For a Dancer

Five Days Left (nook book)

Five Days Left

Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer (Putnam, $26.95, 352 pages)

At first, it wasn’t a conscious decision, keeping her illness from them. She was in denial in the beginning, as loathe to admit to herself that everything was wrong as she was to admit it to them. But then, after her diagnosis, everyone around her became so overly concerned, so insufferably attentive that she started to regret anyone knew… (I)t was infuriating to watch herself deteriorate in the eyes of the people around her. Use the word “disease” and suddenly everyone will instantly treat you like you’re ill, Mara learned, even on days you feel fine.

Five Days Left is a close to perfect debut novel from Julie Lawson Timmer, whose background is in law. This is the story of Mara Nichols, a successful lawyer, wife and mother whose life is put on hold by a diagnosis of Huntington’s Disease. Mara fights to hide her symptoms from her co-workers and family members for months and years, but eventually realizes that her body is breaking down and out-of-control; the disease is going to take her life. So Mara decides that she will commit suicide on her next birthday. The narrative begins five days before the birthday on which Mara will end it all. Or will she?

(Her death by suicide) was a dreadful thing to do to a child, a husband, to such caring parents and friends, but really, who were any of them to judge? How could they ever truly know what she had gone through? Who were any of them to say they wouldn’t have at least considered the same thing?

Timmer does an excellent job of portraying how infirmity can make a coward out of the strongest individual. Mara goes from being a life-long workaholic to becoming a virtual invalid. Once proud, she eventually simply wants everything to be over with and no longer cares about how she’ll be judged upon her self-inflicted demise. It’s a timely, unique look at the mindset of a suicidal person.

Five Days Left (kindle edition)

There’s a secondary character and story that’s not as strong, and that story is a touch unrealistic. But all in all, this is a stunning work from Timmer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on September 9, 2014.

“…this impressive debut novel heralds the arrival of an extremely talented writer.” Jodi Picoult

Five Days Left is a heart-wrenching drama about a world in which there are no easy answers… This novel feels as true as life.” Christina Baker Kline

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Five Days Left (Timmer)

A review of Five Days Left: A Novel by Julie Lawson Timmer.

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Come On Down To My Boat

The Gondola Maker

The Gondola Maker: A Novel by Laura Morelli (Laura Morelli, $29.99, 296 pages; also available in trade paper and as an e-book download)

Get ready for a real change of pace. Author Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University and has numerous writing credits to her name. The Gondola Maker is her first work of fiction. Ever the historian, Ms. Morelli spent significant time and effort in crafting an historical novel. She has achieved a fascinating balance between facts and fiction.

The narrator of this sometimes-stark tale is Luca Vianello, a twenty-something son of a prominent gondola builder, who lives in 16th century Venice, Italy. The opening scene is riveting. At the time of the story, Venice is a republic with harsh punishments for lawbreakers whose crimes range from public swearing to murder. The reader is immersed in this militant culture via Luca’s recollections of the punishments he has witnessed in the public square. As in other cultures and eras, crowds gather to witness the offenders pay for their deeds.

All of it was meant to uphold the just and civilized society of Our Great Republic of Venice, so it was explained to me.

Luca makes it clear that there is a double standard in place as graft and corruption thrive in his republic. Life in those times – governed by superstition (sinister left-handedness), seems both similar and alien compared to the 21st century. There are defined social classes, guilds/unions and artists. However, the 16th century guilds and unions are stronger even than the unions of 50 years ago in the USA. On the brighter side, women of today are able to live lives independent of their husbands and family. Luca’s beloved mother is but a possession of his despotic father.

The tale is infused with an ominous tone of foreboding as Luca’s life unravels due to his outburst of temper. The reader is brought along through his efforts to create a new life. Along the way there are fascinating episodes as Luca moves within the workshops of boat makers, fine artists, costumers and the rowdy millieu of the republic’s essential gondola operators.

Ms. Morelli’s writing style is literate and yet she does not overwhelm the reader. Her characters are believable and in Luca’s case, likeable.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

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From London to France

Maise Dobbs

Maise Dobbs: Tenth Anniversary Edition by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Crime, $14.95, 304 pages)

Maise felt a chill as the stillness of the cemetery seeped through her clothing and touched her skin. Yet the shiver was familiar to Maisie, who had felt the sensation even in warm weather when there was no cooling breeze. She had come to recognize this spark of energy passing across her skin as a warning.

