Maude McDaniel

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Spying is a complicated business, and that's not even counting the spying part. The intelligence acronyms are hard enough to keep straight (FI, CI, HUMINT, COMMI). Besides that, there are "covert, overt, clandestine, and paramilitary" categories of each. Lulu is FI/HUMINT/NOC, and lower echelon enough to find human intelligence "an oxymoron."However, she's pleased to discover official duties and her romantic inclinations mesh when she is assigned to Morocco. It's a "basic mission" to update the database with a long – term goal of battling extremist Muslim groups. The best part of the assignment is that it will enable her to rekindle her "little love affair with Ian Drumm," with whom she had worked in international aid in Kosovo.

Ian, who runs a luxurious haven for expatriate Europeans and Americans in Marrakech, warmly welcomes her reappearance, but seems preoccupied. In the process of identifying several citizens who are not what they appear to be, Lulu also finds herself in a subtle tug – of – war for Ian's attentions.Lulu in Marrakech is espionage light, but Diane Johnson is practiced at balancing the knotty questions of varying cultural constraints against self – centered, yet often freedom – based, Western values. Lulu's interactions with a suspicious Saudi couple, an American gay twosome with a child, a Moroccan colonel, a girl in danger of being killed by her brother, and a number of other citizens along the way embroil her in a dubious development where life turns serious and the truth is hard to read.

Johnson, author of 14 previous books, has been a finalist several times for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Her latest novel is consistently absorbing, though plagued by an unresolved ambivalence, which probably reflects the nature of the subject itself. Readers might find themselves wondering at the end why anyone would want to be a spy, though the intermittent excitement probably makes up for other shortfalls. One thing's for sure – Lulu would testify to it – if you want to be a really good spy, don't fall in love.

Spying is a complicated business, and that's not even counting the spying part. The intelligence acronyms are hard enough to keep straight (FI, CI, HUMINT, COMMI). Besides that, there are "covert, overt, clandestine, and paramilitary" categories of each. Lulu is FI/HUMINT/NOC, and lower echelon enough to find human intelligence "an oxymoron."However, she's pleased to discover […]
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In 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) began in upstate New York with six men. At the millennium, it counts over ten million members (more than half of them living outside the United States), and, at the present rate, projects a likely 263 million members by 2080. Now that's success, especially in a time when the organized church is regarded with suspicion and distaste by many spiritual seekers.

Apart from the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church is possibly the most organized church in Christendom. The Ostlings (husband and wife, admittedly conventional Protestants ) have produced a candid but nonpolemical overview that fully achieves their intention to focus on what is distinctive and culturally significant about this growing American movement for outsiders and insiders alike.

They detail the results of intensive research into such matters as Mormon history, structure, unique teachings, and redefinitions of traditional Christian beliefs. In the judgment of this non-Mormon Gentile, the authors succeed for the most part in their objective stance, although Mormon readers may not agree. In either case, they provide much to ruminate upon and, in the process of comparing Mormonism to other Christian faiths, a short course in traditional theology for adherents who tend to be ignorant these days about the basis of their own beliefs.

The Ostlings point out the many strengths of the Mormon Church: the Saints' devotion to their faith, their high expectations for their young, their personal moral behavior, their extraordinary tithing, and their fasting for the needy. More controversial matters are not glossed over, such as Mormon teachings on continuing revelation; the position of women and blacks; vicarious baptism for the dead (including Catholic saints, Jews, and others); and secret temple rites (curiously Masonic).

Agree or disagree, you will be enlightened and instructed by this book.

Maude McDaniel has written over 300 book reviews for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others.

In 1830, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) began in upstate New York with six men. At the millennium, it counts over ten million members (more than half of them living outside the United States), and, at the present rate, projects a likely 263 million members by 2080. Now that's success, […]
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Shades of the Duke, the King and even Fagin: Benjamin Nab spins stories that have them all beat. Wanted on 17 separate charges, he can usually come up with the necessary lie to get out of the fix. Even when he can't, it's not for want of trying, but because the real truth is even more creative.

