Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (CBR4 #52)

*commences happy dancing*

This is my 52nd Cannonball Read 4 review, and I am typing it on December 31, 2012! I did not dare to dream I would reach this goal (I only signed up for a half cannonball), but since I have it is fitting that it’s for reading a book I was not sure I ever would.

I should backtrack. I am a history person. I have degrees and work in a field which works directly with bringing history to people. I love my job. But, that means I spend a lot of time reading and researching various aspects of history, so when it comes to my leisure time I do not always lean towards straight history non-fiction (yes, I know I read and reviewed three Sarah Vowell books this year, somehow to my mind that doesn’t count). I especially tend to stay away from the time periods I’m working with most closely for my job (I cannot tell you how little I want to read about the Civil War now). I do have a soft spot for the belle epoch and Golden Age. There is something about the turn of the last century as modern technology is found its feet and our social mores shifted out of the Victorian Era which intrigues me to almost no end. For this reason alone I would’ve read Devil in the White City by Erik Larson since it focuses on the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Why I was relatively sure I wouldn’t read Devil in the White City was that while it focuses on the men and women (but mostly men) who designed and built the Fair it also focuses on killers lurking in Chicago at the same time, one of who used the Exposition to lure his victims. So y decision was made, since I didn’t feel like reading about serial killers I was simply going to move past this book on the shelf. Then, earlier this summer I watched a documentary about the same serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, born Herman Mudgett. I was intrigued by the story of Holmes and decided that I could in fact abide reading his tale through Larson’s authorial voice. I’m ever so glad I made that decision.

Erik Larson has a distinctive and crisp use of language as it comes to laying out the various threads that make up any history. Through use of the third person and omniscient voices Larson leads his reader through a history lesson weighing in at nearly 400 pages which feels much more like a novel of half that length. Much time was taken in researching all the various threads that Larson is examining through the lens of the Exposition. There are many readers who felt that the tales Larson tells are simply too disparate and this work either needed a new tile (something less focused on the titular devil Holmes and more focused on the Exposition) or needed to be split into two books with the same backdrop of 1890s Chicago. I can agree with this position to a point, I felt that the epilogue Larson wrote in his own words worked well in pulling all the threads to together well and the book would have been served by having a similar introduction on the front instead of starting with a flashback from the deck of the Olympic waiting for news about Titanic disaster.

The other slight drawback to this book is that much of the description of the events in Holmes storyline comes from Larson’s research and then making educated guesses. Much of what is in Larson’s descriptions is plausible to the reader and based in fact, but then we’ll just never know the full truth of those days and lost lives. However, above these small problems I found this book to be engaging and interesting as well as full of fun interesting facts and insights to the Exposition and Chicago in the 1890s.

And that ladies and gentleman, completes my Cannonball Read 4!

Wanting to do this craziness for yourself? There is a Cannonball Read 5!

Under the Tuscan Sun (CBR4 #51)

I picked this one up on a lark. I’m a sucker for girly movies which are played too many times on Basic Cable. It should be obvious that I watch a lot of Diane Lane movies. One of them is Under the Tuscan Sun based on the book by Frances Mayes recounting her experience moving to Italy. When I picked up the book I hoped to discover more of the characters whom I loved so much on the screen: the young lovers, the Polish laborers, and the Fellini-crazed woman in town. This was simply not to be.

All the book and movie have in common are the female lead, Frances, and her home – Bramasole. Bramasole and the Tuscan countryside drive the narrative. To quote another reviewer on Goodreads “Plot: Author summers in Tuscany, buys an old farmhouse, refurbishes it, travels through Italy, and cooks constantly.” This is pretty much it folks. But the story of the multi-year restoration and refurbishment of Bramasole make for an entirely engrossing account of what life can look like when you dare to dream a little bigger than you let yourself dream before. There are other parts of the book, for example traveling to Etruscan graves, which are less captivating. In fact I was as bored reading about her excursions as her husband seemed to be in doing them.

Earlier in the Cannonball I reviewed Rob Lowe’s memoir and said that one of the more interesting facets of that autobiography was his seeming openness to talk about the events which had occurred in his life. There is a similar chapter in Under the Tuscan Sun, which serves almost as an epilogue, in which Frances discusses how the movie went about filming in Tuscany and what it was like to see yourself and your story taken apart and reworked. This was intriguing reading for me.

While this may not be the book you are looking for if you love cheesy Diane Lane movies (which is a shame since the edition I read has a picture of Lane as Frances on the cover) it certainly is a nice slice of life to visit for a change of pace.  Since she cooks and cooks it is also a nice treat that many of the winter and summer recipes are included in the book. I only wish that I had remembered to photocopy them before I returned the book to the library!


