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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine

I decided to choose a book I've been saving for a special occasion to end my year's reading, so I plucked The Temptation of the Night Jasmine (#457) by Lauren Willig from my bookshelf where it's been patiently waiting.  It's the fifth book in her delicious Pink Carnation series (best read in order from the first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.)  I realize that I'm way behind in keeping up with this series (although I own all of them, sitting temptingly on my bookshelf just where I can see them).  The question for me has always been: do I gobble them up like a handful of M&Ms as fast as Ms. Willig writes them?; or do I save them for just the right moment like a fabulous Castronovo truffle?  There's a time for each, but with this series, the delayed gratification approach seems most satisfactory.

Eloise is a modern day graduate student, searching old English archives for source materials on Napoleonic spies for her thesis.  She has settled on trying to trace and identify a successful circle of spies run by the elusive Pink Carnation.  Finding an untouched trove of papers in an English country house is like hitting a gigantic jackpot for Eloise.  The problem is not with her original English contact for the papers, the elderly Mrs. Selwick-Alderly; it's with the house's actual owner, her nephew Colin.  The stops and starts of Eloise and Colin's relationship provide the framework for the meat of the series: the adventures of various members of the Pink Carnation's circle of spies.  In The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, it centers around the return of the long absent Duke of Dovedale, Robert Landsdowne.  He's spent the last decade in India, earning a hard-won captaincy in the process.  But the murder of his mentor during the Battle of Assaye has him resigning his commission to follow the jasmine sprig-wearing Wrothan home to England, so Robert can extract his revenge on the man who betrayed his mentor and sold British secrets to the Indian Mahrattas and the French.  For Charlotte Landsdowne, the unexpected return of her cousin on Christmas Eve in the midst of a boisterous house party is the long-anticipated arrival of her knight in shining armor.  Her grandmama has arranged for a houseful of potential suitors for Charlotte's hand, but all she can see is Robert.  Needless to say, things do not go smoothly.  Robert finds himself tangled up with the infamous Hellfire Club in pursuit of Wrothan.  Charlotte in the meantime must do her duty as a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte in London.  It's her knowledge of Queen's House that will ultimately provide the key to Robert's revenge and the foiling of a dastardly plot against the British throne.  It doesn't reconcile Charlotte and Robert, however.  Will anything ever bring these two together?

Ms. Willig has earned both a degree in history and a J.D. from Harvard, so this series as well as being a crackerjack Regency era spy novel and romance, has the additional benefit of being well-researched and plausible, gilded with just the right dash of  humor.  Do I sound like a smitten fan of this series?  I am!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Can't Complain (All Too) Personal Essays

I can't believe I haven't come across Elinor Lipman's writing before.  Her latest collection of essays, I Can't Complain (All Too) Personal Essays (#456) took me no time at all to read.  It's like eating peanuts; you can't read just one.  Maybe I found them so charming and entertaining because she writes about universal truths, but also because she writes about my former neck of the woods with her Merrimack Valley connections.  I worked in Lowell, Massachusetts for many years (The street that ran between buildings at the hospital where I worked was named after my grandmother's family.) so it was very easy to picture the settings and the people she talks about.  I'm also roughly the same age, so I could relate to many of her situations.  (I haven't thought about Big Brother Bob Emery in years, but I distinctly remember dutifully drinking my glass of milk every day as Hail to the Chief played and we all saluted the picture of President Eisenhower!).

I can't think of a better way of spending a few hours than in Ms. Lipman's company.  I don't think you'll complain, either.  Go get yourself a copy.  I know I'll be hunting down her novels myself.  It'll be the perfect project for the New Year.

A New York Christmas

Anne Perry has added yet another pearl to the string of short but meaningful Christmas mysteries with A New York Christmas (#455).  I particularly enjoy these books because they always include an intriguing mystery, but ones that contain a theme of ethical choices and redemption without a sugary coating beating the reader over the head in an obvious and moralizing way.  It's just there, an integral and natural part of the plot.

Thomas and Charlotte Pitt's daughter, Jemima, at age twenty-three is setting out on her first big adventure.  She's traveling to New York City, accompanying Miss Delphinia Cardew to her society wedding.  Thanks to Thomas' position as head of Special Branch for the London Police, Jemima has been deemed by the bride's father to be the perfect person to undertake the task of making sure Phinnie arrives safely since his health does not permit him to travel with his daughter and her mother died when Phinnie was a young child.  She's old enough to act as chaperone to the young and giddy Phinnie, but young enough to be a friend and confidante as well.  Jemima is suitably placed to earn an invitation to stay with the family through the nuptials as an additional reward.

The Albrights are business partners of Mr. Cardew, so Brent Albright's marriage to Phinnie will cement a business dynasty.  The holiday season is the perfect time to introduce the bride to the members of New York's wealthiest families who will become her new social circle.  During dinner at the Albrights the first evening, hints are dropped that Maria Cardew, Phinnie's mother, is not dead as she has always been told, but in fact may be in New York City.  As Phinnie is swept up into the whirl of fittings and teas, Jemima's aid is sought by the eldest Albright son, Harley, to prevent Maria from crashing the wedding and causing any "unpleasantness".  Jemima agrees to help, but she has no inkling the unpleasantness will redound horribly on herself...

If you're looking for a Christmas story with a satisfying message, you'd do well to read A New York Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Hounded

David Rosenfelt's latest Andy Carpenter mystery, Hounded (#454), arrived just in time for me to enjoy the perfect Christmas treat.

When Andy's police detective friend Pete Stanton, calls asking him and his live-in girlfriend Laurie to meet him at a murder victim's home, Andy knows there's got to be a dog involved.  There is, a basset hound named Sebastian.  What Pete hasn't prepared them for is Sebastian's owner, Ricky.  His father, Danny Diaz, has gone straight after serving a prison term until the night he's murdered.  Pete's been helping them out and he doesn't want Ricky to disappear into the foster care system.  Andy's happy to take the dog.  Ricky, he's not so sure about, but Laurie clinches that matter.  He's flabbergasted the next day when he meets Pete at their favorite sports bar only to have Pete arrested  for Danny's murder.  It looks like Andy has a client, no matter how assiduously he tries to avoid  it.  Evidence rapidly piles up against Pete, but Andy, Laurie and the rest of Pete's friends know he didn't do it.  The problem will be just how to prove it.  With  his usual sense of humor, Andy manages to survive yet another puzzling and harrowing case with a most satisfying ending.

I just finished this installment, and already I'm ready for the next Andy Carpenter adventure!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Voodoo Ridge

Voodoo Ridge (#453), the third in David Freed's Cordell Logan mystery series more than lives up to the promise of the first two books. 

Fortune has finally smiled on Logan, and he and the love of his life, Savannah, are flying to Lake Tahoe to tie the knot for the second time.  As they're making their final approach to the runway at Tahoe, he spots the wreckage of a plane in a heavily wooded mountain area outside of town.  He reports what he's seen when they land, thus kicking off a series of life-altering events.  To say more would be to give away too much of the plot.  You'll just have to read it for yourself.  (In order, from the beginning to truly appreciate this story.)

Voodoo Ridge is much darker and more intense than the first two books, but every bit as gripping.  I'm just hoping that the ending signals a new turn in Cordell Logan's life, and not an end to this series.  More Cordell Logan, please, Mr. Freed!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Alpine Winter

I picked up a copy of Mary Daheim's The Alpine Winter (#452) because of its Christmas ornament cover.  Normally, I'm a sucker for a Christmas mystery.  Not in this case, though.  Unless you've read every one of her previous Emma Lord mysteries, you won't be able to keep up with the constant references to earlier cases and the ensuing relationships between characters to the point you lose the thread of the current murder mystery.  And frankly, I didn't care enough about the characters to even bother to try.  This was a rare DNF for me.  (Did Not Finish!)

Emma Lord is a small town newspaper editor carrying on an on-again, off-again affair with the local divorced sheriff.  Tongues will wag in a small town, and as far as I'm concerned, these two unpleasant people deserve each other.  Plus, with her brother and illegitimate son as guests for the Christmas holiday, both of whom are priests, she's angry with her brother for judging her on her morals.  He's a priest, for goodness sake.  What did she expect? 

I'll tell you what I expected: a mystery that could stand on its own two feet.  This didn't.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Nora Webster

Colm Toibin's latest novel, Nora Webster (#451) is, on the surface, a story about an Irish widow during the 1960s trying to adjust to her new life status and raise her four children properly.  Not much happens in terms of plot, as she lives her ordinary life, yet Toibin has infused this work with such understanding and sympathy that Nora Webster rises far above its prosaic subject matter.

Nora doesn't always make the right decisions but slowly she begins to move forward into the future and become, really for the first time, her own person, whether or not those around her like it and approve of her actions, or whether they encourage her to push beyond her boundaries.

It's been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and when you read it, you'll have no trouble understanding why.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Cool and Lonely Courage - The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France

The title of Susan Ottaway's book A Cool and Lonely Courage - The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France (#450) gives the reader a good idea of what he or she will find within its pages.  What it doesn't tell you is how differently Jacqueline and Eileen Nearne's stories played out in their work with the British Special Forces Expedition, or the effects their war work had on the rest of their lives.  But the title is not quite accurate, as it turns out.  Both Jacqueline and Eileen were interviewed numerous times after the war about their experiences.  Jacqueline played a prominent role in a British film about this secret service, And Now It Can Be Told, and Eileen was hounded by reporters and researchers to the point that she wrote a letter of complaint to British authorities asking them to stop giving out her name.  After many years had passed and both sisters had moved on with their lives, their experiences were left behind them, thankfully at least on the part of Eileen.

