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Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Irish Country Village

My sister-in-law told me about this book when she was here visiting last month.  She told me that I'd find An Irish Country Village (#167) a delightful read, and she was correct.  This is actually a sequel to An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor and I suppose I should have started with that one, but our library had Village on its St. Patrick's Day related reading display, so I grabbed it.

So much happens in this book that it's hard to believe that the entire novel takes place in a two week time span.  It's 1964 and Barry Laverty. M.D. has just begun working with Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, the General Practitioner for the wee fictional village of Ballybucklebo, Northern Ireland.  Ballybucklebo has not been disturbed much by The Troubles in nearby Bangor and Belfast, but that's not to say there isn't plenty going on here.   Just as Barry begins to feel that the villagers are accepting him as part of O'Reilly's practice, an important patient dies.  Barry missed a critical diagnosis in this hypochondriac patient that O'Reilly catches.  Still, the patient dies suddenly after surgery.  Suddenly, no one coming to the surgery wants to see Barry.  Only O'Reilly will do.  He's just been offered a partnership if he successfully completes a year in Ballybucklebo.  Should he follow his heart and stay, or would it be better for the practice if he leaves?  O'Reilly figures the best way to keep his mind off his own troubles is to keep him working, and work he does, with a wide variety of injuries and illnesses and problem patients.

The relationships between Laverty and O'Reilly, the interaction with their housekeeper "Kinky" Kincaid, and the way both doctors approach their patients are at the heart of this book.  And that's not to say that there isn't a fair amount of romance going on, too. 

1964 doesn't seem that long ago, but in rural Irish society and medicine, it was a different world, one that is long gone now.  Still, it's a wonderful place to visit for a few hours.   If you're a fan of James Herriott and Maeve Binchey, chances are that you'll enjoy An Irish Country Village.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Explosive Eighteen

What better way is there to spend an afternoon than curled up on a couch reading about the train wreck that is Stephanie Plum's life?  I just finished reading Janet Evanovich's Explosive Eighteen (#166) and it didn't disappoint.

Stephanie headed for Hawaii at the end of Smokin' Seventeen, but at the beginning of Explosive Eighteen she's fleeing the vacation from hell in Hawaii, and she doesn't want to talk about it to anyone.  Not to her sidekick Lula, not to her family, and not to the FBI or anyone else who is asking about her trip home.  Just because she found a photo in her bag that doesn't belong to her or mean anything to her doesn't mean that she's going to hang on to it, so she tosses it in the trash at her parents' house.  Stephanie doesn't at first connect the photo to her seatmate who didn't get back on the plane at LAX and is later found dead, stuffed into a garbage can after multiple people show up at her doorstep demanding she hand it over to them.  Trouble just seems to follow Stephanie around.  And why are Stephanie, Morelli and Ranger all mad at each other?  Could it have anything to do with the missing tan line on her ring finger?

And all along the way are the skips that Stephanie tries to bring in, including her lifelong nemesis Joyce Barnhardt.  How does she of all people wind up camped out in Stephanie's apartment?  But conditions are better there than at the Bail Bonds office.  The temporary RV Vinnie was using has mysteriously burned to the ground, the coffee shop isn't working out as a temporary office, but the place that they do rent short term provides a climax to the story that had me laughing out loud.  And by the end, things are starting to look up again for Stephanie.  The only problem is that by the time I finish reading one of these books, I have a real craving for Cluck-in-a-Bucket.  Excuse me while I go find some fried chicken...

Monday, March 26, 2012

An Irreverent Curiosity

I was browsing the religion shelves in our local library in search of some Lenten reading when An Irreverent Curiosity (#165) caught my eye.  An aptly named book, too, I discovered.  David Farley is a New York based journalist who documents his quest to determine the whereabouts of a relic supposedly stolen from the priest's house in Calcata, Italy, a remote town outside Rome.  The missing relic in question is none other than the Holy Foreskin of Jesus.  Though once highly revered, this particular relic by order of the Vatican since 1900 could only be displayed to the faithful in Calcata once a year and anyone who writes or talks about it without Vatican permission is still subject to excommunication.  So of course I had to read this book!

