The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

The Maltese Falcon
by
Dashiell Hammett

Rating:

I wasn’t sure how I felt about reading a hardboiled detective novel from the 1930s, even though I remember liking the Humphrey Bogart movie years ago. But one page in and I understood why Dashiell Hammett is considered a master of this genre. It’s a tightly written story about detective Sam Spade, three murders, a valuable falcon statue and an assortment of shrewd characters on both sides of the law.

The story begins when a beautiful and mysterious Miss Wonderly hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer to keep an eye on man she claims has run off with her teenage sister. Spade and Archer might not believe their new client, but they take the assignment and her retainer. When Archer and the man he’s following turn up dead, the first person the police suspect is Spade. That begins the reader’s view into the long-standing antagonistic relationship between Spade and the police, specifically Detective Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.

Written in the external third-person narrative, the reader gets no look into the characters’ thoughts and must decide their motives and truthfulness based entirely on their words and actions. There are plenty of shady characters to figure out, too. Spade quickly discovers Miss Wonderly is lying, that her real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy and that she’s deeply mixed up in a scheme to get the priceless falcon. But the truth is also muddled up by others who want the bird, a bejeweled and fashionable Joel Cairo, a slick-talking Caspar Gutman and his bodyguard Wilmer.

Spade’s character is a fascinating mix between calculating, cutthroat, self-serving and occasionally soft-hearted, particularly around beautiful women. That makes for plenty of romantic tension between him and O’Shaughnessy, who is just as slick to manage. She says she’s hired him to help her get the statue, which she’s promised to Gutman. Whether it’s a square deal is for the reader to discover in a twisted and fast-moving plot with plenty of red herrings.

The only woman who has Spade figured out is his loyal secretary Effie Perine, who is willing to put up with a lot of guff because she genuinely likes him. The fondness is mutual, but seemingly platonic, with some teasing affection, and maybe that’s why it works.

The big showdown at the end between all the bird’s players is a section worthy of several re-reads, first to get the facts and later to enjoy the smart and manipulative negotiations between Spade and the rest. It’s never clear, until the final page, who has the upper hand.

Every word counts in this terrific story which is just over 200 pages and both easy and fun to read. I recommend The Maltese Falcon to readers of crime fiction and to all readers who are looking for a great story.

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Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry
by
Neal Shusterman
Jarrod Shusterman

Rating:

For sixteen-year-old Alyssa and her family, the drought in southern California was nothing new. It meant conserving water, as in shorter showers and no watering the lawns. Life went on otherwise and no one was thinking disaster. No one except the McCrackens. But they were the strange, reclusive neighbors across the street who had taken their survivalist hobby to the extreme. No one to take seriously.

Now what the news channels had been calling a flow crisis is a sudden Tap-Out. No water. And in a matter of days, throughout the region, civilized communities become desperate rioting mobs, with no way to get out. When Alyssa and her younger brother, Garrett are separated from their parents, it’s up to the kids to survive on their own. But how and for how long? With a hurricane occupying the rest of the nation’s attention, does anyone outside of southern California know how bad it is?

It’s anything goes as friends and neighbors face the grim truth and Alyssa and Garrett must ask themselves how far they will go to survive, whom they will trust and just how much they will help others.

In Neal Shusterman’s brand new book (published 10/2/18), he teams with his son, Jarrod to write a fantastic Young Adult study of climate change and human behavior under extreme stress. They offer a mix of realistic characters with emerging traits of leadership and changing degrees of moral standards, selfishness and violence. Told in the present tense, in varying points of view, Dry is an intense, consuming story that will make readers ask themselves, “What would I do?”

I recommend Dry to readers who enjoy fast-paced action stories that look into how people react to threats and danger.

For another story about the effects of a drought on a town, check out:

The Dry by Jane Harper

And if you like apocalyptic/dystopian survival stories, you may also like:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

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The safe world of political fiction

If you can’t watch the news, but you still like political stories, you can always pick up a novel. These three books will help you escape into the safe world of political fiction. One all-American story, a smart romance and a clever mystery.