The Nearnes, although British citizens, were raised in France, making them ideally suited for working with British intelligence-gathering teams coordinating with French Resistance.  They could pass unnoticed with their perfect French and knowledge of French cities and customs.  The work as described here was difficult and dangerous, with a short life expectancy for many of the operatives.  Both survived the war, but neither was unmarked. Eileen was captured by the Gestapo, enduring torture and life in a concentration camp for political prisoners where many of her companions did not make it out alive.

Since neither of these women or the other female spies who served with them were in units that were considered "military", their contributions to the war effort were discounted and their awards diminished, proving that no good deed goes unpunished.  Still, Jacqueline and Eileen both went on to satisfying positions in their personal lives.

It makes for an interesting and moving read.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain

It's hard to know exactly how to describe Garth Stein's novel The Art of Racing in the Rain (#449), except that it's profoundly affecting.  I've been meaning to read this book every since I heard Mr. Stein speak at our library system's BookMania! several years ago.  I couldn't imagine a book whose narrator is a dog being about a professional race car driver, but somehow, Stein makes it all work with Enzo's philosophical takes on life in general, and his desire to be born a human in his next life.

Life is complicated for Denny Swift and his young family.  His wife Eve is suffering from an illness, and it's difficult to juggle her needs, and those of their daughter Zoe, against his racing schedule.  Enzo does his best to look after them all, but there is so much he cannot communicate since he cannot speak.  Being inside Enzo's head, we can feel along with him as Denny tries to hold his family together against odds that are deliberately stacked against him by the very people who should be providing support.  Along the way,

It's a wonderful read, with many thought-provoking riffs from Enzo about how we ought to be living our lives and treating those around us.  Enzo also fills us in on the qualities of being a superb race car driver.  Denny Swift, of course, in Enzo's eyes is the ultimate champion.  And yes, reader, I did need Kleenex to get me through this book, so be warned if you plan to read it in a public place.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Watchman

The Watchman (#448) is the first Joe Pike novel in Robert Crais' series featuring Joe Pike, the former Special Ops soldier, policeman and mercenary, now the silent (in almost all respects) partner of Elvis Cole, who would be the first to tell you that he is the world's best private investigator.

In this novel, Joe is sill living up to the police motto: To Protect and Serve.  When his former police partner, now a private security consultant, calls him in on a case to act as bodyguard for a wealthy young woman, Joe is reluctant to take the case until he learns that for once in her life, her determination to do the right thing after a horrendous auto accident has resulted in multiple attempts on her life.  Joe Pike takes the case to protect Larkin Conner Barkley on his own terms, out of the hands of the Federal agents and Marshals who failed to protect her and her location.  As Joe tries to find out who is betraying Larkin, Elvis Cole begins to unravel the stories that Joe and the Barkleys are being told.  Something much bigger, and much more deadly is going on and it will take all of Joe's resources to keep them both alive.

Robert Crais' novels are real page-turners for me.  Once I get started on a book, I find it difficult to put down, even when surrounded by family at a festive Thanksgiving gathering.  That's how much I enjoy this series.  And yes, I'm thankful that there are more Joe Pike books already published, because it means I have more to look forward to in the coming year.  If you enjoy thrillers and complex plotting, do yourself a favor and pick up a Robert Crais novel; any one will do.

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

Stephanie Barron has added a Christmas mystery to her excellent series featuring Jane Austen as an amateur detective with Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas (#447).  Jane is invited to a cozy Christmas house party along with her family after an encounter with a chance- met traveler.  Removing from her brother James' parsonage, where his scorn for all holiday pleasantries as pagan rituals is evident in the cold hearths and parsimonious meals awaiting Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother, is a delightful prospect.  Not only will the females have the advantage of a warm house and lively conversation; James can indulge his love of the hunt at The Vine.

But after a young Naval officer tragically meets his death on the grounds of The Vine and it is learned he was carrying a document vital to the resolution of the American War, things take a sinister turn.  The house party is trapped on the estate by a snow storm, and it is evident to Jane and at least one other house party member that the officer's death is murder, not accident.  Jane must puzzle out the motive to disclose the murderer amongst them.

What could be a better way to spend these hectic pre-holiday hours than wrapped in a stylish literary mystery if you are a Jane Austen aficionado?  I was intrigued by Jane's interest in this volume with the progress of the American War.  Of course, once you think about her brothers' involvement as Naval captains, the implications of the war's continuation would have had a direct effect on her family.  It has the added factor of being an angle not often pursued by other authors' imaginings of Jane and her characters' lives.  A neat twist, and a satisfying mystery.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fatal Grace

Fatal Grace (#446) is the second book in Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in the quaint town of Three Pines, Quebec.  And don't bother looking for it on a map, much as you might want to book yourself into the cozy B&B featured in these stories; even Chief Inspector Gamache can't find the town on his maps.

When a part-time resident is murdered in a clever and diabolical way right in the middle of a crowd watching a Boxing Day curling match, Gamache and his associates are recalled to Three Pines to crack the case.  No one appears to be mourning the victim, CC de Poitiers, including her husband and adolescent daughter.  The intense cold and the snow factor into the case, as do events in the past.  It's bound to affect the residents of Three Pines and Gamache himself when the murderer is finally uncovered.

Be sure to have an afghan and the hot chocolate ready when you curl up with this engrossing mystery.  Just one word of advice; make sure you've read the first book in this series, Still Life, before you pick up this story or you'll miss quite a bit of the subtext!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Great Grisby

I enjoyed reading Mikita Brottman's book of essays, The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals (#445) so much that I've already bought a copy for a friend's upcoming birthday.  And I won't be giving it back to my library group after talking about it next month!  This one is definitely finding a permanent home on my bookshelf.  Did I mention that I am not, nor have I ever been, a dog owner myself?  It's that appealing to a book lover.

Ms. Brottman's own French bulldog is the Great Grisby of the title, with a charming picture of him seated on a pedestal adorning the cover.  She has divided her book into Chapters A - Z, each essay devoted to a different dog whose name begins with the appropriate letter.  None of your super-celebrity animals are included here, but you'll recognize most of the owners: Sigmund Freud, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Richard Wagner and Bill Sikes (from Oliver Twist) among them.  That dog is just the jumping off point for many interesting and convoluted wanderings among a myriad of dog-related facts and fables, always with a meditation on the life and times of the author's own dog, Grisby.

She's also included extensive Notes, and even better, to my mind, a Bibliography which just begs to be explored further.  I'm going to have to find a Willa Cather short story I've never read, and look more closely at Edith Wharton's House of Mirth.  I also want to spend some time online to see if I can find images of the many paintings Ms. Brottman references which contain portraits of a number of the dogs included in her essays.  What a delightful prospect!  This book is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Nightingale Before Christmas

It isn't even Thanksgiving yet, and here I am reading the first Christmas mystery of the season!  Yuletide-themed books are a very hot commodity at my library, so you read them whenever they show up on your "Holds" list.  That's why I'm slightly jumping the gun on Donna Andrews' latest cozy, The Nightingale Before Christmas (#444).

This mystery is set as usual in the college town of Caerphilly, Virginia, where the Historical Society is trying a new type of fund-raising project with Meg Langslow in charge: a decorator's show house done in twelve completely Christmas-themed rooms.  Meg thinks her hands are full herding cats with all the decorators at each other's throats competing for the cash prize to their favorite charity.  That is, until she's there after hours checking that everything is in order at the house and finds the murdered body of an obnoxious decorator in his room, and the room itself vandalized.  When someone takes a couple of shots at her, it seems someone is out to get Meg and ruin the Holiday Show House.  Can Meg find the killer, repair the damage so the house can open on time, keep the peace amongst the remaining decorators and still find time to celebrate the Christmas season with her professor husband and pre-school twin boys?  And will there be an X-Box or possibly a pair of hamsters under her own Christmas tree?

You'll have to read The Nightingale Before Christmas to find out.  Light reading perfect for this time of year!

Friday, November 7, 2014

People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges

I remember hearing People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges (#443) being discussed on the media with favorable reviews, so when a chance came up to win a copy on Good Reads, I took it.  This series of essays is based on Jen Mann's very successful parenting blog posts, and after reading these often outrageous and hilarious accounts of suburban life (which you just know have to be true!)  I can see why Jen Mann has been nominated for a number of web blog awards.

I'm not the right generation to be comfortable with her casual use of swear words, but I sure can get behind her attitude on marriage and parenting.  Ms. Mann definitely has her head screwed on straight, and if her kids don't turn out to be admirable adults in their own right, it won't be her fault!  Objecting to a school bus without seatbelts for the kids?  Believing that a child's assignment should be completed by (gasp!) the child himself?!  What's unbelievable is that she and the Hubs (as she calls her husband) seem to be the only ones in the neighborhood with this attitude.  I feel for her, I really do.

Though she never once uses the term "helicopter parents", her outrageous tales of the "Mom Wars" in her Kansas City suburb will strike a chord with anyone who has ever tangled with these competitive cliques, or whose child has suffered at their or their offspring's hands.  Who knew an organized and determined group of Room Mothers could so relentlessly suck the joy out of Halloween or teacher gift-giving in the name of one-upsmanship?

