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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer of Agatha Christie #3- After The Funeral

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow ISBN 979-0-06-235731-1
Trade paperback, $12.99, 286 pages

For those of you following along, you know that bookclubgirl is hosting a Summer of Agatha Christie, culminating with the publication of a new Hercule Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah, The Monogram Murders, publishing in October.

We are on book number three, After the Funeral, which I enjoyed thoroughly. On September 2nd, bookclubgirl will post some discussion questions, so feel free to join in the fun.

After the Funeral begins with Mr. Entwhistle, a lawyer attending a funeral for one of his oldest clients and friends, Richard Abernethie. Mr. Abernethie ran a successful family business and with the death of only son occurring years earlier, the heirs to the family money include Richard's hypochondriac brother Timothy, his sister Cora, whom no one has seen in twenty years after she married a man considered 'unsuitable', nieces Susan, a businesswoman, Rosamund, an actress, and nephew George, in finance.

At the home after the funeral, Cora carelessly tosses off a comment about Richard being murdered. Most of the family chalked it up to Cora just stirring up the pot, as she is wont to do. But the next day, Cora is brutally murdered in her home, and now Mr. Entwhistle is concerned that perhaps Richard was murdered.

He goes to Hercule Poirot to investigate and find out if Richard was murdered and who killed Cora. I found it amusing when Poirot turns to Mr. Goby, a man "famous for the acquiring of information." Goby calls government snooping "God's gift to investigators." Given what we know about the NSA, one could infer that government's spying on their citizens is a time- honored practice.

The family members all have money issues: Timothy hasn't worked due to his "illnesses", and his house and car are falling apart. Susan wishes to buy a pharmacy for her husband. Rosamund wants to use the money to support her and her husband's dreams of staging a play. George apparently has a gambling problem and has been using clients' funds to cover his losses.

They all have motives for wanting the money, and Poirot discovers that many of them had opportunity as well. It's great fun following the clues and trying to put the puzzle pieces together to discover the murderer. (I confess that I was wrong.)

It's interesting that Poirot does not dominate the story. He comes into the story late and stays in the background for the most part. In today's mystery/thriller series books, the protagonist (a cop, investigator, medical examiner) tends to dominate the stories of the books, with the crime relegated to equal or lesser plotlines.

I also found it interesting the lengths that people will go to when money is involved. Like government spying, greed appears to be something that has been with humans for a long time, and probably will be for a long time to come.

Now that I have read three Agatha Christie novels, two of them featuring M. Poirot, I'm curious to read Sophie Hannah's take on the iconic character in The Monogram Murders.

rating 5 of 5
My review of And Then Were None is here.
My review of Dead Man's Folly is here.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Weekend Cooking: A Visit Back Home

This post is part of Beth Fish Reads' Weekend Cooking.  If you have anything related to food, cookbook reviews, novel or non-fiction book reviews, recipes, movie reviews, etc., head over to Beth Fish Reads and add your post. Or, if you want to read food related posts, head over to read what some interesting people have to say about food. 

 Every year we go back home to the Finger Lakes region and rent a house on Owasco Lake. We spend the week with family and friends and share good food and fun.
The view  of the house from the lake
Our first stop is always Wegmans grocery store, which is one thing I miss about living in Manhattan. We stock up on our favorites, including salt potatoes which are difficult to find in NYC,
and always grab a big package of hamburgers and Hoffman hot dogs (white and red) for the grill. We really miss being able to grill outside every night in the summer!

I always try to combine favorite foods with a new recipe to try out on everyone. This year, I made Mary Alice's Hoagie Dip, which is always a crowd favorite. (Actually, I made two batches this year and they both disappeared.) We also had SoCal Fajita Dip and my son's girlfriend put together a beautiful Antipasti Platter.
Antipasti platter

Cook's Illustrated's Baked Ziti was a popular entree, and we had enough for two days worth, plus some leftovers. I paired that with Balsamic Roasted Potato Salad, and some friends brought a delicious homemade pizza and a huge pan of roasted vegetables that we fought over the next day.