America America by Ethan Canin

In 1971, Henry Bonwiller is near the front of the race to become the next Democratic nominee for president of the United States, and a young Corey Sifter is there to witness his rise and ultimate fall, as an aide to the money and power behind the campaign.


Candidate by Tracy Ewens

Politics are tough and public image is everything for United States Senator Patrick Malendar of California. He’s up for re-election and his young Republican opponent is giving him a run for his money. This modern romance is full of fun banter and romantic tension. But it also tackles many serious subjects, including the price of public life, family secrets and infidelity.


Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery by Andrew Shaffer

Why not write a mystery with Barack Obama and Joe Biden as amateur detectives? This pair has plenty of rapport to wrap around a good story line. Who better to solve a mystery than the former President and Vice President of the United States?


And if you really just want to escape from it all, try

Joy in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse

Imagine a scenario in which ridiculous characters bumble through a series of hilarious coincidences and an equal number of snafus, all in the name of love, marriage and a big business deal. The first of three short novels included in Just Enough Jeeves, a fun introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s famous characters: twenty-something Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.


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Book Talk – The Impact of Female Authors on Young Adult Literature

Welcome to Book Talk, an occasional feature on Book Club Mom, home to quick previews of new and not-so-new books that catch my eye and other bookish discussions.

Today I’m going to highlight five female Young Adult authors and talk about an upcoming discussion on their role in literature, but before I do that, a little history on the genre.

Young Adult literature first came to the reading world in the 1960s and has been evolving ever since. What these books have in common is that they are much more realistic than what adolescents traditionally read before. The genre came to be as authors began to write about modern and grittier problems and themes, unique to teenagers.

But did you know that the term “teenagers” didn’t emerge until the 1940s? It first appeared in a 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly. Before that, the American population was divided into two groups: adults and children. You were an adult if you were in the workforce and a child if you were in school. Things began to change during the Great Depression because there were fewer jobs for Americans of all ages. So many more adolescents were enrolled in high school, not working a job.

Librarians were the first to call teenagers “young adults,” in the 1940s, a term that was made official in 1957 by the American Library Association.

I found this information in a great May 2018 article from Smithsonian.com, entitled “How ‘Young Adult’ Fiction Blossomed With Teenage Culture in America.” You can read it here.


The following female authors write about modern teenagers and offer a nice variety of Young Adult literature.

Odd One Out by Nic Stone


The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk


Far from the Tree by Robin Benway


Before the Devil Breaks You (The Diviners) by Libba Bray


I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman

(All author and book cover images are from Amazon.com.)

On Saturday, October 13, this group will convene at the Westport Library in Westport, Connecticut, to discuss their audiences, intentions, and themes in the YA genre. These women will specifically focus on their beliefs about the role of a female author writing about young adults in the current climate of teens today. This discussion is part of the library’s Saugatuck StoryFest Events and, if you live in the area, you can check out the details here.

I enjoy reading YA books, even though I’m long past the target reading age, because I like to understand what themes are interesting and important to teenage readers. Are you a YA fan? What are your favorite YA books?

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale
by
Margaret Atwood

Rating:

I hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in over ten years so I was glad when my book club chose it for this month’s discussion. And it fits right in with the National Banned Books Week (September 23 -29). The Handmaid’s Tale has been challenged or banned many times since its publication in 1985. In Atwood’s dystopian story, the American government is overthrown and replaced by a theonomic military dictatorship in which fertile women are used solely to bear children and all other women are either assigned to a hierarchy that enforces this policy or sent to the Colonies to clean up toxic waste. The idea is to build up the country’s dwindling population, which has suffered due to nuclear explosions and other contamination. The men’s roles vary according to station and include Angels and Guardians, with Commanders at the top.

The story’s narrator is a handmaid, Offred, so named as belonging to her Commander. Handmaids are assigned to the Commanders and their presumably barren wives who participate every month in an orchestrated Ceremony in which the Commanders try to impregnate the handmaids. Although Offred is not at the bottom of the hierarchy, she is nonetheless trapped and by no means secure. If she doesn’t become pregnant, she could be sent to the Colonies.

