Sunday, December 04, 2016

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg

While the book jacket says Fannie Flagg's latest novel, The Whole Town's Talking, is about what it means to be truly alive, I looked at the book differently. I saw it as the story of a town, from birth to death. And, it's the story of the people who built the town, and who went on, even after death. It's chatty. It's the slow pace of a small town's daily life.

In the late 1870s, Lordor Nordstrom left Sweden, and found farm land he liked in southern Missouri. He quickly sought other farmers as neighbors, and, by 1880, a small community others called Swede Town was starting to grow. This is the story of Swede Town, later renamed Elmwood Springs. Lordor Nordstrom was named the first mayor, and he and his family, and the other town founders, proved to be excellent stewards of the town. But, Lordor always had his eye on the future, and he donated land for Still Meadows, the local cemetery. Flagg's story is about those town founders, the growth of the town through the twentieth century, and the eventual fate of so many small communities. But, those town founders, including Lordor, his wife, and his friends, found another community in Still Meadows. And, it was from there that they watched the activity of the town, and learned about the events from each new arrival in Still Meadows.

Flagg covers the entire century, the little town, the First World War, which didn't have a great impact, the Second World War, which brought grief. But, she also deals with the businesses in Elmwood Springs and the people who run the dairy, the bakery, the first school. It wasn't until 1956 that Elmwood Springs felt the need to have a police department. And, by the end of the century, there was a crime that affected everyone, living and dead.

One of the elders of the town, Elner Shimfissle, is a large farm woman with an appreciation for daily life. Fannie Flagg is wise in giving a primary role to a woman who is beloved by family, friends, and, who will be loved by readers. Even in death, Elner is wise about life. "I think most people are confused about life, because it's not just one thing going on. It's many things going on at the same time. Life is both sad and happy, simple and complex, all at the same time."

There are moments of humor in The Whole Town's Talking. I found one scene for tears, a scene at the cemetery. Maybe Flagg's book is about life. I still see it as the story of a small town, Elmwood Springs in this case, but the story of so many small towns. It's where you learn "The true meaning of family and friendship and what it means to be a good neighbor." It's a charming story of responsibility. It's a quiet book with little more than the drama of ordinary life. Isn't that enough?

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg. Random House. 2016. ISBN 9781400065950 (hardcover), 403p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Dead Man Walking by Simon R. Green

I'm addicted to Simon R. Green's Ishmael Jones mysteries, but the third one is only on order for us, so I have to wait to read the next one. Dead Man Walking wasn't quite up to the first country house mystery with supernatural overtones, but it was still intriguing.

Here's what Green writes about in his urban fantasies, in this case, "country house mysteries". "There is a world beneath the world; a hidden place of secrets and lies, deception and double-dealing, masquerade and murder. Where people you've never heard of work for departments that don't officially exist, doing things that no one will ever admit to. It can be a fascinating life if you don't weaken, but it's not for the faint of heart." Ishmael Green is not faint of heart, and neither is his companion on this adventure, Penny Belcourt. Frank Parker, who was once a field agent for the Organization, wants to come in from the cold. He says he has information about traitors within the Organization.  Parker's under tight security at an isolated location in northern Yorkshire, Ringstone Lodge. The Colonel sends a top field agent, Ishmael, to supervise the security and question Parker.

Once Ishmael and Penny arrive, they find the usual assortment of odd characters, the former military man who supervises the lodge, two security men, two doctors determined to make their names by breaking Frank Parker, a tech person supervising all the computers and security cameras, and, of course, Parker himself. It seems a small group for the large manor, but it becomes even smaller as people are killed, one by one.

As I said, Dead Man Walking was a little weaker than the previous book, The Dark Side of the Road. This time, it was obvious to me who the killer was. Ishmael Green didn't believe it was a ghost, and neither did I. But, the black humor is still there, and I appreciate it. At one point, Penny says, "Because let's face it, if he isn't the killer he might as well have 'Future Victim' tattooed on his forehead." And, when they finally have a chance to explore, she comments, "It's not a proper country-house mystery if there aren't sliding panels and secret passageways. Everyone knows that."