For dessert, we had Pretzel Jello Dessert, Peanut Butter Crack Brownies, and a friend made delicious chocolate chips cookies with her secret ingredient (a package of vanilla pudding).

The biggest hit of the week though was a new recipe- Chicken Spiedies served on a roll. I found this recipe on Pinterest from Mel's Kitchen Cafe , and everyone went crazy over it. People were clamoring for it so much, I had to make it again two days later.

I've made spiedies with the bottled marinade several times, but making it with your own marinade made a huge difference. Several people who had them asked for the recipe and made it themselves already.

I marinated the chicken, but left the boneless chicken breasts whole to grill, instead of threading cubes of them them on skewers. (The purists will not like this, but it worked well for our crowd.)  When they came off the grill, I sliced them and put it in a bowl. People grabbed a roll, piled on the sliced chicken and topped it with the homemade sauce.

As usual, I put together a Pinterest Board with all the week's recipes for everyone who asked for them and I am sharing the board here.

We had a wonderful time and look forward to returning again next year. if you have any summer recipes you like to share with me, send them along in the comments section. I'm always looking for new ones to add to the collection.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dancing on Rocks by Rose Senehi

Dancing on Rocks by Rose Senehi
Published by K.I.M. Publishing ISBN 978-0-615-89505-5
Trade paperback, $15.95, 259 pages

Genre: Women's fiction
Plot: When Georgie Haydock returns to her home of Chimney Rock, North Carolina to help care for her mother who took a bad fall, she is bombarded with memories of home. When she was just six-years-old, her baby sister vanished from their home in the middle of the night. Her mother never recovered and insists that her daughter is out there somewhere.
Her mother has run up credit card debt buying up tracts of land hoping to sell them for a huge profit. The debt has endangered the family general store that has been their livelihood for years. And Georgie's first boyfriend, the rugged and handsome naturalist Ron Elliot she ran out on on years ago with no explanation, wants to rekindle their relationship.

My review: One of the reasons I enjoy reading is that a good story can take me places I've never been and make me feel like I am there. Senehi does just that with her seventh novel. The setting of the actual mountain town of Chimney Rock is a very real character in this story, and I fell in love with the tourist town and its quaint stores and townspeople who know everything about everybody. Anyone from a small town can relate to the wonderful scene where the older women prepare to make sandwiches for the emergency response team who are searching on the mountain for a missing person.

Fans of Nora Roberts' novels should pick up Dancing on Rocks, as Senehi mines similar territory and had gotten better with each successive book. There is a sweet romance between Georgie and Ron, and  terrific family stories with Ron and his daughter and Georgie and her mother and sister and sister's sons. Every good novel has a secret and this one has a doozy- what really happened the night Georgie's sister disappeared?

The characters fascinated me, and I especially liked matriarch Dinah, even though her grief over her missing daughter caused her to treat her other daughters in an unthinking manner. She felt so real to me. Each of the characters are well drawn, they all have shade of gray instead of being stock good-or-bad characters.

Senehi discusses the extensive research she did for this novel in the acknowledgments section, which I found so interesting and greatly added to this captivating book. Anyone who likes nature and flora and fauna will get an added dimension of enjoyment to this novel, as Ron's work is also a big part of the story.

Reading Dancing on Rocks will have you heading for Trip Advisor to plan a visit to see this beautiful area of the country for yourself. And if you do, be sure to stop in to the cute little shops for some souvenirs.

rating 5 of 5

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Published by Knopf, ISBN 978-0307962904
Hardcover, $25.95, 272 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction
Plot: Joan is a young professional ballerina who meets Aslan, a famous Russian ballet legend and helps him to escape to the United States. After their torrid affair ends, she goes back home, marries her high school boyfriend and they have a son together. Years later, the boy becomes a dancer himself and wishes to meet the famous dancer his mother once knew.

My Review: In Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements, she managed to brilliantly capture the voice of a middle-aged man contemplating an affair during the weekend of his daughter's wedding. I was so impressed with Shipstead's beautifully crafted sentences, it was like she spent hours making each one perfect.