Ren is the pawn in this 19th-century chess game, a 12-year-old boy who is struggling to grow up in the hardscrabble reality of a monastic orphanage in small-town New England. Despite having lost a hand in infancy, one of the survival techniques he has learned is petty theft: "Ren was responsible for most of the lost things being prayed for at the statue of Saint Anthony." So when Benjamin drops by the orphanage one day to adopt Ren with the idea of training him to assist in the ongoing con game of his life, it's not quite the stretch it might be for other orphans. And if adopting Ren means Benjamin has to say the boy is actually his brother, well, it's no worse than any other lie he's told.

Hannah Tinti was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Animal Crackers, her collection of short stories. She's also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of One Story magazine. Her first novel, The Good Thief is in several places a stark, dark shark of a story that will make the reader gasp, but the tale eventually ends up in relatively calm and healing waters, where hope seems to be a possibility after all.

One of The Good Thief's strengths is its world of one-of-a-kind characters: the dental comedian; the chimney dwarf; the affable, though murderous, former "corpse"; the corporate malefactor. They are strange, weird and often lovable, as long as the reader can suspend judgment in favor of the general idea that all God's children have their good points. This quirky crew of thieves and grave robbers might be Ren's only hope for discovering the truth about his heritage. For all its hijinks, The Good Thief minces no words, and hides no happenings. Still, somehow it manages to leave the reader with a smile.

Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

 

Shades of the Duke, the King and even Fagin: Benjamin Nab spins stories that have them all beat. Wanted on 17 separate charges, he can usually come up with the necessary lie to get out of the fix. Even when he can't, it's not for want of trying, but because the real truth is even […]
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Who can resist a wunderkind? Richard Mason is 20 years old, and he has already published a novel. What more need be said? In this case, a great deal. Youthful prodigy is the least of the matter with regard to The Drowning People. This first novel, by a young Oxford student who began writing it when he was 18, is striking in its wisdom and thoughtful beyond its author's years. It would be a worthwhile addition to any writer's body of work—for a teenager emeritus, it's a stunner.

The story of James Farrell is, he admits, one of a naif loose in a world that does not suffer innocents gladly. A budding concert violinist, he falls in love at 22 with self-dramatizing Ella Harcourt, an heiress of the English aristocracy, who, he believes, needs his help to escape the stultifying influences of her privileged life. Unwilling to delve below the surface of his dream of love, in a moment of weakness he goes along with a foolish demand of Ella's that results in tragedy for his accompanist and best friend, Eric de Vaugirard. The resulting guilt isolates him from his love for several years. When he and Ella come together again, a new player has arrived front and center, Sarah Harcourt, Ella's cousin, her carbon copy in looks, but as different from Ella as ice is from warm water. Murder ensues, so heinous that James must find shelter in a life of serenity, order, and security as obsessive as his earlier lives. Only at 70 does he discover the pervasiveness of the evil touching his own life, and take a shocking step to make things right. He kills his wife. That act is the start of his story, which is told in the form of a book-long recollection full of what ifs and if onlys (a few too many perhaps). Like ancient mountains, the jagged enthusiasm of youth is palpably worn down by the flow of reminiscing old age, as James arrives at a truer understanding of his experience as one of the drowning people who succumb to the flood of life itself.

It's a remarkable achievement for so young a writer, and the kind of book that makes you agree with Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading."

Maude McDaniel is a freelance writer in Cumberland, Maryland.

Who can resist a wunderkind? Richard Mason is 20 years old, and he has already published a novel. What more need be said? In this case, a great deal. Youthful prodigy is the least of the matter with regard to The Drowning People. This first novel, by a young Oxford student who began writing it […]
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Atmospheric, moody and evocative—these words describe Alice Hoffman’s latest achievement, The Marriage of Opposites. And that is no accident, because they also accurately describe the 19th-century artistic movement known as Impressionism, founded by Camille Pissarro, the third son Rachel Pomié bore to her second husband, Frédérick. (Altogether, Rachel had nine children, an accomplishment for any heroine, but Rachel is a strong character.)