Just filter out the four-letter words, and sit back and enjoy this book.  Jen Mann has a lot of wisdom and common sense to share in her entertaining essays.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Unwilling Accomplice

I've been meaning to read one of Charles Todd's mystery series about a World War I nurse, Bess Crawford, for awhile.  Winning a copy of his latest, An Unwilling Accomplice (#442) on Good Reads gave me the perfect opportunity.  It did not disappoint, and I'm happy to say, you don't have to have read the previous entries in this series to easily get right into the plot.

In this outing, Bess has been requested by the War Office to accompany a wounded soldier to Buckingham Palace to receive a medal from the King.  She's puzzled, because to her knowledge, she has never met this soldier before.  All goes well until the next morning when Sergeant Wilkins is due to return to his hospital in Shrewsbury.  He has vanished, leaving behind only a pile of discarded bandages and his wheelchair.  Bess and the orderly assigned to bring Wilkins back search for him until it becomes evident he does not want to be found.  Bess Crawford, unfortunately, is the one called on the carpet to answer to charges of negligence.  She is determined to clear her name and get to the bottom of Wilkin's disappearance, especially when Scotland Yard announces that he has murdered another soldier in a remote country village.  With the aid of Sergeant Major Simon Brandon, Bess puts her own life at risk to solve the mystery.

Charles Todd (actually a mother and son writing team!) does an excellent job recreating the atmosphere of rural England weary of the War, and the everyday deprivations it has brought in its wake.  The close knit society of the rural area where Bess and Simon stand out as strangers make their task doubly difficult.  As they gradually unravel the puzzle, it's more layered than they could possibly have imagined, which makes for a very satisfying yet plausible mystery.  I know that I'll be hunting down the previous books in this series to catch up on Bess and Simon's back stories, and I look forward to reading the Inspector Rutledge book (also by Charles Todd) which has been languishing on my shelf.  Good motivation to move it towards the top of my list!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Treacherous Beauty - Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America

Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case's biography Treacherous Beauty - Peggy Shippen, the Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America (#441) was just the antidote I needed after reading Alison Pataki's poisonous portrayal of Peggy Shippen in The Traitor's Wife.  Honestly, that novel left such a bad taste in my mouth about Peggy Shippen, I had to read a non-fiction source (and Treacherous Beauty is the sole existing biography of this fascinating woman) to help me gain a truer and more accurate picture of her.

Readers, don't even bother with The Traitor's Wife.  In it, Peggy Shippen is vilified as an emotionally and physically abusive virago with nothing in her favor but her beautiful face and figure.  Peggy Shippen was many things, according to her biographers in this entertaining volume, but not a cruel or capricious character.  She may, in fact, have been the actual brains behind the plot to hand over West Point to the British to bring an end to the American Revolution.  She certainly was intelligent enough to save herself and her infant son when Benedict Arnold took off for the safety of the British lines, leaving her behind in a borrowed house with George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton due for breakfast at any moment.  The whole story is fascinating, and the reader can understand some of what motivated her actions, even if you cannot sympathize or support them.

And just what did happen to Peggy, Benedict Arnold and their children after they threw in their lot with the British?  It seems that Arnold continued to make one bad decision after another, leaving Peggy to pick up the pieces after him in a never-ending downward financial spiral.  What does emerge from this is a portrait of an amazingly devoted wife and mother and resourceful woman.  In other words, despite her delicate appearance, Peggy Shippen Arnold was a survivor, and her story is well worth reading.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Ruins of Lace

I think historical fiction is my favorite genre because a good writer can take you to a different time and place in his or her writing.  Ideally, you'll learn something interesting enough to send you off on a different exploration of non-fiction sources to learn more about a particular person, place, period or culture.  Iris Anthony is such a writer with her novel The Ruins of Lace (#440).

The threads that tie this plot together are lace smuggling in seventeenth century France.  King Louis XIII had passed strict sumptuary laws, forbidding the wearing or importing of lace, principally from Flanders.  The object was to keep the money in France, and the people in their God-ordained roles.  Since almost everyone flouted the law, smuggling of lace became a thriving business.  This novel tells the story of one piece of lace from seven different vantage points, including one of the thousands of dogs employed to carry the contraband undetected across the border.   As beautiful as the finished product was, the corruption that ruined peoples' lives was ugly and evil.  The characters in this book are so different, and so unique in their relationship to one particular length of lace that they view it either as their salvation or their ruin.  The plot ran faster and faster towards its climax so that I literally could not put it down towards the end.

I could not help but think after reading this book that it would make perfect grand opera with its dramatic ending.  (Of course, there is no fat lady to sing at the end.)  It does make you ponder, though; do we make the right choices in our own lives?  Several of the characters were left with distressing consequences and that moral ambiguity.  A fast and interesting read, but one that can also make you stop and think.  Can you ask for anything more?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Bishop's Wife

Visions of Loretta Young, David Niven and Cary Grant went dancing through my head when I picked up The Bishop's Wife (#439) by Mette Ivie Harrison.  Be warned!  The only angel you'll find in this novel is the picture of the Mormon Temple angel on the cover.

Instead, what you'll find is the story of Linda Wallheim, ordinary housemaker and mother, and wife to the bishop of her ward in Draper, Utah.  When her husband was elected to the position, Linda inherited all the unwritten and unpaid duties and responsibilities that come along with being the bishop's wife.  Most of the time she's content to do her duty until the day one of their neighbors comes to their house with his five year old daughter, claiming that his wife has disappeared overnight without a trace. Something about the situation doesn't sit right with Linda as she tries to push her husband into looking into things further.  What she eventually turns up puts herself, her faith and her marriage in peril.

Ms. Harrison's book deals with domestic abuse in what appears to be a wholesome neighborhood on the surface.  Things aren't always what they seem, and in the Mormon culture depicted here, it's difficult to push the limits if there are problems.  The resulting ripples may turn up something that everyone else would prefer not to know about. 

Ms. Harrison does include a lot of information about the Mormon way of life, which may be of interest to those curious about what makes the Mormons so different.  If you're not one of those, do yourself a favor and find something else to read.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life

I so wanted to love Andy Miller's The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (And Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (#438), and I did, as I read his opening Word of Explanation.  From there on in, it was a steep and wretched decline into tedious political blather and twaddle with gratuitous detours into rock and roll, all told in such a peculiarly insular British fashion to be almost utterly incomprehensible to an American reader.  I asked one of the most erudite and well-read academics I know at dinner last night if he had ever even heard of the book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.  He hadn't, which made me feel marginally better, but according to Andy Miller's book-reading memoir, it's on the "Classics" list of every Briton as a book one must have read, or at least claimed to have read.  For thinking Americans, that's just Dude, the Obscure, as you would probably term it, Mr. Miller.

Nor does he bother to give you his opinion on all fifty one of the books he actually did read in a year (SPOILER ALERT!!!) He does not actually read two bad books; only Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which he gobbled down along with the rest of us lowbrow folks while pointing out its myriad deficiencies.  I personally think it's just jealousy on his part, because he can't successfully write about every book he reads (His book blog failed because he got bored with it - too, too tedious for words!  Literally!), he can't sustain a membership in a book club discussion group (they hate his picks to read {Frankly, I would have, too!} plus the discussions make him dislike the others' choices, so he'll never read one of their recommendations again, so there!) and he's not tripping over piles of money on the way to the bank to deposit the profits from his own books!  The books I was most interested in finding out what Mr. Miller thought of them were not included anywhere in his oeuvre, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, which predictably enough, he hated, along with anything else by Jane Austen, (not that he would ever bother trying to crack any of her other books).  But Vanity Fair? Jane Eyre?  Crime and Punishment?  The Odyssey?  None of those made it into his book as worthy of discussion.  From the books he did include, I can only paraphrase that famous saying about the Americans and the British being two cultures divided by a common language, as I certainly didn't recognize many of the books included in his canon.  I did find his juxtaposition of Herman Melville's Moby Dick and The DaVinci Code amusing, though.

There are a lot of great quotes about the love of books and the love of reading scattered throughout The Year of Reading Dangerously if you have the patience to winnow them out.  As for me, though, I won't be passing on a recommendation to read this to any of my book-loving friends; in fact, it could be quite enough to push them in the opposite direction!  My advice?  Look at Appendix I - The List of Betterment, see what Andy Miller read, and make your own decisions about whether or not any of them are of sufficient interest to you to pursue on your own.  As for his publishers - poor choice for the American market - it doesn't translate well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Traitor's Wife

There was quite a to-do in my neighborhood about the publication of The Traitor's Wife (#437) by Alison Pataki.  She did a book signing at our local library and spoke with several book clubs in our area.  Her mother-in-law, who lives here, really beat the drums for her.  Naturally, I added the book to my "To Read" list, and it took quite awhile to get it because of the number of holds on it at the library.  Frankly, I'm surprised I'm bothered to finish reading it.  It isn't that Ms. Parataki lacks writing skills; it's probably that after the big build-up, I expected so much more from this book.

This is a fictional imagining of the courtship of Peggy Shippen, belle of Philadelphia society during both the British and the American occupations during the Revolutionary War.  The handsome and desirable Major John Andre left Peggy behind when the British retreated to New York City, breaking her heart as well as those of many other Philadelphia misses, and dashing her hopes of a marriage into the British upper class.  Major General Benedict Arnold succeeded Major Andre as Peggy's suitor, even though he was twice her age and unable to dance at balls because of the war wounds he had sustained.  We know who was successful in his pursuit of  the lovely Miss Shippen.