In Astonish Me, Shipstead once again drops us into a world we don't know. We feel what it's like to be a part of a ballet company, the competition, the discipline and way one must give oneself completely over to become a dancer worthy of being part of a ballet company. Like athletes, at some point everyone must come to the realization that they are no longer good enough to go to the next level.

The novel moves back and forth in time, and we see Joan as a young dancer and then as a wife, mother and teacher. Joan's husband has loved her forever, but sometimes he feels she doesn't love him or their life as much. He says to Joan:
"Most of the time now you're here with me- really here, invested; it's not like it was at first- and I think, she's letting me know her, really know her the way people do when they're married. And at other times you're so distant it's like someone's swapped you out for a forgery. You seem like you're going through the motions."
One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Elaine, Joan's friend from the dance company. She is a better dancer than Joan, and has a long-time relationship with the dancer who founded their company. Shipstead could have another entire novel from Elaine's point-of-view.

Astonish Me is another brava performance from Shipstead. Joan is a fascinating protagonist, so complicated and although she is so closed up, Shipstead lets us see inside to who she really is. Fans of ballet will definitely like this insider's look.

rating 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Short & Sweet Review- The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN 978-1-59463-157-3
Hardcover, $26.95, 304 pages
Genre: Fiction
The Plot: The Post family heads off for a two week vacation to beautiful Mallorca, but things are not all rosy. Jim lost his job at a magazine because he had an affair with a young woman at work. Franny, his wife of 35 years, is furious at him, but at least she has her best friend, Charles, (who with his husband Lawrence are trying to adopt a baby) along to cheer her up and take her side.
Daughter Sylvia is headed off to college and hopes to lose her virginity on this trip. Son Bobby is also there, along with his older girlfriend Carmen. His real estate business in Florida has taken a hit during the bad economy and he needs to borrow money from his parents.

The Sweet & Short Review: I loved Straub's last novel, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures , about a film star from the 1950's. She drew me into Laura's world, and I felt like I was watching a TMC movie as I was reading it.
I was hoping to be as drawn into this novel, but it didn't happen for me. I loved the setting of Mallorca, and am really interested in taking a trip there. The problem for me was that I didn't really feel invested in the characters' lives. The character I most wanted to know about was Lawrence, and he was really more of an a tangential character.
I did like the sibling relationship between Sylvia and Bobby, who have ten years age difference between them, and the scene where they went to a disco was very well done and revealing.
Straub also had some wonderful observations, like:
"Other people's families were as mysterious as an alien species, full of secret codes and shared histories."
And Franny speaking about her friendship with Charles said:
"Friendships were tricky things, especially friendships as old as theirs... Love was a given, uncomplicated by sex or vows, but honesty was always waiting there, ready to capsize the steady boat."
And thinking about her children:
"She'd always thought that siblings were pretty much the same people in differently shaped bodies, just shaken up slightly, so that the molecules arranged themselves, but now she wasn't sure."
I think splitting the focus of the story amongst the different characters, instead of focusing on just one like in Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, may be why it didn't appeal as much to me. I didn't feel like I got a complete picture of anyone. But I am in the minority here; The Vacationers made many Best of Summer lists, including a list of rave reviews found here on Parnassus Books.

