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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Philosopher's Kiss

The Philosopher's Kiss (#180) by Peter Prange is a translation from the German of a novel that explores the relationship between Denis Diderot, the French philosopher and editor of the Encyclopedia in pre-revolutionary France and Sophie Volland, a shadowy figure in his life.  This book turns on the idea that Sophie is the one true love of Diderot's life, and influential in the production and publication of his ground-breaking Encyclopedia. 

I'll admit that I didn't know a great deal about the French philosophers of the Enlightenment - Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, D'Alembert or Jaucourt -  and had only the vaguest idea of why they were so important, or how their ideas brought about the French Revolution in a relatively short span of time.  In the modern era, we tend to think of an Encylopedia as something gathering dust on shelves in the library, or an electronic version that is always available only a few clicks away when we need to look up something or someone.  The Philosopher's Kiss chronicles the amazing struggle the writers, editors and publishers faced to create a readily accessible compendium of human knowledge.   To do such a thing posed an incindiary threat to the monarchy and the established doctrine of the church by using reason instead of faith as the basis for this collection of writing.  The very subscription proposal was an affront and the authors literally risked life and limb to publish.

Using the device of a life-long love between Diderot and Sophie kept the narrative focused, and allowed Prange to create some plot twists and turns that kept the reader glued to the page to find out what happened next.  None of the characters led particularly happy lives, but many strove to improve the lot of their fellow humans; what they contributed mattered to the next generation and beyond.  A most provocative read.

On a note of personal interest:  Madame Pompadour plays a role in the events in The Philosopher's Kiss.  Mention is made of La Tour's partially completed portrait of the marquise.  In one of my early posts, La Tour's portrait is used as cover art on Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, the only thing I liked about the book.  In following the on-line links on La Tour, I came across one of my all time favorite websites: the Louvre's Closer Look at the La Tour portrait of Madame Pompadour.  It was also a revolutionary portrait.  In it, the marquise is holding Volume IV of the Encyclopedia, as she was largely responsible for persuading Louis XV the allow its publication when the clergy and Parliment were in favor of capital punishment for those involved.  Interesting, n'est pas?  Here's the link if you want to check out the website yourself:  La Tour's portrait of Madame Pompadour

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pineapple Grenade

In Tim Dorsey's Pineapple Grenade (#179) civic minded serial killer Serge A. Storms takes on the thugs who prey on Miami tourists who accidentally take the wrong exit off the expressway, and at the same time takes a dip into the exciting world of spycraft.  With the Summit of the Americas in town, Serge's two current causes neatly intersect.

Pineapple Grenade features the usual cast of nut jobs, foreign and domestic, and enough bodies to keep the Miami Medical Examiner in a high state of glee figuring out just how the victims died.  Serge's sidekick Coleman is along for the ride, but in the Pineapple Grenade he has a drinking/snorting buddy; a washed up spy.  Hence, the many Burn Notice references (And yes, I am a fan of that show!) worked in with all kinds of fascinating Florida factoids.  Serge foils an assasination attempt, loses his heart to a glamorous spy and exacts justice on an oil industry lobbyist that many Floridians (including me!) would pay to watch, I think.

I didn't feel that this book was quite as strong as some of Dorsey's previous Serge Storms novels, but that doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy it.  It's still an amusing and inventive, demented read.  I'm still recommending it (as long as you aren't planning to visit Miami any time in the near future!!!).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Scales of Retribution

Scales of Retribution (#178) follows Writ in Stone (see my post of 4/6/12 ) in Cora Harrison's wonderful mystery series about Mara, brehon of the Burren, in sixteenth century Ireland.  In Writ in Stone murder interfered with Mara's wedding to King Tourlough Donn O'Brien of the three western kingdoms of Burren, Thomond and Corcomroe since as brehon, she is the investigating magistrate charged with uncovering the truth and judging the proper retribution.  In Scales of Retribution, another violent death causes complications for Mara personally as she struggles to give birth to her child; it's the physician Turlough has arranged to attend her in his absence who has been murdered.

While the king is away fighting the Earl of Kildare who is determined to bring all of Ireland under his control for King Henry VIII of England, Mara and her child barely survive the ordeal of childbirth, thanks to the skill and quick thinking of Nuala, the murdered physician's daughter.  The nephew of Corcomroe's brehon who has been sent to help Mara with the murder investigation and with her law school as she recovers proves to be more of a hindrance than a help.  MacClancy immediately decides that Nuala is the murderer and does not investigate further, and he creates chaos in her well-ordered classroom.  Mara is not happy with the way things are going, and slowly fights her way back to controlling her own affairs, but it could cost her her life.

