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A Pocketful of Mysteries

A Pocketful of Mysteries Miriam R. Kramer “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”― J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s important to give thanks this month for family, camaraderie, the happiness of being together, and the books that sustain as much as any hearty Thanksgiving dinner. As I look back over years, I can always pick out a number of novels suitable as the weather turns colder and my focus turns inward. Most of us want to relax before the holiday whirl of travel, parties, and family get-togethers is underway. The triumvirate I wrote about below in November 2017 always makes me happy and satisfied upon a re-read.  The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, The Likeness by Tana French, and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie are the perfect accompaniament to a hot cup of tea by the fire. These classic suspense novels will give you a respite from hectic reality and take you on a dream trip to Europe as cold rain blows against your windowpanes. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith is a master of psychological suspense. Her clipped, matter-of-fact sentences present one of the most interesting anti-heroes of twentieth-century suspense: Tom Ripley, a small-time crook who dabbles in mail fraud while moving from one shabby apartment to another in New York City. The father of a casual friend, Dickie Greenleaf, offers him a trip to Italy if he will visit Dickie there and persuade him to give up his dilettantish pursuit of becoming an artist to return home and join the family business. Tom, notable only for his lack of notability, takes on this voyage from its inception as a method for metamorphosis. He lies skillfully and pathologically, making up stories about his origins. In…

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Spooky Stories

Spooky Stories by Miriam R. Kramer While not generally a horror aficionado, I love suspense and will buy certain author’s sight unseen and reviews unread if they promise an exciting ride, particularly around Halloween. Recently I perused two new examples: The Maidens, by Alex Michaelides; When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole. Michaelides’s first book, The Silent Patient, bolted out of the gate to a place on multiple bestseller lists. It had some unique plot twists that gave it a leg up with the public. Unfortunately, I did not find that to be the case with his sophomore effort, The Maidens. The plot felt forced, and the author pointed at one character as the prospective murderer so often that anyone who has ever read a whodunnit would suspect that he is not the guilty party. The main character, Mariana Andros, is a group therapist mourning her husband, who died in an accident in Greece. Her niece, Zoe, who is at Cambridge University, is stunned by the death of a friend, Tara, a member of a group of powerful, brilliant undergraduate women called the Maidens, acolytes of a charismatic, menacing professor of Greek mythology and drama and called Edward Fosca. Mariana decides to go to Cambridge and bring her therapeutic skills to bear on the group dynamics surrounding the Maidens as one after another succumbs to a killer. I would not recommend this mythology-tinged book to anyone looking to be held in thrall. The writing is clunky, the characters are two-dimensional, and the unexpected denouement is entirely unconvincing. Give this one a miss. When No One Is Watching, by Alyssa Cole, is more than a mystery—it’s a fictional horror story and thriller about urban development, communities displaced by gentrification, social justice, African-American history, and racial politics. The main character, Sydney…

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The Welsh Trilogy

The Welsh Trilogy By Miriam R. Kramer   Recently I have gone on a medieval British historical fiction journey, in which I turned to a master of the genre for entertainment and enlightenment. Sharon Kay Penman wrote the Welsh Trilogy, including the books Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning. Based on real historical figures and set in thirteenth-century England, they focus on a period of upheaval between England, Wales, and France, featuring battles and political machinations that will attract fans of a TV series like House of Cards, or the multitudes tired of waiting for George R.R. Martin’s next Game of Thrones installment. Penman named Here Be Dragons her favorite of all her novels. She was fascinated to introduce her readers to a Welsh noble known as Llywelyn (Llewelyn) Fawr–Llewelyn the Great. This self-styled Prince of Wales, a strong-willed leader and negotiator who understood his tenuous position as England encroached on his lands, married Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of King John, Henry Plantagenet’s son. A political match became personal as the two fell deeply in love. Penman paints Wales as a place of fiercely independent people with advanced views of women’s rights, where male or female illegitimacy does not disqualify anyone from inheriting money or land. In this way she continually emphasizes a nascent feminism that took root in a country whose people resisted oversight. In her books the Welsh people’s fatal flaw is fighting with each other over territory, thus weakening their ability to resist the much more heavily populated England. As King John maneuvered to make Wales more English and a vassal state, Joanna found herself torn between a husband she adores and a father who loved her but acted ruthlessly towards those from her adopted country. Falls the Shadow becomes the story of Simon…

