Friday, April 29, 2011

The Part-Time Thief and Other Appraisal Stories by Susan R. Stoltz

Published by CreateSpace
Reviewed for Review the Book

Rodents and rattlesnakes and rogues. Not enough? How about gangsters and charging bison? This little book of stories, taken from the author's days as a real estate appraiser, shows just how dangerous some of these jobs can be. After all, you are in a vulnerable and lonely position in the true cases mentioned above and throughout episodes in Susan R. Stoltz's memoir. Probably an eye-opener to many, but I will tell you from my husband's experiences as a real estate salesman in the 1960s and prior to his retirement that this is just the tip of the iceberg! Susan writes her episodes as short chapters and in her own voice, making this book personal.

As you will find in the book, there is definitely risk, but there is humor as well, and the very real sadness of seeing how some people live. I enjoyed the book as written, but I couldn't help thinking that there must have been several other instances that did not appear in the book for whatever reason. I could see this written in a format much like the acclaimed British author James Herriot's farm veterinarian books. Having also worked on a farm, I realize there are many more opportunities for doing those animal books, though. Nevertheless, I was left wishing for more, and felt even if the stories had to be tweaked slightly, this book could have been more fleshed out, it definitely showed promise in that direction.*

But of course, this is Susan's own memoir and fascinating as is, written in stark, factual, as-it-happened realism. This author was held at gunpoint in one home, attacked by wild animals, even faced an apparently lonely senior cross-dresser while keeping her cool. This type of job is a lonely one and laughter is good when it comes your way. Terror isn't. I am amazed at the courage she maintained in her terror. I believe her quiet sense of "get the job done" and hilarious sense of understatement at times was helpful in this respect. A nice quick, lively read.

This is a prime example of how seriously some people take their work, what different types of jobs can bring, both good and bad, and how one woman stood her ground. Susan R. Stoltz is one author I would like to sit down and chat with.

*I note on her website that Susan does have a second Appraisal Stories book out.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Published by Hodder

I found this to be a very unusual book, a fairy tale in concept perhaps, bringing to mind thoughts of Cinderella, maybe even Sleeping Beauty. I loved it. A revelation in a way. Part pathos, yet very funny, with magic thrown in for good measure.

Our heroine, Josey, daughter of the very rich but deceased Marco Cirrini, is a perfect example of the way some people live their lives demoralized, feeling unworthy of anything better, and basically isolated from their surroundings. She lives with an adversarial mother who expects Josey to wait on her, stay home always, be available whenever she wants her, yet doesn't really like or want her. What happens to these people when something in their lives changes? How wonderful it would be to have something vastly out of the ordinary open a whole new life. This, then, is the basis of the story.

Sarah Addison Allen has an inimitable way of looking at things, a superb imagination, as in her debut book Garden Spells. In The Sugar Queen, she has changed direction while maintaining that bit of magic and illusion found in her first book.

Josey is approaching thirty, living with her mother in the luxurious home her father bought when he made his fortune building the ski resort that made the town the place to be in winter. Making up the third person in the household is the housemaid, of unknown nationality, but a woman full of superstition. Josey's only pleasure in life is found behind a false wall in her closet where she stores "lots and lots" of sweets, romance paperbacks, and travel magazines. One winter morning she finds something else in her closet: an interloper, Della Lee Baker, the hard luck, tough-talking girl of the town and about as unlike Josey as she can be. The last person in the world Josey would think of as a fairy godmother. But Della Lee is about to change Josey's life, with or without her consent or knowledge of her machinations. The interaction between these two is funny and perceptive. The housemaid, Helena (or is she?), is sure something bad is in the house and casts superstitious spells around the house, adding to the fun.

It is difficult to review this book without spoilers, so I will cut to the chase. Through Della Lee, Josey meets several people, some good, some bad. She learns to make friends, especially Chloe, who needs Josey as much as Josey needs her, but neither are aware of it when they meet. She learns how to live outside of her own imposed isolation. What draws these three girls together? Why is Josey able to feel such an affinity with them as she becomes more familiar with them? There is action, danger, mystery, and many secrets to be revealed as Josey begins to open up to the world. Why is Della Lee still living in her closet? What is the big secret surrounding Josey?

If you liked fairy tales as a child you'll recognize some similarities, but this is not a fairy tale, much as it contains what appears to be magic. This is a story of life and living it, not wasting it. Great fun, but there is truth in the overall picture of how people's lives can become so mixed up and self-damaging. But like a fairy tale there is a happy ending, although tinged with sadness. I really enjoyed the trip through Sarah Addison Allen's imagination once again and look forward to more.

My review for Garden Spells can be viewed here.