I am really enjoying this series and the new insights of clan life and law in Ireland before it was completely obliterated by the British.  Mara is very much her own person, as I'm sure Nuala will prove to be, in a world where the English and the Church scorn the education of women and their presence in the professions, and all crimes are dealt with in the harshest possible manner.  Even if you're a Tudor fan, you probably won't be rooting for them in this series!

Friday, April 20, 2012


What can I say about Dave Barry and his co-author Alan Zweibel's latest opus Lunatics (#177) except that it's rude, it's crude and it's very funny.

It all begins innocently enough with a ten-and-under girls' soccer championship game in Fort Lee, New Jersey, when Phillip Horkman calls Taylor Peckerman offsides on a play that would have resulted in the winning goal for her team.  To say that her father, Jeffrey, reacts badly is like saying if you visit the Antarctic, bring a sweater.  It sets off a snowball series of events that become ever more absurd and funny.

The narrative bounces between Phillip's take on what's happening and Jeffrey's profane version of events.  You wonder what in the world (literally!) is going to happen to these guys next, and is the world ever going to be prepared for them?  I'm not going to give anything away; you'll just have to read it for yourself to find out what's going on. 

If you're offended by strong language and sexual references, this book won't be your cup of tea.  But if you want to read something that pokes fun at current events worldwide seen through the eyes of two American "everymen" you'll likely laugh your way out loud through this book.  I know I did...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Siren Queen

Finding Fiona Buckley's The Siren Queen (#176) in the stacks at my local library was like meeting up with an old friend unexpectedly.  (And as I've said before, never underestimate the power of the cover art!)  This mystery series is set in the turbulent court of Elizabeth I.  Ursula Blanchard has a very close connection to the Queen and has worked with her Secretary of State and spy master, William Cecil, to protect the Queen's interests in earlier books.  She's also had a roller coaster of an emotional life and is now married to her third husband.

In The Siren Queen, Ursula and her older husband Hugh Stannard are happily settled into a quiet life at home.  But her elderly Welsh servant Gladys Morgan has stirred things up at home and even cursed the local clergyman.  When an invitation arrives from the Duke of Norfolk to visit him in London and meet his protege as a prospective suitor for Ursula's daughter Meg, the timing seems a perfect way to remove Gladys from the neighborhood.  It's also time to start considering Meg's future, although marriage will still be a few years away, after she's finished her education and been to court.  Still, it doesn't hurt to start looking...

What Ursula doesn't count on in is staying in a household where there's just a little too much interest in Mary Stuart and the old religion.  A pair of murders in the household point to just how sinister that Stuart connection is.  Meanwhile, Meg is bowled over by the attentions of Norfolk's secretary, much to Ursula and Hugh's dismay.  And Gladys, despite all the warnings and threats to behave, puts them all at risk.    Ursula must once again employ her espionage skills in the service of the realm.

Fiona Buckley has loosely based the plot of The Siren Queen on the Ridolfi Plot against Elizabeth I.  Inserting Ursula Blanchard and her household into this complicated plot serves as a good way to illuminate one of the many attempts to replace Protestant Elizabeth with Catholic Mary Stuart.  An interesting historical mystery, worth reading.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Deal Breaker

You know an author's popular when you have to wait for the first book in a series (originally published back in 1995) to become available.  But that's the case with Harlan Coben's first Myron Bolitar novel Deal Breaker (#175). 

Myron Bolitar, sports agent, injured Celtic draft pick, and Harvard Law School graduate, has picked up a new client; Christian Steele, squeaky clean darling of the college quarterback media flurry.  Negotiations with the New York Titans team owner aren't going so well, but Otto Burke is known to play dirty.  Christian's college girl friend and fiancee went missing about eighteen months ago but on the eve of signing a contract with the Titans, Kathy Culver calls him.  Could she still be alive?  Myron's role in this murky case is personal.  He used to live with Kathy's sister Jessica and he still hasn't gotten over her.  When Jessica comes to see Myron to beg him to look into Kathy's disappearance and the recent mugging and murder of her father, his investigation becomes both personal and professional.  Could the two Culver tragedies be related?  And things only get uglier from here...

Unfortunately these days you don't have to look too far before you read or hear about college sports scandals or owner antics like those described in Deal Breaker, where the only thing that seems to matter is the moneyBut maybe that's just me being cynical.

