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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


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.