Ms. Pataki choose to tell the story from the perspective of a young, orphaned colonial girl with strong Patriot leanings (of course!) hired to be a servant and ladies' maid to two of the Shippen daughters.  While Clara Bell recounts the goings-on in the household (of which she does not approve) she herself is being wooed by the Shippen's groom.  This soppy romance brackets the main, much more interesting and powerful narrative.  Peggy Shippen Arnold was deemed to be one of the most attractive girls of her age, but her personality in this telling is as ugly as her face and figure were beautiful.  She is just unremittingly bad, and that one-sidedness threw off the balance of the story as far as I was concerned.  The entire idea for Benedict Arnold to betray his country for money and position was Peggy Shippen's.  She successfully manipulates all the men around her like so many puppets in a way that beggars belief.  She undoubtedly had a hand in the matter based on available historic sources, but those same sources portray her as a loving mother and devoted wife.  Who knows where the reality lies?  I know I, for one, will be consulting other, non-fiction sources for more information.

I have to admit that an unintended bit of humor hit me every time I read the dialogue between Clara Bell and her sweetheart Caleb (who naturally feels he is not doing his patriotic duty at the Shippens, a family that refuses to take sides in the war, and goes off to enlist with Washington's army.).  Caleb always calls her by her full name: "Clara Bell".  If you're of a certain age, that name conjures up images of the horn-tooting clown sidekick on the Hawdy Doody Show, which does tend to ruin the romantic mood Ms. Pataki is trying to set.  That name, though, added a certain je ne sais quoi to my reading, as did the anachronisms that occasionally popped up.  Who knew cocktail parties were so popular in colonial Philadelphia?  Peggy Shippen was about thirty years ahead of her time by throwing one.

Some people will undoubtedly love this novel, but the cynic in me can't help but wonder: would it ever have been published by a major house if not for her maiden name?  Hmm...  Consider yourself warned.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fangs Out

Fangs Out (#436) - sounds like the perfect title for a Halloween read, doesn't it?  But in this case, you'd be wrong.  It's actually a fighter pilot term, and describes precisely the state of mind that Cordell Logan is in after someone sabotages his plane in the second of David Freed's mystery series.

Logan has been retained by Medal of Honor recipient Hub Walker and his former Playboy Centerfold wife Crissy in appreciation for rescuing their small plane in foggy conditions.  Hub Walker, one of Cordell's personal heroes, wants him to prove that a family friend was not involved in the murder of Walker's daughter ten years previously.  Dorian Munz, the killer, has been tried and executed for the crime, so it sounds like easy money to Cordell who is currently suffering from a financial dry spell.  When he's muscled by the very folks who ought to be glad to talk to Logan, one witness is murdered, and his plane crashes after taking off from the local San Diego airfield with a couple of police detectives aboard, it's time to get serious about finding who is really responsible for the mayhem.  Was the wrong person executed, as Munz claimed all along?

Red herrings abound as Cordell struggles to keep his personal and professional lives from imploding.  His planned reunion with ex-wife Savannah is riddled with emotional traps, and both members of his "family" have disappeared: Mrs. Schmulowitz, his eighty-five year old yenta landlady, has gone missing after her tummy tuck plastic surgery and Kiddiot, the most indifferent cat in the world, has failed to return home even for the brisket Mrs. Schmulowitz has made him.  Will anything ever go right for Cordell Logan?  You'll just have to keep reading after the bomb Mr. Freed drops at the end.  I'd tell you more, but I have to go check on my brisket...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Twelfth Enchantment

Many years ago, Regency romances used to be my preferred reading, a taste I shared with my mother, so there was always a plentiful supply of them around the house.  More recently, I have preferred reading books with more emphasis on an interesting plot, not the formulaic "girl meets boy" romances in which the impediments the couple face on their way to the altar are the whole point of the story.  I am happy to report that I just finished a book that meets both of these requirements:  The Twelfth Enchantment (#435) by David Liss. 

It's a Regency romance (complete with Lord Byron and the mystical poet William Blake) where a battle is being fought for the heart and soul of England and her people through the Industrial Revolution.  If the mill owners succeed, humanity will be stamped out of every worker and magic will be banished from the Sceptered Isle.  Only a penniless young woman, Lucy Derrick, has the power to prevent this bleak future from becoming reality, but she has no idea why these forces are rallying around her or what she is supposed to do about it, until a mysterious young woman and the man from Lucy's past who ruined her reputation and blighted her prospects arrive in Nottingham to assist her.

I could not put this book down.  The supernatural creatures that surround Lucy and her married sister are frightening.  Perhaps the pre-Halloween period is the best possible time to read such a tale, but it certainly fills the bill for an interesting story in which the romance is secondary, but still satisfying.  I can't wait to read David Liss' newest book The Day of Atonement.  I hope it matches the standard set by The Twelfth Enchantment.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul

I was really excited when a won a copy of Jenny Nordberg's book The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan (#434) from Good Reads.  However, the book turned out to be such a disappointment I gave up on it about half way through, a rare occurrence for me.  Maybe the early positive buzz about it was from critics who wished to appear politically correct - a new view of feminism from one of the most restrictive societies in the world.  It just seemed rather pointless to me.

Jenny Nordberg is a Swedish journalist who happened to chance upon what she hoped would turn out to be a scandalous story while she was interviewing a female Afghani politician; one of her four daughters was presented to the world as a boy.  She was given a boy's name, dressed like a boy and given all the privileges of a boy.  Why?  Were there more like her out there in Afghan society?  That's the story Nordberg set out to discover.  As it turns out, it's actually a fairly common phenomenon in Afghanistan where choosing to pass off a daughter as a son can provide the family with many benefits, as long as that child is returned to her true gender before puberty.  After all, the girl's virginity is still her sole worth and the family's only bargaining chip in this patriarchal society.

Let's be clear about one thing.  Ms. Nordberg is a journalist, not a social scientist.  She does report on a previously unacknowledged facet of Afghan domestic life, but her analysis and  broad, sweeping generalizations about those facts are what I question.  She similarly makes negative generalizations about Americans and aspects of American social life, some of which are warranted, but others are equally off target.  That made me wonder just how accurate and unbiased her reporting of Afghan's women's lives is, based on a limited number of interviews.  Since a foundation of the Afghani culture is hospitality to strangers, did her interview subjects tell Ms. Nordberg what they thought she wanted to hear about such an intimate and private topic they can't even bring themselves to discuss amongst themselves or were they telling her the truth as they experienced it?

Did Ms. Nordberg pursue this topic with any motive in mind other than money?  Does she expect to make these women's lives better, or stop the practice altogether?  I don't think from reading this and other books about the region that this is possible or even realistic anytime in the foreseeable future.

In this case, the cover art work is the perfect metaphor for the contents of The Underground Girls of Kabul.  You can color the girl's face to indicate she's passing as a boy.  You can also color me disappointed.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bittersweet

Colleen McCullough is back in rare form with her latest novel, Bittersweet (#433).  In it, she tells the story of four Australian sisters just after the end of World War I.  What makes the Latimer sisters unusual is that they are twins, only twenty months apart.  Living under the thumb of Maude, the Reverend Thomas Latimer's second wife, the girls are anxious to escape the household slavery of living at home by embarking on careers of their own.  In 1920's Australia, a new path is opening for women - becoming a registered nurse.  Their father's influence on the local hospital board is sufficient to win Edda, Grace, Kitty and Tufts places in the pioneering nursing program.  Not all of the girls make it through the rigorous program of study, and their ultimate fates could not be more different.

Ms. McCullough takes the reader to some unexpected places and situations in this engrossing book.  It could so easily have become yet another beautiful girl meets rich man who marries her and takes her away from it all -  times four.  The miracle is that at doesn't, and what happens in this novel is so much more interesting.  Not all the twins' stories are happy, but they do all call upon their inner strengths to survive and thrive where they land. 

I found it a thoroughly satisfying read, and an interesting window on a period in Australian history I had never thought about before - the struggle to throw off the taint of the English class system (which they still seem to be dealing with to some extent when I visited a couple of years ago!) and the enormous economic and political upheaval caused by the Great Depression which affected Australia almost more severely than any other country.

In fact, the one thing I did not like about this book was the cover art.  I know I haven't mentioned this in any of my posts for awhile, but I found the photo of generic flapper used on the cover so very off-putting, I actually considered covering the book with a temporary brown paper cover while I was reading it.  As I got into the book, I found it even more disturbing that the photo bore absolutely no relationship to the contents of the book.  It's not a story about one sister; it's most definitely an ensemble cast of characters here, and the concentration is on their personal and professional achievements, not their clothing.  Don't make the mistake of judging this book by its cover.  Consider its author and you'll be rewarded by a "romance" with more substance than most.  Recommended.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Corsican Caper

Why, oh, why don't I have friends who will invite me to spend three long, leisurely weeks visiting them at their seaside mansion near Marseille for the sole purpose of eating fabulous meals (and never, ever gaining a single ounce!) with the added bonus of side trips to Paris for shopping with a bottomless wallet??!!  The fact that Sam Levitt and his girlfriend Elena can save that same friend from the dangerous overtures of a Russian oligarch determined to buy said mansion at any cost is just the icing on the cake in Peter Mayle's latest diverting bit of fluff The Corsican Caper (#432).

