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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

George Washington's Secret Six

If you want to know more about the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring, Brian Kilmeade and his writing partner Don Yaeger provide an easy-to-read and not too taxing overview of how George Washington realized that espionage was the only way to defeat the mighty British army entrenched on American soil in George Washington's Secret Six; The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (#418).

Five of the six members of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the war, have been positively identified.  Intriguingly, the sixth and final member is known to be a woman, code named 355, but little else about her, except for the fact that she was discovered by the British, is known.  She was apparently a young woman who moved freely in the Loyalist society of New York City during its occupation during most of the war.  She was captured, and imprisoned to the consternation of other members of the Ring, probably aboard a British prison ship in New York Harbor, but she has never been identified.  I think there's a great novel waiting to be written about this courageous and unsung heroine.  She certainly deserves more attention than Peggy Shippen Arnold!

Fans of the AMC network's series Turn will be pleased to recognize the characters portrayed as real people despite the great liberties taken with their personal stories to include more blood and sex for the viewing audience.  But anything that moves people to find out more about the period and characters is positive, I think.  (I was appalled to see a question in the syndicated Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz yesterday about Wars put the dates 1775 - 1783 in the PhD category for readers to identify the American Revolution?!  This isn't considered general knowledge any more?)  More power to any authors who can make reading history fun and interesting; just be sure to read several sources to weed out the biases all writers and historians have.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Book of Life

The Book of Life (#417) is the third and concluding book of Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy.  It's a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in A Discovery of Witches, and continued in Shadow of Night, but therein lies the rub: it's not a stand-alone book.  Even I, who devoured A Discovery of Witches when it came out in 2011, had difficulty remembering all the minor characters and plot points which filled the first two volumes.  It took me about a hundred pages to reacclimatize myself to the story, and I do have a good memory for these things.  With all that being said, if you're looking for a well-written novel that contains a soupcon of all kinds of genres; science fiction (which is where my library shelves it, to the consternation of its most ardent fans!), paranormal, vampires, witches, time-travel, and above all, romance, then this is the book for you.

It all started when a witch and a vampire meet in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and clash over a rare manuscript.  Both are academics, strong-willed and intelligent.  It doesn't take long for attraction to blossom.  In the second book Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont must use Diana's ability to time-walk to pursue clues to the whereabouts of the mysterious manuscript which holds the key to the fate of all witches, vampires and daemons.  They find themselves in the London of 1591 in Shadow of NightThe Book of Life picks up with Diana and Matthew's return from the past to the Clairmont stronghold of Sept-Tours in France.  The pair is now married, and Diana is expecting twins.  To the Congregation, which governs the affairs of witches, vampires and daemons, this state of affairs is an abomination; Congregation rules (and it is widely believed, biology) forbid such cross-breeding.  Diana and Matthew are in deadly peril from their foes as they race to discover the whereabouts of the elusive Book of Life which holds the key to freeing them and others like them.  Genetic ideograms and ideology clash as one of Matthew's own sons seeks to destroy them and claim the knowledge for himself in horrifying fashion.

My advice if you have the time: line up all three books and read them one right after the other.  You'll have an easier time remembering all the details, or you can go back to a previous volume and find the answer you're looking for.  Just don't miss this exceptional series.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Top Secret Twenty One

Top Secret Twenty One (#416) is pretty much what you'd expect from a Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum novel: light, and breezy, with romantic complications, some laugh-out-loud comic twists and a pretty good mystery buried under all this.  Plus, it comes with a bonus short story about FBI agent Kate O'Hara and her nemesis, Nick Fox, from Evanovich's recent collaborations with Lee Goldberg.  That was a welcome surprise at the end.

I especially liked the pack of feral chihuahuas and the invasion of Stephanie's space by Briggs, who has to be enduring several of the worst weeks of his life.  And don't even get me started on the feud between her Grandma Mazur and Joe Morelli's Sicilian grandmother!  And could Ranger possibly be thinking about getting serious?  The episode in the Russian Consulate reminded me so much of a recent episode of Covert Affairs, it made me wonder who was plagiarizing whom...

There's a reason Janet Evanovich is so successful; she writes amusing fluff which combines elements from several genres aimed specifically at the chick-lit market, but they do contain a little bite to them.  We're not all brainless, gum-snapping twits, but sometimes, it's good to put the brakes on all the worry and cares we carry around every day, and just sit back and let ourselves be entertained.  You know if you pick up an Evanovich book, that's a guarantee.  Enjoy!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Fistful of Collars

Don't you just love the title A Fistful of Collars (#415)?  If that brings to mind an image of Clint Eastwood in a gritty Western movie, you won't be that far from the plot of this Chet and Bernie mystery. 