Humor, intrigue, and a pair of well-matched sleuths. Urban fantasy? Mystery? Spy novel? Dead Man Walking is one of those genre-blends that are so popular now. I'm glad Simon R. Green mixes paranormal, mystery, and that delicious black humor.

Simon R. Green's website is

Dead Man Walking by Simon R. Green. Severn House. 2016. ISBN 9780727886231 (hardcover), 201p.

FTC Full Disclosure - Library book

Friday, December 02, 2016

January Treasures in My Closet - Part 2

I have another collection of books to tempt you today. I hope you're excited about some of the January releases.

We have a number of interesting debut novels this month. In Jane Harper's The Dry, "Small towns can hide big secrets." Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to his hometown for the first time in decades to attend the funeral of his best friend, Luke. Twenty years earlier, Falk was accused of murder, but Luke was his alibi. Now, someone knows the two didn't tell the truth, and Luke has killed himself. Now, Luke and the local detective question the official verdict in Luke's death. Long-buried mysteries resurface, as do the lies. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

"True Grit meets Catch Me If You Can" in Andrew Hilleman's debut novel, World, Chase Me Down. It's based on the forgotten true story of a Robin Hood of the American frontier who pulls off the first successful kidnapping for ransom in U.S. history. (Release date is Jan. 24.)

Blake Crouch, author of this year's hit, Dark Matter, raves about Jay Hosking's debut, Three Years with the Rat. He calls it, "A mind-warping thriller that will make you question reality as you conceive it." A young man's quest to find his missing sister will catapult him into a dangerous labyrinth of secrets in this genre-blending novel. (Release date is Jan. 24.)

Rachel Hulin's debut is Hey Harry, Hey Matilda, an inventive novel told entirely in e-mails, the story of fraternal twins Henry and Matilda Goodman. They're fumbling their way into adulthood, telling lies, keeping secrets (Matilda tells her boyfriend she has a dead twin), and finally confronting their complicated relationship. (Release date is Jan. 17.)

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, Lindsey Lee Johnson's debut takes readers back to a dangerous place, the American high school. A new teacher, Molly Nicoll, becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileges students. But, she doesn't know that a middle school tragedy continues to reverberate for the kids. They were all complicit. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

The thriller Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson was a bestseller in England. Now, it makes its U.S. debut. It's set in idyllic fishing village in northern Iceland where Ari Thor Arason is a rookie policeman on his first posting. When a young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and an elderly writer falls to his death in the local theater, Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one. (Release date is Jan. 31.)

After all those debuts, we have Shoes for Anthony by Emma Kennedy. Set in a small Welsh coal-mining town during World War II, it tells the story of Anthony, a boy who is anticipating the arrival of American troops. Inn 1944, a German plane crashes into the village mountain. A Polish prisoner-of-war survives and develops a close relationship with Anthony. Then, the villagers discover one of the Germans on the plane survived and is still on the mountain. (Release date is Jan. 31.)

Three generations of a Russian-American Jewish family are caught in the turmoil of the Soviet Union and its aftermath in Sana Krasikov's novel, The Patriots. During the Great Depression, a young woman who just graduated from college follows a Soviet engineer back to the Soviet Union. The Soviets may have made promises for the future, but Florence finds life imperiled by purges, interrogations, and executions. Years later, her son goes back to the U.S., but returns when he learns his mother's KGB file has been opened. (Release date is Jan. 24.)

Jennifer McVeigh takes readers to Kenya in the 1950s in Leopard at the Door. Rachel has returned to Kenya and the farm where she spent her childhood after spending six years in England. She discovers changes in the household, and in the country, as Kenya grows more unsettled every day. Looming over them all is the threat of Mau Mau, a secret society determined to unite the Africans and overthrow the whites. The story is set against the fading backdrop of the British Empire, a tale of self-discovery, betrayal, and an impossible love. (Release date is Jan. 3.)

Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia is a psychological thriller in the same vein as Gone Girl. No one knows who Hattie Hoffman really is because she's spent her whole life playing roles - the good student, the good daughter, the good girlfriend. When she's found brutally stabbed to death, the tragedy rips through the small town. The novel reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman as she inches closer and closer to her death. (Release date is Jan. 3.)

