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Monday, October 31, 2011

The Daughter of Siena

When you think of Siena, Italy, you probably think of the medieval pagentry surrounding its famous horseraces every summer: the Palio.  The plot of Marina Fiorato's historical novel The Daughter of Siena (#120) revolves around fictional poltical intrigue surrounding the 1723 Palio races. 

Despite the fact that one of the last of that famous family, Duchess Violante Beatrix de' Medici, is the governess of Siena, the real political power in the city lies in the contrada, or neighborhoods of Siena.  The heads of certain contradas are willing to fix the outcome of the July and August races to regain power and oust the Duchess.  They will use any means necessary to achieve their aims - race fixing, bribery, murder and marriage.

Pia of the Tolomei has been raised as a marriage prize by her father, head of the Civetta, or Owl, contrada.  She is reputedly the most beautiful woman in Siena, but as her nineteenth birthday approaches, she is still unwed.  There are eligible candidates among the Civetta, but on the night before her birthday, her father announces that she will be married the next day to the heir of the Eagle contrada.  Vicenzo is infamous for his misdeeds, so all Pia can do the next day is pray that he is killed riding in the dangerous Palio.  When the scion of the Panther contrada carelessly whips Vicenzo during the race, he sets off a series of events that will have dire consequences for him, for Pia, the Duchess, and the handsome unknown rider of the Torre contrada who stops to help Vicenzo, indeed for the city of Siena itself.

Although the romance between Pia and Riccardo Bruni, the Torre horseman, is a large part of the story, the Machevellian manuevering for power centered on the horse race is really the heart of this book.  Ms. Fiorato does have a few surprises up her sleeve and she maintains the suspense right up to the end.  She also highlights the very real rivalries that exist in the running of the Palio to this day.  It is interesting that Ms. Fiorato reveals the influence that the real-life Duchess Violante exerted on the running of the Palio in her own lifetime and beyond in the Notes at the end of the book.

Ms. Fiorata has also included a list of recommended reading and a film documentary if you enjoyed The Daughter of Siena.  I will be following up on several of her recommendations, and will pass along her two previous novels also set in Italy as my own recommendations:  The Glassblower of Murano and The Botticelli Secret.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Ice Cold Grave

If you're a Sookie Stackhouse fan (and even if you're not, but like a touch of the paranormal in your mysteries) you'll enjoy An Ice Cold Grave (#119) by Charlaine Harris.  This is the third book of her Harper Connelly mystery series, but the first one I've read.

It seems that Harper has a special talent she's acquired after being struck by lightening; she can locate the dead and determine their cause of death.  It's not the most comfortable talent to have, but Harper's found a way to make a living from it for both herself and her stepbrother, Tolliver.  She consults with families of the dead sometimes to confirm identitiy, sometimes to make sure the deceased died of natural causes.  Sometimes Harper and Tolliver work with skeptical law enforcement officers to locate victims of foul play.  That's the case in An Ice Cold Grave.  Teenage boys have been going missing in a rural mountain town in North Carolina.  After the previous sheriff dismissed the concerns of the family by labeling the cases runaways, the grandmother of one of the missing teens has insisted that the new sheriff call in Harper.  Harper succeeds in finding his body, and more besides.  She could wind up becoming the latest victim if she doesn't get out of town soon enough...

A chilling read for Halloween, but a good introduction to a series that I'll definitely make a point of reading in the future.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

State of Wonder

In Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (#118) the situation is as murky as the waters of the Rio Negro deep in the Amazon jungle, the seetting of much of the novel.  Snakes, jungles, insects, mysterious Indian tribes, cannibals, new botanical discoveries - State of Wonder includes them all. 

Dr. Marina Singh is content working as a pharmacologist for the Vogel phamaceutical company in Minnesota.  That is until the day the company CEO, Mr. Fox, arrives at her office door to tell her that her office mate, Anders Eckman, has died from a fever while visiting Dr. Annick Swenson in her remote Amazonian lab.  His mission had been to see what progress Dr. Swenson has made in developing what could be an extremely lucrative new drug for Vogel.  Dr. Swenson's terse letter has given no further information than that Dr. Eckman has been buried.  Mr. Fox wants Marina to help him break the news to Ander's wife.  From that point, it's only a matter of weeks before Marina finds herself on a plane to Manaus, Brazil, to dig out the details of exactly what happened to Anders, and where, precisely, Dr. Swenson, her distinguished Johns Hopkins medical school teacher, is with the research for Vogel's new mystery drug. 