rating 3.5 of 5

Monday, August 18, 2014

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

August 11, 2014 6:00 am  •  

Author Chris Bohjalian writes novels about serious subjects. “Midwife,” chosen as an Oprah’s book selection, was about a midwife accused of killing a mother during childbirth. “The Double Bind” told the story of a young woman attacked while riding her bike, and “The Sandcastle Girls” brought us into the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century as seen through the eyes of a female American aide worker.
Bohjalian is particularly adept at writing strong female characters, usually facing some crisis. His latest book, “Close Your Eyes Hold Hands,” continues in that tradition, and is considered by many to be his finest book yet.
Teenager Emily Shepherd lives with her parents in a somewhat remote area of Vermont. Her father is an engineer at a nuclear power plant, and her mother is the public relations officer for the plant.
Emily is smart, but according to her teachers, she doesn’t apply herself. She loves the poet Emily Dickinson, and feels a kinship with the author who shares her first name.
Her relationship with her parents is somewhat strained. Emily’s parents drink and fight a lot. Emily thinks her mother is unhappy living in Vermont, and that causes much of the strain.
One day, while Emily is at school, the emergency sirens go off. The teachers seem more concerned than usual, and the students are put on buses and moved out of town.
There was an explosion at the power plant, and 17 people died. Emily can’t get a hold of her parents and fears them dead. News stations are reporting that Emily’s father is being blamed for the explosion, accused of being drunk on the job.
Emily panics and runs away. In the confusion of the situation, she is able to leave relatively unnoticed. Her plan to go home is thwarted, as traffic is snarled with everyone trying to get out of the area to safety.
The story is told by Emily, and although she promises to tell the story chronologically, she jumps around. It appears that we are reading Emily’s writings in a journal, much like the ones that Emily Dickinson kept.
Emily ends up in Burlington shelter, and tells people she is from upstate New York and her name is Abby Bliss. She heard people saying such horrible things about her parents, she feared if people knew who she was, she would be treated badly, as she found out in a 7-11 when she told a cop her name and people nearly rioted.
After she leaves the shelter, she lives in an apartment with other runaways and an Iraq war vet, who gives the kids drugs and sends them out to prostitute themselves at a truck stop when they need money for more drugs.
Emily makes friends with one girl, who teaches her how to cut herself. She doesn’t want to do it, but the compulsion is too much for her. When her friend leaves because her parents have found her, Emily leaves, too.
She makes an igloo of frozen ice and garbage bags to live in, and meets Cameron, a 9-year-old runaway. Emily takes Cameron under her wing, and vows to protect him. He is an orphan, like her, and ran away from his last foster home because he was beaten.
Taking care of Cameron gives Emily a purpose. She feeds him, takes him to the library to read, gets him a flu shot at the drugstore and buys him a skateboard, the only thing he wants.
The life of a homeless teen caring for a young boy is incredibly difficult, and Bohjalian doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. The thing that struck me most was the sheer exhaustion of just getting through the day. It’s awful enough for an adult, but for two children, it’s just unfathomable.
The title “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” comes from words spoken by a teacher or police officer to the children at Newtown school where 21 children were murdered in 2012. Emily thinks of those words when she decides to go to the Exclusion Zone, the new name for the area around her home.
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” is a heartbreaking novel, beautifully written by Mr. Bohjalian. He creates an unforgettable character in Emily Shepherd — perhaps his best yet. He said that his own teenage daughter helped him find Emily’s voice, and he brings her to vivid life on the pages. Weeks after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking and worrying about Emily and Cameron.

My review of Chris Bohjalian's The Light In The Ruins is here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Red Sox Vs. Yankees: The Great Rivalry by Harvey Frommer and Frederic J. Frommer

Red Sox Vs. Yankees: A Great Rivalry by Harvey and Frederic J. Frommer
Published by Taylor Trade Publishing ISBN 978-1-58979-918-9
Trade paperback, $18.95, 274 pages

Growing up in a baseball family, my dad and sister were Boston Red Sox fans and my mom and brother liked the Yankees. The heated rivalry that has been decades long in the making played itself out in our home growing up.

Red Sox Vs. Yankees: The Great Rivarly by Harvey Frommer and Frederic J. Frommer does justice to perhaps the most famous rivalry in all of sports history. Frommer wrote for Yankees Magazine for over twenty years, but now lives in New England, so he gives both sides their fair say.

The book is a comprehensive overview of how the competition started, and goes in-depth in covering some of the greatest moments in the history of the rivalry. The authors begin with the end of the infamous "Curse of the Bambino", when the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees when it counted- the 2004 American League Championship, where the Sox came back from a 3-0 game deficit to win four in a row and go to the World Series.

