Book Reviews


This column features books reviews by Duncan Staff and Duncan Friends. Friends are encouraged to submit a book review at any time. Email your reviews to: duncanlibraryfriends@gmail.

The Debt to Pleasure: A Novel by John Lancaster
Review by Lisa Giambruno, Secretary, Friends of Duncan Library
I thoroughly enjoyed this bitingly funny food novel. Tarquin Winot, the book’s pretentious narrator, starts the story by discussing plans for a cookbook. Gradually it spins to something much darker and intriguing. I don’t want to say too much about this wicked good tale. I am still marveling at the writer’s wit, language, and imagination.

Fatal Distraction by Diane Capri
Reviewed by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library.
This was an easy to read, easy to forget mystery. Set in central Florida, where the governor lives with her disabled husband on her family ranch. Her son has recently been killed in a car accident,with his best friend, however the governor thinks it is murder and while considering a run for Senate, is out to find the killer. She finds an unlikely ally with a reporter, who lost her son and together they look for clues and closure. The story rolls along at a regular pace with a twist or turn sporadically. Ultimately it is predictable and you can guess whoduni

The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases by Michael Cappuzo
Reviewed by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
This book tells the story of the Vidocq Society, a team of the world’s best crime investigators who meet for lunch and murder, through some of their most interesting and renowned cases. The group includes profilers, forensics experts, Philadelphia detectives, FBI and Customs agents and a forensic sculptor who has an unusual ability to connect with the dead. He is best known for his more than life-like bust of killer John List who was on the run for 19 years. After his bust appeared on America’s Most Wanted he was caught in 11 days. This is just one of the many known and unknown murders this amazing group has solved. They won’t take a case that isn’t at least two years cold and they have to be ‘invited’ by local law enforcement, but they have an amazing track record.

Cappuzo was granted unprecedented access to the members of the Vidocq Society, their monthly luncheon meetings in an old Victorian setting in Philadelphia and records of their past cases. He has put together an interesting chronicle of this organization, including back stories of many of the main players. I very interesting read if you like true crime. It’s a very interesting read for true-crime lovers.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French
Reviewed by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
Midnight in Peking is the true story of a brutally murdered young English woman in 1937 Peking, during the last days of “Old China.” Technically this crime was never solved but through research and interviews, French was able to retrace the last days of Pamela Warner, the adopted daughter of an eccentric British ex-pat diplomat, and come to a conclusion on exactly what happened.

The first part of the book traces the life of the Warners up to the murder, which occurs outside the legation quarter, the area where British law prevails. Then it moves through the investigation of the local police by Han Shih-ching in conjunction with a former Scotland Yard detective, Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis, who is assigned by the British Concession to “observe.” After the case is ruled ‘cold’ and ordered closed by the Peking magistrate, Pamela Waner’s father continues his investigation of the course of many years, including the Japanese occupation, internment in a “protection camp” and continued written requests to have the case reopened when he uncovers new evidence that could lead to the perpetrators. It is written like fiction but all fact.

American Romantic by Ward Just
Review by L Charles “Friar” FitzGerald, Past President, Friends of Duncan Library
Ward Just writes what are known as “literary novels”. American Romantic is no exception. The story line is rather simple. There are three main characters. While two of them loom large, ultimately they are not really important either to the story or to the reader.
The protagonist, Harry Sanders, is a career U.S.Foreign Service Officer who, during the course of the story, moves from being a young man at the beginning of his career to his retirement as an ambassador, never having been stationed in very significant countries or areas of the world. While Sanders recognizes the shifting realities of his role – and the role of America in the world – he presses on anyway. Perhaps the most salient point of the story is his recognition that diplomacy has little to do with anything other than the agenda of the then-current administration as America forcefully attempts to influence the ideological and financial decisions made by countries of lesser stature.
Frankly, I grew tired of Mr. Sanders and his story long before I reached the last page.

