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Jill Meyer (United States)

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The Last Pilot
The Last Pilot
by Benjamin Johncock
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One to the moon..., 24 July 2015
This review is from: The Last Pilot (Paperback)
British author Benjamin Johncock has hit one to the moon with his first novel, "The Last Pilot". It will go down on my list of the best fiction for 2015.

Jim Harrison is a test-pilot at Muroc base in California's Mojave Desert as part of the X-1 program, along with Chuck Yaeger. He was one of the first to break the sound-barrier as part of the team. Harrison's a pilot's pilot. Rough hewn and quiet, he's a doer, not a thinker. He and his wife, Grace, are part of the "family" at Muroc, which centered around - during the off-hours - "Pancho" Barnes's "Happy Bottom Riding Club". Jim Harrison works hard and Grace is part of the community of other wives waiting for their pilot husbands to come home at night. "Augering in" - crashing - was an ever-present danger for the test pilots, and the wives lived in fear of seeing the base brass or a priest walking up to their front door.

Grace, after years of infertility, finds herself pregnant and the baby - named "Florence" for Pancho Barnes - was adored by both her parents. Her early death hits her parents hard and both learn to cope with their loss in different ways. Jim retreats into his work and Grace is left a wreck, visiting the cemetery every day. Their marriage becomes an empty shell as Jim is offered a job as one of the "second set" of US astronauts, and they flee Muroc and their memories to Houston and the space program.

Benjamin Johncock writes a book of feelings and emotions left unsaid that can ruin a life. He places his characters in the middle of the space program - a job and life that keeps an astronaut-in-training Jim as busy as can be, leaving him little time to contemplate his losses. Grace is alone in her misery. How Johncock brings his characters together is a thing of beauty, told in a minimalist style. Most of the book is dialog, but without quotation marks. (If you don't like that style of writing, avoid this book).

I cannot stress strongly enough how beautifully written this book is, on all levels. And I'm still amazed that a British writer can capture the nuances of both US politics and the space program. This is a book to read and treasure.

Lost For Words
Lost For Words
Price: £3.59

3.0 out of 5 stars A trifling..., 24 July 2015
This review is from: Lost For Words (Kindle Edition)
Most readers - serious or not - tend to keep track of the finalists and the winners of the major literary awards. There are literally hundreds of organisations who give prizes for literary excellence. Perhaps one of the coveted is the "Man Booker Prize", awarded to the best original novel, written in the English language, and published in the UK. For an author, even to be recognised as being on the "Long List" is an honor. But who are the judges and what criteria do these organisations use to recognise excellence in writing?

British author Edward St Aubyn's novel, "Lost for Words" is a look - a glance, really - at the Man Booker Award, here named the "Elysian Prize". The book, which is clever, is actually pretty short and is a fast read. St Aubyn gives the five judges - drawn from the literary, political, and arts worlds - with their pasts, presents, and futures, and, most important, their literary biases. He also features excerpts from some of the books under consideration. One of the six finalist books is an Indian cookery book, which was submitted by mistake by the publisher. He was supposed to submit a novel - the prize is for novels - and instead the cookery book is sent in its place. Edward St Aubyn is clever in both his plot and characters but somehow the book seems insubstantial. There's not much there for the reader to remember when he's finished the book.

Perhaps a better book on the same subject is Ruth Dudley Edwards' "Carnage on the Committee". Dudley Edwards writes the "Robert Amiss/Lady Jack Troutbeck" novels - which are savage, not "politically correct" mysteries - and "Carnage" is a biting look at the committee set up to select the "Knapper-Warburton Literary Award" winner.