After twelve years of parochial school, I knew about relics, and that there was a relic embedded in the altar stone of our church, but no one ever saw it.  On the other hand, I lived within walking distance of the various museums at Harvard, and spent a great deal of time with my friends looking at some of the strange objects on display which turned out to be reliquaries.  Lots of silver and gold and jewels, but not anything I'd ever want to have in my own house.  David Farley became similarly fascinated by the cult of these relics and moves with his wife and dog to the medieval hill town of Calcata to see if he can sort out how the Holy Foreskin arrived there in the first place, and what really happened to it on that fateful day in 1983.  I actually did learn quite a bit about how and why relics became popular in the early Christian church.  It should come as no surprise that relics also played an important role in the Reformation and succeeding religious wars.  But what makes this book so entertaining (once you get over the ewh! factor of this particular relic) are Farley's tales of all the quirky characters he meets while living in this town and his attempts to conduct this investigation with minimal fluency in Italian when he begins.  How do you make any progress if no one seems to know anything, or refuses to discuss the Holy Foreskin?

I'm not sure exactly how I'd characterize this book; it's shelved with religious texts, but it's just as much of a travel book in some ways.  It's probably not to everyone's taste, but it did get me thinking about some aspects of religious worship and why they became important.  And that was my goal in seeking out a book from this section.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace (#164) by Eva Stachniak is subtitled A Novel of Catherine the Great, but I don't think that's accurate.  It's really about a young Polish girl who is taken into the Russian Imperial household after her parents' death.  Varvara Nikolayevna catches the eye of the Chancellor, and so begins her career as a "tongue" or spy.  Everyone is watched at court and everyone is watching.  Varvara reports not just to the Chancellor, but also to the Empress Elizabeth is reigning after seizing the throne in a coup.  When Elizabeth brings Sophie, a minor German princess, to court as a potential wife for her nephew, the Crown Prince, Varvara is one of the first to befriend her.  As Sophie struggles to stay at court and make her mark with the Empress, Varvara is one of the few to support her.  How Sophie, now converted to Russian Orthodoxy and renamed Catherine, manages to win allies and rise to seize the throne in turn is told through the chinks of Varvara's view.

I found Ms. Stachniak's story of a world where everything is for show, nothing is private, and alliances are constantly shifting fascinating.  How tiring it must have been to live in a place where every expression, every word is carefully repeated and analyzed by dozens of other people for their own purposes.  Yet some, like Catherine, manage to thrive in this northern jungle.  This book ends just after Catherine assumes power, with the promise of Empire of the Night soon to follow.  The big question will be since Varvara seems to have escaped from the suffocating court atmosphere for the sake of herself and her daughter, who will be the narrator of the events of Catherine's later reign?  I will surely be reading the sequel to find out!  I found it especially interesting since I don't know much about Catherine the Great or the Russia of her time.  My book club will be discussing Robert Massie's new biography of Catherine in April, but I still have thirty three people ahead of me on the library's reserve list.  I suppose that this is a good indication that interest in Catherine is as strong as ever.

And just a note on the cover art of The Winter Palace: did anyone else pick up on the fact that the sumptuous portrait detail used on the cover of this edition was, in fact, part of a portrait of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, one of Empress Elizabeth's political rivals?  Ironic, isn't it?  I have included a link in case you would like to see the entire portrait:  Portrait of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria .  If you're curious as I was about what Empress Elizabeth actually looked like, I've included a link for that as well.  The Wikipedia article includes the portrait of Elizabeth as a child referenced in The Winter PalaceEmpress Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia .  And finally, last but by no means least, a link to Wikipedia's article on Catherine the Great herself, which includes several portraits of the young Catherine as well as several of the characters who appear in The Winter Palace.  I always like to have an image in mind when I read about real people.  Catherine the Great .  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Soulless (#163) by Gail Carriger has been sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust waiting for just the right opportunity to read it.  One of my friends had this book passed on to her from her daughter a while back and sniffed that it was just "about vampires and werewolves and things like that".  She gave me no indictation of what turned out to be an absolutely delightful read.  I haven't read, nor do I have any intention of reading, the Twilight series or its ilk.  I have read and enjoyed the Sookie Stackhouse supernatural series, but confess to liking MaryJanice Davidson's Undead series even more because of the humor.  Soulless for me is the perfect blend of historical fiction (Victorian London), Jane Austenish comedy of manners, over-the-top supernatural characters (love that Lord Akeldama!), strong, intelligent female lead character and just the right spice of romance.  And oh, yes, a parasol.