Susan Rivers based her debut novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday, on a terrible crime she read about because she couldn't stop thinking about it. In this story, Major Gryffith Hockaday is called to the frontline of the Civil War, leaving his teenage bride behind, left to care for his three-hundred acre farm and their infant son. When he finally returns two years later, he finds his wife heading for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence, and murdering it. What really happened in the two years he was away? (Release date is Jan. 10.)

Author Kathleen Rooney was inspired by Margaret Fishback, a poet and Macy's ad-writing phenom of the 1930s. In Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, she introduces Boxfish, a poet who became the highest paid advertising woman in 1930s America. On New Year's Eve 1984, the octogenarian walks to the end of Manhattan and back, illuminating all the ways her world has changed, and has not. (Release date is Jan. 17.)

Indelible by Adelie Saunders is a debut novel that introduces Magdalena, a young woman who has a gift of seeing the truth about people written on their skin. When she meets Neil, she is intrigued to see her name on his cheek, and she is drawn into a family drama that goes back more than a half century when Neil's father was abandoned at birth by his mother. (Release date is Jan. 17.)

In Randall Silvis' Two Days Gone, the wife and children of a bestselling author are found slaughtered in their home, and the author himself as disappeared. Sergeant Ryan DeMarco doesn't think Huston was capable of murdering his family, but doesn't know why he's on the run if he's innocent. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

Home Sweet Home by April Smith follows the Kusek family from New York City to America's heartland where they are caught up in the panic of McCarthyism, a smear campaign, a sensational trial, and, ultimately, murder. (Release date is Jan. 31.)

Here are the January releases I didn't summarize -

Mexico: A Collection of Stories by Josh Barkan
Human Acts by Han King
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
No Man's Land by Simon Tolkien
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The Guests on South Battery by Karen White

I hope you found a book or two, maybe a debut novel, that you want to read in January. Let me know if something sounds wonderful to you. Happy reading!

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Winners and Next Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of the most recent contest. Both books are heading to New York. Ali Brandon's Twice Told Tail will go to Sonia G. of Syosset, NY. Digging Up the Dirt by Miranda James is going to Wendy L. from Rochester, NY.

As I do every year, I'm closing down the contests for the month of December. Everyone's busy. And, I don't want to stand in line at the post office. So the next giveaway will kick off on Friday, Jan. 6. If you only come to Lesa's Book Critiques for the contests, I hope you come back in 2017. I wish you Happy Holidays, no matter what holiday you observe. If you come for the discussion of books, I'll see you here!

January Treasures in My Closet - Part 1

I warned you. There are piles of books that are released in January 2017. I've picked out about fifteen books for each day, today and tomorrow. And, I'll list the other books at the end of tomorrow's post. Happy Reading in 2017 for all of us!

Elliot Ackerman kicks off the list with Dark at the Crossing, a timely novel. It's a love story set on the Turkish border with Syria. Haris Abadi is an Arab American, trying to get into Syria and join the fight against the regime. But, he's robbed and taken in by a Syrian refugee and his wife. Soon, Paris is struggling to decide if he's a radical or an idealist. (Release date is Jan. 24.)

Mystery readers can kick off the new year with Ellie Alexander's Fudge & Jury. Torte is a small-town family bakery in Ashland, Oregon, now preparing for the Shakespeare Festival and the annual Chocolate Festival. Jules' bakery business is expanding, and it looks like a great season is ahead. But, when a world-renowned chocolatier turns up dead after sampling Jules' cake, she has to sift through the suspects to find a killer. (Release date is Jan. 3.)

There's a lot of buzz in the library world for Katherine Arden's debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale. It's a fairy tale for adults, set in the Russian wilderness where Vasilisa loves her nurse's fairy tales, especially the story of Frost, the winter demon. But, when Vasilisa's mother dies, and her father remarries, her new stepmother forbids the family to honor the household spirits. Vasilisa knows more hinges on the rituals than anyone knows, and she's eventually forced to defy the people she loves, and call on her own dangerous gifts to save the family. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

Brunonia Barry, author of The Lace Reader, returns to contemporary Salem in her latest novel, The Fifth Petal. When a teenage boy dies suspiciously on Halloween night, the murder has roots that reach back to the seventeenth-century witch trials. Chief of Police John Rafferty wonders if the murder also has links to a triple homicide of three young women, all descendants of accused Salem witches. (Release date is Jan. 24.)