Edward St Aubyn's book is a gentle, satirical look at literary prizes, while Ruth Dudley Edwards' is much more over-the-top witty.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 24, 2015 2:41 PM BST

Tales: Short Stories Featuring Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford
Tales: Short Stories Featuring Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford
Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever marketing tool..., 21 July 2015
Mother-son writing team "Charles Todd" has published a very good marketing tool for their faithful readers, "Tales: Short Stories Featuring Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford". The book consists of four short stories - two for each character - as well as an "sneak peek" at the new Bess Crawford book, "A Pattern of Lies", due out in August, 2015. The four short stories take up 67% of the book; the excerpt is the final third of the book. (Don't you just love ebooks?)

I had read all four short stories before and they are a pretty good introduction to the two characters. In one, "Cold Comfort", a new reader to the series meets Ian Rutledge and Cpl Hamish MacLeod, the good soldier Rutledge was forced to shoot for insubordination and whose haunting "voice" Rutledge carried with him after the war. The other story is about a crime/kidnapping Rutledge solves after the war when he's back at Scotland Yard. The two Bess Crawford stories are similar. One introduces Bess as a child living with her parents in India and the other takes place during her wartime nursing service.

I've been reading "Charles Todd" since their first book, which I think was Inspector Rutledge. The two series take place at just slightly different times; Inspector Rutledge is written in post-WW1 England (with flash backs to wartime and before-the-war), while Bess Crawford is written during the Great War. I keep waiting for the two series to merge somehow; there is one character who is the same in both books - Melinda Crawford.

So, if you're looking for a bit of "Charles Todd", as well as jump on the new novel, by all means buy this Kindle ebook. If you've already read the four stories and it's after the new novel has been published, then I think you can pass on this ebook.

The Circle
The Circle
by Peter Lovesey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Members of a "writing circle" get knocked off..., 18 July 2015
This review is from: The Circle (Paperback)
Police procedurals and mysteries are written with different plots, but maybe the most commonly used is the "someone-is-killed-and-the-suspects-are-part-of-a-group". And, of course, the book continues with more murders with the victim count rising and the suspect count going down. Finally, only a limited number of people are left to be murdered by a limited number of possible murderers!

That is the plot of British author Peter Lovesey's novel, "The Circle: A Hen Mallin Investigation". Mallin - who has appeared in several of the "Peter Diamond" novels, is highlighted in "The Circle" and a couple of others. She brings a feminine perspective to Lovesey's writing about crime solving that contrasts nicely to Peter Diamond's more masculine one. In "The Circle", Mallin is brought in to investigate a murder-by-arson of a small-time, crooked book publisher in Chichester. Someone has stuffed petrol-soaked rags through the mail slot of his thatch house, killing the man and destroying most of his house. The victim is quickly linked to a local "writing circle", where an interesting group of would-be authors gather to critique and help each others' writing.

Okay, if an author is going to use a "group" as victims/murderers, he or she should put together an interesting group of people. Peter Lovesey certainly does this in his book; the "writing circle" is filled with off-beat stereotypes one can assume live in an English town. And one by one the members fall victim to death-by-fire. Several possible murderers are eliminated by Hen Mallin and her group by because they actually had alibis for the times of the murders. Finally, though good police work, the murderer is found and the "writing circle" - quite a bit smaller - resumes its meetings.

Peter Lovesey does an excellent job creating interesting characters. The reader is sympathetic to the victims, and even the murderer is somewhat sympathetic. He highlights Hen Mallin and her fellow officers as they try to solve the crime. The book is a very good read.

Down Among the Dead Men (Peter Diamond Mystery Book 15)
Down Among the Dead Men (Peter Diamond Mystery Book 15)
Price: £13.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inspecting "on the road"..., 16 July 2015
Peter Lovesey, the author of "Down Among the Dead Men", has written 15 "Detective Peter Diamond" mysteries. He's also written several others, including a couple who feature Detective Henrietta Mallen. "Hen" Mallin also plays a pretty large part in this novel, so it may be a "two-fer" for Lovesey fans.

