Staff Choices

Posted by mingh on 04/21/10
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The Poisoner's Handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York is a wonderfully written exploration of the start of serious forensic medicine in the United States. At the turn of the twentieth-century, the job of Coroner was assigned by the mayor in most major cities. These positions were given for reasons of favor or nepotism or graft. Many times the Coroner was not even a doctor.
 
New York set about to change that by setting up an actual Forensic Medicine department with the Chief Medical Examiner being a serious doctor who helped define forensic medicine in the US. Dr. Charles Norris took his new responsibilities very seriously. He hired the chief chemist at Bellevue Hospital, Alexander Gettler, and the book is really their story of finding ways to determine if someone died of poison.
 
It was very difficult to determine if someone died of poison and Gettler had to experiment many times and in many ways to see if poisons were retained in the vital organs, in the stomach or even in the skin and hair. We owe a lot to Gettler's experiments and to Norris' complete backing of the experiments and the findings.
 
But it wasn't just murder that they had to deal with. Even though less people were drinking under Prohibition, more people were dying. Gettler and Norris had to figure out what was killing so many people. The culprit was methyl alcohol. (Methyl alcohol is toxic and is currently used in antifreeze, solvents and fuels--methanol.) The work of Gettler and Norris contributed to ending Prohibition because they could statistically show what happened to those who drank the "alcohol" in whatever form under Prohibition. 
 
The story and facts are laid out nicely and The Poisoner's Handbook  reads very quickly. Just follow along as Norris fights city hall and Gettler fights to understand how different drugs such as cyanide and chloroform and radium kill.
Posted by Ultra Violet on 04/15/10
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Sixteen year-old, Katya Spivak, is thrilled to escape her low-class, Jersey life for a summer as a live-in nanny for a nouveau-riche family in a wealthy sea-side town. Naif Katya is approached by an elegant elderly gentleman named Marcus Kidder. She feels drawn to him, and finds him to have a magical quality; like a character in an old movie. He invites her and the two children to tea. Katya sees nothing wrong with going since she will be taking the children with her, and she is very excited about the prospect of being inside one of the grand old mansions so envied by even her employers. The story grabs you from the start with it's eerie unease. Katya is slowly pulled into something bizarre and inescapable. A Fair Maiden is a page-turning, crazy, modern fairy tale that will keep you guessing right until the end.
Posted by Uncle Will on 04/13/10
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This is the 5th book in the E. L. Pender series.  Pender is an enigma.  He is a hard-drinking, fat FBI Special Agent.  It wouldn't be a surprise if he gargles with gin when he wakes most mornings.   His job is flying across the country while acting as a investigation liaison between the FBI and community law enforcement officers. 
 
In this story, Pender is searching for a young man that was dealt a poor hand since birth.  A life spent in and out of foster homes helped shaped Luke Sweet's nasty outlook on life.  He is on the run and leaving a trail of bodies of those who have done him wrong in the past.  
 
Pender teams-up with a gimpy private investigator who has the distinct honor of once capturing Luke while wanted for suspected murder.  Together the two diverse personalities try to close the gap between themselves and Luke while not becoming victim to his warped revenge adventure. 
 
Nasaw has the ability to create characters that are flawed and permeate with realism.
Posted by mingh on 04/08/10
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In 1926, Violet Gibson, daughter of an English Baron fired two shots at Mussolini. How come you never heard of this? Well, she missed. Mussolini had just turned his head at the first bullet, so the first shot skimmed his nose. On the second, the pistol jammed.
 
Gibson was detained and then sent to a psychiatric hospital in Northampton, England. This was partly done to appease the Italians, but also, her family was embarrassed by her politics and her religion (she had converted to Catholicism). Putting her away kept her out of sight and away from the newspapers. There were enough characters in the family.
 
Saunders keeps the information coming about Violet and the family. Violet was always less forthcoming about her reasons for trying to kill Mussolini. Saunders presents some of  the arguments, including some contradictory statements by Violet.
 
But the real pull here is the juxtaposition of Violet's life against the rise of Mussolini. The British basically put Mussolini in power, an action they would come to regret many years later. This is not an in-depth study of Mussolini or the rise of fascism, although there is much information about both. It is really more a study of what this woman saw so early in Mussolini that the rest of the world would not come to see for many years.
Posted by Pam I am on 04/08/10
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My neighborhood book group picked this book, and I am so glad we read this.  It wasn't at all what I expected and some have even suggested this is a book version of a "sixth sense" ending.  Meaning that nothing is what you thought it was and after you finish the book, you are compelled to go back and re-read chapters in order to understand it again.
 
Towner Whitney, a young woman, returns to her childhood home in Salem, Mass after the death of her great aunt.  Barry does an amazing job describing the town of salem and the eccentric cast of characters that live there.  Towner Whitney herself is from a family of Lace Readers who have the ability to tell the future through "reading" lace.  Told from Towner's point of view, the story is a mix of dream and reality and it is frequently difficult to tell these apart. Only when the end of the book is reached, when Towner allows herself to see and know the ultimate, horrible, final secret, does the whole story become clear.
 