It's a perfect hammock read.  If you fall asleep while reading this, you'll wake refreshed from your nap and still able to finish this book before dinner.  Try not to be too disappointed if the meal doesn't measure up to Provencal cooking...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The 6th Extinction

Can't sleep at night?  Then reading James Rollins' latest Sigma Force novel The 6th Extinction (#431) won't cause you lose any additional slumber.  I wish I could say the same for the rest of us!  Rollins doesn't have to rely on the paranormal to scare us; he manages quite well simply by reading the current scientific journals.  There's plenty going on out there to scare the pants off most of us.

I have somehow managed to miss the warnings from experts that we are currently in the midst of the 6th Extinction here on earth.  Life as we know it will soon (in scientific terms) be gone, to be replaced by who knows exactly what.  Scientists are taking courses of action to deal with this, either conservation/preservation or by synthesizing replacement life in the lab.  Apparently with the tools currently available, almost anyone can design their own genes. That's the launching point for the action in The 6th Extinction.  There is a third option, and that's what the villain in this piece is determined to bring about, survival of the fittest, if man is on an equal footing with every other life form on earth, including those found only in the most extreme environments like Antarctica.  When a containment lab is breached in a remote California wilderness, the Sigma Force members are called in to deal with a horrifying environmental disaster.  They're aided this time on their quest by a plucky California State Park Ranger and her dog, Nikko.  The fate of the world hangs by a slender thread...

The action here is non-stop and oh, so plausible.  That's what makes a Rollins thriller so exciting.  The settings may be exotic, but the elements he brings in to play are the scientific discoveries reporters are writing about every day.  I especially like the fact that Rollins is finally adding more canine characters to his stories.  Who better to write about them than a qualified veterinarian?  Hard to believe that this is the 10th book in this series.  It just keeps getting better.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Rosie Project

I've been meaning to read The Rosie Project (#430) by Graeme Simsion ever since it came out in the US.  Thanks to my book club, I've finally been given the push I needed to get around to it.  I don't know what took me so long!

Professor Don Tillman has decided he's reached a point in his life when he wants to settle down with a life partner.  He approaches things in the most logical way possible; by designing a questionnaire to weed out all candidates who don't meet his exacting criteria.  Of COURSE things don't work out in the logical sequence Professor Tillman had planned.  Since his best friend is a serial adulterer, the advice Gene gives Don is naturally suspect, but the process and its outcomes are hilarious, with the most unexpected results.

Okay, picture Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory in serious search for a mate.  That's the basic plot of this book.  What makes it stand out are the glimpses of Don's humanity that peek through the eccentric persona he has deliberately cultivated.  It's a different, hilarious and charming love story worth recommending to your male friends and loved ones.  Don't miss it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Ludwig Conspiracy

Oliver Potzsch is the author of the stand-alone thriller The Ludwig Conspiracy (#429).  He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Hangman's Daughter series which figures on my current "To Read" list.

To begin with, I certainly didn't know much about the last king of Bavaria, Ludwig II, other than the fact that he built Neuschwanstein Castle, model for Disney's fairytale castle centerpiece and subject of numerous photographs.  What I did not realize was that there is a controversy about exactly how Ludwig II died in 1887 - murder/suicide versus political assassination - and that there is a German cottage industry built around the varying conspiracy theories.  Mr. Potzsch's novel explores one such "what if?' theory when an antiquarian book seller in Munich suddenly finds himself in possession of volume written in code by Ludwig's assistant physician, a putative eye witness of those fateful events that June night.  If only he could stay safe long enough to decode the diary's contents...

I had the connections figured out in this one pretty early on, and spent most of my time reading this book waiting for the rest of the cast of characters to catch up.  Although the subject matter was interesting enough, I think the novel could have done with some judicious pruning.  At four hundred pages, I thought it was about a hundred pages too long.

I suppose that I'll still eventually read Mr. Potzsch's Hangman's Daughter series, but I won't be in any hurry to get to it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Harvest Killings

A.K. Goode's debut novel, The Harvest Killings (#428) isn't a bad spy caper.  The action is concentrated mainly in Uganda, and involves murder (of course!), pesticides, an unfinished water treatment plant and a mysterious mountain.  Multiple competing intelligence agencies also play a role in this twisted tale.  There are enough plot turns to keep the reader guessing, and wondering if this book might not make a decent action film.

Since this book is self-published, it does suffer from a lack of effective editing.  Some of it is merely annoying - apostrophes inserted where they don't belong, and missing from spots where they do; spelling mistakes of the kind that slip by a Spell Checker program, but not a human reader.  Others add to the plot confusion - a good guy named Hank and a villain named Frank whose names are sometimes mistakenly substituted for each other, too much description of minor characters and settings, and the overuse of the phrase "Got it?"  Believe me, I get it!

Those complaints aside, The Harvest Killings did do what it set out to do - it entertained me and at the same time introduced me to a new place, Kampala, Uganda.  Mission accomplished, A.K. Goode.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Still Life

Thanks to all the ladies in my library reading group for recommending Louise Penny's magical Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series.  I followed their advice and started with the first book in this series, Still Life (#427).  Now I know exactly what my friends meant when they told me that the residents of the Quebec village of Three Pines were people you'd want to invite over for dinner.

When elderly retired school teacher Jane Neal is found dead in the woods where she customarily walked her dog Lucy, no one at first can image that her death was not accidental.  But when Chief Inspector Gamache is called in to investigate with his team from the Montreal Surete Office (Three Pines isn't large enough to have its own police force.) it's determined that Jane's death was a deliberate act.  How to catch a killer who is probably one of the village's own?  That's the puzzle Gamache will struggle to solve, as long held secrets are finally brought to light.

If you're not already a fan of Louise Penny's, go buy this book immediately; you'll become a true believer in her talents, too.

A Spear of Summer Grass

I adore Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Victorian mystery series; they're well-written and slightly dark.  So I was hoping that her stand-alone novel A Spear of Summer Grass (#426) would measure up to that high standard.  The quality of her writing is still there, but A Spear of Summer Grass is published under Harlequin's MIRA imprint, so the primary focus is the romance, which I did not find to be nearly as interesting as her mysteries.

However, if romance is what you're looking for, this tale set in 1920s Kenya has a lot to offer.  Delilah Drummond, the bad girl heroine, is a well-developed character, with many layers.  The African setting is vivid and the native tribes are sympathetically portrayed.  I personally found Delilah's love interest Ryder White a bit outrĂ© with his gold-hooped pierced ears, but that's probably just me.  (Why do romance heroes always have to wear their hair "longer than the current fashion"?  I find the clean cut look so much more appealing...)  There's peril and a bit of mystery to keep the story moving along, and I must admit, I did find the reveal of the culprit at the end a surprise.

This book will certainly transport you to a different time and place, so if you need to get away from it all, A Spear of Summer Grass will do the job nicely.  I'll just stick to Lady Julia in the future myself.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Darkest Hour

A friend of mine passed along debut author Tony Schumacher's new thriller The Darkest Hour (#425) and told me I had to read it.  I gladly took her advice. 

This is alternative history, set in London after the Nazis have conquered the British.  There is a government in exile in Canada and an active British Resistance, but for most of the population, it's a return to as normal a life as they can manage under the Occupation.  For John Rossett it means returning to his job as a Detective Inspector after serving his time in an internment camp for captured soldiers.  His record as a DI is so good that the Germans choose him to work just as efficiently on the Jewish Question.  For Rossett, it's just a job until the day during a routine roundup he finds Jacob, a little boy hidden in the house by his grandfather.  The train has already left London that Jacob should have been on, so Rossett is stuck with him until he and his superiors can work out a solution.  But nothing is routine, and Rossett and Jacob are soon on the run for their lives from the Nazis, the Resistance and the communists, each with their own agendas.

Besides being a cracking good story, the characters in the book are interesting and multi-layered.  You want it to turn out well for all of them in the end, even Rossett's Nazi superior Ernst Koehler, even though you know it can't.  My friend thought that the author left a hint at the end that we might hear more of these people in the future.  I hope so, too, but I'm not sure that's too likely, all things considered.  Kudos to Mr. Schumacher.  If you're a WWII buff, definitely add The Darkest Hour to your reading pile.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Flat Spin

I first became aware of the Cordell Logan series, written by David Freed, from a review of the third and latest book in our local newspaper.  It sounded as though the book would be right up my alley, but the reviewer did mention that it would be best to read the series in order if possible.  So as advised, I've started with Flat Spin (#424), a thoroughly entertaining introduction to this mystery series featuring Cordell Logan, certified flight instructor, washed-out Air Force pilot and retired member of Alpha, a government black ops group so secret no one's ever heard of them.

I was afraid from the first few pages that it might be too sexist in its language for me to bother reading, but thankfully, that over-emphasis on the female figure vanished almost right away, and got right down to the slightly tongue-in-cheek business of solving the murder of Logan's ex-wife's current spouse, his former boss at Alpha who just happened to arrange things to steal away Savannah, the love of Logan's life.  What red-blooded male wouldn't want jump at the chance to solve that murder?!  Of course the bribe his ex-father-in-law offered him didn't hurt since his checking account is empty and there are no flight students on his horizon.  The problems escalate when Cordell begins turning over unwanted rocks.  It's not an Alpha-related revenge murder; in fact, the clues seem to point to a much more personal involvement.

