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Monday, December 31, 2012

Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Did you see the movie Argo?  So did I, and I think it deserves every one of its maximum stars  ratings.  That's also why I was so interested to see that my library had Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio's non-fiction book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (#251) on order.  I wanted to read more about how this incredible caper was pulled off.

Both my husband and I raced through Mr. Mendez's recounting of the process leading up to the CIA's decision to approve a Hollywood location scout group becoming the cover to exfiltrate the six Americans who made it out of the American Embassy and into hiding in Tehran that fateful November day in 1979.  Although the book and the movie complement each other in telling this amazing story, the book provides the background information that can't possibly be covered in a two hour film.  Although the movie took some dramatic license to make it the nail-biter that it is, the essentials are correct, and without question lives were on the line.  And not just American lives, but those of the Canadian Embassy staff who hid their American houseguests until they were rescued.

Not only did Mendez and his colleagues succeed in their mission to extricate the Embassy staffers in time, but the other astonishing part of the story is how the CIA kept their role secret.  It wasn't until the heads of the CIA decided to make the story of the rescue public in 1997 as part of their 50th year celebration that the story came to light, and Mendez felt free to tell his own story after multiple interviews.  The six American houseguests and their Canadian hosts all kept faith with their promise to keep silence to protect those who might still come to harm at the hands of the Iranians.

This is a case of the truth being even stranger than fiction.  It's an enthralling tale of true American heroes.  Mr. Mendez, thank you for your service, and I'm glad your Intelligence Star can be acknowledged in public.  I wish "Jerome Calloway's" role could be similarly revealed.  If you've seen the movie, you owe it to yourself to read this book.  And if you haven't, you'll want to visit the closest theater where this is playing after you read it!  Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Calling Invisible Women

I just loved Jeanne Ray's novel Calling Invisible Women (#250).  I guess you have to be a woman of a "certain age" to truly appreciate this fantasy, but I'm sure all of us have had experiences which have made us feel like we're invisible, or to sincerely wish we could be!

Clover Hobart is shocked one evening as she is preparing for bed to find that she can't see herself in the mirror.  She soon regains visibility, but the next morning, she's gone again.  The worst of it is that neither her husband, a busy pediatrician, nor her returned-to-the-nest unemployed son never even notice.  How is this possible?  Her friend Gilda confirms her worst fears: Gilda can't see her, either, but it's not because she simply doesn't notice.  The longer this goes on, the more agitated Clover gets until the day she spots a small personal ad in the local paper: Calling Invisible Women.  Maybe she's not alone...

She's definitely not alone, and together the invisible women have figured out who and what is causing their invisibility.  But what can they do to get the giant corporation responsible to correct their situation unless they can get their families, friends and former employers to acknowledge it first?

A delightful read with a far better ending for Clover than for Claude Rains in The Invisible Man!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Royal Pain

For me, the title A Royal Pain (#249) describes the heroine of this book, Bronte Talbot, perfectly, and 338 pages is way too much time to spend with such an unpleasant, self-absorbed, potty-mouthed bitch.  The nineteenth Duke of Northrup is totally wasted on her, but by the end of this book, I was so tired of him putting up with her that I lost all interest in him, too.  The real fairy tale in this book is the unending and (always mind-blowingly incredible!) sex.

Bronte is such an emotional mess it's a wonder that she has any relationships at all, but that's the rather heavy-handed point made at the end of this story.  She's in a relationship with a Texan whom she gives up her fabulous New York City apartment and dream job to follow to Chicago, where she soon discovers she has always been simply the weekend diversion who has to pay to keep up with his spend-or-bust stockbroker's life style.  Everyone has tried to warn her... 

When she literally stumbles over Maxwell Heyward in a Chicago second hand bookstore, she thinks she's found her perfect Transitional Man to help her get over the Texas debacle.  Well, of course they fall madly in lust with each other, but he's returning to England in eight weeks, so no commitments, right?  Of course not!  When his father has a heart attack and Max asks her to go back to England with him, she refuses.  Agony, agony, agony on both sides.  And the nerve of him not telling her he was a duke related to the royal family!  She puts so many obstacles in Max's way and is stunned every time when he is impatient with her attitude.  It's all quite ridiculous.  Either commit or cut him loose.  There just doesn't seem to be any way to make Bronte happy until the author ties up her dysfunctional family relationships in one neat little bow at the very end, and we're now supposed to believe  that a wedding will proceed, she'll be an ideal mother and everything will be hunky dory.  I don't buy that for a moment.

I was really looking forward to reading this book, since, like Bronte herself supposedly, I've always been an Anglophile.  (But here's another thing that annoyed me about this book: Megan Mulry makes such a big deal about Bronte's obsession as an adolescent with British society gossip magazines -Hello!, British Vogue, etc. - that it struck me as ludicrous that Bronte wouldn't have known instantly who Maxwell Heyward was - the heir to the Duke of Northrup, and a frequently pictured royal connection in said publications.)  I guess I expected something along the lines of an updated Regency romance, but with Bronte having a job and a contemporary wardrobe.  Far from it.  I thought it was tedious and unsatisfying.  I kept hoping Bronte would grow up emotionally and that it would get better.   In my opinion it didn't.  I should have known when I saw the cover art.  The book jacket says "It's not easy being common", but the photo they used certainly succeeds - ugh!  My recommendation?  Find something more entertaining to read and don't waste your time on this one.  (Unless, of course, you just want to check  it out for the myriad sex scenes...)

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Gift

The Gift (#248) made it to the top of my holiday reading pile.  This Christmas fantasy was written by Cecelia Ahern, the daughter of Ireland's former prime minister.

Lou Suffern is a young Irish executive who's made it to the top of the corporate heap - almost.  There's a promotion he wants more than anything; more than his wife, his children or his family.  But things change the day that Lou meets Gabe, the homeless man camped out by his office building's door.  Although he's walked by him many mornings, one day he stops and offers Gabe a coffee and a job to his own surprise.  Soon Gabe is popping up everywhere in Lou's life and causing him to confront his choices uncomfortably.  When things begin to go very wrong for him, Lou wonders if Gabe is out to replace him.  Things don't work out for Lou the way he expected, yet he receives a most precious gift from Gabe.

I must admit, I did need a Kleenex as I sniffed my way through the ending of this one.  A good cry can by cathartic, though!  It's something a little different, and the lesson learned is definitely not sugar-coated!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Christmas Shoppe

The new shop in Parrish Springs is causing a lot of controversy.  Matilda Honeycutt, an aging hippy, has appeared in town out of nowhere and bought the Barton Building on Main Street right from under the nose of the an influential Town Councilman.  But it's the merchandise that's creating the uproar: the store isn't zoned for selling the second hand goods on her shelves.  The new City Manager and the owner of the town's newspaper, The Spout, are determined to support Matilda - if she'll let them - in Melody Carlson's new Christmas novella The Christmas Shoppe (#247).

It's a light read that highlights the meaning of the season as a number of the town's citizens find just the thing they need in Matilda's mysterious shop.  It's worth a night on the town for this one.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Angels At The Table

In Angels at the Table (#246) Debbie Macomber brings back her popular angels Shirley, Goodness and Mercy with the addition of an apprentice angel, Will.  As in her previous book, the angels are full of good will towards men (and women!), but in their desire to help, things always seem to go amiss.  The more they try to fix a problem, the worse it seems to get...

In this sweet holiday romance, it's a lonely chef trying to get her long-dreamed of restaurant off the ground.  Since her widowed mother has invested in life savings in the project, it's not just Lucie's financial future hanging in the balance.  Will accidentally on purpose manages to nudge Aren, new to town and on the rebound from a painful divorce into her path in crowded Times Square on New Year's Eve.  I'm sure you can figure out the ending on your own, but it's just the kind of short read to cozy up with after you've finished wrapping all those presents.  Ms. Macomber has included a gift for the reader as well, with a recipe and a set of gift tags, too! 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Incense Game

Edo, Japan has just been rocked by a devastating earthquake and tsunami which has killed thousands and destroyed most of the cities in the region.  Sano Ichiro is responsible for heading up the recovery efforts and finding housing, food and building materials in the few remaining unburned city ruins.  It seems an impossible task, and Sano is exhausted from the constant efforts to keep up with the demands of the shogun, but he and his bodyguards feel compelled to help a group of townspeople they come across searching for bodies of their neighbors.  They find three women, but it is soon evident that these three are not victims of the earthquake, but of foul play in Laura Joh Rowland's latest Sano Ichiro mystery The Incense Game (#245).  Did I mention that this all takes place in 1703?

This grim discovery draws Chamberlain Sano deeper and deeper into a nightmare as he struggles to conduct an investigation in which failure could mean death for him and his family from one of the feudal lords he had always thought an ally, while displeasing the shogun could bring the same results.

This is a crackerjack mystery, and number 19 in this atmospheric series set in the feudal Japan of shoguns and samurais featuring Sano Ichiro and his indomitable and resourceful wife Reiko.  Twist after twist will keep you guessing until the very last page.  This murder mystery is solved, but there are political consequences for the future that you know will have to be dealt with.  Sano is grateful he and his family have survived this crisis, but with a shift in alliances, the future is looking very uncertain...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Stockholm Octavo

Karen Engelmann's historical fiction novel The Stockholm Octavo (#244) is something a bit different.  It's 1791 in Stockholm, which has had its own bloodless revolution, but the situation in France is watched with interest by King Gustav.  Many of the nobles are plotting against him to regain their power, but much of it is done by unconventional means in this intriguing novel.