It was helpful to get some of the background in Deal Breaker on characters like Myron himself, his relationship with Jessica Culver, and just why his best friend Win is considered so scary by everyone else.  I'm glad I found this series, and I'll be putting the next installment on reserve at my local library.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bond Girl

The title Bond Girl (#174) instantly evoked images of Bond, James Bond (the Sean Connery Bond, of course!) in me and my friends, but that could be because we're all that "certain age".  The reality is quite the opposite.  This novel by Erin Duffy is based on her very first job out of college on Wall Street.   As she assured the audience at Bookmania! this January, many of the anecdotes recounted are true.

Alex Garrett is first smitten by the excitement of Wall Street when her father, an investment banker, brings his nine year old daughter to work.  She decides at that moment that this is where she wants to work, and as a senior at University of Virginia, Alex describes the on-campus interview process with the firm she has chosen as her target: Cromwell Pierce.  She is hired as an analyst, and after the briefest of orientations, she is assigned to the Government Bonds desk; hence, the title.  To make it in this super competetive world is difficult at best; to be a women trying to make it ratchets up the pressure to the power of nth degree.  And Alex begins her career when times are good for the financial field!  As the market collapses, so do Alex's prospects, and her job just isn't as much fun as it used to be. 

Although Alex makes some good friends at Cromwell, it is still slightly horrifying to read about the hazings newcomers must endure, the constant cut-throat competition and total focus on money above all other considerations.  It's definitely not a life I would ever choose, but it is fun to live it vicariously through Ms. Duffy's breezy account.  Hard to imagine that people on Wall Street lived this way not so long ago, and that many of them still are enjoying that lifestyle.  And so would Alex be, if she hadn't come to a moral fork in the road.  Think of Bond Girl doing for Wall Street what The Devil Wears Prada did for the fashion publishing industry and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect.  A fun weekend read.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Lost In Shangri-La

If you're looking for a true World War II adventure story, Lost In Shangri-La (#173) by Mitchell Zuckoff is just the ticket.  Near the end of World War II, a C-47 plane took off from an airbase in Hollandia, capital of what was then Dutch New Guinea, on a sight-seeing trip over a newly-discovered and mysterious valley in the mountains that appeared on no maps of New Guinea.  Dozens of villages and cultivated fields were home to a large population of  unknown tribesmen clearly visible from the air.  Flying to see this Hidden Valley or Shangri-La became a coveted field trip for the many servicemen and women stationed on the fringes of the war zone.

On a day in May, 1945, one of the officers organized a trip mainly for his staff to view the Valley.  The plane filled quickly with a number of WACs, officers and enlisted men, and the trip was expected to take about three hours.  Instead, the plane went down on a remote mountainside with only a few surviviors who included a beautiful WAC out for adventure, a lieutenant whose identical twin brother was killed in the crash, and a badly injured tech sergeant who worked in engineering.  There was apparently no way out of the crash zone except for a hundred and fifty mile trek through cannibal country in one direction, and Japanese soldiers concealed in the jungle in the other.  And the survivors were not alone there, as they soon discovered. 

This book chronicles the amazing story of how the plane came to crash where it did, the endurance of the trio of survivors, and the almost miraculous spotting of the party in the jungle by the air search teams.  But locating the survivors turned out to be the easy part; how was Army headquarters going to get these three out of the jungle with no place to land or take off, no navigable waterways, or possibly an arduous trek that might not be feasible for the injured passengers?  And would the natives prove to be hostile?  They clearly had the advantage in numbers.  And no pressure, but the world was listening to, and reading the continuing story of these troops in Shangri-La through reporters who communicated with those on the ground with walkie-talkies on the daily supply drop runs, much as we recently were glued to the TV following the story of the trapped Chilean miners. 

Lost In Shangri-La highlights the heroism of the Filipino troops who were ultimately chosen to attempt parachute landings in dense jungle areas potentially filled with unknown enemies.  Their two medics with their supplies and positive attitude were key to saving the survivors while their commanding officer (I kept picturing Van Johnson in this role.) organized the rescue mission from the ground, all while establishing good relations with the nearest neighboring tribe.  One of the items the rescue party brought with them to the crash site was a camera, and the still shots of the crash site, and their encounters with the natives and the dramatic and dangerous rescue add another whole dimension to this story.  It reminds you that this was real, and the ending was still unknown to those taking these pictures.

