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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Stranger

Harlan Coben has proved once again you don't need high tech gadgets, spectacular car chases or exotic locales to create a page-turning thriller.  In The Stranger (#512), Adam Price's secure life in suburbia complete with a house, a wife and two boys is sent spinning into oblivion when a stranger sidles up to him at a lacrosse parents' meeting.  He tells Adam that his wife Corinne has kept a secret from him.  And if Adam doesn't believe him, the stranger tells him where to look to begin unraveling the lie.  Adam can't believe what he's told, but still...  By the time Adam discovers the truth, his life will be changed forever.

Coben is such a skillful storyteller that the plot will keep you glued to the page to find out what happens next long beyond your bedtime.  Clear a good block of time to read this one because you won't want to put it down!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fair Play's a Jewel

In the latest entry in Robert Bruce Stewart's Harry Reese Mystery series, Fair Play's A Jewel (#511) could the bloom be off Harry and Emmie Reese's marriage?  Harry certainly wonders when he accidentally finds out that his wife is planning to be away on a mysterious trip of her own while he is supposed to be investigating a missing persons insurance claim in Ohio.  When that trip is cancelled, Harry decides to accompany Emmie to Portland, Maine.  It's obvious she doesn't want him along, but for once, Emmie has outsmarted herself, and Harry picks up an arson case involving a newly constructed hotel near Portland.

None of the characters involved in this case appear to be who they claim to be.  Even Emmie has booked herself into the Sea Cliff Hotel under her nom de plume M.D. Meegs with a separate room from Harry's!  There's the pirate publisher of Portland whom she has persuaded to hide out at the Sea Cliff  under an assumed name after attempts have been made on his life.  (She's investigating these, of course!)  Or the noted British poet and his wife, the Fields.  Mr. Fields is a magnet for every female of a certain age in the vicinity, but his wife, Delia, is the one on the prowl here, and she doesn't much care who falls into her trap, as long as she has someone to fondle.  Luckily for most of the guests at the Sea Cliff, her extraordinary command of 17th century English cant goes right over her auditors' heads, sparing their blushes because they don't understand a word of it.  (Fortunately Mr. Stewart provides a glossary for readers who don't want to miss out on any of the naughty fun!)  Delia seems to be at odds with Fiona Macleod, another poetess staying at the hotel.  Then there's a Portland journalist who isn't above fleecing an unsuspecting victim, the local constable who's sweet on her and not the hayseed he first appears and finally, the Deputy Sheriff publicly enforcing the liquor ban, but privately enjoying the liquid hospitality at the Sea Cliff.  Ed Ketchum, with whom Harry has worked before, specially requested him on this arson case because he wants to consult Harry about his marital woes.  Can Harry help Ed reignite the spark of their marriage, and considering Annie's past, does Harry want to? 

When a young woman is found dead in the Field's sitting room, could it possibly have any connection to the case of the hotel under construction down the road which burned to the ground shortly before it was due to open?  Who would benefit?  And why did Emmie set off for Portland on her own?  Will Harry ever have a clue about what makes Emmie tick?  You'll find the answers to these and other questions you didn't even know you had in Fair Play's a Jewel.

I love it when a book I'm reading dangles a tantalizing fact, person, place or event in front of me.  Next thing you know, I'm off on a hunt for new information.  That happened to me twice with Fair Play's a Jewel.  (See my posts of Always a Cold Deck & Humbug on the Hudson 1/27/14, Crossings 10/28/13, Kalorama Shakedown 10/8/13, and A Charm of Powerful Trouble 5/17/14.)  When Harry and Emmie have an overnight stopover in Boston, they go to see the musical Peggy Goes to Paris, which had they but known, was a foreshadowing of what they would encounter in Portland.  I had to follow up on that musical, and through it was introduced to George Ade, a noted Indiana figure who made a fortune through his writing and endowed Purdue, his alma mater, with its football stadium.  I also discovered Lord Timothy Dexter, author of A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, and famous for being eccentric.  I suppose you could almost think of him as the Kardashian of his day.  The only thing that disappointed me in this list of dubious characters was Thomas Mosher, the pirate publisher of Portland (No book without an American copyright is safe from his presses!).  Not once does he appear in this novel with an eye patch or a peg leg.  Well, you can't have everything, I suppose.  Maybe next time...