As with all forms of oppression, ways to communicate, small freedoms, and an underground resistance give Offred hope, but their discovery is slow and unsure. A risky relationship with her Commander and even more dangerous connections with others could go either way as Offred tries to reconcile the life she lost with what may be possible. I enjoyed rereading The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a look at what could go wrong and is a good exercise of thought. I recommend it to readers who like speculative fiction and to all readers who like seeing how characters fight back in both small and large ways.


The Handmaid’s Tale is also a popular television series. Streamed on Hulu, the show has won eight Emmy awards and a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama. Seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch and Season 3 is in the works. You can even see Atwood in a small cameo role.


You may also remember the 1990 movie, directed by Volker Schlondorff and starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway and Aidan Quinn. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay.


I also read a great article about what influenced Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. Click here to read Atwood’s March 10, 2017 essay in The New York Times: “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” Here are some highlights:

  • Atwood began writing in the book in 1984.
  • She was living in West Berlin at the time, before the fall of the Berlin Wall where she “experienced the wariness, the feeling of being spied on, the silences, the changes of subject, the oblique ways in which people might convey information, and these had an influence on what I was writing.”
  • She wasn’t sure she was up to the task of writing a dystopian, speculative fiction.

Atwood also answers three important questions about the book

  1. Is it a feminist novel? She says no, and yes. No because the women in her story are not all angels, and neither are they so victimized that they can’t make moral decisions. But she clarifies, “If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are ‘feminist.’”
  2. Is the book antireligion? No, it’s against using religion “as a front for tyranny.”
  3. Is the book a prediction? She calls it an “antiprediction” and explains that if this kind of future can be described, maybe it won’t happen.

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What’s That Book? The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

whats-that-book

TitleThe Murder of Mary Russell

Author:  Laurie R. King

Genre: Detective fiction

Rating:  4 stars

What’s it about?  The 14th book of King’s Mary Russell series in which the author incorporates characters from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries into new detective stories. This one includes Sherlock Holmes and his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, as well as Mary Russell, Holmes’ wife, a new character created by King at the beginning of the series. The book is based on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott,” a tale involving Mrs. Hudson’s father as a young man, as he is transported as a prisoner from England to Australia. A mutiny ensues, the ship explodes and Hudson finds himself adrift.

The bigger story is about Clara Hudson, James Hudson’s daughter, and how she came to be Sherlock’s landlady and housekeeper, first at his Baker Street residence and now in Sussex. It begins in 1925 when Clara returns from the market to a bloody and upturned house. Sherlock is out and Mary is nowhere to be found and Clara fears the worst for a young woman she considers family. Who has been to their house and why are Clara’s personal belongings in disarray?

Clara has learned a few things about how to handle evidence and the process of deductive reasoning and has useful information for Sherlock when he returns. The book is partially narrated by Mary herself, with alternating chapters going back to 1850s when Clara is a young girl and later.

In the back story, James Hudson is not a great father, often drunk and hardly trustworthy, but father and daughter become partners in crime as they work the crowds in both Sydney and London, picking pockets and developing more elaborate schemes to steal people’s money. The stories come together at the finish to connect the Sussex visitor and Clara’s two lives.

How did you hear about it?  I learned about it from the mystery book club I run at my library job. We will be discussing it next week.        

Closing comments:  I enjoyed this story very much. Although I’m sure it’s best to read the series from the beginning, I was pleased to be able to jump in so late. The first of the series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, is presented as a memoir and introduces Mary to Holmes. Most of the books are about their relationship. The Murder of Mary Russell is different because it is about Mrs. Hudson. I would recommend the series to devoted Sherlock Holmes fans as well as to readers who enjoy detective fiction.