Emil Larsson has escaped from an abusive situation in the Swedish countryside to make his way to "The Town".  He's done well for himself, and bought a nice position in the Customs and Excise Civil Service, with just enough money to be introduced to Mrs. Sparrow, proprietress of an exclusive gambling house.  She also happens to be a Seer.  After Emil renders her a small favor, she reads his Octavo - a set of cards dealt from a Tarot-like deck.  Whichever direction the Octavo points to in his future, Emil must swear an oath to carry his destiny through to the end.  The cards will also reveal the roles eight people will play in this destiny, but he must figure out who they are, and how they intersect his life.  Who is a benefactor, who an enemy, who his promised love?  Are they known to him now, or will they appear in the future?  Drawn into a world of wealth and intrigue, he finds himself an unwilling player in a plot against the king.  Can he prevent the assassination, or are other forces at work here?

Ms. Engelmann delves into cartomancy - the foretelling of the future through cards, Divine Geometry and mathematics, revolutionary politics and French connections,  and the graceful language of the fan in this book, with a whiff of inexplicable power.  I've never read anything quite like it before, but who knew that the Stockholm of 1791 - 1792 could be quite so full of secrets?  You'll just have to see for yourself!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Snow White Christmas Cookie

The Snow White Christmas Cookie (#243) is David Handler's holiday entry in his Berger and Mitry Mystery series.

Normally, I'm a sucker for Christmas books: I just gorge on a diet of holiday fare both before and after Christmas (after all, there are 12 days to enjoy it all!).  This one had such a promising title!
However, as I read the Prologue, I began to get an inkling that this was a very distasteful holiday treat.  By the time I reached page 14, I knew this one was not for me - anyone who can refer to one of his characters by the name Pizza Man because of the acne on his back that has turned off all his former lovers - well, you get the picture. 

This may only appeal to tried and true Berger and Mitry fans (I did give them a chance for a few pages in Chapter 1, but they had all the charisma of Pizza Man for me!).  I knew I won't be in any danger of becoming one.  Ugh!

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 - 1948

It's a common plot in fiction: the protagonist grows up believing his or her upbringing and parentage are one thing, only to find out that the real story is different, concealing an enormous secret.  What if the protagonist doesn't find out until she is 59?  That's the true story behind former Secretary of State Madeline Albright's memoir Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937 - 1948 (#242).

You probably remember the headlines a few years ago when it was revealed that Madeline Albright, who was brought up Catholic and became Episcopalian upon her marriage, actually came from a Jewish Czechoslovakian background, and that many members of her family - grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins - died in the Holocaust of World War II.  It came as a shock to Ms. Albright, and Prague Winter tells the story of how she found out, and the search for the truth.  Somehow, her parents never found the right time to tell her or her two siblings about their family before they died, so she started where so many of us do: with the boxes of papers stored in her garage. 

Prague Winter chronicles the story of Czechoslovakia before, during, and after World War II, and her father's role in the Czeckoslovak government.  Although she was a child during the period covered by this book, some of her memories are quite vivid, and she has told the story in personal terms that make the convoluted politics of the time easy for the reader to grasp.  She also has included many photos throughout the text to help put a human face on what was happening and what led her family to eventually settle in the United States.

It's an extraordinary story, and a compelling read.  I've always been an admirer of Madeline Albright.  This book only confirms my opinion.  Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Christmas Garland

Anne Perry's annual Christmas novella has a most unusual setting.  A Christmas Garland (#241) takes place on the British outpost of Cawnpore, India in 1857 during the Mutiny. 

Victor Narraway (a familiar name to Perry's fans) has arrived several months after the lifting of the hideous siege of Cawnpore.  He is summoned to his commanding officer's rooms and given a most unwelcome assignment: to defend a skilled and well-liked medical orderly on a charge of murder in the case of a Sikh prisoner who murdered his Sikh guard in a ghastly way making his escape.  Information he took with him led to the ambush and massacre of a British patrol.  The only person who could not account for his whereabouts at the time in question was Tallis, the medical orderly.   The only possible outcome of this trial is the hanging of John Tallis, but justice must appear to be done, and done quickly so the encampment can celebrate Christmas by putting the incident behind them.  If Narraway can find a reason to explain why Tallis acted as he did, the commander wants to know so everyone can at least make sense of his actions.  Narraway is nothing, if not stubborn, but even he can see no hope in saving Tallis, whom he has come to like.  That is, until a chance meeting and the gift of a paper garland provide him with the key to this mystery.

Ms. Perry's Christmas stories provide an engaging (though dark) mystery with a moral dilemma predicated on faith to ponder long after the reader has closed the cover.  Much as I enjoy the light, frothy holiday tales, it's good to read something with more depth related to the season.  Highly recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2012

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

I was recently corresponding with Lisa Potocar about her new book Sweet Glory, about a young girl who disguises herself as a man and enlists in a Union regiment with another like-minded female friend.  The subject matter of the novel reminded me of an interesting non-fiction book I had read about female soldiers in the Civil War.  Lisa was kind enough to remind of its name: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War  (#240) by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook.  I felt impelled to go back and re-read this slim volume.

This work deals with why women on both the Confederate and Union sides were motivated to fight, what jobs they performed in their units, how they managed to keep their gender concealed and how some of them were discovered.  These women served with great personal courage and conviction, sustaining wounds and imprisonment and even death.  The authors also document how some of the women fared after the war. 

Since the book is based on records kept by the War Department and Confederacy, as well as regimental histories and personal papers, I wondered why it was that I had never heard of these female soldiers before.  Blanton and Cook help to explain this in what I found in many ways to be the most fascinating part of the book.  Although the vast majority of these women were highly regarded by their fellow soldiers, whether the women's sex was known to them or not at the time, and a great deal was written about them in the press up until the time of World War I, these female soldiers disappear from the histories of the Civil War written post World War I, or are dismissed as aberrations.  It is only very recently that the stories of these women have emerged from the shadows to take their place in the ranks of their fellow veterans.

It certainly does make you pause to think what else might be missing when you read what are considered the definitive Civil War volumes of  the twentieth century.  Now I have to go and give my friend, a well-known Gettysburg expert and miniaturist, heck for never creating a figure of one of the female soldiers who served or fell there....

Friday, November 30, 2012

Someone Knows My Name

Someone Knows My Name (#239) by Canadian Lawrence Hill is a multi-award-winning novel which was recommended by my library book club.  It's a well written book that follows the life of Aminata Diall from freedom to slavery and eventually back to freedom again.

As a young girl Aminata, or Meena as she is commonly known, is captured by tribesmen who attack and destroy her native African village, and witnesses the murder of both of her parents.  As she is forced to march to the sea in bondage, she begins a journey which will take her on a horrific voyage across the Atlantic on a slave ship to the slave market in Charles Town, South Carolina.  Her path takes her to a Low Country plantation, a comfortable home in Charles Town, New York City as the British invade during the Revolutionary War, Nova Scotia as a Black Loyalist, a longed-for return to Africa's Sierra Leone and finally to London as an old woman where she works with the Abolitionists to end slavery.

Along the way she acquires new languages, the ability to read and write and drive a hard bargain, and the determination to return to her African home one day.  She endures great losses in her life as her husband and children are all forcibly separated from her, and friends left behind or perished through disease, accidents or murder.

On the one hand, I did find this book both interesting and informative to read.  I was aware of the "Return to Africa" movement, but I had no idea that blacks who had served the British for at least one year behind their lines were removed to Canada along with their white counterpart Loyalists.  Apparently life there was not much better for them than in the Colonies, but they did have some freedom to make their own way.

However, I did feel that the book was very black and white. Literally.  If the character being described was black, he or she could be good, bad or indifferent, but most, at least, had some depth.  But if the character was white, he or she was invariably described as ugly, diseased and duplicitous.  Even the nominally well-intentioned white characters (and there certainly weren't many of those!) like the Abolitionists used Meena for their own agendas which makes it all the more puzzling to me why Aminata would want to spend her final years among them.  Even more puzzling was the fact that a supposedly intelligent protagonist who lived by her wits for years could so blindly pursue a path to her own destruction by paying slavers to take her back to her home village and believing that they were trustworthy.  What on earth did she expect to find there when she knew her parents were dead, and the village might not even exist any more?  Besides, if the slave raiders came there once, what would prevent them from coming back in the future?  How would she even live there without her beloved books?  What was she thinking?    About halfway through the book, I realized my opinion had shifted from a positive response to a negative one.  Not even the reunion at the end (which I felt was contrived) could salvage this one for me.  Sorry, Aminata.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Lace Reader

I'm not sure exactly how to characterize The Lace Reader (#238) by Brunonia Barry.  I suppose psychological thriller might come closest.  Nothing is as it seems in this book.

Set in contemporary Salem, Massachusetts, The Lace Reader is about a family of women who can read the future from the patterns in a piece of lace.  Towner Whitney returns to Salem after an absence of fifteen years when her brother urgently summons her home.  Their Great Aunt Eva, the only family member who has gone public with her lace readings, has gone missing.  Eva raised them in her home in Salem while their own mother remained isolated on her island in Salem Harbor, refusing to come to town.  The web of this dysfunctional family creates some disturbing patterns of its own as the tale unfolds and another young woman with ties to Towner's family vanishes.  Can you predict how this will end?  Probably not...

Although the Salem witches do appear in this novel, I really wouldn't call it a paranormal tale.  The lace reading is more akin to "second sight" than magic.  It's really the mysteries of the mind that haunt the characters. 