Hoffman tells the story of the painter’s life through the drama of his mother’s concerns. The story takes place first on the island of St. Thomas, where Rachel is caught up in the drama of her scandalous second marriage and the troubles facing her best friend, Jestine. Later, the family (or some of it) returns to their home country of France, a long-held dream for these French-Jewish exiles. 

One would think that after 30-odd books, Hoffman might have exhausted her glossary, but The Marriage of Opposites is a treasure trove of expression, color on color and emotion on emotion. Fittingly for a book about an artist, color is never far from the spotlight. Pissarro is “greedy for all the color in the world,” and remembers November on the island, when “the dusk sifted down like black powder.” Nature claims its fair share of the vocabulary—trees and birds and hills—and Hoffman seems always up to the task of freshly describing the latest artistic excitement.

Doing justice to the individuals in her tale is harder to accomplish—being real people, they must be unmistakably specific, sometimes in off-putting ways. Still, somehow Hoffman manages this as well, spinning a fresh tale of human error and achievement. This subject has found the right author at the right time, and no one who reads this story will forget it.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Atmospheric, moody and evocative—these words describe Alice Hoffman’s latest achievement, The Marriage of Opposites. And that is no accident, because they also accurately describe the 19th-century artistic movement known as Impressionism, founded by Camille Pissarro, the third son Rachel Pomié bore to her second husband, Frédérick.
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The Jane Austen we know is delicious enough on her own, but Austen filtered through the mind of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) could be the best of both possible worlds.

Smith’s Emma: A Modern Retelling is the latest installment in “The Austen Project,” which drafted six contemporary authors to retell Austen’s complete works. Here, he co-opts Austen’s titular heroine and introduces her to a modern setting, complete with the same plot turns and many of the same characters present in one form or another. Certainly unmistakable is Emma, Austen’s heroine, a born controller who believes (with unshakable certainty in both books) that other people’s happiness can be arranged for them and that she is just the one to do it. In his version, Smith adds a greater understanding of how Emma gained her certitude about her own ability to make her friends' decisions on their own behalf.

Smith assumes some of Austen’s tone here, and his fans might miss his singular voice. Still, the plot is surefire (and tested), and somewhere along the way, the reader embraces the concept in its own right.  This rewarding read is a fascinating pastiche of two of the most enjoyable writers in the British tradition.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The Jane Austen we know is delicious enough on her own, but Austen filtered through the mind of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency) could be the best of both possible worlds.
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Amanda Filipacchi’s fourth novel is a matchless satire that manages to make a point or two along with the fun. It follows a memorable cast of characters, led by Barb, a costume designer and world-class beauty with the kindest of hearts. Convinced of the sheer uselessness and even destructiveness of beauty after a spurned lover kills himself over her, Barb hides her looks under a fat suit.

By contrast, Barb’s best friend, Lily, is ugly but plays the piano like a dream, to the point where she can inspire listeners to see her as incredibly beautiful—as long as her music goes on. And there’s Penelope, whose pottery store is filled with merchandise designed to crack when lifted by a customer. (This brings in a steady income, thanks to the store’s “you break it, you buy it” policy.) The three are part of an artsy community, the Knights of Creation, where they help each other achieve their various creative goals.

The story is both daunting and haunting, as Lily and Barb face the deaths of friends (which one of their fellow Knights may be involved in) and the threats of needy fellow members.

Obviously, total realism is not Filipacchi’s specialty, but no reader would want it otherwise. A novel of deliberate contrariness, The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty takes on some thorny issues and speaks to both the mind and heart at the same time. Not to mention the funny bone.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Amanda Filipacchi’s fourth novel is a matchless satire that manages to make a point or two along with the fun. It follows a memorable cast of characters, led by Barb, a costume designer and world-class beauty with the kindest of hearts. Convinced of the sheer uselessness and even destructiveness of beauty after a spurned lover kills himself over her, Barb hides her looks under a fat suit.
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Five years after retiring due to health problems, Father Tim Kavanagh is still reeling. What he sees at first as the "yawning indifference" of his church family is hurtful, but time has passed and an exciting trip to Ireland with his wife, Cynthia, has served to cushion the blow. Still, he finds the idea "to withdraw someplace for the sake of seclusion"—and to stay there—far too inviting.

