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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ripper's Shadow - A Victorian Mystery

I've enjoyed Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro novels set in samurai-era Japan very much, so I decided to give The Ripper's Shadow (#670) a try.  Sarah Bain has inherited a photography studio from her father, but it's difficult to make ends meet.  When one of her subjects suggests that Sarah take some "boudoir" photos of her and split the profits, Sarah goes along with her idea.

The problem is that when prostitutes' bodies show up in Whitechapel, brutally murdered and mutilated, Sarah recognizes them as the models for her "boudoir" photographs.  She can't go to the police because what she has done could land her in jail.  How can she keep herself and the other women in her photographs safe, and out of the shadow of the Ripper?

Although this is a very dark novel, Ms. Rowland manages to keep the reader guessing in this well known cold case.  Where a less skilled author might wind up the book with a suspect identified, she just ramps up the tension and postulates an even more shocking revelation.  I wasn't sure Sarah Bain and her small circle of unlikely associates were going to make it out of this one alive, so I had to keep reading to find out. 

I think Sarah Bain and company could form a nucleus for an interesting Victorian London series of mysteries.  I hope Ms. Rowland has plans for her future.

China Rich Girlfriend

Kevin Kwan continues the behind-the-scenes story of ultra-rich Asians in Chine Rich Girlfriend (#569) that he began in Crazy Rich Asians.  Rachel Chu and Nick Young, those star-crossed lovers, are back with many of their friends, enemies and confidantes, and of course, their feuding families!  If you enjoyed his feast of food and fashionistas the first time around, Kwan doesn't disappoint here.

There's even more romance and scandals ahead with old enemies and new friends when Rachel and Nick head off to China in search of Rachel's birth father.  When his identity is revealed, he's even richer than imaginable.  But not everyone is happy when their true relationship becomes public knowledge...

It's so much fun to live in a world where Paris couturiers will shut their ateliers for your sole shopping pleasure, flitting from place to place is all done via luxurious private jets, and no one eats in a public restaurant that doesn't maintain private dining rooms for high-end clientele!

Since this is the middle book in this trilogy, a word of advice; don't try to read China Rich Girlfriend without reading Crazy Rich Asians first.  You'll be lost in the tangle of relationships established in the first novel, and you won't appreciate some of the delicious twists and turns served up in this volume.  Can't wait to get my hands on the third book!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Song of the Lion

Anne Hillerman is a worthy successor to her father's legacy of  writing intriguing Navajo-based mysteries.  Tony Hillerman first introduced us to Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, all members of the Navajo Police whose beat includes the vast Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.  Anne Hillerman continues that tradition with her latest mystery, Song of the Lion (#658).

Bernadette Manuelito, now married to Jim Chee, is attending a big basketball game at the Shiprock High School.  It's the alums who won a State Championship years ago versus the high school varsity squad, and a very big deal for local fans, who are legion.  During the game, a car bomb goes off in the parking lot, killing an unidentified man.  When the owner of the car is identified as Aza Palmer, a big-shot Phoenix lawyer, and also one of the alums playing in the big game, the search for a motive begins.  In the meantime, Aza Palmer is due to mediate a conference in Tuba City debating the merits of, and a plan of action for a highly controversial resort project proposed to be built on Indian lands in the Grand Canyon. The stakes are enormous.  Could that be why he is being targeted? 

Bernadette's case dovetails with her husband's when Jim Chee is assigned to bodyguard duty for Palmer until the conference is over, but her digging has turned up a possible connection for Lieutenant Leaphorn to a long-ago cold case.  The threads are woven skillfully in this one as we learn more about the main characters and their world.  Recommended.

Hillbilly Elegy

According to my dictionary, an elegy is "A mournful poem; especially a poem composed to lament one who is dead."  J.D. Vance's bestselling Hillbilly Elegy - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (#657) doesn't quite fit that definition, but the poor white, mostly rural, way of life Mr. Vance describes appears to be disappearing from the American landscape.  Although Mr. Vance's roots are firmly planted there, the choices he has made to shape his own future have made him an anomaly in that culture.  His story documents that it is not always feasible or easy to straddle such a wide divide.