Setting this book in modern day Salem is clever, though, because many of the denizens can and do believe that anything can happen here.   Ms. Barry's descriptions of the city brought back many fond memories and made me long to visit it again.  If you ever get there yourself, be sure to visit the Peabody Essex Museum, an amazing place.  I still remember visiting an exhibit on the Treasures of the Forbidden City that included some astounding pieces of Chinese art and craftsmanship that had never before left China.  They also have a collection of restored houses from different periods, where you can admire the work of eminent Salem architect Samuel McIntyre yourself, and imagine what Aunt Eva's house on the Common might have looked like.  I've included a link to the Peabody Essex Architecture Collection, so you can take a look for yourself:  Peabody Essex Museum Architecture Collection .  While you're there, check out what else they have.

One of my book club members suggested this book for our December read.  Although this book originally came out in 2008, I overlooked it then.  Better late than never!  It's a dark but satisfying read.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Wallflower in Bloom

If you read my blog regularly, you know I'm a Claire Cook fan, so I was more than happy to curl up with her latest, Wallflower in Bloom (#237), after the final dish was put away from Thanksgiving dinner.

Deidre Griffin's brother Tag is a celebrity self-help guru, and the center of a family industry which employs his parents and all three of his three sisters.  Deidre is his Personal Assistant, and a genius at managing and marketing him on social media.  The problem is that Tag is so needy, Deidre has no life of her own.  Even her house is a converted sheep shed on his estate which he will not let her buy.  When her on-again, off-again former boyfriend Mitchell drops by to tell Deidre he's marrying his pregnant girlfriend, that's the last straw for her.  She has to get away from everything, but how?  Maybe it's time to take advantage of the social empire she's built for Tag, and accept a place on Dancing With The Stars...

Okay, maybe the part about actually managing to land a spot on Dancing With The Stars was a bit over the top, but the family issues Ms. Cook deals with in this book are very real, and will strike a chord with most readers.  You may struggle all your life for independence from your family, yet in the end, they're the ones whom you turn to for support and when you find it given unconditionally, it's the ultimate freedom, even if there is some name-calling along the way. 

But her books are never done without a welcome sense of humor!  Having grown up in the Boston area, I got an especial kick out of what Deidre thinks after she moves to Los Angeles to train for DWTS: "I wondered if people from L.A. felt like they were taking a foreign-language class when they came to Massachusetts.  Worcester.  Woburn.  Gloucester.  Scituate."  I think Ms. Cook missed a chance to add a little insider humor here when she neglected to add Haverhill to that list, since it's the birthplace of DWTS's unnamed male co-host, Tom Bergeron.  When a new TV anchor person or radio personality began on any of the Boston stations, it did give some of us hours of entertainment to listen to them mangle the local place names.  Wallflower in Bloom is equally entertaining, but provides a little more food for thought.  A great addition to Chick Lit, especially if you enjoy a story whose main focus isn't on the romance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Third Gate

My husband had gotten out Lincoln Child's latest novel The Third Gate (#236), and he thought I might be interested, because it was a thriller involving Egyptology.  He was right, I was interested in reading this best-seller.  He's a fan of the Preston Child novels, although this was my first book by either author.

It didn't take me long to read it because the action moved along swiftly, and it was entertaining enough, but at the end, I thought "That's it?!"  If I had been to the movies to see The Third Gate (and I can see it lending itself easily to a screenplay) I would have walked out at the end and felt I had overpaid to see it.

Dr. Jeremy Logan is a an enigmalogist, called in by an old academic acquaintance to consult on an archaeological dig sponsored by the highly successful and secretive Porter Stone.  Stone expects to find something incredible in the Sudd, an impenetrable swamp south of the Egyptian borders.  He's assembled a team of the world's top talents for his project, but things have started to go wrong, and not everything has a rational explanation.   That will be Logan's role - to explain the inexplicable;  ghosts, Yetis, the Loch Ness monster - are all in a day's work for him.

Things do, in fact, go bump in the night, but there are way too many ends left that aren't neatly tied up in the end.  Who, for instance, is the expedition's spy, and for what purpose?  After things go boom! (literally!), that's pretty much it.  I presume Mr. Child had other writing deadlines he needed to meet, and couldn't spend any more time on The Third Gate.  It's too bad, because I feel this could have been a much better book than it is. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Woman Who Died A Lot

Thursday Next is back in The Woman Who Died A Lot (#235), the seventh book in Jasper Fforde's entertaining science fiction series.  She's older and battered from her last encounter with the Goliath Corporation, so instead of rejoining Jurisfiction, her boss offers her a position as Chief Librarian of  Wessex.  She isn't sure she wants the job, but budget cuts have rendered her old unit obsolete, and it is a way of keeping busy...

In Swindon, a librarian's job is far from dull.  Thursday is now in charge of the SLS, or Special Library Services, an elite commando force charged with enforcing overdue fines, fraudulent borrowing habits and other significant threats to book security.  Plus, she has to deal with an upcoming budget meeting, and God's Wrath in the form of a Smiting scheduled for the coming Friday that will wipe out a circular area of downtown Swindon.  And someone keeps replacing Thursday with a replicant complete with her own memories.  What has Goliath Corporation got up its evil sleeve besides making an obscene profit from Swindon by promising to divert the upcoming Smiting?  Can it have anything to do with the way her son Friday's future has been altered?

If you appreciate books (and you must, or you wouldn't be reading this review or this particular book!) Thursday Next's ongoing work in Jurisfiction and as Chief Librarian with her role in keeping the world of fiction pure and unsullied will surely appeal to you.  There's always been literary humor in Mr. Fforde's Thursday Next plots, but now he's expanded it to include library humor as well.  I showed one of the librarians at my local library the illustration on page 98, and she was still laughing when I left a few minutes later.  The Woman Who Died A Lot is on my holiday list for several of my librarian friends.  And the best part is that next book in the series, Dark Reading Matter, is already on its way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Second Empress; A Novel of Napoleon's Court

Michelle Moran chooses Marie-Louise Hapsburg as the subject of her latest book The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon's Court (#234).  In his single-minded quest to found his own dynasty, Napoleon sets out to find a suitable princess who comes from an established royal family to replace the barren Josephine.  Maria Lucia, daughter of the conquered Emperor Francis I of Austria, fits the bill, especially as she understands statecraft.  She's been groomed by her father to rule as Regent for her brother in the future.  But when Napoleon commands, Maria Lucia must obey, lest Austria suffer the consequences.  It's hardly a romantic story.

Told from three viewpoints of those closely involved in this dynastic marriage: Maria Lucia of Austria (whom Napoleon promptly re-names Marie-Louise), Princess Pauline Borghese, Napoleon's possessive sister and Paul Moreau, Pauline's mulatto chamberlain who came with her from Haiti after the death of her first husband, the novel covers the period from Napoleon's search for the proper bride to his death on St. Helena in exile.

Maria Lucia is horrified when she learns that she is the candidate chosen for this marriage.  Napoleon has not yet even divorced Josephine, to whom he is reportedly still devoted.  The Pope will not recognize his new marriage, so where does that put her, a devout Catholic?  With a speed that makes her head spin, she is whisked off to France on a journey that bears eerie echoes of her great aunt Marie Antoinette's not so very long ago.

Pauline Borghese is also upset by the marriage.  After Napoleon's conquest of Egypt, the brother and sister share a dream of ruling an empire as the Pharaohs did.  Pauline wants to emulate the Ptolemies in all ways...

Paul has always been devoted to Pauline, but even he can see that the changes in the Bonaparte family as they rise meteorically to power with a reach that outstrips their grasp.  He is a keen observer of the scenes around him, but has it all become too much to bear?

For me, Marie-Louise has always been a shadowy figure; you're aware that Napoleon married twice, scandalously, but she rarely appears in books as a solid character with thoughts, feelings, pressures and perils of her own.  One cannot help but sympathize with her marrying into such a family as the Bonapartes, and be glad for her sake that she survived!  I found this book so engrossing that I was done with it before I knew it.  If you're interested in how much of a historical novel is factual, and how much fiction, you'll appreciate Ms. Moran's notes at the end on her sources, and what happens to the people in the book.

Before I leave the subject, though, I do have to say how very much I disliked the cover art on The Second Empress.  It was originally featured on GoodReads with a different, and to my mind, far more attractive cover, and I think the publishers would have done much better to stick with it.  This is the second book of Ms. Moran's that has used a photograph of a model in an ill-fitting theatrical costume on the cover.  Frankly, if Ms. Moran was not already a favorite of mine, I would have picked this up in a bookstore, looked at the cover and thought "Tawdry second or third rate romantic novel." and put it right back down.  I wouldn't even have bothered to read the cover copy.  Cover art does make a difference and can easily sabotage sales.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mission To Paris

Alan Furst's latest World War II spy novel Mission To Paris (#233) has been extremely popular at my local library and justly so.  As I read it, I could practically see the black and white movie version of this book unreeling before my eyes.

Viennese born Frederic Stahl has been successful in Hollywood for the past eight years, and packs star power.  Jack Warner decides to trade Frederic's services to Paramount Pictures in Paris for movie rights to a film starring Gary Cooper.  Frederic loves Paris, having lived there for several years after World War I.  But the Paris of 1938 is a far cry from what he was expecting, as he's approached by Germans working for Hitler to lend his star power to their cause.  After Le Matin, controlled by German influence, manipulates a publicity interview he's given to make it appear that he supports Germany's position, he finds that he may be in way over his head.

But Paris is still Paris, and Frederic is determined to fight back in his own way.  He will finish the movie he's starring in and enjoy as much of the city as he can while it's still possible.  Mixing in society and sampling the restaurants and cafes may provide him the perfect means...

I've never read any of Alan Furst's books before, but I know this won't be the last.  I liked this book for the same reasons I'm addicted to Turner Classic Movies; it was a smooth and exciting read.

