Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kathy Mallory's back! (The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell)

The blurb:
The little girl appeared in Central Park: red-haired, blue-eyed, smiling, perfect -- except for the blood on her shoulder.  It fell from the sky, she said, while she was looking for her uncle, who turned into a tree.  Poor child, people thought.  And then, they found the body in the tree.

For Mallory, newly returned to the Special Crimes Unit after three months' lost time, there is something about the girl that she understands.  Mallory is damaged, they say, but she can tell a kindred spirit.  And this one will lead her to a story of extraordinary crimes: murders stretching back fifteen years, blackmail and complicity and a particular cruelty that only someone with Mallory's history could fully recognize.  In the next few weeks, she will deal with them all. . . in her own way.

This latest book, Chalk Girl, was my first exposure to Detective Kathy Mallory.  Mallory is a gifted detective whose flaws make her stand out.

How to describe her? Physically, she's a stunner.  Even in New York City, she's  unforgettable with her silky blond hair, high cheekbones, bright green and almond shaped eyes, a gorgeous figure, clothes that are noticeably expensive and yet comfortable. ("silk T-shirts and custom-made blazers. Even her blue jeans were tailored, and her running shoes cost more than his car payment.") She can move quietly, quickly  and with deadly precision such that she brings to mind a large golden cat.   She's in the top 1 percentile mentally as well - her powers of observation and deduction make her one of the best detectives in NYC.   These skills are complimented by her uncanny ability to understand and use computers - her "hacking" skills scare her superiors who are careful not to ask how and where she gets her information from.  Mallory's a survivor who'd lost her family at a young age and somehow survived on the streets.  Though we don't know much about these early years, we do know that Mallory was saved when she was caught and adopted by the renowned Detective Lou Markowitz.    Markowitz brought her home to his wife Helen who saw and treated Kathy Mallory as a gift.  Helen Markowitz loved Kathy and Kathy would do anything for her new mother.  Kathy's behavior is circumscribed by what Helen would want her to do and what Helen taught her daughter to be wrong. Mallory's moral code is difficult to predict and it makes her one of the more interesting characters. As a detective, Mallory is well aware of the rules of criminal procedure and the suspect's constitutional rights.  

In Chalk Girl, the young victim has the rare Williams syndrome, a rare condition characterized by elfin features and unusual gifts.  She is extraordinarily gifted in music, languages,  reading, and interpersonal skills.  She is warm, outgoing, and needs human contact.  The young girl doesn't have the usual inhibitions or defense mechanisms which makes her particularly vulnerable. "I'd like to give you a hug."  Just think about it - a gorgeous young child who engages strangers and is looking for affection - a recipe for heartache and abuse.  Somehow Coco brings out a protective side to Mallory.

But as her friends and admirers see "Mallory the Machine" as self-sufficient and unable to relate to those around her, there are scenes in Chalk Girl that are so sad and poignant that I'd have to put the book down.  It's these scenes that haunted me long after I'd put down the book.

The one thing that bothered me about Chalk Girl was the degree of violence and cruelty that Mallory and the detectives unearthed.  Chalk Girl is not a tame detective story but it's a fascinating and satisfying read.  After reading Chalk Girl months ago, I ended up hunting down and reading 10 more of Carol O'Connell's mysteries.  That's how much I enjoyed Chalk Girl and reading about Kathy Mallory.

ISBN-10: 0399157743 - Hardcover $25.95
Publisher: Putnam Adult (January 17, 2012), 384 pages.
Review copy provided by the publisher.

About the Author:
Carol O'Connell is the author of eleven previous books, nine featuring Kathy Mallory, most recently Find Me, and the stand- alones Judas Child and Bone by Bone. She lives in New York City.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Taking advice from Thumper's mom (if you can't say anything nice....)

One of my closest friends told me recently that she prefers to ask me for book recommendations instead of relying solely on my book reviews.  She was of the opinion that I will try to see the strengths of a book and gloss over its weaknesses out of sympathy for the author.  I thought about her comment and will admit that I have considerable admiration for authors, their dedication and the courage that it takes to put your work out there for others to read and criticize.   But I also realize that readers of this blog should be able to rely upon my review and my opinion without having to second guess whether I was pulling my punches.

While I do appreciate the grading scale that others use, I don't feel that a rating from 1 to 5 would work for me.  If I feel that a book is a 1, I likely won't finish it. Even if I do, I don't feel that I need to publicly share why I'd rate it so low -- unless the book offended me in some way or was factually wrong and dangerously incendiary.  I'd much prefer to write about books that I enjoyed, books that I found satisfying reads and would recommend to friends.  In which case, I'd categorize the books into books that I loved and fully intend to reread every so often -- the sort of book that I would replace if I were ever to lose my copy,  those I'd keep and share with friends and family, books that deserve a mention, those that are a good way to pass the time, recent works by authors that I enjoy or a book that sounded intriguing and another for books to recycle.

