Death a La Fenice

Donna Leon


This is the first time I’ve read the one that started them all. I can’t remember when I read my first Commissario Brunetti mystery, but I loved them from the start. First and foremost, they are set in Venice and La Serenissima is most definitely a presence. From the vaporetti to the feral cats, Leon captures the essence of the city until you can almost smell the sea.

The working out of the mystery is done without the help of his superior, almost against his wishes. His boss would prefer to bring the case to a quick close, place the blame on some foreigner, and get it out of the papers before it hurts the tourist season. Brunetti is more interested in finding the truth, no matter how unpleasant, and he’s not going to be stopped by something as minor as his superior’s opposition. Fortunately, he has the support of his peers and underlings to help him and his many connections in all strata of Venetian society.

The tropes I love are in place from the very beginning, and this novel does a fine job of launching the series: Brunetti’s clueless boss, his conflict over his wife’s aristocratic background, and his refusal to give up until he ferrets out the truth.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

David Sedaris


Sedaris’ offbeat humor married to Ian Falconer’s brilliant illustrations makes for a book of rare beauty. The childlike humor of the illustrations contrasts with the dark, dark humor of the stories in a grotesque marriage of pictures and text that causes the mind to reel.

Unlike Sedaris’ usual collection of personal essays, these are stories of animals with human characteristics. They include some of my favorites¬† such as the title story, that I have heard him read on the radio. Others are new to me. They all carry echoes of his voice: darkly sardonic, bitingly satirical, and very, very funny.




Going Wrong

Ruth Rendell


Things started going wrong for Guy and Leonora some time ago. His obsession with her verges on madness as he assumes she loves him as much as he loves her. Even when she tells him she is to be married, he doesn’t believe her. Convinced her family and friends have turned him against her, her hires a hit man to kill her brother.

Childhood sweethearts, Guy is sure that Leonora would never choose another man over him, and this fixation makes it impossible to enjoy the good things in his life. The tension mounts as his madness increases until the reader begins to fear for the safety of all those around Leonora.

Sister Light, Sister Dark

Jane Yolen


Jane Yolen uses three voices to tell the story of the white-haired child, Jenna, who is found by the warriors of the Hame: straight-forward story telling, folk songs, and academic analysis. Among the three sources emerges a world in transition, awaiting the white leader who is to take their world through a disruptive time to a new world order.

Jenna, also called Jo-ann-enna, learns that she is this white warrior. Her growth into the prophecy is rocky, resisted by the leaders of her world, accepted by some. The calling forth of her dark sister, Skalda, visible only by moonlight and candle light, helps her to accept her fate.

Jane Yolen has a gift for world building that creates an articulate, believable world for Jenna to come into her powers. This book, the first of three, is a solid introduction to her life and surroundings.




A Presumption of Death

Jill Paton Walsh


When I read the completion of the unfinished novel Thrones, Dominions by Jill Paton Walsh, I was impressed by her ability to copy Sayer’s voice so well I couldn’t tell where one left off and another took over. I had high hopes that she could continue on her own. Unfortunately this book failed to fulfill that promise. Lord Peter is missing, gone on a secret mission, for most of the book, and Lady Peter is just not as interesting when alone.

When he returns, things don’t improve much. His ghostly presence reminds us of the old Lord Peter, but he is an anemic shadow of his former self. Jill Paton Walsh just doesn’t have the knack of bringing him to life. Sayers was accused of falling in love with her creation, but it made for a robust, lifelike character. Walsh is too detached to bring him to life.







The Age of the Horse

Susanna Forrest


It is difficult to review this book. It would be easier if it were a rant or a rave. Instead it’s just ‘meh.’ The author looks at six uses of the horse from the dancing horses of the haute ecole to the draft horses that are making a comeback in agriculture. There is no unifying thesis to bind these disparete articles into a whole. Instead they read like magazine articles published at various times.

If you know a young person who is horse mad and not very critical, this book might make a nice gift.








See What I Have Done

Sarah Schmidt


On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden are murdered in their own house. Their daughter Lizzie is taken into custody eight days later. After 10 months in prison, she is found not guilty of the murder and released, but suspicion lingers around her as she lives out her life in Fall River. No other suspects are taken into custody.

These are the bare bones of one of the most sensational murder cases in American history. Ms Schmidt takes the bare bones and clothes them in details of tension, dysfunction, and family undercurrents.

The book is well written, but nothing can disguise the repellent nature of all the people involved. The house full of the smells of summer: sweat, rancid food, and vomit. Meticulous details of the sources of these smells are lingered over in detail. I would not recommend reading this book in the summer.


Because of Miss Bridgerton

Julia Quinn


Fluff. Piffle. Light reading. Entertaining, but no substance. These words are frequently applied to romance novels. They completely disregard the craft necessary to write a satisfying romance novel. Nobody mocks a souffle because it isn’t roast beef, and much more art and craft are required to create a souffle. A light hand and a sense of timing are of the essence if you are to have a tasty dish instead of a wreck on your plate.

Julia Quinn demonstrates a light hand and a knowledge of how to keep it light. Her dialogue sparkles. Her characters are likeable and believable even if the situation is not. I particularly like her clear-headed, sensible hero. His straight thinking comes to his aid at the end, but all along it is his friend. In contrast, Miss Bridgerton shows an impetuous nature and an ability to get into trouble. They make a good pair.

Roast beef can be had anywhere, but a perfect souffle is harder to come by.




To Sir, with Love

E. R. Braithwaite

To Sir, With Love by [Braithwaite, E. R.]

When E. R. Braithwaite died recently (Dec 16 2016) at the age of 104, I realized that I had never read his famous book. I had seen the Sidney Poitier film, but had not read the book. I purchased a copy from Amazon and began to read.

One thing I don’t remember from the film was how qualified Braithwaite was for a job in science. He had a Ph.D. in physics, as well as extensive experience. His work in his field was interrupted by the war, where he served honorable as an officer in the R.A.F. He expected to obtain a job shortly after mustering out. Instead, he found the doors shut in his face because of racial prejudice. At last, desperate for a job, he took a position as a teacher in a school desperate for teachers.

He found the attitude and lack of discipline on the part of the students in the East End school shocking. Slowly, using a combination of respect and discipline, and demanding the same from the students, he transformed a bunch of rowdies into a classroom of respectful students, ready to learn.

The book is as much about race relationships as it is about education. Carefully negotiating the minefield of prejudice, his own anger, and closed doors, takes up a large portion of the book. Braithwaite describes the barriers to ordinary transactions such as trying to find an apartment, walking out with his white girlfriend, and ordinary encounters with the general public.

The interactions with the students are entertaining, but it is his viewpoint on race relations that make the deepest impression.