Belshazzar's Daughter; A Novel of Istanbul

Cetin Ikmen, an Istanbul police inspector who cannot function without his perennial bottle of brandy, much to the dismay of devout Muslim wife and straight-laced  officer Mehmet Suleyman, his assistant, makes his debut in Barbara Nadel's dark mystery Belshazzar's Daughter: A Novel of Istanbul (#232). 

An elderly Jewish man has been brutally murdered in the Balat district, and a large swastika drawn on the wall of the room.  Inspector Ikmen hasn't been having a particularly easy time getting his rest with eight children already at home and a ninth about to arrive any day.  Who can sleep well on a couch?  But his boss makes it clear to him that the Israeli Consulate is anxious that this seemingly anti-Semitic case be cleared up and an arrest made promptly.  The most likely suspects are both ex-patriots; the blond Englishman Robert Cornelius, seen close to the apartment building where the murder took place at about the right time, or Reinhold Smits, a wealthy elderly German businessman who has been in Istanbul prior to WWII and is known to have been a Nazi supporter.  During the course of Ikmen and Suleyman's investigation, both men have connections to a mysterious Russian family and its domineering matriarch.   But why the murder now? What has the victim done to provoke the violent attack?  Or will Ikmen have to unravel the secrets of the past to learn the truth?

I began to get glimmerings of where this story might be going about half way through the novel, but the threads didn't unravel the way I expected them to, and there were surprises right up through to the last page.  Both my husband and I found this an absorbing read, where the city of Istanbul creates the setting for a modern day story that could only take place here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hello Goodbye Hello

The concept behind Hello Goodbye Hello (#231) by Craig Brown is simple, but brilliant.  Each of the 101 meetings between two twentieth century persons is connected in daisy chain fashion.  James Dean meets Alec Guiness; in the next anecdote Alec Guiness meets Evelyn Waugh, who goes on to meet Igor Stravinsky who in turn meets Walt Disney and so on.  Rock and royalty, artists and actors, famous politicians and other infamous characters are all here. And for the American version, Mr. Brown has included a brief "Who's Who" of the British notables appearing in his book.

Many of these meetings are totally unexpected between people whom you never would have guessed had any reason to meet, but all are entertaining in their own way.  Craig Brown seems to have chosen the encounters to include in this book based on some juicy bit of gossip or salacious detail.  By treating them as fodder for his gossip grist mill, he certainly seems to aim at knocking the patina off his subjects' reputations.  His admiration is reserved for only a select few. 

If your favorite TV shows include celebrity life styles, and you can't resist reading the tabloid headlines when you are standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, you'll enjoy this upscale version, and learn a number of interesting facts along the way, to boot.  One notable fact about Hello Goodbye Hello itself is that each of the 101 stories consists of exactly 1, 001 words (excluding the footnotes!).  Can you spell OCD?!  A book that's easy to pick up and put down, it's perfect for on-the-go reading.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Jacobites' Apprentice

If a rogue can only tell a lie, and a righteous person can only tell the truth, how is a young, inexperienced person to tell which is which in the swirling politics of an English town divided between loyalty to the Hanoverian King George II, or the "true" king James III in exile on the Continent - the Jacobite faction?  That's the question posed in The Jacobites' Apprentice (#230) by David Ebsworth.

Aran Owen, a young Welsh orphan, is sent by his patron to Manchester in the 1740s where Josiah Redmond thinks Aran will have better opportunities to make his fortune in his brother Titus Redmond's household.  Titus is a merchant with a finger in every pie, although his Catholic faith prohibits him from holding any civic offices.  That doesn't mean that Titus and his wife and older daughters don't meddle in politics; on the contrary, they are amongst the leaders of the local Jacobite faction.  When Aran completes his apprenticeship with the local printer, he is drawn into printing the broadsides and the newspaper supporting the Jacobites, although he finds drawing the illustrations for these the most satisfying part of his work.  As rumors abound that Prince Charles Edward Stuart is about to land somewhere in England Aran runs afoul of the enigmatic Dudley Striker, an agent of the Duke of Newcastle working for the Hanoverian interests.  Striker leaves behind a trail of mysterious deaths and mutilations as he cultivates his sources of information.  Aran has already suffered at his hands; can he protect Titus Redmond and his wife and four daughters as Striker plays his deadly games?  And as Manchester changes hands from the Hanoverians to the Jacobites and back again, who is truly working for the good of the English people?

I found it took me a long time to read this book.  I thought of The Jacobites' Apprentice principally as a political novel as I was reading it; governmental politics, small town politics, and sexual politics all play their role in the story. And that takes time to digest.  Love, loyalty and lies, betrayal and brutality move the story forward and from character to character as events unfold in the Rising of '45 and the specter of a full blown civil war threaten the inhabitants of Manchester.

In many ways, I found Aran Owen to be the least compelling character in the book, and Dudley Striker the most interesting.  His ability to slip in and out of different guises, to strike absolute terror into the hearts of those he encounters, and his uncanny knack for wriggling out of a tight spot with his wits, but if necessary, deadly force make him the ideal operative and double agent.  I don't think that the sentence meted out to him at the end of the book would ever be the final chapter for him...

I did find it interesting as an American reader of this story how many names cropped up in the narrative that were familiar to me in a different context - in the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution.  It impressed me that Mr. Ebsworth had even done his homework on Native American tribes and customs for Dudley Striker's back story growing up in Virginia.

Be warned when you read The Jacobites' Apprentice that the language of the times is quite coarse, but don't let that deter you.  Does Aran eventually figure out for himself who are the rogues and who the righteous?  Hmm.  I wonder...

Thursday, October 11, 2012


It didn't take me long to finish the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay (#229).  Katniss Everdeen has been snatched from the Quarter Quell arena by a hovercraft.  When she regains consciousness, she is being cared for in a District 13 hospital, far underground.  Several other victors have been rescued along with her, but Peeta has been captured by the Capitol.  Gale is there, though, with his family and hers, refugees after the Capitol bombed District 12 into oblivion immediately after the Games.

It gradually becomes clear to Katniss that District 13's President Coin has a specific role in mind for her.  She is to become the Mockingjay, the face of the rebellion, in a costume designed for her by her stylist Cinna before he was beaten to death in front of her.  Her job will be to appear in propaganda films for the rebels.  Beetee, one of the older victors, has recovered sufficiently from his own ordeal in the Quarter Quell to figure out how to hack into the Capitol broadcast system to air these "propos".   But Katniss isn't sure she wants to support a regime that has stood by and watched the other Districts be destroyed.  It seems she has exchanged one dictatorship for another, and if Katniss doesn't comply, those she loves will suffer.  Only two things drive her at this point: releasing Peeta from the clutches of the Capitol, and her desire to kill President Snow with her own hands.  It's a very costly war, indeed, physically, emotionally and psychologically. It's not at all certain that Katniss or anyone she loves or values will manage to survive.

I think that these books succeed because they are such compelling reading.  The reader is caught up in the world of Panem, but Suzanne Collins raises so many pertinent moral and ethical issues along the way that the questions and discussions that arise after reading this trilogy are as much a part of the story as the adventure itself.  That's why I think reading the book will always trump the movie version of any literary tale, no matter how well it's done.  It can only be a paler version of the original; after all, an action (thinking!) always creates a stronger impression than a passive (watching) experience.  I encourage you to read this series and think for yourselves.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Catching Fire

Now I understand why friends got very cranky if interrupted while reading any of the books in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy.  I just finished reading the second book, Catching Fire (#228), and I'm very grateful that my friends lent me the third book at the same time. 

The books are so well written, and in Catching Fire, the tension is ratcheted up even further.  Katniss Everdeen and her partner from District  12, Peeta Mellark have survived the Hunger Games by acting as a couple in love.  President Snow is forced to declare them both victors when they threaten suicide if both are not allowed to live.  Life should be good for them and their families now, but President Snow hasn't forgotten Katniss' public defiance, or the fact that rebellions are beginning to break out in the other Districts.  Katniss and Peeta see evidence of this themselves as they make the Victor's Tour through all the provinces. 

Their tour ends at the Capitol, where for the seventy fifth anniversary of the Dark Days, President Snow declares that the Quarter Quell, celebrated every twenty five years since, will be special this year: the participants will be reaped from the surviving victors of all the Districts.   To add to the horror in this round, not only had the victors  thought themselves safe, but they will be forced to fight against their friends.  Alliances will be formed, but who can be trusted now?  And what role does the mockingjay play?

I won't tell you, you'll  have to read for yourself to find out, but will reveal that I picked up Mockingjay just as soon as I put down Catching Fire.  Now don't bother me until I finish!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken

Although it sounds like The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (#227) by Tarquin Hall could be the title of a humorous dieter's memoir, it's actually the third outing in an entertaining mystery series featuring quirky Indian private investigator Vish Puri.  Having read and thoroughly enjoyed The Case of the Missing Servant, the first book in the series, I was delighted to win the latest book as a GoodReads First Reads giveaway.

Things have been quiet around Vish Puri's agency lately, so when he is called in to consult on the brazen night time theft of India's most famous mustache, he jumps at the chance to take on the case.  After all, what if his own lovingly tended mustache is at risk?  But his investigation must be put on hold as he and the rest of his extended family are expected at an important international cricket match.  His nephew will be making his debut against a strong team with star Pakistani players.  At the reception following the game, Vish witnesses some peculiar goings-on and the death of one of the Pakistani delegation after consuming some of the same Butter Chicken that he himself has just sampled  out of his wife's sight.  Maybe Rumpi is right about that diet he should be on...

