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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Language of Flowers

I definitely owe a big thank you to the person in my book club who suggested Vanessa Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers (#357) as our January selection.  I probably would never have picked up this book on my own otherwise.  It's well worth the short time it will take you to read it.

We meet Victoria Jones just as she is about to age out of the San Francisco area foster system.  She's been considered unadoptable since she was ten, but she's now considered an adult at eighteen.  She's placed in temporary transitional housing to help her get started on her own, but Victoria isn't about to follow the system's rules now.  It's failed her her entire life, so why start now?  She soon finds herself homeless and out on the streets, an angry young woman with limited skills, no contacts and no means of supporting herself.  That is until the day she meets Renata, the florist, who hires her as hourly labor.  Victoria does have one deep pool of knowledge that can help her here; she understands the Victorian language of flowers, and the arrangements she creates are magical and fraught with meaning.

The story of how Victoria manages to turn her life around, gradually accepts that she can love and be loved and become part of a family from her past as well as her future is eloquently told through the language of flowers.  I suspect that there are many, many girls and young men like Victoria all over this country, and this novel does a service by illuminating the uphill battle many of them have to fight every day just to survive.  What is even more remarkable to me is that some of them, like Victoria, can even succeed and help to pull others out and up with them.  Her story is hard to put down.  Highly recommended and so is Ms. Diffenbaugh for trying to make a difference to these young people's lives through her Camellia Network to support their transition from foster care to independence.  Take a look for yourself at her website:  Camellia Network

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Magic of Christmas

Still in Christmas reading mode with another collection of holiday-themed novellas, The Magic of Christmas (#356).  There are twelve days of Christmas, after all, and they don't start until Christmas Day itself, as Twelfth Knight illustrates in Stobie Piel's  medieval tale of a hunt for Yuletide treasure, so there's still plenty of time to catch up with your holiday reading under the tree.

Again, there's no heavy lifting in the stories in The Magic of Christmas, and if sex and sizzle is more up your alley than sugarplums and childhood innocence, this might just be the volume for you.  There's a romance set in a California gold miner's camp, a cranky elf who has to regain his Christmas Spirit, and an old woman's yearning to be free of her two thousand year old burden, as well as the tale of the knightly quest.  Frankly, I much preferred Sugarplums and Scandals for its less explicit treatment of holiday romance, but that's just my taste.  All of these novellas do have a magical theme, so be prepared to suspend belief on all levels.  Merry Reading!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sugarplums and Scandal

It's almost Christmas, and that means plenty of hustle and bustle.  What better way to relax than with a Christmas book?  In this case, Sugarplums and Scandal (#355), a collection of five short stories all containing a little touch of the supernatural.  And the best part of this kind of book is that you can take it piece by piece, as you're sure to be interrupted with holiday tasks to do or errands to run.

There's a modern Santa who may be committing medical insurance fraud, a murder at an eighteenth century English country house, family secrets revealed in Seattle, a do-gooder who's being menaced at Christmas time, and a vampire romance among these holiday tales.  But my favorite is a ghost story by Suzanne MacPherson that isn't a conventional romance at all, but a truly touching story with a strong sprinkling of humor.  All's well that ends well in each and every case.

These are stories guaranteed to make your Yuletide bright, so sit back and let yourself de-stress!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Shades of Gray

I recently received Shades of Gray (#354) in a GoodReads First Reads giveaway.  And no, it's not that book!  This Shades of Gray by M. J. Simon has only one shade of gray, and it's a malevolent ghost, at that.

In this unusual paranormal romance, Paige Malone, best-selling true crime author, is finally persuaded by her best friend Riley to come back to the shores of Lake Michigan to settle near her.  Riley's found the perfect house for her overlooking the lake.  There are only two problems with the property; handsome Irishman Duncan O'Connor has waited five years to buy this property for himself to house his studio and art gallery, and the place is haunted.  Since Paige has already signed the paperwork, she and Duncan settle into an uneasy truce.  When Paige moves in, the odd happenings begin.  Romantic purple prose mysteriously appears on her computer, and Abigail, the stray dog she has adopted, is uneasy in the house.  When the activity increases and becomes dangerous to both Abigail and Paige, her friends rally around to discover what or who is behind the occurrences at the house.  What they find is totally unexpected.

I basically liked this book.  It has strong characters and a really intriguing plot twist I never anticipated.  The problem is that the book is poorly edited and proof-read.  Spellcheck doesn't correct the homonyms used incorrectly nor does it recognize the many misplaced apostrophes and commas.  These were so common they were downright distracting.  That's a shame, especially since the author has an advanced degree herself.  If you can get past these blemishes, I think you'll find a good yarn to curl up with on a cold winter's afternoon.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Try as he might to avoid it, criminal defense lawyer Andy Carpenter has reluctantly acquired another client in David Rosenfeldt's Unleashed (#353).  As usual, it takes his friend, forensic accountant and computer whiz Sam Willis to persuade Andy to take on the case of an old high school friend and billionaire financial manager who has requested Andy's services.  When Barry Price is killed in a plane crash before he can meet with Andy, it isn't long before Andy finds himself representing Barry's wife on murder charges instead. 

The only reason Sam wasn't on that plane with Barry is that on his way to the airfield that night he accidentally hit a dog.  What kind of dog?  Since this is an Andy Carpenter story, you know it has to be a golden retriever.  Crash is Sam's new good luck charm, and his devotion to the injured dog makes Andy seem neglectful of his own beloved dog Tara.

It isn't long before this murder case goes south for Andy and he finds himself defending Sam Willis for the murder instead.  It's clear that Sam has gotten himself mixed up with something much, much bigger and scarier than a single murder.  Will Andy be able to put the random pieces of this puzzle together in time to stop the sinister players pulling the strings behind Sam's trial?  Even Andy isn't sure this time...

In David Rosenfeldt's latest, he's blurred the line between murder mystery/court proceedings narrative and conspiracy thriller, laced with his trademark humor. A number of unpleasant surprises are in store in this cleverly-plotted tale.  With the introduction of Crash he's also managed to introduce a new canine character to this series.  Even Andy doesn't bake Tara healthful and nutritious dog biscuits, so there's the potential for some doggy one-upsmanship with Sam in future books.  You won't want to put this one down.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Dark Queen

With a title like The Dark Queen (#352) you won't be surprised to learn that France's Catherine de Medici figures as one of the villains of this novel by Susan Carroll.  She's steeped in black magic and implicated in murder and the St. Bartholomew's Eve massacre of French Huguenots in 1572.  Her counterpart here is Ariane Cheney, Lady of the Faire Isle and a daughter of the earth, or white witch. 

Ariane's mother once served Catherine de Medici at court, but ran afoul of her.  Ariane has seen for herself what the Dark Queen's vengeance looks like, and is determined to protect her two younger sisters.  She almost succeeds until the day that a young Huguenot captain serving Henry of Navarre seeks her out on her isolated island.  He has witnessed the death of Henry's mother and is sure that Catherine is responsible.  He needs Ariane's help to prove it, though.  Ariane at first is reluctant to be involved in the matter as she has her own problems fending off the Comte de Renard.  A chance meeting in the woods has led to Renard's relentless pursuit, claiming that Ariane is his "destiny".  Add to the mix a zealous order of witch hunters unleashed on the Faire Isle by Catherine and there's plenty of peril, romance and magic to keep the reader entertained.

If you need to get your mind off your own problems, The Dark Queen is the first book in this series about Ariane, Gabrielle and Miribelle Cheney, promising lots of romantic entanglements and derring-do in sixteenth century France. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christmas at Harmony Hill; A Shaker Story

I thought when I won Christmas at Harmony Hill; A Shaker Story (#351) by Ann H. Gabhart that this would be an interesting story set in a fictional Shaker community in Kentucky during the Civil War.  Not so!  I mean, the setting is correct, but interesting?  No.

The Shakers are consistently put in the wrong in this Christian fiction while providing free food, medical care, shelter and warmth to a young woman who is it odds with her father because she married a Union soldier and ran off to join his regiment as a washerwoman, which she continually claims as "honorable" work.  (Not in any history of the Civil War that I've read!)  When she can no longer handle the physical labor involved, her husband sends her home to her mother to have the baby.  By the time she arrives home, she finds that her mother and younger brother are dead from cholera, and her older brother has died fighting for the Confederate cause.  Her father is not about to forgive her for any of these things, for which he blames her.  Her sister smuggles a letter her mother had written to Heather, knowing she was expecting a child.  Her mother sends her for help to her Great Aunt Sophrena who joined the Shaker community at Harmony Hill many years ago.  But when Heather arrives, Aunt Sophrena is busy having  her own crisis of faith.  The Shakers do not believe in family life as the world knows it, and Heather is afraid that if she remains with the community that they will take her child away from her once it is born. 

Everyone is so busy quoting the Bible at each other that they seem to miss the point of Christian behavior all the way around.  I don't think any of the characters is admirable if you can bear to trudge through all the dreck surrounding the "fulfillment of God's Plan" for everyone.  Suffice it to say husband survives, baby is born Christmas Eve and Aunt Sophrena's problem is tied up neatly with a bow at the ending as she shakes off the dust of the Shakers' village.  Ugh.  Anne Perry's A Christmas Hope contains infinitely more profound thought for how a Christian should keep Christmas than this best-selling (!!!) Christian author.  Don't waste your time.

And God Spoke; The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today

Since I stated when I started writing this blog that I would write about every book I read, I intend to include those texts that I read for my Education for Ministry course.  Thus, And God Spoke: The Authority of the Bible for the Church Today (#350) by Christopher Bryan, which is one of this year's two Interlude books assigned to students in all four years of our course work.