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Ides of April

If you're a fan of Lindsey Davis' popular Marcus Didius Falco Roman mystery series, you've already met Flavia Albia, the heroine of her latest Roman mystery: The Ides of April (#510).  Even though Flavia was adopted by Falco and his patrician wife Helena while on an investigation in Roman Londinium, she's a chip off the old Falco block.  In fact, now that Marcus Didius has taken over his Pa's old antiques and auction business, Flavia has taken up where he left off as an inquiry agent, even moving into the old family digs in Fountain Court.  Flavia is no dewy innocent bud, though; she's been around the block a time or two.  At twenty eight, she's been a widow for ten years and is used to coping on her own.  As a woman, though, she rarely gets the really profitable jobs. 

Case in point, she's been hired by the family of a toddler killed in a hit and run accident to seek damages against the wealthy construction company owner.  She knows she'll inevitably lose the case and along with it, the fee (Win or nothing!) but after all, a child has been killed and she does have a conscience.  As she pursues the case she encounters a number of unexpected and unexplained deaths.  She can't help but be suspicious when the authorities try to prevent her from investigating these seemingly unconnected cases.  Now Flavia's gotten her teeth into something worth investigating, as long as it doesn't prove to be the death of her...

Flavia is as cheeky a character as her adoptive father and the mystery just as good here with its multiple red herrings, humor and -  could it be? - hint of future romance.  Falco has always been one of my favorite gumshoes, but after reading The Ides of April, all I can say is Ave, Flavia!

The Rug Merchant

The Rug Merchant (#509) is not your typical love story.  Meg Mullins' protagonist Ushman is an Iranian come to New York to make his fortune in the rug business after the Islamic Revolution and a devastating earthquake have put his family's rug workshops out of business.  He is beginning to make a success of things, but his wife Farak steadfastly refuses to leave his invalid mother behind in Iran and join him in New York.  His unremitting loneliness leads this otherwise decent man down paths where he otherwise would never stray.  A chance meeting at an airport results in a new relationship and a deeper understanding of himself. 

You can't help but root for Ushman when he suffers from one betrayal after another, but you know there's not going to be a happy ending here.  The tragedy is that his life goes on quietly as ever and nothing much has changed but his trust in others. 

An interesting perspective on an outsider longing to be on the winning side of the American dream.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

Candice Millard's gripping account of Theodore Roosevelt's journey through previously unexplored Brazilian territory, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey (#508) came to my notice in a decidedly unusual fashion.  My husband and I had attended a concert given by the Atlantic Classical Orchestra this season.  One of the hallmarks of this excellent orchestra is the commissioning of new works.  One of these works by Patrick Harlin was the composition River of Doubt, based on the book by Candice Millard.  (Follow the link to read & hear more about the piece:  River of Doubt Music. ) We thoroughly enjoyed the piece, but I determined that at some point I had to read the book that inspired the music, especially since I had devoured her work on James Garfield, Destiny of the Republic.  (See my post of 1/5/13.)

The River of Doubt lived up to its promise.  After Theodore Roosevelt fails to win a third term as President as the candidate of the Progressive "Bull Moose" Party, he is bored and stung by the public's failure to vote for him.  At a loose end, he is invited to take part in an expedition to South America, which will combine a speaking and diplomatic tour with a trip down several mapped rivers.  Somehow, the trips morphs into an exploration of unknown territory with a respected Brazilian, Candido Rondon, as co-leader.  To say that the trip was under planned, poorly provisioned and miraculous in that any of those who set out on the journey made it back to civilization is to understate the wretchedness of the entire enterprise.

