Saturday, March 27, 2010


After I finished reading "The Center of Everything", by Laura Moriarty, I realized that not a great deal happened in the book - not, at least, for those who want high drama, action, suspense, mystery and true love. And the book basically stops rather than coming to a clear-cut end. But I loved every minute of it. It is about a girl who basically has to "grow herself up". A blurb on the cover flap describes Evelyn Bucknow as endearing, and I totally agree. That's probably why I loved reading about Evelyn even when her life is pretty much a hamster wheel.

Evelyn lives with her hapless mother, Tina, in a dreary, low-rent apartment. Tina is not a bad mother but they seldom have enough to eat or decent clothes to wear, and Evelyn is teased at school.  Tina's affair with the manager at the one job she manages to land has resulted in the birth of Evelyn's mentally handicapped little brother Samuel. Evelyn has a grandmother, Eileen, who loves them, but a grandfather, Joe, who calls Tina a whore for not having a husband. There's a sad-funny moment when a little girl hears Joe say "the whore's coming" and later innocently asks, "When's the horse coming?"

Grandma Eileen, however loving, is a fundamentalist Christian who has failed to keep Tina in the faith but is all to ready to indoctrinate Evelyn. Then there's Travis, a neighbor boy whom Evelyn has loved unrequitedly for a long time. Travis gets Evelyn's best friend Deena pregnant and marries her. If this all sounds utterly depressing to you, there are some redeeming, hope-bringing characters in the book, in the form of a couple of good teachers at the high school.  

Events in Evelyn's life don't bring dramatic changes but do transform her in little ways. Tina finds a way to get through to little Samuel and becomes a hit at her new job at McDonald's. A schoolmate who has taunted and tormented Evelyn is killed in a tragic car crash. Protests over the teaching of evolution at the high school lessen Grandma Eileen's religious hold on Eileen. And even as Travis and Deena' marriage sours, Evelyn sadly comprehends that Travis will still always be lost to her. She eventually concludes that she has perhaps judged her mother, Travis and Deena too harshly.

A lot of the book is just about Evelyn's everyday life in her small Kansas town - hanging in Deena's room, walking along the highway strip, school days, stopping by the soda fountain - but it is in no way boring. The characters, especially Evelyn, are spot on and the conversations are real and natural. We leave Evelyn at the end of her senior year. She's a smart girl and one just knows she will end up far from her redneck beginnings. But she will not leave behind the wisdom and compassion she has learned along the way.

Truly Plaice is one of the strangest things the citizens of Aberdeen County, NY, have ever seen. She is bigger than any other woman and most of the men. She's not fat, she's a giant. Tiffany Baker, the author, has a doctor give Truly a diagnosis of acromegaly, but that's not quite right. Truly, in fact, exhibited the different condition of giantism at a very young age. Gigantism is sometimes equated with acromegaly, but more precisely, an excess of growth hormone leads to pituitary gigantism (vertical growth) if the epiphyseal (bone cartilage) plates have not yet closed, but it leads to acromegaly (lateral growth) if they have closed.

Either term is practically moot anyway, as Truly is not diagnosed until she's middle aged. As a child, she's never even seen by a doctor. I seem to have read a lot of books lately about downtrodden young girls/women, and I always find myself rooting for them, and loving a lot of them too. I truly loved Truly.

Even if she hadn't been a giant, she would have had so many obstacles to a happy, productive life. Her father blames Truly when her mother dies giving birth to her. After he dies Truly is sent to live with a hardscrabble backwoods family while her beautiful sister Serena Jane is adopted and lives like a princess. Her sister marries Dr. Robert Morgan, one of a long line of Dr. Robert Morgans to have treated the sick of Aberdeen County. But Serena dies, so Truly, a spinster, moves in to take care of Serena Jane's young son.

The relationship between Truly and Dr. Morgan is one of the strangest ever set down on paper. There is no love lost between them. Dr. Morgan is vile toward Truly, but he is the one to diagnose her and start her treatments. She ends up staying with him to the bitter end, even after a horrific secret about Serena is revealed. And it is while living in Dr. Morgan's house that Truly discovers a shadow book thought to be long lost. Created by Tabitha, the strange wife of the town's first Dr. Morgan, it sets Truly on a path to her own vocation after she figures out its clues.

Some reviewers have described Truly as witchy, and the book as being touched with magic. However, it is not magic that Truly discovers, but plain old scientific knowledge. Truly, however, must learn how to wisely use the powers her knowledge gives her. And there is no magic involved when Truly finds a man to care for her. For it is apparent that size doesn't matter where True-ly love is concerned.

