What would have happened if novelist Henry James had met detective Sherlock Holmes? Granted, Holmes is a fictional character, but in The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, the premise of this unlikely meeting is central to the story. Simmons, who is known primarily for sci-fi, fantasy and horror, combines elements of these genres in this narrative with historical events interwoven into his fictitious plot.
The story opens with Holmes saving James’ life by preventing him from jumping into the Seine one night. From that point on, the pair form an odd partnership that is at times akin to that of Holmes and Watson. However, James never fully believes that Holmes is really who he claims to be. Is this man who sometimes goes by the name of Jan Sigerson really THE Sherlock Holmes or is it all an elaborate ruse? What about the supposed suicide of James’ friend Clover Adams? Will Holmes be able to unravel the connection between Clover and the mysterious Irene Adler? For those familiar with the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, there are references galore to many of the characters and plots of these detective tales.
In addition to Henry James, there are other historical figures making appearances including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and Vice President Adlai Stevenson, to name a few. Simmons enjoys going into great detail about various events (e.g. the crushing of someone’s skull or James’ criticism of Doyle’s stories) which can either add to or sideline the central mystery of the story. For those who either enjoy a complicated mystery full of plot twists or the idea of famous historical figures interacting with famous fictitious ones, The Fifth Heart definitely has plenty of both to offer.
Emma Woodhouse is a 20-something young woman who believes her mission in life is to straighten out other people’s lives. Pretty, wealthy and well-intentioned, naïve Emma starts to play matchmaker to her loved ones only to discover that acting as Cupid is much more complicated than she imagined. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Jane Austen wrote Emma in 1815 and, 200 years later, Alexander McCall Smith has updated the story in Emma: A Modern Retelling. All of the beloved characters are there: dashing Mr. Knightley, tedious Miss Bates, silly Harriet and the insufferable Mr. Elton — they've just been given a 21st century makeover.
Smith’s book is the third to be released as part of The Austen Project, which “pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.” The first two, Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, have met with mixed reviews by Austen fans and the general public. Smith’s text is perhaps the best attempt to modernize Austen’s plot while still retaining the original feel of her work. Smith has an excellent sense of character and dialogue and manages to capture the quirky individuals that inhabit Emma’s world.
Smith is best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but he is a prolific writer whose credits include over 50 novels, including three other series: Corduroy Mansions, Isabel Dalhousie and 44 Scotland Street. Smith uses his ability to encapsulate a character’s personality concisely through carefully crafted dialogue and descriptions quite effectively in this updated version of Emma. Interestingly, Austen referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yet, 200 years later, readers are still enthralled with Austen’s heroine. Smith’s “modern retelling” is definitely worth a read.
Finding Zero: A Mathematician’s Odyssey to Uncover the Origins of Numbers by Amir Aczel is about a man’s love of numbers. Actually, it is much more than that, but numbers are at the heart of this story. Aczel is not just your average mathematics scholar. He's an adventurer, part Indiana Jones and part Isaac Newton, who is relentless in his pursuit of the origins of numbers. While most of us probably have not considered just how our numeric system — particularly zero — came to be, Aczel has been obsessed with numbers since he was a young boy.
Aczel’s odyssey began when his teacher asked his first grade class what they would like to learn in school. His response was “Where numbers come from,” which set him on a course that would take him around the world. For the most part, Aczel’s narrative is aimed at the average person, and he limits the use of mathematical jargon to terms that most anyone can understand. While Western society uses what are commonly called Arabic numbers, Aczel points out that this name is misleading. True Arabic numbers do not resemble our digits ranging from 0 to 9. (You can view an illustration of Arabic numbers.)
So, how did our modern Anglo-European numbers evolve and where did they originate? While Aczel attempts to answer these questions, he encounters some interesting obstacles along the way. His odyssey is an intriguing one and, at times, seems to involve more questions than answers. Still, for anyone who enjoys a book that gives the reader ideas to ponder, Finding Zero offers plenty of mental exercise.
In Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, Jennifer Chiaverini proves once again that she is an amazing writer of historical fiction. She manages to capture the feeling of a particular era and also give her characters authentic voices. This time her subjects are Julia Dent Grant, wife of Ulysses S. Grant, and Jule Dent, lady’s maid and slave of Mrs. Grant.
Chiaverini’s story spans the years before, during and after the Civil War and is told from both Julia Grant’s and Jule’s points of view. We witness young Julia and Jule growing up together on the Dent plantation in Missouri where they seem to be best friends. However, their relationship quickly changes as the girls become young women and Julia begins to treat Jule more like a servant and less like a friend. Throughout the many years they spend together, Julia never seems aware of how much Jule would like to be her own woman, to make her own decisions and to be free. As Chiaverini portrays her, Julia believes that slaves are happy with their lot in life. When Jule expresses her desire to be a free woman, Julia is incredulous, saying to her, “You had a roof over your head and plenty to eat,” as if these are valid reasons for Jule to remain enslaved. Even after marrying Ulysses Grant, whose Ohio family are abolitionists, Julia still cannot believe that freeing slaves is a good idea.
Whether or not Julia Grant took quite so long to comprehend the evils of slavery, Chiaverini uses her as a representation of what many slaveholders of the day may have felt. After the Civil War ended and all slaves were freed, these newly emancipated people faced a very uncertain future as demonstrated by Jule. She struggles to make her own way in the world, and although it is not an easy path, she reflects that at least she now is free to choose which path to take.
Another great thing that Chiaverini does in her book is include the titles of the sources she used to research her subjects so the reader can find out more about Julia, Jule and the other historical characters that are referenced. As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws to a close, this book is a great way to understand how the events during that time period effected both famous and everyday people’s lives.
Martin Short is a comedic icon known for his zany characters and frenetic humor. Whether he's portraying the unctuous Jiminy Glick or the lovable loser Ed Grimley, Short’s genius lies in his ability to find the absurdity in life. In his biography, I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend, Short candidly shares stories about his private and public life which help to explain how he evolved into a comedy legend.
Short was born and raised in Canada, the youngest of five children in an Irish Catholic family where humor was a major part of life. Two things Short enjoys doing are relating humorous stories and dropping names. For instance, Short, Steve Martin and Tom Hanks hold a bi-annual male bonding ritual of sorts. They gather together on the evening before their perspective colonoscopies to play poker while cleansing their lower GI tracts. This odd ritual, which Short has dubbed “Colonoscopy Eve,” helps the men to endure a rather unpleasant ordeal, and the next day they are “toasting our good colorectal health over margaritas.”
Besides this one story, the book is not scatological in nature, but an homage to Short’s friends, colleagues and family. Actually, considering the list of celebrities that he either knows or is friends with — including Martin, Hanks, Eugene Levy and David Letterman, to name a few — this book reads more like a who’s who of comedy legends. A few of his stories are poignant, but he never gets maudlin even when faced with some of life’s greatest challenges.
Whether you are a Martin Short fan or not, I Must Say will give you insights into a world that is pretty much like anyone’s life. There are ups and downs and plenty of laughter, but the big takeaway from Short’s biography is that celebrities are human, too. They just have a lot more money.