"No one can be lonely who has a book for company." ~ Nelle Reagan

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills - book review

The Mockingbird Next Door
Life With Harper Lee
Author:  Marja Mills
Published: 2014
Publisher:  Penguin Group
ISBN 9781594205194
Pages: 178
Genre:  Memoir
Includes an insert of a few select photographs.
Source:  borrowed

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where she has lived part of the year with her sister Alice for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a wonderful friendship.
In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees and their inner circle of friends.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their stories, Nelle helped make sure she was getting that—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family. The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is also a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women.
Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and the reasons Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.
My thoughts:

Many journalists and would-be biographers have sought long and hard to interview Harper Lee and many have been declined.  In fact, Ms. Lee kept a fairly low profile for years, attending few events. Marja Mills was one of the fortunate few to have impressed Harper's sister, Alice when she approached her about Nelle and subsequently  wrote a lengthy newspaper article about Chicago selecting To Kill a Mockingbird as a book that everyone must read. (See One Book, One Chicago).  For Marja, this was only the beginning of a friendship that would later find her living next door to Harper, preferably called Nelle, and her sister Alice.

Marja Mills and the Lee sisters grew very close and over a period of 18 months, Marja met and interviewed Nelle's close friends at Nelle's invitation.  Their relationship, the outings, the glimpses into the past are laid out for the reader to enjoy and we get to know Nelle as Marja did.

Nelle shares the reasons why she never wrote another book, though she had at first wanted to.  She discusses her relationship with Truman Capote who grew up next door to Nelle and Alice. We read that Nelle was very happy with the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird and remained close friends with Gregory Peck until his death.  Nelle allows Marja into her inner sanctum, sharing what she wishes and we feel there's more that we want to know but Nelle never did write an autobiography.  The Mockingbird Next Door is the closest one will get.

In the news of late, there is discussion that Nelle denies giving permission for this book to be published.  She refutes it, even though there is nothing here that would discredit her or her family or friends.  This memoir is like a long visit with a long lost friend, written from the perspective of someone who has respect for the boundaries upon that friendship and for Nelle, her friends, family and town.  It must be noted that Nelle suffered a stroke in 2007 which left her bound to a wheelchair and a continuing decline in memory ensued.  Both she and her sister Alice, as of this writing, reside in separate long-term care facilities.

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is a small peek into the southern town wherein resides one spunky Nelle Harper Lee and her lawyer sister Alice Lee.  The context for To Kill a Mockingbird is drawn from Nelle's life in this town, from her family and a great deal from her imagination.  She wrote a classic that never tires, nor grows weary, and always, with few exceptions, leaves the reader better off for having known it.  Getting to know Nelle just a little from The Mockingbird Next Door, makes me feel a little better off for having known second hand a little bit about this spunky reclusive author who has earned her rightful place among the most influential authors...ever.  Though I yearn for more, I am satisfied to have had this opportunity.

See my review of To Kill a Mockingbird here.

Read Marja’s original 2002 Chicago Tribune story, “A life apart: Harper Lee, the complex woman behind ‘a delicious mystery,’” that was the basis for The Mockingbird Next Door. Link here.

Meet the author:

Marja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was a member of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about O’Hare Airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock.” The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book.
Mills was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin.  She is a 1985 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service; a lifelong interest in other cultures led to studies in Paraguay, Spain and Sweden.  Mills lives in downtown Chicago and often spends time in Madison and her father’s hometown of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, pop. 3,500.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins (book review)

Supreme Justice
Author:  Max Allan Collins
Published:  July 1, 2014
Publisher:  Thomas & Mercer
Pages:  336
ISBN 9781612185309
Genre:  Legal thrillers, crime drama, fiction
Source:  a copy was provided by the publisher and TLC book tours in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