Since I think the title speaks for itself, I won't belabor the point, except to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how readable and accessible this book is for the lay reader.  Christopher Bryan teaches seminarians in the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, so he naturally writes from an Episcopal perspective when discussing the Bible and its authority, although the Education for Ministry program itself is open to Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians.  He makes salient, thought-provoking ideas seem natural and within reach of any person serious about pursuing the study of the Bible.  For a first year student like me, that means a year devoted to the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible.  Yet he writes with humor and a lot of exclamation points!  Really!!!  He also quotes from some unexpected sources for this work.  My one quibble is that he misspells Jane Austen's name when he quotes from Emma!  Once, I might have thought a typo, but twice is a pattern not picked up by Spellcheck.  Oh, well.  Only God is perfect...

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Christmas Hope

Reading Anne Perry's annual Christmas novella has become a tradition for me.  My book club choose it as our December book because we wanted to read something upbeat.  Yes, it seems counter intuitive that we would choose a murder mystery, but one feature of Ms. Perry's Christmas books is the hope and strong redemptive quality with which she imbues each story.  A Christmas Hope (#349) continues this pattern in satisfying fashion.

Claudine Burroughs is wife to a wealthy Victorian businessman.  Her principle role in life as far as Wallace Burroughs is concerned is to see and be seen at the right parties, and to ease the social connections which will lead to his further success with his even wealthier clients.  Claudine dutifully plays her part, but her heart and mind are centered on the work she does for the volunteer clinic for prostitutes run by Hester Monk. (Thereby tying this story to the William Monk mystery series.)  That is until Claudine attends a pre-Christmas party during which a young prostitute is beaten to death on the back terrace of the host's London house.  Who invited the streetwalker there?  The three young scions of important and connected families found on the scene swear that Dai Tregarron, noted poet, drunkard and womanizer, is responsible.  After all, he's not one of "Them".  But as the first one on the scene to render aid, Claudine senses that something is wrong with the young men's stories.  Is the wrong person being accused?  And can she stand by comfortably and let a miscarriage of justice take place?

Surprising things happen when meek Claudine discovers the courage within herself to prove truth is stronger than the power of societal convention.  As bleak as life is for many in London during this period, one person can and does make a difference with the conviction of why we celebrate Christmas behind her.  Consider this book a Christmas present to yourself.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Zealot - The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

 I read Reza Aslan's controversial book Zealot; The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (#348) at exactly the perfect time.  I've been taking a course on the Hebrew Bible, so many of Aslan's citations were fresh in my memory and this book helped flesh out many of the things I've read and gave vivid examples of how the Jews at the time of Jesus interpreted the scriptures.  To be clear, Reza Aslan is focused solely on what documentation can be found on the historical Jesus.  He separates this from the gospels and apocrypha which were written at a remove of at least a generation, not from eye- witness accounts, and thus from the interpretations of who Jesus and his message was.

I did find much of what Reza Aslan had to say both interesting and intriguing, and for a Christian, possibly unsettling.  If the object of his book is to make people think, he has succeeded admirably.  But I read this as I would any history; that it is written with the facts interpreted to suit the writer's purposes and biases and that the reader must ultimately make up his or her own mind as to what to believe, and not take the contents as "gospel truth" as Aslan himself cautions.

Zealot is certainly worth reading from that perspective.  You're bound to learn something that will lead you to explore further on your own.

By the way, is it just me, or does anyone else think that it is ironic that Reza Aslan's name is the same as Aslan, the Christ figure in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series?  Just thought I'd put it out there...

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Atomic Lobster

A murderous family bent on revenge, antiquities smuggling, drug mules, and unsolved  Florida murders.  What do all of these have in common in Tim Dorsey's Atomic Lobster (#347)?  Serge A. Storms, of course!  Several groups of characters we've met in previous books cross paths here with the action focused in the Tampa area with its active cruise port.

As usual, Serge's murder methods are ingenious, and only applied to those miscreants who really, really deserve it.  With his sidekick Coleman in a perpetual haze of drugs and booze, Serge manages to score a sweet gig house-sitting on the exclusive Davis Islands in order to protect the Davenport family.  Jim once saved Serge's life, and Serge intends to honor his commitment to watch over him whether Jim wants it or not for the rest of his life.  And then there's the G-Unit, the four grannies who have discovered that living on a cruise ship circling between Tampa and Cozumel is cheaper than life on land, especially with the all-you-can eat food and a choice of eligible ball room dance partners.  They never suspect that the handsome men romancing them are looking for more than just a little nookie.  And at the very end of the book, a secret revealed which I did not see coming.

I really enjoyed this one, and yet I never fail to learn some interesting facts about Florida with every Tim Dorsey book I read.  I also liked the cover art for Atomic Lobster.  The only problem was that each time I glanced at the cover of this book, I found myself craving a lobster roll (with celery and mayonnaise, thank you very much!).  I do love a book that leaves you hungry for more...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Cruise to Die For; An Alix London Mystery

I've read and enjoyed Aaron Elkins' paleontology mysteries, but A Cruise to Die For (#346) is the first novel I've read which is co-authored with his wife Charlotte.  I definitely don't think it will be my last.

Impressionist art forgeries, a luxurious mega-yacht cruising the scenic Greek isles with a master chef aboard, a private auction of fabled art works; what's not to like?  Well, if you're Alix London, blessed with a seemingly infallible "connoisseur's eye for spotting fakes, on board on her first official FBI undercover assignment, being attacked within the first five minutes doesn't start off  her dream voyage on a positive note.  Is Panos Papadakis, the owner of both the Artemis and the art collection, the victim of a forger, or is he the one manipulating the money?  Alix isn't the only one in danger on this cruise!

The sophisticated setting and a glimpse into the world of art forgers make for an entertaining escapist read with several unexpected plot twists.  I'm going to have to get my hands on the first Alix London mystery, A Dangerous Talent, and I'll look forward to reading about her further adventures.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bad Monkey

I had a hard time concentrating on Carl Hiaasen's latest novel, Bad Monkey (#345).  It was mildly amusing, but I think he ran out of story and substituted sex and profanity to fill in the gaps.

The Bad Monkey of the title supposedly starred in the first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, where the only person he didn't physically attack was Johnny Depp (obviously, this was not a female monkey!).  Because of his personality, Driggs eventually found himself traded to a Bahamian beach dweller.  When his owner's beach property is sold out from under him to a dubious American real estate developer, things head even further south for Driggs.  In the meantime, in the Florida Keys, Andrew Yancy has been demoted from detective to roach inspector due to his very public assault of a prominent doctor in the middle of Key West, defending the honor of his lover, the doctor's wife.  When a human arm is hooked by a tourist on a Key West charter fishing boat, Driggs and Yancy's lives are set on a collision course which will not end well for a number of players.

Maybe it was because the book seemed to drag on too long, or maybe it's because I think Tim Dorsey does Florida crime humor so much better, but I found this book, like Carl Hiaasen's last novel Star Island, a disappointment.  Mr. Hiaasen has the name, but in my opinion, not the claim to best Florida writer.  An okay read if you have plenty of time to spare.

Monday, November 4, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed

After a less than rapturous acclaim from the critics, I have to admit that Khaled Hosseini's latest novel And the Mountains Echoed (#344) has been languishing on my bookshelf.  However, my book club choose it as our November selection so in the end I was glad it was there.  I was also very pleasantly surprised by it.

Perhaps the critics didn't like this book because they didn't perceive it to be every bit as brutal in its own way as The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns,   They've claimed that there are too many families here, and that the end isn't neatly tied up in a bow.  I disagree.  To me, this book, instead of being one long narrative, is a series of interconnected novellas, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out how the stories are connected.  It's a circle, with the first tale chronicling a separation and the final one a reunion which comes too late for one of the participants.  The other stories in And the Mountains Echoed are all smaller moons circling the orbit of those who have been forcibly separated.

Again, this type of storytelling reminds me of Olive Kitteridge and Where Somebody Waits (See my post of 10/22/13.).  I find the change of viewpoint interesting here; it broadens the scope of the story although the focus always remains on family.  It also led my mind to wander down some fraught "What if....?" pathways I might not have otherwise thought of.  Isn't that what good literature is supposed to do?  If you choose to read this book, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Monday, October 28, 2013


There are legions of Fern Michaels fans out there just waiting for Classified (#343), the latest book in her popular Godmother series.  I discovered from reading my first Fern Michaels book that I'm not one of them.

There is a very disturbing Prologue in this book, which never does have any further connection that I could tell to the rest of the book.  A gaggle of extremely well-heeled women in their seventies living in Charleston have man trouble (in that they all have handsome, rich men who want to marry them hanging around!) while succeeding at making yet more money in their respective businesses.  There's Toots, the leader of the gang with her obscene wealth and Midas touch; her daughter Abby who's convinced she's terminally ill.  Angst and sturm und drang until she finally figures out it's just morning sickness.  Toots can't figure out a way to tell her main squeeze she's been married eight(!) times previously.  Then there's Sophie, the psychic, who tells the Charleston Police where to find two missing children just before they meet a fate worse than death.  Oh, and she can tell what's physically wrong with animals, too.  Ida, who's made a fortune with face cream and is the acknowledged bottom position on the godmother totem pole takes up with the much younger prodigal son of Bernice, an unofficial godmother.  She and Bernice, a rather nasty piece of work if you ask me, mutually loathe each other and spend a great deal of the book swearing at each other and making obscene gestures and suggestions.    Language, ladies, language! 