The good news is that since Mr. Freed has added a couple of new books to this promising series, you know that Cordell Logan will live to fly another day, and he might have another chance to get back with his ex-wife Savannah; but the real question is: will Mrs. Shmulowitz still be his landlady?  I sure hope so; she's a hoot and a half.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Logan's continuing adventures.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Signature of All Things

I've never had the slightest bit of interest in reading Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, so I was not looking forward to reading my book club's September selection The Signature of All Things (#423).  To my surprise, I was quite taken by this literary tale of a nineteenth century woman and her extraordinary family.  And by a novel centered around the theme of botany, no less, a subject of which I have no knowledge, nor any interest in rectifying that omission.

Gilbert's tale is mainly that of Alma Whittaker, born to a life of luxury to a most unlikely Philadelphia couple in 1800.  Her father, from poor English stock, makes the most of an encounter as a youth with eminent British botanist and adventurer Joseph Banks.  He uses it to parlay his  knowledge of botany gained from expeditions as an agent for Banks into the foundation of his own fortune.  Banks has rejected his ideas of making money from his discoveries in the most humiliating way; therefore Henry will best him in every possible way.  Having grown wealthy in the Dutch East Indies, Henry Whittaker determines to take a practical Dutch wife as helpmeet, and chooses Beatrix van Dervender for her connections to pre-eminent Dutch botanists.  When her family disowns her, the couple sail off to America, never looking back.  Thus, Alma is born into a family that encourages her independence and pursuit of scientific knowledge through her own research and the lively discourse of the era's scientists, explorers and inventors around the dining table of their home, White Acre.  Alma is not beautiful, but that does not concern her until in mid-life she meets Ambrose Pike and falls deeply in love.  And therein hangs a most extraordinary tale...

There are so many surprises in this book, I wouldn't even know where to begin to describe them; you just find yourself reading madly along to find out what will happen next to the Whittakers.  I think my only reservation about this book is that as far as I was concerned, the ending seemed to just peter out.  It wasn't a bad or unexpected ending to the story, but the rest of Alma's life is so unusual, I guess I just expected ... more, not less.  Even if you detested Eat, Pray, Love in both its print and film incarnations, give The Signature of All Things a browse; you may find yourself hooked as I was.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Something author Gabrielle Zevin says towards the end of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (#422) sums up this book perfectly: "Why is any one book different from any other book?  They are different A.J. decides, because they are.  We have to look inside many.  We have to believe.  We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again."  This, for me, is that rare book which exhilarates, that you hate to see end so much that you purposely slow down your reading towards the end to prolong the pleasure it provides.

This is not a very big book.  It's about a widowed bookseller on an island off the coast of Massachusetts who comes down from his apartment above the store one morning to discover an abandoned toddler with a note from her mother, asking him to take care of Maya.   A simple premise, a la Silas Marner, but surprisingly touching and profound.  A good story, about mostly decent folks, but filled with enough literary references to delight the book lover in all of us.  It's a bit hard to describe just what makes this book so perfect in its own way.

Believe me, it would be almost as fast to read this gem than to read this blog.  Put The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry at the top of your "Must Read!" list; you won't regret it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Dog On It

Dog On It (#421) is the book in which Chet and Bernie, that indomitable Private Eye team, make their debut.  Though I have gleaned much of their back story from reading later books in this delightful mystery series, it was very satisfying to begin back at the beginning.  (See also my posts on The Sound and the Furry and A Fistful of Collars.)

Chet the dog is the narrator, and he plays the major role in this story of a missing teenager which turns out to be much, much more involved than a simple runaway.  It's full of action, so much so that at times I felt as though I was reading a canine version of The Perils of Pauline.  Okay, I'm definitely dating myself with that reference. (If you don't know about this classic screen series, Google it.)  Bernie brings his own unique skills to this partnership, and it's good to find that things might be finally taking a turn for the better in his personal life; that is, if he can survive long enough to enjoy it! 

I just can't seem to get enough of this dynamic duo.  Now if only I can finally get my husband to pick up this book, I'll have someone to chuckle over their adventures with.   Highly recommended!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Lincoln Myth

Steve Berry has a few interesting concepts to anchor his latest thriller The Lincoln Myth (#420), but I do have to admit, it's a bit of slog to get there. 

Cotton Malone is back.  The Magellan Billet just won't let him retire to peacefully run his bookstore in Copenhagen.  He's called in to retrieve an asset because he's physically closer than any other agent, but the promised easy assignment quickly turns into a shooting match.  There's trouble afoot in Washington, D.C., and a prominent Mormon Senator appears to be at the root of the problem.  What's at stake is the fate of the United States itself.  Cotton Malone is roped in despite the fact that with his involvement, the stakes for him will become personal as well.

There was a lot of material in this novel about states' rights, the Constitution, the Union, Lincoln and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons.  All of which was necessary to understand the premise behind the peril, but it was presented in a manner that was more didactic than  your usual page-turning thriller.  I'm sure that was a turn-off for many readers, as was the fact that the various fonts used indicate eighteenth and nineteenth century documents were very difficult to read. Despite all that, if you can bear with it, the threat that was posed at the heart of this novel is only too plausible.

Besides, I found it a good introduction to an area I'll be visiting myself in a couple of weeks.  I'm looking forward to visiting Salt Lake City, and kicking myself for not taking the opportunity to visit an LDS temple here before it was dedicated not too long ago.  So, in my ledger, the pluses still outweigh the minuses for The Lincoln Myth.

Monday, August 25, 2014

John Wayne - The Life and Legend

Why would I be reading John Wayne - The Life and Legend (#419)?  I'm not particularly a John Wayne fan, although I've seen bits and pieces of many of his movies on TV.  It's because I've been fortunate enough to see Scott Eyman, its author, in action at our local library's annual book festival BookMania! twice in the last few years, emceeing author panels and interviewing individual authors about their show-biz related books.  That was enough to convince me that any book he authored would be worth reading.  John Wayne is a perfect case in point.

At close to six hundred pages, Eyman makes Duke Morrison, the man behind his screen image John Wayne, interesting and accessible.  He is not always admirable or likable, but Eyman treats his subject with sympathy in recounting the good, the bad and the ugly in his life.  Overall, I found this biography vastly entertaining, more so than I could ever have imagined.

Maybe some day my husband and I will join the twenty-first century and upgrade our electronics so we'll have access to a streaming video service so we can order up John Wayne films at our own convenience.  Reading his biography and the descriptions of what happened on a number of his film shoots has really instilled a desire in me to see some of his better pictures which I've never seen: The Searchers, Hondo and The Shootist just to name a few, and to watch some of the more familiar movies like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with new eyes and appreciation.  I envy Scott Eyman's access to the various film archives which have enabled him to see as many of John Wayne's films as he has.  Of course, that did mean he had to sit through some real losers like The Green Berets, and The Conqueror so I guess it all evens out in the end...

If you've ever seen a John Wayne film in your life (and who hasn't?), I guarantee you'll find something to enjoy in this comprehensive look at an American screen legend.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

George Washington's Secret Six

If you want to know more about the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring, Brian Kilmeade and his writing partner Don Yaeger provide an easy-to-read and not too taxing overview of how George Washington realized that espionage was the only way to defeat the mighty British army entrenched on American soil in George Washington's Secret Six; The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (#418).

Five of the six members of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the war, have been positively identified.  Intriguingly, the sixth and final member is known to be a woman, code named 355, but little else about her, except for the fact that she was discovered by the British, is known.  She was apparently a young woman who moved freely in the Loyalist society of New York City during its occupation during most of the war.  She was captured, and imprisoned to the consternation of other members of the Ring, probably aboard a British prison ship in New York Harbor, but she has never been identified.  I think there's a great novel waiting to be written about this courageous and unsung heroine.  She certainly deserves more attention than Peggy Shippen Arnold!

Fans of the AMC network's series Turn will be pleased to recognize the characters portrayed as real people despite the great liberties taken with their personal stories to include more blood and sex for the viewing audience.  But anything that moves people to find out more about the period and characters is positive, I think.  (I was appalled to see a question in the syndicated Isaac Asimov's Super Quiz yesterday about Wars put the dates 1775 - 1783 in the PhD category for readers to identify the American Revolution?!  This isn't considered general knowledge any more?)  More power to any authors who can make reading history fun and interesting; just be sure to read several sources to weed out the biases all writers and historians have.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Book of Life

The Book of Life (#417) is the third and concluding book of Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy.  It's a satisfying conclusion to the story begun in A Discovery of Witches, and continued in Shadow of Night, but therein lies the rub: it's not a stand-alone book.  Even I, who devoured A Discovery of Witches when it came out in 2011, had difficulty remembering all the minor characters and plot points which filled the first two volumes.  It took me about a hundred pages to reacclimatize myself to the story, and I do have a good memory for these things.  With all that being said, if you're looking for a well-written novel that contains a soupcon of all kinds of genres; science fiction (which is where my library shelves it, to the consternation of its most ardent fans!), paranormal, vampires, witches, time-travel, and above all, romance, then this is the book for you.

It all started when a witch and a vampire meet in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and clash over a rare manuscript.  Both are academics, strong-willed and intelligent.  It doesn't take long for attraction to blossom.  In the second book Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont must use Diana's ability to time-walk to pursue clues to the whereabouts of the mysterious manuscript which holds the key to the fate of all witches, vampires and daemons.  They find themselves in the London of 1591 in Shadow of NightThe Book of Life picks up with Diana and Matthew's return from the past to the Clairmont stronghold of Sept-Tours in France.  The pair is now married, and Diana is expecting twins.  To the Congregation, which governs the affairs of witches, vampires and daemons, this state of affairs is an abomination; Congregation rules (and it is widely believed, biology) forbid such cross-breeding.  Diana and Matthew are in deadly peril from their foes as they race to discover the whereabouts of the elusive Book of Life which holds the key to freeing them and others like them.  Genetic ideograms and ideology clash as one of Matthew's own sons seeks to destroy them and claim the knowledge for himself in horrifying fashion.