It almost didn't matter if they won the World Series (which they went on to do); they beat the damn Yankees and finally vindicated the day the Red Sox gave Babe Ruth to the Yankees who went on to help the Yankees create their dominant baseball dynasty.

The Frommers give an extensive timeline of events in the rivalry, but it is the chapters on the 2003 playoffs (when Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez threw 70-year-old Yankee coach Don Zimmer to the ground during a bench-clearing team brawl), the 1978 teams (with amazing players like Jim Rice, Carl Yazstremski, Luis Tiant, and Fred Lynn for Boston against Reggie Jackson, Mickey Rivers, Ron Guidry and Catfish Hunter leading the powerful Yankees), and the 1973 teams (where a home plate collision between catchers Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk ignited a memorable fight) that are the strongest.

Those chapters bring memories rushing back for those of us who watched the games, and the Frommers put us in the middle of the action with all the players weighing in.

The end of the book features memories from players and fans, like Rudy Guiliani, Mario Cuomo, Roger Clemens, and Ari Fleischer, which I found interesting.

Red Sox Vs. Yankees is a must-have sports book, not only for fans of those teams, but for all baseball fans.

rating 4 of 5

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sweet Water by Christina Baker Kline

Sweet Water by Christina Baker Kline
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-236100-4
Trade paperback, $14.99, 290 pages

Christina Baker Kline's novel, Orphan Train, is still on the New York Times bestseller list over a year after its publication. It tells the story of a teenage girl, living with a foster family, who meets an elderly woman and finds that the woman was sent from New York City to the Midwest on an orphan train as a young child.

Kline's backlist is being rereleased, and I recently read Sweet Water. Like Orphan Train, it tells the story of two women who don't know each other- Cassie Simon, and her grandmother, called Clyde.

Cassie leaves her home in New York City after she receives information from a lawyer in Tennessee that her grandfather has died and left her his house and 60 acres of land.

Her life in New York is stressful. She works at a gallery and dates the gallery owner who has a wandering eye. She would like a chance to work on her sculptures, and this will give her the opportunity to start over.

Cassie's mother Ellen died in a car accident when Cassie was just three years old. Her grandfather was driving the van, and he was drunk at the time. Cassie's father took her away and she hasn't seen her mother's family since then.

Cassie alternates the narration with her grandmother Clyde. Clyde's part of the story goes back and forth in time, and we learn that she has a secret- a few of them, actually. We see Clyde as a young woman, a pastor's daughter who yearns to break free who meets a handsome piano player named Amory Clyde who sweeps her off her feet.

Clyde and Amory have three children- Horace, Ellen and Elaine. Amory spends much of his time working, and Clyde is left alone with the children. She is lonely and has few friends until she meets Bryce, an exciting, vibrant woman with a secret.

Horace and Elaine had hoped to inherit their father's land, and are mistrustful of Cassie. Why would she come back to Tennessee, to a place she doesn't know to family she never met, to live in a rundown house? Why doesn't she just sell it to them?

Cassie works on the house, and comes to like the town of Sweet Water. She works on her sculptures during the day and works at a bar at night. She even meets a guy, though he has a secret of his own.

The mystery of why Amory left his land to Cassie revolves around the death of Ellen and something that happened a few days prior to Ellen's death. Clyde seems to be hiding this all from Cassie, and Cassie is determined to find out what she is hiding.

Kline vividly creates the small town of Sweet Water, with its coffee shop, town park and resident busybodies. Anyone who has lived in small town will find it familiar.

The Clyde family dynamic is interesting too. The sibling and cousin relationships ring true, and the family dinner scene and the girls night out felt like the reader was right there in the middle of it all. (I'm a sucker for a good family dinner scene.)

Kline has some great lines in the book. Cassie is complaining to her father that her life in New York is ordinary, that she is just "filling a little space I've carved out for myself." Her father reminds her that that is what life is, no matter she may live.