The re-release of Maisie Dobbs proved a delightful introduction to Jacqueline Winspear’s British mystery series. Maisie is a top-notch spunky lady who has enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy benefactor, Lady Rowan Compton. Rather than a lucky happenstance, Maisie’s elevation from a lowly household servant to brilliant psychologist/detective is the result of her hard work and dedication to learning.

The time period is World War I, a favorite of many English mystery writers. What sets this one apart is the easy dialogue and charming characters. Maisie is going out on her own as an investigator after apprenticing with Maurice Blanche, a seasoned investigator. Her first case is a referral from Lady Compton’s attorney. A gentleman suspects his wife of being unfaithful and Maisie’s task is to determine whether the wife’s clandestine activities are a signal of marital trouble.

Maisie Dobbs is likeable without being too sweet or snarky. The book is a satisfying read. The trade paper book includes background on the author’s series and a list of reader study questions for book clubs.

Highly recommended.

Murder on the Ile Sordou (nook book)

Murder on the Ile Sordou: A Verlaque & Bonner Provencal Mystery by M. L. Longworth (Penguin, $15.00, 303 pages)

Verlaque said, “It’s a good idea, Clement. This is a beautiful place, from what I’ve seen so far. You’ll make back your investment.” Verlaque took another sip of wiskey; he knew all to well how risky the hotel and restaurant business was. And this one was on a remote island.

Now, there’s a change of scenery from London to France. The time is present day and the sleuths are two well-educated and highly placed legal professionals. Chief Magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his paramour law professor Marine Bonnet are embarking on their fourth adventure in Ms. Longworth’s series featuring the couple. Fans of Agatha Christie will notice her familiar style immediately. Longworth fashions her mystery using the gracious, unhurried approach and meticulous attention to detail that Christie readers expect.

Verlaque and Bonnet are on a summer vacation at a newly constructed/recreated 1960’s destination hotel situated on an island off the coast of Marseille. Their fellow vacationers include an old school chum of Verlaque and his wife, Ms. Bonnet’s best friend, a retired schoolteacher, a has-been French actor, his wife and stepson, and an American couple. Each of these characters, along with the hotel owners and staff are revealed with in-depth background information that the reader needs to use to solve the mystery.

The crime is committed well into the book, which highlights the nature of the tale – one that requires patience and careful attention to achieve a full enjoyment of the read. Ms. Longworth has a background that includes knowledge of French food and wine. She blends in her favorites in a way that feels charming rather than ostentatious. Although the Ile Sordou is fiction, the rest of the atmosphere is real.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were received from the publishers.

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A review of Murder on the Ile Sordou: A Verlaque & Bonnet Provencal Mystery by M. L. Longworth.

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Data Apocalypse

Dataclysm (nook book)

Dataclysm: Who We Are* (*When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder (Crown, $28.00, 272 pages)

Dataclysm – an unprecedented deluge of digital information reshaping our view of the world.

Christian-Rudder-credit-Victor-G-Jeffreys-II

Christian Rudder is a co-founder and the analytics team leader of the dating site OkCupid. Rudder has made use of the massive amount of data collected by his website. He ventures beyond the two basic and common data use perceptions – government spying and commercial manipulation to encourage purchases. Rather, he has added a third use – an unprecedented look into the nature of human beings.

The OkCupid site data yields not only the responses to its in depth questionnaires but also the transactions and/or communications between the site’s users. Much is revealed regarding our prejudices and preferences through text and graphic depictions.

Data geeks and everyone else will benefit from reading this fascinating mainstream science book. It is definitely not a pop science product. Rudder’s smooth writing style is quite surprising for a data person. Perhaps his Harvard education included writing classes or he has the benefit of an excellent editor. The comfortable sentence structure provides a balance of tech data and human warmth.

Dataclysm (audio)

This is a book that should appeal to those readers interested in how often humans act like pack animals, versus how often they act independently. It’s only fair to add that Dataclysm requires an attentive reader who has a true commitment to the subject matter. The payoff is well worth the effort.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Photograph of Christian Rudder by Victor G. Jeffreys II.

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A review of Dataclysm: Who We Are* (*When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder.

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