In "Down", Peter Diamond is asked/commanded to accompany his superior, Georgina Dallymore, from their Bath "nick" to a town on the Sussex coast to investigate a murder committed seven years previously. The police powers want to bring in "outside" investigators to zero in on a mistake "Hen" Mallin has possibly done in the initial investigation of a murder. Mallin is "on leave" while she waits to either be cleared or charged with the coverup of her niece's participation in the crime.

The plot of the book is rather complicated and involves murder, personal disappearances, drugs, and the students and teachers at a local girls' school. The book is considered a "police procedural" but it is also a book of relationships and contacts. The business relationship at the book's center - that of Diamond and Dallymore - is, I think, the weakest. Georgina Dallymore is written by Lovesey as a neurotic boss, who may, or may not, have carnal designs on Peter Diamond. A major hole in the plot concerns Diamond and Mallin's past. I wasn't particularly satisfied with the discrepancy and Lovesey never really addresses it.

"Down Among the Dead Men" is a good read, particularly for the reader who likes complicated plots.

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
Price: £11.96

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent look at a public life in turmoil..., 14 July 2015
Barton Swaim's memoir, "The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics", is excellent reading for a political junkie. Swaim, who writes about his three years as a speechwriter for a certain South Carolinian governor - never mentioned by name - is as honest as possible about the ups-and-downs, the give-and-takes that a political staffer must make in his own moral life as he puts in 16 hour days working for a politician.

People become elected officials for a variety of reasons, but most begin with the idea that they're going into politics to "help others". I think that as the years go by, the positives of the life go down and the negatives go up as the realities of the compromises of political life hit home. Governor Mark Sanford - a two term Republican governor of South Carolina - was a difficult individual to work for and with...and I assume to be married to. Never popular with members of the South Carolinian House and Senate, Sanford had what appears to be a displeasing personality. He had certain ideas and would not compromise them even for the purported good of the state. For instance, he opposed taking government stimulus money in 2009, even though it was for education. Who could be against education? Mark Sanford, evidently...

But in the mid-2000's - while a sitting governor on a government trip to South America, Sanford met an Argentine journalist and he fell in love. Like a thunderbolt, he was hit by Maria Belen Chapur's beauty and charm, and began an extra-marital affair. A long, long distance extra-marital affair. His wife found out about it and in 2009, he took a trip to Argentina to see Chapur. As one who lost his good sense to lust and love, Sanford went missing for several days. His hapless office - where Barton Swaim was employed as a speechwriter - claimed Sanford was "hiking the Appalachian Trail". Sanford was discovered returning to Atlanta from Buenos Aires and the jig was up. Sanford gave a press conference, claiming he had met his true "soulmate", and embarrassing everyone who watched.

Barton Swaim and his colleagues were put into difficult situations as Sanford finished up his term as the lamest of "lame duck" politicians. Never easy to work for, Sanford became even more quarrelsome and contentious to work for. Swaim writes a wonderful look at politics from a staffer's view. I was amazed at the perceptive way Swaim looked at "the governor" and at his own work. Very good book.

Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web
by Joseph M. Reagle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Reviewing the reviewers..., 13 July 2015
Okay, why am I writing a review of Joseph Reagle's book, "Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web"? And, why are you reading my review? I'm writing the review because I like to give my opinion on a book or other product and you're reading the review because you're trying to figure out whether you should spend your time and money on reading the book. It's great for both of us - we're working as a team here. The only problem that may come up is your not liking the book, even though I've recommended it. Because, who am "I"? Just the 32nd reviewer of this book on Amazon/US, so far. You can take a look at my other reviews, read a few, and then decide whether my advise is worth following. Some people will approve this review and others will not approve it. I'll get marked with either a "Yes, this review was helpful" or "No, this review was not helpful". All the "yeses" and "nos" are tabulated daily and my Amazon rank is decided, for that day at least. So, that's where I'm coming from as a reviewer of this book. Where are you coming from as a reader of reviews?