The Witness (CBR4 #50)

Last Nora Roberts of CBR4! Well, for me J

Before the gargantuan task of the Cannonball had been set before me (by me, for a fantastic cause) I had stayed away from romance novels, and specifically Nora Roberts books for several years. My graduate program simply ate all the time I had, and a smaller part of me was ashamed at the sheer amount of romance novels I consumed to that point in my life. So, I took a break. Then I realized that if I was going to attempt a real go at this thing I needed books that I could sail through in a matter of hours to help offset the books which would take weeks to read. And also the weeks which would not permit much free time to read at all. This is when I fell back into love with Nora Roberts.

The Witness is perhaps a return to Roberts at her best. Earlier this year I reviewed The Search which along with Black Hills show Roberts not at her thriller best.  The Search and Black Hills each had their strong aspects and their weak moments, but The Witness is strong throughout. The Witness is the story of Elizabeth, a teenage genius who acts out against her controlling mother and finds herself caught in the middle of a mob execution. The book is broken up into four sections, each chronicling a different segment of Elizabeth’s life and named for a different person. The first section introduces the reader to the 16 year old Elizabeth as she experiences that fateful night and the subsequent weeks in protective custody. Later sections delve into her life on the run, her current identity, the local sheriff determined to learn all about her, and her eventual plan to put things right.

I’ve intentionally left much of the detail out of this review, purely for laziness’ sake. I will mention that Roberts’ excellent job outlining her locations, from Chicago’s tony neighborhoods to Arkansas’ Ozark mountains. This one also features a male protagonist straight from Roberts’ own central casting – Brooks Gleason, police chief in a small town after time in a big city police force, quirky parents, and two older sisters, one of whom is married with kids and they all live nearby. A truly fun read, possibly less for its thriller concepts and more so for intricate storytelling.

The Wordy Shipmates (CBR4 #49)


This year I let the Cannonball be my excuse to spend more time with Sarah Vowell. I have on my bookshelf several of her books (Radio On, Assassination Vacation) but there were several books I had yet to tackle. The Wordy Shipmates was one, and one that I continually confused with another Vowell book The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I re-read The Partly Cloudy Patriot for CBR4 because I forgot that I had already read it. In my defense it had been years. Now I’m happy to report that The Wordy Shipmates lives up to the other Vowell books I have had occasion to read.

In The Wordy Shipmates Vowell digs deep into th history of the Puritans who arrived in what would become Boston under the leadership of John Winthrop. This is a book following the exploits of a community and leader who would fight the Pequot War, banish Roger Williams and Anne Hutchison, and get into a battle about where our fascination with ‘the city on the hill’ really comes from and just how Puritan much of popular American culture remains.

This is not as easy-reading as Sarah Vowell’s other books, but perhaps that isn’t a bad thing. I had the same experience reading about the Massachusetts Bay Puritans as I did about the Hawaiian monarchy and religious reformers in Unfamiliar Fishes. This is an interesting treatise on a single subject with is often overlooked in our education and pop culture, but it lacks the variety of topics which help keep other Vowell works such as Assassination Vacation and The Partly Cloudy Patriot from having Sargasso Sea moments. It’s in these moments where there is movement, but it isn’t taking the reader anywhere that kept me from reading this work quickly or in fact reviewing it promptly.

I am left with the following observations- choose a Vowell book, any Vowell book, to be introduced more in depth to a topic and how it affect how you live today. But perhaps be prepared to put it down for a while to let your brain recover before moving on. Also, we have so much written record from these early settlers, more and more I wonder just how much of our written records will survive.

The End of NaNoWriMo 2012

I didn’t get much past 10,000 words. But that’s okay. The idea of NaNoWriMo is less about completing the herculean task of writing 50,000 words (I couldn’t seem to eek out the time each day to write over 1,600 words and ended up horribly behind from nearly the beginning) but in beginning a novel. I have acheived that. I may not be a 50,000 word winner but I am a thankful participant because now I have a new novel to work on, and workshop with my friends. I’ve already begun editing down the wordiness that happened in my attempt to get the word count.

So, I’m off to spend my holiday in a few weeks finding out how Sydney and Jerome get on in Transitions.

Chapter 8: Intruder


Ms. Griffiths gave Jerome the feeling that he was facing an enemy, but he couldn’t put his finger on the cause. She was as good as her word, leaving him alone to enjoy the festivities earned through hard work. It was official now, he had his degree in International Marketing from King’s College London. He was celebrated by friends and family alike and had done the near impossible of making his father proud. He had been able to thoroughly sink into the enjoyment of the past two days, but not without wondering what awaited him on Wednesday afternoon.


It had brought him back to The Trusty Servant. Perhaps this was part of the reason Jerome felt naturally at odds with Griffiths, she seemed to infiltrate the most prized areas of his life.