The Most Dangerous Man in America by Mark Perry
Review by L Charles “Friar” FitzGerald, Past President, Friends of Duncan Library
I was born in New England close to the end of the Second World War. Since I hail from a Northeastern family, the focus of the war for us was Europe, not the Pacific. As a result, I grew up knowing little about Douglas MacArthur or his legacy.
The Most Dangerous Man in America by Mark Perry set me straight. The book is not about MacArthur’s politics; rather his military service is the focus of this biography. It’s a well told story of a very complex man who led the victory in the Pacific and rebuilt Japan after the war. The book deftly analyses MacArthur’s quixotic relationship with Franklin Roosevelt as well as the considerable inter-service rivalries that determined the direction and outcome of the war in the Pacific. Mr. Perry also closely addresses the relationship of General MacArthur to his subordinates in addition to praising his assembly of a brilliant and powerful military team that ultimately won the war in the Pacific.
While I enjoyed the author’s insight into a whole aspect of WW ll that had previously escaped me, there were long, detailed and somewhat tedious sections of the book concerning battles about which I had heard but which held little interest for me and which I skimmed. This biography is intended for those with a serious interest in the Second World War, especially the Southwest Pacific Command and its ultimate triumph.

The Lost Tomb, by Kent Weeks
Review by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
If you are interested in ancient Egypt and archaeology, this is a great read. Kent Weeks recounts his early work in Egypt and the inception of the Theban Mapping Project (TMP), which he has run since 1979. It is the personal account and provides the reader a wonderful window in to how the project came to be and the amazing re-discovery of KV5, the royal tomb of Rameses II’s children, the largest tomb found in the Valley of the Kings to date. It includes humorous stories of the excavation, some historical background and interpretation on this incredible tomb.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crisis, by Timothy Geithner
Review by L Charles “Friar” FitzGerald, Past President, Friends of Duncan Library
In nearly 600 pages, Timothy Geithner has written a first-hand account of the 2007-08 financial crisis that almost crashed the U.S. financial system. While not a one-sitting read, his take on the events may be difficult for those who do not follow the financial markets or inside politics in our nation’s capital. An unlikely Washington insider, former New York Fed chairman, and President Obama’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Geithner, in a very self deprecating way, relates his personal philosophy and principles as they evolved into policies during the Great Recession. If you ever doubted the wisdom or necessity of bailouts during these years, this book will likely convince you otherwise. I suggest that you read the notes at the end of the book first; they will make the story much easier to follow. They clarify the terminology and acronyms as well as make a very decent attempt to help
the reader understand the messy world of government and quasi-government institutions and their effectiveness – or lack thereof – during times of extreme crises.

Void Moon, by Michael Connolly
Reviewed by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
Void Moon is an older Michael Connolly book that moves between L.A. and Las Vegas. Cassie Black is a woman in L.A. with a Porsche, but that’s because she sells them, not because she’s the typical L.A. rich chick. She’s also a woman with a past. Having just spent six years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit (sort of), Cassie is working in L.A. and struggling to figure out her life. Continually tempted, she decides to pull one last job in Vegas and then get out altogether. She works her contacts to get the ultimate score set up, but gets a lot more than she bargained for -including saving her life and that of the child she gave up. An easy read and slightly predictable if you know Connolly’s work, but a change from his usual set of characters.

 Graphic Novels
Review by Zachary Bly
Since attending the 2014 Small Press Expo in September, my bedside has been piled high with gems from Alexandria Library’s graphic format collections. I’m rereading Jay Hosler’s Clan Apis, an informative and surprisingly moving investigation into the life-cycle of the honeybee. The faint chill in the air makes this a great time to take on Marzena Sowa’s Marzi: a Memoir, an atmospheric autobiography set in Poland during the last days of Communism. I’ve enjoyed Gene Luen Yang’s celebrated American Born Chinese, a multi-threaded coming-of-age story focusing on race and culture. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds, new this year, is a cautionary fable about a hot-headed restaurateuse from the author of the Scott Pilgrim series. Finally, in anticipation of Lucy Knisley’s forthcoming travelogue A Season of License, I’m devouring her delightful food-themed memoir Relish, complete with recipes and helpful cooking tips. No matter what your interests or tastes, there’s a graphic novel out there for you. Try one today!