Sound like something you'd want to read?  Frankly, the dialogue was so unexpectedly rude and crude, and the plot, if you can call it that, so meandering, vague and unrealistic (Ha! I'd like to see a Catholic priest agree to the type of baptism Ms. Michaels describes in this book!) that it reminded me of just why I watch so very little TV.  Not worth the time or effort.

If you're a fan, you'll love this book despite anything I say.  If you haven't read any of her work to date, don't waste your time.  There are so many books out there much more worthy of your attention.


Crossings (#342) is the second book in Robert Bruce Stewart's engaging Harry Reese mystery series.  Harry's an investigator for an insurance bureau in the New York City of 1901.  He and his co-workers are just finishing up the compiling of an Insurance Fraud Manual, so he's grateful when a rather mundane investigation comes his way.  Is an insurance agent's death really the suicide it appears to be?  And is there any connection with the deaths of two policy holders he recently insured?

Harry sets about investigating in his own inimitable way, which of course includes eluding his wife Emmie whenever possible, as she attempts to solve the case on her own.  The fact that Harry's investigation leads him to poolrooms, betting parlors and the race track don't help matters with Emmie's penchant for gambling.  With a few too many tall, statuesque blonds littering the landscape including Elizabeth Custis, one of Emmie's chums from Smith, things go from routine to risky as additional bodies pile up.  Will Tammany Hall and Willoughby Street politics as usual keep Harry from solving the case?

What makes this series so enjoyable to me is the interplay between Harry and Emmie.  She's always springing surprises on him, usually at the most inopportune times.  Harry's life wouldn't be half so entertaining if it weren't for her frolics.  He does manage to turn the tables on her often enough to nominally maintain the upper hand.  Or so he thinks.... 

The New York City of the turn of the century is brought vividly to life in this series.  Taking the ferries and the cars across the bridges was a way of life for New Yorkers, but enough of an impediment to create separate and distinct societies on either side of the rivers, and influence the local politics.  As an added bonus, Mr. Stewart also provides an interesting website with maps and articles to flesh out the background on his stories if you're curious.  A fun series, and highly recommended!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Where Somebody Waits

I received Where Somebody Waits (#341) by Margaret Kaufman in a GoodReads giveaway.  It's a little different, in that it's a chronological collection of short stories about an Arkansas downriver girl just as World War II is ending.  Ruby has bright red hair and nails, and stands six feet tall.  She's bound to be noticed, and in the first chapter, she attracts the attention of her future husband.  Ruby's life isn't always easy, but it's always interesting, whether the stories are told from her point of view, or those around her.

Considering the sensation that Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge caused several years ago, I'm amazed that no one has compared Where Somebody Waits to that darling of book clubs.  It just seems like a natural comparison since the format of the book is the same.  In general, I don't like short stories, but since these stories were all connected with Ruby Davidson as their common thread, it made for an interesting read.  Now that surprised me because I wasn't a fan of Olive Kitteridge.  Maybe it's because Ruby, while not perfect, is a much more appealing character.

This book was published by Paul Dry Books, and I wanted to comment on what a beautiful job they did producing this volume.  Holding this book gave me such pleasure from the feel of the cover to the turning of the pages.  It's positively elegant.  Where Somebody Waits is the complete package if you're in the market for a quality read.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Live Wire

Now that we've discovered Harlan Coben's excellent thrillers, my husband and I are busy catching up with what we've been missing.  This week it's a Myron Bolitar story, Live Wire (#340).  From the sound of it, this one may be the last Myron narrative although, through his nephew Mickey's character, Mr. Coben is launching a new Young Adult series, so the Bolitar saga will continue.

Live Wire takes Myron back sixteen years to the beginning of his career as a budding sports agent but a time of personal turmoil.  His own family may hold the key to what's going on today, and it isn't a pleasant journey for Myron.  He's warned to mind his own business, but he can't, and as a result he puts himself and those near and dear to him in danger.  When all is revealed, the answer is a true shocker.  But since this is Harlan Coben, you wouldn't expect anything less.

Live Wire is an excellent read, but Mr. Coben did strike a chord with both of us in his dialogue when Myron offers to take his visiting parents out to dinner.  They're now living in Boca Raton, Florida, but staying in the old family home in Livingston, New Jersey which Myron now owns.  What does his mother want?  "Can we do Chinese?  I don't like the Chinese in Florida.  It's too greasy."  Amen to that, Mrs. Bolitar!  Visiting our old favorite Chinese food restaurant while we were in New England a couple of weeks ago was a priority on our to-do list, and I know we're not alone in that.  And yes, it was every bit as good as I remembered it.  When a writer gets the little things like that right, you trust him to get the rest of it right, too.  No wonder Harlan Coben has so many fans.  If you've never read any of his books, there's no time like the present to get started.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Arrangement

The Arrangement (#339) by prolific Regency romance author Mary Balogh, is the second in her series The Survivor's Club, recounting the tales of each of the seven members of a group of physically and psychologically damaged survivors of the Peninsular War.  The Proposal, the first book in that series, a decided disappointment, was all about the steamy sex with very little story.  (See my post of 8/11/12.)  I decided to give The Arrangement a second chance by entering a GoodReads giveaway.  I think Ms. Balogh succeeds better in this offering, placing the emphasis more on the story rather than the sex.

In this case, the story is about Vincent, Viscount Darleigh, blond, beautiful and blind.  His mother, grandmother and sisters have taken over his life and the estate he unexpectedly inherited four years prior.  His problem is that they are all inclined to be too helpful; they've even gone to the trouble of selecting a suitable bride for him without his knowledge or consent.  So what does he do?  He runs away, of course, with his faithful valet and friend Martin Fisk.  He winds up back in his childhood home in Barton Coombs where he intends to hide out.  When his rich neighbors try to maneuver him into a match with their daughter, their plans are foiled by their poor, nearly invisible orphaned niece.  When they turn Sophia out in the middle of the night, you can see exactly where this story will end.

Again, I'll say that I would have enjoyed this book more had the author "drawn a curtain discretely" over the couple's intimate relations rather than spelling everything out in graphic detail.  Ah, well, if you're like me, you can just skip over those pages and you won't miss a thing!  Georgette Heyer, I'll wager, will still be read a hundred years from now with the same delicious relish as her audiences did when she was originally published.  And she didn't have to write a single sex scene to make a much greater impact than Mary Balogh will ever do. 

And now for my other personal hobby horse: the cover art!  If I hadn't won this book, I never, ever would have picked it up because of the cover.  The half dressed male model on the cover is supposed to appeal to panting female readers, but frankly it has just the opposite effect on me.  I don't even want to touch the book.  In this case, it's a double cover with a scantily clad female model draped over the guy on the inside cover.  Can anyone spell "bodice ripper"?  What is really insulting is that the illustrators didn't even bother to glance at the contents of the book, not even casually, because neither model bears even the faintest relationship to the descriptions of The Arrangement's hero and heroine.  Those who want a "bodice ripper" will be sadly disappointed by the lack of sex, yet those of us who like a romance to leave most of the details to the imagination, will be served up a little too much flesh.  Ah, marketing.... 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Spider Woman's Daughter

I thought Tony Hillerman's popular Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Navajo mysteries ended with Mr. Hillerman's death.  A shame, I felt, because his books created a unique window on the residents of the Navajo Nation and those who risk their lives to protect them and their way of life.  He captured the physical beauty of the area in way that made me long to visit it and see it for myself.  But after reading Spider Woman's Daughter (#338), I'm very happy to say that his daughter, Anne Hillerman, seems to have picked up right where her father stopped.  The mantle has been successfully passed.

Bernadette Manuelita is now married to Jim Chee and back on the Navajo Police force after a stint with US Border Patrol.  She's happy and honored to be the patrol officer invited to this week's breakfast briefing with  senior law enforcement in Window Rock.  She's just behind retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn when he heads out to the parking lot; he's working on an insurance appraisal and she needs to get back to Shiprock.  That makes her an eyewitness when a lone gunman walks up to Leaphorn and shoots him at point blank range.  It also makes her ineligible to work the case as Joe hovers close to death and the Navajo Police and FBI scramble for the identity of the shooter and a motive for the crime.  Could a cold case of Joe's be the key to the shooting?

Most of the characters in Spider Woman's Daughter will be familiar to readers of Hillerman's previous work, but Anne has taken Bernie and Jim Chee's relationship further.  Not precisely newlyweds any longer, the couple is working out both their private and professional strengths and weaknesses.  Jim must deal with the probable loss of his mentor, Joe, and Bernie has her hands full with a sister who doesn't take care of their dependent mother and who seems to be slipping into a an aimless and unsatisfying life.  But one thing Bernie and Chee can agree on, and that's the urgency to find Joe Leaphorn's shooter.  Their skills mesh as both contribute important pieces to solving this puzzle.

If you're a Tony Hillerman fan, you won't be disappointed by his daughter Anne's work; you'll just naturally become her fan as well.  Recommended.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Kalorama Shakedown

Do you like your mysteries firmly tongue-in-cheek?  Then Robert Bruce Stewart's latest Harry Reese mystery Kalorama Shakedown (#337) is for you.  Harry is a New York City based fraud investigator for insurance companies and this time his work brings him to Washington, D.C..

Fraudulent insurance claims, lobbyists working social events, real estate schemes, journalists in hot pursuit of a new source of free drinks.  If any of this seems familiar, it just goes to prove that things really haven't changed much in Washington circles since 1901, when this colorful story is set.  Except that the literary sensation everyone is talking about here is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, instead of Harry Potter.