How is Marina to get in touch with Dr. Swenson who refuses to use a satellite phone or e-mail and who has her own gate keepers working for her in Manaus?  When contact is finally made, Marina finds that the jungle lab is not at all what she expected, nor is the exact nature of Dr. Swenson's research.  And no one can tell her what has happened to Anders Eckman's body...

The reader, like Marina, is left with the feeling that the answers are there, just out of reach beyond the next bend of the river or turn of the page.  They are the answers you necessarily anticipated, but at the end of the adventure, it's a relief to leave the jungle behind...

Friday, October 21, 2011

Florida Roadkill

Florida Roadkill (#117) by Tim Dorsey tells the twisted tale of how serial killer with a conscience Serge A. Storms and his sidekick Coleman got their start.  This is a Florida series that I think has definitely improved with time as Dorsey has toned down some of the raunch and focused more on Serge's ingenious methods of righting wrongs.  (See also my posts on Electric Barracuda 3/22/11, Gator A-Go-Go 5/26/11, and The Stingray Shuffle 6/9/11.)  In the later books, a true Florida miracle occurs with the resurrection of Serge's best sidekick, Coleman, who is killed off in Florida Roadkill.  It couldn't have happened to a better spaced- out road trip buddy.

As scary as this is to admit, there is a grain of truth to all of Dorsey's criminally-inclined "businessmen" and social climbing outlandish characters.  It's enough to make me nervous about driving around in my own town... 

The motivating factor for the action in this novel is five million dollars in drug cartel money that has  gone astray in the Tampa area, and the race by various factions to be the first to recover the money and spend it before anyone else can.  Just for good measure, there are the harmless Floridians who accidentally wander into the plot and muddy the waters even further.  Only one ingeniously rigged Serge A. Storms murder in this one; not to say that the body count isn't extremely high despite that.

There are too many threads to this loosely woven plot to tie up neatly at the end of this book, but we're promised that the story will continue in Hammerhead Ranch Motel.  I guess that will be my next stop, too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

And Only To Deceive

And Only To Deceive (#116) is Tasha Alexander's first entry in her Lady Emily Ashton suspense series. 

Set in England in the 1890s, Lady Emily admits that she married mainly to get away from her mother.  Viscount Ashton seemed pleasant enough, but she barely knows him when he dies on an African safari.  Mourning is serious business for a widow in Victorian London and after nearly two years, Emily is looking for something to occupy her for the remainder of her enforced seclusion.  When one of Phillip's old friends wants to publish one of his papers on classical Greece as a tribute to Phillip, Emily finds herself intrigued by a side of her dead husband that she never knew.  As she delves into Phillip's papers and journals looking for that monograph, she finds that her husband was truly in love with her and her own feelings about him change. 

He was an avid collector of Greek antiquities, but Emily slowly comes to suspect that he was involved in a profitable art forgery ring along with his best friend, Colin Hargreaves.  Emily must unravel the mystery of her husband's character as she evades her mother's machinations to marry her off again as soon as she is out of mourning.  She is willing to defy some conventions, but she may be playing with fire if she flouts them all. 

This is very much a novel of manners, somewhat in the vein of Deanna Raybourne's excellent series.  I'm glad I have the next four books in Tasha Alexander's series sitting on my bookshelf so I can find out just what does happen to Lady Emily in her less than conventional future.

Fish Out of Water

Half mermaid, half human, that's Dr. Frederika Bimm of the New England Aquarium in MaryJanice Davidson's totally entertaining Fish Out of Water (#115).  I bought this paperback as a disposable read for my Australian trek because I have enjoyed her Betsey Taylor vampire Queen Undead and.. series so much.  (See my posts of 12/13/10 & 7/18/11.)  In the end, it was too much fun to just leave behind, so I passed it along to another member of my tour group. 

This is the third book in this series, but Ms. Davidson always brings you up to date on the action in the series so far, so you can join in at any time.  Fred's mother is human but her father is a member of the Undersea Folk, as mermaids prefer to be called.  She'd happily blend totally into the humans around her, but her green hair and eyes (Thanks, Dad!) make that impossible.  She has had contact with her father's people (?), though, and has been able to act on their behalf as a spokesperson as they cautiously come out to humans.  Not all of the Undersea Folk are in favor of this, but Fred has caught the eye of Prince Artur, the heir to the throne.  The problem is that Fred is in love with a dashing doctor/marine biologist who just happens to write best-selling romances in his spare time.  He also doesn't even seem to know that Fred exists beyond casual friendship.  To rub salt into Fred's romantic wounds, her best friend is marrying her boss (yuk!) at her new house in Florida!  And he expects her to wear a salmon pink dress and heels for the occasion.  What could be more distressing?  How about finally meeting dear old dad?  Things don't go quite as planned for Fred, but it's a great ride for the rest of us.