Vish can't pursue the murder on his own, but an old Scotland Yard acquaintance contacts him to look into a cricket match-fixing gambling syndicate with international ramifications.  Involvement with the syndicate has already proved fatal to several people, as Vish's operatives pursue promising leads across India's social strata.  Vish is in danger himself, but even more worrisome is that fact that his own Mummy-ji seems to be investigating someone or something on her own.  She hasn't been the same since that post-game reception.  All the clues seem to be leading in the same disturbing direction  - Pakistan.  And the mustache thief isn't done yet, either.

Though at first glance, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken appears to be just another light-hearted mystery caper, as you read, you are drawn into the realities of India today: the modern technology struggling to pull India into the twenty first century at odds with the ancient customs, religious prejudices and poverty, all housed in a confusing jumble of slums, government-built blocks and glass skyscrapers.  And at the core is an event in India's fairly recent past that few of us in the West know much about: the Partition that in 1947 divided the Indian subcontinent into modern India and Pakistan, and later, Bangladesh.  I've got to love a book that provides entertainment with such a provocative punch.  Kudos, Mr. Hall!  Please keep Vish Puri on the case (with more recipes, of course!).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Bella Fortuna

Bella Fortuna (#226) by Rosanna Chiofalo was a Goodreads First Reads giveaway for me.  It's a romance partially set in Venice, the most atmospheric of cities and a place of wonderful memories for me.

Valentina DeLuca, the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, is about to fulfill her lifelong dream of marrying the man she loves in Venice.  And she'll be wearing the perfect dress she has designed for the occasion.  Valentina and her two sisters both work in her mother Olivia's shop, the Sposa Rosa, a successful New York wedding gown business featuring customized designer knock-offs.  But it turns out Michael isn't the perfect match Valentina thought he would be.  Determined not to let him destroy all her dreams, Valentina decides to visit Venice on her own.  Although imagining herself there with Michael is bound to cause her pain, she finds that there are unexpected compensations, too.

Although this is an enjoyable enough novel, it took two thirds of the book before Valentina even arrives in Venice, and frankly, the city that is featured on the cover and in the jacket blurbs gets pretty short shrift here with one notable geographic mistake for anyone who has ever been there.  I'm glad I had my Rosetta Stone background in Italian as I was reading, though, because there are a number of exchanges in the book in Italian which the author never bothers to translate, or give clues to the meaning through additional dialogue.  I find that very annoying myself.  And while I'm nitpicking, Valentina has the habit of correcting the English of the male Italian characters she runs into (while they're undressing her with their eyes, of course!), yet the author, who is herself the daughter of Sicilian immigrants brought up in New York City, employs several idioms throughout the book which are not common American usage.  Since when do Americans stand "on line" at the bakery, not "in line"?  Or when was the last time you referred to that passing cargo ship as a freight line cruiser?  I was brought up in a major port city and I've never heard that term.  It was also a bit distracting that halfway through the book Olivia DeLuca's story was inserted into Valentina's story in a seemingly random fashion.  It would have made more sense if her mother's story had been introduced earlier in the narrative.

On the plus side, though, I really did enjoy learning about the "behind the scenes" workings of a busy bridal boutique.  The designs and the materials used are all so far removed from our daily experiences it's nice to live vicariously in this world of fairytale luxury.  And for those who get hungry reading about all the delicious Italian dishes, Ms. Chiofalo includes some recipes in the back.  If you're in the mood for romance, Bella Fortuna may satisfy your romantic sweet tooth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Princess and the Pirates - SPQR IX

Decius Caecillia Metellus has just completed his successful and expensive year as aedile in Rome, but he is informed by his family that he cannot stand for praetor, the next step up the career ladder, until he has more military service under his belt.  Decius has no intention of going back to Gaul and serving under Julius Caesar, even if he is married to Caesar's niece.  His family proposes that a little pirate smashing off Cyprus will do the trick instead, and so the plot is set in motion for John Maddox Roberts' latest novel in his SPQR series: The Princess and the Pirates - SPQR IX (#225).

The princess in the plot is a young Cleopatra, who also happens to be a guest of the Roman Governor on Cyprus.  She thinks that Decius' task sounds like a great adventure and wants to come along.  How can Decius refuse a princess when she has a better fleet and more disciplined sailors than he can muster?  With his personal slave Hermes along until his wife can join him, Decius tries to sort out the situation on Cyprus so he can use the element of surprise against the resurgent pirates.  His best weapon is Ariston, an ex-pirate he recruits who takes the Roman coin to avoid future prosecution.  Rumors are flying that the leader of the new band of pirates is a Roman himself.  When the Governor is found murdered in a particularly gruesome fashion to make a point, suspicion falls on a number of people, including a prominent Roman exile and on Cleopatra herself.  Can Decius determine who is behind the pirate raids before he becomes a victim himself?

I enjoy Mr. Roberts' series featuring Decius who is opinionated, impatient and married into the family of the rising star of the Republic, while his own family's influence is on the wane.  Although he basically does the right thing himself, he keeps some questionable company, which is what keeps this SPQR series interesting.  You just never know which ancient Roman will pop up next... 

His Majesty's Dragon

I don't read a lot of fantasy, but His Majesty's Dragon (#224) by Naomi Novik was included on an NPR list a while back, and the idea of the Napoleonic Wars being waged with dragons intrigued me.  What can I tell you?  My husband and I are both now officially Temeraire fans.

Will Laurence has finally reached a comfortable place in his naval career as captain of the HMS Reliant, and is ready at long last to propose to the young lady of his choice and settle into his proper place in society.  But on his voyage home, his ship intercepts a French naval vessel in bad shape.  Its crew is easily overcome, but the captain fights to protect the precious cargo on board: a dragon's egg.  England has few dragons for its defense, so the egg is a valuable prize of war.  It can be turned over to the Aviator Corps as soon as they reach home, to hatch and bond for life with its handler.  But as fate would have it, the egg doesn't wait, and when Temeraire emerges from his shell, he chooses to bond with Will Laurence, not the young officer assigned to him.

For the good of the country, Will Laurence does his duty and remains with Temeraire, turning command of his ship over to his second, and joining the Aviator Corps himself for training along side his dragon.  His career hopes are dashed, as the Aviator Corps is considered a big step down from the Royal Navy, and Aviators don't as a general rule marry.  Training provides many surprises for Will, and he finds himself growing increasingly attached to the intelligent and highly unusual Temeraire.  A dragon expert finally identifies Temeraire's breed as a Chinese Imperial dragon, and the presence of the egg aboard a French ship leads Laurence and his commanders to conclude that the dragon was a gift for Napoleon.  Napoleon is determined to invade England and reclaim his dragon at the same time.  Will Laurence and his fellow Aviators may be the last line of defense for England if the Navy cannot hold the invaders off.

This series really has it all: part Jane Austen, part Horatio Hornblower, part Wizard of Oz, it's a perfectly satisfying blend of all three with Will Laurence doing his duty with honor and humanity, and a  host of interesting and unexpected characters on the ground and in the air, not least of which is the stable of dragons, each with his or her own personality and fighting strengths.

We read this book while on vacation in Portland, Oregon, and looking for the second and third books in this series to fill in the gap at our local library gave us the perfect excuse to explore an amazing store - Powell's Bookshop.  I'm happy to say we were successful in our mission (along with a number of other acquisitions we couldn't leave on the shelves!).  Thanks, Ms. Novik for your fertile imagination that still managed to make dragons feel right for the period.  We'll be eagerly following Temeraire through all his future adventures.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pirates of the Levant

More adventures of Captain Alatriste and his intrepid young companion Inigo Balboa in Arturo Perez-Reverte's latest: Pirates of the Levant (#223).  I came across this book last week when our local library had a display of non-fiction pirate books, and novels featuring pirates in conjunction with the Pirate Festival going on in town.  This book caught my eye when I recognized Perez-Reverte's name on the cover, and it was a welcome discovery.

I've missed two books in the series, as was evident from the references to shared adventures in the past, but this book concentrates on the time Captain Alatriste and Balboa, who is now old enough to feel himself an equal of his former master, spend as soldiers on a Spanish galley, patrolling the Mediterranean.  There was a time when the Spanish were even more to be feared in the Levant than the Turks or Barbary Coast pirates.  They raided both for the honor of Spain and to line their own pockets - after the King and the government and officers take their shares, of course.  Life was hard on the galleys, so the sailors and soldiers on board lived for the excitement of a raid or battle, or a chance to get up to mischief while in port.  The novel climaxes with a recounting of the naval battle of Cap Nero, in which two Spanish galleys, accompanied by a ship belonging to the Knights of Malta, are trapped by seven Turkish vessels in a duel to the death.

As usual, the book is sprinkled with snippets of Spanish poetry quoted by both Alatriste and Balboa as the narrative meanders along.  There isn't so much a plot as a recounting of what the life of a typical sea bound Spanish soldier was like in the early 16th century, with bows to the principals' past, and hints of what is to come in their futures.  Still fascinating...

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Best Women's Travel Writing - Volume 8

This is one of the rare books that I didn't care to finish.  The Best Women's Travel Writing - Volume 8 (#222) has such a beguiling cover, promising adventures in exotic lands where I know I will never go.  But as I began to read this collection of short stories, I realized that the vast majority of journeys chronicled in this volume were tours of the authors' internal landscapes.  I should have known from the editor Lavinia Spalding's Introduction when she talks about the recurring theme of family in this batch of stories that the geography of the places was incidental.  By the time I read half a dozen stories, I felt like an overwhelmed porter, straining to deal with an unwieldy cargo of emotional baggage. 