Interestingly, I think people either "love" or "hate" this book.  It was either "too slow" or "fast-paced".  This is the kind of book that brings about great discussion and different tastes in readers.
Posted by jfreier on 04/07/10
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On a wintry Venetian night C.I.A cleaner Micah Dalton heads out to face Serbian gangsters who he has been tracking for months, after killing them and also almost being killed Micah is off on the trail to find their boss. Micah is a fascinating character, lethal, tortured, yet killing is what he does well and is how he is defined. This book is action packed and fast paced with a good plot, and timely as well.This is the first time I've read this author and this book is the third in the Dalton series, I would recommend him to Steve Berry and Dan Brown fans.
Posted by Uncle Will on 03/30/10
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This is the 3rd installment in the Michael Bennett mystery series by Patterson. Bennett is the widower father of 10 adopted children.  He also is a NYC homicide detective who has an Irish live-in nanny who is deeply in love with him and the kids. Throw in Bennett's wise-cracking Catholic priest grandfather who talks with a thick Irish brogue and never has met a drink offer that he could refuse and there is the formula for a novel reeking in colorful characters.
 
This story is about a terminally-ill-serial-killer who kidnaps offspring of the Rich and Famous, but doesn't ask for any ransom. He has a game-plan that he rigidly follows and nothing will prevent him from reaching is final goal.
 
Bennett is partnered-up this time with a beautiful FBI profiler who specializes in youth hostage retrieval.  She is a 2-year removed divorcee with a 4-year old daughter.  Ironically, that is the only age child that Bennett isn't fathering. Tension and passions rise for both in and out of the squad car. Stir in to the mix that Bennett is suppose to be helping organize a special surprise birthday party for nanny, Mary Catherine, while trying to prevent another senseless murder and the race is on!
 
The dichotomy of Bennett's loving nature and brutal occupation makes this series special.
Posted by mingh on 03/30/10
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From 1911-1914 Amy Archer ran one of the first private nursing homes in the country. You could pay her weekly for room and board. Or, you could give her $1000 upfront and she would take care of you, even providing for your burial. She always encouraged the $1000 as the better deal. However, if you lived too long, she didn't make money. So she put arsenic in your food to help you along the path to death.
 
The Devil's Rooming House : the true story of America's deadliest female serial killer is a fascinating story of the time period, and the importance of the journalist who started uncovering the story, and the gullibility of the townspeople. Amy Archer always walked through town with a Bible in her hand. People could not believe that a serial killer was in their midst and that this woman was it.
 
Phelps has written a very readable story about Amy Archer, the crime, and how reluctant the authorities were to pursue this without absolute evidence. Twenty years before this story, Lizzie Borden had committed a horrible crime 40 miles away and people feel the authorities botched it up and allowed her to go free. They were determined that the same should not happen with this crime.
 
Phelps is able to uncover the lives of some the victims, most of whom went into the house to avoid being a burden on their families. Arsenic is a very painful way to die. Sixty people died in the house, although only 1/2 can be attributed directly to Amy.
 
The play Arsenic and Old Lace was based on this story. Playwright Joseph Kesselring made the aunts more charming figures than Amy Archer ever was and added a loving nephew who discovers their plot. It was also made into a movie starring Cary Grant.
Posted by Pam I am on 03/30/10
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What would you do if you could relive any 3 weeks from your past knowing what you know now?  This is the chance that Jude Deveraux gives the 3 main characters in this book.  Nearly 20 years ago on their birthday, Ellie, Leslie and Madison meet as 19 year olds at the department of motor vehicles in New York City.  They become quick friends and then lose touch with each other as they all go on with their lives.  Now, in present day, reconnecting as 40 year old women, they all  quickly realize that life didn't turn out as planned.  But then they come across the store of Madame Zoya of Futures, Inc., who makes them an irresistible offer --they can relive any three weeks from the past, armed with the knowledge since gained.  At the end of the three weeks they must choose to go back to their old life or choose the new one.  The reader gets to see the "do-overs" and see what destiny each woman chooses. 
 
I have never read Jude Deveraux before but I know that she is very popular among patrons.  This is definitely an entertaining, "easy" read.   Not a page turner, but fun and enjoyable.
Posted by Auntie Anne. on 03/28/10
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"'So now get up!' Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” One more kick in the side from his drunken father knocks the wind out of him and young Thomas Cromwell is left there in the cold. The year is 1500 in Putney, England, the day that young Thomas fled his cruel ironmonger father and took to the seas to eventually become an expert in banking and finance under the tutelage of the Frescobaldis, a powerful Florentine merchant banker family; fight for the French; study law; become fluent in French, Latin and Italian and become King Henry VIII’s right-hand man and the 1st Earl of Essex, Master Secretary and Viceregent of Spirituals.
 
Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a very ambitious and lengthy accounting of the life and times of Thomas Cromwell and how he became the powerful chief architect of the Protestant Reformation. This is definitely not recreational reading or the typical “costume drama” historical fiction. But if you can keep all the characters and locations straight, it is well worth the effort. The author paints an incredibly vivid portrait of this very important man in British history, his family who was very dear to him, as well as other influential men of the time, particularly Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Sir Thomas More (it seems that every other man of that time was named Thomas). Told with compassion and surprising humor, Cromwell’s commitment to the freedom of England and his influence on the events that led to the creation of the Church of England were the endgame of this powerbroker of Tudor England.

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