Harry's new wife, Emmie, has insisted on accompanying him to D.C., ostensibly to catch up with an old school friend.  It's not Harry's first encounter with Elizabeth and he strongly suspects that Emmie, Elizabeth or possibly both of them are up to something, and he isn't necessarily sure he wants to find out just what that could be.  If I were in his shoes, I'm not sure I'd want to know, either!  Add in Elizabeth's employer, the Countess, and you have a delightfully duplicitous trio of women playing off each other in the course of the investigation.  And they're on the positive side of Harry's ledger!Things turn deadly when bodies turn up in two different cities.  Can Harry make the connection between them in time to earn his commission and avoid jail?

This is the second book in a row that I've read that evokes the silver screen for me.  In this case, it's my favorite screen couple, Nick and Nora Charles, played so ably by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series.  The only thing you would need to change is their costumes to suit the 1901 fashions.  That's exactly how I pictured Harry Reese and his wife, Emmie, with their bantering and misdirection, and Harry's perennial amusement and bemusement with her.  I can't wait to go back and catch up on their earlier adventures, as well as new ones as they come along.  What fun!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Shadows Against the Empire

Love the idea of a Steampunk British Raj that includes interplanetary colonies?  Then Ralph Vaughan's latest novel,  Shadows Against the Empire (#336) is for you.  It certainly suited me to a T(ea)!

Mysterious things are happening on Venus and on Mars, and Captain Folkestone and Sergeant Hand, his faithful Martian comrade-in-arms, are assigned by London to investigate the attacks and the perpetrator behind them.  What these intrepid soldiers find leads them from Mars to Venus and back to Earth again in pursuit of followers of the ancient Dark Gods. Lady Cynthia is right there alongside them with her powerful connections and mad skills to give them a hand whether they like it -  Sergeant Hand is definitely in favor! - or not!  Doth Captain Folkestone protest too much?

As I was reading Shadows Against the Empire, I couldn't help but think of some of those classic black and white films set in India like King of the Khyber Rifles, Gunga Din, or even some scenes in Wee Willy Winkie.  I pictured Captain Folkestone as Erroll Flynn or perhaps Tyrone Power, but Sergeant Hand, who out-Britished the English themselves, would get the juiciest character actor part with his clockwork heart replacing his original by the finest British medical artificers.  Lady Cynthia could be played by a number of blond athletic actresses who could simultaneously play the society beauty presiding over a tea table as well as a diplomat, or pilot of an experimental aethercraft.  Hmm.

Mr. Vaughan has created some gorgeous settings on his planets, bringing the sense of ancient and forgotten races and their places of worship to life with his prose.  Threaded throughout are allusions to the mythology of the ancient Greeks, adding an extra layer of enjoyment to the narrative.  The one nitpick I have is a wish that he could find an alternative for the word "crystalline".  It was appropriate, but a tad overused here, I thought.

I certainly hope that there are going to be further adventures of Captain Folkestone, Sergeant Hand and Lady Cynthia.  I know there have to be fascinating back stories for all of them, and there is certainly the possibility of romance in the future.  Perhaps the Sergeant will have to lend a "Hand"!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans (#335) by M. L. Stedman is a powerful morality tale set in Australia just after World War I. 

Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia, whole in body, but damaged in mind and soul by events at home and during the war.  He meets and marries Isabel when he is assigned to a light keeper's post at Janus Light, off the southwestern coast.  Their isolation is complete until the day a small boat washes up on shore with a the body of dead man and a tiny infant girl on board.  Isabel is suffering grievously from two previous miscarriages and a still birth just days before, and begs her husband not to report that the baby is found alive.  That decision  is the crux of the book as the consequences of Tom's action affect not just their own lives, but many others.

No character in this book is totally bad, nor totally good, yet the author manages to convey the emotional impact on those most involved in this drama in a truly empathetic way.  I was torn between how I thought the plot should go, just as the author intended.  There are no easy choices in life; we can just do the best we can with what we know at the time and hope for the best, or what we can live with.

This book did provide a fascinating glimpse into a lifestyle that is long gone now, but which touches anyone who has ever seen a lighthouse either on shore, or on a remote island.  The privations of such a life are easy to imagine, but M.L. Stedman has done a marvelous job at showing what the rewards of such a life could be as well.

A complex book with much to ponder.  Well worth reading thoughtfully.

The Salinger Contract

When I saw The Salinger Contract (#334) on GoodReads, it wasn't the Salinger connection that attracted me; it was the promise of a literary mystery.  And although J.D. Salinger is an author much admired by this novel's narrator, Adam Langer (also the name of the real life author!), you don't have to be an admirer of Salinger yourself to thoroughly enjoy this book. 

The fictional Adam Langer enjoyed a brief career in the literary world as the editor of a magazine in New York City.  His days of interviewing up-and-coming authors are over after the magazine folds and his wife accepts a tenure-track position at an Indiana university.  Now his days are filled with housework and child care until the day he runs into popular author Conner Joyce on a speaking tour in the Bloomington Borders bookstore .  Conner recognizes him from the flattering interview Adam had done on him and insists on getting together.  When Conner begins to tell Adam about a bizarre proposal he has received from a wealthy individual, Adam has no idea that his life is about to be turned upside down, too.  Things are murky, mysterious and menacing in the world Conner pulls him into.  Is the danger real, or is it in their heads?  You'll have to read The Salinger Contract to find out.

I liked the almost casual tone of this book which creates a very intimate atmosphere between Adam and the reader.  It doesn't have the erudite air that one might expect from a literary mystery involving some of the twentieth century's most revered writers. 

Did I mention that the mystery's revelation is quite satisfying and unexpected?  I'm passing The Salinger Contract along to all my friends, and I'll be waiting eagerly for Adam Langer's next novel.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Blood & Beauty

Is it possible to make the Borgias boring?  I was beginning to think so as I read Sarah Dunant's latest novel Blood & Beauty (#333).  I had been so looking forward to reading this book after devouring her previous books set in Renaissance Italy.  Sacred Hearts was so vivid and memorable in its depiction of women's lives in that time period that I was expecting her to similarly illuminate the life of Lucrezia in Blood & Beauty.  For me, it just didn't happen. 

It's a sturdy, well researched and straight-forward telling of the history of the Borgia clan from the time that Rodrigo is elected as that rare thing, a non-Italian pope until Lucrezia's third marriage.  But for me, it was essentially lifeless.  In the first half of this five hundred page novel, the most compellingly portrayed character was Giulia Farnese's hair! (She was the girl married to his nephew as a beard for the Pope's affair with her.)  Things did pick up a bit in the second half of the book, but the focus was really on the male characters, not Lucrezia, as I had hoped.  In fact, in many ways, Lucrezia comes across in this story as a victim.  Bright, but still merely a chess piece in the game her father, the Pope, and her brother, Cesare, were manipulating to enhance their own power and political prestige.

According to Ms. Dunant's notes at the end of this volume, she does plan to continue the family saga in further volumes.  Perhaps Lucrezia will be allowed more time on the stage in future books, but the question is, will I be willing to wade through it to find out, or should I just cut my losses and stick to non-fiction like The Tigress of Forli about Caterina Sforza, a remarkable woman who does play a role in Blood & Beauty?

If you haven't previously read any of Sarah Dunant's books, you can read Blood & Beauty without any expectations.  Then go back and read any of her other books, especially In the Company of a Courtesan, The Birth of Venus, or my personal favorite, Sacred Hearts.  Then you'll understand why I found this book so disappointing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The English Girl

I have a bone to pick with my husband.  I can't understand why he has never recommended Daniel Silva's books to me before, since he's read every single one of them.  I put The English Girl (#332) on hold way before he thought to do it, so I actually did both of us a favor by getting it first.  Since it was my hold, that meant I read it first.  Reader, I just discovered another treasure trove of must-read novels!

Madeline Hart is the eponymous English girl in this thriller.  She's also the mistress of the British Prime Minister, so when she is kidnapped while on vacation in Corsica, it not only makes the news as a missing British national, it also makes waves in the Party, where the Prime Minister's inner circle of political handlers are trying desperately to make this scandal go away.  Who could handle this thorny problem better and more discretely than Gabriel Allon, accomplished art restorer and assassin working under the auspices of Israeli Intelligence?

There are plenty of plot twists here, and you wonder just whose heads will roll by the end.  There are a number of references to Gabriel's previous missions in The English Girl, but I'm happy to say that Mr. Silva provides enough background to make the story cohesive even if you have not read any of his previous books.  I could enjoy this story on its own, but those hints certainly did whet my appetite to find out more about Gabriel Allon, his Italian wife Chiara, the assassin who is his partner in this book, and his companions at "The Office".

It's always a thrill to find a new source of reading pleasure.  If you've read any Daniel Silva books, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.  If you haven't, there's no time like the present to find out why he's a perennial best seller!

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I forgot to mention in my last post that there is one more author who can make me laugh out loud: David Rosenfelt.  It's true when I'm reading his Andy Carpenter mysteries, and it certainly was true when I read his latest book Dogtripping (#331).  The difference is that Dogtripping is non-fiction, as you may be able to guess from the subtitle: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure.  If you've ever been fortunate enough to read any of the Andy Carpenter books yourself, you'll know that a golden retriever rescue dog  named Tara is a major character in all of his books (See my posts of  8/2912, 1/10/12, 12/26/11, 8/6/11, 7/3/11, 5/24/11, & 3/1/11.).  So it should come as no surprise that the majority of the 25 rescue dogs that made the journey with David Rosenfelt and his wife, Debbie Myers, to their new home are either pure golden retrievers or mixes (or were represented as such before rescue!).