Contributor:  Book Club Mom

For more information, please visit these recent posts:

On mystery writer Laurie R. King, Sherlock Holmes and fan fiction

When you have a Twitter conversation with a character from a book


whats-that-book

Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Audiobook: Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter, narrated by Kathleen Early

Audiobook:
Pretty Girls
by
Karin Slaughter

Narrated by Kathleen Early

Rating:

Claire Scott’s older sister, Julia, vanished over twenty years ago. Her disappearance has been largely forgotten, except by her broken family. Pretty Girls is the story of how Claire, her sister, Lydia, and their parents have coped with losing Julia, who is now presumed dead.

Set in Atlanta, the story begins in the present and its main character is Claire, who is celebrating her first day without an ankle monitor, terms of an assault conviction. But Claire considers herself lucky, because Paul, her devoted and highly successful architect husband, supports her, two hundred percent. Tragedy strikes almost immediately, however, and Claire must think for herself to protect and save her family from a sinister and twisted rapist and murderer.

Claire soon discovers that one crime doesn’t mean it’s over and, as she digs, she learns about a sadistic series of crimes and a massive dark web network. Is Julia’s disappearance somehow connected to this current violence? Claire will need to take a hard look at all the people around her and decide whom she can trust. Pretty Girls is a suspense story, but it’s also a story about self-actualization, in which Claire, for the first time in her life, takes control and realizes her strength. In addition, Slaughter includes themes of family, broken relationships and closure to round out the story.

If you choose to read or listen to this dark thriller, be warned. The book includes many scenes of detailed graphic and extreme violence. If it were not for my interest in seeing Claire get revenge, I would have put it down. I felt the violence was over-the-top, and perhaps the audio version made it even more so. The narrator did a great job with voices, and in particular captured the manipulative tone of the killer’s both seductive and evil voices. But at times, she seemed a little too into the crime descriptions. Of course, she was just reading someone else’s words… The author’s surname should have been a warning to me! So that’s why it’s just a 3-bookmark rating for me.

With over thirty-five hundred reviews on Amazon, Pretty Girls has received an average 4-star rating. You can check out these reviews here and decide for yourself.

Karin Slaughter is an award-winning crime writer and has written eighteen novels. Pretty Girls is a New York Times bestseller. Her novels Cop Town, The Good Daughter, and Pieces of Her are all in development for film and television.


I read Pretty Girls as part of my library’s Summer Reading Challenge to listen to an audiobook from our system’s catalog.

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Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery by Andrew Shaffer

Hope Never Dies
An Obama Biden Mystery
by
Andrew Shaffer

Rating:

Andrew Shaffer had a very funny idea. Why not write a mystery with Barack Obama and Joe Biden as amateur detectives? If you’ve ever seen some of the Obama-Biden “bromance” memes (click here for a few), you’ll know this pair has plenty of rapport to wrap around a good story line. Who better to solve a mystery than the former President and Vice President of the United States?

The story begins soon after the 2016 election. Obama has adjusted nicely to a new life filled with adventure. He’s windsurfing, kayaking and hanging out with celebrities. But Biden is at loose ends and is a little stung by Obama’s new life and friends. “Why doesn’t Barack ever call me, his best friend?” he wonders.

The pair reconnects when Biden’s favorite train conductor dies under suspicious circumstances. “Amtrak Joe” senses there is more to the story. Biden has been a regular on Amtrak for decades and he knows that Finn Donnelly was a good, family man. But questions arise when Obama shares what police know. Could there be a national security interest at stake? Is Donnelly’s death connected to opioid trafficking?

Biden takes the lead and jumps straight into the case in his full-force, pantser style. And before long, Obama and his cool and calm self are part of the team. As the pair bumbles through their undercover investigation, in caps and shades, it becomes clear that this case is big and that not everyone is on the same team. Can the Obama-Biden team sort it out?

I thoroughly enjoyed imagining Obama and Biden as they adjust to their new lives as regular citizens. And seeing them operate as amateur detectives makes for many hilarious scenarios. Shady characters and a few false leads make the mystery an enjoyable puzzle to solve and, while the crimes and consequences reflect grim problems, the story is light and great fun to read.