Of course, as far as I'm concerned, the best part of Soulless is that it is the first of the Alexia Tarabotti novels, and that there are at least four more to follow at this point, and that I already have the next two on my overcrowded bookshelf.  I alternated between laughing out loud at the antics and biting my nails when the outcome couldn't possibly be positive, but all with the cozy conviction that I was reading a particularly tasty literary tidbit.

Just one caveat on my part, and for most people, I suppose it's a minor one: I find the cover art for this series off-putting.  Yes, I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but with so many books out there clamoring for your attention, a glance at the cover art is still in most cases a make-or-break moment.  You either decide to pick up the book and pursue it further, or you bypass it.  Fortunately for me, this book came to my notice as an Amazon recommendation, and I read the blurbs before I decided to purchase it, despite the repellant cover.  That's just me, and you know if you read my blog regularly that I have a strong opinion about the role of cover art.  I'm so glad I took a chance on Soulless!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Catch of Consequence

Both my husband and I have read the mysteries in the Mistress of the Art of Death series set in medieval England by Ariana Franklin with a great deal of interest.  A Catch of Consequence (#162) is by the same author, written under her own name, Diana Norman.  In this book, Ms. Norman turns her attention to pre-Revolutionary Boston. 

On a hot August morning, tavern keeper Makepeace Burke isn't just hauling lobster pots out of the Harbor; she rescues a well-dressed British visitor from a group of Sons of Liberty who have beaten him and thrown him to drown.  It's against Makepeace's principles to let him die, but her action pits her neighbors against her, forcing her to flee to England with the rest of her ill-assorted household.  Sir Philip Dapifer marries Makepeace at sea, but even more difficulties await her in England as she struggles to adapt to English society and the enmity of the first Lady Dapifer. 

Makepeace is indomitable; not always likable, but indomitable as she calls on her Puritan faith and Yankee resilience to carry through the difficult times.  Her life takes some unpredictable turns as this fascinating tale unfolds.  A conventional romantic heroine would have curled up in a corner weeping long before this story runs its course.  So glad Makepeace is one of a kind!  Several cuts above the usual romantic historical fiction and highly recommended!

Minutes to Burn

Going back to read some of Gregg Hurwitz's earlier books, I came across Minutes to Burn (#161), a scientific thriller reminiscent of James Rollins, but not nearly as good.

A shift of the earth's tectonic plates off the Galapagos Islands has resulted in years of earthquakes and devastation in the western Americas with resulting political turmoil in the near future.  Scientists want to put out detecting equipment on the westernmost Galapagos Island to help them predict future earthquakes and contol the damage they cause.  A half team of reserve and on-leave Navy Seals is put together to baby-sit the scientists on this expedition.  It's supposed to be a simple in-and-out mission, but everyone has been ignoring the stories coming out of the island about a "tree monster" that has been wreaking havoc.  Soon, the team finds itself cut off from the mainland in a fight not just for their lives, but those of the entire planet.

This book is twice as long as it needs to be.  The beginning got off to a very slow start, mired in scientific minutiae and jargon that was totally unneccessary to advancing the plot.  Even the map in this book was filled with obfuscating details.  It wasn't until Hurwitz got to the second half of the book and concentrated on the thriller aspect that it picked up and took off.  Not a bad read if you skip the first two hundred pages...

