Great Reads

Hunt, Rebecca. Mr. Chartwell

Winston Churchill fought a life-long battle with clinical depression. He characterized that depression as being a big black dog that bedeviled him. In "Mr. Chartwell," Rebecca Hunt takes that metaphorical description and makes it literal. Churchill's depression is literally a big black dog who gives his name variously as Mr. Chartwell (Chartwell being the name of Churchill's home estate) and Black Pat.

When widowed and lonely young librarian Esther Hammerhans advertises for a boarder, she is unprepared for who turns up to take the room. A huge, talking black dog who walks on his hind legs and cracks impenetrable jokes and whose name is Black Pat is not exactly whom she expected. But she finds herself unable to say no and he moves into her spare room, and, from there, into the rest of her life and her house. After an encounter with Churchill in which each recognizes the other as an unwilling companion of the obnoxious dog, Esther comes to realize that if she cannot find the willpower to deny Black Pat entry into her life, she will be trapped with him for the rest of her life...which might not be terribly long under his baleful influence.

A dark subject, lightly treated.

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McKillip, Patricia. The Bards of Bone Plain

Phelan Cle, a student at the bardic school in Caeru, never really wanted to be a bard. His decidedly unmusical and eccentric father, Jonah had other ambitions for his son, however, pushing Phelan toward music at every turn. Now that Phelan is about to finally graduate, he’s determined to make things easy on himself . He’s chosen perhaps the most commonly researched, straight-forward topic possible for his final dissertation…the myths and songs surrounding Bone Plain, said to be the origin of bardic tradition, poetry, and song, the place where Nairn the mysterious Wandering Bard failed the equally mysterious Three Trials and vanished from history. No one knows the location of the Plain, or even if it ever existed outside of metaphor and folklore.  However, as he digs into the stories and records, he begins to piece together the surprising truths behind the tale. Meanwhile, his archaeologist father and his best student, the unconventional Princess Beatrice, continue digs of their own. When Beatrice discovers a mysterious artifact and and even more mysterious buried doorway, the final pieces of the puzzle surrounding Bone Plain and Nairn the Wanderer begin falling into place.

Lyrical, complex, and mythic in scope yet entirely human in detail, “The Bards of Bone Plain” is an example of McKillip at her best.

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Fey, Tina. Bossypants

Tina Fey is the queen of self-deprecating humor, completely willing to humiliate herself for a laugh. Her new memoir comes complete with cringe-inducing photos of her childhood, humorous stories about her early days in comedy, and tales of her current struggles to balance motherhood and career. Although the book at times seems a bit of a hodgepodge, jumping from tales of her disastrous honeymoon cruise to snippets of “30 Rock” scripts, most of it is laugh-out-loud funny.  You don’t have to be a Tina Fey or “30 Rock” fan to thoroughly enjoy Bossypants.

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Gordon, Mary. The Love of My Youth

It isn’t an original set-up: two former lovers briefly reunite in Rome and sift through the ashes of their long-lost romance. Yet, Mary Gordon is such a skilled writer that she should have been able to pull it off. Her descriptions of Rome do bring the city to life, and she carefully develops both of the main characters. Still the book never quite lives up to Gordon’s usual standard. 

Part of the problem is the stilted dialogue of Miranda and Adam who speak in arch, overly philosophical sentences that remind you they are fictional constructs and not real people. This is a serious flaw in a novel that’s basically a series of conversations interspersed with flashbacks. In addition, the only real conflict in the book is in the characters’ past, and it doesn’t develop any real momentum until the novel is nearly over.

Despite the lovely descriptions of Rome, even die-hard Gordon fans may want to sit this one out.

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Gran, Sara. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead

Sara Gran is a terrific writer. Her first two novellas, Come Closer and Dope, are the kind of gripping reads that keep readers turning pages into the wee hours. Gran excels at creating settings so atmospheric that they nearly become characters in the story. And the strongest aspect of her newest novel, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, is the finely drawn post-Katrina setting. She revisits the days just after the hurricane when residents were still stranded on rooftops and creates vividly accurate portraits of the city’s homeless and disaffected youth.

Her heroine is a brilliant, darkly self-destructive private investigator tracking the murderer of DA Vic Willing. While Claire is an intriguing character, the plot is murky and not nearly as fast paced as her first two efforts.  The book may disappoint Gran’s fans a bit, but most readers will be willing to follow Claire through her next adventure as this new series gets underway.

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