Interspersed with the saga of why and how the Rosenfelts and their canine brood made the long journey from southern California to re-settle in rural Maine are anecdotes about how these two acquired their dogs, both those that lived to make the trip with them, and the many who are now gone, but who spent varying lengths of time in the Rosenfelt home being loved and nurtured until it was time to say goodbye.  All of these little tales are affecting in their own way, and I found it was best to keep a tissue on hand either to muffle the sobs, or to mop up the tears from laughing so hard at the dogs' and David's antics.  Plus, there are pictures of their road trip and a photograph of the immortal Tara.

If you're like me, you'll have to restrain yourself from rushing out to the nearest rescue group or animal shelter to adopt a pet of your own after reading this book, but I think that few people would ever have the fortitude and dedication to do what David Rosenfelt and Debbie Myers have done, and are still doing. However, I am proud to say as a native New Englander that Mr. Rosenfelt notes at the end of Dogtripping that the attitude towards animals is very different in New England than it is in California, and that there won't be nearly the call for their rescue services in Maine as there was at their former home.

If you've ever owned a pet, or wanted to, or are simply a David Rosenfelt fan, you'll enjoy spending some quality time with the man behind the novels.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Happy Any Day Now

Judith Raphael isn't having one mid-life crisis: she's having several simultaneously in Toby Devens' new novel Happy Any Day Now (#330).  She's survived a brain aneurysm, she has a job she loves, a handsome lover, and a strong relationship with her Korean mother.  So why is it that everything seems to be changing as she approaches her fiftieth birthday?

It's not all bad, by any means.  Her first love has just resurfaced in her life, ready to rekindle that old flame.  Judith always thought that's what she wanted, but is it really?  There will be consequences to her emotional life either way.  What about the chance to advance her career as a cellist with the Maryland Philharmonic Orchestra?  Can she let go of the paralyzing stage fright that suddenly afflicts her?  And the father who abandoned them when she was only six has suddenly appeared in Baltimore.  Judith wants no part of him, but it's hard when her mother is blossoming in front of her eyes.  With the help of friends and family, Judith will eventually arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

It's nice to know that these kinds of problems aren't confined to the dewy-skinned teens and twenties out there.  Both Judith and her mother Grace have to make choices which will affect their own happiness.  Career choices in mid-life may have more far-reaching effects as the options begin to narrow in a youth-obsessed culture.

One thing I did find a bit curious, though.  I read through the discussion guide at the end of the book and the first question was "...did Happy Any Day Now make you laugh?  What were the funniest parts for you?"  I find that very few writers can make me laugh, Dave Barry, Tim Dorsey and Jasper fforde being  notable exceptions.  Though I enjoyed reading this book, I think a better question to ask would have been "What part of the story touched your emotions, and how?"  I did feel my eyes tear up in a few spots, especially when Judith plays at the funeral.

If you're an older reader who believes romantic life can last as long as you do, you'll appreciate this new addition to "fully mature chick lit".

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Spirit Room

Being a medium isn't easy.  For the Benton sisters in 1850s Geneva, New York, the hardest thing to deal with is the consequences they face from their abusive father for themselves or their siblings if they refuse to cooperate in the daily seances and table rapping.  Clara and Isabelle Benton's story is told in Marschel Paul's mesmerizing new novel The Spirit Room (#329).

Spiritualism, hydrotherapy, physical and emotional abuse, prostitution, and rational dress all play a role in this book in a fascinating look at a time and place in the United States just prior to the Civil War.  Although the tone of the book is mostly dark, both Clara and Isabelle are strong enough to survive and ultimately thrive, and the ending promises the hope of better days to come.

I guess the one place I felt cheated in this book was at the very end, though.  Izzie has settled into a useful and productive life using her gifts at her husband's Water Cure Institute, youngest sister Euphora has been rescued and lives with her, Clara's twin Billy has found a new life as a sailor in the Pacific and Mr. Benton is finally gone for good.  We know where their stories end at that point.  But then Clara comes to visit Izzie  bringing with her her friend Hannah.  She has made the choice that worked for her, but now she is much changed and Izzie fears she may not be long for this world.  What happened to Clara???  After spending all this time with her, I really wanted to know!  And that's the mark of a good story, when the author can make you care about the characters.  Definitely worth the time to read.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Woman Upstairs

Before I finished the first page of The Woman Upstairs (#328) by Claire Messud, I knew that I didn't want to spend any more time with the angry, profanity-spewing narrator of this book, but since it is our book club's choice for September, I soldiered on.  It wasn't until the very last  few pages that I finally found out just what made Nora Eldridge so furious.  Can't say I blame her, but the payoff wasn't worth the time invested to me.

An unmarried elementary school teacher in her late thirties develops strong crushes on all three members of a family when the boy, Reza, is enrolled in her third grade class in Cambridge.  His father Skandar is a visiting professor at Harvard, and his mother Sirena is an emerging artist.  Nora herself put aside a career in art because she couldn't support herself at it, but she sees Sirena Shahid as the instrument  of her transformation into the artist she always knew she could be when Sirena proposes that they share studio space.  Skandar, the husband, provides intellectual stimulation as well as a brief fling for Nora. It isn't until later that the relationships that Nora treasured and presumed were requited are revealed  for what they truly are in a shocking revelation.

Not that this book is badly written; it's not.  I didn't like it because it is so negative, on oh, so many levels.  I expect it will be a good discussion for our group, but I so wish I had that time back to read something else that wasn't quite so "me" centered.  I also disliked the stereotypes that Messud invokes and perpetuates in her book, "The Woman Upstairs" being the principal one. 

Finally, a very personal peeve.  Ms. Messud seems to have climbed the ladder that comes with every Cambridge dwelling, be it ever so humble, to allow their inhabitants to look down upon their neighbors in Somerville and sneer.  Ah, effete snobbery!   Somerville in her narrative is a place of abandoned buildings, garbage strewn alleyways and live chicken (!!!) shops on one of its main thoroughfares as though the same conditions don't exist equally in Cambridge.  She implies that Davis Square, that haven for foodies, is in Cambridge; it's not.  It's in Somerville.  The producers on the weekly NPR World Music program would be surprised to have their Somerville studio placed in such a dangerous neighborhood.  Enough said.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

Jules Verne really started something with his novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873.  The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of great technological advancement, and by 1888, brash investigative reporter Nellie Bly pitched the idea of beating Phileas Fogg's fictional time around the world to her boss at New York's The World newspaper.   He turned her down then, but promised that if they did ever decide to sponsor a reporter on this story, it would be Nellie.  It only took a year before pressure to be first with the story forced John Cockerill's hand and the race was on.  Not to be outdone, The Cosmopolitan, a New York-based magazine, sent their own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on her own race around the world in the opposite direction.  Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World (#327) by Matthew Goodman tells the fascinating, but mostly forgotten story of these two women and their whirlwind race around the globe. 

I loved this book.  It's jam packed full of all kinds of odd bits and pieces of information about the places, personalities and politics that drove this great race.  Matthew Goodman alternates the story between Nellie's and Elizabeth's background and the legs if the race by dates to show just where in the world they are at roughly the same time, and their reactions to what they see and experience along the way.  And yes, you could look up the bare facts before you start reading, but Mr. Goodman does such a masterful job with the suspense of who will be first to return to New York City, you can feel the anxiety on the part of both ladies to achieve the victory. 

Nellie Bly, of course, does return first, which is why you may find her name familiar.  With her incredible trip, she became easily the most famous woman in America, drawing crowds on the final leg of her train trip across the United States which exceeded even those of Presidential trains.   If you're like me, though, you've probably never heard of Elizabeth Bisland, which is a shame.  The contrast in personalities and attitudes between these two women is enormous.  Although Nellie was already well-known for her daring exposes for The World, including a proposal to sail to England so she could return in steerage and report on the conditions endured by the immigrants coming to America, not once during her 72 day trip did she ever venture into steerage, or investigate the harsh and perilous conditions in the ships' boiler rooms as many other passengers routinely did.  She seems to have left her bump of curiosity at home, as nothing and no one she met on her travels could even come close to what she could find on the shores of America, and she did not hesitate to make her views known to all and sundry.  She particularly loathed the British, even though almost her entire trip was through ports and territories controlled by the British.  (I have met people like that on my own travels abroad, and it can be trying to  spend any time with them!)  Elizabeth, on the other hand, moved in more literary and artistic circles and was well known in her own way for her essays and book reviews.  She was summoned to her publisher's office on the morning of November 14, 1889, and found herself reluctantly on a west-bound train that very same night committed to circling the globe, the same day that Nellie Bly had departed.  She was charmed by what she saw, especially in the Far East, and embraced the chance to experience new things as she could.  How I envy her her first view of Mount Fuji in Japan as her ship steamed towards Yokohama.  She never in later life lost her love of the Orient, and returned there several times.  She also was an Anglophile and received an invitation to spend the next Season in England with Lady Broom, whom she had met and befriended in Ceylon, which she accepted.  Who was the real winner of this race?  I think that's debatable.

There are also a number of photographs and maps included in the text which help you to visualize what it must have been like for a woman alone to brave such a trip in winter.  The chapter notes (there are no footnotes) are also a wealth of little tidbits.  It's like mining for gold back there!