Mr. Zuckoff, a journalism professor at my alma mater, includes copious notes and an interesting bibliography if you want to learn more about New Guinea and the natives whose lives were also changed completely by this event.  I noticed that he included a book that I read several years ago: Tim Flannery's fascinating Thowim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds, published in 1998.  That book alone was enough to make me cross New Guinea off my bucket list for good!  Margaret Hastings, the WAC who lived this tale, is obviously made of sterner stuff.  In later life, when she was asked if she would go back to New Guinea, her answer was a resounding "You bet!"  I guess that spirit is what made her and her two companions, John McCollem and Kenneth Decker, the ultimate survivors.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Back Spin

Thank you, Janette (and you know who you are!), for recommending that I read Harlan Coben.  I was in the mood for something new the other day, and wandered into the stacks to find the oldest available Harlan Coben book I could find after I saw his latest in the New Books section.  What I found was Back Spin (#172), his fourth Myron Bolitar novel.  Life pretty much stopped as I devoured this one. 

How appropriate that this particular book involves the world of professional golf (which Coben admits rates a huge yawn from him!) with all the hype about the Master's this week, and kind of a parallel story line with the attempted come back of a big name golfer against an upcoming wunderkind at the US Open at a hide-bound traditional course, but without the murders one would hope!  Since my husband and I play golf, (but not seriously!) and live where many famous golfers are thick on the ground, I appreciated how spot on Mr. Coben was with his descriptions of the peculiarities of the golf world. 

So how did Myron Bolitar, who is most definitely a non-golfer, get mixed up with the US Open?  His friend Win, the blue-blooded money man, and member of Merion, the fabled real course where much of the action takes place, suggested that the Open would be the perfect venue to troll for new new clients for Myron's MB Sports Agency - more clients for Myron equals more clients for Win (and no, I won't go with the obvious here). Win is proved right when a fellow Merion member approaches Myron in the gallery about a problem involving the Coldrens; Linda, the number one woman's golfer and her spouse Jack who famously choked on the sixteenth hole of this same tournament twenty three years ago and is desperate to win this tournament, Myron takes the bait.  But instead of a nice simple, clean deal, he finds himself smack in the middle of  a kidnapping involving their sixteen year old son.  If Myron can safely retrieve the son without involving the police, he's got a brand new contract to represent Linda. But is the kidnapping real, or is it staged, and if so, by whom?  The surprises don't stop coming until the final page. (And don't be like my husband and read ahead, or you'll spoil a great read for yourself!) 

Mr. Coben, I believe you have two new fans in this household!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Writ In Stone

It's 1509, and a crowd has gathered at a small Cistercian abbey in western Ireland in the Burren for the Christmas wedding of Turlogh Donn, king of the Three Kingdoms and Mara, the Brehon for the Burren.  A cloaked, hooded figure kneeling in vigil by the tomb of the O'Briens is discovered in the early dawn murdered violently.  The victim is the king's cousin, Mahon, who closely resembles him.  A rare snowfall proves that the murderer is someone within the abbey itself.  The question is, was it political or was it personal?  That's the problem Mara will have to solve, and quickly, before the assasin strikes again in Cora Harrison's historical mystery Writ in Stone (#171). 

Neither English nor Roman law apply here where ancient Irish clan law still rules.  Women lawyers are not uncommon and capital punishment  doesn't necessarily apply if the murderer admits his guilt and pays the set judgment honor price.  As Mara sifts through the evidence and questions those present in the abbey, many possible motives are raised.  The abbot is another O'Brien cousin, with skeletons in his closet and with an important Cistercian visitor due.  Mahon, the victim, has just brought home a new second degree bride.  Turlogh's designated heir Conan is not well, and his bride is restless.  Could that be the key to the killing?  You'll just have to read this one to find out, but it's so well done, I've already decided I'll have to go back and read more of Mara's cases in the previous entries in this series.  I'll bet you will, too!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

No Certain Rest

Jim Lehrer was the featured author this year at our library's Bookmania! event.  It wasn't until I heard him speak that I realized that he was a novelist as well as a journalist and politcal commentator.  During the interview, the moderator mentioned No Certain Rest (#170).  In this novel, National Park Service archeologist Don Spaniel is called in to identify a Civil War era body found on private land bordering the Antietam battlefield.  He enlists the help of a forensics expert and friend at the Smithsonian to work with the bones.  In the process the pair uncover not just the identity of the body, but a mystery that goes back to the day of that epic battle: September 17, 1862.