A new standalone thriller from the creator of The Road to Perdition and the Nathan Heller series. 
After taking a bullet for his commander-in-chief, Secret Service agent Joseph Reeder is a hero. But his outspoken criticism of the president he saved—who had stacked the Supreme Court with hard-right justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, amp up the Patriot Act, and shred the First Amendment—put Reeder at odds with the Service’s apolitical nature, making him an outcast.
FBI agent Patti Rogers finds herself paired with the unpopular former agent on a task force investigating the killing of Supreme Court Justice Henry Venter. Reeder—nicknamed “Peep” for his unparalleled skills at reading body language—makes a startling discovery while reviewing a security tape: the shooting was premeditated, not a botched robbery. Even more chilling, the controversial Venter may not be the only justice targeted for death…
Is a mastermind mounting an unprecedented judicial coup aimed at replacing ultra-conservative justices with a new liberal majority? To crack the conspiracy and save the lives of not just the justices but also Reeder’s own family, rising star Rogers and legendary investigator Reeder must push their skills—and themselves—to the limit.
My Thoughts:
I don't believe I've read Max Allan Collins previous to Supreme Justice but I have seen some of the movies made from some of his books and scripts such as:  Saving Private Ryan and Air Force One.  He has also written graphic novels including Road to Perdition from which a movie was made.  So, obviously he's a very accomplished writer.

Supreme Justice is a stand alone novel featuring Joseph Reeder, a former Secret Service agent who took a bullet for a president he didn't like and later left to run a highly successful security firm.  He ruffled a few fellow agents when he criticized the president for whom he took a bullet.

When a supreme court judge is killed in an alleged robbery; Reeder's friend, a police detective, cajoles Reeder (aka Peeps) into looking at the footage of the robbery.  Played frame by frame, Reeder sees what others didn't.  This was an assassination made to look like a robbery. Because of his extensive training, including being able to read body language, and his intuition, Reeder is invited to act as an advisor with the service in relation to the shooting. 

Shortly thereafter another judge is murdered in his yard and it is obvious he had been followed and his routine memorized.  The more Reeder investigates and watches, the sooner he realizes there's a conspiracy at play and the leaders within the conspiracy are likely people he is now working with.

Supreme Justice is definitely driven by the plot rather than by the characters and it is a real page turner. In a book like this, I don't mind a lack of character development in the supporting cast.  Reeder (Peeps) was well developed, his character believable and intriguing with an ability to read people and situations that is sometimes a gift and sometimes a curse. It makes it difficult to get close to someone just as I imagine being friends with a psychiatrist would be.  

While aspects of the ending were predictable, there was still an element of mystery about who and how. As the climax drew near, my only complaint is that it seemed an abrupt ending. But I would be hasty to not realize the clues had been dropped all along the path.  It really was cleverly designed, artfully composed and carried out by a cunning writer.  

Overall, I really enjoyed my first Max Allan Collins novel. Highly recommended to readers of Lee Child, political thrillers, legal thrillers, mysteries and crime dramas.  My favourite genres!

Meet the author:
Max Allan Collins has earned fifteen Private Eye Writers of America “Shamus” nominations, winning for his Nathan Heller novels, True Detective and Stolen Away, and receiving the PWA life achievement award, the Eye. His graphic novel, Road to Perdition, the basis for the Academy Award–winning film starring Tom Hanks, was followed by two novels, Road to Purgatory and Road to Paradise. His suspense series include Quarry, Nolan, Mallory, and Eliot Ness, and his numerous comics credits include the syndicated Dick Tracy and his own Ms. Tree. He has written and directed four feature films and two documentaries. His other produced screenplays include The Expert, an HBO World Premiere, and The Last Lullaby. His coffee-table book The History of Mystery received nominations for every major mystery award and Men’s Adventure Magazines won the Anthony. Collins lives in Muscatine, Iowa, with his wife, writer Barbara Collins. They have collaborated on seven novels and are currently writing the Trash ‘n’ Treasures mysteries.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teaser Tuesdays: The Mockingbird Next Door

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by Miz B at Should be Reading:  http://shouldbereading.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/teaser-tuesdays-aug-19/.  Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other Teaser Tuesday participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

From:  The Mockingbird Next Door  Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills

"Predicaments make for the best stories.  One wrong turn was all it took for Nelle to drive into trouble years ago near the tiny town of Tunnel Springs."   

~Page 154, 1st two sentences of the chapter. 
The Mockingbird Next Door:  Life With Harper Lee is a memoir written by journalist Marja Mills about Nelle Harper Lee, the writer of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Cool Book Dedications

While perusing Facebook I came across a link to a fun article about book dedications.  I particularly liked this one by Agatha Christie and another by Neil Gaiman.  Check out the entire article here:  http://bookriot.com/2014/08/15/10-fantastic-book-dedications/

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
To all those who lead monotonous lives, in the hope that they may experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino - book review

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas
Author:  Marie-Helene Bertino
Publisher:  Crown
Published:  August 5, 2014
Pages:  272
Genre:  Fiction
Source:  I received a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.