If you like travel; if you like American history; if you are interested in women's progress towards career equality; if you like gossip or just a cracking good story, Eighty Days has it all.  I can't recommend it highly enough!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Big Bamboo

It's always a treat to find yet another book in a series you enjoy, but have somehow managed to miss.  That's the case with author Tim Dorsey's The Big Bamboo (#326), an older book in his popular Serge A. Storms series.  (See also my posts of 2/12/13, 4/25/12, 12/12/11, 10/21/11, 6/9/11, 5/26/11, & 3/22/11.)

Serge usually careens all around Florida with his stoned out sidekick Coleman seeking out all those hidden historical and cultural sites.  (And incidentally meting out rough yet weirdly inventive and satisfying ways of offing those whose actions may be strictly legal, but are so, so morally and ethically wrong.)  Serge is on the hunt in The Big Bamboo for locations where movies have been shot in Florida.  He's even brought along his own portable DVD so he can play the appropriate movies in their proper locations. 

But in this caper, Serge and Coleman venture a little further afield to Hollywood, California at the behest of his grandfather.  Something funny is going on at Vistamax studios whose films may not be critically acclaimed, but reliably churn out the money for the Japanese owners under the guidance of identical twin brothers, the Glicks, them of unsavory reputation.  Of course Serge and Coleman get tangled up in things!

I must admit, I do like it better when Serge and Coleman stick to Florida, but this was still an amusing outing.  I think my favorite part was when Serge makes fun of the spokespersons who pronounce the car name "Jag-you-are" in those snootier-than-thou ads.  Regrettably, Serge does not have an opportunity to kill that spokesperson here in an inventive and original way.  (Though, to be fair, Serge should probably include the ad copy writers for that obnoxious campaign if that little tryst should ever come about!)  Ah, well, there's always hope for a future book; Lord knows there are plenty of Jaguars driven in Florida!

Monday, August 26, 2013

They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

Ah, those frisky Washington lobbyists.  They'll float any rumors to further their ends, won't they?  In Christopher Buckley's latest political satire, They Eat Puppies, Don't They? (#325), the failure of a Senate Select Committee to authorize the purchase of a super-sized drone by one of America's largest defense contractors leads to a war of words on China.  They need the leverage of public anti-Chinese feelings to change the Committee's decision in favor of their multi-billion dollar contract.  (But if some of the characters involved have their way, there might actually be some real fighting!)

As absurd as some of the situations are in They Eat Puppies, Don't They? I still seemed to hear Dave Barry whispering over my shoulder as I was reading "They are not making this up!"  And if you've ever watched any of the numerous political talk shows on TV, regardless of their persuasion, you'll soon be chanting that mantra, as well.  And speaking of mantras, one of major plot points involves assassinating the Dalai Lama.  The only question is, which side will succeed first?  The Americans or the Chinese?  Or will the Dalai Lama have the last laugh and die a natural death?  Not if it can be helped by either side if they can play it to their own advantage.

Looking for a little truthiness served up with your politics?  Mr. Buckley's book should provide you with a generous sampling*.

* Puppies not included.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Six Years

The worst day of Jake Fisher's life was the day he watched Natalie Avery, the love of  his life, marry another man.  In the six years since, he's adjusted to life as a political science professor at a small Massachusetts college.  That is until the afternoon as he's in the middle of office hours, he glimpses an alumni obituary scroll across the college website up on his computer.  Todd Sanderson; why is that name familiar?   Thus Harlan Coben sets the stage for the roller coaster that is Six Years (#324).

Jake's just hoping for a chance to rekindle his old romance when he attends the funeral for Natalie's husband, Todd.  The only problem is, Natalie isn't Todd's widow.  And Jake's life will never be the same again.  Jake is just an ordinary decent guy, which is what makes what follows in this novel so very effective.

Without giving too much away, all I can say is every time I thought I had a handle on where this story might be going, it took an unpredictable turn.  You've got to love the book that keeps you guessing right up until the last pages, yet manages to ultimately make sense of all the puzzles.  It seemed to take me no time at all to read Six Years because I was so caught up in Jake's story.

In fact, the only quibble I have with Six Years is the cover art.  I couldn't figure out any earthly reason why the cover photograph of an outdoor bench (?) was chosen.  It had nothing to do with any arc of the story as far as I could tell.  Had I just seen this book on a display, there was nothing about it to induce me to pick up a copy of the book to even read the cover copy.  Just another example of cover art doing a disservice to the contents.  Just my opinion.  Don't let it stop you from reading a story so gripping it will have you up all night.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Heist

Janet Evanovich pairs up with former Monk script writer Lee Goldberg for The Heist (#323), an entertaining caper book.  It seems to be tailor-made for a future feature film.  Maybe that's because I kept channeling Sandra Bullock in The Heat playing the role of FBI agent Kate O'Hare.  Except Kate is also a former Navy Seal (and yes, the authors state right up front that they know there are no female Seals, just that maybe there ought to be...)  For the past five years, Kate has been in hot pursuit of Nick Fox, a clever con man who always manages to stay just a few steps ahead of her. 

When Kate finally does catch up with Nick, things don't go the way she planned; instead of Nick spending some quality time in prison, her bosses want her to pair up with her former nemesis to catch an even bigger fish (think Bernie Madoff in terms of financial damage.)  Nick doesn't mind.  It sure beats jail, plus he's always been attracted to feisty Kate.  What more could you ask of a five year plan with unrestricted government funds?

The action and the humor kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next.  I enjoyed it so much I passed it along to my husband to read.  What can I say?  We both like King and Maxwell, too.  It's just that kind of fun ride.  I sure hope Evanovich and Goldberg are planning more cases for Fox and O'Hare.  In the meantime, I'll just have to think about who I would cast as Nick Fox...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Violinist's Thumb

In case you're wondering, the violinist referred to in the title of Sam Kean's The Violinist's Thumb (#322) is the renowned Niccolo Paganini.  And the reason he's of interest in this non-fiction work can be answered by the book's subtitle: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War,  and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code.  Sam Kean has done a masterful job of hooking the reader by combining humorous or salacious (in some cases, both!) anecdotes with a serious look into the history of the discovery of DNA and genetic research.  The result is both highly entertaining and educational.  And there are pictures!

Since many, if not most, of the major discoveries discussed in The Violinist's Thumb have taken place within living memory, or fairly recently around the beginning of the twentieth century it makes the content of this book even more compelling.  It also makes me appreciate just how up-to-date the science books were in my parochial elementary and high schools, since I was learning about many of these things just a few years after the events described.  Mr. Kean is spot on to credit, among others, Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, an American Dominican nun, for pushing science forward at a critical juncture.  It therefore surprised me a little that he also seems to pooh-pooh Francis Collins for his Christian beliefs when asked to take over the management of the Human Genome Project; he notes Dr. Collins responded by praying about it.  He might have benefited by reading Dr. Collins' book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief about how his research in the field of DNA and genetics led him from atheism to a strong belief in God - just a thought.  Mr. Kean also failed to mention that Dr. Collins will, at the drop of a hat, pick up his guitar and serenade his audience with clever ditties about DNA.  I've been in the audience for that, and will never forget it! 

I know that I learned quite a bit more about DNA and genetics from reading The Violinist's Thumb because Sam Kean makes the tough material much more accessible to the average person, but I have to admit that there were sections of his book that left me shaking my head, because I still just don't get it.  The section where he describes how artists are using strands of DNA to create sculptures is a perfect example.  He goes into detail about how a bust of Beethoven was made (single DNA strands only - I guess the double helix shape doesn't lend itself well to the process).  This could definitely have used a picture to illustrate what he was talking about, if that's even possible. 

Speaking of pictures, one of the illustrations did put a whole new slant on the BBC America series based on human cloning Orphan Black.  If you've watched the series, you'll know exactly which one!But if you have even an ordinary size bump of curiosity, you'll be sure to find something to amaze, surprise and delight you in The Violinist's Thumb, even if like me, you can't find the Easter egg Mr. Kean has embedded in the book.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Pride's Prejudice

I had fun reading Misty Dawn Pulsipher's Pride's Prejudice (#321), a contemporary re-telling of Jane Austen's masterpiece.  In fact, each chapter is introduced by a different Jane Austen quote from a number of  her writings.  I'm glad I won this title in GoodReads' First Reads giveaway.

This version is set in a Wyoming college town, of all places, with a brief excursion to New York City.  Part of the enjoyment was matching up the characters in Pride's Prejudice to their counterparts in Pride and Prejudice.  Ms. Pulsipher made this easy by assigning a similar-sounding name in most cases, except for that of Wickham.  You'll just have to guess which of the male characters this will be until he finally is revealed!  Many of the events of the original novel have been transmuted into this modern version as well, although I would have liked to see Beth Pride on a tour of Mr. Darcy's New York City penthouse in his absence!  I was happy that Ms. Pulsipher chose to remain faithful to the spirit of Jane Austen's work, and resisted having Beth fall into bed with Mr. Darcy before the vows were spoken - not that she didn't turn up the heat to suit today's tastes.

Though I freely admit I did feel the generational gap in reading this book, one of the things that amazed me about the college life of Beth Pride and best friend and roommate Jenna was their dorm  set up and their predilection for baking cookies at the drop of a hat in the comfort of their suite!  It is reassuring to this reader to know that dances and romance still have their place in modern life.  

If you're a Jane Austen fan who is willing to venture into a different time and place for a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice, you will undoubtedly enjoy Pride's Prejudice.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Eye of God

James Rollins always poses the most interesting scientific conundrums in his novels.  His latest Sigma Force book, The Eye of God (#320) would have delighted Madeline L'Engle, I'm sure, with his take on space/time wrinkles.