I found the book interesting, depressing and maddening in turns.  What Vance describes in his memoir I have seen for myself working in different parts of our country.  Poverty, violence, unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction all play their roles here.  Even though he never actually uses the term "white privilege", it is strongly implied.  I found myself asking the question: if Vance could lift himself out of a life with no prospects by his own efforts, why can't or why don't more follow his example?  When did it become okay to take a job and either not show up for it, or spend the time at work hiding out in the bathroom on multiple thirty minute breaks during the day?  Being fired under those circumstances seems to be just an excuse to "blame the man" for self-inflicted economic woes.

Do I feel sorry that such a way of life seems doomed?  Not really.  Despite Mr. Vance's defense of it, hillbilly culture didn't have much to recommend it as far as I am concerned.  He does do a good job of explaining how our current political climate has emerged, however.  For that reason alone, it's worth reading Hillbilly Elegy to visit an America that many of us didn't even realize existed.

Monday, June 5, 2017

In the Name of the Family

Sarah Dunant's latest novel In the Name of the Family (#656) is a companion book to her previous novel Blood & Beauty.  It's set in the years 1502 and 1503 and chronicles the Borgias at the peak of their power followed by the swift decline of the family fortunes.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Rogdrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, his two illegitimate children, ruthless and ambitious Cesare, Duke Valentine, and his beloved daughter Lucrezia, now on her way to her third politically advantageous marriage in Ferrara, and finally, the envoy from the Republic of Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Murder and mayhem, conspiracies and corruption, ambitions and emotions all play a role here.

We're all so conditioned to think of Lucrezia in some ways as the worst of the bunch but here she's treated sympathetically, as more sinned against than sinning, and I wonder if Ms. Dunant's portrayal of her isn't more accurate.  Cesare, on the other hand...

Machiavelli is the perfect foil to the Borgias; he admires their strategic thinking, but not the means by which Pope Alexander and Cesare set about making things happen.  He's an observer who finds himself observed in return.  It makes for a fascinating read

Monday, May 29, 2017

Secret Service Dogs - The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States

Secret Service Dogs - The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States (#655) by Maria Goodavage is a fascinating read.  While tip-toeing around information which might breach security protocols, Ms. Goodavage has still managed to provide a peek behind the human and canine wall charged with the protection of the President, Vice President, their families and heads of state visiting the United States.

For instance, did you know that Secret Service dogs are specialists?  Some provide security from intruders, some are trained to sniff for explosives any place the President will be visiting, here and abroad, and some dogs' beat is mingling with the tourist crowds outside the White House sniffing for particular target odors.  It's not an easy road to be chosen for the Secret Service for either the dogs or their human handlers, nor is on-the-job training and maintenance neglected.

But I think the most interesting part of this book is the bond between the dogs and their partners.  Once a dog is assigned to his human, living and working together 24 hours a day with the handler and his family creates a lifelong bond.  Their successful partnership depends on their keenly honed ability to read and respond to each other, no matter the circumstances.  Ms. Goodavage spent much time interviewing the human halves of these relationships, and the anecdotes detail the stress, tedium, and physical demands of the job, leavened with the sometimes wacky things that can happen.  Each of the stories is unique, but one theme runs through each: the utter devotion to duty, and the constant drive to perform even better.  It's inspiring.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Third Secret

I decided to re-read Steve Berry's early suspense novel, The Third Secret (#654) because it was one of the few books at my local library that turned up in a search for fiction set in Portugal.  The Third Secret referred to in the title is the final secret from Fatima which was revealed by John Paul II to the public in 2002.  It's been so long since I'd read it, that it was a totally new book to me, and even more interesting in light of the EfM coursework I've just completed.  I know I read it this time with a completely different mindset. 

This is a stand alone novel set primarily in the Vatican, not one of Berry's popular Cotton Malone series.  The protagonist here is Father Colin Michener, papal secretary to Pope Clement XV.  His mentor has been increasingly agitated recently, and is spending much time in the Riserva of the Vatican Library, an area open only to the Pontiff himself.  His visits are focused on the box containing the documents recording the Third Secret revealed by the Virgin Mary to Lucia, a Portuguese peasant girl of ten in 1917.  What could possibly be in the box which impels Clement to send Colin to interview an elderly retired priest in Romania?

As Clement's health declines, the jostling for power increases amongst the ambitious cardinals in the Vatican, some of whom will stop at nothing, even blackmail and murder, to gain the Papal Throne and suppress the secrets the Church holds.

An oldie, but a goodie.  The subject matter here seems just as relevant today as when it first came out in 2005.