2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS begins on a quiet morning in a Philadelphia apartment the day before Christmas Eve, where we meet the precocious and smart-mouthed nine-year-old Madeleine Altimari.  Madeleine’s mother has recently died, and her father is still lost in his grief. Meanwhile, Madeleine finds solace in music and aspires to become a jazz singer. Just two days shy of her tenth birthday, she is about to have the most remarkable day of her life.
After facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine decides today is the day to find Philadelphia’s legendary jazz club, The Cat’s Pajamas, and make her debut. On the same day, Madeleine’s fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who has moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with her high school love. And across town at The Cat’s Pajamas, club owner Jack Lorca discovers that his beloved venue may close be closed due to financial woes by the end of the night. As we follow these three lost souls over the course of twenty-four hours, we also meet a cast of unique and brilliant characters who surround them – from the warm-hearted cafe owner Mrs. Santiago to Melissa, the former “snake lady” exotic dancer who might be Lorca’s last hope for love.  With sharp wit and irrepressible spirit, Marie-Helene Bertino turns Philadelphia into a magical place where anything can happen.
A sparkling and completely original novel, 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS will capture your heart and make you root for Madeleine, Sarina, Lorca, and those whose lives they touch around them.
My Thoughts:

I love the raised black velvet feel of the lettering on the light turquoise cover of 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas.  At 272 pages, it's not a long read but it was slow going getting into this novel.

Nine-year-old Madeleine is quite foul-mouthed which is alarming to me for a child so young.  She gets kicked out of school by her principal for slugging another kid in the nose; granted he was making fun of her and she was standing up for herself.  Young Madeleine's mother passed away earlier in the year and her father spends most of his time in his room, so deep is his grief.  Madeleine is one of those children whom the neighbourhood seems to raise.  She has one wish, and that is to sing jazz.  As luck would have it, it looks like she will get that wish.

Sure I rooted for Madeleine because at first I felt sorry for her more than anything.  I tend to root for the underdog and love to see them overcome their challenges.  I'm a sucker for that in fiction or real life.  Understand she has a rough time of things and only one friend, the one who taught her all the filthy language she knows.  Madeleine doesn't care to make any others.

She's a little girl against the world, trying to make her wish come true despite the odds.  The Cat's Pajamas may be her answer but it's owner has troubles of his own, as does Madeleine's favourite school teacher.  Their stories are intertwined and come together on the eve of Christmas Eve, the perfect time of year for a little magic.

2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas is a saucy bit of entertainment with a terrific title that promises a good time.  For many, this novel will be a nice change with its current day dreams and an older era feel. It's precocious, feisty and jazzy; just like its protagonist.

Author's website: http://mariehelenebertino.com

Meet the author:

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the story collection Safe as Houses, which won the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Prize and The Pushcart Prize, and was long-listed for The Story Prize and The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. An Emerging Writer Fellow at New York’s Center for Fiction, she has spent six years as an editor and writing instructor at One Story.
Connect with Marie-Helene Bertino

Monday, August 4, 2014

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre (crime drama book review)

Author:  Pierre Lemaitre
Published:  2013
Publisher:  MacLehose Press
Distributed in US and Canada by Random House Publisher
Pages:  375 including A Note on the Translation and a Glossary
Genre:  Crime fiction/drama
Source:  borrowed

*Awards:  CWA International Daggar Award Winner: Best Crime Novel 2013

Alex Prevost--kidnapped, savagely beaten, suspended from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse in a tiny wooden cage--is running out of time. Her abductor appears to want only to watch her die. Will hunger, thirst, or the rats get her first?

Apart from a shaky eyewitness report of the abduction, Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven has nothing to go on: no suspect, no leads, and no family or friends anxious to find a missing loved one. The diminutive and brilliant detective knows from bitter experience the urgency of finding the missing woman as quickly as possible--but first he must understand more about her. 

As he uncovers the details of the young woman's singular history, Camille is forced to acknowledge that the person he seeks is no ordinary victim. She is beautiful, yes, but also extremely tough and resourceful. Before long, saving Alex's life will be the least of Commandant Verhoeven's considerable challenges.