Readers always anticipate Chris Bohjalian's new books. In The Sleepwalker, a wife and mother vanishes from her bed late one night. And, her children fear the worst. Their mother, Annalee Ahlberg is a sleepwalker whose affliction is sometimes bizarre. A search party looks for her, and eventually the police find a clue that seems to indicate she's dead. But, it's her oldest daughter who still has questions. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

Followers of Genevieve Cogman's Invisible Library series will welcome The Burning Page. Librarian spy Irene is stuck on probation. But, trouble has a way of finding Irene and her apprentice, Kai, a dragon prince. This time, it's Irene's longtime nemesis with plans to destroy the entire Library, taking Irene down with it. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

My Husband's Wife is Jane Corry's debut thriller. When Lily, a young lawyer, marries Ed, she's determined to make a fresh start, to leave the secrets of the past behind. But, secrets have a way of catching up to people, and sixteen years later, Lily finds a young woman on her doorstep, a woman who was once an inquisitive nine-year-old neighbor. (Release date is Jan. 31.)

The Antiques is a comedic drama about a dysfunctional family. By Kris D'Agostino, it's the story of three estranged siblings who learn their father is dying on the night of a massive hurricane. For the first time in years, they gather at their childhood home where the storm has destroyed so much, including their family's antique store. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

JP Delaney brings us a psychological thriller, The Girl Before. One Folgate Street is an architectural masterpiece, but the man who designed it has rules for tenants, and he likes to retain full control of the surroundings. When Jane moves in, needing a fresh start, she is strangely drawn to the seductive creator of the space. (Release date is Jan. 24.)

The Trapped Girl is the fourth book is Robert Dugoni's series featuring police detective Tracy Crosswhite. When a woman's body is discovered submerged in the child waters of Puget Sound, Crosswhite and her colleagues on the Seattle PD's Violent Crimes Section must figure out who the victim is before they can find a killer. Her autopsy reveals the victim may have gone to great lengths t conceal her identity. Who was she hiding from? (Release date is Jan. 24.)

Janet Ellis' debut novel is The Butcher's Hook. Set in Georgian London, this is the dark and twisted story of a nineteen-year-old girl who falls in love with a butcher's apprentice, and is determined to thwart her parents' wishes by taking her destiny into her own hands, no matter the cost. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

The next debut thriller is The River at Night by Erica Ferencik. Winifred Allen is ready for a vacation, but when three friends suggest a high-octane rafting excursion, she's not so excited. And, then the trip becomes a nightmare as an accident separates them from their raft and everything they need to survive. And, the true intent of their would-be saviors makes it more important that Winifred draws on unknown strength. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

Author Amy Grant discovered unpublished manuscripts, songs, personal letters, and diaries from Margaret Wise Brown. Her research led to In the Great Green Room, the story of the life of the woman behind Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. (Release date is Jan. 10.)

Did you find anything of interest today? If not, come back tomorrow for the second half of January Treasures in My Closet.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Are You Reading?

I'm a day early this week, but I've been working on those big monthly posts, Treasures in My Closet, so I haven't had time to finish a book. I've really just started the second Ishmael Jones mystery by Simon R. Green, Dead Man Walking. I like Ishmael's deadpan comments. And, black humor is right up my alley.

So, while I'm adding titles that might put more books on your TBR piles, what books have you been reading? Did you finish anything good this week? Or, are you into something you're enjoying? We'd love to know!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Upstream by Mary Oliver

A friend asked me if I read poetry, and I said not really. But, I respect the turn of a phrase, the rhythm, the poetic handling of words in an essay. I don't often read what critics call "literature". However, I'm a fan of essays, and with a recommendation of Mary Oliver, I picked up her recent bestseller, Upstream.

Oliver is a poet who also writes essays, in this case a collection about her close connection to nature. She says, "I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple." Time and again, Oliver uses doors and houses and foxes as she observes the world. Books and nature were her escape as a child, and they still serve the same purpose. Without going into detail about her childhood, she indicates she's alive today because she found ways to escape. And one door led her to a natural world that was as essential to her survival as air.