The Romanov Bride

Several years ago, my book club read Robert Alexander's novel about the final days of the Romanovs The Kitchen Boy.  Not a big book, but it's stayed with me.  It was especially poignant that while I was reading the book, a discovery made in Russia was announced that negated the ending of the novel.  How I wished it might have been true!  Coming after Rasputin's Daughter, The Romanov Bride (#160) is the third and final novel in Mr. Alexander's Romanov triology.

This book tells the story of the Grand Duchess Elizavyeta, granddaugher of Queen Victoria, who married Grand Duke Sergei of Russia.  Her younger sister Alicky goes on to marry Tsar Nicholas II, making Elizavyeta a well-connected and powerful woman in the Imperial Court.  Her life should have been a fairy tale, but the reality was far from it.  Childless, her life is never until her own control until Grand Duke Sergei is assassinated by a Bolshevik bomb just outside their home.  Grief-stricken, Elizavyeta retreats from the world of pomp and glitter to found a religious community devoted to the care of the poor, sick and orphaned.  But the continuing political unrest in Russia makes her a target because of her German heritage and Romanov name. 

The Romanov Bride intertwines two narratives: that of the Grand Duchess and Pavel, the Bolshevist who is determined to end the Romanov line.  Both sides command sympathy in this story, but ultimately it is Elisavyeta who triumphs through her character and her integrity.  Her death, and those of several of her Romanov relatives at the same time, is usually treated as a footnote of history.  This book focuses the spotlight on someone whose story is well worth illuminating.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Death At La Fenice

Donna Leon's mystery series featuring Cammissario Guido Brunetti set in contemporary Venice came highly recommended by several readers in Martin County Library Swap 'n' Talk group.  I like to begin at the beginning whenever possible, so I choose to read Death at La Fenice (#159) first.   La Fenice is Venice's famous and aptly named opera house, as it has arisen from several devastating fires like its namesake, the phoenix.  (City of Falling Angels by John Berendt is a great gossipy investigation into the most recent fire.)

A new production of La Traviata is opening at La Fenice, with a preeminent German conductor wielding the baton.  When the conductor fails to return to the podium to begin the third act, his body is discovered in his dressing room, poisoned.  Commissario Guido Brunetti is assigned to the case.  His investigation leads him to some unsavoury discoveries and a range of suspects with excellent motives to have done the deed.  Brunetti must move carefully to avoid stepping on any sensitive toes to keep the image of Venice and La Fenice itself unsullied, and his politically-connected boss off his back.

An excellent beginning to this series, with a good flavor of Brunetti's home life and somewhat unusual connections.  If you've ever been to Venice, you'll appreciate how well Ms. Leon captures the feeling of this city slowly evolving from a vibrant social, political and cultural community into a kind of museum theme park where living a normal life is increasingly difficult.  Even though Venice is a relatively safe city, Ms. Leon certainly makes it seem the perfect place for a murder or two...

Pride and Prescience (Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged)

Pride and Prescience (Or, A Truth Universally Acknowledged) (#158) by Carrie Bebris is billed as "A Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mystery", and is the first in this Jane Austen-based series.  Mr. and Mrs. Darcy are looking forward to spending their first Christmas together as a married couple at Pemberly after the excitement and stresses of their wedding.  Elizabeth's sister Jane tied the knot with Charles Bingley during the same ceremony, but Caroline Bingley did her best to steal the show by announcing her engagment and wedding in London the following week.  And so, to do the polite thing, the Darcys go to London to attend the nuptials before setting out for Pemberly.  To their astonishment shortly after the wedding, they find Caroline wandering the streets with a fat purse in a very unsavoury part of town with no knowledge of how she got there.  Soon other accidents and mishaps stalk the entire Bingley family.  Is Caroline a victim, or is she behind what's happening?  Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam must unravel the pattern before someone close to them is harmed permanently.

I found this to be an enjoyable Regency mystery with the faintest whiff of the occult through an American connnection.  This is not a mystery as Jane Austen might have written it, but the author sticks close enough to the characters in Pride and Prejudice to create a reasonable facsimile of the time and the place.  Who didn't want to see the odious Caroline Bingley get her comeuppance?  Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam as you might expect make a formidable team as they put together the disparate clues.  I look forward to reading further entries in this entertaining series.