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Why We Swim

Why We Swim By Miriam R. Kramer I was immediately attracted to the title of Bonnie Tsui’s charming new book, Why We Swim. In the summer, we have more chances to swim on vacation than during the rest of the year, unless we regularly swim laps or do water aerobics at a local pool. Tsui’s memories echo my own, and her research about swimming combines with her contemplation of activity that can raise our adrenaline because of its dangers or put us in a meditative state because of its rhythmic nature. As Tsui notes, swimming is the second favorite casual exercise after walking. Swimming seems simple on the face of it: get in the water, pick up your feet, and move forward, sideways, or backward, but it is many things to many people. It can be an act of daring. When she swims in the cold deep waters of the San Francisco Bay as part of a club, she joins others who prove to themselves that they can brave a situation in which they are not the apex of the food chain. She finally ditches her wet suit so she can experience a freezing swim in which she starts to feel intensely alive, only to truly experience the dangers from the cold after she gets out of the water. Although swimming can be a solitary activity, she experiences both her own solitude and the camaraderie of her club. It is one of the few activities where you can be alone and together at the same time. Her views of the water are more philosophical than scientific, which suited my tastes. A large, elegant swimming pool belonging to one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad ironically became an egalitarian place where everyone from various Embassy staff members to migrant workers…

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Somewhere in Time

Somewhere in Time By Miriam R. Kramer The popular TV series, Outlander, was released on the network Starz a short time before I wrote the following review about Diana Gabaldon’s novel by the same name. I followed the series eagerly and was pleasantly surprised by its high-quality first season. The series, starring the well-cast Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser and Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, has gone beyond the three books I reviewed below in 2015 by continuing to adapt her subsequent novels about the pair, their friends, and relations. I highly recommend taking some time to binge the books before binging the series, but either method of story-telling will make fans of time-travel historical romance happy this summer. These are not Harlequin novels. They have much to offer strong, independent women and the men who love them. From the Vault: In 1980, the movie Somewhere in Time became one of the classic romantic films of its era, with a timeless theme and gorgeous musical score. Christopher Reeve plays a young Chicago playwright intrigued by an elegant older lady who comes up to him at a party, asking him to return in time to her. Upon finding pictures of her as a beautiful young woman at a hotel in Michigan, he finds a way to go back in time to meet her, played by Jane Seymour, in 1912. Author Diana Gabaldon uses a different technique with her first historical novel, Outlander, and the many sequels she has written to continue the adventures of her main characters, Claire and Jamie. They also meet, as if by fate, somewhere in time. She expands on this idea in multifaceted ways with these sequels, using it to create a series worth any reader’s time. While Gabaldon’s atmosphere and methods are not the full-blown romance…

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Mistress of the Art of Death

By Miriam R. Kramer Mistress of the Art of Death Writing under the pen name Ariana Franklin, former journalist Diana Norman penned a series of five absorbing, colorful medieval thrillers, starting with Mistress of the Art of Death, about a female doctor and forensic investigator named Adelia Aguilar. The subsequent novels The Serpent’s Tale, Grave Goods, A Murderous Procession, and Death and the Maiden trace her development as a tenacious woman working to fulfill her mission solving murder mysteries in patriarchal twelfth-century England. A related novel, The Siege Winter, is equally intriguing. Children are going missing in Cambridge, England, and locals are blaming the Jews of the area, who have left their homes and hidden in a local castle to escape harassment. A boy named Peter has been found in the river Cam after having been crucified. King Henry II has started losing revenues from the Jewish community there, since his citizens want to expel Jews from the country. Pragmatic and cunning, he is intent on solving the problem before he loses more money from his treasury. Therefore he sends a request to Salerno, which is known for its doctors and medical investigators, to send him their best. As a tenacious investigator, Adelia can trace criminals like few others. In England she plunges into a series of murders that bring her talents to the forefront. With her is Simon of Naples, a Jew who solves murders while using his unassuming personality behind the scenes. As a doctor Adelia cannot resist treating someone in pain. To practice medicine on locals she gets her bodyguard, Mansur, who does not speak English, to pretend to administer medicines and perform procedures. She masks herself as his assistant and does what needs to be done, along with practicing forensics. Ariana Franklin’s novels have a straightforward…

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Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter By Miriam R. Kramer Calls for racial justice fired up the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of his Black suspect, George Floyd, murdering him by ignoring his pleas for air as Floyd gasped for nine minutes and 29 seconds on May 25, 2020. A Black teenager named Darnella Frazier filmed Chauvin as he calmly tortured Floyd to death in front of bystanders. To many this incident represented an innate racism in the way police as authoritarian figures can presume that Black people are guilty and treat them as subhuman individuals with no fear that they themselves will be brought to justice. African Americans have encountered this ingrained racism forever, but video cameras are now bringing to life extreme police practices for all to see. When a jury convicted Derek Chauvin of murder on April 20, 2021, it was a rare moment of accountability for the police in the face of the systemic prejudice that exists in many police departments. To understand some of the history that has perpetuated this violence, please peruse the column I published in September 2019 on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Nickel Boys. His brief, brilliant book is worth reading to understand better how authority figures like Derek Chauvin have abused their power. We still have much history to overcome in America to achieve racial parity. Yet with this watershed moment of Derek Chauvin’s accountability, we are perhaps a step closer to implementing real reform, the reform of police departments and other institutions that perpetuate racial violence. The Nickel Boys Two years ago Whitehead authored The Underground Railroad, a retelling of history in which the passage north for African-American slaves was a real railroad. In plumbing our racial history, he created a…