I found this book for a really great price ($2.50) at a consignment shop. It was a trade paperback with endpapers (which always USED to say "Quality Book" to me). It was written by James Patterson, and I have read at least two fairly good mystery/suspense novels by him, "Kiss the Girls" and "Along Came A Spider" (both Alex Cross novels.) Also, the title, "Sundays at Tiffany's" spoke to me, having very fond memories of "Breakfast at Tiffany's", the movie and the book by Truman Capote.

Oh, my god. I am such a fool.  I didn't have my glasses with me so I basically just skimmed the blurbs. If I could have read those lovely endpapers more closely I would have discovered that this book is about a woman named Jane who once had an invisible friend as a little girl and all of a sudden, 25 years later, she meets him again. She recognizes him, which she is not supposed to do (in the incredible world of invisible friends). He is a real, tangible presence. He can be seen, he can be felt, but he is not quite human. But he is becoming more and more human as he spends more time with Jane. And he is the handsomest, the smartest, the kindest man . . . and they fall in love. Oh Lord, let's stop here. Why did I bother finishing it?

Ben Givens is dying of colon cancer. A retired doctor, he knows full well the agony that faces him, and does not wish to go through it. A long-time hunter, he plans to kill himself but -  to protect his family -disguise it as a hunting accident. So one morning in October, which he thinks is his last day on earth, he takes his two dogs and leaves his home in Seattle to travel to the apple country east of the mountains - his childhood home. The old saying that "the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley" certainly applies to Ben on this day. A car accident "derails" him not long after he starts out. It is just the first in a chain of events that lead him hither and yon across the Washington countryside.

Ben is banged up, without transportation, in pain from his cancer, tired, and dirty and dusty as a tramp. An encounter with a pack of coyote-hunting wolfhounds leaves one of his dogs dead and another severely injured. His own physical struggles, his efforts to find a vet for the dog, obtaining medical assistance for a migrant worker with TB and helping to birth a baby all certainly do stand in the way of his original plan. Will he still carry it out? You have to read the book to find out. I was hesitant to start "East of the Mountains", thinking it might be a depressing book, but it turns out not to be. I particularly enjoyed Guterson's description of Washington's interior, it being less well known than Seattle and other points on the coast. My husband is and avid hunter and outdoorsman and I think the book would have great appeal to him as well.

I don't know about you readers, but I have really stayed away from those Monster parodies by "Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters" or "Jane Austen and Steve Hockensmith" ("Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" and "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", respectively).  I don't think I could even stand to own, much less read a copy, with their horrendous covers. So when I chanced upon a book called "The Pale Blue Eye" by Louis Bayard at a thrift shop, I was hesitant. In this book, no less a literary personage than Edgar Allan Poe is called upon to help solve a murder mystery. I was relieved to find that although there are ghoulish details, the novel in the main is a great detective story worthy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Poe himself.

The novel combines truth and fiction. Poe was actually a cadet at West Point Academy in 1830-1831. However, no cadet was murdered and had his heart torn out during Poe's time at the academy. After the first murder occurs, retired New York City detective Gus Landor, living nearby, is called in to help solve the crime (eventually crimes). He is captivated by Poe's personality and intelligence and enlists him in the search for the murderer.

More than that, I will not say. However, I will say this: If you think you have solved the mystery at some point during the book, I would wager that you have not. And if you did, you are far, far smarter than I.


This past winter I wrote a post about Scottish Tinkers and Travellers on my regular blog, "Celtic Lady". It led me to read two books by women who wrote about their experiences as tinker children. I reviewed Jess Smith's "Jessie's Journey" on Feb. 1 and Betsy Whyte's "The Yellow on the Broom" on Feb. 22.

My post and reviews garnered me an appreciative note from Jess Smith. Betsy Whyte is long gone, but I did hear from her great niece, Patsy Whyte, who wrote to thank me for bringing the plight of Scottish Highland Travellers to the forefront. Sadly, says Patsy, "Travellers in Scotland still have a really tough time. Discrimination is as bad as it ever was. Everywhere else, things seem to have moved forward - but not in Scotland."

Patsy and I have exchanged several e-mails and she gave me permission to print anything she wrote, so here is an excerpt from one of her "letters":

"Hi Julie,

"Many thanks for adding my comment to your blog and for your interest in Scottish travellers. As I relate in my book, I was born in a disused army barracks, condemned as unfit for human habitation, which was taken over by the city authorities in Aberdeen." (My note: that's Aberdeen, Scotland, not Aberdeen, SD.)