However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy
Review by Marilyn Doherty, Circulation Manager, Duncan Library
Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder However Long the Night is the story of Molly Melching, who went to Senegal as an exchange student and then spent more than 40 years trying to improve conditions for women in that country. Specifically, she worked in various communities slowly building consensus to end female genital mutilation. Don’t look for this in Biography; it showed up cataloged in the 392 area, history of ceremonies. A very inspiring tale of women learning and working together. Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder came out in 1989. I recently picked up our large print copy thinking it was probably too old to be useful. Then I started reading and was hooked. Another non-fiction title, it’s about a fifth-grade teacher in Holyoke, MA, with a class of mixed abilities and backgrounds, including a few really hard cases. If you have any doubts about the importance of a good teacher to every child she spends a year with, read this book. Kidder is keenly observant, and while he digresses from time to time to give the bigger picture, the day-today interactions are compelling. The teacher’s tough but compassionate style reminds me that teachers belong on the roster of saints.

Top Secret Twenty-One, by Janet Evanovich
Review by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
In the latest Stephanie Plum novel, Top Secret Twenty-One, Janet Evanovich returns to her former style of keeping the story fun and slightly more believable than her last few works. This episode centers around Trenton, NJ’s favorite car dealer, who as it turns out, is dealing more than cars. He has disappeared and his closest associates are dropping like flies. Next on his list is the accountant, Randy Briggs, a regular annoyance to Plumb. She is forced to protect Briggs, as bothersome as he is, in order to catch the big boss. As a side story, Ranger, Stephanie’s long term ‘distraction’ is a target of a known assassin, who attempts to plant a deadly toxin into the HVAC system in his Rangeman Security headquarters. Both story lines run concurrent through the book along with at least one blown up car, stakeouts on a pizza joint, viewing at the local funeral home, a trip to Atlantic City and the hijinks of Grandma Mazur and Lula. A fun, easy read.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
Review by L Charles FitzGerald, Past President, Friends of Duncan Library
As a late night reader, I often fall into the trap of saying to myself that I only have x number of pages before I finish a chapter or the book, so I stay awake to finish it. This habit doesn’t do too much for my sleep patterns. However, I’ve found that the answer to my nightly reading habit is the short story long enough to hold my interest, but brief enough for me to get to sleep at a decent hour. Up front, I admit that I’m a great fan of British authors. The Stories of Jane Gardam, best known in America for her Old Filth trilogy (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), is a delight. The nearly 400-page collection of 30 beautifully written tales showcases Ms. Gardam’s humor and insight into the human condition. Each one address ordinary people, some amazing, some odd, but mostly great. I cannot recommend her Stories highly enough. I’m sorry to say that Hilary Mantel’s second collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, is a disappointment. Ms. Mantel, a two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, both of which I loved, should probably have left short fiction alone. These 10 stories, written and published elsewhere over an extended period, represent a wide variety of themes, from gender to class, from marriage to family and sex, and finally to politics and terrorism. The stories are not only unpredictable in length but also their content. I confess that I only read about three quarters of them before I gave up.

A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas
Review by Ruth Hailu, Reference Librarian, Duncan Library
In this short story, Eliza is the main character. Her husband, Will, joins the Kansas Volunteers to fight the Confederates in 1864. As winter draws in, Eliza imagines Will being cold and freezing in the battlefield. So she makes a special quilt—a Stars and Stripes quilt, inspired by the flag, and sends it to him as a Christmas present. In the meantime, she struggles to keep the family farm viable; although her young children, Davy and Luzena, make big efforts to help, the job of plowing, planting and harvesting is just too much. Because all the men from Wabaubnsee County, Kansas, had gone to the civil war, men to hire were unavailable. But the redeeming joy for Eliza and many of the women whose husbands were Volunteers were their willingness to cooperate in everything big and small. Many of them called themselves “War Widows” and became creative and self-sufficient in many activities. Above all, they found hope and comfort in their religions and in each other.Finally, the story of the book starts with Eliza making a quilt for her husband who was out in the battlefield in mid-winter. The quilt did reach her husband, but do we know how much he used it? The quilt holds a mysterious journey, which you will find out only if you read the book to the end. I enjoyed this book very much. I think it is truly a winter tale that warms the heart!