But Mitford is up to its usual tricks—something interesting happening every hour on the hour. So when Hope Murphy, the owner of the local bookstore, has to spend the rest of her pregnancy on bedrest, he volunteers to keep the store open one day a week, and several other friends fill up most of the others. Variations on the theme ensue—and Karon does it once more—makes small-town affairs interesting enough to entertain readers all over again. And again.

Life never slows down, though Father Tim feels he has, and he sensibly declines to take back the parish after his successor creates a scandal. As in all the Mitford books, Father Tim delves into the seriousness of his as well as others' faith, and finds new answers—hard-won wisdom that settles old questions in satisfying ways.

Karon has written nine previous Mitford books, and a few other related titles. Not counting her reckless way with pronouns, they seem only to get better. Although readers should know better by now, her humor is always unexpected and sly, of the smile-out-loud variety, and surely makes the story more palatable for non-religious readers. The rest of us are simply grateful for her ability to home in unerringly on the light spots that make the heavy going of life easier for us all.

It is hard to imagine that there is much more that can be said about Father Tim and his gang, yet Karon keeps finding new fodder. Unexpected opportunities open here for his relationships with his adopted son's family, and Karon has already demonstrated that she can make a rich meal out of unpromising ingredients.

"No two persons ever read the same book," as Karon quotes Edmund Wilson. (The wealth of trenchant quotes about books included here alone make Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good worth reading.) Perhaps Karon's readers are all reading different books, but every one of them is worth the trouble.

 

RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Jan Karon about this book.

Five years after retirement due to health, Father Tim Kavanagh is still reeling. What he sees at first as the "yawning indifference" of his church family is hurtful, but time has passed and an exciting trip to Ireland with his wife Cynthia has served to cushion the blow. Still, he finds the idea "to withdraw someplace for the sake of seclusion"—and to stay there—far too inviting.

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Chestnut Street in Dublin, Ireland, is shaped like a horseshoe, with a “big bit of grass in the middle beside some chestnut trees,” and “thirty small houses in a semicircle.” These houses are inhabited by scores of fascinating human beings, however ordinary, who figure in these stories by Maeve Binchy, written between novels. Now, after her death in 2012 at 72, they are finally being published. Most use old-fashioned O. Henry endings to resolve problems or clarify situations in unexpected ways—illuminating the lives of the people involved and, incidentally, warming the hearts of readers.

Even though they share the world of Chestnut Street, each family lives a life of its own, occasionally bouncing off one another as neighbors. In my favorite story, “Ivy,” a lonely, old-fashioned girl who wishes people would write letters instead of email, wins a computer. On a local bulletin board she asks for someone to give her computer lessons in exchange for cooking lessons. “By far the best” offer comes from a 12-year-old boy named Sandy, who lives with his grandfather. The outcome is short and sweet and cuts off a story you would prefer to hear more of, but that is how it is with these little gems: The ending is the point, not anything that comes before.

Though many of these little slices of life are too short for nuance, they are all undemanding and delightful. The more you read, the more you want to read, which makes the fact that Chestnut Street is Binchy’s final collection as poignant an ending as any in her oeuvre.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Chestnut Street in Dublin, Ireland, is shaped like a horseshoe, with a “big bit of grass in the middle beside some chestnut trees,” and “thirty small houses in a semicircle.” These houses are inhabited by scores of fascinating human beings, however ordinary, who figure in these stories by Maeve Binchy, written between novels. Now, after her death in 2012 at 72, they are finally being published.

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Irish-born author Emma Donoghue returns to historical fiction with her first novel since the 2010 runaway bestseller Room. Frog Music was inspired by a real-life unsolved murder in 1876 San Francisco, a good three decades after the Gold Rush. Cross-dressing Jenny, a voice of surprising common sense amid the wild culture of the time, was shot in cold blood at her friend Blanche’s house, and the murderer was never found.