There's the story of a woman who runs away from the grief of her daughter's death by traveling to the most remote, inaccessible places - in this short story, it's Tibet.  But my internal critic kept kicking in as I was reading this self indulgent story; what about her other child, Sam?  He's curiously missing from the narrative, although her adopted daughter features in her memories of a night star-gazing on Lake Titicaca three weeks after she joins the family.  Other people have lost children, or spouses or parents and seem to have been able to move on with their lives.  Their losses are no less devastating, but they deal with it with quiet heroism, not the "I'm the only one who's ever lost anyone..." routine.  Also, I wanted to know how on earth she could afford the money or the time to take all the journeys she described over the last few years to Southeast Asia, South America, and so on?  What did I learn about Tibet here?  The sky is blue, and everybody uses yak butter.  Nothing new or revelatory there.

Or how about the graduate student who takes two male Muslim colleagues to experience the wonders of Walden Pond by taking them swimming in a remote cove out of sight or sound of the public beach when she knows that neither of them swim well?  Both of the men flounder only a few feet from shore, both nearly drowning and taking her with them.  My reaction to this story was an exasperated why do you think they have lifeguards, lady?  And she's surprised that this incident led to the breakup of her relationship with one of the men!  He had already told her there was no future for them because he wouldn't flaunt his family's good opinion of him.  She was basically there for him as a bed mate.  Wouldn't you want to find someone who wasn't as likely to cause you grievous bodily harm after this near death experience?  Besides, she managed to spoil many childhood memories of Walden Pond for me. 

To be fair, though, if all the stories in the book were more like Kimberly Lavato's amusing Lost and Liberated or Storming the Castles by Susan Orlean, I would have loved this book.  Ms. Lavato tells of trying to find an artisinal ice cream maker in the French Dordogne when her GPS system can't find the landmarks that are her only directions to her appointment.  When she does finally arrive, the ice cream maker constantly corrects her French and subjects her to a barrage of questions critical of the United States.  How she resolves the impasse, gets her interview and samples some of the most wonderful ice cream ever, make a satisfying story that couldn't be written anywhere else.  Likewise, Ms. Orleans's bold attempt to conquer the Loire Valley and its castles with her husband and six year old son on bikes make an amateur's efforts seem possible and inviting - if you buy enough Bag Balm first!

Bottom line: a couple of gems, but a lot of emotional dross.  Didn't care to spend the time to read just more of the same emotional bombs.  Might be a good selection for Oprah's Book Club, though.  Just my opinion.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Templar Magician

The Middle Ages of P.C. Doherty's The Templar Magician (#221) is a grim place with death lurking behind each rock and tree.  Edmund de Payens is a Templar knight, born and brought up in the Holy Land and kin to Hugh de Payens, one of the Order's founders.  He takes his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously, but all around him, things are changing.  When he and his fellow Templar Peter Mayele are assigned to protect Count Raymond, they are unable to prevent his assassination at the gates of Tripoli.  But who was actually responsible for the murder, and for what reason?

Rumors begin swirling around Jerusalem that witches, warlocks and sorcerers were involved, with the connivance of a mysterious Frankish nobleman, possibly a Templar himself.  The Grand Master assigns de Payens to investigate with the aid of Mayele and the Genoese Parmenio, who is not what he appears to be.  When the culprit is identified as an English Templar, Henry Walkyn, they are ordered to pursue him to England.  With a brutal civil war raging between King Stephen and Empress Mathilda for the English throne, Edmund must tread carefully to carry out the Grand Master's orders if he is to survive.

Dr. Doherty really makes the world of the Crusaders come alive in this book, as well as the period in English history when the chroniclers say "the saints slept".  If feeling grubby after reading about the living conditions back then is the measure of immersing yourself in the atmosphere of a different time and place, then this book, like Doherty's others, fits the bill.  So glad I can read about it, and not have to live there!  The bonus is that it's a good mystery, too, because I did not expect the ending.

Friday, September 7, 2012


SecondWorld (#220), a thriller by Jeremy Robinson does not stop.  Only a few pages into the book his hero,  Lincoln Miller, has already escaped from the undersea research station just off the Florida coast where his superiors at NCIS have sent him for an enforced vacation.  It just wasn't built to survive the impact of a dead blue whale.  When he reaches the surface, the former SEAL is ready to do battle with the polluters who caused the massive fish kill.  But the sky is red, and raining what appears to be blood, and its effect will literally take your breath away...

When Miller reaches Miami in a drifting sailboat, almost everyone is dead, and those who are still alive are bent on killing him and the young burn victim he finds under an oxygen tent in one of Miami's hospitals.  They manage to make it out alive and find themselves in Washington, D.C. where Lincoln learns that Tel Aviv and Tokyo have also been wiped out.  The President appeals for his help and Miller gains an unlucky ally in Elizabeth Adler as they try to determine just who the enemy is, and how to stop them. 

The clue is SecondWorld.  The Nazis at the end of World War II had almost perfected an incredible weapon of destruction.  They needed more time to complete this project, but now they're ready and Miami, Tel Aviv and Tokyo are just demonstrations for what is in store for the rest of the world as they prepare for the rise of the Fourth Reich.  The Nazis have carefully laid their plans for seventy years and infiltrated every level of government, science and business, hiding in plain sight.  Miller and Adler  have only five days to stop them...

Put your internal Fact Checker on hold, and just enjoy the ride.  You might want to zap some popcorn first!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bring Up The Bodies

I'm not usually a fan of novels that win literary prizes.  When praise is heaped on by critics it's almost always a sign that for me, the book will be difficult to read, abstract and on some level, unpleasant.  With time so short, I don't need to work hard to be made to feel intellectually stupid.  So it was with a great deal of surprise that I couldn't read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the first of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell and winner of the Man Booker Prize, fast enough.  I couldn't wait until the second volume came out.  I am delighted to say that Bring Up The Bodies (#219) is even better.

Anne Boleyn's power has peaked at the opening of the book.  She hasn't been able to produce the promised male heir, and Henry is already starting to look elsewhere.  Since she and Thomas Cromwell have always been at odds, it doesn't weigh too heavily on his conscience to help the king achieve his goal of a legitimate heir to the throne.  And truth be told, Anne doesn't make it too difficult for him.  There is never any doubt about how this story ends, so the pleasure of reading Bring Up The Bodies is in the nuances, the details of everyday life in the Court's administration, and the tantalising details about Cromwell's own life and his relationships with those around him: those who use him, those who fear him, and those who revere him.

I heard Scott Simon on NPR several years ago when he interviewed Hilary Mantel about this project.  He told her how much he enjoyed reading the book, and how he just couldn't bear to think about Thomas Cromwell's head ending up on a pike at the end because he liked him so much.  Now that's an accomplishment, to humanize someone that history takes for granted as a dyed-in-the-wool villain.  Very few authors succeed at such a daunting task when the evidence seems to weigh so heavily against their subject, but Ms. Mantel has made Cromwell into someone I'd like to have over for dinner so I could pick his busy, busy brain.  I think she's done for Cromwell what Josephine Tey (Daughter of Time) and Sharon Kay Pennman (The Sunne in Splendor) have done for Richard III.  I will hate to see this trilogy end as it must.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Leader of the Pack

In Andy Carpenter's opinion, it's all Tara's fault that he re-opens a cold case for a client who was convicted of a double murder six years ago.  If Tara hadn't become a therapy dog, Andy never would have visited Joey Desimone's uncle Nicky Fats, a retired enforcer for the Desimone crime family.  And he never would have heard Nicky say something that leads him to believe the Family knows something about Joey's guilt or innocence.  Since Leader of the Pack (#218) is the ninth book in this series by David Rosenfelt, you know that Andy can't let this little tidbit go.

It's been six long years since Joey was convicted of the crime that Andy believes he didn't commit, and nothing has happened to change anyone else's opinion in the meantime.  That is until Andy starts poking around.  You don't want to mess with the Mafia, especially since it could cost you your life.  But the attacks only make Andy more determined to get to the bottom of things.  Andy succeeds in getting Joey's case re-opened, but will the verdict be what Andy had hoped for? 

I read a review of Leader of the Pack the day I got the library notice this book was available, and I was somewhat dismayed that the reviewer reported that Rosenfelt's trademark humor was missing from this book.  The mystery was as well plotted with unexpected twists as ever, but he warned the reader to be prepared for a more sober read. 

I'm happy to report that in my opinion, this was not the case.  Andy was still his wise-cracking self, and his usual legal team all had their moments, especially Tara, who, however briefly, highlighted the positive role animals can play in improving the physical and mental health of patients.  Maybe Andy can wait until hell freezes over before he takes on his next case, but I sure hope I don't have to wait that long!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Tropical storm Isaac gave me the perfect excuse to hunker down and devour James Rollins' latest Sigma Force thriller Bloodline (#217).  I hardly came up for breath until I had finished it.

The president's daughter has been kidnapped, and Sigma force has been assigned the task of retrieving her alive.  That sounds pretty straightforward, but in true Rollins fashion, twists abound and both the victim and the entire team face situations where logic tells you that they can't possibly survive.  The scientific twist to this plot centers around the search for immortality; through genetic engineering, technology, artificial intelligence or some combination thereof.  And, also as usual, the scariest thing about this book is the plausibility of it happening.  Mr. Rollins provides links to websites and videos which show what progress has already been made towards that goal.

Rollins introduces two new Sigma team members in Bloodline, former Marine Wayne Tucker, highly decorated  Afghan War veteran, and his partner Kane.  Kane is able to provide the team with unique tracking capabilities and intel.  Did I mention that Kane is a highly trained military war dog?  Rollins actually debuts these characters in a short story prequel available on Amazon called Tracker.  If you have the opportunity, I'd highly recommend that you read this first, just because Tucker and Kane are so appealing.