"My mum and dad and seven children, including me, lived in two damp rooms which had neither hot water or electricity. All of us children slept in the same double bed! My dad turned his hand at anything to earn some money. Sometimes he and mum would go hawking around the doors, selling old clothes and anything else they picked up in the market in the Castlegate.

"When spring arrived, marked by the yellow on the broom, we all piled on the back of a horse and cart and travelled the countryside for weeks on end. We'd meet up with other travellers on the road or at the traditional camping grounds, exchanging news and telling stories and singing songs around the camp fire.

"Of course, I was much too young to remember any of that . . .

"When the summer was over, we returned to the miserable conditions of the army barracks. I fell ill and the day I was taken into hospital was the last day we would ever spend together as a family."

Like Jessie and Betsy, Patsy is a wonderful writer, and has set down her story up to age 16 in her first book, "No Easy Road", which she sent me. "In a sense," she told me, "my book hopefully takes over where my great aunt's book leaves off."

Jessie and Betsy, like all HIghland Travellers, were cruelly treated and discriminated against, but they also had happy times on the road. However, Patsy had very little of the joy of a Traveller child and all of the grief, heartache, abuse and neglect. Her book is almost too painful to get through. My heart went out to her time and time again.

The day that Patsy was torn from her family, she was just 19 months old. She was almost adopted from her first residence, the not-too-bad Airyhall, but that fell through and she was transferred to be "brought up" in the Castlegate Children's Home in Aberdeen. In a world of cruel people, Castlegate's house mother seems to be among the cruelest. One of the saddest incidents was when pretty little Patsy was chosen to switch on  the city of Edinburgh's Christmas lights. She was a princess for a night, with a beauty shop hairdo and wearing a beautiful dress and cloak purchased by the house mother. After the ceremony, the housemother strips Patsy's lovely clothes away from her and they are never seen again.

School was just as bad as the home, as was the embarrassment of encounters with her down and out mother, who lived nearby. She had only intermittent contact with her siblings, some of whom moved in and out of the same children's home. Eventually, she leaves the place at age 15, but is thrust from the frying pan into the fire, into the network of social services and hostels. (Don't think of hostels as being friendly youth hotels.)

Finally, she empancipates herself from social service workers, who have betrayed her at every turn. But even then, Patsy falters. She was given some fine chances at employment but messes them up. She has an abusive boyfriend (whose first act is to rape her), she is nearly pimped out as a prostitute and has brushes with the law. But she does rebound from each experience and she does learn from them. I really couldn't fault her actions given the circumstances of her hard life.

"No Easy Road" is a testament to the powers of endurance and survival. I honestly don't think I could have endured some of the experiences she lived through.

Patsy now lives in a town called Glenrothes near Edinburgh and has five grown children.  I asked her about her life now and she replied: "Most of my time is taken up with trying to push my book. I am also working hard on a second book, taking my life forward from age 16."

I'm anticipating Patsy's second book to see what else she had to overcome. For, as she says, "It took another eight years or so for my life to eventually settle down into some kind of normality."

I haven't yet mentioned the fascinating psychic experiences Patsy relates in "No Easy Road": Seeing a silent lady every day in the orphanage dining room (who turns out to be the ghost of her grandmother), being visited in bed by a little girl who "went to buy sweeties and was murdered", a rescue from near rape by a man who then mysteriously disappears, and an "imaginary" friend, a young boy who escorts her to and from school every day. She was also once rescued from drowning by what I would call an angelic presence. Patsy says her follow-up book will include further psychic experiences, which became more and more a part of her life.

Monday, March 15, 2010


I recently read somewhere that bloggers shouldn't be allowed to review books. I was aghast! Anyone can review a book. They may not review it well, but they are certainly allowed to review it. When I was a newspaper reporter I reviewed books both for my gardening column and my religion beat, and my editors certainly never told me I didn't know how to review a book, so I guess I will continue to do so. However, I have gotten behind on reviewing and am going to combine five short book reviews into one post.