Does this seem like a reasonable way to select books for my blog? Or is it odd that I seem to have taken advice from Thumper's mom  in that if I can't say anything nice, then I don't say anything at all... What do you think?  How do you select books or materials to review on your blog?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell Smith

Sally Bedell Smith's Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch comes just as Elizabeth II celebrates her 60th year on the throne. Some reviewers have described the book as an authorized unauthorized biography, likely because Bedell Smith writes with sympathy and admiration for the Queen's dedication and the sacrifices that the Queen has made and makes on a daily basis.

I hadn't read any of biographies of the royal family and have had a mild fascination with Princess Diana (like most of the world). I'd enjoyed the movie The Queen with Helen Mirren. I'd requested Elizabeth the Queen through the Amazon Vine program with a general curiosity of the second longest reigning monarch and was delightfully surprised to learn the details of her life as queen. The book begins with ten-year old Elizabeth and her sister discuss the abdication by King Edward VIII and their father's ascension to the throne. Elizabeth suddenly becomes next in line to the throne and she is prepared accordingly. Drastic changes are made to her education, training, and treatment - she, her family, and those around her take care to prepare her for her role. In contrast, her father Prince Albert ("Bertie") had not been raised as the heir and his sudden ascension when King Edward VIII abdicated to be with Wallace Simpson had not only created a constitutional crisis but had imposed an incredible burden for which he -- at least from Hollywood's depictions (The King's Speech)-- had not felt well prepared. But as Prince Albert took on the role of George VI, history (and again, the movies) reveal that he met unexpected and unparalleled challenges with great grace, dedication and success -- he steered England through World War II and the challenges afterward. The royal family made sure that Elizabeth was prepared, insofar as one can be, for her future role as monarch. "I have a feeling that in the end probably that training is the answer to a great many things. You can do a lot if you are properly trained, and I hope I have been." said the Queen on the eve of her 40th year. But as the book reveals, preparation is not so much intellectual education but also a deeper devotion to, understanding of, and commitment to the responsibilities, obligations, and limitations of her position as queen. Her role as constitutional monarch - and the restrictions that are imposed on her - and her larger role as diplomat, role model, and queen that brings together the Commonwealth nations and her subjects the world over.

I was fascinated by the conversations, anecdotes, and details that Sally Bedell Smith revealed. Having only known Queen Elizabeth as the older monarch, mother of the rather old Prince Charles and presumably an unsympathetic mother-in-law to the lively Princess Diana, it was lovely to read about her early years, of her own youth, glowing beauty, the personal and diplomatic triumphs of the young queen. Sally Bedell Smith gives us a fuller story of Queen Elizabeth II with careful research and meticulous details. We learn of her love affair and marriage to Prince Philip as well as the ways in which she has sought to give him greater importance. The relationship between Elizabeth II and Prince Philip is similar in some ways to that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Prince Consort - except that Prince Albert was given a greater role in governmental affairs. However, Bedell Smith recounts the romance in much the same way: the fabulously wealthy heir presumptive is attracted to a handsome, well educated, young man of similarly royal birth. Prince Philip is a descendant of Queen Victoria and a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth which Prince Albert was first cousin to Queen Victoria. Both queens sought to give their husbands primacy in their family life and to give them a larger role and importance in public life. Sally Bedell Smith devotes considerable time on Prince Philip, his background, his interests, his adjustment to his role as Prince, his treatment of their children, his wisecracking ways that are supposedly done to provide comic relief and ease tension. Bedell Smith makes Prince Philip out to be a sympathetic character. I'll admit though that while she makes him a more sympathetic character, there are things that stick out in her description of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth that make one curious as to what other people would say about incidents and these royal personages. For instance, Bedell Smith writes "Always vigilant about his own weight, he helped his wife return to trim form by encouraging her to give up potatoes, wine and sweets."

Most of the anecdotes are enlightening and I came away with great respect and affection for Queen Elizabeth II. Her dedication to her work -- she dedicates hours each day to official correspondence and briefings, taking time out only on Easter and Christmas, her strict adherence to her role under the constitution, and the physical demands of her position are all revelations and evoke my greatest admiration. I very much enjoyed reading Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch and highly recommend it for those with an interest in modern history. Queen Elizabeth II is much more than a royal figure, she is one of the most important leaders of the last century.

ISBN-13: 978-1400067893 - Hardcover $30
Publisher: Random House (January 10, 2012), 688 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Sally Bedell Smith is the author of  bestselling biographies of William S. Paley; Pamela Harriman; Diana, Princess of Wales; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and Bill and Hillary Clinton. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1996, she previously worked at Time and The New York Times, where she was a cultural news reporter. She is the mother of three children and lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Stephen G. Smith.