Getting back to Joseph Reagle's book. He looks at the on-line world - including Amazon, Reddit, Facebook, and many other blogs and sites - and asks "who is commenting?" Or, "who is reviewing?" Who is going on these personal rating blogs and asking "Am I hot, or not?" Why do people put their faces and body parts out on the internet? And how do they cope with the responses they often receive?

The world of the blog and news commenters is often cruel. Bloggers have sometimes stopped accepting comments on their blogs - tired of the often sick and cruel responses they receive on their ideas and their writing. I read a few political blogs everyday and I am often surprised and shocked at how mean some of the comments are about political figures in the news. But, I am also sometimes amused by the comments. As a reader - and occasional commenter - my identity is secret. Unlike Amazon where I review under my own name, I comment on blogs using several aliases. As do most people, Reagle writes. Does anonymity give the poster a freedom of expression? It sure does.

Joseph Reagle has raised - and answered - some interesting questions about on-line life in the past 20 or so years. His book is very good.

Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief
Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief
by Alexandra Butler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.50

3.0 out of 5 stars Mourning..., 10 July 2015
Everybody grieves their dead and every period of grieving is different. Alexandra Butler lost both of her parents from disease in a span of a few years, and writes about her parents and her grief for them in her memoir, "Walking the Night Road: Coming of Age in Grief". It's a fairly interesting book, but rather awkwardly written.

Alexandra's parents - Dr Robert Butler and Dr Myrna Lewis - were leaders in the field of aging and the final days of life. Lewis was Butler's second wife - he had three daughters from his first marriage - and their daughter, Alexandra, was a "late-in-life" baby. She grew up in the midst of both her parents work and their lives together. She was much closer to her mother, in whose shadow she grew up. Her relationship with her father was a bit more problematical; he was old enough to be her grandfather and they did not seem to be close until his last illness and death. I caught glimpses of the relationship between Myrna and Bob, but the resentment Myrna showed Bob was difficult to construct other than seeming to be resentment at his greater fame in their chosen work and detachment from his home life.

Alexandra Butler was in her mid-twenties when her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She lived with her parents and was her mother's main help until a nurse - also named "Myrna" - was hired to take over her care. After her mother's death, Alexandra went through a protracted mourning period where it seems she both mourned and tried to figure out her mother's life and her place in it. Then her father became sick with a form of leukemia and died. Losing two parents is difficult enough without having a strong personal identity to help sustain yourself.

Now maybe "personal identity" is important here. In the book, I never really figured out just "who" Alexandra Butler was. Yes, "daughter of", and "half-sister of", and, eventually, "wife and mother of", but in the book she seems so non-existent in her own right. After receiving a diagnosis of depression, she began taking Zoloft, which seemed to help her.

Butler's writing is stream-of-conscience and it is not tightly written. Maybe memoir writers are allowed a bit of bit of wavering in their writing; after all, they're writing about their emotions. But Butler's book is too wandering. I had high hopes for the book after reading an excerpt from it in the New York Times last week.

Diane Von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped
Diane Von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped
by Gioia Diliberto
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.69

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "workman-like" bio of Diane von Furstenberg..., 8 July 2015
Author Gioia Diliberto has written a plain, not flashy - "workman-like" - biography of one of the most interesting women in fashion, "Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped". This book is not an overblown look at von Furstenberg - you know, the kind of bio that is excerpted in the "National Enquirer", promising salacious looks at the "real" Diane; rather it is a quiet look at the woman, on both the professional and personal levels.