"SECRETS OF EDEN" by Chris Bohjalian

I first read Chris Bohjalian when Oprah's book club featured "The Midwife." I knew then that I would enjoy further books by him. I hate to say it after publishing that cartoon at the top of this post, but I did read it in one sitting. The crux of the story is that a parishioner of Rev. Stephen Drew is murdered on the same day that he baptizes her. At first it seems cut and dried that Alice Hayward's husband George has strangled her in one of his furious rages and then killed himself. Immediately after this, Stephen suffers a crisis of faith and leaves his parish. But all too soon Stephen is being considered a suspect in the deaths. I'm not writing a lot about the book here because I don't want to give anything away. There are no secrets in Eden, but there is one in this small Vermont town. I will certainly not reveal what the secret is, but I hope that it is one that stayed buried forever.

by Stieg Larsson

I may not have read "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" in one sitting but it did take me only two days to get through the 465-page book. Mikael Blomkvist is a Swedish financial journalist who has been convicted of libel. Being at loose ends, he accepts the one-year job of ostensibly writing the history of the famous Swedish industrialist family The Vangers. He soon learns that the true assignment is to find out who killed 16-year old Harriet Vanger. If the focus of the book had been on Blomkvist I doubt I would have liked the book that much. Frankly, he is not that likeable a person. But enter the person of Lisbeth Sanders, a computer hacker who works for a private eye. Hired at first to check out Blomkvist, Lisbeth eventually joins him on his quest.

Lisbeth is unlike any other mystery novel heroine you will ever meet. She is "the girl with the dragon tattoo". She also has several facial piercings, violently-colored hair, kooky clothes and a condition that appears to be something like Asperger's Syndrome. And I loved her! A person who has often felt powerless in my life, I would love to exert revenge like she can. Larssen featured her in at least two-more novels before he died. I have "The Girl Who Played With Fire" on reserve at the library and "The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest" comes out in the U.S. in May.

by Susan Hill

"Howards End is on the Landing" is the story of how Susan Hill devoted one year to reading only the books she had in her home - books that she had read and loved, books that she had never read: "I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, to map this house of many volumes. There are enough here to instruct, divert, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve and enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down, dusted off, open and read. A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with potential to burst into new life."

In the world of literary lists there is actually a category called "Books About Books" and this is a most delightful addition to the list. I thought Hill might have been a bit of a book snob but this turned out not to be true. I was especially thrilled to find out that she too thinks Jane Austen is boring! One small flaw for me as an American is that Hill listed so many books by British authors I had never heard of. Hill, who has written 37 books, is another British author I had not heard of. Since she is famous over there, and  since her novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and have won the Whitbread Award and the Somerset Maugham Award, I am going to rectify my ignorance and seek out her books.

"SOPHIE'S CHOICE" by William Styron

There is no need to review "Sophie's Choice". It's a classic. I had seen the movie but had never read the book until this past weekend. After seeing the movie I thought I knew what Sophie's choice was, but now I think the actual choice was something different. As much as I liked the book, I do think Styron could have used some judicious editing. The book could have been trimmed in parts, and his language could have been edited as well. He always chose the more convoluted, esoteric word when a much simpler word would have sufficed.

"WATERWOMAN" by Lenore Hart

I picked up "Waterwoman" at a thrift shop and never even noticed that the book, an advance reading copy, was signed by the author. Having finished the book, I am thrilled that Lenore Hart inscribed her name in it. It is lovely and lyrical, but I don't think it made a splash in the literary world (it was published in 2002). However, I certainly treasure the book and look forward to finding more books from Hart. The waterwoman of the title is Annie Revels, who follows her father's calling as a fisherman off the barrier islands of Virginia. Her people might be described as backwoods except that they are not of the woods but the shore, so I will call them "backwater people."

"Waterwoman" is similar in tone to the books of Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons in their passion for the outer banks and low country of North and South Carolina. Annie, forced by her work to be masculine in appearance, is surprised and amazed when Nathan Combs shows an interest in her. Her happiness is short-lived, however, as her sister Rebecca steals him away. The themes of choice and fate are explored in a subtlely-told and touching story that culminates in a terrible storm, "The Great Nor'easter of 1920".

Thursday, March 4, 2010


I borrowed "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" from the library after reading about it on another book blog. But I think that I would have picked it up just for the title alone. Because don't we all live on the corner of bitter and sweet? And don't we all relate to others experiencing those feelings?

"Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet" is an excellent title for this novel. It alludes to an actual hotel, the Panama, which plays an important part in the book. The story alternates between 1942 and 1986. Throughout most of the book, the 1942 chapters melt sweetly on the tongue while the 1986 chapters are tinged with not a little bitterness. The flavors coalesce at the end and, taken all together, they make for a fine book.

The protagonist of the book is Henry Lee, who is 12 years old in 1942. It is wartime, and although he is Chinese American, he is often mistaken for the hated Japanese. His father makes him wear an "I am Chinese" button, but this does not prevent him from being taunted by fellow students at the mostly-white school he attends.

