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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Christmas Blessing

I'm still reading Christmas books because for me, Christmas isn't over until January 6th, despite what the commercial world tells you.  I've just finished Donna VanLiere's The Christmas Blessing (#140), a sequel to The Christmas Shoes.  The theme of this book was faith, hope and especially, love, in keeping with the season.

Nathan Andrews was the young boy in The Christmas Shoes who was trying to buy his dying mother the best possible pair of shoes to wear as she entered heaven.  In The Christmas Blessing, Nathan is a third year med student who is having doubts about whether or not he's suited to be a doctor, especially when he's assigned to Dr. Goetz' rotation in Pediatric Cardiology.  With Dr. Goetz continually riding him, it promises to be a nightmare fall.  That is, until he literally runs into Meghan Sullivan on his unit.  She's a star runner at the local university and also a heart patient of Dr. Goetz.  How that encounter changes Nathan's life and teaches him some important truths about love and loss, and the gift we're all given to share with the rest of the world is the heart of the story.

Be prepared to read this small book with a box of kleenex by your side - I guarantee you'll need them by the time you're through!  But if you like your Christmas books with some substance behind them, and some thoughts to meditate on long after you've finished reading, this is a book for you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Play Dead

I'm still catching up on previous books in David Rosenfelt's defense attorney Andy Carpenter mysteries with Play Dead (#139).   This book features (what else?!) a golden retriever sequestered at the local pound. Because he's bitten his owner,Yogi has been deemed a dangerous dog and is scheduled to be put down.  But the man in charge of the pound doesn't agree, so he calls Andy Carpenter, dog advocate, to the rescue.

Andy causes quite a stir with the media in the dog's defense, with a ruling in Yogi's favor.  But in the course of the television coverage of the trial, Yogi has been recognized.  A woman approaches Andy and claims that Yogi is not, in fact, Yogi; he's Reggie, and has been presumed dead for the last five years.  Reggie belongs to her brother, who has been convicted in the murder of his then fiancee and his own attempted suicide on his boat off the New Jersey coast.  Karen Evans has always believed her brother innocent of the crime, and with Reggie's resurrection, she's hoping Andy will re-open her brother's case and fight his conviction.  Since Andy has never been strong on the whole work ethos, he's reluctant to take on the case, but when his phone is tapped, and someone tries to shoot him on the highway, he knows there's more to this case than meets the eye.  His blood is up, and he's out to win.

I always enjoy Rosenfelt's writing style and humor and I hated having to keep putting it down over the holiday.  One small quibble; I do wish he had tied up some plot ends a little more neatly, though.  Those dangling threads did have me asking "But what about...?  What drew those particular people together...?"  Even that wasn't enough to spoil this book for me, and I'm glad things worked out for Reggie.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ivy & Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas

I've read through my pile of Christmas books and finally arrived at the one I was saving for last: Ivy & Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas (#138) by Lauren Willig.

In this novella, the Pink Carnation's series modern day heroine, Eloise, is at loose ends before she flies home to New York for Christmas.  She decides to spend her time visiting the English country house Uppington Hall.  In its day it was the home of  Richard Selwick, the Purple Genetian, one of the Napoleonic era spies  Eloise is researching.  Coincidentally, she also is dating one of the Selwick family descendants, so she's checking out his family background at the same time. 

When she arrives at Uppington Hall, Eloise finds the place infested with Regency re-enactors for the Christmas season.  They set the stage for the 1803 story of Lord Richard Selwick's first Christmas at the house with his new bride, Amy Balcourt.  Amy and Richard are  both missing the adventures they shared as a spy team in France, but different emotions are set in motion when Richard's first love who jilted him arrives on the scene with her obnoxious mother.  It's enough to make Amy re-think her choices in marriage and career.  What would Christmas be at the Selwick's without a bit of holly and ivy intrigue?

I thoroughly enjoyed this Christmas romp with its humorous dialogue.  It was well worth the wait, but made my sorry I didn't plan on including mince pies in my own Christmas dinner!

A Christmas Journey

Somehow I managed to miss Anne Perry's 2003 Christmas book: A Christmas Journey (#137) when it was first published.  I'm glad I caught up with it this year. 

Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould (a familiar character from the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt mysteries) in the 1850s as a young woman attends an English country house party at the home of her friend Omegus Jones on her own.  One evening a public and catty remark by Isobel Alvie to Gwendolen, another young widow who appears to be on the verge of a proposal by an eligible bachelor, results in a tragedy.  The woman's body is dragged from a pond the next morning and the house guests are quick to blame Isobel.   The company is coerced into agreeing with their host's proposal of a medieval trial if Isobel is found guilty.  Gwendolen has left behind a note for her mother.  If Isobel undertakes to deliver the letter and break the news of her daughter's death to Mrs. Naylor, and agrees to accompany her back to London if she so wishes, all who are attendance at the house party will be bound to forgive and accept Isobel, and never to speak of the incident to outsiders.  Faced with social ruin if word should get out, Isobel is reluctant to agree.  Lady Vespasia is the only person there to speak up on her behalf, and impulsively volunteers to accompany Isobel on the difficult journey to the wilds of Scotland.  The journey tests both Isobel and Vespasia who must come to terms with physical and mental barriers that must be overcome to set things right.

Although its theme of expiation and forgiveness, responsibility for one's own actions, and the burden of peer pressure do not at first glance appear to fit the Christmas theme, I found this book exemplified the spiritual journey each person must undertake to achieve his or her own form of salvation.  Ms. Perry ties it together very neatly in the end as the true meaning of Christmas through the character of Omegus Jones.   Most of the other Christmas books I have read this year have been fun, but none affected me as profoundly as this little book.  A great time to pause and reflect...

Monday, December 19, 2011

Queen of Kings

I picked up Maria Dahvana Headley's Queen of Kings (#136) at the library, expecting an interesting historical account of Cleopatra's life; after all, it does have the subtitle: The Immortal Story of Cleopatra.  I didn't bother to read the cover flap before I added it to my pile of books.  I was surprised on reading it as my husband drove home that this novel was something different, and I was even more intrigued when I saw a video trailer for Queen of Kings on the Good Reads blog site.   Good Reads blogsite.

In Ms. Headley's novel, the action begins when Octavian's troops surround Alexandria.  Cleopatra awaits her beloved Mark Antony in the tomb where she intends to perform a rite invoking the ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in order to gain immortality for herself and Mark Antony.  But things don't go as planned.   Instead of committing suicide with an asp, she does perform an immortality ritual missing some vital elements of the spell from the scroll containing it.  Cleopatra is bound to Sekhmet, but without the protections for her own soul, or ka.  Sekhmet demands blood, and a chain of events is set in motion that could mean the end of the world if Augustus does not take steps to prevent the destruction Cleopatra causes as she fights to preserve Antony and her children.

This book was an intriguing take on the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Octavian, Caesar's great nephew and heir.  The interplay between the main characters and their beliefs  in the gods of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and Norse mythology seem a natural outcome in the wonderfully chilling pictured paranormal events described here.  This is way more than your average vampire novel, even though there are some aspects of that.  If your reading of historical fiction does not demand a narrow following of the known historical sources, you will find this "what if" imagining of an alternative ending to Cleopatra's story a real page turner.  Dark, but vivid, and a highly recommended read.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Gift

I'm still in the holiday mood with a reissue of two of Nora Roberts' novellas in The Gift (#135).  Light and easy romance where you know all will turn out for the best. 

Home for Christmas has Jason Law returning home to his tiny New Hampshire town at Christmas time.  He's been away ten years and has become a successful globe trotting journalist in the meantime.  But he's never forgotten Faith Kirkpatrick, even if she didn't keep her promise to wait for him.  The old feelings haven't gone away on either side, but Jason's world will be changed forever by the Christmas gift he receives from Faith.

All I Want for Christmas has identical twins Zeke and Zack (with their dog Zark!) writing to Santa to bring them a special present: the mom.  Their father Mac Taylor is bringing up the twins on his own, but the boys think all three of them need that one special person with yellow hair who loves little boys, big dogs and making cookies.  When Nell Davis, the new music teacher, hits town, Zeke and Zack know that Santa is working on their present.  If only Mac doesn't blow it!

Both stories were new to me, and just the thing to read under the Christmas tree.  I rate this one three candy canes!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

1225 Christmas Tree Lane

Debbie Macomber's Christmas books are a staple for the holidays.  In 1225 Christmas Tree Lane (#134) she wraps up her popular Cedar Cove series.

Although this book is nominally about Beth Morehouse's Christmas tree farm in Cedar Cove, and her mission to find the ten adorable Labrador Retriever puppies abandoned on her porch good homes for Christmas, it jumps from character to character in the extensive Cedar Cove community in an effort to wind up everyone's stories.  If you haven't read all of these novels, (as I have not!) it sure makes for confusing reading.