My advice if you have the time: line up all three books and read them one right after the other.  You'll have an easier time remembering all the details, or you can go back to a previous volume and find the answer you're looking for.  Just don't miss this exceptional series.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Top Secret Twenty One

Top Secret Twenty One (#416) is pretty much what you'd expect from a Janet Evanovich Stephanie Plum novel: light, and breezy, with romantic complications, some laugh-out-loud comic twists and a pretty good mystery buried under all this.  Plus, it comes with a bonus short story about FBI agent Kate O'Hara and her nemesis, Nick Fox, from Evanovich's recent collaborations with Lee Goldberg.  That was a welcome surprise at the end.

I especially liked the pack of feral chihuahuas and the invasion of Stephanie's space by Briggs, who has to be enduring several of the worst weeks of his life.  And don't even get me started on the feud between her Grandma Mazur and Joe Morelli's Sicilian grandmother!  And could Ranger possibly be thinking about getting serious?  The episode in the Russian Consulate reminded me so much of a recent episode of Covert Affairs, it made me wonder who was plagiarizing whom...

There's a reason Janet Evanovich is so successful; she writes amusing fluff which combines elements from several genres aimed specifically at the chick-lit market, but they do contain a little bite to them.  We're not all brainless, gum-snapping twits, but sometimes, it's good to put the brakes on all the worry and cares we carry around every day, and just sit back and let ourselves be entertained.  You know if you pick up an Evanovich book, that's a guarantee.  Enjoy!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Fistful of Collars

Don't you just love the title A Fistful of Collars (#415)?  If that brings to mind an image of Clint Eastwood in a gritty Western movie, you won't be that far from the plot of this Chet and Bernie mystery. 

Chet and Bernie are hired on by the mayor's office as babysitters for famous heartthrob Thad Perry when he comes to the Valley to shoot a Western on location.  The money is great, and Chet, the canine narrator, knows they can use the boost to their bank account, but the gig isn't as easy as promised.  People start turning up dead in the Valley, and it gradually appears to have something to do with Thad Perry's mysterious history in the Valley.  Chet and Bernie better make that connection fast, before more bodies pile up, including their own.  Big changes are the order of the day in Chet and Bernie's personal lives as well.

A Fistful of Collars is a good mystery all by itself, but the real pleasure in reading this series is Chet's goofy stream-of-consciousness narration.  His meditation on all things doggy, and his misinterpretations of human behavior are hilarious.  Looking for the perfect beach  or hammock read?  This could be it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Miniaturist

I could not put down Jessie Burton's debut novel The Miniaturist (#414).  Although one of my friends gave this book the one word review "Strange.", and I don't disagree with that entirely, I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next.

Set in the trading capital of Amsterdam of 1686, The Miniaturist tells the story of a young country bride married off by her widowed mother to a rich merchant in order to restore the family fortunes.  Marriage does not turn out to be what Nella Brandt expected at all, as the household she enters is unwelcoming and overwhelming and full of shadowy secrets.  Things begin to change when her husband Johannes gives Nella an enormous cabinet to furnish as she will.  It's a miniature duplicate of their own mansion, and at first Nella is insulted; it's a child's toy her husband has given her.  But with little else to occupy her time, Nella writes to a craftsman who has advertised in the Amsterdam directory.  What she receives in response to her letter are marvelous creations to go into her cabinet.  She doesn't realize at first that they are miniatures of the existing furniture and occupants of the house.  Who can be observing them all so closely to capture the minute details, and does this person pose a threat to the Brandt household?

The story is imaginative, and the details of life lived in a prosperous Dutch household in a time of exploding wealth, political and religious unrest, and overseas expansion of the Dutch East India Company are marvelous.  Nella's predicament is all too easy to imagine, but Ms. Burton fleshes out the other members in the house so well that as powerful secrets are revealed the reader cares about them and their fates as well.  I certainly hope we hear more from Ms. Burton in the future!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Hundred-Year House

When critics lavish praise on a new novel, I generally find that I don't like it myself.  This is true with Rebecca Makkai's latest book, The Hundred-Year House (#413).  I kept reading it because it was a Good Reads giveaway I won, and I kept hoping that as the story went back in time, all would be revealed.  It wasn't.

It's ostensibly the story of an estate near Chicago which in its sordid past has served as a middling-rated artists' colony, a banishment for a daughter who has married unsuitably below her, the site of a mysterious suicide, and rent-free living with the parents for an academic daughter whose husband just can't manage to write the biography that will guarantee his employment at the local college.  The story progresses backwards in increments from 1999 to 1900, but it may leave you more confused at the end than when you started it.  The present haunts the past, the artist reveals more by what she omits, and all that.

Can't say I liked any of the characters or their plights.  They seemed to me uniformly unpleasant, deceitful and, frankly, not worth caring about.  There's remarkably little about the house which is the eponymous character, either.  The biggest mystery as far as I was concerned was whether the estate was located in the United States or Canada, since the Devohrs, the wealthy family who built and maintained the house, were part of Toronto society.  That is one of the facts that is actually revealed here more than halfway through. 

By all means, read it if you think those in your circles will be discussing it over cocktails this season; otherwise, you might want to look elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Sound and the Furry

I've read clever mysteries before in which a dog plays a major role, but never one told so convincingly from the dog's point of view as The Sound and the Furry - A Chet and Bernie Mystery (#412) by Spencer Quinn.  In most books with animal narrators, the canine or feline characters are way smarter than their human counterparts.  If only they could communicate with other species telepathically...  (I'm thinking of Ralph Vaughan's Paws & Claws series, or Rita Mae Brown's cat detective Sneaky Pie, for example.)  Chet, on the other hand, is sooo easily distracted by smells, sights and the prospect of something delicious to eat that he's constantly wandering down amusing mental detours before he snaps back on target, because hey! He's a pro!!

Chet and Bernie, his human Private Investigator companion, usually do their work in Arizona, but in The Sound and the Furry, a chance encounter with a felon this pair previously put behind bars nets them a case in New Orleans and Louisiana bayou country looking for a lost Cajun inventor.  Big Oil is involved and someone involved has it in for Bernie and his thoroughly pro pet, Chet.  There's water, water everywhere and gators, too as Chet and Bernie pool their talents and skills to solve the case.

This book, the sixth in this series, was just the distraction I needed on a long road trip.  I've already put the previous books on reserve at my library, and a seventh book is just about to come out!  Yippee, Skippy!  A fun read for both dog lovers and mystery fans.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Kill Switch

With The Kill Switch (#411) James Rollins, along with co-author Grant Blackwood, launches a new Sigma series-within-a-series with the introduction of a unique pair of partners: Tucker Wayne, former Army Ranger, and his military working dog companion, Kane.  It's a great addition to this popular series.

Tucker Wayne is freelancing with Kane after his Army separation when Sigma recruits him to escort the eccentric owner of one of Russia's largest pharmaceutical firms out of the country.  He has information he wants to share, and needs the properly equipped labs to explore the incredible discovery he has made on paper.  Russian opposition forces will use any means to stop him, but not before they discover the location of the plant that has the power either to provide unimaginable benefits to mankind, or in their hands, the ultimate weapon.  Tucker and Kane must shepherd their small group in a perilous journey across Russia to Turkey, South Africa and ultimately the United States itself.

As is usual with a James Rollins novel, the plot is based on science which makes the threat both plausible and therefore, even more frightening.  The extra dimension in this book is his background as a veterinarian, and his involvement with USO author tours to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
The details of the partnership between Tucker and Kane are fascinating, each contributing to the survival of the mission's team.

I can't wait to see further collaborations between Rollins and Blackwood; I think their fans will raise Cain if they don't get busy on more Tucker Wayne and Kane adventures!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Pinecone

British author Jenny Uglow has used a pinecone as the central symbol of the life and beliefs of an upper class British woman in her new non-fiction book The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine - Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary (#410).  It's less of a biography than it is a capsule history of Carlisle and the nearby village of Wreay during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  The lives of the Losh family are chronicled along with their multitude of friends, their changing fortunes and political movements of the period, and their intense interests in the arts, philosophy, religion and natural science. 

I believe Sarah is singled out because of a curious church she built to her exact specifications which still stands in Wreay today.  Although it is used as a Christian church, much of the symbolism in the building itself apparently has nothing to do with Christianity and caused much consternation to those who saw it after it was dedicated in the 1840s.  Sarah was rich, cultured, unmarried and free to travel and indulge her interests in business, the arts and sciences without having to answer to anyone.  A fortunate life, indeed.  She was clearly ahead of her time with her hands-on approach, and shrewd in catching and riding the next wave of burgeoning technology with the advice of her family and its far-flung and influential friends and acquaintances.  The problem with this biography is that Sarah is largely on the periphery of her own story. The only opinion I could form of her was that she was rather spoiled and, wearing velvet riding boots, very content to ride rough shod over any whose opinions clashed with her own.  She invariably won.

I did win this book on Good Reads, and since I'm addicted to historical fiction (especially British!), I did find a lot of the material in this book quite interesting.  The problem for American readers is that Ms. Uglow presupposes an intimate knowledge of English geography, history, politics and social mores during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  I even found much of what I've learned so far in my Education for Ministry course quite useful in understanding the squabbling going on in Anglican circles of the period.  I can see that it would be easy to get lost in the thickets of this book if you don't at least have a mental picture of the forest involved.

