Notes from Neil

By Neil Rajala

It's the time of year when Autumn has solidified its hold. My fireplace is on more often and the fans have been put away, rather than just moved aside in case I might still need one. Baseball is deep into the playoffs, football is well under way, and if you look around the listings you can find a hockey game or two. Here's what we're reading:

Quiet Dell - Jayne Anne Phillips.
The case itself is real, a con man named Harry Powers (his most famous alias), was convicted in 1930s West Virginia of murdering several women by luring them through "lonely hearts" correspondence services, gaining their trust, firing their romantic imaginations and persuading them to accompany him to his large, and entirely fictional, estate in the Midwest. There's no way to be certain how many women he enticed who were never heard from again, and Powers was eventually hanged.

Ms. Phillips creates a purely fictional protagonist to tell the story. Emily Thornhill is a rarity for that time period - a female reporter for the Chicago Tribune. We get to watch the story unfold through her eyes, putting us at the scene for a gruesome investigation of the property where Powers disposed of some victims, as well as the lurid and theatrical trial that followed. A real family, Asta Eicher and her three children - all victims of Powers, is used to tell the story of how the killer lured his targets, and makes the book all the more chilling when actual photos of the family are inserted into the text. It's a disturbing story, to be sure, but Ms. Phillips creates a very intriguing separation of fact and fiction that avoids sensationalism. As a bonus, the book also happens to have one of the best canine characters in recent memory.

Lost Luggage - Jordi Punti.
Mr. Punti is an award-winning writer in his native Spain, and this is the first of his books to be translated for the U.S. market, a very fortunate occurrence. I've rarely been so absorbed in a novel, and so at a loss to anticipate where the story was taking me.

Four young men - Christopher, Christophe, Christof and Cristofol - from four different European cities meet in Barcelona due to a missing person case involving one Gabriel Delacruz. Gabriel, as it turns out, is the long-missing father of all four men, the offspring of four concurrent marriages - all of them abandoned by the elusive truck driver and completely unaware of each other. The four Christophers slowly get to know each other by sharing life stories and memories, and by attempting to find their missing father. Some intriguing questions hover over the story: Is Gabriel alive or dead? Why did he create four families, only to abandon them? Why did he give all four sons the same name? Lost Luggage is a rich, spellbinding book full of unforgettable characters and emotions, with a very satisfying ending.

Battling Boy - Paul Pope.
A graphic novel that arrives with blurbs from Junot Diaz and Scott Westerfield deserves notice, but Paul Pope has been walking his own path and garnering rave reviews for several years now. The looseness of his inkwork and creativity of color palette set him just outside the fantasy/superhero mainstream that inspires him. Battling Boy is his first ongoing superhero series, and the first collection is as inventive and exciting as his fans (me included) expected. The monsters are of the hideous child-endangering variety, the superhero a 12-year-old boy who acts like one instead of like an adult in a youngster's body. The adults appreciate being saved, but also see a chance to manipulate their immature savior. There seems to be enough meat on the concept's bones to last a good many issues, and I'll be following.

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington - Terry Teachout.
There's nothing like a well researched and written biography of a unique and compelling figure. Mr. Teachout, a jazz musician as well as journalist, has done for The Duke what he did for Louis Armstrong in his previous book, Pops. Ellington was a giant of American music; a prodigious composer and arranger, gifted pianist, and unerring talent scout for his bands. He was also a very complex and contradictory person. He lived his life almost entirely on the road while touting the importance of family, was notoriously stingy in allotting credit to co-writers (including the brilliant Billy Strayhorn), had enormous appetites for all things of the flesh but embraced religion deeply, and had an ambivalent relationship with the civil rights movement. His drive and genius put him in front of royalty and presidents, hookers and mobsters, and every other level of society around the globe. A fascinating American life story.

Let's continue the discussion! Drop me a line and tell me about what you're reading.

Until next week,

NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.