Sentenced to Death: a Booktown Mystery by Lorna Barrett

Published by Berkley Prime Crime, New York

What a slam dunk opening to a story! Sentenced to Death certainly grabbed my attention with an astounding Founders Day Celebration in Stoneham, New Hampshire. Who could guess that an innocuous celebration would change the lives of the town's residents so much, in particular the Booktown shop-owners? Lorna Barrett, you've done it again! Although new characters are introduced, some remain and some leave, one way or another. Other characters make changes in their lives as land developers descend on this typically quiet little town.

The sudden death of Tricia's friend Deborah, by what must surely be the strangest weapon used in a cozy mystery, leaves the town in shock. Her devastating death leaves behind a toddler, Davey, husband David, and mother Elizabeth who is her store assistant cum babysitter. Festivities are cancelled, and the National Transportation Safety Board arrives to take over the investigation. Everyone believes it is a tragic accident, but Tricia feels there is more to it than that. She is sure it is murder and she is also sure she knows who is involved. The speed with which David hires a lawyer in preparation for a lawsuit, disposes by cremation of his wife's body with no funeral, and the speed with which he sells the store Deborah owned with her mother, adds another nail to his coffin in Tricia's mind. But could that simply be the actions of a man suffering the trauma of losing his wife so suddenly? And what about the Nigela Racita Associates' rush to buy up properties in town, including Deborah's shop "Happy Domestic", partly owned by Elizabeth and sold out from under her?

Lorna Barrett has a special knack for letting us picture the town and the townspeople with her descriptive voice. Her characterizations are human and consistent, not over-the-top. This is Book 5 in the Booktown series and we've come to know a lot about the residents. In this book, pestered by her ex-boyfriend and uncertain about her current unproclaimed beau, feeling the loss of her assistant Ginny as she furthers her career as the new manager of the Happy Domestic, Tricia is definitely stressed. She is confused by the discovery that though she was one of her best friends, Tricia seems to be out of the loop about much of Deborah's life. This story is full of secrets and conjecture. With two deaths and a town in turmoil, it appears that Tricia may just be right about the "accident" being murder, but what would be the reason for the second death in the same "accident"? Who could possibly want two such unconnected people dead?

I always enjoy this series, it is cohesive, maintains its character, has a strong plot full of surprises, and is always entertaining. Well done, an excellent choice for readers of cozies and unique mysteries.
Review based on Advance Reading Copy (ARC)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Big Beat Scene by Royston Ellis

Published by Music Mentor Books

Re-released from first printing in 1961, The Big Beat Scene should bring back a lot of memories, along with things we didn't know, to anyone who was young or young at heart in the 1950s and early '60s both in North America and in Great Britain. Personally, I felt the music all over again as I read this book. This was my era. It was the time of what I always feel is happy music, you just can't keep still when you hear it. I am grateful for a book that talks to my generation so well.

Royston Ellis has done very little in additions to the original. A couple of corrections, reinserting some sections that were originally censored or deleted out in the first release in 1961. Because of this, he has left the vernacular of the time as is, rather than go down the road of political correctness of today. This makes the book feel more in step with its own time. For North American readers, although he does have two major sections taking place on this side of the pond, the wording is '50s British, but not difficult to understand for those of us who are not familiar with it.

The author, a teenager himself when this was written, has done an admirable job on this era, obviously well-researched in addition to his personal involvement in this new world of entertainment. He was in fact a "beat" poet who read his poems on stage and TV while backed up by various bands who later often became famous in their own right. Dubbed "King of the Beatniks", he had his own fame. Performing poetry to rock and roll, he called his performance "rocketry".

Keeping in mind that this book was originally published fifty years ago, it was then a happening story. Now it is an excellent historical look at the changing times after a period of teen repression in the fifteen years following WWII. The book could be considered at this date more encyclopaedic, but certainly not dry! Beginning with the beatniks, rolling on into the rock and roll excitement and on through the reinstated jazz scene, the feel of the book is palpable. He is descriptive to the point where one can almost smell the smoke, see the performers, recognize the scenes that played out in so many clubs, coffee houses, recording studios and even that newish invention TV. The reader is sure to be in the center of it all.

Many individuals and bands cited are well-known figures such as Bill Haley and the Comets, to North America and others just as well-known as the hit-makers of Britain, all the way to the beginnings of the Beatles, but this is not a book for promotion, ego-tickling, or bogus promoters, although Royston does touch on how some creativity was used by managers/promoters, occasionally submerging a lacklustre or shy performer's true personality. Nor is it an exposé as we think of it in today's jaded, muckraking world. This is, in fact, an informative and entertaining view of the era seen through the eyes of the teenagers who reveled in the new freedom in music and dance. It is not a fan production, it is an honest look at how this music changed lives, and eventually some of those lives changed the music. What is sad to this reader is how many of these youngsters have passed away in the interim, many still young.

It is interesting to see the way rock and roll moved around, the wave taking a little longer to get to Britain but perhaps moving along faster once it got going. The next big wave would be the "British Invasion" in the '60s, occurring after the writing of this book. I enjoyed this book completely, and happily recommend it. A captivating read of a very exciting time in entertainment history.