This is the second book in a forecasted trilogy, the first book was titled Irene and was the introduction to Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven.  Alex is the first of Lemaitre's books to be translated to English.

When was the last time you read a crime drama/mystery that was so tumultuous that you didn't know the victim from the perpetrator?  For me, well, I cannot remember any such time.  Until I picked up Alex.

Alex begins with the kidnapping of a beautiful woman.  She is beaten, naked and left in a crudely constructed wooden crate strung from the ceiling in an abandoned warehouse of sort. The crate is too small to do anything but crouch in.  Left with kibble and small rations of water, her kidnapper returns to take photos, watching her slowly die.

Five men and one woman are brutally murdered in this book and it is quite graphic, the means with which they are killed and I actually turned my head away as I read, the images far too cruel and violent.  But I read on.

Alex is the story of the most brutal of crimes and of a police force in France charged with solving them.  One of the detectives on the case, Camille, has recently lost his wife and unborn child - kidnapped and murdered.  So this case is too close to home for him but he does his level best to remain professional.  Sometimes facing horrible truths in one form helps to heal pains of the past.  At least that is what his commander hopes.

Though brutal, the story behind it all, the revealing of truths, though graphic in themselves, answers everything so clearly and cleverly.  The story is fast-paced, the chapters short and it is difficult to put down.  Alex was recommended by a co-worker and now that I am finished I can understand why.  I am glad to not have given up on it because this is a crime drama that is intricately plotted, cleverly contrived, and has a deep mystery running through it.  Alex is the second book in a trilogy written by Pierre Lemaitre but the first to be translated to English.  I hope the first, Irene, will be translated as well.  I believe that story would offer great insight into Camille, the detective (police commandant) and background for this story.  Mind you, Alex can stand on its own very well.

Meet the Author:

Pierre Lemaitre has worked for many years as a teacher of literature. His novels to date have earned him exceptional critical and public acclaim as a master of the crime novel and have won him the Prix du Premier Roman de Cognac 2006, the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone 2009, and the Prix du Polar Europeen du Point 2010. Alex is his first novel to be translated into English, and won the presitigious 2013 Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award. In 2013 Lemaitre was the recipient of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the highest literary honor in France, for Au revoir la-haut.

Frank Wynne has translated works by Michel Houellebecq, Boualem Sansal, and many more. He won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2005 for his translation of Frederic Beigbeder's Windows on the World.

The Giver - coming to theatres this August

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Elizabeth is Missing - a hit debut novel by British author Emma Healey (review)

Elizabeth is Missing
Author:  Emma Healey
Published:  June 2014
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf Canada
Pages:  288
Genre:  fiction
Source:  borrowed


Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory—and her grip on everyday life. Yet she refuses to forget her best friend Elizabeth, whom she is convinced is missing and in terrible danger.

But no one will listen to Maud—not her frustrated daughter, Helen, not her caretakers, not the police, and especially not Elizabeth’s mercurial son, Peter. Armed with handwritten notes she leaves for herself and an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth needs her help, Maud resolves to discover the truth and save her beloved friend.

This singular obsession forms a cornerstone of Maud’s rapidly dissolving present. But the clues she discovers seem only to lead her deeper into her past, to another unsolved disappearance: her sister, Sukey, who vanished shortly after World War II.

As vivid memories of a tragedy that occurred more fifty years ago come flooding back, Maud discovers new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth?

My Thoughts:

Maud is an elderly soul who is determined that her best friend Elizabeth is missing and must find her. No one listens though.    Not the police officer she has spoken to four times, not her daughter Helen, nor Elizabeth's own son Peter.  Her friend's house is empty; the furniture gone.  The notes in Maud's pocket remind her.  Elizabeth is missing.  Maud must solve the mystery of her disappearance.

Pinterest Random House
A debut novel by a young British author, Emma Healey; Elizabeth is Missing features an elderly protagonist who is so well written that the reader really knows her.  We feel her anxiety, her fears, acknowledge her intelligence and self-awareness, and cannot dismiss the turmoil she faces daily; though the author never admits in so many words to Maud's illness. It is what we decipher from the clues, the thought processes and the memories of Maud, that we understand her memory is slipping and getting worse. 

