A Question of Balance

A Question of Honor (nook book)

A Question of Honor: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 336 pages)

The 2013 installment of the Bess Crawford saga draws readers back to India in 1908 for the plot-setting incident. Bess grew up in colonial India where her father, Colonel Crawford, commanded a regiment. One of his officers was identified as a murderer; however, the fellow was presumed dead before he could be captured and tried for his crime. The regimental honor was sullied and the memory of the evil deed followed the men for years.

The secondary plot threads concern the perils faced by British citizens whose children were shipped back home due to sickness and the tensions between the British and local warring tribes in the early 1900s. Fast forward ten years to 1918 and we encounter Bess serving as a nurse on the battlefields of France. She is, as always, plucky and strong willed. Her eyes and ears gather information from the wounded as she carriers out her duties. One fellow in particular confides in her regarding the presumed dead murderer from her father’s regiment, thus sparking Bess to action. The regimental honor is family business!

The tale unfolds across Europe from this multi-level beginning. The book seems to be more Bess’ journal than a mystery novel. The narrative is a bit bouncy which may be due in part to the advance reader’s edition on which this review is based. There is an interesting contrast in perspective for fans of the authors, the mother-son duo who write under the pen name of Charles Todd. The Ian Rutledge series focuses on the post-war personal fallout for a male World War I officer; whereas, the Bess Crawford series details the ways in which women were expected to be brave and serve their country in time of battle and yet maintain their modesty. That’s quite a challenge.

Well recommended.

An Unwilling Accomplice (nook book)

An Unwilling Accomplice: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 352 pages)

This year’s Bess Crawford tale segues smoothly from the one reviewed above. There is an even pace to the telling as the reader learns of Bess’ experiences behind the battle lines in France. As the book begins, Bess is home in England on leave and planning to rest. A messenger delivers an order regarding a badly wounded soldier who has requested that she accompany him to Buckingham Palace. Bess must accept the assignment and forego her rest.

The soldier, Sergeant Jason Wilkins, is to receive a medal from the king. Social mores dictate that Bess restrict her care to checking in on Sergeant Wilkins and tending to his bandages. At no time is she to stay in his London hotel room. The evening after the ceremony, Sergeant-Major Simon Brandon (known to fans in past mysteries) meets her for dinner in the hotel dining room. All seems well until the next morning when Bess goes to ready Sergeant Wilkins for his trip out of London. Wilkins’ bed is empty and he is missing!

The Army and the Nursing Service blame Bess. Her spotless record of service is now tainted and she is placed on administrative leave pending a review of the matter. That’s all she needs to spur her to find the vanished soldier and clear her good name. Simon assists Bess in her quest whenever he is between covert assignments.

The complex plot line is at times confusing. There are miles of back and forth driving in the English countryside chasing the elusive Wilkins. The search occurs among three small towns. A map of the vicinity would be helpful. This review is based on an advance reader’s edition. Hopefully, the final published version will include a map. One other matter is confusing – Bess and Simon are devoted friends and their relationship seems oddly platonic. Perhaps his military rank relegates him to only being a buddy?

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were received from the publisher. An Unwilling Accomplice was released on August 12, 2014.

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An Unwilling Accomplice Charles Todd

A review of An Unwilling Accomplice: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd, and more!

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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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A review of The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

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The Sound and the Furry

The Sound and the Furry (nook book)

The Sound and The Furry: A Chet and Bernie Mystery by Spencer Quinn (Atria Books, $25.00, 311 pages)

And then we were gliding over the water, watery sounds and swishing all around me. How lovely! I’d no idea being in a boat was so wonderful! Plus the bow was obviously the best place to be, just like the shotgun seat. I sat up even straighter, gazing straight ahead, missing nothing. Chet, the natural born sailor: what a life!

Chet and Bernie are back on the trail. This sixth episode finds them in the deep South on the hunt for a missing man. To say that his family is colorful is an understatement.

The Sound & the Furry (audible audio edition)

Chet, the very large canine member of the Little Detective Agency, narrates the mystery. He provides his usual interpretation of Bernie Little’s work as the human half of the agency.

Each book is the series has an underlying theme. The Sound and The Furry features cool jazz references throughout.

Well recommended.

The Cat, the Devil and Lee Fontana (nook book)

The Cat, The Devil and Lee Fontana by Shirley Rousseau Murphy and Pat J.J. Murphy (William Morrow, $19.99, 320 pages)

Fans of the Joe Grey talking cat series by Ms. Murphy will enjoy this spin-off featuring Misto the elusive member of the clan in Molena Point. The tale begins with a flashback, a prequel of sorts. Misto is the main feline and Lee Fontana is an aged bank robber out on parole. The Devil is punishing Lee’s soul as collection on the time Lee’s grandpa bested him.

The setting is outside of Los Angeles in the farmlands near Blythe, an isolated part of California. Lee is paroled to work on a farm. He has many challenges that keep pulling him back to a life of crime. With the Devil appearing in the mix, Misto stays busy taking care of Lee.

The closing scenes of the book open up many possibilities for Ms. Murphy and husband Pat to develop as this new series unfolds.

Well recommended.

Dog Butts and Love (nook book)

Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats: Cartoons by New York Times Bestseller Jim Benton (NBM, $13.99, 96 pages)

Now it’s time for a change of pace, a slim volume that would not have drawn this reader’s attention on the shelf of a bookseller. The red cover festooned with conversation bubbles emitting from a wildly acrobatic drawing of a loudmouthed dog is quirky. Inside the pages are adult web comics that have been posted on Reddit. By “adult” I mean twisted, brutally honest and laugh out loud comics. Some are single page pictures and others are laid out in a series of panels.

earth jim benton

not a robbery

Jim Benton, the cartoonist, provides perspective shifts, shoots holes in serious issues and generally expresses his thoughts without reservation. This book is the perfect gift for someone who needs to lighten up!

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

The cartoons by Jim Benton are examples of his “unique perspective” humor.

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The Sound and the Furry

A review of The Sound and the Furry: A Chet and Bernie Mystery by Spencer Quinn (author of Dog On It), and more!

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Do You Remember

Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99, 400 pages)

This book held out the promise of being a fascinating look into the radio and record industries, from 1853 until the present day. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more pedestrian than exciting as the account veers between focusing on record executives and producers, and the artists themselves. It’s more successful when it does the former; the latter is a pretty standard history of rock and pop music.

The story at times becomes incomprehensible, as in Chapter 30, “Bubblegum Forest,” where one reads that, “The gaudy covers of manufactured bands (in 2000-2001) paid their way into the end caps and began scaring away older audiences.” What?

Cowboys and Indies succeeds when it focuses on small, interesting tidbits of information, such as telling us about the production of Millie Small’s breakthrough cover of “My Boy Lollipop” in 1964. There’s also some good stuff on George Martin and the history of Abbey Road (whose studios were last significantly refurbished in 1931). And kudos to the writer for pointing out that the debate about the compression of music has been going on since 1953 – when John Hammond wrote a New York Times article “blaming modern production methods for compressing the sound on jazz records….”!

Cowboys

All in all, this book is likely to be too much “inside baseball” for most readers. There are other, truly fascinating, books out there about the music trade.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: Publishers Weekly stated that, “Murphy captures the ever-changing nature of the record industry as it ebbs and flows…” However, the publication also noted that this is an “oft-covered topic.” Indeed.

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