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Review by Lisa Giambruno, Secretary, Friends of Duncan Library
I thoroughly enjoyed My Brilliant Friend by the Italian author Elena Ferrante. It is the story of two bright young students growing up in late 1950s Naples. One gets to continue her studies, and one does not. It is a lovely but sometimes brutal story of friendship, family, and country. The heroines, Elena and Lila, remain best friends as their lives take different paths. The best part is that this book is just the first in a trilogy, so I don’t yet have to say goodbye to Elena and Lila.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott
Review by Stephanie Clark
Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War is Karen Abbott’s latest book and highlights four women during the Civil War. One woman disguised herself as a man and enlisted as a soldier in the Union army, another spied for the Confederates, another used her affairs with Northern politicians to gather information of use to the Confederacy, and another managed a ring of spies in Richmond to gather troop movements and other battle information of use to the Union. It’s a fascinating piece of history just in terms of the Civil War, and an equally captivating look at women taking on unconventional roles. Abbott is a wonderful author. Another of her titles, Sin in the Second City, focuses on Chicago during Prohibition. I did not know till I read this book that the infamous Everleigh sisters (of the notorious Everleigh Club in Chicago) were Virginians and are buried here in Alexandria. Worth a read just to learn that bit of trivia but a good read regardless!

Chasing the Dime by Michael Connelly
Review by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
Chemist, entrepreneur and computer guru Henry Pierce moves into a new apartment, hooks up the phone and immediately starts getting calls for Lilly. All from men. Quickly he determines she is a call girl and vows to change the number. He can’t afford the distractions while he is working on a huge breakthrough in science that will be worth millions and save lives. But he can’t get the calls out of his head when he realizes there might be something wrong with Lilly. Pierce jumps into the world of syndicated online escorts, secret sex houses and much more than he ever bargained for while searching for Lilly. Then the unthinkable happens, he becomes the prime target and suspect for her murder.

What Happens at Christmas by Victoria Alexander
Review by Carolyn Harris, Treasurer, Duncan Friends
What Happens at Christmas by Victoria Alexander was offered on Book Bub and turned out to be just a romp of a pleasant holiday read, filled with warmth, humor, and interesting—probably fairly accurate, family relationships. Camille, Lady Lydingham needs to impress a Prince, and she has the perfect plan. She will use her family’s absence to hire actors to play them and create a perfect British Christmas for the Prince, and surely he will propose to her after that and she will finally be a Princess. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, in a romance novel, there must be a tension, and it comes in this story with the return of Camille’s first love, Grayson. I enjoyed following their path of getting together in the end. They both had to work through anger with one another—justified and unjustified, apologize for past mistakes, and resolve other relationships (such as the Prince) to get what they want. NOTE: I’ve since learned that Victoria Alexander produces an annual Christmas story, which I definitely will look for in the future.

The Heist by Daniel Silva
Review by L Charles “Friar” FitzGerald, Past President, Friends of Duncan Library
The Heist, the fourteenth in Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series, is one of the best. Allon’s work as a world-renowned art restorer of grand masters serves as an ideal cover for his other job as a high echelon Mossad agent. In this story he transitions from being one spy among many to becoming Israel’s top intelligence chief—a job he neither aspires to nor has he sought. Here, as in other of Silva’s books, you will see how stolen artwork serves as a substitute for money in the world of corrupt governments and their equally corrupt leaders. While very well written, the plot is at times a bit disjointed and overcomplicated. Fortunately, however, the characters remain fresh and engaging. If you are as much an aficionado of espionage thrillers as I am, you will want to read this fast paced book. And if you haven’t yet read this series, don’t delay.

Exile by Richard North Patterson
Review by Jill Murphy, Membership Chair, Friends of Duncan Library
Exile by Richard North Patterson is a political and legal thriller. If you have strong opinions around Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you may want to steer clear of this book. Set in San Francisco, the first few chapters move between the present day and 13 years ago during David Wolf’s final year of law school at Harvard where he has a fleeting and secret romance with a betrothed Palestinian woman. David is Jewish but not practicing or strongly tied to his Jewish roots. Skip back to present day, he is a practicing defense attorney engaged to Carol, whose father survived the Holocaust. They are the upper crust of San Francisco’s Jewish community, and the story culminates when the day after entertaining the prime minister of Israel, he is murdered while riding in a motorcade to the airport. David and Carol witness the car bomb first hand. A few days later, David’s long lost love from law school calls; she needs a defense attorney as she has just been arrested for the assassination.