Elizabeth is Missing is a story of relationships.  Maud, the senior with memory lapses; her daughter Helen, who has the patience of a saint (but you can see it wears her thin sometimes), assisting her mother on a daily basis while she also works and raises her daughter, Katy who is coy, a bit rebellious but empathetic.  I quite enjoyed the dialogues Maud had with her granddaughter who didn't seem fazed by the sometimes perplexing situations her grandmother got into. The British wit and sense of humour are evident in the dialogues between these two.

Allow me to set the scene.  It is pouring rain and Maud, who has "escaped," is soaked to the skin.  Her granddaughter sees her on the street, wraps her jacket over her Maud's shoulders and ushers her into a cafe to get warm.

"It's such a shame, Katy," I say."I know Grandma.  I know."She's humouring me.  A wet lump of tissues folds into itself on the table.  It looks like that Plasticine stuff the children used to play with."I can't get hold of Mum," Katy says, holding something to the side of her face.  "She's probably on the phone to the police or something.""What's that you've got against your ear?  A shell? Who is it you're listening to?" I say. Douglas had a shell, I remember.  I watched him discover it in Sukey's case: he felt all around the edges and found it in the lining.  And then he held it to his ear and her voice came out and she told him how she'd met the man she was going to marry."Handy," Katy says. "But this is just a phone. I'm afraid.  And at the moment I'm listening to a woman telling me the number I have dialled is busy.  Never mind.  We'll go home in a minute.  After you've drunk your coffee.""Coffee is good for the memory," I say.  She smiles and sits back.  I think of telling her that I've forgotten why we're here.  But she looks so happy...." 

Helen is too close to the drama with her mother but Katy finds the humour in it. 

"Do you know, " I ask...."where is the best place to plant marrows?"There's a grin and a shrug.  "I don't know, you'd have to ask Mum.  Though probably you shouldn't.  That question winds her up like crazy.  It's almost better than asking where Elizabeth is."  She gives a squeal of delight at the thought and helps me to sit down for a minute.  We don't have to wait long for the bus and Helen, or whoever she is, finds my pass quite easily in my bag.

Through seemingly insignificant situations, Maud's memories of the past are revealed.  A can of peaches reminds her of her mother and we are privy to glimpses of Maud's youth in post-war Britain.  Maud fixates on things, like melons, where is the best place to plant melons?  Toast, she would like toast and tea though she had some earlier, she doesn't remember.  Elizabeth is missing.  Seemingly random threads of thought string together.  One thought can trigger a memory.

The reader can envision the mystery surrounding Sukie, Maud's sister, who disappeared one day; never to be heard from again. While Maud goes about her day, items and conversations bring back memories as seamlessly as a poem and she remembers the past, focusing on the disappearance of her sister.  Possible suspicions are played out as Maud remembers Sukie's husband Frank, the family's lodger Douglas, and a serial killer who now resides in jail.  Elizabeth's disappearance prompts memories of Maud's sister's years before.  

For such a young author to grasp and portray the dynamics of a family of three women, an elderly woman with declining memory, her daughter who visits daily and assists the carer with her needs, and the granddaughter who at 15 or so, displays great empathy while keeping a sense of humour; is just amazing. Emma Healey is able to portray all three as distinct individuals at different points in their lives; keeping them authentic in their respective roles while telling the story all from the perspective of an aging woman.

Elizabeth is Missing is ideal for a book club discussion.  The story between the lines that is picked up bit by bit, clues skillfully hidden for later reveal; all excellent discussion points, as a co-worker and I have discovered while sharing our thoughts over this debut novel that has everyone talking. I borrowed my copy but I want to purchase one now so I can re-read it.   This is a tale not soon to be forgotten, nor would I want to forget it.  

Who would I recommend Elizabeth is Missing to?  Healthcare workers, book clubs, women (young and mature alike), people caring for those with declining memory, caregivers of the elderly, mystery lovers, readers of fiction with substance.  Emma Healey's novel has wide appeal.

Emma Healey grew up in London where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together but not how to write them). She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011. Elizabeth is Missing is her first novel.

#2014bestreads  #ElizabethisMissing  #bookswithbuzz

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Books in the Arts

Reading:  It's an enduring pastime.

This sculpture of a young boy reading
 was discovered in a local bookstore.


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