When Cassie gives Clyde a ceramic bowl she made, Cassie gives Clyde several suggestions for things to put in it. Clyde asks why she has to put anything it it, and Cassie says "I don't know why, but I always think I have to fill things up." Clyde replies, "I used to feel that way. Now I guess I like things empty." I love that exchange, it tells you a lot about Cassie and Clyde.

In the end, I liked Clyde better than Cassie, and I felt much the same about the characters in Orphan Train. The older woman's story resonated more than the young teen. After reading this, I have come to the conclusion it is because the older women have more of a story to tell having lived a longer life.

Sweet Water will please fans of Orphan Train. It has a fascinating family story, interesting characters and lots of secrets to uncover.

rating 4 of 5
Christina Baker Kline's website is here.
My review of Orphan Train is here.
My blog post on Christina Baker Kline in conversation with Caroline Leavitt at the Center For Fiction is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Christina Baker Kline's tour. The rest of the stops are here.

Christina’s Tour Stops


Monday, July 28th: Bound by Words
Tuesday, August 5th: Jorie Love a Story
Thursday, August 7th: bookchickdi
Friday, August 8th: Kahakai Kitchen
Monday, August 11th: A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, August 12th: Bibliotica

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer of Agatha Christie- Book #2- Dead Man's Folly

Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks ISBN 978-0-06236462-3
Trade paperback, $12.99, 226 pages

This has been declared The Summer of Agatha Christie by bookclubgirl.com, and after reading book number one- And Then There Were None- the next book on our list is Dead Man's Folly, a Hercule Poirot Mystery. All this leads up to the new Hercule Poirot mystery, The Monogram Murders, publishing in October.
Dead Man's Folly was also televised last night on PBS' Mystery! series, and it was great fun to see the characters come to life on screen after reading the novel. Actor David Suchet is the embodiment of Hercule Poirot; his penguin-like walk had me smiling when he first came on screen.

Poirot is summoned to an English estate by eccentric mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. I suspect that Agatha Christie had a good chuckle creating an older, female British mystery writer and giving her exaggerated characteristics.

Oliver created a Murder Hunt for a fete hosted by Sir George Stubbs, the wealthy owner of an estate. (Anyone who watched PBS' Downton Abbey may recall that Lord Grantham's family hosted a similar carnival-like event on their estate.)

There were games, food, a tea tent, even a fortune teller. Oliver feared that the Murder Hunt game she created would lead to an actual murder, which was why she summoned Poirot. Of course, a murder does occur, and it is up to Poirot to assist the local constable in discovering the culprit.

Naturally, there are several suspects, including Sir Stubbs, his overly-loyal secretary, the Legges (a young couple hiding something), an older woman who had to sell the estate to Stubbs to pay death duties, and an architect with an attitude problem. When Lady Stubbs' wayward cousin shows up, he becomes a prime suspect.

The fete scene is my favorite, both in the book and on screen. The book gives you a full picture of the scene, and as a reader you feel like you are there enjoying the day.

Poirot is a fabulous character; from the way he answers the telephone ("Hercule Poirot speaks") to telling Mrs. Oliver that she does not "derange him in the least" (meaning she is not bothering him), these are things I would like to incorporate in my daily speech.

Christie gives the reader a clear physical picture of characters; Mrs. Masterton is said to look like a bloodhound, and Captain Warburton is "horsy".  The manner in which the characters speak of each other fascinated me as well. Lady Stubbs is called "feeble-minded' and worse by many characters, and the awful manner in which the police and doctor talked about the young fourteen-year-old female victim spoke volumes about the way in which men looked upon poor, unattractive women.

Although in many instances women were looked down upon or treated as inferior, there is a sentence I liked that that spoke positively about women. When things needed to be accomplished for the fete, the men drifted away and "the women, as women do, worked energetically and conscientiously." I think we've all seen that before.

I was surprised by the unveiling of the culprit. I tip my hat to Hercule Poirot because, while I figured some things thanks to clues dropped, I did not have any idea who actually did it. I'm looking forward to book number three- After the Funeral.