It is evident that history is the star of this show. Blanche, a French dancer who supports her boyfriend, injured trapeze artist Arthur, by imaginative prostitution, gets in over her head when she invests in a block of apartments and finds herself unable to stay on top of the wave. When her child, whom she had imagined to be safe and cared for outside her life, surfaces in trouble, suddenly a more respectable life begins to exert its appeal.

Jenny makes a living by catching frogs to meet the considerable local restaurant traffic’s high demand, and she and Blanche cement their new friendship during expeditions out into the swamps and streams of the backcountry. Or do the two only know each other for a few hours before disaster strikes? The story is never quite clear, but the reader who is willing to live with ambiguity will find this book endlessly intriguing. Donoghue brings the setting, a smallpox-stricken summer, almost too vividly to life: The unwilling but fascinated reader will be transfixed by her descriptions of the disease’s “opalescent slime” and “dimpled red pearls . . . all across what used to be his lovely face.” References to some 30 songs of the time, many of them familiar (“How Can I Keep From Singing?” “Somebody’s Darlin’”) add to its period allure.

The French (“Frog”) connection may be strong, but this engrossing, truth-bending story is all American. You’ll find yourself enraptured by the intricate plot developments that will keep you revising your version of the action from one hour to the next.

Irish-born author Emma Donoghue returns to historical fiction with her first novel since the 2010 runaway bestseller Room. Frog Music was inspired by a real-life unsolved murder in 1876 San Francisco, a good three decades after the Gold Rush. Cross-dressing Jenny, a voice of surprising common sense amid the wild culture of the time, was shot in cold blood at her friend Blanche’s house, and the murderer was never found.

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When Lavender sends out invitations to her 85th birthday bash, it’s more than just a celebration. One of the guests might be lucky enough to inherit the Lavender Honey Farm she has so laboriously carved out of her family land, and in which her nephews are not interested. With that in mind she invites three fellow food bloggers (they call themselves the “Foodie Four”) to visit and celebrate the special occasion, and each responds from the center of a complicated life.

All of the Foodie Four are smarting from the dings and arrows of inadvertent fortune. Lavender writes a three-times-a-week food blog to express her love of the land and as a forum for organic farming and animal husbandry. What she does not tell her readers is that she has begun to see ghosts of dead friends and favorite dogs among the old trees, beehives and fragrant lavender fields that are so much a part of her life’s accomplishment.

Unexpected love rears its attractive head on a weekend retreat.

Ruby is 21 and pregnant by a husband she no longer loves, and Ginny is escaping the careless cruelty of a husband who has left her behind for years. (Unlike the famous Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she never wants to go back to Kansas!) Valerie, a widowed ballet-dancer, and her teenage daughter, Hannah, are still mourning the loss of the rest of their family in a plane crash.

Barbara O’Neal, who also writes as Ruth Wind and Barbara Samuel, has won six RITA awards for earlier books. (She’s also a former BookPage columnist.) In The All You Can Dream Buffet, O’Neal touches on such subjects as the honorable way to deal with food animals in a meat-eating civilization, and healthy vegetable consumption. Portions of the Foodies’ food blogs also appear, including a few recipes.

And, as usual, in a top-notch romance, the men are first-rate: handsome, bright guys whom any woman would be proud to attract. Unexpected love rears its attractive head as the weekend progresses and lives are changed in the pace of a few days, but maybe the blue moon has something to do with that. A quick, satisfying read is in store for all who pick up this book for a fun time and a foodie fling.

When Lavender sends out invitations to her 85th birthday bash, it’s more than just a celebration. One of the guests might be lucky enough to inherit the Lavender Honey Farm she has so laboriously carved out of her family land, and in which her nephews are not interested. With that in mind she invites three fellow food bloggers (they call themselves the “Foodie Four”) to visit and celebrate the special occasion, and each responds from the center of a complicated life.

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