On the plus side, there are a number of helpful illustrations and pictures included in The Pinecone.  I only wish the author had included a legible map.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I Am Pilgrim

The only thing I don't like about Terry Hayes' debut novel I Am Pilgrim (#409) is the cover art.  So don't judge this thriller by its rather bland cover.  It's one of the best books I've read in a long time.

It begins with what appears to be a perfect murder in a dismal New York City hotel room.  What it leads to is a terrorist attack launched by a single unknown and unidentifiable person capable of destroying Western Civilization in the most brutal fashion.  Based on some recent news stories, the possibilities raised by this intricately plotted book are terrifyingly plausible.  Thank goodness the shadowy protagonist of this blood-pressure raising novel is on our side.

The characters are well developed and interesting, and the multiple threads of the plot are woven together in such a way that the reader never really has a problem keeping track of what's happening in the present, or how the past has influenced the events transpiring.  It all seems to make perfect sense as you read it.  At over 600 pages in length, that's a lot of ground to cover, but trust me, you won't want to put I Am Pilgrim down.  You'll only be sorry when the thrill ride is over.

Terry Hayes is primarily a film writer, so I wouldn't be surprised to see this story on screen someday.  It would make a fabulous action film, but it sure would be a shame to miss the interior life of the novel's narrator.  Like Shogun, I think that's the best part of the story, but one not easily captured on screen.  You'll just have to read it and judge for yourself.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Almond Tree

It's impossible to look at reviews for The Almond Tree (#408) on other web sites without becoming aware of the passions this book raises in its readers (or in some cases, those who have refused to read it on principle). 

Beginning in the 1950s, over a sixty year period it tells the story of one Palestinian man, Ichmad Hamid, son of a once wealthy planter who was dispossessed of his land when Israel becomes a Jewish state.  The family's circumstances are continually reduced until Ichmad's father is arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in a detention camp.  It becomes Ichmad's job to support his entire family.  Ichmad has a singular gift for mathematics, however, and it eventually becomes his leverage to finding a better life for him and his family.

What makes this story so unusual is that its author, Michelle Cohen Corasanti, is an American Jewish woman who lived in Israel for seven years.  She presents the Palestinians in a sympathetic light in The Almond Tree and builds bridges between Ichmad and Jewish students and professors at Hebrew University after he wins a prestigious math scholarship.  This is also the very thing which creates controversy and adamant critics.  People in general aren't willing to look at things from a different and uncomfortable perspective.  I couldn't even have a civil discussion of this book when I mentioned it recently at one of my book clubs with a number of Jewish members.  No wonder prospects for peace are so dim in the Middle East! 

I do have to say, though, that the character development in The Almond Tree is very one dimensional.  Either the character is good, or the character is bad, and there's not much subtlety in the way they are presented.  The book also suffers from literary overload.  I think Ms. Cohen Corasanti wanted to distill so much of what she observed over the seven years she lived in Israel that she made the mistake of piling all the incidents she could think of onto the Hamid family.  Of course, that does make me think of that most famous of Middle Eastern allegories: the story of Job.  Ichmad Hamid is certainly his modern day counterpart.

All that being said, I still think this book is worth reading even if it provides you with the smallest nugget to ponder about how things could be different today in Israel as the rockets rain down on both sides.  Is it possible for one person to make a difference?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Dark Aemilia - A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady

Dark Aemilia - A Novel of Shakespeare's Dark Lady (#407) is loosely based on a real person; Aemilia Bassano, one of the first published female poets in the English language.  Sally O'Reilly says in her Historical Note at the conclusion of this dark, dark novel that Aemilia has been suggested by some scholars as a possible inspiration for Shakespeare's sonnets. 

In this imagining of her life, Aemilia is the much younger mistress of Henry Carey, the Earl of Hundsden and cousin to Elizabeth I.  She is quite content with her lot as a pampered courtesan with a place at Court until the fateful day when she meets William Shakespeare at a house party.   Their affair is a brief, bright but doomed comet.  When Aemilia finds herself pregnant, the Earl settles a house and its furnishings, a tidy sum of money and a compliant husband on her in time-honored fashion. At first Aemilia is able to live comfortably and dabble in writing her poetry, but after her husband races through her dowry and her affair with Shakespeare sours, Aemilia looks to the dark side of necromancy to improve her lot with consequences she could never have anticipated.

This is a fascinating glimpse of London life during the late Tudor period, but it is not for the faint of heart.  Londoners lived their daily lives surrounded by death both natural and state-mandated on a scale that we cannot even comprehend, and Ms. O'Reilly has certainly done her research to make the brooding atmosphere so palpable in Dark Aemilia.  Falling somewhere between the mysticism of the old Catholic religion and the astringent beliefs of the Protestants was an explosion of spells, charms, experiments and writings which some deemed science and others witchcraft, and it heavily influenced writers like Shakespeare and Aemilia Bassano Lanyer.  That becomes a key plot point in this page turner.

Ms. O'Reilly says she originally intended this novel to be about Lady Macbeth, but her research and her friends urged her to write something historical and dark.  I think she has succeeded admirably with Dark Aemilia.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Chase

The Chase (#406) is Janet Evanovich's second collaboration with Lee Goldberg detailing the exploits of FBI Special Agent Kate O'Hare and her reluctant teaming by the powers that be with her former target on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, Nick Fox.  What a hoot!

In a gesture of international goodwill, the United States government has agreed to return a priceless Qing Dynasty bronze zodiac figure of a rooster to the Chinese.  It's been on display at the Smithsonian for twenty years.  The only problem is that it's a fake; the real one was stolen years ago by an unknown party.  When the forgery is revealed in the ceremonial exchange, it's bound to cause an international incident.  Enter Nick Fox, renowned art thief, and his FBI handler Kate.  Their task is to locate the original rooster, steal it back and make the switch at the Smithsonian before the official handover to a representative of the Chinese government.  A walk in the park for Nick.  That is, until they discover just whose collection the rooster now graces, and the timetable is moved up to return it.

This caper novel is just as much fun as The Heist, the first book by this author duo.  It has summer action movie written all over it, and I'd be the first in line to pay money to see it on screen.  Kate's an uptight, athletic former Navy Seal with a strong moral compass and a penchant for huge quantities of junk food.  Nick Fox, as you might expect, is suave, debonair and has an encyclopedic range of knowledge on many arcane matters.  The attraction between these two  is palpable, but Evanovich and Goldberg know they can't give away the candy store quite yet in the best tradition of building tension and bringing back their readers for more.  If they ever do make these books into a movie, I personally would like to see Kate's Black Ops retired father Jake played by Corbin Benson.  I think he'd be perfect in the role.  Bring this one to the beach with you for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Illusionists

I was told by my library book club facilitator that my pre-publication copy of Rosie Thomas' latest novel The Illusionists (#405) came with some buzz comparing it to The Night Circus (See my post of 5/7/12.) or Water for Elephants.  I don't think that's a fair comparison for either of these books, and promises too much on the part of The Illusionists.

Unlike The Night Circus with its magical and inexplicable happenings, The Illusionists is very much grounded in the real world of Victorian variety shows.  Tricks on stage can be much admired, but the question the audience always has is "How did they do that?!"  The people seated in the theater are aware that the wool has somehow been pulled over their eyes, but if they cannot figure out the mechanics of the illusion, they are content that they have gotten their money's worth from a splendid show.  The cast of characters in The Illusionists is an eccentric troop of performers pulled together by the genius of dwarf Carlo Boldoni and his entrepreneurial partner Devil Wix.  Others with remarkable skills are recruited to give the proper embellishments to the illusions.  But the rivalry between members of the troupe over performance time, credit for the illusions themselves, and especially over Eliza, the first female partner, create a constant tension.  The resulting stalking and attempted murder are not part of the contrived stage business in London's Palmyra Theater...

I thought this book got off to a marvelous start, but towards the middle, the plot began to sag.  Things picked up again in the final third of the novel, but fizzled out again at the very end.  Frankly, I found the last chapter puzzling.  Perhaps Rosie Thomas promised twenty chapters to this book, but it seemed rather beside the point; it didn't resolve any matters, nor did it point the way towards the future for the characters.  I wish The Illusionists had lived up to its initial promise.  I would have enjoyed it much more.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Paisley Mischief

The rich really are different as Lincoln Macveagh proves in his skewering of his own Park Avenue/Hamptons set in Paisley Mischief (#404).  Paisley Mischief does double duty here as both the title of the novel itself, and of the fictional roman a clef which launches a scandal amongst the moneyed set.

Some things are just meant to be kept private.  One can discuss things in the proper setting, like the Avenue Club, an exclusive male haunt, but never outside the confines of one's own set.  Paisley Mischief reveals its embarrassing and salacious secrets to everyone with the money to pay for a copy.  Who could have betrayed them?  It had to have been an insider because many of the Park Avenue crowd know the stories to be true.

In the meantime, the Admissions Committee of the Avenue Club is engaged in deciding on just who to approve for the spring membership list.  Several of the candidates are shoo-ins, but there are also two controversial nominees on the slate.  To admit, or to not admit, that is the question...

This is a slight book, and an amusing one, too, I suppose, if you've never had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of this set's thoughtless (or intended!) snubs.  If you have, you have my sympathy.  Read it and root for the underdogs.