Pop over to bookclubgirl to join in the fun.

rating 4 of 5 stars
My review of And Then There Were None is here.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What Strange Creatures by Emily Arsenault

What Strange Creatures by Emily Arsenault
Published by William Morrow ISBN 978-0-06-228324-5
Trade paperbacks, $14.99, 368 pages

What drew me to Emily Arsenault's book was that it revolved around an adult brother-sister relationship. That's not something you see all that frequently; there are many books with sisters' stories- Lisa See's Shanghai Girls, John Searles' Help For The Haunted and Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women to name a few- but stories featuring brother-sister relationships are not as numerous.

Arsenault's book pulled me in from it's opening line: "What are you supposed to do on the second night your brother is in jail on a murder charge?" Like Searles' brilliant novel, What Strange Creatures successfully combines a murder mystery with a family character study that makes your heart ache for the people involved.

Theresa Battles is a thirty-something divorced woman who has been working for seven long years on her doctoral thesis about Margery Kempe, who is credited with writing the first autobiography in the English language. Kempe was a religious pilgrim, who had visions and believed that Jesus spoke to her. She was not a popular woman in her community, as her wailing and crying disturbed the neighbors.

Theresa's brother Jeff is one year older than her and he's "supposed to be some kind of genius." Theresa believes that "while Jeff has many enviable skills- creativity, origami skill, loyalty, and superfast metabolism", she has never thought him a genius.

Jeff drove a school bus for awhile, and then an ice cream truck. Now he was unemployed and spent his days drinking and his nights at Theresa's, hoping she has leftover takeout in her fridge. He finally has a girlfriend, Kim, who leaves home to visit her sister one weekend and never returns.

Kim's body is found in a wooded area. A screwdriver with her blood on it is found in Jeff's car trunk and he is arrested for her murder. Theresa doesn't believe her brother is capable of killing Kim, and sets out to find the real murderer.

Jeff seems to to think there is nothing he can do to help his situation. He lets things happen to him, instead of making things happen for him. Their last name "Battles" is ironic here; Jeff does nothing to fight for himself. He just wallows in his defeatist attitude about his life.

Theresa says of their family dynamic:
"Driving home, I considered the concept of enabler. It was something I'd been thinking about a lot lately. I never meant to be one, you see. I've noticed there is little sympathy out there for enablers. Not that there should be a great deal, but this is something I wish people understood: It's a role that sneaks up on you."
"If we were a family that talked directly about feelings or worries or troubling behaviors or anything at all, really, this would perhaps have been when we talked about it. But we don't, so we didn't. That's how it sneaks up on you, see?"

When Jeff is arrested, Theresa says "We're used to disappointment." They believe their family motto should be "We're Battles. What chance did we have?" Their propensity to believe that bad things will happen to them is maddening and sad. We never discover where exactly this attitude comes from, and I was pleased not to find some deep, dark secret behind it. They are the way they are, and though their divorced parents can be difficult to deal with, they are no more difficult than anybody else's parents.

They mystery of who killed Kim is satisfying and a careful reader may pick up on clues to the conclusion, although there is no shortage of suspects. Theresa gets herself into some tight spots trying to save her brother, and the sense of dread and panic builds as the story goes along.

 The title What Strange Creatures comes from a Jane Austen quote in Mansfield Park- "What strange creatures brothers are!" This is an astute, sharp psychological mystery that captured me from the opening line and didn't let go until the very end. The brother-sister dynamic is so heartfelt and realistic, I felt like I probably knew Jeff and Theresa Battles somewhere along the way.

rating 5 of 5

Emily Arsenault's website is here.
My review of John Searles' Help For The Haunted is here.

Thanks to TLC Tours for putting me on Emily Arsenault's tour. The rest of Emily's stops are here.

Emily’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, July 22nd: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, July 23rd: Booksie’s Blog
Thursday, July 24th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, July 28th: From the TBR Pile
Tuesday, July 29th: BoundbyWords
Wednesday, July 30th: Book-alicious Mama
Thursday, July 31st: Vox Libris
Monday, August 4th: bookchickdi
Wednesday, August 6th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, August 7th: Book of Secrets