If you've ever watched one of those horror movies when you just know that opening that door or climbing those stairs will end in disaster, you will have a very good idea of what it was like to follow the progress of the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition.  "No, no!  Stop!" kept running through my mind reading about the men planning and executing this disastrous trip.  What were they thinking?  Rondon was willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone to map the River of Doubt, but if they all died in the process, what good would that do?  Loss of equipment, starvation, hostile Indians and a murderer amongst them soon changed Roosevelt's attitude about the journey.  But once launched, there was no way to go but forward.  Yet most of them did come back alive from this incredible journey (Roosevelt hovered near death and almost left his bones on the river!), only to be met with disbelief from the scientific community that they had been and done what they originally set out to do: add a thousand mile river to the map of Brazil.

After reading their tale, there's no doubt that Candice Millard tells a story here that truly is stranger than fiction.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Cruelest Month

Thank you again to my book club friends who introduced me to Louise Penny's superb Inspector Gamache series.  And they were dead on when they recommended that this series be read in order.  You could, I suppose, read each mystery on its own and enjoy it, but you would miss so much of the subtlety and psychological aspects of the series which you couldn't appreciate without knowing the backstory.  I've just finished the third book in this series, The Cruelest Month (#507) and the books just keep getting better and better.  But I do disagree with my friends on one aspect of these mysteries; they love the series because they feel the characters of the fictional village of Three Pines, Quebec, are people you'd love to have dinner with.  Some of them, yes, but I think this series with its fey touches is at heart, very dark.  I don't think I could ever be completely comfortable at a dinner table with these villagers! 

After all, no good came to the woman who was murdered in The Cruelest Month after she has dinner with her neighbors.  At first blush, Madelaine Favreau appears to have been frightened to death at a séance, but the Surete supervisor in Montreal asks Inspector Gamache to travel to Three Pines on Easter to nose around and determine whether or not the death was helped along by human agency.  Gamache is reluctant to leave while his son's family are visiting from Paris, but duty calls.  And so a second plot is put into motion to bring about Gamache's downfall.

It's a gripping, and also disillusioning, read for those of like mind with Gamache.  But hope is still the heart of this book.  I can't wait to find out what happens next...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Happily Ali After

Oh dear.  After reading Ali Wentworth's book of essays, Happily Ali After (#506), I'm not sure there's any hope for the rest of us.  I think most of us would consider her a person who has it all: an interesting career with a measure of celebrity, a happy marriage, kids and no financial worries.  So when you read about what makes her feel insecure, it is a bit unsettling for those of us who might be lacking in one or more areas.  (Mind you, sitting on the couch in your pajamas scarfing down a favorite snack when you hear your husband called a "sexual icon" on national TV would be enough to make any woman choke on her raw cookie dough!)

I have a hard time picturing someone as zany as Ali being married to someone who appears as straight and conventional as George Stephanopoulos, but it's apparent from her stories that whatever they have together works.  Not so sure about her obsession with dachshunds, though.  I'm probably just prejudiced because it was dachshund who was responsible for my one and only dog bite!

If you're in the mood to be entertained, then Happily Ali After should do the trick.  It's a celebrity book that won't leave you with a bitter after taste.  In fact, it may make you re-think some of the blessings you take for granted.  So I guess the fairy wand on the cover picture did some good after all before it exploded!

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop (#505) by Nina George has been a best seller in Europe.  On one level, I can understand why, but on another I could only muster up a 3 star rating on GoodReads for this one.  I'm sure it will become a sensation here, too, regardless of my opinion.

I won't reveal much of the plot here; half the pleasure of reading this novel is the slow unfolding of Jean Perdu's character and his relationships with others.  He owns the bookshop of the title where he matches the perfect book to each client's needs.  His shop is located on a barge tied up in the Seine, named the Literary Apothecary by his admiring customers, but it doesn't stay in Paris for most of the book.  Jean is moved to journey in search of closure in both the physical and metaphysical sense throughout the book, so what else could the author name him but Perdu (Lost)?

Some parts of the book are lyrical in their descriptions, but much of it leaves me cold.  I could never trust a bookseller who would recommend The Elegance of the Hedgehog for any reason!  Let's just say that my philosophy of life is radically different from Jean's.  A resounding "Meh..." on this one.