I'll have to go back and hunt up the first two books of this trilogy, it was so entertaining.  It was fun to read the Florida references in this one, but I think more of the action in the first two books takes place in Boston and the New England Aquarium itself.  If you've never been there, it's a wonderful place to visit on the Boston waterfront.  Not that I'm prejudiced, mind you, because I did part of my student teaching there...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mask of Atreus

Believe it or not, The Mask of Atreus (#114) by A. J. Hartley, was only the third book I started while traveling to and from Australia, but it is a thriller that kept me occupied for a great deal of the time on journey home.

A mysterious phone call sends Deborah Miller back to the small Atlanta museum where she works in order to check on the welfare of her boss and beloved mentor, Richard Dixon.  She finds his body, and a cache of Mycenaean artifacts in a hidden room.  She soon finds herself a suspect in Dixon's murder, but also a target as someone waits for her in her apartment, and tries to run her car into a concrete barrier on the highway.  Why was Dixon keeping the Greek articles secret?  What did Richard have in his possesion that was worth mudering him and what did his murderer take with him?  Who is the anymous caller who tipped her off?  And what do events at the end of WWII have to do with what is happening now?  Deborah tries to find answers in Greece and in Russia to solve one mystery only to have the entire puzzle shift.  Can she find out what is really going on before the forces behind the series of murders connected to the case get to her, too?

Twist, and twist again, the plot keeps you turning the pages.  Is it really Greek antiquities everyone is after, or something else, darker and more dangerous?  The answer didn't turn out to be what I was expecting at all.

I particularly enjoyed this thriller because of its locales in Athens and Mycenae.  It helped me envision the action when I could picture the sites Hartley describes.  When Deborah is at Mycenae and she is looking down the valley towards the sea and listening to the goats, that is exactly what I remember about the place, the sounds of the goats' bells tinkling as they climbed the hills around the site as they grazed.  Ah, memories...  I'm just glad no one was pursuing me through the ruins with deadly intent.  I wouldn't have been nearly as resourceful as Deborah!


If you're looking for something light to read on a plane, Janet Evanovich's Manhunt (#113) will do the trick.  It was originally published back in 1989 and is a straight romance, but being a Stephanie Plum fan, Janet Evanovich's name on the cover sold it. 

Wall Street corporate VP quits her prestigious New York job and exchanges her New Jersey condo for a cabin in Alaska and a hardware store sight unseen.  Off to Alaska with her dog Bruno, a two-seater sports car and an entirely unsuitable wardrobe, is it any wonder that Alex immediately finds herself in deep waters? Literally?  Enter the successful, rich and handsome guy in the cabin next door (with electricity!) and you can see where this is going a mile away.  Even her dog switches allegiance to Casey, the hunk next door - what's a girl to do? 

I realized as I was reading this book that I don't read too many romances anymore that don't have something else going on in the plot - mystery, suspense, history or a combination of the above, but this was still a fun read, with the humor amped up and the sex not too graphic, thank you.  It's easy to see from this book how Ms. Evanovich developed such a popular off-beat heroine in Stephanie Plum and why she's become so successful. 

The Lost Years of Jane Austen (Revisited)

I did, in fact, finish reading The Lost Years of Jane Austen in Australia, and I must say that I found the book disappointing.  There was no romance in Australia.  Indeed, quite the opposite, in which the vestiges of Jane's romantic notions are entirely stripped away from her, and she is imbued with the urge to return to her writing in England as soon as may be.  Problem dealt with, from the author's perspective.  However, Jane was never really central to this story, nor was there any other compelling storyline in its place.  The narrative rather meandered through some British and Australian history before petering out entirely at the end.  It took me almost two weeks in Australia to finish reading The Lost Years of Jane Austen, when normally I would have gobbled up a book like this in a couple of days.

I guess in summary I would not recommend this book.  Dyed-in-the-wool Jane Austen fans may want to add it to their collection, but my enthusiasm for it is tepid at the best.  Glad it had interesting cover art.  Am looking forward to reading P.D. James' Jane Austen effort due out soon - Death At Pemberly.  I need something to restore my faith in the genre!