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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?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Midnight in Austenland

Where do I sign up?  I think a couple of weeks spent in Austenland would be wonderful, if it's anything like the Jane Austen era adventure promised to its clients in Shannon Hale's Midnight in Austenland (#204).  (Without the sheep's eyeballs on the menu, thank you very much!)

Charlotte Kinder decides it's just the place for her to get away while her two children spend a month with their father and his new wife.  How could she have missed all the signs that James was cheating on her?  A friend has recently talked her into reading all of Jane Austen's novels, so why not escape to that world? She can easily afford it, since her web-based company took off.  Once she arrives, receives some coaching on Regency etiquette and changes into her  new wardrobe, complete with corsets, she's ready to enter the world of 1816 society at Pembrook Park.  Everyone at Pembrook Park, both clients and staff, is acting, so is the body she finds real, or is it part of the game of Bloody Murder? And what about the romance scripted for her...?

I thought this book was hilarious, and it actually made me laugh out loud. The narrative cuts back and forth between Charlotte's past and the present goings-on at Pembrook Park. Charlotte's Inner Thoughts keep intruding, preventing her from fully entering the fantasy created by the cast at Pembrook, but that monologue is just what makes Charlotte such a sympathetic character and a true Everywoman.  If you're a romantic at heart with a nice sense of humor, put Midnight in Austenland on your "Must Read" list!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch

A rose covered Cotswold cottage set in a tiny village that has hardly been touched by time.  What could be cosier?  That's what Mrs. Amelia Thistle thinks, at least until her stalkers show up in Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch (#203).  (See my posts of 7/27/11 and 5/22/11 for other entries in the  Aunt Dimity, The Paranormal Detective series.)

The main sport in Finch is gossip, but it's not her new neighbors that have Mrs. Thistle worried; she also happens to be the renowned botanical artist Mae Bowen with an unwanted cult following.  And Mrs. Thistle has arrived in the village with a very specific mission to accomplish.  Her quest eventually involves just about everyone else in Finch, including Aunt Dimity who weighs in on the progress of their search with her own opinions in Lori Shepherd's notebook.  A surprising twist leads to a satisfying conclusion with Mrs. Thistle nicely settled into Finch's cast of permanent characters.

A mystery, to be sure, but with no bodies, make this sweet series a delight to read, and the characters, especially the deceased Aunt Dimity who only appears as entries in a mysterious notebook which fade away as soon as Lori Shepherd, daughter of her best friend, has read them, fun to re-visit.  A perfect way to while away an afternoon by the pool with a tall iced tea at hand.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Death Comes Silently

I love visiting the fictional Browards' Rock, a barrier island off the coast of South Carolina near Beaufort in Carolyn Hart's Death on Demand series.  Everyone there seems to be rich and live in really, really nice houses with spectacular ocean or marsh views with the requisite Lexuses, Porsches, Maseratis and Rolls Royces to match. (The island is so small, one wonders why these cars aren't constantly running into each other!)  Of course, there are the few token lower and middle class folks who provide the services to the island (which, curiously enough, only seems to have one restaurant - Parotti's Grill & Bait Shop!).  What they do have is a fabulous mystery book shop run by amateur sleuth Annie Darling - Death on Demand.  If it really existed, I'd be on the ferry to Broward's Rock to visit it in a heartbeat the next time I'm up in Beaufort.

The most recent addition to this cozy series is Death Comes Silently (#202).  After the wealthy island resident Everett Hathaway drowns in a tragic kayaking incident on a cold December night in a quiet harbor, his death is ruled an accident.  That is, until a volunteer at the Better Times thrift store finds an incriminating note tucked away in the pocket of the sports coat Mr. Hathaway was wearing the day of his death.  She is found dead at Better Times later that afternoon after she leaves Annie a series of voice mails about how frightened she is of the shop's handyman.  Annie feels guilty, because she had swapped shifts with her to host an event at her book shop that day.  The handyman is the obvious suspect, but can Annie get anyone else to believe that Everett's death might have been murder?

Of course she can!  And that's the fun of reading this series.  Fried oyster sandwich, anyone?

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Simple Murder

A Simple Murder (#201) by Eleanor Kuhns won a "First Crime Novel" award.  I found that it was a pretty standard murder mystery, but it did have an interesting setting.  When we watch crime dramas on TV, my husband almost always has the murderer correctly pegged by the first commercial break.  That was somewhat how I felt while reading this novel; I had things figured out by halfway through the book.  Of course, I did have to finish it to make sure I was right.  (I was!)

What made this book interesting to me was the setting of the murders in and around a rural Maine Shaker community in the late 1790s.  William Rees is an itinerant weaver who has left his farm and young son in the care of his sister and her husband in return for taking care of David as one of her own children.  On his latest visit home, Rees discovers that David has run away to a Shaker community and sets out in pursuit. The Shakers refuse to release David to Will at first, but they allow him to stay with them and try to mend his relationship with his son.  When a young woman of the community is murdered, David convinces the Shaker Elders to engage Will to investigate the crime, based on the experience Rees has gained in Washington's Continental Army, and his travels around the young country.  He reluctantly takes on former Shaker Lydia Jane Farrell as a chaperone acceptable to the Elders in order to question the Sisters of the community.  Other murders soon follow and Will soon finds himself and his son targets as the threads that bind the victims together are slowly revealed.