When Washington Was in Vogue: A Love Story by Edward Christopher Williams
Review by Lisa Giambruno, Secretary, Friends of Duncan Library
I read a lot of great books this summer but my favorite by far was the All Alexandria Reads pick of ‘When Washington Was in Vogue: A Love Story” by Edward Christopher Williams. This 1926 love story written and set during the Harlem Renaissance was lost until recently. Be sure to read the fascinating forward by Professor Adam McKible, who rediscovered the novel while doing research as a graduate student. (Alexandria Library had Adam McKible speak about the book as one of their All Alexandria Reads events, and I am still kicking myself for having missed it.) This epistolary novel primarily documents a love story while giving the narrator, Davy Carr, plenty of opportunities to comment on race and class in 1920s Washington, DC. The book has been compared to the ‘Great Gatsby’ since it was published in serial format around the same time and takes place in the same era. It reminded me more of Jane Austen’s novels, particularly ‘Emma’. I really enjoyed this novel and don’t think it is something I’d have run across if the Alexandria Library hadn’t highlighted it.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Review by Linda Walker, Past Vice-President, Friends of Duncan Library

Outlander is a book written by Diana Gabaldon, published over 20 years ago. In the summer of this year (2014!), it was made into a television show on Starz. I knew about the show before I knew about the book. I watched the first few episodes, became hooked, learned there was a book, and I think you can figure out what happened from there! The female protagonist is Claire Randall, a British nurse who served during World War II. Her husband Frank was also in the military. After the war, the two are reunited and travel for a second honeymoon to Scotland, where Frank also works on researching his family history. Claire, in the countryside on her own one-day, visits a site containing some ancient stones (think Stonehenge in Scotland).The next thing she knows, she is no longer in Scotland in the mid-1940s; she has been magically transported to Scotland in the mid-1740s. There, Claire immediately runs into a man in a British Army uniform, who is the spitting image of her husband. The man turns out to be Captain Jack Randall, a many times great-grandfather of her husband Frank. Their meeting does not go so well. Just before Jack “compromises” Claire, she is whisked away (kidnapped!) by a band of Scottish highlanders. One of the highlanders is injured, and Claire uses her nursing skills to help him. That highlander is the male protagonist, who is introduced as Jamie McTavish. And so the story begins. If you like a book or television show that includes elements of fantasy, romance, history, and humor, Outlander might just be for you!

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Stephanie Clark
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was a bit of a disappointment. The first section of the book is really good —what you would want and expect from this author. But then the story falls apart and just did not hold my attention. It felt like work to read the middle section, and the final section picks up somewhat but there’s no real ending. There were sections that felt like really good short stories that had been cobbled together. Some much tougher editing was needed to pull what could have been a compelling story together. As anticipated and in demand as this title has been it just does not compare to her earlier titles. The Secret History and The Little Friend are more compelling and better written stories, well worth the time to read the 500+ pages of each.

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Comtemporary Afghanistan translated by Eliza Griswold
Stephanie Clark
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan translated and presented by Eliza Griswold is a short book of two-line poetry shared primarily among women in Afghanistan. The author explains this oral tradition and its subtle rebellions as well as how the poetry changes over time to fit current events. I really enjoyed this book, but I did wish there had been more landays included.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Ruth Hailu, Reference Librarian
In The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, we have two narrators: a concierge to an apartment occupied by well-to-do families, and a 12 year old girl, the daughter of one of the residents who hates her upper-class life, wanting to kill herself rather than continue to live with them. The girl, Paloma, comes to the concierge’s lodge whenever she can, and bad mouths her parents and the neighbors. The concierge, Ms. Renée Michel, is a middle aged, self-taught intellectual who can hold her own discussing Tolstoy, Proust, Plato, Descartes and all other classical writers and philosophers. Yet, she does not want her wealthy tenants to know about her knowledge. She, in turn, holds contempt for them, and says that “friendship across class lines is impossible.” Still, Ms. Michel became friends with Mr. Ozu, an art lover and a very cultured gentleman from Japan. One day, she made an offhand comment that alerted Mr. Ozu to her love of literature. He treats her as an equal; invites her to his tastefully furnished apartment; and they became good friends, continuing to discuss the nature of beauty, art and literature. The author, a philosophy teacher in Paris, seems to insert philosophy in everyday life. It’s no wonder millions of copies were sold in France where philosophy is a compulsory subject in all the lyceums, and where most people know about the great thinkers. But everything in the book seems to suggest that class distinction decides everything; however, I think this seems a far cry from the reality in France. It is not a book I would suggest for a beach-read, but it’s a great book.