“You don’t seem please to be meeting me here Mr. Davies. I have it on good authority that you frequent this establishment several times a month.”


“Your information should have also told you that I never bring women here, Ms. Griffiths. Are you having me followed?” How else would she have known his habits so intimately as to email his  favorite pub as a meeting location this morning?


“My employers are not having you tailed, no. But considerable resources are used to ascertain whether or not a target is a good candidate for the position you are about to be offered Mr. Davies.”


“Target? Candidate? These don’t sound reassuring Ms. Griffiths.” Jerome’s unease continued to grow. “Next you’re going to tell me you’ve ordered my favorite pint and grub as my last meal before your employers drag me off to parts unknown.”


“That is certainly not my intention.” At last he’d gotten her to use the first person. “My employers believe it is important to approach candidates in environs which are comfortable to them, that is all my choice of meeting location is meant to accomplish.”


“Unfortunately that has not worked Ms. Griffiths. Why don’t we proceed to the business at hand so we can each be on our way and end this mutually dissatisfying association?”


Ms. Griffiths looked rather displeased, but continued on. “My employers are an NGO called the Bloom Partnership. They work in the field of information gathering and are interested in bringing you on as an information agent.”


“So, you’re recruiting me for MI6 then? Is this some ploy derived from a James Bond movie? What are you really after Ms. Griffiths? This is certainly implausible.”


“Be it implausible, it is true. As I said they are an NGO, they are non-governmental. It would not be working for British Intelligence of the American CIA. You would be working for a separate organization which shares information it gathers with those organizations and those like it. You’re background, education, and place in society make you an ideal candidate for the Partnership.”


“I feel a but coming on Ms. Griffiths. What is it?”


“I have advocated to my supervisor that I do not find your manners to be suitable for the job at hand, but I am to be overruled and you are to be offered the position.”


“And what would that do to the position I’ve accepted? What of that?”


“It would become your cover, Mr. Davies. The type of work you have chosen is the perfect excuse to travel and make the necessary connections to gather information.”


“And what of my holiday?”


“You would be asked to cut it short in order to be trained by the Partnerships operatives and assigned your own research analyst. To the outside world your holiday remains the same, but there is simply a small change of itinerary known only to you.”


Jerome was floored. He took a moment to finish the pint he had been drinking throughout this conversation. Could anything Ms. Griffiths said be true? Did he want it to be? Jerome had chosen to leave the life of government and policy at a young age not because it didn’t fascinate him, but because it did. It had become all encompassing and had brought out the darkest parts of his personality. Marketing had been the answer to keep his life light and fun. Use the knowledge gained during his study of international relations to instead work to sell goods and package brands for the international market. Live a comfortable life outside of the combative arena of international politics. He was now being asked to dive back in to a world he thought he had left well behind him.


“I don’t have an answer for you Ms. Griffiths. I thought this world was well behind me.”


“I understand that Mr. Davies. This is not a scenario where you need to know right now. In a few days a courier will bring you travel documents for the training I’ve mentioned. You will have an opportunity to walk away then, or after the training. No questions will be asked. The Bloom Partnership simply asks that you think about the opportunity they are offering to do the work of an intelligence offer without the game of espionage.”


With that Ms. Griffiths excused herself from their small table and made her way to the exit. Jerome sat for awhile longer, ordering himself another pint while his mind chewed away on the job he had just been offered.

The Devil in Music (CBR4 #48)

When I started reading the Julian Kestrel mysteries earlier this year based on Siege’s review of Whom the Gods Love I knew there were only four novels because the author, Kate Ross, had passed away in 1998 after battling cancer. Now that I have read all four books, I wonder how much Ms. Ross knew about her impending death when this book was published the year before. The Devil in Music is a powerhouse of a novel, and longer by far than any of Ms. Ross’ other works. It also unpacks the riddle of Julian Kestrel so completely that this reader is not saddened by the fact that there are no more stories of his antics.


The Devil in Music finds Kestrel traveling on the Continent with his loyal servant Dipper and his bereaved friend MacGregor. It’s the autumn of 1825 and Julian is looking for both the joys of travel but also to escape some of the fame of his crime solving successes. Hearing of a murder uncovered after 4 and a half years in northern Italy, Julian decides to throw his hat in the ring to help solve the crime. And it is investigated and solved. One of the best compliments I can give Ross is that she does not fall back on deus ex machina answers to her mysteries.


The layers of storytelling employed by Ross and her band of characters (once again receiving their own listing in the front of the book) keep the mysteries unsolved for over 400 pages. I won’t delve into them because I want you to read the book with fresh eyes. Simply know that there are murders to be solved, persons to be found, and secret identities to be uncovered. You can proceed with the Julian Kestrel novels knowing that you will be satisfied, although with characters so rich there can simply not be enough.