The United States space community's experiments in tracking Dark Energy in the tail of a comet (based on a similar real comet due to pass close to the earth in November of 2013!) goes horribly wrong when it's determined that the comet's course is being influenced by an earthbound relic associated with Genghis Khan.  Sigma Force only has days to save the planet, and the usual assortment of villains are doing their best to prevent them.

Rollins introduces a couple of new members to the Sigma Force, and develops the relationship between Commander Pierce and former assassin Seichan now that she is cooperating with the agency. 

Two familiar characters also die in The Eye of God, or do they?  That depends on some of the science posited in this book.  As always, Rollins' notes at the end of the book are equally fascinating as he separates out truth from fiction.  In this case, surprisingly little other than the plot line is imagined.  It was ironic that the day after I finished reading this book, I heard a discussion on Dark Energy on NPR!

All in all, a fast, nail-biting read, perfect for summer (or any other time, for that matter!)  After Googling pictures of the statue of Genghis Khan Mr. Rollins mentions several times in the book, just outside  the capital city of Ulan Bator,  I'm just going to have to add Mongolia to my wish list of travel destinations...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Blood of Tyrants

The penultimate book of Naomi Novik's exciting Napoleonic era dragon series, Blood of Tyrants (#319) is due out on August 13.  I was lucky enough to win an advance reader's copy in a GoodReads giveaway.  Usually a five star rating and review is slightly suspect on GoodReads; is it a self review, is the person receiving money for a positive review, or is he or she a relative of the author?  In this case, it's none of the above, because I absolutely adore this series.  It's Horatio Hornblower meets an intelligent, multi-lingual soul mate who just happens to be an extremely rare Chinese Imperial dragon, as written by Jane Austen.

As Blood of Tyrants opens, William Laurence, the former British Naval captain, now a member of His Majesty's Air Corps with his dragon, Temeraire, regains consciousness on a remote beach.  Thirst drives him to find a stream just off a traveled road, but when next he awakes, he is in a strange room with paper walls.  He knows his name, and he can recognize one of the languages those around him are speaking, but otherwise, his memory is gone.  He is stunned to find that he is in Japan when the last thing he can remember puts him on the other side of the globe battling Napoleon.  How did he get here, and why is he still alive?  When he is finally reunited with his crew, he does not know them, which is especially upsetting to Temeraire, who would not let the British leave Nagasaki without news of Captain Laurence.  An urgent mission to China awaits, but with so much of his past a blank, will Laurence be able to play his role?  Napoleon's tentacles reach even here, drawing Captain Laurence, Temeraire and their small detachment along with their Chinese allies to Russia on the eve of Napoleon's final push to become the master of all of Europe.  And the end is a cliffhanger, aarrghh!

 There are some authors and series which are such a treat for me to read that I buy the books as they come out, but I don't necessarily read them right away.  For me, half the pleasure is looking at the books on the shelf, enjoying the cover art (in most cases!) and anticipating the delightful day when I feel the occasion merits a special reward - savoring one of these special works.  Buying books 2 and 3 in Ms. Novik's Temeraire series provided the perfect excuse for my husband and I to spend several enjoyable hours in the amazing Powell's Bookshop in Portland, Oregon last fall.  My husband indulged in them right away, but they're still waiting for me. 

Although this novel would normally have joined the rest of the series on my bookshelf to wait its turn, I felt I needed to read and review Blood of Tyrants because of GoodReads.  I think it's better to read the series in sequence, if possible, but at the very least, read the first book,  His Majesty's Dragon first (See my post of 9/26/12.); it really lays the groundwork for so much else that takes place in these books you'll be lost without having read it.  Otherwise, knowing that this daring duo has been to Africa, China, and South America, and wanting to know the back stories of some of the characters which figure in Blood of Tyrants has done nothing but whet my appetite for more!  I'll be looking forward to the final book but at the same time, I'm sad this marvelous series is ending.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


I found Dan Brown's latest thriller, Inferno (#318) an entertaining summer read.  It moves along briskly with symbologist and Harvard professor Robert Langdon in peril with a gunshot wound and retrograde amnesia as he tries to out think the shadowy figure who seems intent on destroying the human race through the means of a mysterious plague.  Of course there's the requisite beautiful young female doctor who comes to his aid as he races though Florence, Venice and Istanbul.

It's always fun to see cities you've been to through the eyes of an author, and it only whets your appetite to visit those places that are on your "must see" list.  The title of the novel, Inferno, is of course, a reference to the first section of Dante Alighieri's immortal work The Divine Comedy, which provides the jumping off point for all the symbology Robert Langdon must unravel in this thriller.  It's fitting therefore that he finds himself, not in a dark wood as Dante did, but in his beloved city of Florence when Langdon awakes in a hospital bed with no knowledge of what he is doing there.  I suspect that the more familiar you are with The Divine Comedy, the more you'll appreciate Mr. Brown's references to the many works inspired by Dante.  I had to rely on a hazy recollection of reading it many years ago in college, but enough facts are dropped into the narrative that personal experience wit this classic is not necessary.  I doubt Inferno would have spent so much time at the top of the New York Times bestseller list otherwise!

I do have to say without giving anything away, that I did think the ending was a bit of a letdown;  I had total sympathy with the "villain" of the piece and even the ends he used to achieve it.  Also, I have to say I have my doubts about just how smart Robert Langdon actually is, since it took him so long to decipher the big fat clues that were being dropped into his lap by several parties.  Having a head wound must be a trial to work with if you're used to being the smartest one in the room all the time!

Anyway, there's plenty of material to Google in this book to keep you happily occupied for hours.  I wonder just how hits the sculpture Hercules and Diomedes in the Palazzo Vecchia in Florence described several times in Inferno generated; inquiring minds want to know...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Rebel Wife

From the title and the cover art of Taylor M. Polites' The Rebel Wife (#317) you'd expect to be reading Civil War historical fiction, probably a romance, wouldn't you?  Well, in this case, you'd be mistaken.  What you'll find instead is a very dark tale set in the fictional town of Albion, Alabama approximately ten years after the end of the Civil War.

Things haven't gone well for anybody in Albion in the intervening years, except for Eli Branson who apparently has the Midas touch, and has played his political cards well.  He also happens to be the much older husband of the story's narrator, Augusta.  She makes it clear she is not happy in the marriage, but even Gus wouldn't wish the mysterious sweating sickness on Eli that takes him in a matter of hours.  That's only the first of many shocks Gus will be dealt over the course of the next few weeks as her cousin Judge Heppert steps in to take over the financial reins of the Branson household.  ( I had a mental picture of Donald Sutherland in Cold Mountain as Judge, but with the personality of the character he played in The Hunger Games - it fits Judge's physical description perfectly!)  Lies swirl around her as Gus realizes that she can trust no one to protect her or her young son Henry.

This was a very atmospheric and well-researched  novel.  It's just long enough after the end of the war (which will never be over for many inhabitants of Albion) for those with some power in town to have regained their voting rights and to try to put the Negroes in town "back in their place".  Gus has become the subject of gossip since her husband's death, but now the ladies will come right into her parlor to share their opinions. You will sweat in the extreme Alabama heat right along with Gus laced into her whalebone corsets as she watches the town around her crumble as many leave for better economic opportunities elsewhere or to flee from the spreading sickness.  She cannot comprehend that she no longer has that luxury herself.

I expected some light summer reading with The Rebel Wife, but what I got was a powerful, compulsively readable story, Southern Gothic style.  Augusta Branson is bound to make an impression on you, too.  Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Long Live the King

Finally!  Long Live the King (#316), the second book of Fay Weldon's trilogy about the turn-of-the century Earl of Dilberne and his household has arrived.  Be warned, though; you really need to have read the first installment Habits of the House (See my post of 3/4/13) to squeeze every last little bit of pleasure from this book.

The Earl of Dilberne's political star is rising, thanks to some shrewd financial tips from his man of business, Eric Baum.  His son and heir, Arthur, is safely married to an American heiress, Minnie, and prospects are good for the imminent arrival of a grandchild.  The family has given up on daughter Rosina ever landing a suitable husband, so Lady Isobel is free to concentrate on their roles in the upcoming Coronation of Bertie, the Prince of Wales.  Who knew that three extra tickets to the Coronation could be wielded as a weapon?  And how can Lady Isobel approach Consuelo Vanderbilt, whom she suspects of having designs on husband Robert for replacements when those engraved invitations go "missing"?

In the meantime, Robert's estranged brother and his wife die in a tragic accident just before Christmas, leaving behind sixteen year old Adela.  The Bishop of Bath and Wells' wife happened to be passing by and rescued Adela, but with the holiday, no one has any time for her, or interest in claiming her since she's due to enter the convent on her next birthday.  That is, until the day she's abducted, except no one really notices...

What fun!  Too bad it's going to be another long wait until The New Countess finally appears on the scene.  If you haven't read these already, you might want to consider hoarding the first two books in this series until the third installment comes out, so you can read them back-to-back.