A scholarship student, Henry works in the school cafeteria at lunchtime. There, he meets another scholarship student, a girl he immediately likes. Hearing her name as Kay, he thinks she is Chinese, and is shocked to learn that her name is actually Keiko Okabe, a Japanese name! (Although Keiko insists that she and Henry are neither Chinese nor Japanese, but American.) Unfortunately, Henry's father is rabidly anti-Japanese, so this friendship has to be hidden from his parents.

That Henry and Keiko fall in love will be no surprise to readers. But the author doesn't rush things. His portrayal of their budding friendship is tender and endearing to behold. Also wonderful to "behold" are the wartime scenes of Seattle, with its busy seaport, smoky jazz joints, bustling Chinatown and thriving Japantown. Japantown, especially, is shown through a golden filter of memory, because it no longer exists.

Because of the war, Japantown is slowly but surely erased, and because of war, the two friends are separated. Keiko and her family, like the rest of the Japanese people on the West Coast, are taken away to internment camps.

I knew about Japanese internment during the war, but I did not realize what it meant to these loyal American citizens after the war, returning to places that no longer existed, their homes torn down, their possessions gone, their savings stolen, their occupations and businesses wiped out.

At first I did not care for a plot twist that alienates Henry from Keiko, a contrivance that has been used at least as back as far as R. D. Blackmore's 1869 novel "Lorna Doone". However, I decided that given Henry's father's anti-Japanese sentiment and the power he held in his neighborhood, it turns out to be very plausible and effective.

I was a bit upset that the author portrays the Henry of 1986 as acting like an older man, although he is only 56 years old. I caught myself thinking several times that he must be in his 70s at least. But that is a minor irritation. Overall, I thought this was a wonderful book, whether we were in the Seattle of 1942 or the Seattle of 1986, when Henry sets out to find a memento of great sentimental value to himself and Keiko in the Panama.

Along the way, Henry comes to understand his father's motives, and Henry's 20-something, modern son comes to see his dad in a new light.

I mentioned in the beginning that I buy some books, like "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet", because of their titles. Some I buy because of their covers, some because they've been recommended to me, some because they are on the bestseller list, some because I've read or wanted to read the author. With "Bitter and Sweet" I didn't know anything about the author until I got to the back end page.

To my surprise, although named Jamie Ford, the author is (at least part) Chinese. He is the great-grandson of Nevada mining pioneer Min Chung who emigrated from China to San Francisco, where he adopted his Western name. I look forward to more books by Ford.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I'm glad I borrowed "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" from the library instead of buying it. I was that disappointed. I guess I should not blame the author Lewis Buzbee, for I borrowed it on the recommendation of a friend without knowing a lot about it. Still, though, I can't be blamed for thinking it was about one particular bookshop when I read the cover blurb "a memoir, a history".

It is not. There is no actual place called "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop". It's just a place in Buzbee's imagination, an amalgam of all the comfortable and inviting bookshops he's loved, with warm, welcoming yellow light pooling through the windows.

There were some things I liked about the book and I found myself marking a lot of passages at the beginning, and then hardly any as the book became a compendium facts about the bookselling business, publishing, paper making, book making and even the world's first libraries and booksellers (the latter usually of dubious character). Don't get me wrong - if facts about books are what you're searching for, then "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop" would be a good place to find them. 

Back to the things I liked about the book. They include Buzbee's description of the ideal time to be in a bookstore: "November, a dark, rainy Tuesday, late afternoon . . . The shortened light of the afternoon and the idleness and hush of the hour gather everything close, the shelves of the books and the few other customers who graze head-bent in the narrow aisles."

Having read this book, I feel absolved of the guilt I have felt about whiling away the hours in a bookstore, reading magazines, paging through books, even reading a few chapters. "Imagine going into a department store trying on a new jacket and walking around for half an hour, maybe coming back the following Wednesday, to try it on again, with no real intention of buying it. Go into a pizzeria and see if you might sample a slice; you're pretty hungry so you taste a bit of the pepperoni, the sausage, the artichoke and pineapple, and they're delicious but not quite what you're looking for that particular day. In other retail shops, the clerks and management are much less forgiving of those customers who would consume without paying."

In contrast, says Buzbee, the extended time spent in a bookstore is "allowable leisure". Time may be money in the rest of the world, he says, "but not in the bookstore. There's little money here, so we can all take our time."