I recommend Hope Never Dies to all readers. It is pure entertainment, with a few political jabs and a lot of laughs.


I received a copy of Hope Never Dies from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


I read Hope Never Dies as part of my library’s Summer Reading Challenge to choose a book because I like its cover.

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden
by
Frances Hodgson Burnett
Illustrated by Tasha Tudor

Rating:

Classic children’s books don’t get any better than this story about a spoiled, but frail and lonely ten-year-old orphan girl who is sent to live on a vast English moorland manor, with a reclusive uncle she has never met. In a delightful transformation, fresh air, exercise, surprise friendships, returned health and the newfound wonders of a secret and neglected garden are the springtime magic that brings Mary Lennox and her new family together.

Mary has lived a privileged life in India, waited on by her Ayah and knowing nothing about good manners or other people’s feelings. Her parents have died of cholera and now she must learn how to be kind to others and do things for herself. She’s been warned that her uncle has little interest in children. In fact, Archibald Craven is determinedly away when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor and she is left in the care of the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, and the young housemaid, Martha Sowerby.

There are many secrets at Misselthwaite, including long corridors, hundreds of unused rooms and strange noises in other parts of the house. She’s told to stay in her own rooms when indoors, so Mary explores the outdoors where she finds many gardens and meets the groundskeeper, Ben Weatherstaff, and a friendly robin. When the robin flies to the top of a tree in an enclosed garden with no apparent door, Mary knows she must find a way in.

Once discovered, it’s a secret Mary longs to share with someone she can trust. And when she meets Dickon, Martha’s younger brother, she knows he is the perfect friend to tell. Dickon knows all about gardens and the creatures on the moor and has a magic about him that makes him glow with happiness. As the two children plant flowers and clear out the weeds, Mary learns about the unbearable unhappiness the garden represents to her uncle. And the alarming cries in the night reveal another secret about the manor.

As Mary befriends the people in her small world who struggle with their own problems, she entrusts them with her secret and learns that the greatest joy comes with helping each other. It’s a delightful story in which goodness rises to the top of much loss and sadness. The author does not shy away from these realities; she tells of them plainly and shows that faith and a little bit of springtime magic are no match for Misselthwaite’s troubles.

There is more to tell, but some secrets are better enjoyed first-hand. I recommend The Secret Garden to all readers, young and old, who enjoy books about children, friendship and the joys of finding a way out of unhappy times. I especially enjoyed this Tasha Tudor Edition, published in 1962 by Harper Collins. The artist’s illustrations are beautiful and give the reader a wonderful picture of Burnett’s story.


I read The Secret Garden as part of my library’s Summer Reading Challenge to read a children’s classic.

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Book Talk – The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Image: Pixabay

Welcome to a new and occasional feature on Book Club Mom called Book Talk, home to quick previews of new and not-so-new books that catch my eye.

I read The Secret Garden many years ago and it’s a book I remember loving as a girl. Written by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it’s considered a children’s classic. First published in 1912, the story has been adapted to many film and stage versions, including a Broadway musical in 1991.

The Secret Garden is the story of Mary Lennox, a young girl living in India, whose family dies of cholera. Mary is sent to England to live with a widowed uncle on his large estate, where she is left by herself much of the time. Lonely and with few friends, Mary discovers a key to an abandoned walled garden and her life begins to change, as secrets about her uncle and his family are revealed.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, Image: Wikipedia

Burnett was a British novelist and playwright and, in addition to The Secret Garden, is the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-6) and A Little Princess (1905). Burnett wrote constantly, as a young girl, and later to support her family. She was born in England in 1849, moved to America as a young woman, was married and divorced twice, had two sons and lived the last years of her life on Long Island, New York. She died in 1924 at age 74.

One of the BINGO squares on my Libraries Rock Summer Reading card is to read a children’s classic, so I chose The Secret Garden. I remember how good I felt when I first read this story, so I’m looking forward to feeling the same!

Have you re-read any of your childhood favorites?

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