Just a note about the cover art for this series.  It's really cleverly done, with each front cover forming a panel of a triptych showing an "upstairs" party, while the back covers depict three sections of the downstairs kitchen with the household staff.  The publisher is kind enough to show each series together on the back end flap of the book.  They certainly add to the overall enjoyment of the series!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy

The title of this non-fiction book intrigued me: Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy (#315), as did the cover photograph of four dancing couples, the women in identical Empire-style gowns, the men in dashing military uniforms.  I realized when I thought about it that I had some idea of what had happened to the French aristocracy after their Revolution, but I had no idea at all about what had happened in twentieth century Russia during my own grandmother's lifetime.  The only image I could bring to mind was Geraldine Chaplin as Dr. Zhivago's long-suffering aristocratic wife being reduced to picturesque poverty in one room of her family's former mansion while Omar Sharif cavorted with Julie Christie in various exotic Russian settings.  According to Douglas Smith, the author of Former People, this is the first attempt in any language to tell the story of what actually happened to those people.

Research into this topic has only been possible for the last twenty years or so, and many survivors of this tumultuous period deemed it safer for their children and grandchildren to forget the past if they remained in Russia.  Things had already started to fall apart for the nobles even before Nicholas II abdicated, but the aftermath was a bitter class war waged by the peasants (the "have nots") with the weight of Bolshevik policies behind them on the aristocracy, military officers, the police, bureaucrats, peasants with their own small holdings, Jews - in other words, the "haves".  The constant threat of arrests, executions, internal exile, forced labor camps, hostage taking and financial extortion hung over these people every day until the end of World War II and beyond.  The sheer numbers of people this affected and who died as a result is simply staggering, and by contrast makes the depredations of the French Revolution a mere drop in the bucket.  But of course, the suppression of all these educated, skilled workers, managers with the burgeoning technological know-how and their replacement by uneducated workers had direct consequences for the Bolsheviks.

Mr. Smith has humanized his history by focusing on the fates of two noble Russian families: the Sheremetevs of St. Petersburg, and one of the sixteen branches of the Golitsyn family of Moscow (the only ones to survive this period.).  Looking through the trove of family pictures of these interconnected clans puts a face on the statistics related here, and makes it real, tragic and immediate.  If you have any interest in the history of Russia, or have read about the fate of the Tsar and his family, you owe it to yourself to fill in the missing gap by reading Former People.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Poisoned Season

Lady Emily Ashton is back in A Poisoned Season (#314), the second in Tasha Alexander's  popular series set in late Victorian England.  Now that Lady Emily is finally out of mourning for her husband Philip, she's staying in the Ashton town house for The Season.  It's an exhausting round of endless parties, teas, balls and fetes whose object ought to be for Lady Emily to find herself an eligible new husband, according to her friends, her mother, and most especially her husband's best friend and now her ardent suitor, Colin Hargreaves.

But Lady Emily is just tasting the pleasures of being able to run her own life, and is happy to study Greek, visit the British Museum and generally enjoy life.  Things seem to be going well until the number of invitations to social gatherings drops dramatically and rumors begin to circulate through society that Lady Emily's behavior is not at all what it should be.  Normally this wouldn't bother Emily, but Colin Hargreaves has been busy on the Queen's business and gossip has her paired with both a pretender to the French Throne, and her childhood friend the Duke of Bainbridge.  Add to the mix a cat burglar who steals only items related to Marie Antoinette and an unknown suitor who leaves her gifts and intimate notes written in Greek in her room while she is asleep, and even Lady Emily is bound to be rattled!  When two murders connected to Marie Antoinette's possessions are discovered and attempts are made on Lady Emily's own life, she knows she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

A more diverting period  mystery would be hard to find than a Lady Emily Ashton tale.  Break out the delicate porcelain tea cups and settle in to enjoy this one!

The Sentry

My husband and I are both reading as many of Robert Crais' books as we can get our hands on, we like his storytelling so much!  (See my posts of 4/26/13 & 6/25/13.)  We just finished The Sentry (#313), a Joe Pike novel.  In Taken, Elvis Costello as the private investigator takes the lead role, with Joe Pike lending his special forces skills.  In The Sentry, their roles are reversed.

Joe Pike just happens to be at the wrong gas station filling up his immaculately kept Jeep when he spots two gang bangers across the street looking for trouble.  They find it when they beat up the owner of a sandwich shop across the way.  All of Joe's military and police training have taught him to serve and protect, so he can't stand idly by while this is going on.  He's holding the one whose arm he's broken waiting for the police to come and arrest him when the shop owner's niece comes in through the back door.  One look, and it's all over for Joe.  He wants to protect Dru Raney from any further gang-related trouble after she confides in Joe that they're trying to make a new start in town.  He just doesn't realize at that point that he's gotten mixed up in something much darker and more dangerous than he could ever have imagined.  What Elvis Cole uncovers about Dru and her uncle puts him and Joe squarely in the sights of a number of others hunting for Dru Raney and Wilson Smith.

Joe Pike is definitely a guy you want protecting your back in a fight, not coming down a dark alley towards you.  Yet in this book, Robert Crais manages to make this ultimate tough guy vulnerable in a way that remains true to his character.  It isn't easy to make someone like Joe so sympathetic.  Things don't always turn out as you hope, but in Robert Crais' world, it's always interesting to see where they go.  I'm glad that there are still more books by him out there waiting to be discovered!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Look Away, Look Away

I received a pre-publication copy of Wilton Barnhardt's new book Look Away, Look Away (#312) in a GoodReads giveaway.  All things Southern are skewered, lambasted and barbecued in this wicked and juicy novel. 

Set in Charlotte, North Carolina from 2003 through 2012, each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of the extended Johnston - Jarvis family.  In a family as dysfunctional as this, you can be sure that there are plenty of scandals and secrets and each member of the family in turn parts with them gleefully in some cases, most reluctantly in others.  And all the while the reader is asking "What next?" and nursing paper cuts from flipping the pages so fast in an effort to find out.

Mind you, I almost stopped reading this book in the middle of the first chapter about Jerilyn, the youngest Johnston, when her whole goal in life was to find the very tackiest sorority on the North Carolina campus and rush it in total defiance of her controlling mother Jerene.  The wretched excess of this apparently widely-accepted campus lifestyle was enough for me to call it quits right there.  But I did feel obligated to continue on and as soon as a new character was introduced, I never looked back.  But that, I suppose, was the whole reason for starting off this way with Jerilyn, a total waste of good space.  It's the perfect foundation for what follows in this novel of money and appearances with a Southern high gloss.  Even the structure of Look Away, Look Away is a sly poke at the failed ambitions of the Johnston pater familias with his Civil War study and encyclopedic knowledge of the War of Northern Aggression, and his wildly successful Civil War novelist and alcoholic brother-in-law.

Unless they can take a joke well, I don't think that Look Away, Look Away will ever get a favorable review from Southern Living, but for the rest of us, this  book is bound to be a pleasurable guilty read, especially if you're Southern yourself, or have ever had a mind-boggling encounter with someone Southern!  This book is scheduled to be published August 20, 2013.

How to Murder a Millionaire

Things just haven't gone right lately for Nora Blackbird or her two sisters.  Her wealthy parents have escaped to a safe tax offshore tax haven, leaving her holding a two million dollar tax bill for the family home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; her husband has been shot dead by his drug dealer, and she's had to start a new job as an assistant society columnist for a Philadelphia newspaper without the proper wardrobe!  When Nora stumbles across the body of the old family friend who gave Nora the job in the middle of a swank party, what's a girl to do?  Why, find the right outfit to wear while solving his murder, of course!

That's the story line in How to Murder a Millionaire (#311) by Nancy Martin, a new series of cozy mysteries.  It seems that Rory Pendergast had a number of secrets himself, including some priceless art that might have gotten him killed.  Did the handsome scion of a Philadelphia crime family who has just opened a muscle car lot on what was formerly Blackbird property have anything to do with it?  And if he gives Nora one more of those smoldering looks will she care either way?

You'll just have to read it yourself to find out, preferably on a comfortable shady hammock with something icy cold to drink close at hand...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

Hearing one of the other members of my library book gossip group talking about Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (#310) prompted me to get hold of it and read it myself.  No wonder it won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!  It was absolutely riveting.

The central character, Pak Jun Do, is the eponymous Orphan Master's son, raised by his father in the North Korean Long Tomorrows orphanage after his beautiful mother, a singer, is stolen away to Pyongyang.  Orphans in North Korea are universally despised and objects of suspicion.  Jun Do soon finds himself parceling out the Revolutionary Martyr's names to the new arrivals, deciding whom to assign the worst jobs to, and who has first shot at eating and sleeping near the warmest part of the room.  If you're thinking of any comparisons to Annie's orphans, and their hard knocks life, think again.  These orphans are the cannon fodder for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  How Jun Do manages to even survive at all is remarkable, but through a series of fortuitous circumstances and remarkable adventures, he ultimately assumes the identity and life of a close confederate of Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader.  His biography as the counterfeit Commander Ga is chronicled by an operative of Division 42, an interrogator for the State who is determined to wring every last drop of truth from the former Jun Do.  What is most astonishing about Jun Do/Commander Ga is that he never allows them to take away from him the essence of his humanity.

The insight into everyday life in North Korea is amazing, and I kept wondering as I was reading it how on earth Mr. Johnson ever managed to get close enough to North Koreans to research this book.  It certainly didn't leave me with warm fuzzy feelings towards the power apparatus of this secretive country.  But then again, as the book points out, the North Koreans apparently think we Americans are starving, that the urine-soaked homeless litter our streets and that all of us are left floundering to make our own decisions about every little thing, and that we must pay for everything we need for food, clothing, shelter and medical care.  (So they do get one or two things right!)  It's a nightmare vision of what the world could become if Kim Jong Un has his way, and scarier in its own way than anything Stephen King could ever imagine.  Highly recommended.