Suffice it to say that Sigma succeeds in its mission, with some minor characters stepping up to fill in some of the gaps, strengthening relationships among the team members, though not without a powerful secret being revealed.  I have a feeling that secret will play a large role in future Sigma Force books, which is a good thing because it means there will be more coming.  Yay!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Queen's Lover

The Queen's Lover (#216) by Francine du Plessix Gray is the story of Axel von Fersen, the Swedish count rumored to be the lover of Marie Antoinette, told from his viewpoint and that of his sister, Sophie.  If you're aware of him at all, you probably remember that he was the mastermind behind the failed escape of the royal family.  This book gives a broader picture of the dashing Axel von Fersen from the time of his Grand Tour of Europe and his initial meeting with the nineteen year old Marie Antoinette to his friendship with King Gustavus III of Sweden, his campaign in America as aide-de-camp to Rochambeau's French regiment, his relationship with the French royal family and his death in 1810 at the hands of a Swedish mob.

From everything else I've ever read about him, I really expected that I would like and admire Count von Fersen, but after reading The Queen's Lover, I've come to the opposite conclusion, probably because I wasn't crazy about the book itself.  Ms. du Plessix Gray has certainly done her homework and uncovered any number of interesting and salacious tidbits about the French Court, and with Axel writing his memoirs, the first section of this novel is a bit like reading a celebrity tell-all; gossipy with a bite of malice.  But when he turns to the supposed affair he has with Marie Antoinette, he is curiously uncommunicative, despite his protestations of love and devotion.  I was never convinced that there was ever any emotional connection between these two as the narrative descends into yet another pedantic retelling of the events surrounding the escape of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette as far as Varennes, where they are recognized and brought back to Paris.  Von Fersen flees to Belgium as he was instructed as soon as he learns of this, but any history book will tell you the dry details of what happens to the family in Paris right up until the moment of Marie Antoinette's execution.  As soonsas he hears the news, Fersen promptly jumps in a couch to drive himself to the home of Eleanore Sullivan where he consoles himself in her arms.  He begs the reader not to misunderstand, but he does have his needs. Ugh.  The narrative becomes a little livelier at that point as he philanders his way back to Sweden and several high offices there, but his attitudes have become so reactionary and snobbish that by the time he is attacked during the funeral cortege of the Crown Prince of Sweden, whom he's accused of poisoning, I didn't have much sympathy for him.

If the author had stuck to the same tell-all style throughout the book, it would have made it much more interesting.   But as for the actual affair, I've read other sources on the subject, for example Antonia Frasier's excellent biography of Marie Antoinette, which doubt the affair was ever physically consummated.  Even the author admits in the Notes at the end of The Queen's Lover that the Dauphin's heart tissue was recently tested and the DNA conclusively proved that the boy was Louis's son, not Fersen's.  If you've ever read a supermarket tabloid while standing in line at the checkout counter, you know that these kind of stories sell newspapers, but there isn't a whole lot of truth behind them.  Color me unconvinced, and not even wishing that it could have been so...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What in God's Name

I zipped right through Simon Rich's new novel What in God's Name (#215) in just a few hours.   I had received the book as a Good Reads First Reads giveaway, and I was anxious to see what would happen when God decides to retire as CEO of Heaven, Inc. and get rid of those pesky humans. 

Craig, an Angel working in the Miracles Department, is proud of what he does and goes upstairs to confront God about his decision when he gets the memo.  Even though he winds up becoming an investor in the new restaurant God is planning to open the day after He destroys the Earth, he manages to talk God into accepting a bet to save the human race.  With the help of Eliza, the newest Angel recruit to Miracles, Craig has thirty days to answer just one of the mountain of prayers God has gotten over the past few years. 

What seems like a slam dunk petition from two different humans who both want to be together turns into a challenge they might not be able to meet as Craig and Eliza try to match up two of the most socially awkward young people in New York.

An amusing story, but one that does give you pause to think; why should God care about us, if He does exist?  Since I do happen to believe in Him, I know this story will stay with me for awhile.  Thanks, Mr. Rich, for providing more than I expected with this little book.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Winter Queen (Different novel, different author from 6/30/12 post)

Brush up on your Latin if you read Jane Stevenson's novel about Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, sometimes called The Winter Queen (#214) due to the brevity of her reign with her husband, the Elector of Palatine.  Ms. Stevenson quotes extensively in Latin, Dutch and Yoruba without condescending to translate.

In this novel, the first of a trilogy, the book follows the fortunes of Dr. Pelagius van Overmeer, a former prince of Africa (He would have to be.) overthrown in a palace coup and sold to the "Portugals" as a slave.  He is sold on to the Dutch spice market in Batavia in the East Indies, where he becomes the property of the curmudgeonly Dutchman Comrij.  Comrij is obsessed with composing the definitive book on plants of the East Indies.  In service to writing this book, he converts Pelagius to Christianity, and educates him to be his assistant.  After twenty years, he frees Pelagius and allows him to travel to Holland to fulfill his dream of becoming a doctor of theology, and returning as a missionary to Batavia.  When Comrij returns to Holland to prepare his book for publication, he has no compunction about yanking Pelagius back to become his unpaid servant again.

About a third of the way through this philosophical discussion of religion and botany, Pelagius finally meets Elizabeth, the exiled Queen of Bohemia.  She has been widowed for many years now, and lives to further the Protestant cause in Europe through the careers of her oldest sons on a barely adequate pension from her brother, Charles I of England.  Pelagius has been supporting himself since the death of Comrij through interpretations of the Ifa, an African form of consulting the Sibyl, on  which his thesis is based.  Elizabeth sends for him, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Only it's not, of course.  One review called this a "fairy tale romance"  and this is definitely spun out of whole cloth.  To believe  Elizabeth and Pelagius would enter into a clandestine marriage on the advice of her chaplain strains credulity.  The pair have long and heartfelt discussions about the state of religion as they snatch nights together locked away in Elizabeth's room, hardly the pillow talk of romance.  They do however, manage to produce a child, Balthazar, promptly smuggled out of the palace to be raised by a poor couple far to the south who need the money from fostering this child, no questions asked. 

I understand Balthazar becomes a central figure in the rest of the trilogy, but I'll have to take that as a given, since I won't be reading the rest.  If The Winter Queen is any indication, I don't need to read any more of this insufferably tedious tale.  Disappointing, because the premise had such appeal...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Year Zero

I'm not usually a science fiction fan, although I absolutely loved Douglas Adams" A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, so when I heard Rod Reid being interviewed on NPR about his new book Year Zero (#213), I knew I had to read it.

Imagine that there is intelligent life on trillions of other planets out there, and just like us, they're constantly searching for life on other planets.  One day they pick up a broadcast out of New York City, and for the first time they hear music from planet Earth.  It's so glorious to them that the initial listeners' brains hemorrhage from sheer ecstasy.  Soon they're copying all of Earth's songs to every planet in the Refined League, and every inhabitant of those planets and blissing out on their own personal playlists.  Until they accidentally discover a small fly in the ointment: American music copyright laws.  Every being on every planet now owes every human on Earth (except the North Koreans) $150,000 per song they have downloaded.  Payment of those copyright violations will bankrupt the entire rest of the Universe, and then some.  Unless Nick Carter, a low level associate attorney at Carter, Geller & Marks, the premier law firm dealing with music copyright issues, can find a way to head off the coming cataclysm with help from Carly and Frampton, the aliens who first bring the problem to Nick's attention.

As absurd, preposterous and wildly entertaining as this story is, the scary part of this tale is that everything in Year Zero about U.S. copyright law as it pertains to music is accurate.*  If I were an alien, I'd be tempted to take out our puny planet if it wouldn't also mean the end of sublime music!  I couldn't help but think as I was reading this, that it would make a terrific movie.  Hands down, I'd cast Sigourney Weaver as Judy Sherman, Nick Carter's scary, scary boss...

*The footnotes are especially hilarious.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wicked Autumn

The remote English village of Nether Monkslip is the setting for G. M. Mallliet's Wicked Autumn (#212), a quaint yet artsy community where everyone assiduously minds everyone else's business.  At the center of this community and a source of much speculation is relative newcomer Max Tudor, the vicar of St. Edwold's and former MI5 intelligence officer.  He hopes to find peace and tranquility is this rural setting.

Alas, that is not to be with the frenzy leading up to the annual Harvest Fayre, organized with military precision by the indomitable Wanda Batton-Smythe, president of the Women's Institute and self-anointed queen of Nether Monkslip.  She has stepped on so many toes that at the height of the Harvest Fayre, no one is surprised when she is found dead in the Village Hall.  It appears that Wanda has accidentally eaten something containing peanuts and didn't get to her epinephrine pen in time to counteract it.  Father Max was there when her body was discovered, and something doesn't seem quite right to him.  With his background and training, DCI Cotton from nearby Monkslip-super-Mare promptly enlists Max to help him with his investigation, knowing that the villagers will reveal more to Max than to the police.  There are many colorful characters to interview, most of whom heartily disliked Wanda and her imperious ways, but do any of them have a strong enough reason to have acted upon their feelings?  Max certainly hopes not, as he moves towards putting the final clues together and unmasking the murderer and the motive, but wickedness is certainly abroad in Nether Monkslip as he discovers.

One of my friends recommended G. M. Mallliet's Wicked Autumn, (at church, of course!) and I'm glad she did, as both my husband and I enjoyed this English cozy. The author is new to me although she has won an Agatha for her previous work.  We'll both be looking forward to further tales of Nether Monkslip.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Proposal

I used to really love reading Regency romances.  Maybe I'm too old for them now, or maybe I used to like them because they only implied sex, and didn't spell it out for you as though you didn't have any imagination of your own.  That's undoubtedly why I didn't care much for Mary Balogh's latest, The Proposal (#211).