I like the idea of browsing in a bookstore as "being alone among others". I love the name he gave to the fever that consumes me, him and so many other people. It's called book lust. "For those who are afflicted with book lust, those for whom reading is more than information or escape, the road to our passions is quite simple, paved merely by the presence of printed matter. It's a common story; fill in your own blanks: I was __ years old when I happened on a novel called _____________ and within six months I had read every other book by the writer known as ______________." (For Buzbee, those answers were 15, "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck. For me, the answers would be 15, "Rebecca", Daphne Du Maurier.)

In reading this book, I shared with Buzbee his delight in finding a new volume to take home, even in a bookshop he haunts almost daily. I enjoyed his reminiscences of the times he spent as a book seller in several independent California bookshops, and as a publisher's sales rep.

I was surprised and pleased that Buzbee is not of the opinion that chain bookstores are "evil ogres", rather, that they "have brought a greater selection of books to more people than independents could have." He also delivers the good news that the independents' share of the market has leveled to about 15% and that the remaining independents are stronger than ever. "Every bookstore," says Buzbee, "from the most opulent Parisian emporium to the anonymous strip mall in Tucson, offers its own surprises."

Considering how much reading I have been doing this winter, I was gratified to learn that "The actual physical movement of scanning the pages from left to right . . . stimulates and conditions the brain, a Stairmaster of the mind."

Toward the end of the book, Buzbee discusses some of his favorite bookstores, including "City Lights Bookstore" in San Francisco, famous for its publication of Alan Ginsburg's "Howl" and as a meeting place for the Beat poets.

Buzbee concludes that books and bookstores are not dead yet. However, as the book was written in 2006 (with an afterward added for the 2008 paperback addition), his statistics on e-books are already out of date. PS - I love this paperback edition. Obviously, Buzbee had a hand in choosing it, for it has end papers, highly prized but seldom seen in paperbacks.

"Take someone who likes to read; give her a comfy place to do so and ample time for doing it; add one good book, and then more; stand back."

~ Lewis Buzbee, "The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop".


I had read Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian" a couple of years ago and really liked it. I like "The Swan Thieves" even better. I found it to be more accessible than "The Historian" (less difficult to follow). At 561 pages in the hardcover edition, it  may seem a bit daunting at first, but I hungrily devoured it in two days. Thank you, Little Brown and Company, for publishing a book in a bit larger print for us older readers. (And this was not a large-print edition.)

I am probably one of the few readers who did not already know or figure out right away that "The Swan Thieves" was, in addition to the book's title, the title of a painting. Duh! But once I did, I soon figured out what it was the swan thieves stole. I discovered it soon enough to be smug about it but not so soon that it spoiled the read for me.

Washington DC psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe is called in to treat a patient who has attempted to slash a painting at the National Gallery of Art. The work of art Robert Oliver tried to destroy with a knife is '"Leda (Leda vaincue par le Cygne)", painted by Frenchman Gilbert Thomas in 1879. "Leda" is Gilbert's interpretation of the famous myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. Perhaps it was my concentration on the swan in "Leda" that made me fail to ponder the title "The Swan Thieves."

Marlowe feels he must discover why Oliver felt such rage against the painting. There is one huge problem, however. Oliver, though stabilized and on meds, refuses to talk. At all. Feeling it is imperative for Oliver's treatment, Marlowe sets out to interview the people in his life, beginning with Kate Oliver, Robert's ex-wife. He also meets Mary, a former lover of Robert's, and travels to Mexico and Paris to talk with art collectors.

Marlowe also must discover why Oliver is in possession of original letters from French painter Beatrice de Clerval to her husband's uncle, Olivier Vignot, also a renowned painter. These letters are interspersed throughout the book, giving us a glimpse of Parisian life at the end of the 19th Century and the burgeoning Impressionist movement.

There is also a great deal of information on Marlowe, both past and present. One may wonder why Kostova has devoted so much time both to Marlowe's personal life and to the letters, but all questions are eventually answered and these loose ends will be tied up, very neatly and satisfactorily, by the end of the book.

Kostova has done a wonderful job of combining past and present. Her descriptions of paintings are exquisite, and her characters are full-dimensional and believable, be they 21st Century wife and mother Kate Oliver or Fin de Siecle Parisian lady Beatrice de Clerval. Kostova is also excellent in portraying her male characters, including tortured artist Robert Oliver. Kudos to her for making Marlowe the protagonist. Instead of a character who might have been just a clinical, impartial observer, Marlowe is engaged and engaging as he strives to help Robert and, in doing so, finds love.