Chet and Bernie are hired on by the mayor's office as babysitters for famous heartthrob Thad Perry when he comes to the Valley to shoot a Western on location.  The money is great, and Chet, the canine narrator, knows they can use the boost to their bank account, but the gig isn't as easy as promised.  People start turning up dead in the Valley, and it gradually appears to have something to do with Thad Perry's mysterious history in the Valley.  Chet and Bernie better make that connection fast, before more bodies pile up, including their own.  Big changes are the order of the day in Chet and Bernie's personal lives as well.

A Fistful of Collars is a good mystery all by itself, but the real pleasure in reading this series is Chet's goofy stream-of-consciousness narration.  His meditation on all things doggy, and his misinterpretations of human behavior are hilarious.  Looking for the perfect beach  or hammock read?  This could be it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Miniaturist

I could not put down Jessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist (#414).  Although one of my friends gave this book the one word review "Strange.", and I don't disagree with that entirely, I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next.

Set in the trading capital of Amsterdam of 1686, The Miniaturist tells the story of a young country bride married off by her widowed mother to a rich merchant in order to restore the family fortunes.  Marriage does not turn out to be what Nella Brandt expected at all, as the household she enters is unwelcoming and overwhelming and full of shadowy secrets.  Things begin to change when her husband Johannes gives Nella an enormous cabinet to furnish as she will.  It's a miniature duplicate of their own mansion, and at first Nella is insulted; it's a child's toy her husband has given her.  But with little else to occupy her time, Nella writes to a craftsman who has advertised in the Amsterdam directory.  What she receives in response to her letter are marvelous creations to go into her cabinet.  She doesn't realize at first that they are miniatures of the existing furniture and occupants of the house.  Who can be observing them all so closely to capture the minute details, and does this person pose a threat to the Brandt household?

The story is imaginative, and the details of life lived in a prosperous Dutch household in a time of exploding wealth, political and religious unrest, and overseas expansion of the Dutch East India Company are marvelous.  Nella's predicament is all too easy to imagine, but Ms. Burton fleshes out the other members in the house as well as powerful secrets are revealed so that the reader cares about them as well.  I certainly hope we hear more from Ms. Burton in the future!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Hundred-Year House

When critics lavish praise on a new novel, I generally find that I don't like it myself.  This is true with Rebecca Makkai's latest book, The Hundred-Year House (#413).  I kept reading it because it was a Good Reads giveaway I won, and I kept hoping that as the story went back in time, all would be revealed.  It wasn't.

It's ostensibly the story of an estate near Chicago which in its sordid past has served as a middling-rated artists' colony, a banishment for a daughter who has married unsuitably below her, the site of a mysterious suicide, and rent-free living with the parents for an academic daughter whose husband just can't manage to write the biography that will guarantee his employment at the local college.  The story progresses backwards in increments from 1999 to 1900, but it may leave you more confused at the end than when you started it.  The present haunts the past, the artist reveals more by what she omits, and all that.

Can't say I liked any of the characters or their plights.  They seemed to me uniformly unpleasant, deceitful and, frankly, not worth caring about.  There's remarkably little about the house which is the eponymous character, either.  The biggest mystery as far as I was concerned was whether the estate was located in the United States or Canada, since the Devohrs, the wealthy family who built and maintained the house, were part of Toronto society.  That is one of the facts that is actually revealed here more than halfway through. 

By all means, read it if you think those in your circles will be discussing it over cocktails this season; otherwise, you might want to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Sound and the Furry

I've read clever mysteries before in which a dog plays a major role, but never one told so convincingly from the dog's point of view as The Sound and the Furry - A Chet and Bernie Mystery (#412) by Spencer Quinn.  In most books with animal narrators, the canine or feline characters are way smarter than their human counterparts.  If only they could communicate with other species telepathically...  (I'm thinking of Ralph Vaughan's Paws & Claws series, or Rita Mae Brown's cat detective Sneaky Pie, for example.)  Chet, on the other hand, is sooo easily distracted by smells, sights and the prospect of something delicious to eat that he's constantly wandering down amusing mental detours before he snaps back on target, because hey! He's a pro!!

Chet and Bernie, his human Private Investigator companion, usually do their work in Arizona, but in The Sound and the Furry, a chance encounter with a felon this pair previously put behind bars nets them a case in New Orleans and Louisiana bayou country looking for a lost Cajun inventor.  Big Oil is involved and someone involved has it in for Bernie and his thoroughly pro pet, Chet.  There's water, water everywhere and gators, too as Chet and Bernie pool their talents and skills to solve the case.

This book, the sixth in this series, was just the distraction I needed on a long road trip.  I've already put the previous books on reserve at my library, and a seventh book is just about to come out!  Yippee, Skippy!  A fun read for both dog lovers and mystery fans.