Lady Gwendoline Muir is just that; a lady.  When Lord Hugo Trentham rescues her from a rocky beach slope after she has severely sprained her ankle and carries her to the nearest residence where he is a house guest, she finds him large, intimidating, morose and scowling.  He is a middle class, mentally wounded war veteran of the Peninsular War who earned his title through singular valor.  Of course, his father was a highly successful businessman who left his fortune and his business interests to his only son, so Trentham is filthy rich.  He has decided to marry, since his father wanted him to pass the business empire along to his own son.  Besides, he has to find a suitable husband for his half sister and has no idea how to go about it.  He also wants sex on a regular basis. Gwen and Hugo come from totally different worlds, they don't appear to like each other very much, yet they have steamy sex on the beach two days after they meet (!).  You've known how this one was going to end from the first page...

Frankly, I think this book at over three hundred pages was way too long.  Even at two hundred, the story would still have been stretched so thin it would have been pushing it.  The dialogue between Gwen and Hugo was preposterous.  If you want to read something steamy, I would definitely want the pillow talk to be romantic and/or imaginative.  It falls flat here, and doesn't get any better.  Guess I won't be putting a Hold on any of Ms. Balogh's future offerings.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Master & God

I've long been a fan of Lindsey Davis' Marco Didius Falco mystery series, set in Ancient Rome during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian.  In Master & God (#210), she has produced a stand alone novel about the 15 year reign of the Emperor Domitian, the second of Vespasian's sons who presided over his own Reign of Terror.

Though the subject matter is grim, Davis makes the period come alive when told through the stories of Flavia Lucilla, an imperial freedwoman and successful court hairdresser, and Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a former legionnaire medically discharged to a home posting in the vigiles, Rome's fire/police department.  These two unlikely characters meet when the skinny fifteen year old Lucilla's mother is robbed of her jewelry and Vinius investigates (or so he promises!).  Shortly afterwards, Vinius catches the eye of the young Domitian while his popular brother Titus (he of Masada fame) is Emperor, and reluctantly accepts a promotion to the elite Praetorian Guard, the Emperor's personal bodyguard.

A number of years go by before these two meet again when they find themselves co-owners of the lease of a spacious Roman apartment.  Each has been promised by the shifty landlord that the other tenant will never be there.  Lucilla has inherited her mother and sister's talent at hairdressing and the imperial customers, too, that give her entry to the doings of the court. (For a look at the fashion-forward hairstyle of the time mentioned in the book, see the photo in the Wikipedia entry on Domitian: How Lucilla styled the Empress' hair )  Vinius in the meantime is rising through the ranks of the Praetorian Guard, so they naturally keep crossing paths both at home and at work.  The tension of "will they, or won't they?" and "what else could possibly happen to keep these two apart?" persists right up until Domitian's death and the end of this absorbing tale.

Davis has a deft hand with her trademark humor and wit.  Who else could paint such a vivid character portrait of the paranoid Domitian using Musca, the fly, to make the point? Both my husband and I spent several pleasurable hours immersed in Master & God. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shadow of Night

I've been waiting to get my hands on Shadow of Night (#209) by Deborah Harkness ever since I put down the first book of this All Souls trilogy, A Discovery of Witches. (See my post of 4/1/11)

Shadow of Night picks up exactly where the first book ends, with Diana Bishop, Yale professor and reluctant witch, making a leap of faith with Matthew Clairmont, Oxford biochemist and vampire, back to the London of 1590 in search of the mysterious rare manuscript Ashmolean 782 in hopes that it will allow them a future together.  It's clear that if she is to survive, Diana must learn what her witchy powers are, and how to control her magic, so it is vital that she finds a witch in this time willing to teach her.

Since Matthew has lived through this period before, he has a home and a circle of notable friends and enemies.  He is also Queen Elizabeth I's "Shadow", employed by her as a spy.  But even he can't protect Diana from the powerful creatures who inhabit London until his father Philippe accepts Diana into the family.  The action moves from Elizabeth's  London to the de Clermont's castle in France to the Prague of Rudolf II and back again, with a few chapters tracking action in the present day, setting the stage for the coming storm in the third and final book.

Much as I liked this book, I did find it confusing at times.  It's been more than a year since I read the first book.  Although I have a fairly good memory, I've read more than a hundred books since A Discovery of Witches.  It was difficult to remember many characters and events from the first book without some kind of hint of who they were, or why the events were significant.  And if you haven't read A Discovery of Witches first, don't even bother to try to read this one.  I wish I'd had a Cliff Notes version of it to review before reading Shadow of Night.  That aspect reminded me of Stieg Larson's Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, which I think was just one huge novel, divided into three sections for publication and financial convenience.  I'm already thinking I'm going to be just as much behind when the third book arrives next year!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism

In this timely book Congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein explore the causes of Congress' dysfunction, placing the blame squarely where it belongs, and offer some solutions to get Congress back on track and doing their job: governing effectively.

I found that every example Mann and Ornstein gave regarding Florida politics rang absolutely true, so it's likely the same is true for the politics and politicians wherever the reader happens to live. 

Bottom line?  I think It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (#208) should be required reading for every American citizen, preferably before the 2012 elections.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Love in a Nutshell

After the intensity of Jean Zimmerman's The Orphanmaster, I treated myself to a little bit of fluff with Janet Evanovich and Dorien Kelly's romance Love in a Nutshell (#207). This book delivered just what I was in the mood for.

Kate Appleton lost her husband, lost her job, and even worse, lost custody of her beloved poodle Stella to her ex.  She's ready to start over, and decides to renovate her parents' lakeside summer cottage in Keene's Harbor, Michigan, as a bed and breakfast.  Her finances are a mess, and she needs a job, pronto.  Kate talks her way into one at Depot Brewing, a local microbrewery.  She knows they're having some problems, because that's the reason she was fired from her last job at a local bar - skunky beer from Depot.  She convinces Matt Culhane, the handsome single owner (in a book like this, is there any other kind?), that she can find out who is sabotaging the brewery...

A mystery to solve, a romance that moves along briskly without revealing every little detail, and more information about how beer is made than I ever thought I'd find interesting.  Just goes to show why Janet Evanovich and her new partner Dorien Kelly sell so many books.  They're just plain fun to read.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Orphanmaster

A couple of years ago I read Jean Zimmerman's The Women of the House:  How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty about the role female entrepreneurs played in the social and economic life of the colony of New Netherlands with a great deal of interest.  She has now written her first novel, The Orphanmaster (#206).

In her first work of fiction, Ms. Zimmerman has returned to the Dutch-controlled settlement of New Amsterdam in 1663.  Orphans have been going missing in the town, and the orphanmaster, Aet Visser, is not convinced when making his rounds that the orphan boy William Turner whom he placed with an English family, is the same boy he saw on his previous visit. Visser approaches newly arrived English visitor Edward Drummond to see if Drummond can determine whether or not the mute William is who the Godbolts claim he is, since a sizable inheritance is involved.  Visser is unaware that Edward is on a mission of his own for Charles II of England. 

When a young African girl goes missing, members of the Little Angola community outside New Amsterdam's palisade wall ask ambitious she-merchant Blandine van Couvering, herself an orphan, to find out what has happened to the missing child.  Edward and Blandine's paths cross in the course of their investigations, and as the disappearances mount, they pool their resources.  Can the culprit be human, or could it be the witika, the flesh-eating demon of Indian mythology who could be responsible? Between Indian incursions, the mounting threat of attack from the Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut English colonies, and the settlers' discontent with Petrus Stuyvesant, their own leader, matters are coming to a head in New Amsterdam.  The threats to both Edward and Blandine are very real...

I stayed up late reading The Orphanmaster because I found the twists and turns of the plot riveting.  With that said, a warning that this book is not for the squeamish.  The nature of the crimes themselves are highly unpleasant and graphically described.  For that reason, I'd rate this novel R instead of PG-13, but well worth reading if you like suspenseful well-researched historical fiction.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Seven Wonders

If you've ever wondered about Steven Saylor's Roman detective Gordianus the Finder, and how he came to be so knowledgeable about the remarkable sights of the ancient world, The Seven Wonders (#205) is the novel to read.

Although Gordianus has been wearing the toga of manhood for a year when the story begins, he's still a boy in many ways.  His father, the Finder, wishes to protect him from the oncoming political unrest in Rome, and he does so by shipping Gordianus off to see the Seven Wonders of the World with Antipater of Sidon, the renowned poet, as his companion.  Only Antipater has his own reasons for setting off on this tour, and fakes his own death and funeral so he can travel incognito. Gordianus really doesn't care, because he's about to embark on the adventure of his life.  In each chapter, the pair visit a different marvel - the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the ruins of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great Pyramid in  Egypt - and in each place Gordianus encounters a mystery which he sets out to solve. He has a number of unique experiences and grows up in the process, although he nearly fails to see the biggest mystery of all right under his own nose.

Steven Saylor has borrowed some of his own materials from previously published short story anthologies to put together this entertaining book.  My husband thought he recognized several of the stories, but since he doesn't usually read the author's notes at the end he missed Saylor's explanation.  Since I'm not a huge fan of short stories, it was all new to me.  I can remember devouring the chapters about the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels, a childhood classic.  It was fun to revisit these marvels in well-researched grown-up guise as a typical tourist of the times, with the added bonus of the Pharos of Alexandria, not one of the original Seven.  Throw in a mystery, or even a murder, at each site for Gordianus to hone his fledgling detective skills on, and what could be better fans of the ancient world?