If you're a devoted Debbie Macomber fan, you probably won't mind anyway.  After all, it's Christmas in Cedar Cove and there will be snow and mistletoe with a little of the Christmas miracle thrown in for good measure.  Curl up with some eggnog and enjoy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

When Elves Attack

And now for a completely different Christmas story - Tim Dorsey's When Elves Attack - A Joyous Christmas Greeting from the Criminal Nutbars of the Sunshine State (#133).

Serge A. Storms and his sidekick Coleman are back to celebrate the holidays in their own inimitable way.  Since Christmas is a time for families, Serge decides he wants to spend the holiday near Jim Davenport, his ideal family man.  There just happens to be a house for rent across the street from the Davenports on Triggerfish Lane in Tampa.  Serge and Coleman don elf costumes to catch the criminals that Serge knows will be repeating the annual Florida holiday headlines.  These elves can make the malls and parking lots safer places for the average shopper.  They practice their own wacky form of justice, giving back to the criminals just what they deserve with a holiday flair (and applause from the neighbors!).

What could be more entertaining than Serge and Coleman's mayhem dressed up for Christmas?  A few chuckles and a few "Atta boy, Serge!" moments lead to a suitably sentimental ending when Serge gets a  Christmas surprise.  If you're a Tim Dorsey fan (and even if you're not, but follow the news!) you're bound to recognize the annual stories we've already starting reading about or seeing on TV locally.  Enjoy with a candy cane shiv!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Christmas Note

I confess.  I'm a sucker for a good Christmas story.  There's nothing like curling up on the couch with the tree twinkling away and something seasonal to read to complete the mood.  The Christmas Note (#132) by Donna VanLiere fits that bill admirably. 

The story is told from two viewpoints; Melissa, a young woman who lives on her own and seems to have no life; and Gretchen, a woman with two young children who has just moved into the condo next door to be near her mother in town.  Their lives intersect when a man comes looking for Melissa.  He's her mother's landlord and he wants her apartment cleaned out within the next week, or he'll dump the contents of Ramona's apartment.  He sticks Gretchen with the task of telling Melissa that her mother has died, something that she at first refuses to do.  But her Army Ranger husband Kyle's voice in her head is her conscience, telling Gretchen that she needs to do this.  Gretchen surprises both of them when she offers to help Melissa with the cleanup, but when they find an unfinished note by the side of Ramona's bed, neither woman can guess how that note will affect their lives. 

I found this a very satisfying Christmas read.  It is sentimental, but it also illustrates the power of doing good and the unexpected and wide-reaching consequences a small act of generosity can have.  If that's not the basic message of Christmas, I don't know what is.  I didn't see the plots twists of this story coming, but it did bring a lump to my throat, and that's also in the best tradition of Christmas!

Friday, December 9, 2011


Anne Patchett's book State of Wonder has been a darling of the critics this year.  For me, not so much.  I couldn't decide whom I disliked the most in this morally challenged group of characters (See my posting of 10/25).  Perhaps it's shallow of me, and I'm not capable of grasping the intellectual insights that others seem to find in this book.  On the other hand, maybe it's what I've always suspected: that literary critics are most enthusiastic about the books they understand the least.  If they can use enough erudite language to convince the rest of us that they know what they're talking about we'll believe that they really are smarter than the rest of us.  So it was with profound relief that I devoured one of James Rollins' earliest books on the same topic: Amazonia (#131). 

Dr. Nathan Rand's father disappeared into the remote Amazon jungle with the rest of his party four years ago.  When a member of that party stumbles out of the jungle at a tiny mission station he is sick and emaciated.  Despite the priest's efforts, the man dies before he can reveal who he is or where he came from.  The villagers are terrified of the man who bears a strange tattoo on his abdomen that marks him as belonging to the mysterios Ben-ali - the Blood Jaguars.  A medallion sewn into his clothing identifies him as Gerald Clark, an Army Ranger assigned to Carl Rand's missing exploratory party. There's just one problem: when Clark's body reaches the CIA laboratory in Langley, Virginia, he has two arms.  When he left with the expedition, he was missing an arm due to a sniper's bullet.  Where has he spent the last four years, and what has caused his arm to regenerate and yet left him ravaged with malignant tumors?  The government is determined to find out and recruits Nathan Rand from his own researches in Indian villages to join the CIA and Army Ranger joint task force in retracing Clark's footsteps to find out what really happened.  But they're not alone in the jungle pursuing the answers.  They are being tracked by both human and animal predators, the likes of which they have never encountered.  Can they survive long enough to penetrate to the heart of this mystery?