Here's the thing: I truly think after reading the biography that Diane von Furstenberg has led a rather understated life, given all the sex, drugs, bad business practices, and other idiocies that have gone on around her. As the daughter of a survivor of Auschwitz who was emotionally fragile, Diane grew up in Brussels with two parents who were a volatile match. She married young to her life-long friend, Egon von Furstenberg, had two children with him, and developed a famous fashion business in the 1970's, centering around her "wrap dress". The marriage failed but Diane stayed close to Egon, which seemed to be the pattern of most of her relationships with men. The 1970's passed, the phenomenal sales of the dress petered off, and Diane went on to reinvent herself, both socially and financially. Each new boyfriend after her divorce from Egon prompted a slightly "different" Diane than before. Finally, she married her long-time, off-and-on friend, Barry Diller. Diller is gay but their marriage seems to be a partnership of true love and devotion to each other. Who cares what they do in the bedroom? They appear to be "soul-mates", and have done much good on the charitable and political worlds.

Gioia Diliberti's biography is measured and well-written. No salacious tidbits; Diane von Furstenberg seems to be a nice woman who has led an interesting life and has given back to society on many levels.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 8, 2015 3:32 PM BST

Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House
Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House
by Susan Law
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lords and ladies behaving badly..., 4 July 2015
In 1830, the first Earl Ellenborough was granted a divorce from his wife, the former Lady Jane Digby, in a private Parliamentary action. Ellenborough, who was many years older than his wife, sued for divorce on grounds that Lady Jane had indulged in quite a few affairs and indiscretions with other men. The fact that Ellenborough had, himself, carried on many affairs was not really brought up, and the trial was chock-full of testimony by the family's servants. One of the men accused of having enjoyed Lady Jane's bed was the Austrian diplomat Prince Felix Schwartzenberg. After the divorce, Jane and Schwartzenberg eloped to Paris, where she bore him two illegitimate children. They never married - Schwartzenberg couldn't marry a divorced woman - and Jane continued her life of searching for love, eventually marrying a Bedouin chief 20 years her junior and living out her long life in Syria.

All this background is important because British author Susan Law has written a fascinating book, "Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House" about the aristocratic infidelity in the Georgian and Regency periods, when lords and ladies, barons and baronesses, and, indeed, many members of the British peerage, were acting with sexual abandonment.

The idea of marriage among the aristocracy was often a financial arrangement at this time. Love - or the idea of love - was hoped to evolve by the married couple, but often times it didn't and the marriages failed. However, divorce in the 1700's was definitely frowned upon and very few were granted. Basically, they were expensive and were generally sought by the wealthy. The middle class and poor had to grin and bear it when marital discord flared between spouses. For the wealthy, discreet infidelity was often engaged in by both partners. But here and there, husbands began to sue for divorce, using the devise of "crim-con", which as short for "criminal conversation", or adultery to make the "other man" pay up to the cuckolded husband. And newspaper articles and magazine pieces were appearing in the press of the time giving details that were often embarrassing in the extreme.

Okay, who among us doesn't read gossip columns, even "on the sly"? Don't we get a strange sense of satisfaction in reading about the bad behavior of those who supposedly are our "betters"? And since these "betters" were wealthy and had country houses and city houses and acted with impunity where ever they were, there was a lot of "looking through the keyhole", to gain evidence.

Susan Law's book is full of cases of infidelity of the period and the price those indulging in a tickle in the bed often paid. For women, because the law at the time considered the couple's children as solely the possession of the husband, most lost custody of their children. For the wife's lover, because the basis of "crim-con" was compensation for the breach of fidelity with the other's wife, large sums were often paid to the cheated-on husbands. (Curiously, there was little going the other way; women suing their husband's lovers...)

Law has written a lively book about an interesting subject. She gives many examples of these members of the peerage acting very, very badly. Looking back two hundred or so years, we can see that people haven't changed.

(For readers interested in Lady Jane Digby and her fascinating life as she searched for love, there are two excellent biographies. One is "A Scandalous Life: The Story of Jane Digby", by Mary Lovell, is still in print. However, "Passion's Child: The Extraordinary Life of Jane Digby" by Margaret Fox Schmidt is no longer in print but is worth buying from a used book dealer. I think the Schmidt book is slightly better than the Lovell book, but both are well-worth reading.)

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