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Klara and the Sun

Klara and the Sun by Miriam R. Kramer Whether ancient Greeks who believed in Helios riding his chariot across the sky, or Egyptians worshipping Ra, king of the Egyptian gods, humans have drawn inspiration and attempted to increase the fertility of crops and animals by venerating different gods of the sun since our beginning as sentient creatures.  Spring has arrived in the northern hemisphere, and with it the earth’s eternal renaissance of blooming flowers and riotous fauna emerging after a fallow, frozen period. From now on we live the lengthening days until our sun-drenched summer solstice. The writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, recently released the novel Klara and the Sun, a subtle, beautiful science fiction novel about a complex robot of delicate understanding whose love for the sun helps her find ways to bridge the uneasy gap between our tendencies to cross ethical boundaries in our quest to advance science and the marvels we can achieve through testing those boundaries. Klara is a Girl AF (Artificial Friend), on sale in a store in an unnamed city at an unnamed time. Boy and Girl AFs are available for purchase to children of higher social status with wealthy parents to monitor the children’s health, keep them from being lonely by offering their children companionship, while encouraging them to succeed in their studies. In Klara’s store, she tries to recognize not only visual patterns and engage in simple conversations with other AFs and “Manager,” but also move closer to the window, where she can examine human behavior. While AFs are droids, they are also made to be unique and therefore more like humans than early robots. They are even individual to some extent within their particular models. Unusually perceptive and observant, Klara distinguishes herself to “Manager”…

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The Vanishing Half

The Vanishing Half by Miriam R. Kramer President Barack Obama put Brit Bennett’s thoughtful, complex novel about identity, The Vanishing Half, on his list of favorite books from 2020. Her book follows the lives of Stella and Desiree Vignes, identical light-skinned African-American twins growing up in a small, self-segregating Louisiana community, from the 1950s to the 1980s. One chooses to retain her heritage, while the other decides to pass for white and leave her roots behind. After the past summer’s “Black Lives Matter” movement exploded, The Vanishing Half came out at the right time to become an instant bestseller. Its most prevalent theme is the ridiculous yet constant impact of racial identity on our lives, and how it defines us and limits or expands our futures in America. Mallard, an insular, close-knit hamlet not labeled on any map, discriminates against those with darker complexions. As an African-American community, it was founded by the twins’ ancestor, a freed slave with a white father. As the creator he desired it to become whiter and whiter over time as light-skinned people married and had children, even if it was never known as being white by the outside world. It would become as white, and therefore as acceptable within America and a Black community that cherished lighter skin, as possible. Within the book, it feels symbolically as though the town cannot be identified on a map because it has become pale enough to disappear amidst the melting pot of Louisiana. Both twins are scarred indelibly by the lynching death of their father, a man seen by those outside their community as Black regardless of his light coloring. At sixteen they secretly leave home one day for New Orleans, looking for a better future outside the strictures of a small town, leaving behind the memories…

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Stephen King: Things That Go Bump, Eek, and Ook in the Night  

Stephen King: Things That Go Bump, Eek, and Ook in the Night   by Miriam R. Kramer Since officially beginning his career with a short story sold in 1967, the extraordinarily prolific author Stephen King has written more than 60 novels, not to mention multiple screenplays, five non-fiction books, and approximately 200 short stories. His first published book, Carrie, was released in 1973 when he was in his twenties, giving him enough money to write full-time. Since then, he’s left a legacy inextricably intertwined with pop culture in books and movies. His writing comprises horror, science fiction, fantasy, and straight fiction genres, with those genres often overlapping. He has referred to himself as the writer’s equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, which does not tell even part of the story of his enduring popularity, despite showing that he understands his common-man touch. Even as an omnivorous reader, I put King aside for a long time. What I did read I found to be propulsive and very engaging, but I do not like horror as a genre, and perhaps unfairly stayed away. Also, I read The Shining when I was eleven, and stayed up all night long as a result. In my early teens Cujo had me closing my closet doors at night. Therefore, I moved on to other authors. Yet even I dabbled my toes in the King paddling pool, if not the deep end, in my later teens. Written under his then-pseudonym, Richard Bachman, The Bachman Books, comprising four novellas, intrigued me in high school. They were not horror, albeit often horrific. Two tales stood out for me then. In Rage, a high-school student kills his teacher and holds the class hostage. As a high school student, I could understand and feel in my gut, as many teenagers…

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