are rich with doodles, maps, schemes for new machines, ideas for new weapons, city designs, anatomical drawings, grocery lists, and scientific studies to work out solutions to experimental problems.  They contained very limited autobiographical or inner musings.  Thus, Isaacson concedes the book is more about Leonardo’s output and contributions than “intimate personal revelations”.

The astounding detail about Da Vinci was his approach to learning.  Other than attending an abacus school for math, Leonardo was self-taught.    He eschewed dogma and rote learning, going directly to the source:  experience and experimentation.  He was exceedingly curious – a two-year old that never stopped asking why and how.  Why is the sky blue?  How does a bird fly?  How do muscles in the face express emotion?   He saw patterns across different fields of study:  branches of trees, rivers and tributaries, and veins in the body; how eddies and swirls in water work the same as in air to keep birds in flight – and the same patterns can be used to paint curls on a portrait’s head.  His inquisitiveness led him to discover things long before they became common knowledge.  He intuited the first and third laws of motion 200 years ahead of Newton. He determined how the aortic valve worked 450 years before the medical establishment did.  He let science inform his art:  he dissected more than 20 cadavers to create detailed anatomical drawings – especially interesting is his dissection of the face and lips to get to the source of facial expressions.  There is a reason Mona Lisa’s smile is so captivating.

 

 

Da Vinci could have written dozens of books on his subjects of interest that would have likely been used for teaching in the academies for centuries.  He had little interest in studying passed-down knowledge, therefore he probably did not even consider publishing and passing down what he discovered. He was learning for the sake of learning to satisfy an unbound personal curiosity.

 

Leonardo was the ultimate character: “illegitimate, left-handed, gay, vegetarian, easily distracted, and at times heretical.” Unlike Michelangelo, Leonardo was strikingly handsome, well adjusted, gregarious, and self-expressed.  He had many friends, wore pinks and purples, and in accordance with letting experience rather than dogma dictate, he had an openly gay relationship with a long-time companion.

He was notorious for procrastinating on commissions, and, more times than not, he just abandoned projects altogether.  He eloquently defends procrastination: “Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterwards give form.”  One of his famous abandoned projects was his Gran Cavallo commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482.  It was intended to be the largest equestrian statue in the world.  Leonardo did extensive preparatory work and produced a clay model, but eventually abandoned the venture. The project was picked up again 500 years later.  Now named “The American Horse,” one of two full-size casts is on permanent display at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.

 

In our age, where an education is a diploma earned by memorizing and regurgitating handed-down information, all “knowledge” is a mere internet search away, and most experience is virtual, Leonardo’s example beckons us to put the books and gadgets down to interact physically with the real world and everyday sensory experience – and, most importantly, to always stay curious.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 4.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 6 to discuss Leonardo Da Vinci at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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