My brother amassed a considerable American military library, and after his death, we located a specialist book dealer to handle its sale.  He happened to be located very near the Antietam battleground, so we took the opportunity to spend a day walking around the site.  Today, it's hard to imagine the horror of what happened there on the bloodiest day in American history when 23,000 men were killed or wounded.  Jim Lehrer, in discussing this book, stated that when he began to write this book, he had not much interest in the Civil War.  He and his wife live not too far from Antietam, so they often go there to walk or to bike, but he never heard the voices from the battlefield that many do.  But when a body was found on the grounds, as happens from time to time, he became intrigued by the process of trying to identify the body, and the idea for this book was born.

Don Spaniel, the protagonist, on the other hand lives and breathes the Civil War.  To winkle out the truth about an object or a person is the energy that fuels him.  He communicates happily with the other scientists and historians who can move his search along, but reenactors who become the persons they study are a bit of a puzzle for him until he carries out a final duty for a friend.  Solving the mystery of the dead Civil War soldier doesn't make everyone happy, however, and leads to a shocking and unexpected ending. 

If you are a fan of Kathy Reichs and those types of forensic novels, with an interest in American history, No Certain Rest would be a good choice for you.

Monday, April 2, 2012

As The Pig Turns

We're talking pig roasts here.  But wait!  That's not a pig on the spit in picturesque Winter Parva in the cozy Cotswolds; pigs don't have tattoos.  Good thing Agatha Raisin is on hand to spot the telltale heart tattoo in As The Pig Turns (#169).  M.C. Beaton's heroine is not the most likeable person with her small bearlike eyes and howls of indignation when anyone questions her motives too closely, but she is always highly entertaining.  She does have some soft spots, too, or we wouldn't care enough to keep reading about Agatha's adventures. 

In this case, Agatha is a prime suspect.  The victim turns out to be a cop nobody has a good word for, and whom Agatha was heard publicly threatening after he gives her an unfair traffic ticket.  Only thing is, his ex-wife has hired Agatha's agency to find the murderer(s), so she can hardly not be involved in the case.  But whoever is responsible makes it clear to the members of Agatha's staff that they mean business.  Meanwhile, her bright young assistant Toni is upset about Agatha's interference with her love life.  Agatha isn't doing too well on the front, either, if truth is to be told. 

Agatha manages to do a good deed for a true friend, even if it's not accomplished with the suavity she hoped for, and events in the epilogue show a new direction for Agatha's obsession with totally unsuitable men.  Can't wait for the next installment!  Always a fun read.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Crown

Meet Joanna Stafford, the protagonist of Nancy Bilyeau's debut novel The Crown (#168).  Joanna is a relative of Henry VIII, but from a disgraced branch of the family.  She's highly educated, stubborn and an independent thinker.  After a disasterous experience at court, Joanna has persuaded her father to dower her entrance as a novice to Dartford Priory, an enclosed Dominican convent at a time when Henry has already dissolved the minor abbeys, monasteries and priories in England.  Though her devotion is sincere, she's not your average novice.

The book opens when Joanna runs away from Dartford to be present at her favorite cousin's execution as a leader of the Catholic rebellion in the north.  She only means to observe and bear witness, but Joanna is caught up in events with repercussions to herself and her father when they find themselves imprisoned in The Tower of London.  Bishop Gardiner recruits Joanna to find a sacred relic rumored to be hidden at Dartford Priory - the crown of the title.  The price if she refuses?  Her father's torture and death.  Gardiner returns her to Dartford in the company of two Dominican friars displaced from their own abbey to search for the crown.  But violent death visits the Priory and it is up to Joanna to uncover the real murderer before politics destroys Dartford.

Wheels within wheels keep you guessing throughout the book.  Ancient secrets play an important role here, too, in the quest for power, and the destruction of a whole way of life.  Thank you Ms. Bilyeau, for not going with the easy ending to this book, and keeping Joanna's character and integrity intact.  This is a wonderful book, and I hope to see many more works of comparable quality in the future from Ms. Bilyeau.

One note, here, since relics do play a large part in this story.  I was struck by the synchronicity of having just read An Irreverent Curiosity a couple of weeks ago.  It was an excellent primer for this book, and I noticed one of the sources Mr. Farley used cited in Ms. Bilyeau's bibliography.  Oh, and that's another plus for this book: the author provides a very interesting bibiliography of source material in case you want to read more in depth.  Tudor lovers, rejoice!