In section 3, Oliver seems to make a departure from her essays about her existence when she discusses earlier writers. She discusses Emerson, Poe, Whitman, and Wordsworth. But, it's not really a departure. She examines their lives and their connections to their works, just as she examines her own need for nature as she writes.

There's a little melancholy to Mary Oliver's essays. The observance of nature also means an observance of the cycle of life. It makes for an awareness of a person's own aging, and eventual disappearance from the world. Her awareness is evident in stories of a gull, the turtles, the spider. But, she also recognizes joy. My favorite essay is called "Ropes" about a dog who wouldn't stay home. She says the story could have several morals. "Or maybe it's about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you."


Upstream by Mary Oliver. Penguin Press. 2016. ISBN 9781594206702 (hardcover), 178p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Red-Letter Day by SP McArdle

There's a story behind this story. The Red-Letter Day is a juvenile book for ages 8-12 by SP McArdle
who is related to my brother-in-law, Kevin. When we were in Dublin, Kevin's cousin, John Henry, mentioned their cousin had written a children's book about the Easter Rising. Because I am fascinated by that story, I ordered the book. Yes, the climax of the book is the Easter Rising, and McArdle published this on April 24, 2016, exactly one hundred years to the day from that event. But, her book is a children's book about the history of Ireland that requires some knowledge of that history. Because Irish children will know the history, McArdle doesn't name the historic sites or people until the end of the book.

The scenario is a little reminiscent of The Magic Treehouse books. Jenny has great adventures at the farmhouse owned by her aunt and uncle. There's a portal to history in one bedroom, and the guardian of the portal is a cranky gnome named Jeremiah. He uses a suitcase to send Jenny back in time, and he usually sets her watch for a certain date. This time, she finds herself sent back to find a special parchment and pen, and to touch the finished "Freedom Document" to come home again.

This time, Jeremiah doesn't provide a guide. When Jenny finds herself at a university in 1871, she meets a man in a black robe who says he's her guide, and says to call him O'Flahertie. She also encounters a man named Dorian, who "looks handsome, but underneath it's a different story." Her guide takes her inside an enormous library, and then to see a special book that sets her on her adventure. Her quest takes Jenny and "O'Flahertie" to 806 AD, where they follow the legendary giant Finn McCool, seeing the Giant's Causeway and the beehive huts that were once homes to monks.

As part of the journey, Jenny and O'Flahertie run into ten writers, five English and five Irish, who argue over a book. By now, Jenny has learned the significance of blue appearances or green ones. Those who are blue are ghosts, while green people have not actually been born yet. So, she's shaken when the final stop is 1916, and she realizes her guide should now be blue. And, she's shattered when she sees that the leaders of the rebellion in Dublin are all blue.

McArdle's first book in the Suitcase series is an excellent introduction to the story of Ireland for children. She plans future books about Paris and New York. While the adventure itself was fascinating, Jenny's conscience is a little awkward. She refers to the two sides of her nature as Risky Self and Sensible Self. That aspect seems unnecessary since she has a guide on her journey. Children will appreciate the book for Jenny's adventure. Adult readers, familiar with Irish history and literature, will recognize the figures and stories in the book, although they are not given names in the course of the novel.

Because few of you will ever read the book since it's available only from the author in Ireland, I'm going to mention a few of the facts that McArdle includes at the end of the book. Jenny originally lands at Trinity College in Ireland, where she sees The Book of Kells. Finn McCool is a giant in Irish legend, said to have built the Giant's Causeway. And, in 1916, Jenny witnesses the reading of the Irish Proclamation of Independence, read outside the Government Post Office in Dublin by Padraig Pearse during the Easter Rising. Along with the other men who signed the proclamation, he was executed.

And, Jenny's guide? He was a witty man who said, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it." "Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer." Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde.

SP McArdle's website is

The Red-Letter Day by SP McArdle. 2016. ISBN 9780993582004 (paperback), 132p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought my copy of the book.

Trinity College Library

Trinity College
Beehive Huts

Oscar Wilde Statue in Merrion Square, Dublin