The details about the Shaker life style are interesting, especially if you don't know anything about this sect.  Ms. Kuhns describes many of the meals Will Rees enjoys with the community, and she's definitely right about how delicious they were.  If you ever have a chance, there are still Shaker Museums where visitors can sample authentic Shaker cooking and they're well worth a visit.  A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to eat at the Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire.  At the time, two of the last remaining Eldresses were still in residence there.  I am sure that they have "gone home to Mother" by this time, but it was a fascinating alternative way of life,and a memorable visit.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The House of Velvet and Glass

Katherine Howe has followed up the success of her debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, with a second riveting read in The House of Velvet and Glass (#200).

The main plot thread of this somewhat dark novel follows Sybil Allston, a proper Bostonian spinster whose life has been a series of emotional blows and disappointments.  Her mother and younger sister Eulah were lost on the Titanic three years earlier, her father is a remote presence in the inner drawing room, and her younger brother, once so promising, is wasting his collegiate life on gambling and women. No wonder she's caught up in the coils of Mrs. Dee, an influential medium who was patronised by Sybil's mother. Worse is to come when her brother Harlan is expelled from Harvard, and Sybil meets Dovie Whistler, the cause of her brother's disgrace.  Dovie introduces Sybil to the hidden Chinatown world of the opium den, where Sybil discovers that she has the ability to use the scrying ball Mrs. Dee gave her at the last seance she attended. Is it a gift, or is this new found talent a curse? And why do the visions she sees repeat themselves?

Benton Derby, an old family friend, is now a psychologist and professor at Harvard.  He tries to help the family, and prove to Sybil that the visions she is seeing cannot be real. He also happens to be the man that everyone in Boston society expected Sybil to marry before he announced his engagement to another woman.

The interleaved story of Lan Allston, the family patriarch, begins on his first voyage out of Salem at age seventeen when he steps onto the Bund in Shanghai with his shipmates, and gradually unfolds throughout the book..  The revelation of his secrets shocks Sybil to her core and brings her to a crucial turning point.

The Boston of 1915 comes alive in this book, poised as it is on the cusp of modern technology, with cars battling for room on the streets, electric lights everywhere, and the telephone becoming common in more and more homes, and the Widener Library at Harvard under construction.  This is precisely the Boston and Cambridge that my grandmother lived in.  However, she would have been the first one to point out to Ms. Howe that the pastimes of the ladies of the day certainly did include needlework, the correct generic term, rather than needlepoint, which is a specific form of needlework.  Ms. Howe tends to use needlepoint as a catchall phrase when the items and actions described in the book clearly refer to other forms such as embroidery, crewel, or even possibly hardangar (though this wasn't prevalent in early twentieth century New England). I assume that Ms. Howe has her doctorate by now, so I'm sure she won't mind the small nit-pick.  (If she wants to see an actual piece of needlepoint, she can visit the State House next time she's in Boston, and see the Freedom Trail tapestry in the Senate Chamber lobby.  My mother and I collaborated on the Old North Church panel.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

No Cooperation from the Cat

The main character of No Cooperation from the Cat (#199) by Marian Babson describes the experience of reading this book perfectly when she discusses the old-fashioned movie theater.  You used to pay your admission, and walk in any time on the continuously playing feature film, short subjects, newsreel and second feature.  If you happened to walk in on the middle of the movie, you saw the ending, but had no idea of what led up to it until you sat through the entire cycle and saw the beginning of that film.  If you haven't read Ms. Babson's previous book(s)? featuring Trixie and Evangeline, don't expect a back story explaining who any of the recurring characters are, or their relationships.  The book is never going to go back to the beginning to fill you in.  If you can get over the frustration of not knowing and can roll with the story, you'll probably enjoy the wacky ride. 

Trixie and Evangeline are caught up in a publishing feud when their London penthouse apartment is taken over as a test kitchen for a cookbook that Trixie's daughter Martha (and that part took me half the book to figure out, so consider that a bonus!) is organizing around the Ladies Lemmings' recipes.  When an Arctic explorer shows up on their doorstep, demanding to see his wife, Martha's aid Jocasta, from the publishing company, begins to unravel.  It seems that Melisande, the explorer's wife was the original chef chosen for the cookbook project.  Only she's dead from a cooking misadventure, and Jocasta has never quite gotten around to telling him.  When Banquo's three aunts and the other two members of his Arctic expedition crew show up uninvited at their doorstep demanding Jocasta's help with Banquo's book, things go from bad to worse, especially when they let in Teddy, failed actor and former owner of Trixie's beloved Japanese bob-tail cat, Cho-Cho-San.  It seems he has designs on getting Cho-Cho back! Things are bound to get nasty...

A bit of fluff, but that's what nice about the summer; no heavy lifting required.  Just lay back in your hammock and enjoy.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection (#198) is a welcome return visit to Botswana's most famous (and only!) private detective, Precious Ramotswe, in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.

Just in time for a lazy summer afternoon, this latest outing begins with Mma Ramotswe's dream of meeting a familiar stranger.  Who should it turn out to be but Clovis Andersen, author of The Principles of Private Detection, her agency's professional Bible?  He's just in time to help Mma Ramotswe and her newly-wed associate Mma Makutsi deal with some troublesome issues.  Mma Potokwane has been dismissed from her job overseeing the orphan farm, an unthinkable situation.  Fanwell, one of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's mechanics, has been arrested!  And Mma Makutsi herself is being totally disregarded by the builder her husband has hired to construct their dream home.

As always, Precious Ramotswe's love for her native country shines through Mr. McCall Smith's warm and affectionate descriptions.  We, along with Clovis Andersen, fall in love with Botswana and its traditional values and traditionally built ladies and gentlemen all over again.  Will Mma Makutsi's dream of the Limpopo Academy of Private Dectection ever come to fruition?  I hope we'll find out in a future book...