The parallels between Amazonia and State of Wonder are quite strong; scientist goes missing in remote Amazon jungle and is presumed dead, cannibals, snakes, a mysterious Indian tribe with botanical secrets that promise life-changing potential drugs to the outside world.  But I much prefer the more straight forward story telling in Amazonia. There are the twists and turns of the plot, a budding romance, a pandemic that can only be stemmed by the members of the expedition and genetic mutations.  Really scary genetic mutations.  The body count is extremely high in this book, as it is in Rollins' other thrillers, but also in keeping with Rollins' work, there is a strong scientific component that makes this a more intelligent thriller.  Unfortunately, this book predates the time when Mr. Rollings began to add a section at the end of his books discussing the scientific theory behind his plots, and recommended reading if you want to know more. 

All I can say is that I'm thinking very seriously before I book any tours in the Amazon!

Saturday, December 3, 2011


To me, P. C. Doherty's medieval mysteries always have a "you are there" quality to them.  In just a few pages, you're in the filth and stink of early fourtheenth century England where the freezing cold is constant and the sun never seems to shine.  That is certainly true of Nightshade (#130), a Hugh Corbett mystery. 

As the Keeper of the King's Secret Seal, Hugh has been abruptly summoned to the court of Edward I as the Christmas celebrations with his family are barely over.  The royal treasury at Westminster Abbey has been looted  and objects from the treasure trove have surfaced in the rural Essex town of Mistleham.  Lord Oliver Scrope, the local landholder, has caught and hung the man who offered a certain Saracen dagger from the Westminster robbery.  The king is not pleased with Lord Scrope's actions in the matter, nor the fact that the baron has promised to turn over a valuable item, the Sanguis Chrisi, a solid gold cross set with five priceless rubies he looted from the Templars' treasury during the fall of Acre in the Holy Land.  So far Scrope has failed to do so.  The king wants these returned immediately.  The Templars are rumored to be in pursuit of their lost treasure as well. Will they beat Hugh to the prize? 

Nor is the king happy about Lord Scrope's massacre of a group of heretics, the Brethren of the Free Spirit, living in a deserted village outside Mistleham, preempting the king's justice.  Now the townspeople are being stalked by an assasin armed with a longbow who strikes at random.  The king wants his due, and peace restored to the region.  Hugh and his faithful clerk Ranulf are charged with the task.  Is the root of the problem at Mistleham greed, heresy, inheritance, jealousy or all of the above?  Or could the the situation in Mistleham have its roots in the past?  Hugh must step carefully to put together the pieces of this puzzle, but not before a key player is murdered.

This is a cleverly plotted locked room mystery based in part on the actual robbery of the Royal Treasury in Westminster Abbey in 1303.  P. C. Doherty weaves the threads into a story that will keep you guessing until the end while you shiver in the atmosphere of the past.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scones & Bones

A Pirates and Plunder exhibit at Charleston's Heritage Society is the scene of a daring theft of a diamond crusted cup reputededly made from Blackbeard's skull and the murder and assault of two of the Society's staff in Scones & Bones (#129), the latest entry in Laura Childs' Tea Shop Murder series.

Theodosia Browning is in attendance at the gala party with her master tea blender and right hand assistant Drayton Conneley who just happens to be on the Board of the Heritage Society.  As a favor to Drayton's friend Timothy Neville, Director of the Society, Theodosia allows herself to be drawn into investigating what really happened that night.  Not that anyone, especially the Chief of Homicide, Burt Tidwell, could stop her!

Plenty of Charleston atmosphere and a cast of colorful characters with an interest in pirate loot are sprinkled through the pages as Theodosia and Drayton simultaneously deal with tracking down clues and hosting a prestigious wine and tea pairing at the Indigo Tea Shop for the annual Charleston Food and Wine Festival.  It's never in doubt that Theodosia will tease (pardon the pun!) out the identity of the murderer/thief in the end... 

Laura Childs throws in some bonus recipes at the end, along with some hints on how to hold a successful tea party.  I personally was disappointed in the recipes, though!  She mentions caramel scones in the text, among a number of different kinds of yummy-sounding scones, but gives us goat cheese (ugh!) truffles and cheesy bruschetta instead!  With a title like Scones & Bones, I expected more than one lonesome scone recipe.  Sigh...